May 1, 2013

It’s May Day!

May 1, or "May Day", has been celebrated around the world for a very long time. Early observances were likely derived from the spring festivals of ancient Babylon, Egypt and India, which is often the case. However, today its celebrations more closely resemble those of its pagan European origins.

The month of May is named after the Greek fertility goddess Maia, considered the most beautiful of the Seven Sisters, the Pleiades. She was the mother of Hermes, god of magic. Like many old world festivals, it celebrated fertility and developed into a type of “agrarian magic” to bless the first spring planting. The ancient Celts and Saxons celebrated May 1st as Beltane, a fire festival. The word 'Beltane' originates from the Celtic God 'Bel', meaning 'the bright one' and the Gaelic word 'teine' meaning fire.

During a time where societies were hunter-gatherer, evening celebrations on the night before May Day included people chanting and singing, blowing hunting horns, and lighting bonfires. This was sometimes led by a person dressed as Diana, Goddess of the Hunt, with someone else dressed as the horned god, Herne.

As time passed and society turned more agrarian, Diana and Herne came to be seen as fertility deities of the crops and fields. Diana became the Queen of the May, believed to be the origin of the modern tradition of pageant and festival queens. Herne became Robin Goodfellow, seen as a predecessor of Robin Hood, also known as the Green Man. The Green Man was a protective woodland spirit. He can be seen on many pieces of folk art as well as church decoration, even today.

An iconic symbol of May Day has been the Maypole, an important part of the festivities, though scholars debate about its origin and meaning. Some say it represents an Axis Mundi, the world's center or a connection between Heaven and Earth. Others say its roots are in traditional Germanic reverence of sacred trees. Some believe it could have originated from the Roman’s worship of the god Priapu and is a phallic symbol. According to some anthropologists, the explanation for the Maypole is that of simply symbolizing the growth of new vegetation.

Regardless of its origin, the Maypole tradition still takes place in many areas around the world, as do a number of diverse celebrations to usher in springtime.

Best wishes to all on this first day of May!

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