Let There Be Life

(Somehow May Day has come and gone. How did this happen? Who are these time bandits, who gallop around with the hours and the days, so that I don’t notice that they’re passing? Oh well. Belatedly, here’s a May Day something from three years ago.)

Millennia before the political people got hold of it, May Day was for lovers.

Equidistant between the Vernal Equinox and the Summer Solstice, arrived that day when human beings participated in the seasonal renewal of life by themselves bursting into bloom—making love.

Details varied. In some places, particularly in the Celtic realm, this day was known as Beltane. Sometimes a woman and man, recognized as particularly sympathetic to or skilled in the magic arts, would, representing the Goddess and God themselves,couple in a ritualized ceremony, either observed or alone, and most often in a freshly seeded field.

Very often, as it says here, “[y]oung couples were encouraged to test their fertility with Beltane trysts, and any babies born from Beltane were believed to be blessed by the Goddess herself.” Pretty magical, such witch children.

Too, “[t]rial unions, called hand-fastings (as the lovers’ clasped hands were bound by ribbon), were also popular at Beltane, committing the couple to each other for one year and a day in preparation for a marital commitment.” Such a ceremony is today popular among some contemporary neo-pagans.

Other places, on this day, there was a sort of relationship “time-out,” when the people of the tribe, in the interest of renewing the earth, could couple indiscriminately, and without consequence.

Of course, “without consequence” is in such things more often a wish, than a reality. In many versions of the Arthurian tale, for instance, Guinevere and Lancelot first acknowledge the inevitability of their attraction on May Day. Fair to say there were some consequences from that one.

Aphrodite, appropriately enough, is in charge around this day. Here is a nicely lyrical passage about her:

Perhaps it is best to remember this as the time when Aphrodite, who rules the sign of Taurus, is coming into her own. She presides over the realms of love and sex and beauty, but also over the flowers and fruits which bring us such pleasure: delighting our senses with their colors and scents and tastes and juices. She fills blossoms with nectar, and her body is beneath us as we walk and dance upon the newly-yielding, softened earth, alive again after the dormancy of winter, full of new life. She is in the animals, the lambs who frolic among spring meadow flowers, the other creatures who come into their mating seasons at this time. And she is in us, offering her discernment of beauty, blessing our eyes with new awareness of color and texture in nature. In our hearts which beat quicker with the warmth of the sun and the fires rekindled within us. In our minds, alive to possibility and creativity, awakened and reborn with new energy. And in our bodies, walking on hills and in meadows and forests, dancing around our own fires and in circles with like-minded loved ones, sharing laughter and song and love, enjoying and creating the feast, the celebration, the magical birthright that is life on Earth.

The traditional maypole represents the phallus, and the ribbons adorning it denote the labia. Christians knew this, which is why they worked like twelve bastards to get rid of the things. The medieval church tried to rename Beltane, calling it Roodmas, and urging people to shift their focus from the maypole to the cross. Didn’t work out too well.

When Protestants invented themselves, May Day filled them with fury. “Men doe use commonly to runne into woodes in the night time, amongst maidens, to set bowes, in so muche, as I have hearde of tenne maidens whiche went to set May, and nine of them came home with childe,” grumped one Puritan. Another complained that, of the girls who go into the woods, “not the least one of them comes home again a virgin.”

Where they could, Puritan-type people commenced a crackdown—declaring maypoles illegal, dousing the traditional bonfires, stomping on those fetching and flirty garlands of flowers, wading in to put a stop to all that dancing, posting dour guards to prevent any persons with throbbing loins from sneaking into the woods or the fields.

Such suppression is the reason why relatively little is really known about this day and its once and future meanings and ceremonies.People had to keep quiet about it. For a long time. But the spirit remembers. So does the body.

As it says here“ancient peoples believed in sympathetic magic: that practice of a small, symbolic action representing a larger one. By making love in the fields, human beings believed they were helping make the earth more fertile, blessing it with their own activity of producing new life and abundance.” For many centuries, Science Men scoffed at such notions. Human beings making love in a field couldn’t possibly have any effect on any crops planted therein! What dunces those people were!

Except Science Men just aren’t so sure about that anymore. As Robert Anton Wilson wrote in 1977:

Marcel Vogel has been studying plant consciousness and vegetative “telepathy” for ten years now. In one experiment, Vogel and a group of psychologists tried concentrating on sexual imagery while a plant was wired up with a polygraph to reveal its electrochemical (“emotional”?) responses to their thoughts. The plant responded with the polygraph pattern typical of excitement. Vogel speculates that talking of sex could stir up in the atmosphere some sort of sexual energy, such as the “orgone” claimed by Dr. William Reich. If this is true, the ancient fertility rites in which humans had sexual intercourse in freshly seeded fields might indeed have stimulated the fertility of the crops, and the shamans are not as naive as we like to think.

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2 Responses to “Let There Be Life”


  1. 1 Elva May 5, 2013 at 11:40 am

    When I was in grammar school, many years ago, we looked forward to May day. what with the maypole and the beautiful ribbons. We also made vases out of construction paper and when we got home we filled them with flowers. We then put them on someones door knob. We then ran away fast so they would not know it came from us. Oh what fun days with no cell phones, TV, and all the games of today.

    • 2 bluenred May 5, 2013 at 11:49 am

      See? You all were happy joyous pagans, with roots stretching back thousands of years. Engaged in effervescent efforts out in the world. Rather than flaccid inverted faux maypoling, and such, in, and only, the tv and the gameboy and the tubes. : /


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