Traditionally the Merry Month of May began with what was known as “Garland Day” on the 1st, probably because the Old Julian Calendar was still a fortnight ahead of our revised modern calendar, so plant and tree blossoms were more abundant then than they are today at the beginning of the month. The ancient Greek Festival of Thargelia when corn dollies, or boughs of olive, laurel, hawthorn and rowan decorated doorways coincides with our own May day celebrations. Prophylactic garlands were considered to ward off the mischievous fairies and troublesome witches. In certain districts it was also a time for the dressing of wells or sacred trees. In the medieval period young boys and girls wandered into the woodlands and hedgerows during the night to collect blossoms to use in processions or gatherings in the village green. They would return at dusk the next day suggesting that a lot of other things went on in those woods. Traditionally, May was celebrated by a relaxation of taboos. The most important of these flowers collected being hawthorn blossom although the boughs were considered unlucky if brought indoors. William Shakespeare in Midsummer Night’s Dream wrote:
If thou lov’st me then, steal forth thy father’s house tomorrow night, and in the wood, a league without the town, where I did meet thee once with Helena, to do observance to a morn in May, there I will stay for thee.
For the ancient Celts this was the period celebrated as Beltane until the 6th of May and known as Merry Moon Month. It was held in celebration of the 2nd quarter of the yearly round and probably derived from the old Celtic god Bile or Bellinus, a god of the Underworld and closely connected to the Baal gods of the old pagan Canaanite religion. Some researchers say it is of Druidic origin commemorating the Beltane Fires lit on top of funerary hills and mounds. A similar event takes place when so-called “Need Fires” were lit by ceremonial rubbing of oak, pine and other sacred timbers and then taken to the domestic hearths. The fires were used to purge the agricultural land of pests and disease. There was dancing anti-clockwise round the bonfire in honour of the Sun, leaping through the flames and the driving of cattle through the smoke to cleanse them of parasites. A straw man effigy was made and burnt, barley cakes baked as offerings and the people pelted each other with eggs.
The Celts also considered this an opportune moment to make contact with the spirits, fairies of the woodland and visits were usually made to sacred waters, springs and woodland clearings. This was also the occasion for the Horse Sacrifice, this being the greatest offering a warrior could make to the Celtic Gods, next to his own life of course. In ancient Scotland a human sacrifice to Baal, (a Canaanite pagan mountain god) was chosen by lots and although he did not actually sacrifice his life on a nearby mountain top he was forced to leap through a hoop of fire three times and remain unscathed. It must have been quite an entertaining spectacle for all those gathered. Similarly, in parts of Ireland (Munster & Connaught) the herdsmen drove their cattle through fires, but more probably to rid them of parasites. However, as nearly everyone knows the May Pole dances and the procession of the May Queen and May King, accompanied by pages and maids, were the most important festival celebrations during this time. Traditionally it was the month of May that was a time of sexual laxity and promiscuity. These customs were connected to the Phoenician fish-tailed Goddess Atargatis and are reminiscent of the Roman Saturnalia and Floralia.
Even in its derived or obscure forms this celebration finds outlets in beauty pageants and even in the metropolis of London it is still celebrated by the processions of the Pearly King and Queen. The couple are chosen and crowned by the previous years’ winner and then taken by carriage or horse and cart through the town or village. While the mock coronation takes place the May Pole is erected, garlanded with blossoms and spiralling red and white ribbons followed by displays of folk-dancing and musical or theatrical performances which take place for some 2-3 days. At that time the May festival coincided with the date of the Restoration of Charles II (when he landed at Dover) and it was often derided or frowned upon by hard line Puritans because of this.
There is no doubt that the May Pole represented the Pre-Christian Phallus (or lingam) and although with its red and white ribbons it resembles a barber’s pole (ie: a bandaged limb since barbers were also surgeons). In 1644 the Puritans passed an act of Parliament to have this fete banned as idolatry, although the majority of common folk could not help but ridicule them!
Some fiery zealous brother full of spleene,
That all the world in his deep wisdom scornes,
Could not endure our May Pole to be seen.
To wear a cock’s comb higher than his hornes,
He took it for an Idoll fowle, and our Merry Feast
A sacrifice in honour of some Painted Beast!
Or, no doubt for the wooden Trojan ass of sinne
By which we know the wicked merry Greeks came in!
The anonymous jocular poet no doubt referring to the ancient Trojan immigrant Brutus from whose name the title Britain came originally to this island. One interesting festival that took place in May was called the “Jack of the Green” – probably a reference to the Green Man of pagan times. The actor in this pageant had a blackened face to ward off evil, was dressed in green garments and garlanded with boughs and leaves and then placed into a wicker basket in the shape of a pyramid or cone. Incidentally, the Muslim Al Kadhir or the Greek god Pan are synonymous with our own Green Man. However, these customs are probably a bizarre vestige of the ancient Mid-summer Druidic sacrifice which was held at Stonehenge. He was probably the Spring Fool and his association with the Green Man something of a folklore anomaly. In Britain the colour green was generally considered unlucky or malefic. Edward III who restored the Grail Knights tradition of a round table originally had a green ensign with a white pentacle. Much later this and the knights garter was changed to royal blue.
However, May was so-called after the Roman Maius was said by some to be named after the goddess Maia, a daughter of the Greek Titan Atlas. On top of hills and other prominent geographic features bonfires were usually lit and invitations sent out to other regional tribes to assemble for tournaments, feasting and merriment.
Along the hedgerows water margins, pastures and fields in May you’ll find, cow parsley, and Herb Robert is in bloom. and Water Crowfoot can be seen in slow-flowing rivers and streams. In the warmth of the Spring sunshine Damselflies, Dragonflies and Mayflies can be seen hovering over ponds, lakes, canals and waterways. The Cockchafers are buzzing, beetles are scrabbling, while shield bugs hop, bees are buzzing, ladybirds and butterflies abound. In the southern woodlands and copses Nightingales, Warblers and Blackcaps can be heard while aerobatic Swifts, Swallows and Martens eagerly arrive from their southern migrations to establish their temporary homes. The first Badger and Fox cubs and young hares will be out and about often accompanied by parents who are helping them to take their first steps into the big, wide world. Hawthorns in shades of white, pink and red are blossoming, Honeysuckle starts a new ascent of soft sad leaves and stems and Germander Speedwells in soft purple-violets, and pretty pink Lady’s Smocks happily make their colourful appearance. Nearly all the deciduous trees, such as Limes, Chestnuts, Ash, Beech, Willow, Oak and Hornbeam have produced their first crop of bright new leaves. The merry month of May is the best time for apple blossom as well as daisies, dandelions and buttercups.
The seventh Sunday after Easter falling around mid-May was known as Whitsuntide or Pentecost. Also referred to as Wake’s Week, this was a festival date which falls 50 days after the Easter celebration and so-called because of the practice of wearing white by those newly baptised. Traditionally it featured the lighting of sacred fires, competitive games, feasting and merry-making. This festival is equivalent to the Roman Rosalia, (Festival of Flowers) or the Hebrew Shavout (Feast of Weeks) hence the term “Wakes Week”, when the local wells were dressed and blessed, the maypole was dismantled, trumpets blown and dancing ensued. In Germany the May Boy would climb to the top of the Maypole to retrieve the crown or wreath and would then go on to choose his May Queen for the remainder of the festival; celebrations. This was also the time of the High Feast of King Arthur when the Knights of the Round Table would gather to pledge their allegiance to King, Queen and country.
Traditionally, or according to the region the legendary Robin Hood was known as “King of the May” and his Queen was Maid Marian. This may reflect the Phoenician festival whereby the marriage of Heaven and Earth are re-enacted by the Queen of Heaven (Astarte) and her consort for the year the Bull God (Baal). The festive Maypole, a remnant of the ancient Phrygian pine tree of Attis, the resurrected god of spring is a pagan phallic symbol around which dances took place to encourage the fertility and success of crops. Male and female dancers alternating while holding ribbons tied to the pole would dance thereby creating an interwoven pattern down the length of the pole. In Germany it is known as Irminsul or the Great Pillar and the Celts knew this time as Beltane the beginning of their Summer. They celebrated this festival with jumping over fires, eating or rolling cakes, making music and dancing clockwise around the sacred tree. The Puritans were outraged at the immorality that often accompanied the drinking and dancing during the May Festivities and Parliament banned maypoles altogether in 1644, but they were reintroduced after the Restoration.
The links to my publications “Shakespeare’s Qaballah”, a Companion to Shakespeare Studies and my anthology of poetry, “Pathenogenesis” are as follows: