A Celebration of
--by Gwydion Cinhil Kirontin
* * * * * *
"Perhaps its just as well that you
won't be here...to be offended by the
sight of our May Day celebrations."
--Lord Summerisle to Sgt. Howie
from "The Wicker Man"
* * * * * *
There are four great festivals of the Pagan Celtic year and
the modern Witch's calendar, as well. The two greatest of these
are Halloween (the beginning of winter) and May Day (the
beginning of summer). Being opposite each other on the wheel of
the year, they separate the year into halves. Halloween (also
called Samhain) is the Celtic New Year and is generally
considered the more important of the two, though May Day runs a
close second. Indeed, in some areas -notably Wales - it is
considered the great holiday.
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
Other names for May Day include: Cetsamhain ("opposite
Samhain"), Walpurgisnacht (in Germany), and Roodmas (the medieval
Church's name). This last came from Church Fathers who were
hoping to shift the common people's allegiance from the Maypole
(Pagan lingam - symbol of life) to the Holy Rood (the Cross -
Roman instrument of death).
Incidentally, there is no historical justification for
calling May 1st "Lady Day". For hundreds of years, that title
has been proper to the Vernal Equinox (approx. March 21st),
another holiday sacred to the Great Goddess. The nontraditional
use of "Lady Day" for May 1st is quite recent (within the last 15
years), and seems to be confined to America, where it has gained
widespread acceptance among certain segments of the Craft
population. This rather startling departure from tradition would
seem to indicate an unfamiliarity with European calendar customs,
as well as a lax attitude toward scholarship among too many
Pagans. A simple glance at a dictionary ("Webster's 3rd" or
O.E.D.), excyclopedia ("Benet's"), or standard mythology
reference (Jobe's "Dictionary of Mythology, Folklore & Symbols")
would confirm the correct date for Lady Day as the Vernal
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 Bel-fires on the tops
of the nearest beacon hill (such as Tara Hill, Co. Meath, in
Ireland). These "need-fires" had healing properties, and sky-
clad Witches would jump through the flames to ensure protection.
* * * * * *
Sgt. Howie (shocked): "But they
Lord Summerisle: "Naturally.
It's much too dangerous to jump
through the fire with your
* * * * * *
Frequently, cattle would be driven between two such bon-fires
(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: processions of chimney-sweeps
and milk maids, 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 principly a time of "...unashamed
human sexuality and fertility." Such associations include the
obvious phallic symbolism of the Maypole and riding the hobby
horse. Even a seemingly innocent children's nursery rhyme, "Ride
a cock horse to Banburry Cross..." retain 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" though Coventry. Every year
for nearly three centuries, a sky-clad village maiden (elected
Queen of the May) enacted this Pagan rite, until the Puritans put
an end to the custom.
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 the girls who go into the woods, "not the
least one of them comes home again a virgin."
Long after the Christian form of marriage (with its
insistance 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,
A-conjuring Summer in!
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 May!
It is certainly no accident that Queen Guinevere's
"abduction" by Meliagrance occurs on May 1st when she and the
court have gone a-Maying, or that the usually efficient Queen's
guard, on this occasion, rode unarmed.
Some of these customs seem virtually identical to the old
Roman feast of flowers, the Floriala, three days of unrestrained
sexuality which began at sundown April 28th and reached a
crescendo on May 1st.
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 15 degrees Taurus. 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 1st
altogether, it can still throw a viable Beltane bash as long as
it's before this date. This may also be a consideration for
Covens that need to organize activities around the week-end.
This date has long been considered a "power point" of the
Zodiac, and is symbolized by the Bull, one of the four
"tetramorph" figures featured on the Tarot cards the World and
the Wheel of Fortune. (The other three 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, respectively), and these naturally allign
with the four Great Sabbats of Witchcraft. Christians have
adopted the same iconography to represent the four gospel-
But for most, it is May 1st 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 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.
P.S.--I would be glad of any comments, corrections, additions,
etc. regarding this article. Please E-mail them to Mike Nichols
(a.k.a. Gwydion Cinhil Kirontin) 73445,1074
P.P.S.--A special thank you to "The Rune", Kansas City's premiere
Pagan publication for permission to reprint this article, which
originally ran in a somewhat condensed form there.
P.P.P.S.--Please feel free to reprint this article wherever you
see fit. I ask only that I be given credit as the author. Also,
it would be nice if you could drop me an E-mail note and let me
know where you are using it. Thanx!