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 identified as the most beautiful of
the Seven Sisters, the Pleiades. By Zeus, she is also the mother of Hermes, God
of magic. Maia’s 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 Irish Gaelic Bealtaine or
the Scottish Gaelic Bealtuinn, meaning “Bel-fire”, the fire of the Celtic God
of Light (Bel, Beli, or Belinus). He, in turn, may be traced to the Middle
Eastern God Baal.
Other names for May Day include: Cetsamhain (opposite
Samhain), Walpurgisnacht (in
Incidentally, there is no historical justification for
calling May 1 ‘Lady Day’. For hundreds of years, that title has been proper to
the vernal equinox (approximately March 21), another holiday sacred to the
Great Goddess. The nontraditional use of ‘Lady Day’ for May 1 is quite recent
(since the early 1970s), and seems to be confined to
By Celtic reckoning, the actual Beltane celebration begins
on sundown of the preceding day, April 30, because the Celts always figured
their days from sundown to sundown. And sundown was the proper time for Druids
to kindle the great Belfires on the tops of the nearest beacon hill (such as
Tara Hill, Co. Meath, in
(shocked): "But they are naked!" Lord Summerisle:
"Naturally. It's much too dangerous to jump through
the fire with your clothes on!" —from The
Frequently, cattle would be driven between two such bonfires
(oak wood was the favorite fuel for them) and, on the morrow, they would be
taken to their summer pastures.
Other May Day customs include: walking the circuit of one’s
property (“beating the bounds”), repairing fences and boundary markers,
processions of chimney sweeps and milkmaids, archery tournaments, morris
dances, sword 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 principally a time of “unashamed human sexuality
and fertility”. Such associations include the obvious phallic symbolism of the
Maypole and riding the hobbyhorse. Even a seemingly innocent children’s nursery
rhyme “Ride a cock horse to Banburry Cross …” retains such memories. And the
next line, “to see a fine Lady on a white horse”, is a reference to the annual
ride of Lady Godiva through
The Puritans, in fact, reacted with pious horror to most of
the May Day rites, even making Maypoles illegal in 1644. They especially
attempted to suppress the “greenwood marriages” of young men and women who
spent the entire night in the forest, staying out to greet the May sunrise, and
bringing back boughs of flowers and garlands to decorate the village the next
morning. One angry Puritan wrote that men “doe use commonly to runne into
woodes in the night time, amongst maidens, to set bowes, in so muche, as I have
hearde of tenne maidens whiche went to set May, and nine of them came home with
childe.” And another Puritan complained that, “Of forty, threescore or a
hundred maids going to the wood over night, there have scarcely the third part
of them returned home again undefiled.”
Long after the Christian form of marriage (with its
insistence on sexual monogamy) had replaced the older Pagan handfasting, the
rules of strict fidelity were always relaxed for the May Eve rites. Names such
as Robin Hood, Maid Marion, and Little John played an important part in May Day
folklore, often used as titles for the dramatis personae of the celebrations.
And modern surnames such as Robinson, Hodson, Johnson, and Godkin 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,
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
It is certainly no accident that Queen Guinevere’s
‘abduction’ by Meliagrance occurs on May 1 when she and the court have gone
a-Maying, or that the usually efficient Queen’s guard, on this occasion, rode
Some of these customs seem virtually identical to the old
Roman feast of flowers, the Floralia, three days of unrestrained sexuality that
began at sundown April 28 and reached a crescendo on May 1.
There are other, even older, associations with May 1 in
Celtic mythology. According to the ancient Irish Book of Invasions, the first
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 astronomically determined dates, may
vary by a day or two depending on the year. However, it may be calculated
easily enough by determining the date on which the sun is at fifteen degrees
Taurus (usually around May 5). British Witches often refer to this date as Old
Beltane, and folklorists call it Beltane O.S. (Old Style). Some covens prefer
to celebrate on the old date and, at the very least, it gives one options. If a
coven is operating on ‘Pagan Standard Time’ and misses May 1 altogether, it can
still throw a viable Beltane bash as long as it’s before May 5. This may also
be a consideration for 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 tetramorph figures featured
on the tarot cards, the World and the Wheel of Fortune. (The other three
symbols are the Lion, the Eagle, and the Spirit.) Astrologers know these four
figures as the symbols of the four “fixed” signs of the zodiac (Taurus, Leo,
Scorpio, and Aquarius), and these naturally align with the four Great Sabbats
of Witchcraft. Christians have adopted the same iconography to represent the
four Gospel writers.
But for most, it is May 1 that is the great holiday of flowers,
Maypoles, and greenwood frivolity. It is no wonder that, as recently as 1977,
Ian Anderson could pen the following lyrics for the band 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.
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