Celebration of the Summer Maiden: Bonfires, Protection Charms, and Welcoming in the Summer

Introduction

Located halfway between the Spring Equinox and the Summer Solstice, festivals around the end of April and the beginning of May are common across Europe and span from the British Isles, through Germany into Poland, and can also be found in various regions of the United States.   Many of these festivals have the same basic themes, but they put their emphasis on various elements in regards to the local environments, regional historical developments, and community preferences.  In this article, I am going to look at the various elements of European May Day Festivals and show how they can come together within a Gaulish and local praxis context in regards to the Upper Midwest.

May Day Traditions of the British Isles

Most of the May Day celebrations found in the US were brought over with immigrants from the British Isles and how these festivities are celebrated can vary depending on which part of the isles these immigrants came from.  When looking at Ireland and Scotland, this festival is called La Bealtaine.  This festival marks the beginning of the summer season when the cattle and sheep would be put out to pasture and would include processions, the lighting of bonfires for rituals of purification, and the decorating of homes with herbs, especially wildflowers.  The word Bealtaine is the name for the month of May in Irish Gaeilge and has a couple etymologies.  The first one suggests that the word is a composite of two words, “bel” which translates to bright or strong and “teine” which translates to fire.  The second one suggests that the second word is not teine, but “-dine“, which is the word for newborn cattle.  Since cattle references are found in Irish legal commentary around this time of year as well as this being the time to let the cattle out to pasture, there is some credence to either interpretation. [1]  According to Irish historical references, bonfires would be lit at Uisnech, the ritual center of Ireland, and a procession would bring the fire to Tara (the political center of the island) where the fires would then be distributed to all the homes of Ireland for prosperity and luck. [2]  In Scotland, the weather stays cooler longer and be more unpredictable so there was not a set date for these festivities, but once the bothies (moorland, summer pasture areas) were ready, a great procession would bring the cattle to these bothies and some members of the community would stay with the cattle while the rest stayed in the lowlands and farmed the fields.  The preparation for these migrations included bonfires, feasting, and merrymaking since community members would not see the rest of their families on a regular basis for the next few months.  Also given the liminal nature of the time of year, concerns of the sidhe and witches stealing from the farm communities and casting curses were evident and many communities would put charms on their livestock and homes for protection. [3]

In England, May Day Festivals possibly became highly influenced by their assimilation into the Roman Empire.  Much of the symbolism and decorations that surround the English May Day were taken from the Roman festival of Floralia, a holiday dedicated to the Roman goddess Flora.  This festival was celebrated around April 27th and was assimilated into the local customs of the greater Roman Empire.  Flora was the Roman goddess of spring flowers, vegetation, and fertility.  She was also the patron goddess of sex workers and prostitutes. [4]  Her festival lasted 6 days and included wearing colorful garments, nude public dancing, feasting, and merry-making. [5]  In England, it is not clear if these adaptations started during the Roman occupation and lasted through the Post-Roman Era (Middle Ages) or were adopted during the Renaissance Era as part of the growing nationalistic movement that was sweeping through Europe at that time.  It is possible that it was a little of both.  Regardless, the focus on floral wreaths, dancing around the May Pole, and the focus on fertility were either taken directly or at least inspired by this Roman holiday.

May Day Traditions from Mainland Europe

Looking at May Day festivals on the main continent, we find various festivals.  In addition to the Roman festival of Floralia already mentioned, among the Germans, we find the holiday of Walpurgisnacht (Val-purr-gess-nach-t; Walpurgis Night).  Walpurgisnacht, also known as the German Halloween, is celebrated April 30th-May 1st in Germany, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, and other European countries.  According to German history, as Christianity spread through Europe, the local pagan communities would find places out of the way to celebrate their seasonal festivals.  The most famous place for the Walpurgisnacht gatherings was the Harz mountains, specifically at their highest peaks due to predominant cloud cover, where they would celebrate with bonfires and dancing in private.  In order to promote the conversion of the local population to Christianity, the Church dedicated the holiday to an English missionary who later became a Saint, St. Walpurga.  Many German fairy tales about witches have used Walpurgisnacht as part of the stories and in the modern era, there has been a revival interest in the holiday where people dress at witches and have celebrations.  Many of the customs around the holiday include offerings to local spirits in the fields of bread and honey, charms were placed on buildings and animals to promote good luck and protection (blessed bells were put on cows, bundles of juniper, hawthorn, ash, and alder trees were hung in homes and barns for protection, etc), and prayers are made for luck and protection from evil. [6]  Moving further south towards the Czech Republic and Slovenia, Walpurgisnacht is called Pálení Carodějnic (The Burning of Witches) and one of the main differences them is instead of having people dress up as witches (although some do), they would have an effigy of a witch that would be paraded around the town and then is placed in the main community fire to be burned away, representing the last elements of winter being sacrificed to fully embrace the beginning of summer. [7]

May Day Festivities in the Americas

As already stated, the majority of May Day festivals celebrated in the US were brought over from immigrants from the British Isles.  The details vary from region to region, but the majority of them includes the gathering of flowers for the creation of floral garlands, choosing a king and queen of the May (representing the spirit of the carnival and festivities), and setting up a Maypole, decorated with garland and ribbons that people would dance around.  American traditions also included the making of May Day baskets that would be filled with flowers and a card that children could giver their mothers or young people could give to a possible love interest, similar to the traditions of St. Valentine’s Day. [8]  However in the 19th century, the meaning of May Day took a shift with the establishment of International Workers Day to bring awareness that both women and children were dying due to poor working conditions in factories. [9]

Given the lack of large British immigrants in the Upper Midwest, floral focused May Day festivals did not really pick up in this part of the country.  With the heavy Scandinavian and German immigrants who settled here, it is not something that would have been embraced.  In some of the older generation and people who take pride in their German heritage, you will hear references to Walpurgis Night, but after World War II, many German immigrants actively divorced themselves from their German connections out of fear of being associated with the Nazi Party and as a result of this, these holidays are no celebrated.  Despite that though, people of the Upper Midwest do “welcome in” the beginning of summer with getting together at people’s homes for grill-outs, playing outside at local parks, fishing, camping, hiking, and other outdoor activities.  Seasonal rains still happen in late April while the last of the winter cold finally disappears.  By the time we get into mid-May, the evening frost has ended and we start seeing warm days and comfortable nights.  Some parts of the Midwest still suffer from flooding from the Mississippi River, but by the end of the month, most to all of the flooding has ended and we start to move into the summer storm season. [10]

Celebrating May Day Festivals from a Gaulish Perspective

Given that May Day (or some variation of) was celebrated across Europe, it only makes sense that the Gaulish Celts had their own version or variation depending on what part of the continent they lived on.  Our best indication of the nature of the holiday comes from the Scottish traditions and the migration of cattle and some trace elements of French folklore.  The German celebrations certainly reflect the liminal nature of the holiday, but much of the symbolism has been highly influenced by the incoming Christian traditions.  Regardless, this holiday is still celebrated and if you live in an area that still celebrates some form of May Day, joining in with the local celebrations is completely warranted, especially given how widespread these celebrations have been.  However, if you are in an area where May Day is not celebrated (like in the Upper Midwest) and wish to create your own traditions, there are some common themes that seem to come up:

  1. The name of the festival is either based on the name of the month or some primary element associated with the season:  Naming the holiday after the incoming month for a Gaulish polytheist is a bit tricky because not everyone agrees on the monthly layout of the Gaulish calendar.  Discussions of the Coligny calendar have been extensive and much of the discussion has been driven by linguistic etymologies.  There have also been discussions on what time of the month starts.  I am not going into the details of these arguments here (that is enough for another article entirely) and I have my own opinion on this.  However, based on what I have seen with the calendar, my view is that the most likely month that festivals of May Day would fall under would have been Edrinios (named Ivos Edrinios) and it would most likely fall around April 22-23rd, the closest new moon. [11]  Additionally, if you look at what we have of the Coligny calendar, there is a holiday that is marked around that time.  In addition to the possibility of Ivos Edrinios, other options for Gaulish names for this festival include Centusaminos (Start of Summer), Giamosaton (Winters End), Centumucciâs (Start of Sowing), and others. [12]
  2. The use of fire for purification and protection:  Whether you are looking at older Scottish traditions or festivals on the mainland with the burning of witch effigies, the idea of removal of and protection from unwanted influences is a common theme of this holiday.  In Perche, France, we find an old folklore custom where farmers would light bonfires and pass the cattle through the smoke to remove disease and curses from witches.  Also in central France, to protect yourself against sickness and bad luck, one would leap over a fire a certain amount of times.  The embers of such a fire would then be taken home, dipped in holy water, and be made into a charm from misfortune, especially lightning. [13] Fire in Gaulish is called tanos and these purifying fires would be called cartiiâtanos.  If you choose to adopt the effigies of witches as part of your celebrations similar to what you see in the Czech Republic, they would be simply called adbertâ. [14]
  3. Associated with the economic/agricultural calendar, especially travel and the migration of cattle/goods:  When looking at the Scottish traditions, since the community would split up to keep an eye on the cattle and work on crops, having a celebration before everyone part ways, makes complete sense.  However, not everyone lives on the farms anymore and there are other elements regarding the livelihood of people that are associated with the coming of the summer season.  In the Upper Midwest, professions that involve work outside and travel start moving into full swing in April and May.  Professions connected to the Mississippi River are dependent on the height of the river water and given that the Mississippi River is one of the largest trade routes in the US, water height and flooding impacts the regional economy.  Other occupations that are dependent on local weather conditions such as road construction starts to get on its way around this time of year as well (despite the efforts to try to start earlier by local companies).  Honoring gods and spirits of travel and wealth are appropriate for this holiday.  If you happen to live on a farm, gods and spirits associated with farming and the homestead are also appropriate.  In Gaulish Polytheism, one of the most famous gods, Carnonos (Cernunnos), would be more than appropriate for honor and celebration on this holiday and we have evidence of his worship by seafarers with the Pillar of the Boatman found in Paris, France. [15] In addition, given the role of the Mississippi in the local economy, honoring the spirit of the river, who has been named Abonâtîr (River Father) in our local praxis, is also appropriate.  For more information on Abonâtîr, click here.
  4. Charms are used to bring protection and/or good luck to community and property from mischievous spirits:  When looking at Indo-European and Celtic cosmology, what we see is that the world is an interconnected tension between order and chaos.  These chaotic spirits by this time of the year have rescinded.  However, given the liminal nature of this time of year, the concern for wandering trickster spirits was a concern among ancient polytheists.  The placement of charms and symbols of protection is a common practice.  We do not have any references to Gaulish protection charms (at least none that I have seen), however, French/ French American Folklore can shed some light on this topic.  In addition to the charm made from the charcoal of fires used to bring blessings and purification referenced earlier, hanging a horseshoe over the door is common and seems to have been an import from Ireland.  Also, giving a basket of Lily of the Valley (a flower that blooms in April-May) is also something that is considered good luck according to people in France and is a customary gift on May 1st (despite that it is a toxic flower and poisonous). [16]  In Gaulish, the word for spell or magic is brixtâ and any form of magical protection would be brixtânextlon. [17]
  5. Celebrations include local symbols for summer and warm weather, which may include a “Queen” or “King and Queen” of the festivals/carnivals:  Given the relationship between the Romans and the Gaulish Celts, adopting elements of the festival of Floralia like what we see with the English may or may not be a popular choice among modern Gaulish Polytheist.  In my case with the Upper Midwest, our area never adopted British May Day festivities anyways so that works out in my favor.  The closest thing we have had regarding May Day festivals includes the May Day Parade in the Twin Cities and is used as a local fundraiser for the arts and local businesses. [18]  However, the spirit of celebration this time of year is common and in Wisconsin with grill-outs, backyard fires, outdoor activities, and family games, as already stated.  Outdoor celebrations are important for many people and especially in situations where you have been cooped up all winter, the need to get out and enjoy the fresh air is almost required.  As for the Queen of the May, which is seen in many of the English May Day festivals and La Bealtaine in Edinburgh, Scotland, The Queen represents the full return of the Summer maiden, adorned with flowers and the symbols of the new growth from the confines of winter.  She represents not only the coming of the summer but the spirit of the carnival, the spirit of community celebration. [19]
Let me tell you a story……………..

For background regarding this story, read Welcoming the Spring: Storms, Floods, and the Passing of Winter, where the goddess of the land, referred to as Benârincâ has called the River God Abonâtîr.  His waters were released from Andumnos (the Otherworld) which brings the spring floods.  Additional characters in this story include:

  • Taranis: Gaulish Sky God, referenced in previous articles.
  • Dexosgaiton (South/favorable Wind): This is the name for the horse that Taranis rides in on because the storms of summer always come in on the south wind in the Upper Midwest.
  • Brigandu: Goddess honored on the northern and western regions of Gaul as well as the British Isles.  She is associated with law, folk customs, and fire.
  • Carnonos: God of travel, protection, and abundance.  He is also associated with material wealth and the hidden mysteries of the Earth.
  • Dusios (demon/devil): This is a name used generally for the monstrous beasts that were believed to wander the wilds of Europe.  These beastmen usually were hairy and had horns, who stole children and assaulted them.
  • Abanci: Also known as River Dwarves.  Name also used for beavers.
  • Ancenetlos: Land Spirits/Giants.  Descriptions can vary greatly between regions.
The Story Continues………..

The waters have been released from Andumnos and the god Taranis has driven back the Dusios on his might steed, Dexosgaiton.  The goddess of the land, Benârincâ, and the River God Abonâtîr have been reunited and both the land and the waters have been made fertile again.  Benârincâ becomes alive and the growth of the new springtime and transforms into Genetâ Saminos , the Maiden of Summer.  Her bees come forth from their dens and her flowers bloom to welcome them.  The forest and the fields come alive and the beasts of summer emerge to enjoy the pleasant days and warm nights.  The people see that the fertility of the land and the waters have returned and they gather to celebrate before they begin their summer work.  Abonâtîr fills the waters with his fish and beast for the people to harvest for the celebrations.  As the people celebrate, they also call on the spirits and gods for protection, for with the coming of summer also brings forth the coming of the Abanci and the awaking of the Ancenetlos.  They light the fires of Brigandu to cast away the last elements of the Dusios and to offer their gifts.  Might Carnonos, seeing the fires of Brigandu, emerges from his travels in Andumnos to give his blessings to the people for the travels ahead and the strength to withstand any hardship they might come across.  As the fires rise and the celebration grows, the people are finally free of the dangers of the winter cold.

 

Resources:

  1. Loughlin, Annie. “Bealltainn – Part One” Tairis: A Gaelic Polytheist Website. http://www.tairis.co.uk/festivals/bealltainn-part-one/
  2. Ár nDraíocht Féin: A Druid Fellowship. Our Own Druidry: An Introduction to Ár nDraíocht Féin and the Druid Path ADF Publishing. Tucson, 2009
  3. Loughlin, Annie. “Bealltainn – Part One” Tairis: A Gaelic Polytheist Website. http://www.tairis.co.uk/festivals/bealltainn-part-one/
  4. Wigington, Patti. “Floralia: The Roman May Day Festival” Outside the Lines. Patti Wigington’s World of Witchcraft, 2018. https://www.pattiwigington.com/floralia-the-roman-may-day-festival/
  5. Editors. “Floralia” NovaRoma. http://www.novaroma.org/nr/Floralia
  6. Profile: karenann. “What Is Walpurgisnacht? And How did An English Nun Become Associated with Witches?”  German Girl in America. https://germangirlinamerica.com/what-is-walpurgisnacht/
  7. Seals, Rebecca. “Prague’s Witches Night Festival” The Guardian, 2012. https://www.theguardian.com/travel/2012/nov/02/prague-witches-night-culture-festival
  8. Editors. “May Day 2020: What is May Day?” The Old Farmers Almanac, 2020. https://www.almanac.com/content/what-may-day
  9. Editors. “May Day” History, 2020. https://www.history.com/topics/holidays/history-of-may-day
  10. Editors. “Monthly Weather Forecast and Climate Wisconsin, USA” Weather Atlas, https://www.weather-us.com/en/wisconsin-usa-climate#climate_text_9
  11. Widugeni, Segomâros. Ancient Fire: An Introduction to Gaulish Celtic Polytheism Amelia: ADF Publishing, 2018
  12. Toutâ Galation “Gaulish Dictionairy” Toutâ Galation, Tumblr: https://touta-galation-official.tumblr.com/dictionairy
  13. Blackman, Winifred. The Magical and Ceremonial Uses of Fire (Folklore History Series) Redditch: Read Books LTD, 2016.
  14. Toutâ Galation “Gaulish Dictionairy” Toutâ Galation, Tumblr: https://touta-galation-official.tumblr.com/dictionairy
  15. “ΚΑΡΝΟΝΟΥ: to CARNONOS: Images, Texts, Antlered Goddesses, Ram-Headed Snake, Dis Pater” DEO MERCURIO: http://www.deomercurio.be/en/cernunnos.html
  16. Funger, Carole.  “Why Lily of the Valley is the Official May Day Flower” Here by Design: Ideas and Inspiration for Beautiful, Sustainable Gardens. 2017.  https://www.herebydesign.net/lily-of-the-valley-the-official-may-day-flower/
  17. Toutâ Galation “Gaulish Dictionairy” Toutâ Galation, Tumblr: https://touta-galation-official.tumblr.com/dictionairy
  18. “Chrysalis May Day 2020” In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theater. https://hobt.org/mayday/
  19. “Chapter Three – The May Queen and Green Man’s Journey” Beltane Fire Society. https://beltane.org/bonfire-beltane-online-fire-festival/chapter-three-the-may-queen-and-green-mans-journey/

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