A Celebration of May Day
by Gwydion Cinhil Kirontin
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* * *
"Perhaps its just as well that you
won't be here...to be offended by the
sight of our May Day celebrations."
--Lord Summerisle to Sgt. Howie
from "The Wicker Man"
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There are four great festivals
of the Pagan Celtic year and
the modern Witch's calendar, as well. The two
greatest of these
are Halloween (the beginning of winter) and May Day
beginning of summer). Being opposite each other
on the wheel of
the year, they separate the year into halves.
called Samhain) is the Celtic New Year and is generally
considered the more important of the two, though May
Day runs a
close second. Indeed, in some areas -notably
Wales - it is
considered the great holiday.
May Day ushers in the fifth
month of the modern calendar
year, the month of May. This month is named in
honor of the
goddess Maia, originally a Greek mountain nymph, later
as the most beautiful of the Seven Sisters, the
Zeus, she is also the mother of Hermes, god of magic.
parents were Atlas and Pleione, a sea nymph.
The old Celtic name for May Day
is Beltane (in its most
popular Anglicized form), which is derived from the
"Bealtaine" or the Scottish Gaelic "Bealtuinn", meaning
fire", the fire of the Celtic god of light (Bel, Beli
Belinus). He, in turn, may be traced to the
Middle Eastern god
Other names for May Day
include: Cetsamhain ("opposite
Samhain"), Walpurgisnacht (in Germany), and Roodmas
Church's name). This last came from Church
Fathers who were
hoping to shift the common people's allegiance from the
(Pagan lingam - symbol of life) to the Holy Rood (the
Roman instrument of death).
Incidentally, there is no
historical justification for
calling May 1st "Lady Day". For hundreds of
years, that title
has been proper to the Vernal Equinox (approx. March
another holiday sacred to the Great Goddess. The
use of "Lady Day" for May 1st is quite recent (within
the last 15
years), and seems to be confined to America, where it
widespread acceptance among certain segments of the
population. This rather startling departure from
seem to indicate an unfamiliarity with European
as well as a lax attitude toward scholarship among too
Pagans. A simple glance at a dictionary
("Webster's 3rd" or
O.E.D.), encyclopedia ("Benet's"), or standard
reference (Jobe's "Dictionary of Mythology, Folklore &
would confirm the correct date for Lady Day as the
By Celtic reckoning, the actual
Beltane celebration begins on
sundown of the preceding day, April 30, because the
figured their days from sundown to sundown. And
sundown was the
proper time for Druids to kindle the great Bel-fires on
of the nearest beacon hill (such as Tara Hill, Co.
Ireland). These "need-fires" had healing
properties, and sky-
clad Witches would jump through the flames to ensure
* * *
* * *
Sgt. Howie (shocked): "But they
Lord Summerisle: "Naturally.
It's much too dangerous to jump
through the fire with your
* * *
* * *
Frequently, cattle would be
driven between two such bon-fires
(oak wood was the favorite fuel for them) and, on the
they would be taken to their summer pastures.
Other May Day customs include:
processions of chimney-sweeps
and milk maids, archery tournaments, morris dances,
feasting, music, drinking, and maidens bathing their
faces in the
dew of May morning to retain their youthful beauty.
In the words of Witchcraft
writers Janet and Stewart Farrar,
the Beltane celebration was principly a time of
human sexuality and fertility." Such associations
obvious phallic symbolism of the Maypole and riding the
horse. Even a seemingly innocent children's
nursery rhyme, "Ride
a cock horse to Banburry Cross..." retain such
memories. And the
next line "...to see a fine Lady on a white horse" is a
to the annual ride of "Lady Godiva" though Coventry.
for nearly three centuries, a sky-clad village maiden
Queen of the May) enacted this Pagan rite, until the
an end to the custom.
The Puritans, in fact, reacted
with pious horror to most of
the May Day rites, even making Maypoles illegal in
especially attempted to suppress the "greenwood
young men and women who spent the entire night in the
staying out to greet the May sunrise, and bringing back
flowers and garlands to decorate the village the next
One angry Puritan wrote that men "doe use commonly to
woodes in the night time, amongst maidens, to set bowes,
muche, as I have hearde of tenne maidens whiche went to
and nine of them came home with childe." And
complained that, of the girls who go into the woods,
least one of them comes home again a virgin."
Long after the Christian form
of marriage (with its
insistence on sexual monogamy) had replaced the older
handfasting, the rules of strict fidelity were always
the May Eve rites. Names such as Robin Hood, Maid
Little John played an important part in May Day
used as titles for the dramatis personae of the
And modern surnames such as Robinson, Hodson, Johnson,
may attest to some distant May Eve spent in the woods.
These wildwood antics have
inspired writers such as Kipling:
Oh, do not tell the Priest our plight,
Or he would call it a sin;
But we have been out in the woods all night,
A-conjuring Summer in!
And Lerner and Lowe:
It's May! It's May!
The lusty month of May!...
Those dreary vows that ev'ryone takes,
Ev'ryone makes divine mistakes!
The lusty month of May!
It is certainly no accident
that Queen Guinevere's
"abduction" by Meliagrance occurs on May 1st when she
court have gone a-Maying, or that the usually efficient
guard, on this occasion, rode unarmed.
Some of these customs seem
virtually identical to the old
Roman feast of flowers, the Floriala, three days of
sexuality which began at sundown April 28th and reached
crescendo on May 1st.
By the way, due to various
calendrical changes down through
the centuries, the traditional date of Beltane is not
the same as
its astrological date. This date, like all
determined dates, may vary by a day or two depending on
However, it may be calculated easily enough by
date on which the sun is at 15 degrees Taurus.
often refer to this date as Old Beltane, and
folklorists call it
Beltane O.S. ("Old Style"). Some Covens prefer to
the old date and, at the very least, it gives one
options. If a
Coven is operating on "Pagan Standard Time" and misses
altogether, it can still throw a viable Beltane bash as
it's before this date. This may also be a
Covens that need to organize activities around the
This date has long been
considered a "power point" of the
Zodiac, and is symbolized by the Bull, one of the four
"tetramorph" figures featured on the Tarot cards the
the Wheel of Fortune. (The other three are the
Lion, the Eagle,
and the Spirit.) Astrologers know these four figures as
symbols of the four "fixed" signs of the Zodiac
Scorpio, and Aquarius, respectively), and these
with the four Great Sabbats of Witchcraft.
adopted the same iconography to represent the four
But for most, it is May 1st
that is the great holiday of
flowers, Maypoles, and greenwood frivolity. It is
that, as recently as 1977, Ian Anderson could pen the
lyrics for Jethro Tull:
For the May Day is the great day,
Sung along the old straight track.
And those who ancient lines did ley
Will heed this song that calls them back.
P.S.--I would be glad of any comments, corrections,
etc. regarding this article. Please E-mail them
to Mike Nichols
(a.k.a. Gwydion Cinhil Kirontin) 73445,1074
P.P.S.--A special thank you to "The Rune", Kansas
Pagan publication for permission to reprint this
originally ran in a somewhat condensed form there.
P.P.P.S.--Please feel free to reprint this article
see fit. I ask only that I be given credit as the
it would be nice if you could drop me an E-mail note
and let me
know where you are using it. Thanx!