May Day, Pagan Style


In Chet Raymo's wonderful book 365 Starry Nights, he describes in his unique way just what happens when the earth starts to warm up in springtime: "In its journey around the Sun the Earth leans into its curve like a sailor bracing against the wind....[The Sun's] rays hit the Earth's surface more directly here in the northern hemisphere, and the Earth responds....Every second the Sun converts 657 million tons of hydrogen into 653 million tons of helium by a process called nuclear fusion. The missing 4 million tons of mass are converted into energy and hurled into space as heat and light....The Earth intercepts only about 4 pounds worth of that vanished matter, but to the Earth that 4 pounds worth of energy is the difference between day and night, winter and summer, life and death."

In May, the earth seems to pause in this yearly journey, giving us time to shake our winter-weary heads, feel the earth warming up, and spend more time looking at the nighttime sky. And so we celebrate.

I am always delightfully surprised to learn that one or another of our most time-honored festivals or traditions has its basis in a knowledge of the stars and their changing patterns with the passage of time. Astronomer Ed Krupp says that "our awareness of time and our need to organize it are fundamental underpinnings of consciousness....Our ancestors first started noting the passage of time [with] observations of celestial cycles." In ancient times this knowledge "had power--religious power, economic power, political power. [It] sustained society and for that reason was expressed in sacred ritual....Long before we became farmers or built civilizations, our brains must have focused on the rhythmic changes in the sky and measured the behavior of the world in terms of them. Survival depended on it."

And so it is with May Day, an intermediate calendar date that for some ancient cultures further divided the year into smaller, more manageable intervals. Early Bronze Age stone circles in northern Europe--Long Meg and her Daughters in Cumbria, Castle Rigg in the Lake District--seem to bear this out. These have stones aligned to the sunrise on these intermediate dates, just as the better known circles (such as Stonehenge) are aligned to the solstices and equinoxes. But perhaps the greatest evidence of the importance of these intermediate dates is found in the traditional holidays still observed in England and, in some cases, the United States. Candlemas (Groundhog Day) in February, May Day in May, Lammas Day in August, and Martinmas in November.

May Day was called Beltane by the ancient Celts. On this day, the sun rises mid-way between the place where it rises along the horizon on the spring equinox (due east), and its northernmost rising point on June 21, the summer solstice. The significance of May Day was not lost on the Celts. Beltane was a full-blooded pagan ritual day, when the protection of the gods during the newly begun growing season was invoked in a variety of ways. The earliest traditions were tenifically sinister. To appease three deities, three separate lethal punishments were given to a person choosing the Beltane cake, a burned piece of grain pancake, in a sacred ritual lottery. In 1984 near Manchester, England, a peat cutter discovered one such sacrificial victim: the well-preserved body of a man, who proved to have been murdered about A.D. 50. The victim had been axed so hard that the tops of his molars had been sheared off. A noose had then been twisted around his neck, crushing his windpipe. Finally, his jugular was lanced, and he was dumped in a bog. A burned piece of grain bread was found in his stomach. The British tabloids named him Pete Moss.

Over time, Beltane gradually was cleansed of its more gruesome aspects (thanks for the most part to the coming of Christianity), so much so that by the nineteenth century in England, Maypoles, garlands, and tea parties were the general order of the day. Today, even these traditions are dying out, but one thing has not changed: May's stany skies herald the beginning of the growing season, and stars or no, we still depend on this. …

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