Myth & Meaning of May Day
by Steven Clair
Called different names by many Beltane by the Celts, Walpurgis by
the Teutons, and Floralia by the Romans, May and May Day festivals
were a time of "wearing of the green." Throughout the
Northern Hemisphere, the month of May was a time to celebrate renewal
of life and activity. May was named for Maia, grandmother, the Goddess
of death and fertility. Maia scorns marriage, so it is a good idea
to put weddings off until the month of June. Although less stern
goddesses now oversee May festivities in many cultures, wreaths
and baskets of Hawthorn are still used in many May festivals to
Maypole is the most familiar item in May festivities, but it has
three distinct interpretations. In some cultures, the Maypole represented
the world center, or alternately, the hub of the Wheel of heaven.
In ancient cultures, the intricate dance of weaving cords around
the pole was a magical attempt to direct Nature, which had become
topsy-turvy over the course of time (particularly during the winter
months), back in order. Today a dance is performed by any who wishes
to participate in weaving the magic.
many other cultures, the Maypole was the Tree of Life, or a symbol
of it at least. And this May tree bore strange fruit. This is where
the Savior was sacrificed in order to cleanse the earth. Holy Communion,
eating his flesh and drinking his blood was possibly restricted
to the priest class, but symbolic May Wine was liberally drunk by
the whole community. Hundreds of years later, the Christian lunar
festival of Easter would replace the ancient solar festival as the
time of renewal and rebirth.
third meaning of the Maypole most clearly remains today. It is the
phallus, the male principle of fertilization. Female principles
are represented by baskets and wreaths used in the dances around
the pole. In the past , the hand-holding movements of the dances
would give young couples permission to 'go into the green' together.
In some regions, a Merlin, or renegade friar, would preside over
the mock marriages. Even today, unwed couples consummate the mock
marriages performed around the Maypole. Merry-begats, as they were
called in England, were usually not acknowledged by their fathers.
These babies were said to have been fathered by god.
northwest Germany, Maypoles are tall trees, cut down and stripped
of bottom branches. The upper branches are decorated, the pole is
then hoisted, often with the help of a crane, onto a tall post high
above the villages. In southern Germany, the Maypole is a stylized
structure that will usually stand for the entire year. On each of
its branches is a symbol of each trade or vocation that the villagers
Traditional May Day is a solar festival, celebrated on May fifth,
halfway between spring equinox and summer solstice. In England,
Queen of the May, Maid Marian, mounted on a white horse is the central
figure in the May Day celebrations. In ancient times, she would
pair off with Merddin as her consort. Today, Merddin is the bearded
old wizard, Merlin, and Marian's consort is Robin Hood.
Graves identifies Maid Marian as the sea Goddess Marian, a virgin
dressed in a blue robe, wearing a string of pearls. Sometimes referred
to as Merrymaid, but more commonly known as Mermaid, she was worshipped
by merriners, (now spelled mariners) who would sacrifice to her.
"Mer" meaning sea, is the origin of the epithet Merry
England, --Rose in the Sea.
the Goddess, Maid Marian is surrounded with Merry men. Little John,
Will Scarlet, Friar Tuck, Robin Hood, and others form a band of
thirteen. Morris Men, who perform a stylized folk dance are commonly
believed to have been imported from the near east, Moors who danced
a Moorish dance. A more ancient spelling indicates that these may
have been Mari's men. Mari, the Mother Goddess, fruitful, and compassionate,
is usually portrayed holding an apple from the Tree of Life. She
turns the Wheel of heaven, and is the mother of the Archer of Love.
is also known as the mother of Love. She was the Goddess of the
rainbow, which was the bridge between heaven and earth. In Greek
mythology, she lured the mourning Demeter, the grain Goddess, out
of her cave so that the land would become fruitful again. In Genesis,
angered by Yahweh's Flood, she removed the bridge from earth to
heaven so he could not receive his sacrifices. When he promised
to never flood the earth again, Iris replaced the rainbow.
Japan, Iris's rainbow bridge is called the road of the gods. May
is Iris month, with Boy's Doll Day celebrated on May fifth. Young
men drink Iris tea and bath in an Iris infusion to promote health
and fertility. Because of the sword shaped leaf and the blossom
that resembles female genitalia, the Iris is the symbol of the male
and female principles united.
for thousands of years throughout diverse cultures, May Day could
be the most ancient religious festival in the Northern Hemisphere.
Ritual human sacrifice to a death and fertility goddess was certainly
practiced until the 1st Century BCE. As nature became less fearsome,
and more cultivated, the nature goddess became less powerful and
bloodthirsty. Today, we still celebrate the remnants of an ancient
religion, Nature turning on the Wheel of Heaven.