There seems to be a revived interest in spring nature festivals. I heard my yoga teacher refer to May 1 as Beltane, the festival of a Celtic deity, that occurs halfway through the year from Samhain, or Halloween. I also heard a pastor speak about Rogationtide, the days before the Ascension when there used to be processions through the fields. Are there any correlations between these pagan and Christian nature observances? And how does the Maypole fit in?
Frank answers: There are historical and cultural correlations between these nature rites because in the northern Hemisphere the spring of the year is a time when calves and lambs are born and herds and flocks are taken to pastures and crops are planted. Pagan nature festivals concern fertility since crops and herds provide food for humans. Prayers in the Christian rites ask God for favorable weather and an abundance of the fruits of the earth. There is actually some blending of pagan and Christian elements in these springtime folk observances. In this time of heightened awareness of environmental issues and the the threat of global warming, an additional secular observance, Earth Day, has been added to the mix.
These spring nature observances are all in calendrical proximity to one another. Earth Day is April 22. The major rogation (prayer) procession is on St. Mark’s Day, April 25. The lesser rogation processions are on the three days before the Festival of the Ascension of Christ, which is a moveable feast 40 days after Easter, but which usually occurs in first part of May. Beltane is on May 1. Let me try to sort them out. And throw in the Maypole for good measure, as requested. (I will omit Earth Day here because I have other Frank Answers about that observance. Check the index of topics.)
I will begin with the Rogation processions because they have a long known history and have continued up to the present day, especially in Europe. They do have a background in pagan culture, but Roman rather than Celtic. The Romans had many processions for various occasions and at different times of the year. Once Christianity became a public cult in the Roman Empire, it took over these civic processions. An agricultural procession occurred in the Roman calendar on April 25. This date was also the commemoration of St. Mark the Evangelist in the Roman Catholic calendar. Coincidentally, the symbol of the Gospel of St. Mark was the lion because this gospel narrative begins in the wilderness with the ministry of John the Baptist. Psalms and litanies were sung during Christian processions and the St. Mark’s Day procession in the fields used the major litany. This Roman procession would have been brought to Britain by the Roman missionary St. Augustine of Canterbury and his 40 Benedictine monks ca. 600, who brought Roman liturgy with them, including its many processions. (I’ve said that Anglicans have been processing ever since.)
Around the same time in Gaul (fifth century), Gallican bishops were introducing penitential processions on the days before the Feast of the Ascension to ward off floods, earthquakes, and bad weather. The Fifth Sunday after Easter was called Rogate because of the words of Christ in the Gospel reading from John 16:23-30 (“Whatsoever you shall ask the Father in my name, he will give it to you”). The Ascension of Christ included the theme of Christ as our heavenly high priest, mediator and advocate “at the right hand of the Father.” It seemed appropriate to the season of the year and the themes of the Ascension to send up prayers and supplications to Christ on the three days between Rogate Sunday and Ascension Thursday. They were called “Rogation Days” (“days of asking”) and were observed with processions in which litanies (“walking prayers”) were sung. These processions had a penitential character (the priest wore a purple cope in procession) because of the nature of the requests: warding off disaster. The processions became popular and spread from France to Germany and Britain.
The pre-Christian folklore of averting harm to fields and home by the magical act of walking around them became the custom of “beating the bounds” of the parish on rogation days. The procession would walk the parish boundaries chanting the psalms and the litany, stopping at particular places for special blessings. Boys often charged ahead with sticks to clear the path of winter debris for the procession. The rogation processions were so popular in England that they survived the Reformation and continued to be practiced in the Church of England. There has been a revival of interest in rogation processions through the fields as a positive environmental symbol, combined with cleaning debris as on Earth Day.
Beltane is observed in the Celtic countries of Ireland and Scotland and the Isle of Man. It is attested in old Irish literature. One etymology of Beltaine could derive from the Celtic belo-te(p)niâ, meaning “bright fire.” Some have suggested that Bel was the ancient Celtic sun god. It was clearly a fertility festival. Some aspects of the pagan fertility rites were suppressed by Christianity, although traditions lingered on in the Celtic folk culture and were “baptized” by the church. The central feature of the festival was a huge bonfire which was intended to ward off demons and evil spirits. Participants sprinkled ashes from the fire on themselves, their crops, and their livestock. Using torches participants also rekindled hearth fires in their own homes from the Beltane fire.
These practices were dying out by the late 19th century and folklorists did what they could to collect historical information about them. During the second half of the 20th century there was a revival of interest fostered by neo-pagans and wiccans. Wicca has tended to be syncretistic, but there are Celtic reconstructionists who are trying to restore what can be known of authentic Beltane practices.
Since 1988, a Beltane Fire Festival has been held every year during the night of April 30 on Calton Hill in Edinburgh, Scotland. While inspired by traditional Beltane, this festival is a modern arts and cultural event which incorporates myth and drama from a variety of world cultures. The two principal figures in the Edinburgh festival are the May Queen and the Green Man. The idea is that the coupling of the virgin maiden with the vegetation man will ensure fertility. We should note that the Green Man is a 20th century name given to the vegetation man whose face appeared on medieval church buildings. See “Frank Answer About the Green Man and Friends.”
The men of the village cross dressed as women and went out on a Rogation Day (probably April 25) to find a maiden to proclaim as Queen of the May. They clothed the maiden in a white dress (for purity or virginity) and decked her out with flowers and garlands and brought her back to the village as the May Queen. So here is a blending of Rogationtide and Beltane. The folklorist James George Frazer, in The Golden Bough, speculated that the figure of the May Queen was linked to ancient tree worship. This would make sense of the marriage of the May Queen with the Green Man.
The “climax” of Beltane is what one would expect in all fertility festivals: the marriage of the god and goddess, in this case the Green Man and the May Queen. The offspring from this sexual union is a renewed Earth. This symbolic rite as part of the Beltane Festival is a moment of sacred sex; an acknowledgment that the Earth is again renewed through the two polarities of male and female. The whole festival — dancing around the fire and all that follows on the next day — is overtly sexual. It is what social historian Edward Muir categorized as a festival of the lower body (see Ritual in Early Modern Europe [Cambridge University Press, 1997, pp. 93–94]).
Each With His Bonny Lass
Since Beltane is a fertility festival, it’s not surprising that humans got into the act of experiencing their own fertility. May 1 was a popular day for betrothals. Couples who intended to marry would have their hands tied together in a rite called Handfasting (“tying the knot”). Handfasting or not, both young and old went A-Maying. Couples spent the night in the woods and fields, made love like the Green Man and the May Queen, and brought back armfuls of the first May or hawthorn blossoms to decorate their homes and barns. Hawthorn was never brought into the home except at Beltane – at other times it was considered unlucky. Everyone was free to enact the sacred marriage, and there was an accepted tradition of Beltane babies arriving nine months later.
The English composer Robert Morley published a book of madrigal-like part songs with fa-la-la refrains in 1596, of which the most famous is probably “Now is the Month of Maying.”
Now is the month of maying,
When merry lads are playing,
Fa la la la la la la la la,
Fa la la la la la la lah.
Each with his bonny lass
Upon the greeny grass.
Fa la la la la la la la la, etc…
The Spring, clad all in gladness,
Doth laugh at Winter’s sadness,
Fa la la, etc…
And to the bagpipe’s sound
The nymphs tread out their ground.
Fa la la, etc…
Fie then! why sit we musing,
Youth’s sweet delight refusing?
Fa la la, etc…
Say, dainty nymphs, and speak,
Shall we play barley break?
Fa la la etc…
Washing in the Morning Dew
Water as well as fire rites were observed in connection with Beltane. Women especially would visit holy wells to pray for health while walking sunwuse (moving from east to west) around the well. The first water drawn from a well on Beltane Day was seen as being especially potent. Those who dipped from water would leave coins in the well.
At dawn on Beltane, maidens would roll in the dew or wash their faces with it. Dew drops would be collected in a jar, left in the sunlight, and then filtered. The dew was thought to increase sexual attractiveness, maintain youthfulness, and help clear up skin blemishes.
Jumping Off Magdalen College Bridge
Another wet experience is the tradition of students jumping off the Magdalen College Bridge in Oxford on May 1. The special observance of May 1 in Oxford begins at 6 am with the Magdalen College Choir singing an ecclesiastical hymn from the top of Magdalen Tower, a tradition going back more than 500 years. The choir also sings the madrigal-like part song, “Now is the Month of Maying,” following prayers for the city led by the Dean of Divinity. Large crowds of both students and Oxford residents normally gather under the tower, along the High Street and on Magdalen Bridge, where it has been a custom for Magdalen students to jump off the bridge into the Charwell River. In some recent years the river was so low that serious accidents occurred. Authorities prohibited the jumping when the river was low. But when the waters are high, the jumping by the irrepressible students resumes. What the exact symbolic meaning of this event is remains elusive.
For several hours in the morning there is general revelry, dancing, and impromptu music in Radcliff Square between the University Church and the Radcliff Camera. This would be a survival of the carnivalesque atmosphere of May Day that included dancing, games, sports, food and alcoholic beverages.
The Maypole Dance
The Maypole Dance has been incorporated into the day of Beltane. The tradition of the Maypole itself comes from Germany, perhaps reflecting the German pre-Christian veneration of trees (e.g. ash, oak). It spread throughout Europe, including to Britain and Scandinavia. In Sweden and Finland the Maipole with a cross beam is erected on Midsommardag (Midsummer Day) on June 24 (which is the Nativity of St. John the Baptist in the Christian calendar) in close proximity to the summer solstice. St. John Bonfires are also burned on the Eve of June 24.
The Maypole is constructed from a straight log that is festooned with flowers. The town or village often paid for the Maypole and sometimes it was a permanent fixture. Ribbons are attached to it and the dancers, often in pairs of boys and girls, circle the pole unwinding the ribbons and then reverse direction and rewind the ribbons. One could read a fertility aspect to the dance if the pole is regarded as a phallic symbol. Its many colored ribbons and the ensuing weaving dance symbolize the spiral of Life.
So here in these customs is a blend of sacred and profane, Christian and pagan, religious and secular customs surrounding the celebration of spring and nature and fertility on or close to May 1. There was definitely overlap because the visages of the green man in European folklore are found on hundreds of medieval church buildings, along with other fertility figures such as Sheela na gig. The neo-pagans, like the ancient pagans, celebrate sexuality. In between were the Christians who could be as earthy as anyone. The very church buildings encouraged human fertility as well as the fertility of crops and livestock.
As we are coming out of the social restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic, a Beltane revival might put ideas into the heads of young adults in the U.S. , the U.K., Ireland, and Europe that our birth rates have been declining. The anxieties of the pandemic have apparently not been good for the libido and it is clear that there will be no baby boom as a result of the lock down. Procreation is needed for the flourishing of our societies. Perhaps we need more bonny lads and lasses on the grass during the month of Maying.
Pastor Frank Senn