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The folklore of May Day

Maypole dancing, 1915

Maypole Dance, an art installation by Kristi Malakoff

As with most traditions rooted in our pagan past, folklorists have conflicting views about the origins of the various May Day customs practiced in the British Isles today, containing as they do a mixture of Celtic and Norse influences combined with theatrical flourishes introduced by British antiquarians of the 18th and 19th centuries.

In the Germanic tradition, Walpurgis Night, on April 30th, is a moon festival sacred to the goddess Freya, "Walpurga" being one of her names. The re-dedication of the holiday to "St. Walpurga" was a later Christian addition. Freya is generally known today as the goddess of love and beauty in Norse mythology (as opposed to Freja, goddess of marriage and family), but she was more complex and more interesting than that: not a virgin maiden but a figure representing women's magic, sexuality, and independence -- as well as, in her dark aspect, a patron deity of war and death in battle. She wears a cloak of falcon feathers and the magical gold necklace called Brísingamen, and rides in a chariot pulled by cats, the sacred boar Hildisvíni at her side. Maypole dancing comes down to us from the rites of spring dedicated to Freya, although the pole was originally a living tree representing Yggdrasill, the enormous ash tree that is the great "world tree" of Norse cosmology.

Maypole Dance at Leeds Castle, 1955
(from the National Geographic photo archive)

Maypole Dancers in Wiltshire, 2010

Maypole Dancing in the Square, Chagford, 2012

In the British Isles, Beltane, celebrated on May 1st, is a moon festival that falls midway between the Spring Equinox and Summer Soltice, marking the return of light and summer, the fertility of the land ensured by Illustration by Charles Vess, with May Blossumsthe mating and hand-fasting of the Great Goddess and her consort.  (For many years the Christian church sought to ban May Day festivities because of this "lewd" context as a frank celebration of sexuality and fecundity.) Recorded evidence of Maypole Dancing goes back at least to the 14th century, the texts suggesting the custom was very old even then, although the form of the dance known best today, with decorative children dancing in village squares, owes as much to the romanticism of the Victorians as it does to ancient tradition.

The name "Beltane" derives from Bel, the Celtic god of fire, honored and propitiated with bonfires lit on sacred hills.  Smoke from the fire blessed the fields, animals, and community, and maintained the wary, careful balance between the human and faery realms. "Traditionally," writes Glennie Kindred (in Sacred Celebrations), "all fires in the community were put out and a special fire was kindled for Beltane. This was the Teineigen, the 'need fire.' People jumped the fire to purify, cleanse and to bring fertility. Couples jumped the fire together to pledge themselves to each other. Cattle and other animals were driven through the smoke as a protection from disease and to bring fertility. At the end of the evening, the villagers would take some of the Teineigen to start their fires anew."

A Jack-in-the-Green in Hastings, East Sussex

May Day customs vary across Britain, but are generally less elaborate than in past times, when entire villages were festooned with greenery and flowers: boughs of rowan, birch, and ivy, and May Blossoms (from hawthorn trees). Beltane ceremonies are on the rise again, but in a few places around the country they have never really stopped -- the Obby Oss festivities in Cornwall being one well-known example.

May Day Jack-in-the-GreenHere in Chagford, we celebrate May Day in a variety of ways: sometimes elaborately, with a traditional Jack-in-the-Green and Obby Oss, and sometimes more simply: just food, drink, and music around a communal fire. (For photographs of our May Days, go here.) You can read about the Jack-in-the-Green (and other myths of the woods) here, about the theatrical Beltane Fire Society in Edinburgh here, and about other Beltane rites and festivities across Britain here. Have a look at ‘Tis the Season to Be Blooming, a charming collection of spring festival photographs from National Geographic's archives; also at vintage film clips of Padstow's 'Obby 'Oss celebrations in 1930 and 1951.

And be sure to light a fire tonight (a bonfire is best, but a candle will work too) in order to bless the months ahead, protect you from fairy mischief, and connect you with the folkloric past that we all share, no matter what our ethnic background.

Green Women by Brian Froud

Below, Beltane Border Morris, our fabulous local Border Morris troupe (or "side," as these groups are traditionally called), dancing the sun up at Haytor on Dartmoor. They do this on May Day every year, rain or shine.

Happy May Day!

Beltane Border Morris

Pictures: Maypole Dancing in 1915, a Maypole Dance art installation by Kristi Malakoff, Maypole Dancing at Leeds Castle in 1955, Maypole Dancing in Wiltshire in 2010, Maypole Dancing in Chagford Square in 2012, the God & Goddess of the Green by Charles Vess, May blossom, a Jack in the Green in Hastings, a poster for the 2015 Chagford Jack in the Green procession (art by Virginia Lee), and Green Women by Brian Froud.

Comments

Happy Beltane to all! Treat yourselves to more than a few indulgences today.

The Border Morris dancers are great; in fact Leicester should have its own border Morris troupe as we're on the border of the old Viking Kingdom of Danelaw. Perhaps someone out there should set one up, if they haven't already.

Happy May Day! I'll be lighting my candle tonight! Thanks for all the wonderful reading!

Another great place to read about some traditions and the 'Obby 'Oss festivities in Padstow is here:

http://intothehermitage.blogspot.co.uk/2014/05/the-rites-of-spring.html

at the blog of your Dartmoor neighbor Rima Staines. I was just fascinated to read this last spring.

Thanks for the reminder about Rima's piece on Pastow. Another neighbor, Andy Letcher, did one too:

http://andy-letcher.blogspot.co.uk/2014/05/oss-oss-wee-oss.html

Good inspiration for our own this year. Now I'm must get off-line and deck myself (and Tilly) in green as the time approaches....

Need Fire

Take a pile of old sticks,
brittle and bare, the year’s waste,
and a match.

Set them aflame, a burning tree,
smoky goddess breath,,
to cast away bad spirits.

Send the cows and hogs
before me, scourge them
of their ills.

Drive me through the Beltane fire,
make my poems fertile,
purge me of bad dreams.

©2015 Jane Yolen all rights reserved

Happy May Day to all here at Myth & Moor. I'll certainly light a fire tonight. Thanks for that.

Hi Terri

Just adore this presentation of May Day. The art, quotes and music blend to create a very magical experience. Yesterday, you gave us incredible shots of Tilly in the woods with the flowering stitchwort, primrose and wild orchid. And there she was at the top of your page, first photograph, looking through the framework of trees into the woodland interior, the realm of the forest sidhe with
all the ancient light and magic about to become unloosened. This beautiful, black Labrador acting as guardian to the primeval green, wearing its shadow on her glossy coat, was there waiting, waiting for us to enter and rediscover our childhood wonder and encounter once again the woodland fairy, the green man and other spirits.

Guardian

( For Tilly)

Looking through the casement
of a tree acanthus'd with moss and leaves, a trail
of flowering stitchwort -- she leans into the view, unleashing
spirits of light and shade.

On her black fur, the branch-work
is reflected -- a maze , the lattice of the "sídhe's" imagination.
So sleek in shadow's livery, the dog lingers
wearing the magic of "her" ancient
prevalence.
_______________________________________________
Again thank you!
Wendy

Hi Jane

I adore the idea of the tradition/meaning of that "need fire". You bring it spiritually to life with this beautiful poem. I can imagine this scene, hear the chanting. Indeed, "make my poems fertile/purge me of bad dreams"! I hope everyone can experience or is blessed by this request. What also makes this verse so haunting and inviting is the use of language and rite-related words like
"scourge", "purge", "aflame, "cast away". They add such intensity and resonance to this piece.

Much enjoyed,
Thank you
Wendy

Beltane blessings to you from one in the southern wintertide. How lucky you are to live in a place which still values the old wild ways.

Happy Beltaine to all! Terri, thanks for the education about Freya and the Norse background of the Maypole. I have become more interested in the old Northern myths and gods and goddesses since finding out my dad's Danish genetic background and possible history of the evolution of my surname. I focused on the Celtic side of the family so long that I have neglected it and our German background. I hope you had good weather and a good turnout for Chagford's procession...look forward to the pictures! It's time for me to light my candle...

Really loving this post Terri. As an Australian child in the 1950's, I have very fond memories of dancing around the Maypole at Primary school. We spent many days practising weaving the ribbons around the pole. Seemed to celebrate lots of English Traditions during the 50's, in Australia. Love the Morris dancers.

Grin!

Stitchwort. . .what a lovely name. Must. . .find. . .a. . .place. . .

Thanks as always for the wonderful read.

Jane

Thanks so much Jane
for taking the time to read my work and comments! I sincerely appreciate it!

Yes, "stitchwort" I first encountered the word, the flower, here on Terri's Blog about a year ago when one of the essays and beautiful photos described Spring coming to the wild wood of Chagford. I just loved the sound of it, something anciently botanical/magical about it. And when I saw the white flower, I thought how lovely it was.

Again thank you!
Best
Wendy

Hi Teri~! I didn't get an email from you yet, was wondering if you did? Cuz lately I've been having some problems with my email >.< I do want to send you a copy of my latest music album "The Inferno" Please email me at amatistic@gmail.com
Thx~!
AMA

Hi Teri,

I wondered if you could confirm if the Chagford Jack-in-the-Green will be going out again this May? I'm the current custodian of The Company of the Green Man and maintain an annual list of all of the traditional Jacks that go out each year. I'd love to include details of The Chagford Jack for our members and visitors to our website www.thecompanyofthegreen man.co.uk
I also wondered if you knew who took the picture of the London Jack-in-the-Green when it was in Hastings in 2012 on your post above? It's a great shot and looking at my own pictures of the event I must have been standing about three paces to the left of the photographer!

All the best

Chris Walton

Chris, discussions are going on now about whether the procession will continue this year. Andy Letcher organised last year's May Day, so he'd be the best person to contact for further information. You'll find him at the Bosky Man blog: http://andy-letcher.blogspot.co.uk/

I'm afraid I don't know the name of the Hastings photographer or I would have listed it here. The photo came from a British heritage site, I think -- but that was a year ago and I can't remember which one now. My apologies. If you do track it down, please let me know so I can credit the photographer properly.

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