Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Beltane Comes Again!

“Flora” Mask (2013)
 Happy May Day to all!

Ah, the RITES OF SPRING!  I've posted this article before, but I still like it, and felt like sharing previous year's Beltane post once again, for any who may be interested.

May Day was celebrated everywhere in Britain and Europe  with Maypole, flower garlands, May wine and love.  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.  


A few years back I found myself  singing "Lady Godiva", an old song  by Peter and Gordon from the 60's.  When I find myself with  mental "muszak"  that just won’t go away, I’m kind of forced  to pay attention.  According to legend, Lady Godiva rode naked on a horse through the streets of Coventry, England, to ease the tax burden of the citizens imposed by her husband, who agreed to relieve the toll if she did this.  Pulling out my Jungian “Inner Pun”  book, I decided that it had something to do with "Lady God", this being what I get from the word.   “Godiva” has both “God” and  “Diva or Deva” which means divine, shining.   


Words can tell us much about the origins of  things.Coventry" is an interesting addendum as well. If you look it up in the dictionary, besides being a  city in England, the actual definition of the word "coventry" means:  

"the state of being banished or ostracized (excluded from society by general consent); ie,  "the association should get rid of its elderly members--not by euthanasia, of course, but by Coventry"**

Thus, "coventry" is the opposite of "coven", "covenant", or "to convene", which means to bring together.  So, perhaps in all of this linguistic trail one can see the way the pagan Rites of Spring were “ostracized”.   A Blog friend, Robur D'Amour, wrote a fascinating article about Lady Godiva,  and commented that the origins of this legend are almost certainly found in the ride of the May Queen to the sacred tree (Maypole), the "coven tree".  

 He wrote:

" 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'…….. There was a widespread practice 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.  What happened at Coventry was that there was a Benedictine monastery there. The monks did not approve of  people watching the fertility procession, and so invented the story about taxes. "1

The origin of the “peeping Tom” legend also derives from the famous ride of Lady Godiva -  the May Queen in all of her glory being, from a Benedictine point of view, perilous for  eyes to see.  The May Queen is the young  Goddess Herself, riding to bless the rising fertility of the land and to meet the May King.
Villagers celebrating  Rites of Spring throughout Merrie Old England and much of Europe would bear flowers, all the while capering around the new Maypole.  Often it was only unmarried girls who would be allowed to plant the phallic Maypole into the fertile Earth, which then would be woven in dance by men and women with ribbons or twine.  Dancers took hold of the ends in a weaving courtship dance.  A procession led by  Jack O' the Green (a variant of the Green Man), fantastically arrayed with flowers, leaves and ribbons, might also be part of the celebration.  And of course there would be  Morris Dancers.     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.

“Guenivere as the May Queen” by John Collier
 A  lovely 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 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.  Perhaps, much farther 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 early Christian Europe, church morality may have been suspended for Beltane, as couples went out into the fields to participate in the worlds ripening fertility.   


In Italy,  Flora was the Roman Goddess of Flowers and it’s not surprising that her festival was also 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.
This celebration of the fecundity of Spring has always made the Church 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 a  folk legend about taxes.    For myself,  I am happy to see the Pagan origins of May Day, and the true tale of Lady Godiva,  continually  re-discovered and re-invented.  The re-sacralization of sexuality, in tandem with the Spring  blossoming of the world, which  was the original meaning of May Day,  is truly a  Holy Day.  And I am always surprised by  how little most people today know of its origins.   

*  Robur D’Amour


1 comment:

Trish and Rob MacGregor said...

I remember this post! I love it now as much as I loved it last year. Happy May Day, Lauren!