Late April to May in the Wheel of the Year: Floralia, Beltane and May Day - By Lucya Starza
From April into May, flowers are everywhere. In Ancient Rome a five to six-day festival celebrated them. It was in honour of Flora, goddess of flowers and fertility, and was called Floralia. As well as floral tributes there were games, theatrical performances and dancing. According to historian Ed Whalen: "Some scholars believe that the Floralia was the inspiration for the May Day Festival." Mind you, it’s also possible that everyone just wants to celebrate warmer weather, blossom and trees being green anew.
May begins with Beltane in the modern pagan Wheel of the Year, but the name originates in an ancient Irish festival. The early Irish text Sanas Cormaic reveals it means “lucky fire” and goes on to say two huge fires were lit at the start of summer. Druids would bless them, and cattle driven between them to ward off diseases. A fire festival called “Beltine” at the start of summer is also mentioned in the tale of the wooing of Emer, Tochmarc Emire. Professor Ronald Hutton, in The Stations of the Sun, writes: “…this is good evidence for a fire ritual on May Day”. The event was possibly in honour of a god named Bel, which might have meant “bright” or “fortunate”.
The lighting of fires on May Eve was popular in Ireland into the 19th century. Similar protective fire rituals took place in Scotland and the Isle of Man, with scatterings in England and Wales. Other protection customs recorded for May Eve in England include putting rowan crosses over doorways to keep out supernatural mischief-makers.
The English concept of “Maying” – of celebrating May Day by wearing flower garlands and decking homes in hawthorn blossom, as well as general partying, is a bit different from Beltane. Steve Roud in The English Year wrote of May Day celebrations: "Judging by the range of traditional customs that took place on May Day, it was second only to Christmas in popularity with the English People." It’s mentioned in medieval English literature, including that of Chaucer, who also wrote about the maypole in Chaunce of the Dice.
According to Professor Hutton, Gaelic regions tended to have fire ceremonies while in southern England poles were customary. Despite Sir James Frazer, in The Golden Bough, suggesting maypoles were the remnants of ancient tree-spirit worship, or ideas that they were phallic, Professor Hutton suggests they were probably “useful frameworks upon which garlands…could be hung, to form a focal point for celebration [of]…the returning strength of vegetation.”
In recent history, two archetypal figures have been celebrated on May Day in England – the May Queen and Jack-in-the-Green.
May Queens presided over festivities, awarded prizes and led processions. When I was a child, some decades ago, May Queens were chosen in a beauty pageant that tended to be ableist, sizeist, ageist and racist. Few in my multi-cultural, working-class London suburb were of the physical type likely to win the crown. I'd have had more hope as a Wednesday Addams lookalike, so I never entered the contest.
Since then, I've learnt that the image of the May Queen dressed in white - and probably with blond hair and blue eyes - is recent. Steve Roud wrote: "The May Queen is so much part of England's accepted May Day iconography that we assume it to be an ancient institution, but it is, in fact, almost entirely another nineteenth century invention." It comes from things like Tennyson's poem ‘The May Queen’ and Washington Irving's Sketch-Book.
While Victorians envisaged the May Queen as a symbol of virtue and purity, it’s common for modern pagans to view her as the leader of orgiastic Beltane revels, a symbol of fertility, desire and joyful pleasures of the flesh at a time when nature is all about the birds and the bees and the drive to reproduce. That’s very Floralia too. For Sir James Frazer, the May Queen was a relic of ancient tree worship along with that huge phallic maypole... But, of course, Frazer's ideas have fallen out of favour. Professor Hutton points out that historically England was too cold in early May for outdoor sex. In fact, the registers of births from bygone times indicate people kept their clothes on until later. There’s even an old saying: “Button to chin, till May be in, cast not a clout, till May be out.”
Nevertheless, for modern pagans, the May Queen can be ritualised as an aspect of a more mythical figure or goddess, even if she isn’t ancient. Any who feel the call can welcome the spirit of the May Queen into their hearts, take the hand of their beloved and dance the summer in. The Goddess can reappear and reinvent herself, and May Queens can be any age, shape or appearance too.
The foliage-clad figure of Jack-in-the-Green, accompanied by musicians and people in fancy dress, is also a familiar May Day sight in English towns. He resembles the Green Man – a figure found carved in many old churches and thought by some to be a relic of pre-Christian nature worship. Similarities in appearance aside, the current theory is that Jack-in-the-Green customs began no earlier than the 17th century, independently of other folklore.
Dairy maids and chimney sweeps would take to the streets with the utensils of their trade piled up and decorated with garlands to raise money. The garlands grew and the sweeps were transformed into Jack covered in greenery. Whatever the true origins, it’s hard to see Jack-in-the-Green celebrations today without feeling you’re witnessing something a little wild and pagan. The God can reinvent himself just as the Goddess.
All these strands from myth and history can happily merge into a modern fertility festival as well as a day to celebrate the joys of life. Spring has well and truly sprung and all around is greenery and blossom. Birds are nesting, bees are buzzing and flowers are blooming. You can celebrate the traditional fire festival if you want to. If a huge bonfire isn’t practical you can light a candle or two and visualise its flame as your own Beltane blaze. You can make rowan crosses or flower garlands. You can dress as a May Queen or Jack-in-the-Green. You can erect a maypole, deck the halls with hawthorn, or explore other May Day customs as you desire.
You don’t even have to celebrate on May 1st itself. If the hawthorn or other trees aren’t yet in bloom where you live, you can wait. What’s in season will depend on where you are and the weather. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, while the set dates for the Wiccan and modern druid-style Wheel of the Year calendar are useful, if you’re celebrating on your own it’s easier to fit in with what’s really happening in nature. Even if you are a Wiccan, that’s true.
I always remember a lesson in ritual writing by the witch who trained me, Maureen Brown. She would say: “The first thing to do when creating a Wheel of the Year ritual is look out of the window and see what’s happening in nature. Better still go outdoors and experience it. Don’t praise the beautiful apple blossom if it isn’t on the tree yet!”
This is part of a series of posts I’m writing for the Moon Books Blog on the theme of the Wheel of the Year. They will be compiled and edited into a book: Pagan Portals – Rounding the Wheel of the Year. Other books by Lucya Starza in the Pagan Portals series include Candle Magic, Guided Visualisations, Poppets and Magical Dolls, and Scrying. Lucya edited the community book Every Day Magic – A Pagan Book of Days.
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