The year’s at the spring
And day’s at the morn;
Morning’s at seven;
The hillside’s dew-pearled;
The lark’s on the wing;
The snail’s on the thorn:
God’s in His heaven—
All’s right with the world!
Robert Browning 1812-1889
Although Browning is writing here about spring, we think it eloquently conjures up a sensory impression of early summer in the British Isles.
Beltaine, 30th April/1st of May, marks the union of the God & Goddess in the formal sense, it is the day of their marriage, the ‘Greenwood Wedding.
The wedding of Beltaine is a rite of passage, a threshold, a gateway to a different state of being. It reflects the natural worlds transition from Gaimos to Samos. What is divided is now united … two become one. There is a reverse parallel here with Samhain, where the overt theme is dissolution, that which is unified becomes divided.
A ritual aspect of the wedding is made by hand binding/hand fasting, creating the lemniscape pattern which is the symbol of eternity. The ‘nuts’ in the title of the song ‘Here we go gathering nuts in May’ is in fact a corruption of knots in May, which are now widely accepted to be knots or bunches of flowers. It is interesting that we still use the phrase ‘tying the knot’ for getting married. (Dictionary of phrase & fable: E. Cobham Brewer. 1894)
Although it has long been considered bad luck to marry in May, it is one of the most popular months for weddings/Handfastings.
As we move forward into the Samos phase, it is the time to celebrate … for ‘Summer is acome unto day.’ There is relief that food is more plentiful, the days lengthen and crops begin to be harvested. Children, usually young girls, gather flowers, engaging in a symbolic representation of harvesting the bounty of nature. The flowers traditionally collected are those of the hawthorn, these blooms are ‘the white track of Olwen.’ This union of white flowers & greenery in nature is reflected in the Beltaine wedding; the Goddess in her white bridal attire and the God as Green Man. This is also reflected in tree & well dressing, practised as an offering to and honouring of the local nature spirits.
This celebration is before the hard work of harvest begins, it is a time of fertility, or the testing of fertility; in a going ‘a maying’, couples would take off to the fields and woods to make merry. Rather than making a commitment to marriage as we know it, hand-fasting was more advantageous in confirming that both partners were capable of producing offspring. There has been a change in modern times to a theme of purity (virgin bride) from a more frisky maying in the woods.
The theme of fertility is illustrated by two symbols strongly associated with this month; the maypole and the ‘Obby ‘Oss.
In the British Isles, Obby ‘Oss celebrations take place every year, most famously in Padstow, Cornwall. http://tinyurl.com/kj5bfl5 . Where during the course of the procession the ‘Oss attempts to capture young women under its skirts; the belief is that any woman getting thus caught will become pregnant by the following Mayday. Barren women and those wanting to get pregnant, would actively try to get caught in the ‘Oss’s skirt. Although the Red ‘Oss is thought of as the traditional and authentic beast, the addition of the (Peace/Temperance) Blue ‘Oss in the 20th century can be seen as a natural evolution of the celebration, whilst others resent this as an unnecessary addition.
Contrary to myth that Maypoles have been used in May celebrations since the dawn of time, there is in fact no real evidence that they appear in their current form (decorated and garlanded) prior to the 18th century. The first Maypoles we can evidence were in Germanic Europe. For the interested there is much written on this subject, you may wish to start your research with http://tinyurl.com/mt3ty57 . Whatever the historical context it is as a symbol of fertility and sexual union that the Maypole is employed today. In today’s maypole dance the dancers weave two ribbons to make a new element, thus two becomes three, representing both sexual union and the resulting offspring.
As we move through this transitionary period into the new, both the world and ourselves must be refreshed and renewed, baptised at all levels into a new way of being. This baptism may be by fire or water, passing between the Beltaine bonfires or washing one’s face in the May morning dew. Transition is often a far from smooth process, often involving struggle and conflict. In the Mabinogion this theme is illustrated by the tale of Culhwych and Olwen. Ysbaddaden (Hawthorne Giant) sets Culhwych 40 near-impossible tasks which he must perform in order to win his daughter, Olwen’s hand. However Culhwych succeeds in his trials therefore the giant must give up his daughter, reflected in wedding services, where the father gives away the bride. Ysbaddaden is decapitated and his severed head is placed upon a gate. Is this the origin of the crowning adornment atop our maypole? The Hawthorne Giant, symbolic of winter, is fated to die if his daughter weds and does all he can to the prevent the marriage; but he is doomed to failure, for the wheel must turn and Samos must have it’s half of the year.
It is interesting to note that the number of tasks, ’40’ is the same as the number of days that pass between the vernal equinox and the first of May. Perhaps the seeds of the Giants/winters downfall, are sown at Ostara?
The Christian liturgical calendar clearly reflects many of the May themes.
May Crowning: All flowers and the month of May itself are dedicated to Mary. On the 1st a statue of the Virgin is crowned with a wreath of roses, additional roses are also placed at her feet. Children, often dressed in blue take part in the ceremony. One child carries a cushion bearing the rose crown, whilst another performs the actual crowning. A boy may be chosen to carry the wreath, but it is a girl who always performs the crowning.
Pentecost/Whitsun: commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the twelve Apostles of Christ and followers of Jesus, and is sometimes termed the ‘Birthday of the Church.’ This once again picks up the theme of baptism we spoke about above.
Red flowering plants (often geraniums) and green branches (often Birch) decorate churches, symbolising the renewal of life, the warmth of summer and the growth of the church.
Roodmas, though no longer celebrated in May, as the result of an amalgamation of the ‘Finding of the Holy Cross’ and the ‘Triumph of the Cross’, both now commemorated on September 14th. The origins of Roodmas (3rd May) were probably to shift peoples focus away from trees or the Maypole, both being phallic symbols of life with pagan overtones, to the Holy Rood (the cross).
Ending the month of May ‘The Feast of the Queenship of Mary’, commemorates Mary as Queen of Heaven. God has restored the Kingdom, Jesus is the Christ, the Anointed One, the King. Mary, his Mother, is the Kingdoms Queen.
The Christian feast day of ‘The Visitation’ 31st May, commemorates the visit of Mary with Elizabeth as recorded in the Gospel of Luke. Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth to give her the news that she is pregnant. During the visit Elizabeth is attributed with using the ‘Ave’ in recognition of Mary carrying the divine child. It is at this point that the unborn John the baptist leaps within his mothers (Elizabeth) womb, touched by the presence the unborn Jesus. Contained within this story are layers of wisdom & knowledge.
We will revisit this and the role of ‘The Baptist’ in future posts and our main course of study.