By Kathleen Jenks, Ph.D.
Other names for May Day include: Cetsamhain (‘opposite Samhain’), Walpurgisnacht (in Germany), and Roodmas (the medieval Church’s name). This last came from Church Fathers who were hoping to shift the common people’s allegiance from the Maypole (Pagan lingham — symbol of life) to the Holy Rood (the Cross – Roman instrument of death).
This date has long been considered a ‘power point’ of the Zodiac, and is symbolized by the Bull, one of the ‘tetramorph’ figures featured on the Tarot cards, the World and the Wheel of Fortune. (The other three symbols are the Lion, the Eagle, and the Spirit.) Astrologers know these four figures as the symbols of the four ‘fixed’ signs of the Zodiac (Taurus, Leo, Scorpio, and Aquarius), and these naturally align with the four Great Sabbats of Witchcraft. Christians have adopted the same iconography to represent the four gospel-writers.
When the Druids and their successors raised the Beltane fires on hilltops throughout the British Isles on May Eve, they were performing a real act of magic, for the fires were lit in order to bring the sun’s light down to earth. In Scotland, every fire in the household was extinguished, and the great fires were lit from the need-fire which was kindled by 3 times 3 men using wood from the nine sacred trees. When the wood burst into flames, it proclaimed the triumph of the light over the dark half of the year.
Then the whole hillside came alive as people thrust brands into the newly roaring flames and whirled them about their heads in imitation of the circling of the sun . . . When the sun rose that dawn, those who had stayed up to watch it might see it whirl three times upon the horizon before leaping up in all its summer glory.
People would also drive their cattle up the hill before sunrise and watch as the priests and priestesses lit the Beltane fires that shone so brightly they could be seen for miles around. It was traditional to build these fires out of nine of the sacred woods from Druidic folklore, including oak, ash, thorn, rowan, apple, birch, alder, maple, elm, gorse, holly, hawthorn, and others.
The bonfires were built leaving a narrow passage existed between two fires, so that cattle and other livestock could be led between the fires to purify them from disease or sterility during the coming year. Torches of dried sedge, gorse or heather were also lit and carried around remaining flocks or stables to further purify the air.
In ancient times, the physical light passing from hillside to hillside was a great and potent symbol of a rebirth of hope and life each spring – the eternal return.
With the Roman invasions of Western Europe and Britain, much of the symbolism and rites of the Floralia and Beltane became entwined — eventually becoming the holiday we now call May Day or Walpurgis. The custom of going ‘a-maying’, collecting flowers, greenery and the maypole early on the morning of May 1, survives virtually intact to this day, as do the balefires in Britain, Germany and other countries of Europe. The sexual aspect of the holiday, however, has become almost extinct in many countries. The festivities were viewed as sinful by some Christian leaders, and in 1644, the celebration was banned by the Puritan-controlled Parliament in Britain.
The Christian religion had only a poor substitute for the life-affirming Maypole — namely, the death-affirming cross. Hence, in the Christian calendar, this was celebrated as ‘Roodmas’. In Germany, it was the feast of Saint Walpurga, or ‘Walpurgisnacht’. An alternative date around May 5 (Old Beltane), when the sun reaches 15 degrees Taurus, is sometimes employed by Covens.