And So, It Is May Day Again

Bonfire at the Beltane Fire Festival 2019, Calton Hill, Edinburgh. The reunited May Queen and Green Man face the fire, while dancers raise their arms to heaven.
Image by Nyri0, Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

You made it through another Walpurgis Eve and now it is May Day.  The name derives from the Greek goddess Maia, the most important of the Seven Sisters (the Pleiades) and the mother of Hermes. Her name became the name for this month. The Romans called her Maius, goddess of Summer, and honored her during Ambarvalia.

Will you celebrate today? You might have a bonfire or a Maypole to dance around, move your cattle to summer pasture, decorate your home with flowers (or put a basket secretly at someone’s door), protect yourself from evil witchcraft, or just rest and have an early Labor Day.

May Day celebrations appeared in pre-Christian times with the festival of Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers. The Walpurgis Night celebrations occurred in the Germanic countries.

May Day celebrations throughout Europe eventually traveled to the New World and so Maypole dances and May baskets filled with flowers or treats might be left secretly at someone’s doorstep. If the receiver of a basket catches the giver, a kiss is exchanged.

May Day basket
Did you catch anyone putting a May Day basket at your door?

In the Roman Catholic tradition, May is observed as Mary’s month, and May Day is usually a celebration of the Blessed Virgin Mary with works of art, school ceremonies etc. Statues of Mary will sometimes be adorned with a ring of flowers in a May crowning.

May first is also International Workers’ Day which is also known as May Day and is a celebration of the international labor movement. This celebration of laborers and the working classes that is promoted by the international labor movement.  May 1 was chosen as the date for International Workers’ Day by the Socialists and Communists of the Second International to commemorate the Haymarket affair in Chicago that occurred on May 4, 1886.

Because May 1 also marks a traditional European spring holiday, it is a national public holiday in more than 80 countries. In some of those countries, it is officially celebrated as Labor Day or some variation without the spring season associations.

Beltane is an ancient Celtic festival which came into English from the Gaelic word bealltainn which literally means “May First.” Depending on where you are living, today might seem like spring or summer, or autumn or winter in the Southern Hemisphere. This Gaelic May Day festival was usually held on the first of May, or about halfway between the spring equinox and summer solstice.

Historically, it was widely observed throughout Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man. It is one of the four Gaelic seasonal festivals—along with Samhain, Imbolc and Lughnasadh.

In some of the earliest Irish literature and Irish mythology, Beltane is associated with summer. (It is aslo known as Cétshamhain which means “first of summer.”) In America, we think the unoficial start of summer as Memorial Day at the end of May.
The traditions of May day included driving cattle to summer pastures. Special bonfires were made and their flames, smoke and ashes were deemed to have protective powers. The people and their cattle would walk around or between bonfires, and sometimes leap over the flames or embers. Household fires would be doused and then re-lit from the Beltane bonfire. Of course, there was feasting and drinking. Doors and windows, even livestock, might be decorated with May flowers, particularly yellow and red as they evoked fire.

Though much of the May Day, spring/summer and Beltane celebrations have stopped, the annual Beltane Fire Festival held in Edinburgh, Scotland is one modern example. The modern neo-pagan community also embrace fire dancing and rituals and festivities at this time.

In Wales, Creiddylad was a character connected with this festival and is often called the May Queen. The maypole and its dance is a remnant of these old festivities.

In Finland, May 1 was celebrated as Rowan Witch Day, a time of honoring the goddess Rauni, who was associated with the rowan tree. Twigs and branches of the rowan are used as protection against evil.

The Rowan Tree in the Celtic Zodiac is the sign for Jan. 21st to Feb. 17. In mythology, the first woman was made from the Rowan tree. These trees are believed to have magical properties that can protect from witchcraft and misfortune. Small crosses made from rowan twigs were carried for such protection. It is also known as the goddess tree and the red berries can be fermented into wine, spirits and ale.

Rowan tree art via Amazon

I Went Down to the Crossroads

crossroads

The song “Crossroads” as recorded by Cream popped up on my Spotify playlist today. It reminded me 1) of high school and 2) of a college literature class where we got into a discussion of crossroads in mythology.

In myth and magic, crossroads often represent a place between the worlds. It is a place where supernatural spirits can be contacted and paranormal events can take place. As a symbol, it sometimes is a place where two realms touch and therefore is neither here nor there, or “betwixt and between.”

The song was written around 1936 by Delta bluesman Robert Johnson. The lyrics tell of a man kneeling at a crossroads to ask God’s mercy. Johnson had said it was inspired by not being able to hitch a ride into town at a crossroads. The blues mythology has said that the crossroads is where Robert Johnson supposedly sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for his musical talents. The lyrics do not support that interpretation but the myth continued.

Crossroads go back to Greek mythology where they were associated with Hermes and Hecate and shrines and ceremonies often were set at a crossroad. Hermes was connected to travelers, but Hecate’s connection to crossroads was ritualistic. “Suppers of Hecate” were offerings left for her at crossroads at each New Moon.

I have read that in the UK crossroad rituals date back to Anglo-Saxon times and continued until being the early 1800ss. Criminals and suicides were often buried at the crossroads. (Suicide was a crime.) This may have been simply because crossroads usually were outside the boundaries of the town and those people were to be kept apart. Criminals were sometimes punished and executed by gibbet or dule tree at a crossroad.

In Western folk mythology, a crossroads can be used to summon a demon or devil in order to make a deal. The 1587 Historia von D. Johann Fausten describes the character Faust inscribing magic circles at a crossroads and offering a copper coin in order to summon the devil.

Crossroads also appear in hoodoo, a form of African American magical spirituality, and Brazilian mythology.

The myth has been perpetuated in fiction, movies and TV. The U.S. television show. Supernatural, used crossroads demons in a number of episodes. In the Coen Brothers comedy, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the character Tommy Johnson says that he sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads in exchange for guitar skills, an obvious allusion to the legend of Robert Johnson.

Tonight Hecate Walks

The goddess Hecate was worshiped by both the Greeks and the Romans who had their own festivals dedicated to her.

The Romans’ closest match to Hecate is probably the goddess Trivia *. They observed the 29th of every month as her sacred Moon day.

The Greeks were the main worshippers of her and observed two days sacred to Hecate. One celebration is on the 13th of August when she is honored and prayed to in order to not send fierce thunderstorms and ruin crops. They celebrate her again on the 30th of November in thanks for the harvest.

Some pagan and neo-pagan groups observe November 16 as the Night of Hecate which begins at sunset. Hecate worship, especially on her night, was performed at a three-way crossroads. Food left there is known as “the Supper of Hecate.”  The food varies but eggs, fish, roe, goat cheese, and bread are all mentioned online.

Hecate was the Greek goddess of the three paths, guardian of the household, protector of everything newly born, and the goddess of witchcraft. The number 3 is associated with her in many ways.

A beautiful and powerful goddess,  Hecate was the only one of the ancient Titans who Zeus allowed to retain their authority once the Olympians seized control. Zeus shared with Hecate, and only her, the awesome power of giving humanity anything she wished – or withholding it if she pleased.

Though she is thought of as a “Moon Goddess,” her kingdoms were actually three-fold – earth, sea, and sky. Her power to create or withhold storms made her the goddess who was the protector of shepherds and sailors.

She has been associated with childbirth, nurturing the young, gates and walls, doorways, crossroads, magic, lunar lore, torches, and dogs.

Hecate's Wheel
Hecate’s Wheel – symbol used to represent her three aspects.

Hecate is part of the most ancient form of the triple Moon goddess in mythology. The triple aspect of the goddess is Maiden, Mother, and Crone.

She was known to rule the passages of life and transformation, birth, and death. Her animals were the toad, the owl, the dog, and the bat.

In other posts about Hecate, I have written about her three-headed dogs that can look to the past, present, and future. When she walks on Earth at night, it is said that only dogs can see her and would bark at her. If you have a dog, see if it barks tonight outside at something that doesn’t seem to be there. Then, you can call hello to Hecate.

Hecate was a widely revered and influential goddess, but her reputation has been tarnished over the centuries. In current times, she is usually depicted as a “hag” or old witch stirring the cauldron. Shakespeare’s Macbeth had something to do with that.

In the play, she is seen as the ruler of the Three Witches. In Act 3, Scene 5, Hecate appears before the Witches and tells them Macbeth will be back to know his destiny and she proclaims that he will see apparitions that will, “by the strength of their illusion” lead him to conclude that he is safe. At the end of the scene, she says “And you all know, security / Is mortals’ chiefest enemy.” Macbeth’s belief that he is untouchable will ultimately result in his downfall. Some scholars believe that Hecate’s inclusion wasn’t even Shakespeare’s creation and that the scenes were added after his death.


* Word Wise –  Trivia in Roman mythology was the goddess who haunted crossroads, graveyards, and was the goddess of sorcery and witchcraft. She wandered at night and was seen only by the barking of dogs who told of her approach. The word trivia came from Latin. It is the plural of trivium which is “the place where three roads meet.” The trivium in Medieval English was an introductory curriculum at a university which involved the meeting of the three studies of grammar, rhetoric, and logic.

Old Man Winter Arrives

The winter solstice has historically been more than just the day that winter officially begins. It has been a religious event throughout history. This was particularly true in places where climates meant there were dramatically different seasons.

I have written here over the years about the solstices and there is only so much I can say about the technical aspects of this celestial event.

Solstice derives from Latin sol (sun) and sistere (to stand still) because the Sun did seem to pause on that day and then move another way. The days lengthen after this and, after the longest night, the nights shorten.

The winter solstice occurs between December 21 and 22 each year in the northern hemisphere. (In the southern hemisphere, their winter solstice will be between June 20 and 21.)

This is called the shortest day or the longest night of the year. This is the day when there is no sunlight at the North Pole.

The ancients associated seasons with deities. The ancient Greek god of winter is Boreas. The Norse god of winter is Ullr. In Celtic mythology, there is the god Cailleach and goddess Beira. Since winter could be a brutal and killing season in some places, appeasing the god of winter made sense.

As mythologies gave way to religions with one God, the old gods of winter changed to new personifications of the seasons. These characters, like Old man Winter, were someone to blame for your hardships, and someone to please so that spring would return.

Russia’s Father Frost is very similar to Old Man Winter and In Russian folklore, the character is known as Morozko.

Old Man Winter is a personification of winter that comes from ancient Greek mythology and Old World pagan beliefs that became a modern character in literature and popular culture.

Uncredited illustration of Old Man Winter, used for “Winter” in Child Life: A Collection of Poems, edited by John Greenleaf Whittier,

Ancient mythologies had gods for meteorological forces (thunder, lightning), each direction of the wind, and the seasons.

In the Greek myths, the goddess of the harvest, Demeter, had her daughter Persephone kidnapped by Hades, lord of the underworld. It so depressed her , she became so despondent that she could not care for the lands, and winter took over. After a deal was struck with Hades, Persephone was allowed to return to the Earth for six months of the year at which time the lands thrived, but every six months she would return to the underworld and the seasons would change again.

Each direction of wind was considered a god. Boreas was the Greek god of the north wind and was shown in artwork as an old man who brought winter. In some Celtic traditions, the Oak King is considered a deity of the winter solstice. But he was also seen as a life force. The Oak King battled the Holly King who ruled from the start of summer. The Oak King’s reigned during the darkest time of the year, like the solstice, his coming was hopeful because it marked the gradual lengthening of the days and progression towards spring.

For the Norse mythologies, Ullr was the god of winter and son of a frost giant. When Odin was gone in winter, he ruled Asgard.

There are many holidays that were part of European culture and were able to be preserved within religious beliefs. Father Winter survived as Santa Claus. Evergreen tree worship survives in the Christmas tree tradition. There are still Christmas-time customs that are non-Christian.

Father Winter is an ancient Pagan figure who gave gifts of fruit, plants, and herbs. He wore a cape and delivered his gifts on a white horse.

Winter probably seemed to arrive about a month ago if you live in a northern climate like Paradelle. But now it’s official. If you get the winter blues, perhaps you should think of the winter solstice as it was once viewed – as the turning of the Sun, the lengthening of the days, and the first step on the celestial path to spring. Enjoy the journey.

Falling Stars from the Chariot of the Sun

meteors
Geminids in the northern hemisphere by Asim Patel – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, via commons.wikimedia.org

The Geminid meteor shower is a very reliable annual meteor shower that will visit us again this week.

The next several nights are probably the best nights for watching with the peak morning is likely to be December 14, 2018, but the morning of December 13 might offer a good display, too, and meteor watchers have been catching Geminids for some nights now.

You can watch in the late evening, but the best viewing hours are typically around 2 a.m., no matter where you are on Earth. And this year there will only be a waxing crescent moon, so moonlight won’t wash out the darkness.

The meteors appear to come from (radiate from) the constellation Gemini, which rises around sunset and moves overhead into morning. The best views are usually between midnight and 4am.

The Geminids are slow-moving dust particles when they hit the Earth’s atmosphere. “Slow” is relative here – they are only moving at 22 miles per second. The friction with air molecules will burn them up and make a nice glow for us to watch.

These showers are caused by the object 3200 Phaethon, which is an asteroid. That is unusual and this is one of the only major meteor showers not originating from a comet. This asteroid has an orbit that brings it closer to the Sun than any other named asteroid. And that is how the asteroid got its name.

Phaeton
Gustave Moreau: Fall of Phaéton (Chute de Phaéton) watercolor study, via Wikimedia

Phaethon is a name from mythology.  Phaethon was the Ancient Greek name for the planet Jupiter, a planet whose motions and cycles were observed by the ancients and often used in poetry and myth.

In mythology, Phaethon’s father was the sun god Helios who granted his son’s wish to drive the sun chariot for a day.  Phaethon was unable to control the horses and to prevent the chariot from hitting and destroying Earth, Zeus knocked it out of the sky with a thunderbolt. Phaethon fell to earth and was killed.

Of course, meteors are not falling stars, and they are not coming from the chariot of the Sun, but it does make for a good story.

 

Letting in the Horse

“Equo ne credite, Teucri. Quidquid id est,
timeo Danaos et dona ferentes.”   *

Trojan horse
The Procession of the Trojan Horse Into Troy
by Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo (1760) from Wikimedia Commons

I read a curious mythological reference this past week to the “current American situation.”

Greek mythology can provide a rather frightening parallel to the situation in which the citizens of the United States find themselves. That situation is the decision made by the male citizens of ancient Troy to break down their city walls and bring in the wooden horse left to them as a “gift” by their enemies, the Greeks. As we all know, that was a disastrous decision. Why did the Trojans make the choices that brought their own destruction, when they could have so easily saved themselves? All they had to do was leave the horse where they found it, outside the city walls—or better still, set it on fire.

Homer never tells us why the Trojans made that bad choice. The Roman poet Virgil wrote about the fall of Troy in the Aeneid. Prince Aeneas tells us that his fellow Trojans went out of the city to examine the deserted Greek encampment and found this enormous wooden horse. Was it a gift? Was it something of value that they just didn’t want to haul back home?  They did not know it was filled with Greek soldiers.

The Trojans were split on what to do with the horse but, at the urging of Thymoetes, they brought the horse into the city.


In Virgil’s Aeneid, Book II[7] (trans. A. S. Kline), he tells this:

After many years have slipped by, the leaders of the Greeks,
opposed by the Fates, and damaged by the war,
build a horse of mountainous size, through Pallas’s divine art,
and weave planks of fir over its ribs:
they pretend it’s a votive offering: this rumour spreads.
They secretly hide a picked body of men, chosen by lot,
there, in the dark body, filling the belly and the huge
cavernous insides with armed warriors.

In our time, a “Trojan Horse” has come metaphorically to mean any trick or stratagem that causes a target to invite a foe into a securely protected bastion or place.  For example, a malicious computer program which tricks users into willingly running is a “Trojan horse” or simply a “Trojan.”

Does Virgil’s account of the sacking of Troy have similarities to our current political situation? If you say Yes, what situation?  Is it broadly that Donald Trump or his administration is the horse we allowed into Washington D.C.?

We had the chance to decide what to do with the horse, and we let it in. Trump’s critics would say that was our mistake. Those who voted for Trump, but are now disappointed, would say that they didn’t know what was hiding inside the horse and may regret their decision. And those who voted for him and are satisfied might say,”Hey, look at the nice, big horse we have.”

Homer and Vigil might tell us, “Do not trust the horse, Trojans! Whatever it is, I fear the Greeks, even bringing gifts.” *