As we come to the close of April, and see the seasons change, we recognize the wheel of the year and the approaching Sabbat. Throughout the world, ancient traditions have been practiced in celebration of May Eve, also known as Beltane, and May Day. They are a 2-day holiday that include the purifying fires on May Eve and the celebrations of May Day with the colorful May pole. We have figures representing the plant kingdom and rituals of fire to cleanse livestock and townspeople, and adorning our environment with flowers.
According to author, Raven Grimassi, “May festivals commonly incorporate elements of pre-Christian worship related to agricultural themes. In ancient times a young male was chosen to symbolize the spirit of the plant kingdom. Known by such names as Jack-in-the-Green, Green George, the Wild Man, and the Green Man, he walked in a procession through the villages symbolizing his return as spring moves toward summer.”
Another well-known symbol of May Day is the Maypole. The connection of a tree to May celebrations is quite ancient and rooted in archaic tree worship throughout Europe. The Maypole can be traced to archaic Roman religions. In the Dictionary of Faiths & Folklore by W. C. Hazlitt (London: Bracken books, 1995), he states that in ancient Briton it was customary to erect Maypoles adorned with flowers in honor of the goddess Flora. It is traditionally a tall pole covered with greenery, or flowers, and adorned with ribbons woven into complex patterns by a group of dancers. This tradition sprang from a time when dances were performed around a living tree in spring rites which were designed to ensure fertility.
“The Maypole concept can be traced to a figure known as the herm (or hermai) that was placed at the crossroads throughout the Roman Empire. The herms is a pillar-like figure sporting the upper torso of a god or spirit. The herms was a symbol of fertility and was often embellished by an erect penis protruding from the pillar (Grimassi, 2001).”
Other, more color symbols of Beltane and May Day are the flowers used in ceremonies, as decorations and communication. One reason flowers are closely associated with May Day is they reflect the idea of ever-renewing life. In the Mediterranean, European and Celtic regions, when honoring their goddesses they would decorate their shrines with colorful spring flowers. Much of the folklore from Europe and the British Isles is associated with fairies, “who helped open the buds of plants and cared for all growing things in general (Grimassi, 2001).” Through Faery Traditions we know that green is the sacred color for the Ancient Ones. Various plants associated with the faeries serve as dwelling places. Some are trees, while others are herbs and flowers.
Flowers have meanings which is why we like to use them in our rituals. For Beltane and May Day there are flowers that are special to the celebrations in meaning, or tradition. One example is Cowslip, Primula veris, which is associated with divination. According to Grimassi, one of the oldest customs is to make a ball of cowslip flowers which was tossed in the air. It would be caught, or dropped, as it fell to Earth and during the process names of various occupations were spoken in succession. When the cowslip ball would break apart, this was believed to indicate what profession the participant would achieve (Grimassi, 2001).
The Daisy, or Bellis perennis, is a flower known as the harbinger of spring. It has long been associated with divination and folk magic. Remember as a young child plucking the petals from the flower to obtain a yes or no to a question? Or, using the words “he/she loves me” and “he/she loves me not” which were spoken as each petal is removed?
Hawthorn, or Huathe Crataegus, also known as May flower, May bush, May bloom, or May tree which is considered magical, in Ireland. One custom is that its blossoms were placed on the bedroom dresser to ward off illness. Grimassi also mentions one custom which was to sprinkle hawthorn sprigs with holy water and set them in the fields to protect the crops from the fairies.
From Mara Freeman we read, The young girls rose at dawn to bathe in dew gathered from hawthorn flowers to ensure their beauty in the coming year, as the old rhyme goes:
The fair maid who, the first of May,
Goes to the fields at break of day
And washes in dew from the hawthorn tree,
Will ever after handsome be.
May Lily, or lily of the valley is one of the flowers dedicated to the May Queen on May day.
Myrtle, or Myrtus communis, appears in some of the oldest fairy lore as a special tree, sacred to fairies. There is lore throughout the world associated with Myrtle. In the area of the Mediterranean the Myrtle was a symbol of immortality and life after death. Over in the southern European areas the Myrtle tree is often the home of the fairy. It was used to make the bridal wreath in German lore, or given to acknowledge acts of chivalry during the Middle Ages.
Beltane and May Day usher in the summer with its vibrant colors in the flowers, trees and festivities we use in our celebrations. These are just a few of the flowers and their lore associated with Beltane, May Day and spring celebrations. There are several links on the internet where you can find the language of flowers in love and pagan lore.
As you prepare for Beltane, and May Day, you can incorporate these ancient themes and associations applied to trees and flowers, since ancient times, to enhance your ritual. These ancient practices can lend added color and spectacle to your work and help ensure the magic continues throughout the year.
Many thanks to the work of Raven Grimassi, and W.C. Hazlitt for bringing these ancient practices to us.
Freeman, M. (2016). Tree Lore: Hawthorn. The Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids retrieved from http://www.druidry.org/library/trees/tree-lore-hawthorn
Grimassi, R. (2001). Springtime Rituals, Lore & Celebration, Beltane. Llewellyn Publications, St. Paul, MN
Language of Flowers and their Meanings: http://paganwiccan.about.com/od/beltanemayday/a/FlowerLang.htm
J. Nelson, Freelance photographer and current Public Information Officer for OCLC CoG.