Flying in the Face of Convention: Beltane Myths Demystified

By Pattie Lawler

Flying in the face of convention—because I can’t fly a plane—I’m going to begin this article with a list of sources because I feel they are that important. Anyone who is serious about doing research on the topic of British customs and traditions needs to make a trip to the library (but not mine, I stole all the topical books!) (Yes, yes, I paid for them...) Anyway, here’s the list, and I’m putting them in ‘Pattie’s Order of Importance.’ So, right off the bat, you must buy this book:

The Stations of the Sun by Ronald Hutton. Oxford University Press, Oxford 1996.
Not only a great read, it’s indispensable as a resource. Go buy it... now... I’ll wait...

Then find: The National Trust Guide to Traditional Customs of Britain by Brian Shuel. Webb & Bower, Exeter 1985.
My first theft on the topic! An excellent book, not only for the info, but the pictures are magical... steal it if you can’t buy it. (Sadly yes, it’s still out of print. Maybe some enterprising young perky American will do a revision... in my ample spare time.)

Chamber’s Book of Days by R.L. Chamber 1863-64.
These two volumes, a set, are perhaps the oldest books in our house. Happily the whole has been scanned in by The University of Wisconsin-Madison Libraries (bless them and their spare time!) Lots of fun all around!!

The Customs and Ceremonies of Britain by Charles Kightly (no, that is not a typo.) Thames and Hudson (where would we be without T&H?!!) London, 1986.
This book has more mayors in it than all of America. (It seems England just loves to dress its mayors up and do things with them... like, weigh them.) This resource is set up like a dictionary, which is great for avoiding things like... mayors.

Customs and Traditions of England by Garry Hogg. Arco Publishing Comp, New York 1971.
Yes, it’s an old book, but another that’s a gold mine of pictures (and besides, laughing at the fashions of the time only adds to the fun!)

Once a Year: Some Traditional British Customs
by Homer Skyes. Gordon Fraser, London 1977.
Of the two 1970’s books I’d like to see this one re-done more, which would suggest it should precede the Hogg, but until it is revised, I’ll have to rely on Hogg first.

Okay, there you have the basis for almost all of my research. I have other books, but nothing as factual as these, and they form the bedrock of my library. When you begin to seriously delve into this topic you will come across the usual crowd of re-creationists, and Philip Stubbes, over and over, but with perseverance you’ll come out the other side with a better understanding, and a delight in all things quizzical.

Now onto the topic at hand: Beltane!

Beltane Trivia
I began this years ‘talk’ by disenchanting those present of the age-old belief that the May Pole, in all its phallic glory, is the upright part of a Pagan fertility rite. It is, in fact, nothing of the sort. Hard to believe? The funny thing is, if you tell yourself something, and it makes perfect, logical sense, you’ll believe it. If you mention it to a friend, and they agree it’s an obvious idea and why didn’t they think of it, you then begin the cycle that, while charming in its nature, is the death knell to factual research. There probably isn’t a person in the Pagan community who hasn’t, at one point, picked up anything by Graves and been blown away. After all, you’re in your early 20s and are a blank page for people like Graves and Frazer to paint on. You’ll believe anything. Including, and not limited to, that that large white pole on the village green is an enormous penis screwing the earth mother. A perpetual Great Rite right under our very noses.

Well, sorry to say, there is no supporting evidence to this assertion; and while it makes all us Pagans feel like we’ve gotten another one over on our less enlightened neighbors, i.e. the local Christians, the bottom line is, there is no Pagan connection. No Great Rite. The May Pole wasn’t a Pagan custom that the Christians, in their eagerness to fit in, subsumed.

May Poles were, and in some rare cases are, a sort of communal Christmas tree. (And, indeed, at one time every house had a “may bush,” indoors.) Imagine a community coming together to celebrate the fact that they can now go abroad without a coat, and for the express purpose of decorating the May Pole. Fresh greens, flowers, ribbons... all harkening back to the Roman festival of Flora, which 99.9% of the people of long-ago Britain couldn’t possibly have known about. And while they are indeed using the Pagan fire festival of Beltane as the night/day for the party, the free license of the evening had become less important and had transmuted to the tradition we call Dancing the May Pole. You wonder why perhaps? Everything loops around to one thing, improving infant mortality.

But ‘Maying’ was a party, plain and simple, and the hidden meaning was only grafted onto it later. In fact, we can lay the basis for this incorrect assertion at the feet of one Philip Stubbes (“Anatomie of Abuses,” 1583... a rollicking good read...) in his oft (and I mean oft!) quoted statement:
...But the chiefest jewel they bring from thence is their Maypole, which they bring home with great veneration, as thus. They have twentie or fortie yoke of oxen, every oxe having a sweet nose-gay of flouers placed on the tip of his hornes, and these oxen drawe home this May-pole (this stinkyng ydol, rather...
sic, in case you couldn’t tell.) For the rest we will call Sir James Frazer to task. As Hutton says in your new copy of Stations of the Sun, Frazer saw forest spirits in everything.

Now, while Stubbes does manage to paint a delightful picture in my mind, (fresh-faced nymphs, et al) this is one of those cases I warned you about earlier (and did you notice the other?) If he says it, and I believe it, it becomes fact. Get ready for the cold water to the face, okay? (And speaking of water, there are some sources who say that “May Pole” is actually a poor translation of “May Pool”! Imagine dancing around a pool of water... but I digress...)

If a town did indeed have a forest around them that might yield a suitable tree, and they did manage to make off with it without the landowner’s knowledge, they would hardly bring the pilfered pole home with pomp and procession! They’d do it under cover of the night and pray that all involved kept their bloody traps shut because you know what a talker George is when he gets a few in him and why did I let them talk me into this and if the wife finds out I’m in the goad come Sunday... but it did seem like a good idea last night at the pub.... whoops, I’m getting away from the point.

Suitable trees would have been slated for the noble occupation of ship’s-mast (more on that later) and what town had access to 20-40 oxen? (And even if they did, would all the owners be on good enough terms with each other to allow the animals to be thus employed?) May Poles were, in fact, such an expense that parishes would sometimes pool their funds to buy one. There are even cases of poles being stolen by rival parishes! Is nothing sacred?! To combat this, some poles were left up all year. These poles came down on a regular schedule, say every 3-7 years, to be repainted and repaired if need be. The tallest May Pole on record was 86 feet tall, and was actually 2 trees spliced together.

Someone this year asked if apple trees were preferred owing to their trainability. The ready answer is no. No working tree would have been used for such a frivolous task, and while I agree apples are eminently trainable, they would not reach the height needed for a pole.

Another commonly held belief (and we’re talking Pagans here) is that this year’s May Pole is this year’s Yule Log. An enchanting idea, yes? I think I’ve adequately explained why this would have been a foolish waste of good wood.

But what about places where trees, any trees, were scarce? Enterprising man will always find a way to have his cake and eat it too. Did you know ship’s masts were removable? They are. They had to be, in case repairs needed to be done, or heaven forbid they should splinter and break. You can’t scuttle a ship for want of a mainmast! So there were some May Poles that were doing double duty. Neat huh?

Let’s move closer to the big city, where there are even less trees. There is a record of the last May Pole in London coming down in 1795, and we have to assume that that one was of the permanent variety. May Poles suffered occasional lulls in interest, owing to things like, oh, Cromwell, and then a revival owing to things like, oh, the Restoration of the Monarchy. And the Victorians were wild for the golden days of Medieval England where they believed all was idyllic and, oddly, whitewashed.

It was during this time that milk-maids began parading the streets with pyramids of silver on their heads, and chimney sweeps (‘climbing boys’) began employing ‘Greens’ for fund raising during the long summer months when their services were no longer needed. But I’ve already written on that topic and you can read all about it on the Web page:

There! You’ve gone there and read that. I’ve torn this bucolic scene to shreds and am ready to move on.

Speaking of bucolic (and ovcolic?!) Beltane was, in almost all parts of England, the time when you turned the flocks out into the summer pastures. But would you allow them to just go without some sort of protection? A sort of charmed flea collar was needed. Livestock was invaluable and every care had to be taken to ensure their good health.

There has been the suggestion that Beltane was the age-old festival of Baal, the Canaanite solar deity (that must have been a hefty airfare!) or, Belenos, a local solar guy, and that owing to this solar association Beltane was a fire festival. It was during this feast that bonfires would be lit on hilltops, and in some places, lit closer to home. The real reason for this was to bless the cows before turning them out.
Imagine if you will, two raging bonfires, and a herd of panicking cows. Now the idea is to walk (drive) them between the twin gateposts of flaming matter, and to make sure the smoke coated them. This done they would have received the blessing of Baal and you could release them with a clear conscious. Not surprisingly there came a time when one cow, representing ‘all cows’ was smoked, rather than driven between the fires.

Ah me, another pastoral scene destroyed, but at least I didn’t ruin this one.
In conclusion I’d like to expand upon something that I personally do every May morning, namely, washing my face in May dew.

It has long been believed that the dew that collects on Beltane had the ability to ‘cure’ freckles, keep your skin fresher as you age, and reduce wrinkles. All of these I have no problem with, and make it a habit to pat May dew on my face once a year. What you may not know is that there are differing views about where this dew should come from. (Personally I’m not picky... that grass right over there that no one’s walked on yet is just fine...) Good dew gathering points were: hawthorne bushes (heck, they were the source for ‘knots of May’ so this wasn’t a stretch,) ivy (another non-surprise,) under oak trees (like that one) and perhaps the strangest, from new-filled graves.

I’ll leave you to ponder that at your leisure.