Happy May! While many of us will acknowledge the beginning of another month, our ancestors would have seen this as a very special time indeed.
The Celts called this time Beltane: the sun or fire festival, in Germany it is called Walpurgisnacht. It is a time to welcome the renewal of the earth. In ages past, people would gather sticks and branches to prepare the great fire on May eve. Ash from the fire was spread on the land to protect the crops, and people kept some of this within their home for good luck.
Also known as May Day, some might have heard about the Maypole- usually taken from a long tall tree such as an ash, it is adorned with flowers and ribbons and men and women will dance around it while weaving the ribbon around the pole. The dance of life. Celebrations like this can be traced back at least as far as Rome. In fact this month is named after a Roman Goddess that was celebrated in this fashion-Maia and her sister goddess Flora.
In many locations in the world this time of year is celebrated- Hastings in England has a traditional Jack-in-the-Green festival. This is a four day event revived by Mad Jack’s Morris Dancers in 1983 from a much older celebration. The four day event culminates in the symbolic slaying of Jack, in which the spirit of summer is released for another year.
In Cocullo, Province of L’Aquila Italy, the line between the past and present is more transparent. On the first Thursday in May, there is a serpent festival. The statue of St. Dominic Abate is draped in snakes and taken in a procession through the streets. Believers touch and pray to the statue as it proceeds through the borough. He is the intercessor between man and nature- protecting them from unseen harm. For others, he is a continuation of a much older festival that worshipped Angizia, a snake goddess (anguis is snake in Latin), who protected people from harm.
May is a time for us to celebrate the return of warmth and life to the flora and fauna around us. To look forward to the beauty and plenty that will hopefully surround us- and if you are so inspired, to celebrate the history that has formed the people we are today.
What an excellent wealth of information, reminiscent of Sir James Frazer’s classic work, The Golden Bough – I love how you root your discussion around the common cultural threads of Beltane across various European communities. What particular traditions have you ascribed to in celebration of Beltane?
If any of your Readers know where I can get my hands on a copy of the 1973 version of The Wicker Man, a true cult classic film that speaks (well, sings, really) of events similar to a Jack in the Green ceremony, please let me know! I have been looking for it commercially for some time. Strangely one of my favorite movies! Please comment here and I’ll check back.