Monday, May 2, 2011

May Day! (Beltaine)

Happy May Day to all!

Since Beltane (May 1) is an auspicious day, I can't resist a bit of his & herstory to honor the day, and a wide assortment of May Pole pictures. I'm also still on the road, so to honor the day in (alas) haste, I re-publish this post from last year.  Ah, the RITES OF SPRING!  Celebrated this Sunday at the very crack of dawn at the Renfair here in Los Angeles, with flower garlands for all.

The birth of spring on May Day in Elizabethan England would send villagers into the woods to collect flowers and boughs, and then they would wait for the sun to rise as it brought the fully opened year flowering into spring.  Earlier this year I found myself fascinated with the origins of the famous legend of "Lady Godiva" in Coventry, England.........with the kind help of Robur D'Amour last year, who wrote a fascinating article about Lady Godiva.   I learned that origins of this legend are probably to be found in the ride of the May Queen to the sacred tree (Maypole), the "coven tree". 

 He wrote:
"The official etymology of Coventry is that it means Cofa's tree. A tree owned by Mr Cofa!  A very early spelling, 1050, is Couaentree.  I found, by chance, a reference to Coventry as bring a rebus for 'a coven round a tree'. Well, it is undeniably a rebus. But that doesn't mean anything conclusive.  There was a widespread practise for dancing round a tree on May Eve, which is the maypole. Perhaps there really was a tree, that was used for festivities."
"The story that Lady Godiva was protesting against taxes is untrue.  Apparently, at the time the procession dates from, Coventry was a village, and there were no taxes.  The procession is actually a May-Eve fertility procession, many of which are found across Europe. There is even one at Southam, just a few miles from Coventry, which is no longer celebrated.  What happened at Coventry, was that there was a Benedictine monastery there. The Christian monks did not approve of people watching the fertility procession, and so put some 'spin' on the procession, and invented this story about taxes. "

At any rate, before or in spite of the church's intervention, villagers celebrating the Rites of Spring throughout Merrie Old England and much of Europe would bear flowers, all the while capering around the new Maypole chosen for the celebration. Only unmarried girls would be allowed to plant the phallic Maypole into the fertile Earth........a lovely dance and ritual with ancient origins in pagan practices of sympathetic magic.   In other words, "the world is waking up and making love, so we too wake up and make love, and all will bear fruit".

The planting of the May Pole, and the union of the May Queen with the May King (or the Green Man) probably has its origins in very ancient traditions of the Sacred Marriage, going back as far as Sumeria and the marriage of Inanna and Dumuzi - or probably farther even than that, into unknown origins in prehistory.   In ancient times, the spring ritual union of the King with the priestess (representing the Earth Mother) was a very significant rite; in later times, even in Christian Europe, church morality may have been suspended for Beltane, as couples went out into the fields to participate in the worlds ripening fertility.

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Goddess with multi-horned crown (Inanna?) welcomes a mace-holding and crowned god
who emerges from the base of a tree (Dumuzi?). Mesopotamian cylinder seal.
Serpentine. About 2320-2150 BCE. © S. Beaulieu, after Wolkstein and Kramer 1983:40.

This celebration of the fecundity of Spring no doubt made many of the early churchmen nervous. In the late 19th century,  May 1 became associated with the growing labor movement, and since then many countries have celebrated May Day as International Workers' Day.  In 1955, Pope Pius XII instituted May 1 as the "feast of St. Joseph the Worker" with the intention of emphasizing the spiritual aspect of labor.........I'm sure the advent of this secondary meaning to May Day came as a belated relief to the Catholic Church, along with Lady Godiva's famous ride becoming folk legend.

For myself, I think the re-sacralization of sexuality, in tandem with the blossoming of the world, that was the original meaning of May a wonderful Holy Day, and am often surprised by how little people today know of it's origins.  

Traditionally, the Maypole was hung with garlands and streamers. Dancers took hold of the ends in a weaving courtship dance.

Boys would dance in one direction and the girls in another, and so flower-clad ribbons were woven around the pole in the form of a braid.  There might also be a procession led by Jack O' the Green (a variant of the Green Man), fantastically arrayed with flowers, leaves and ribbons, and followed by Morris Dancers with bells jangling on their ankles. Last, there would be the choosing of the May Queen.

In Europe, Flora was the Roman Goddess of Flowers and it’s not surprising that her festival was held on the first day of May. The May Dance festivals of Europe have many of their origins in the ancient “Feast of Flora”, the ecstatic Roman Rites of Spring.

Crowned with a garland, the May Queen, no matter how capricious, was to be obeyed throughout the day's celebrations, and everyone would vie for the honor of doing her homage.


Gail said...

Thank you for the lore. Hope you are having a fun and lucrative time on the road. Gail

T said...

Love the stories and pics! Hope your travels are going well and are filled with synchros!

Lauren said...

Thanks to you both........just here in LA doing the Renfair, but will look out for synchros! Happy May Day!