Wednesday 30 April 2008

Beltane frolics and the Wicker Man

May Day is a festival with pagan origins that survived long after Christianity tried to stamp it out, perhaps because it is hard to repress the urge to party when blossom is on the trees and the days are finally warm enough to throw off winter clothing.

On May 1 and over the bank holiday weekend, towns and villages throughout England will be choosing a Queen of the May and enjoying fetes, fairs and carnivals.

It was once also traditional to choose a King of the May as the May Queen's consort for the day. In some communities, a variation on the theme was to dress a man as Jack o' the Green. He was covered in a wickerwork frame dressed in leaves and flowers and would lead a procession through the town, inviting bystanders to join in and culminating in a dance. Unlike Edward Woodward's character in the film The Wicker Man, he wasn't likely to be burnt to death, although fire did play a big part in May Day celebrations.

For the ancient Celts, May Day was celebrated as "Beltane" or the "Day of Fire" - Bel or Belenus was a Celtic god associated with the sun and with heat. Celebrations involved burning bonfires and jumping over the flames and sometimes driving cattle through the smoke to give them the god's blessings. Apparently it was also a cure for parasites. The Saxons also celebrated this time of the year by lighting fires on the evening of April 30 t0 marked the end of winter, followed by games and feasting.

May Day as also a celebration of fertility and an example of this is the maypole, a phallic symbol around which young men and women would dance, holding on to the ribbons until they became entwined. The earliest written records of maypoles in England date from the 14th century but it is likely that they existed before that. In earlier traditions, a tree might have been danced around rather than a cut wooden pole.

For modern pagans - and possibly our ancestors - May Day fertility rites can sometimes be an excuse for a wild party. So, if you are invited to a Beltane ritual, it is worthwhile asking if it is likely to get nude and lewd...

The photograph is of the maypole at Kettlewell, Upper Wharfedale, in the Yorkshire Dales. It was supplied by:

For more information about Beltane and May Day:

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