Beltane Traditions

Beltane, Beltain, May Day, Whitsun, White Sunday, Whitsuntide, Walpurgis, Floralia: whichever you want to call it, May Day has a long history of folkloric and Pagan traditions.

Traditionally celebrated when the first white flowering trees are blooming (in England this is the Hawthorne, in Ireland the Rowan and here in the US, either the Dogwood or the Magnolia), it is the springtime celebration of fertility, love, passion, fire and creativity. This is the sabbat that really embodies all of the sexuality that Paganism is known for.A day of joy and celebration, May Day celebrates the fertility of the fields and the union of the goddess and the god.

Have you ever heard the phrase “Marry in May, rue the day”? It comes from this holiday. Young lovers traditionally danced the bonfire and then went off to the fields to celebrate in the most traditional way possible. If you wound up pregnant from your May Day celebrations, you would get married in June since you could see that your union would be fruitful. If you married in May, before you knew whether or not you were pregnant, it was considered to be bad luck. There were women would end up pregnant after Beltane, but would choose to not get married, and the children that came from these unions would be given last names like Robinson, Hobson or Robson. These babies were thought to be sired by the gods and you will find many people in the UK with these types of last names today.

Robin Goodfellow, Puck, Hob, the Greenman, whatever you want to call him, was considered to be out and about on Beltane Eve, causing mischief for everybody.  Of course, the Bard of Avon has one of my favorite lines about Puck and his mischief on May Day.

FAIRY:
Either I mistake your shape and making quite,
Or else you are that shrewd and knavish sprite
Call’d Robin Goodfellow: are not you he
That frights the maidens of the villagery;
Skim milk, and sometimes labour in the quern
And bootless make the breathless housewife churn;
And sometime make the drink to bear no barm;
Mislead night-wanderers, laughing at their harm?
Those that Hobgoblin call you and sweet Puck,
You do their work, and they shall have good luck:
Are not you he?
PUCK:
Thou speak’st aright;
I am that merry wanderer of the night.
I jest to Oberon and make him smile
When I a fat and bean-fed horse beguile,
Neighing in likeness of a filly foal:
And sometime lurk I in a gossip’s bowl,
In very likeness of a roasted crab,
And when she drinks, against her lips I bob
And on her wither’d dewlap pour the ale.
The wisest aunt, telling the saddest tale,
Sometime for three-foot stool mistaketh me;
Then slip I from her bum, down topples she,
And ‘tailor’ cries, and falls into a cough;
And then the whole quire hold their hips and laugh,
And waxen in their mirth and neeze and swear
A merrier hour was never wasted there.
But, room, fairy! here comes Oberon.

Of course, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is supposed to take place on Midsummer or Litha, but it certainly follows the rules of May Day.

The confused lovers lost in the woods, the fairy King and Queen fighting. Titania and Bottom’s transformation and love. Puck’s mischief…

In it, one of Shakespeare’s most beloved plays, England’s most famous woodland characters are brought to life.

The Maypole is probably one of the most famous traditions, though many don’t know the full cycle of the pole itself. At Yule, you choose a tree to bring inside and decorate (and of course this is where the Christmas tree comes from). When Yule is over, you cut off the branches to use for your Imbolc fires. Then the trunk is what is used for the Maypole at Beltane. Set in the ground, long ribbons are tied to the top. These ribbons were traditionally made from the skirts or slips of girls who had begun menstruating for the first time that year, as a symbol of new, feminine fertility. Dyed (and cleaned), these ribbons are then danced around the Maypole by the young men of the village to represent the weaving of male and female energies and to encourage fertility for the fields and for the people. At the next Yule, when a new tree is brought in, the trunk of the old is burned as the Yule log to finish out the full cycle of the year.

Maypoles are beautiful, intricate creations.

On May Day morning, young women are supposed to wash their faces in the morning dew. This is said to keep you young and beautiful

Morris dancing is done on May Day. Morris dancing is one of the oldest folkloric practice done in the British Isles that continues to this day. Men dance with bells on their feet while striking sticks together to awaken the crops. Women dance with garlands and ribbons to welcome in the May.

After World War I, so many men died that the Morris Dance traditions were almost lost. Thanks to the women though, they were not. Since the men were not home to do it, women started dancing the Morris to make sure the tradition continued. Austin John Marshall wrote a tribute to these women dancers and said:

Many of the old ladies who swell the membership lists of Country Dance Societies are 1914/18 war widows, or ladies who have lost fiancés and lovers. Country dancing kept the memory of their young men alive. When Shirley Collins started singing the piece to the tune of The False Bride, the impact was disturbing, for many people in audiences identified with it. Tears were frequent. Now a sharp relevance in contemporary song is one thing but such a pessimistic effect was not what was intended. So when Shirley recorded the song we showed the way the spirit of the generation sacrificed in the mud of France had been caught and brought to life by the new generation born since World War II by concluding with the chorus of the Staines Morris:

Come you young men come along
With your music, dance and song
Bring your lasses in your hands
For ’tis that which love commands
Then to the Maypole haste away
For ’tis now a holiday.

It’s fifty-one springtimes since she was a bride,
But still you may see her at each Whitsuntide
In a dress of white linen and ribbons of green,
As green as her memories of loving.

The feet that were nimble tread carefully now,
As gentle a measure as age do allow,
Through groves of white blossom, by fields of young corn,
Where once she was pledged to her true love.

The fields they are empty, the hedges grow free,
No young men to tend them, or pastures go see.
They’ve gone where the forests of oak trees before
Had gone to be wasted in battle.

Down from their green farmlands and from their loved ones
Marched husbands and brothers and fathers and sons.
There’s a fine roll of honour where the Maypole once was,
And the ladies go dancing at Whitsun.

There’s a row of straight houses in these latter days
Are covering the Downs where the sheep used to graze.
There’s a field of red poppies, a wreath from the Queen.
But the ladies remember at Whitsun,
And the ladies go dancing at Whitsun.

And of course, the most traditional of all celebrations is the act of sex itself. One of my favorite songs, Wild Mountain Thyme, is about making love in the fields. Many modern adaptations of the song get it all wrong and change the words. But traditionally, this song  celebrates going out into the fields with a lover, and if your lover won’t go with you, you will find another with whom to sleep in a bower (shelter) made from newly blooming flowers of the field. I’ve also heard that Wild Mountain Thyme is used as both a type of birth control and an abortificant, depending on the amounts, so the song takes on even more meaning for women and their fertility than we might expect at first glance.

This was traditionally an orgiastic tradition; note the lyrics tell “if my true love will not go, I will surely find another.” While this lyric is often changed to reflect a more modern romanticism, the early celebrations of Beltane held that young people would wander the fields in the dark of night, entering each others’ bowers while enjoying the presence of the Gods of fertility and spring.

So tonight, drink some May Wine (my recipe found here), find a lover and celebrate in true traditional fashion.

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The Yuletide Hobby Horse

This post was written for my Witches and Pagans blog A Pyrate’s Perspective, but apparently my blog is currently broken. While they work to fix it, I’m going to go ahead and post this here.

Blessed Yule a little early!

Say, old man, your horse will die,

And I say so and I hope so,

And if he dies I’ll sell his skin,

Poor old horse.

The Hobby Horse. Oss Ol Oss, as they say in Britain and elsewhere. You may be familiar with the May Day Hobby Horse from watching The Wicker Man. Yes, that Hobby Horse. From England to Wales, from Sweden to Norway, the Hobby Horse is meant to bring good luck and fertility to those who are visited by it. Many of these traditions happen around Yule and the New Year.

It is Yule in Britain: the Hobby Horse is brought to each house in a village by young men singing and dancing, in a tradition similar to Wassailing. The tradition is different everywhere you go, but a horse’s head is usually fashioned out of wood (and sometimes from an actual horse’s skull!) and placed on top of a pole. The jaws can usually move and are snapped by the man who carries the pole and who is traditionally hidden under a sheet. The whole hobby horse is bedecked with ribbons and flowers and whatever traditional decorations used in each locale. This hobby horse is then taken around the village to promote luck for the New Year.

1476219_10101439409633428_1892327282_nWhen the Hobby Horse is brought to a house, a contest between the Horse and the household ensues. The Horse would improvise songs, and the household would have to come up with a final verse. If the household couldn’t come up with a final verse, the Horse was allowed entrance to the house, where it would enter and chase the young women of the household. (The Horse was usually allowed to win, since its entrance into the house was considered to bring luck for the coming year). The young woman who was “caught” by the Hobby Horse, was given a seat where she could then view the dance of the young men who “killed” the horse. After the death of the horse, the horse’s head was placed in her lap. The head would then be asked questions for the coming year and the young woman (or in some cases the young man who carried the horse) would be asked questions about the coming year. The answers given were seen to be true predictions.

If kept outside, it would demand to be reshod after its death and rebirth and the singers would move to the next house.

This picture is from the article "The Mast Beast."

This picture is from the article “The Mast Beast.”

In other places, the Horse and its carriers would sing and act out “The Old Horse,” a traditional folksong about the death of the old year. “As with the wren, we take the horse’s strength to keep us going through the coming year”. * In most traditions, the young men are given a pint at each household to keep them warm and to keep the cheer going for the next house.

My favorite Hobby Horse tradition is found in Wales. The Mari Lwyd, or the Grey Horse, is often linked to the Goddess Rhiannon. In this Hobby Horse tradition, a Punch and Judy character usually travel with the horse to each house. Punch would carry a poker and be responsible for rapping on the door of each house when they got there. He would also keep time by tapping his poker on the ground while the Hobby Horse sang its songs. Judy would carry a besom and brush the outside of the house and anyone unlucky enough to get too close. Part of the back and forth of the mummers and the household would have to include the household gaining a promise that Punch and Judy would be behave when they came into the house. If the household did not get the promise, Punch would scatter the ashes of the old fire from the grate before lighting the new one and Judy would scatter them throughout the house instead of sweeping the house floors. Here it becomes obvious why a household might not want the luck of the Hobby Horse for the New Year!

In Germany, many places practice the custom of Schimmelreiter, where a Hobby Horse is lead to each household. This custom is a little tamer; the Horse promises luck in exchange for food and is usually seen to be a symbol of Odin’s horse, Sleipnir. The white horse is seen in many German and Norse traditions.

Another of these is the Dalecarlian or Dala Horse from Sweden. The story goes that soldiers who came to stay in the region of Dalarna during the campaigns of Charles XII first carved the horses for their host’s children as a thank you. These horses bring good luck to the household. I recently came across a beautiful modern retelling of the luck of the Dala Horse, which you can find here.

One custom found throughout the world is the hobby horse made on old sailing ships. When a ship left port, the sailors would fashion a wooden horse that after 30 days would be sacrificed to the sea. This symbolized the sailor’s freedom from the land and the freedom that the sea gave them. This is from the Celtic traditions of the horse representing the sovereignty of the land. By casting off the horse, they were casting off the laws of their nation and embracing the wildness of the ocean. It also signaled the sailors’ first pay period.

The Norse tradition of the Joulupukki is also tied to the Hobby Horse tradition. The Norse Yule Goat is a straw figure carried to each house, or a man who dresses up as a goat, who begs for leftover food. The Joulupukki is tied to Thor’s goats and the Wild Hunt led by Odin. This character is often seen as a Santa Clause character, but instead of climbing down the chimney, he knocks on the front door and asks to be let in. When he is let in he asks “Are there any well behaved children here?”

Joulupukki_Finland

The Hobby Horse is a tradition that continues to live throughout the world. It is a part of traditional Morris Dancing and local customs still seen today. If you’re out wassailing this year and have a little bit more time and creativity, create your own Hobby Horse and carry it with you. The luck of the Hobby Horse is still just as potent and wonderful as it ever was. And who couldn’t use a little bit more luck for the New Year anyway?

dala-horse-and-julbock-yule-goat

*From the article “Poor Old Horse.”