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                               A Celebration of
                                M A Y   D A Y
                        --by Gwydion Cinhil Kirontin
                       *     *     *     *     *     *
                      "Perhaps its just as well that you
                    won't be 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.), encyclopedia ("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 
                       are naked!"
                       Lord Summerisle:  "Naturally.  
                       It's much too dangerous to jump 
                       through the fire with your 
                       clothes on!"
                       *     *     *     *     *     *
          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 " 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 
      insistence 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 breaks.
                       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 align 
      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.
                                   THE END
      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!  

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