BELTANE is an ancient fire festival marking the point in Spring when Winter is finally defeated and the journey into Summer truly underway. The last vestiges of the dark half of the year were burned away in the Beltane fires, and Maypole dances whisked up a spirit of revelry and celebration. Of all the pagan festivals “May was the popular festive occasion that … best resisted Christianisation” (Historian Robert Muchembled). With origins in Greco-Roman, Celtic and Germanic pagan cultures, the celebrations around the coming of May, and the rituals of May Eve, are deeply embedded in the soul of European peoples, and have never fully disappeared.
The Romans celebrated the Goddess Flora or Maia, considered by many a form of the Earth Mother, synonymous with the Magna Mater, Cybele. The Germanic tribes seem to have honoured the coupling of Woden and Freya at this time. The Celts worshipped a male Sun God, Bel/Belenus, and associated Beltane in Ireland with the arrival of the ancient magical race the Tuatha De Danaan. This festival is considered a time when the veils between the worlds are thin, as at Samhain on the opposite side of the Wheel of the Year, but now especially to the realm of the nature spirits, the faeries.
Named Beltane in the Celtic lands, the May Day feast’s long history is hinted at by the earliest written record of it from ‘Sanas Cormiac’, a 10th century work attributed to Irish churchman Cormac of Cashel, who wrote about the ‘lucky fire’ made by Druids: the cattle were driven between two fires to protect them against summer diseases. Later works record people passing between the fires too. The same ritual, minus the Druids, was recorded nearly 1000 years later at Beltane 1838 by a farmer, Humphrey O’Sullivan in Leinster, who noted in his diary that he had driven his cattle between the fires. In 1852 in ‘Irish Popular Superstitions’ Sir William Wilde wrote that:
“With some, particularly the younger portion, this was a mere diversion, to which they attached no particular meaning, yet others performed it with a deeper intention, and evidently as a religious rite. Thus, many of the old people might be circumambulating the fire, and repeating to themselves certain prayers. If a man was about to perform a long journey, he leaped backwards and forwards three times through the fire, to give him success in his undertaking. If about to wed he did it to purify himself for the marriage state. It going to undertake some hazardous enterprise, he passed through the fire to render himself invulnerable. As the fire sank low, the girls leaped across it to procure good husbands: women great with child might be seen stepping through it to ensure a happy delivery, and children were also carried across the smouldering ashes. At the end the embers were thrown among the sprouting crops to protect them, while each household carried some back to kindle a new fire in its hearth.”
The mention of Druids in the first written record of Beltane, from Ireland where there were still active Druids around 900 CE, unlike Britain where the wisdom keepers of the ancient Celtic faith were wiped out during the Roman occupation, hints that this Spring festival may have very ancient roots in both lands. Certainly the folk memory, and practice, of Beltane ceremonies remained strong in the psyche of the British as well as Irish people for most of the last millennium, and remains with some of us today.
In the Scottish lowlands in 1571 the records show that the corporation doubled the watch “on Beltane eve, Beltane at eve and the morn after Beltane day”. The court at the 1597 trial of alleged witch Margaret Aitken, known as ‘the great witch of Balwery’, heard of a great ‘convention‘ of over 2000 witches held in the Highlands at Beltane. In Sir John Sinclair’s surveys of the country in the 1790s we read of Beltane fires made in Perthshire by young cowherds. The last fires in Scotland slowly faded away in the 19th century, surviving the longest, until the 1870s, in the Shetlands.
There are some records of Beltane fires in Wales and the west of England, but in the main the May Day was more associated across England’s pastoral lands with processions, dances and the Maypole. The origins of Maypole ceremonies are unknown, but note that worship involving tall poles is a common trait around the world in many traditional cultures, from the Native American totem poles to the Asherah poles built by the Hebrews to worship their ancient Goddess, much to the displeasure of the writers of the Old Testament. Historian Jennifer Russ suggests the Maypole originated from a birch tree decorated for Goddess Freya.
The earliest mention of a British Maypole comes from Wales in the mid 14th century in a poem by Gryffydd ap Adda ap Dafydd which describes the festivities around a birch tree that had been chosen for the pole, and by this time the ceremony was for certain well established across southern Britain, in towns and villages. Chaucer refers to the permanent Maypole standing in London at Cornhill in his poem Chaunce of the Dice. Although poles were rare in Scotland and not found Ireland, they were also common from the Pyrenees to Scandinavia and Russia, suggesting a history back to Celtic and Norse times.
May rituals included ceremonial animal dressing, cross-dressing and lots of dancing. The Morris Dance was “typically danced to ‘pagan gods’ by males wearing bells or dressed as women or animals, the morris celebrated ‘the return of vegetation’ and was thought to ‘bring luck’ to participants.” (Randy P. Connor). From 19th century records we know that May rites still featured cross-dressing, eg some London chimney sweeps would dress in feminine attire for this day, and in Hertfordshire there were male couples going to the rites as “Mad Moll and her husband”.
This was a time of celebrating fertility, and therefore also human love and flirtation. English evangelical pamphleteer Philip Stubbes angrily railed against the May fun, saying that one third of the women who participated in them were deflowered during the night. After celebrating all day people “would go to the woods, and groves, some to the hills and mountains… where they would spend all the night in pleasant pastimes… The May games celebrated the growth of the fruits of the earth and the fruits of love.” (Robert Muchembled)
18th century historian Henry Bourne wrote a pioneering study of English folkore called Antiquitates Vulgares (Antiquities of the Common People) in which he recorded the May celebration:
“On the calends or first of May, commonly called May Day, the juvenile part of both sexes were wont to rise a little after midnight and walk to some neighbouring wood, accompanied with music and blowing of horns, where they break down branches from the trees and adorn themselves with nosegays and crowns of flowers… The after part of the day is chiefly spend in dancing round the Maypole; and being placed in a convenient part of the village, the Maypole stands there, as it were, consecrated to the Goddess of Flowers, without the least violation being offered to it in the whole circle of the year.”
Maypoles were a prominent feature of English life until the Puritan revolution of the 1640s. A description of one was given in 1580 by pamphleteer Philip Stubbes:
“They have 20 or 40 yoke of oxen, every ox having a sweet nose-gay of flowers placed on the tip of his horns, and these oxen draw home this Maypole… which is covered all over with flowers and herbs, bound about with strings, from the top to the bottom, and sometimes painted with variable colours, with two or three hundred men, women and children following it with great devotion. And thus being reared up, with handkerchiefs and flags hovering on the top, they strew the ground around about, bind green boughs about it, set up summer halls, bowers and arbours hard by it. And then they fall to dance about it”.
Maypoles could also become a focus for communal misbehaviour, such as at the May Day riots in London in 1517, after which the Cornhill pole was no longer erected. Rivalry between villages led to the theft of Maypoles, which could lead to violent behaviour.
During the reign of Edward VI (1547-53) the Cornhill pole, which had been kept in storage, was cut up and burnt after being denounced as an idol by a Protestant preacher. Along with the Catholic religion, vestiges of the pagan past including the Maypole (the Church had largely tolerated such collective festivities in the late medieval period of ‘Merrie Olde England’) revived under Queen Mary I and were accepted, and appreciated, by open minded Elizabeth. During her reign however the pressure built from Protestant thinkers against all activities that involved mixed gender dancing, intoxication and making merry on a Sunday and from 1570 until 1630 Maypoles were banned in many cities from Canterbury to Bristol to Doncaster.
In London the May Day focal point in the 17th century was a great fixed pole on the Strand, which stood 100 feet tall at a site long regarded as a pagan centre of worship. One of the first thing Londoners did at the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 after 18 years of strict Puritan rule under Oliver Cromwell was to erect a 134 feet tall Cedar Maypole at this spot, with the King in attendance. A pamphlet entitled “The Cities Loyalty Displayed” celebrated the return of the Maypole to London. Historian Catherine Arnold writes in ‘City of Sin’ that as Charles II took the throne “the city erupted into one giant party which was to last for the rest of his life.” Diarist Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) was delighted when the May rites returned, recording in 1661 that he and his wife and friends went to Woolwich to spend the night in the countryside in preparation to ‘gather May-dew’ in the morning.
It was not only in central London that the downfall of fundamentalist religious control was met with an upsurge of pagan sentiment, as evidenced by the reappearance of maypoles around the country. Philosopher and amateur archaeologist (he discovered the Avebury stone circle!) John Aubrey (1626-97) wrote that poles “were set up at every crossway”. Jonathon Swift celebrated the return of the Maypole under Charles II in poetry written from the pole’s point of view:
“And once a Weaver in our Town,
A damn’d Cromwellian, knock’d me down.
I lay a prisoner twenty Years;
And then the Jovial Cavaliers
To their old Posts restor’d all Three
I mean the Church, the King, and Me.”
The huge Strand Maypole was severely damaged by strong winds in 1672, and only a stump remained until 1713, when it was rebuilt again – this time it only survived until 1717. The Maypole site was taken over to build the Church of St Mary le Strand, which still stands, and the pole itself was bought by Isaac Newton, who used it in the building of an aerial telescope. So the last London pagan ritual pole, representative of our ancient search for spiritual answers, became part of the search for a new scientific explanation of our existence here on Earth.
The Maypole is one of the most powerful symbols of paganism– it represents the union of earth and heaven. It is decorated and danced around to invoke that experience of cosmic connection in the revellers, or simply to have a good rocking time. To the Puritans of the 17th century, who were determined to complete the Protestant conversion of the country begun a century earlier under Henry VIII, the Maypole was a “stynkynge idoll” because it was associated with drunken and sexualised goings on. In 1644 Maypoles were outlawed, and poles around the country torn down, including London’s central pole on the Strand. Sociologist Max Weber in 1905 described Protestantism as descending “like a frost on the life of ‘Merrie Olde England’.”
It wasn’t only Puritans getting worried about the goings on at these festive celebrations. The ecclesiastical and secular authorities disliked the lawlessness that these occasions brought out., however their attempts to ban the poles probably served to make them become more powerful focal points of defiance and political action. Historian EP Thompson wrote that well into the 18th century the political aspirations of the English people were expressed in “a language of ribbons, of bonfires, of oaths and the refusal of oaths, of toasts, of seditious riddles and ancient prophecies, of oak leaves and maypoles, of ballads with a political double-entendre”.
For the mass population, Maypoles retained their popularity for a long time. In 1708 the British Apollo reported that it was now commonly accepted that the Maypole rite came from the ancient Britons, before conversion to Christianity, in worship of the Roman Goddess Flora. Historian Ronald Hutton writes that “During the 18th century Maypoles seem to have been both very common and taken for granted in the English and Welsh countryside.” This continued, but from the end of the 18th, reports speak of the neglect and rotting away of the permanent poles – the last Maypole in London was taken down in 1795.
May rites carried on: John Brady recorded in ‘Clavis Calendria: Or, a compendious analysis of the calendar’ in 1814:
“…no only common people, but those of every rank in the vicinity of the place, joined in the tumultuous dissipations of the day… [the crowd] gave a free indulgence to riotous and disorderly practice, dancing through the streets in wanton attitudes… Even the priests, joining with the people, went in procession to some adjoining wood on the May morning.”
In France Maypoles became a symbol of defiance among the peasant people in the 18th century, becoming known as ‘liberty trees‘, upsetting the Catholic establishment because of political demands attached to the pagan symbol. The pole remained a focus of collective ecstatic joy, with an edge of spontaneous revolution from below. A report written by the local revolutionary society in Perigord, records how peasants in July 1791 attacked weathercocks and church pews (symbolising feudal and religious authorities) “both with some violence and their effusion of joy… they set up Maypoles in the public squares, surrounding them with all the destructive signs of the feudal monarchy”. French Revolutionary Abbe Henri Gregoire stressed in a 1794 treatise the connection of trees, revolutionary fervour and pagan traditions, reminding his audience that trees and plants were dedicated to divinities, such as the Oak to Ceres and the vine to Bacchus. He also recorded that American Revolutionaries were erecting Maypoles on the banks of Delaware river as a “citizen’s rallying signal in every community.”
Fear of the Maypole’s pagan and anarchic associations declined and concern in the Victorian era about the breaking down of social bonds led writers such as Sir Walter Scott to romanticise medieval culture and its festivals which he saw as bringing all layers of society together in celebration, offering a “happy holiday to the monotony of a life of labour” which he felt could help “resolve the difficulties and distractions” of his time. Similar sentiments came from Wordsworth, Tennyson, Coleridge. A romantic drama, ‘Richard Plantagenet’ by JT Haines, staged in 1836 at the Victoria Theatre in London featured the first known example of an English Maypole dance with ribbons attached to the top of the pole. This struck a chord, was featured yearly thereafter and the practice spread to May Day festivities around the land, replacing older dances by 1880. Lord John Manners of the ‘Young England’ Conservatives in Parliament, a group which included Benjamin Disraeli, called the Maypole a symbol of social unity and harmony as he called for a revival of traditional festivals to restore health and loyalty among the common people.
The 20th century saw its own periods of decline and revival of interest in May celebrations. Large public events developed such as the Beltane festivities in Edinburgh and Jack in the Green in Hastings and are going strong. At my primary school in the 1970s in Suffolk we were introduced to the Maypole dance, but not to its history. May Day had become largely associated with worker’s rights, with the Labour government introducing a national May Day Bank Holiday in 1975, but the role of the Maypole as a symbol of collective defiance was forgotten, as was the healing and bonding of the experience of collective joy raised in ecstatic Maypole ceremonies, which once went hand in hand with political demands.
In the early 21st century I found a place that the spirit of Beltane had made a new home – with the Radical Faeries, a global manifestation of creative, expressive, queer community that celebrates nature and our defiant, queer place in it as sacred physical and spiritual beings (I might add, with no need of religions to connect us to the spirit). Radical Faeries celebrate Beltane with erotic, ecstatic passion, erecting Maypoles in out-of-the-way nature places where the festivities are not overseen by the over-prying eyes of the authorities or the judgmental general public. One day Maypoles may return to our towns and villages again, but I doubt they will have the passion and power of these wild, free, bliss soaked ceremonies out in the woods. Beltane Spirit is alive and well,and known about across the world more widely than ever before thanks to the Internet and the massive, but little acknowledged by the mainstream establishment, return and spread of nature based wisdom among all the peoples of the world.
At Beltane we finally release the last dregs of Winter, and raise our spirits into the sunshine to empower the goals and intentions we have for the summer ahead. We remember the ancestors and the spirits of nature, call upon the magic of the May Queen and the Green Man to bless us in all our endeavours and remember that we are part of a cosmic dance that has been going for a very long time. Taking the time to mark and celebrate the seasonal festivals of the solar calendar brings us into alignment with the natural energy flows of nature, and bring our souls and bodies into states of harmony, opening our minds to understanding and wisdom and our hearts to the universal, divine love flowing through all life.
That’s why we dance. Because life dances. At Beltane we drop the worries and woes, and learn to trust in the universe, our Mother, to look after us. We dance and She dances with and within us. We share Joy and the Worlds are Blessed.
The Pagan Heart of the West, Randy P Connor
The Stations of the Sun, Ronald Hutton
Dancing in the Streets, Barbara Ehrenreich