I begin with May Eve because it was one of the two major festivals of Witchcraft, the other being the Hallows, and its ceremonies, some of which are preserved in folk custom, can give us the flavour of May Day, which was more a feast for the generality.
As the Hallows is a festival of death, May Day is the celebration of sex. In the traditional witchcraft festival the sex act is both practised and glorified. The central act is the copulation of the Deities, by which act, and it is intended to be mystical, Summer is made possible. The rituals involved the initial drinking of special potions by the men to enhance their virility; the procession of the nearly naked Goddess; the obeisance of the God and His reluctance, feigned, to be Her lover; the love chase of the ladies after the men, and then the final coupling of the happy pair, He being in full animal skin regalia.
This was followed by a fivefold feast, each item having its own witch cry. The elements were wine, bread, meat, salt, ritualised or real sex. After this the party became general and lasted till morning. Loud music and shouting were one of its essential features; a medieval disco as it were with wilder disports thrown in including the taking of drugs to heighten awareness and prolong physical endeavour.
It follows that the theme of May Day is Consummation. It is a celebration of the wedding of the Goddess as Maid to the God. Our God is called Robin, and He was closely connected with the red deer; indeed He wore its horns as a crown (the animal disguise). A crown, we must remember, is a magical hat, as a mask is a magical face, and a history of either could easily be written, many examples springing readily to mind. Robin and His followers met on May Eve, and like the witches, celebrated in drink His forthcoming nuptials. It was a gathering of males only as we have seen. This was the ‘Stag Party’, an evening of revel, risqué jokes, earthy humour and feasting and drinking.
If we add any May Eve ceremonies to our observances they should include cleaning the house and pouring libations to any resident divinities.
Unfortunately what is left of May Day seems to reside in a few picturesque survivals, the full blooded witch rite exsanguinated to a pallid prettiness. It is a festival which badly needs thinking through for our time, and its myth restressing in all its blunt beauty. This is a task to which we new pagans must address ourselves, taking care that its essential elements and symbolism are not lost for they are the timeless substrate upon which the whole festival is built.
One idea remains in popular fancy. Though children may self-consciously cavort around a mini-maypole in a miasma of make believe, and adults vaguely yearn for a ‘Merrie England’ that maybe never was, there remains an idea of ‘Old England’ – an odd, unformed notion, felt rather than considered, that there still is somewhere a ‘Merlin’s Isle of Gramarye’. This spirit of ‘Old England’ is an obstinate and deep rooted idea that surfaces in times of stress and war. It is not susceptible to cold analysis and is therefore one of the national myths we live by. I mention it here because some of its mainspringing may well come from old May Day ceremonies, particularly at the time of the Tudors, when English people began to find and glory in a national consciousness, which Shakespeare, among others, was to express brilliantly in his patriotic plays.
However we must discuss what May Day is to us now, and carefully consider its new pagan imagery.
We can, if we wish, march with banners along the Thames Embankment on a May Day that may not be a May Day, the festival being moveable to the nearest Monday, which, if there were any ‘other-meaning’ to the procession would make a ritual nonsense of it; we can stick with a few sanitised survivals; or we can try boldly to penetrate to the core of the matter. Even so, we must try to come at our May Day through the traditional story however we try to update it from the village greens of the past. We have to start somewhere, and if what we know of the festival can be recycled in a spontaneous manner, then it is germane to our purpose of religious observance. So we finish with a mixture; a festival so overlaid that it is difficult to take it out beyond the world of fancy to where it can impact one again upon our twentieth century consciousness.
May Day is a wedding. We can start there. So much of wedding ceremonial derives from it, as I shall show, that it must be the central theme our ritual stresses.
May Day is a love festival. It celebrates the first day of Summer and it celebrates sexual as well as ideal love. In the first instance plain ordinary love flesh to flesh. Secondly that love of the Goddess and the God. Thirdly it celebrates that spiritual love of the Goddess and all Her Being which is the prime matter in all our mysteries.
May Day is summer, the easy time. That’s why the Puritans hated it so much. It was easy; it was a hymn to love; it paraded its sexual joys uninhibited. It was cause for rejoicing: ‘Winter’s gone away’, ‘Every Jack shall have his Jill’. Of course there are deeper meanings and grimmer matters to consider, but Love, Joy and Consummation are its prime themes.
Our myth tells us that the Goddess takes a lover and by His acceptance of that love, He also accepts His inevitable death. This is the true mystery of May Day, and our later rituals will make this very clear.
The Bride wears white, which is Her colour as Maid, but She carries or wears tokens to remind us that She is also Mother and Crone. These reminders are red for the Mother and blue for the Crone, though the blue token is hidden and not displayed as are the red flowers or ribbons. The Bride also wears other tokens: to indicate that the past is Hers, something old, and that She is capable of many disguises, something borrowed. It can readily be seen that these accoutrements add up to a formidable statement of Her powers. This custom of dress is still carefully carried out by many brides, although few know of its greater significance. It is also a matter of note that May is still considered unlucky for weddings, the June bride being proverbial. This is because it is a Month peculiarly sacred to the Goddess’s own wedding and it would be a form of lèse-majesté to presume to share it with Her.
The Groom at our ceremony expresses His fertility by wearing green set off with red, the colour of life. He symbolises thus the life-giving Summer sun. Floral tokens, or as in the past a floral favour set in his hat were worn. To-day this custom survives in the buttonhole.
From this wedding, so symbolised, will spring the fruitfulness of the year and the observed facts of the harvest. It is no use saying it will happen anyway. We still need to empathise with our year and, by extension, relate that year to our earthly lives, and by further extension to the proceeding of the whole Universe.
It is a jolly and hearty ceremony with plenty of opportunity for bawdy humour (obscenity is a traditional encouragement to fertility), with however other opportunities to read below its surface deeper meanings. Yet there should be no part of it set apart; all things should go together and the end result be one in our hearts, for it is in our May Day ritual we find that emphasis upon Unity, which is another aspect of our theme of Consummation.
May Day: the Ritual
Because we have no set place for our rites, unless we are fortunate enough to find sufficient private ground for a temple, we must of necessity tailor our observances to the available environment. Ideally, with the exception of Candlemas they should be held in the open, preferably in the presence of trees.
The essential is that a circle be formed around a central point, and all the better if, at that point, there is a tree or symbol of it such as a staff. For May Day the tree should be an oak.
As it is going to be a party we should dress for one. Presents of food and drink should be brought by the group. Make-up helps the atmosphere to develop. The Lady can have Her face whitened in honour of the Moon. The man chosen to personate Robin can have His face reddened. The meal is the wedding breakfast, so called because it is the first meal of a marriage.
Throughout the ceremonies music, humming, clapping and stamping can occur. At some meetings that I have attended the most musically inclined person has acted as Ringleader initiating musical endeavours and introducing various stages of the rite. Such an individual is invaluable at any meeting, particularly if they have a sense of theatre. An old friend of ours, ‘The Fool’ can also be personated, with the task of playing tricks etc, although there always seems to be one such at any wedding.
As at the Spring Equinox the celebrations ended with a party, here they begin with two; one separate for the men, and the other a ladies’ mystery. The men assemble apart from the dancing ground and out of sight of it. Ideally the assembly point should be a holly tree or symbol of one. They then toast the groom and drink plentifully with him. The ladies go ahead with their mysterious party, the results of which we see later when the men’s procession approaches the centre.
When both sides are ready two processions form up. The principals remain apart. The men and women then advance towards each other. Upon meeting they take each other’s hands. The women lead the men to the centre, where both sides unclasp their hands and solemnly process round the central tree. The men go sunwise. The ladies perambulate widdershins, and both groups spread out as far as possible. All then turn and, going as far as possible alternately man, woman, spiral slowly into the centre where the Lady awaits them.
The ritual area is then seen to be laid out as follows: Food, drink and libation bowls have been arranged at the foot of the tree. A long length, at least ten yards, of white ribbon has been passed around the tree, its two ends stretched out to the edge of the ritual area. The men take hold of one strand of ribbon, the ladies taking the other. They then carefully change places so that the ribbon passes as a cross¬over in front of the Lady.
She bids all welcome to the wedding. One of the men, previously chosen, recites the only rehearsed prayer of the ceremony:
“Great Goddess, beloved of us all, be bride to us all. Wed us into Your heart and keep us in Your comfort for we are the children of Your desires. Let us then serve You wedded to our purpose with Your love”.
The Lady then replies in the following terms:
“It shall be so, for in me you see all women and their desires: and you shall be to them as your love is to Me, and let them be to you the embodiment of your desires also.”
One by one the men kneel before the Lady and bow deeply. Then they rise and slowly leave the ritual area. The women, meanwhile, who have been facing outwards begin to beseech the men to stay. The men feign reluctance and the ladies remind them of their recent pledge. The ladies rise and going after the men catch hold of them one by one and lead them back to the ritual area. They all dance round the Lady nine times as fast as they can in an anti-clockwise direction. Suddenly She asks for Robin to come forward. The ladies seek Him out and drag Him, protesting, forward to Her feet. As they do so they present Him with a beribboned staff. The Lady comes forward, embraces Him and raises Him up. She kisses Him fondly five times. This is a reminder of the year’s progress from Birth to Initiation, then this Consummation, and after, Rest and Repose. The ladies at this signal embrace the men. A cheer is raised for Robin and His Lady. Again the ribbon is taken up, one side by the ladies and the other by the men. The men dance vigorously round the tree sunwise, the ladies moonwise. The men lift their end of the ribbon over the ladies as they pass. The effect is to bind the ‘Happy Couple’ to the tree. The Ringleader or M.C. asks:
“Will you make magic, loving for this Summer’s good?”
Robin holds out his staff to the M.C, who takes hold of it and passes it slowly beneath Them as They jump over it. He then ties Their wrists together in a lover’s knot, thus symbolising Their union. The Lady then invites all to feast in triumph. Each attender comes forward and pours a libation to the couple before drinking and eating of the prepared food. The men and the ladies should feed each other and kisses are exchanged. Further ritual dances take place. The group dance hand in hand with whatever variations occur to them. The white ribbon is now loosened but the couple still remain lightly bound at the wrists. One of the informal dances, which follow and which rapidly invents itself is ‘Cracking the Whip’, where the dancers are all strung out along the ribbon and go faster and faster until forced to spin off or collapse in a heap. As the ribbon is still attached to the couple, They are much involved as anchors to the process, a point not without its mystical significance.
The feast continues, its ethos developing a spontaneous and cheerful character, during which it may be no bad thing if any couple disappear for a while to consummate their own festival. Further dancing, feasting and fooling go on.
There is therefore little in the way of formal closure to such a jolly party. But its ritual end can be signified in a final dance where the couple are untied from the tree, and all join in a hilarious dance around the tree, ladies moonwise, men sunwise, each member trying to catch hold of another of the opposite sex.
The herringbone pattern made during the earlier dance with the ribbon should now be tied off and left on the tree till Midsummer as a reminder to all of their binding vows to the Goddess and the God.
At the departure from the ritual area it should be made a point of procedure to empty and drink up the contents of the wine bowls first, and then to offer three hearty cheers for Summer.
The whole ritual of May Day, perhaps more than any other, is open to amendment and enlargement, but that is matter for our future, for there is no more spontaneous and soul warming ceremony than this apotheosis of love in the pagan calendar.
The theme of May Day is Consummation. Mythologically it is the uniting of the God with the Goddess that ensures the fruits of harvest, the birth of animals and the continuing life of the Gods Themselves. Mystically it is the uniting of the female with the male spirit to produce wholeness of soul, mystic understanding and the beginning of wisdom. In some ceremonies this has been symbolised by members of the party dressing in the clothes of the opposite sex, though I have not seen this myself, and therefore have not included it in the Ritual section. Nevertheless it is an expression of the unity of the opposites and describes the dichotomy that the sexual differentiation sometimes imposes upon us, and by momentarily abolishing this achieves a unity of outlook and feeling that underlies the concept of Consummation. The androgynous figure, a Hermes, is common to all mystic thought and important to the pagan understanding of sex.
This unity of the opposites can take place at three levels. Noblest perhaps is where the contemplation is directed at unity with the Goddess Herself, or in the case of women, the God, the devotee being utterly absorbed into the Deity, coupling the soul with its object of worship. Then there is the worship of the mind, becoming mentally aware of all that the rituals and the myths mean in our daily living. Then there is life itself and the sexual expression of it. These three levels can and should interact within us, each mode of worship being part of that wholeness of soul and being we here celebrate at May Day. But there is a deeper meaning here. In this acceptance of sex and sexual life, and its enjoyment, is also an acceptance of death. Sex and death are inextricably intertwined. This is another mystery, and another consummation we should strive to love and understand. Without sex there is no life. Without life there is no death. They are the opposites of all days not only May Day. Our acceptance of the gift of sex is our acceptance of our necessary death. This is not matter for gloom. It is a joyful truth and in the love of May Day it is foretold. It may be noted that black, the death hue, is generally considered to be very sexy. Our unconscious often tells us great truths into which we do not prefer to penetrate.
The coming of Summer is a consummation of the seasons. We see ourselves as part of the year’s progress, waxing as the God does, who in us is represented by the full enjoyment of our faculties, mental, spiritual and physical. We should live free but recognise that service is perfect freedom as the Dianic devotees of Corinth were enjoined to do; a slogan borrowed by the Christians, too many of whom alas did no such thing.
It is not merely our bodies we celebrate but those attributes our ceremonies of the Waxing Year have emphasised: Goodwill, Purification of the Spirit and intent, Dedication to the ideal and the Goddess in particular and the Consummation of these in the festival of May Day. Foremost is the regard for women among men and their equal regard for the men. Then there is the bravery of the God, His devotion to truth and to others. He knows His love will end at Midsummer, but is a worshipper nevertheless, knowing that in acceptance of such love death also is accepted. It is this that proves real Godhead in a man and is the true meaning of the Hero; no mere macho image.
The pagan attitudes exemplified in the legends of Robin Hood and King Arthur remind us of the proper place we should take in the scheme of things, in the self-respect we owe to ourselves and that same respect that we owe to others.
Our bodies are important. They have their own expression and it is through that expression that we experience sexual love, which, approached as if we were approaching an altar, can become the very jewel of love itself.
Sexual love takes many forms. It is a gift of joy from the Goddess and a liberating experience. It is a voyage of exploration where we can find out much about ourselves and our partners and so strengthen relationships. It may be that some of us are attracted to the same sex, it being the pattern of our life. That a man should be attracted to the Godlike in another, or a woman to the Goddess in another is neither matter for surprise nor censure. It is, and this is very important, the quality of such relationships that count. Though such unions are physically sterile, yet, because of the dedication and love involved, they are often fruitful of great ideals and great art. They are in no way incompatible with paganism, for, even without active homosexuality, some of the greatest friendships and loves have been between man and man and woman and woman. We must also remember that we are all to some extent bisexual, for the God is in woman as much as the Goddess is in man. As I have mentioned one of the most important figures in psychology and myth is the androgyne seen as a symbol of completeness and healing. The ceremonies of May Day have that healing quality inherent in them, stressing the unity we all desire.
For most of us our sexual lives are essential. It is in our expression of them that we should be wary. Casual and promiscuous sex without thought or care can be debasing, ultimately unrewarding and the mere product of laziness and feckless lust, unprepared to work for a more fulfilling and richer joy. The May Day in the blood may have its place from time to time, but real love and its rewards must wait a longer test than mere animal couplings and quick reliefs. We cannot live properly without seeing that by our very being we make demands on others as they will inevitably make demands on us; and it is up to us to gauge those demands of ours beyond selfish pleasure-seeking. In sex we can momentarily complete ourselves, being the lover and the beloved. Such an experience of Unity also means at peak a total self-surrender, an utter letting go and a different becoming.
© The Estate of Ronald M. White