Archive for the ‘Maypole’ Category

From Community To Individual and Back Again; On The Seasonal Festival ~

Ronald Hutton’s The Stations of The Sun, A Review;

                                                                        
At the outset I had hoped for a more ‘traditionally’ pagan account of the ancient seasonal festivals, their origins and meanings.
I was initially surprised and eventually delighted to find however that although this work is more of an Academic compote of facts and dates and included ongoing assessment of earlier authors often unfounded but sometimes inspirational conjecture than I had anticipated (of Sir James Frazer et al) nevertheless this is a very enjoyable, remarkably researched and admirably objective book-collection of essays.

That much of this morass concerns the developments and impacts of constantly changing traditions due to Christian Reformation and Counter Reformation (certainly comedic at this distance in time), the ongoing process a seminal crucible (reminding me of both grail and cauldron) proved revealing, as the general view of folk traditions and their origins seems to usually favor the more arcane sources, this book by contrast documents only definite evidence, largely that of written records, of church, kirk and council across the land.

Toasting The Yule Log

With a nod to the Scandinavian Yuil, as well as the Roman Kalendae, we embark on an exploration of the traditions of Christmastide, the Twelve Days, the Rites of Celebration, Purification and of Charity which included the remarkable Clementing, Elementing and Souling, even Thomasing, Gooding, Mumping and Corning (as well as more) regional begging customs, by which means the poor would recant rhymes for contribution of food for a feast of their own.
 

A Heaving

Similar appeals for reward included the Hocktide ‘heaving’ at Easter, in which gangs of men assaulted women for favor and groups of women also pursued and caught men for same, at its best a raising up on a lifted chair as proxy ‘Lord’ to commemorate the ascent of Easter, the surrogate released upon a reward of money or a kiss, at its worst a mere grasping by hands and throwing upwards as an occasion for assault and robbery.
The ongoing exposition of numerous social customs of this kind, both dazzle the mind with their quantity, as well as provides a clear insight into how poverty was communally accepted, dealt with by innovative appeals to the community at large and that these were often ‘sanctioned’ by inclusion of some short Christian phrase in the introductory verse or chant.

Medieval Carolers Singing

The author traces the development of such customs and portrays their eventual descent into more high spirited, reckless and even angry demands for assistance that could be met with threats and violence if not accepted.
Once national schools were established and later a more centralized protection for the poor was introduced, such earlier community traditions dissipated further, demonstrating the authors argument throughout this book of the movement from a community sharing seasonal rituals and traditions including those aspects of display that were geared to earn rewards, to the de-socialization of such community into a society characterized by its more insular and private approach to seasons and their festivals or traditions.

A Solitary Witch

The Christianization of earlier traditions also has its place in this book, as for example the feast marking the end of winter and start of the summer months ahead at February 1st, Imbolc (the etymology of its name relating to ewes milk and thus new life) initially dedicated to the Irish goddess Brigid, but who was later morphed into the Christian St Bride.
This is an important theme of both this book and of the mythological psycho-social developments of these Isles. Most surprisingly the often claimed genesis or inception of many Christian traditions in the pre Christian, infact seems to have increasingly worked in reverse. As religious conflicts in the land over changing orthodoxies developed, the Catholic tradition with its wealth of near magical rituals was vigorously being uprooted from the public and community sphere of practice by the ascent of the puritan Protestant, the ensuing personal spiritual void resulted in many cases in the earlier magical Catholic rituals being carried on privately at home and eventually (d)evolving into allegedly ancient ‘survivalist’ ‘folk-traditions’. Conversely, some of the Christianized traditions do appear to have had earlier sources such as the Rogationtide and Pentecost processions, at which time the people marched en mass around the crop fields, singing hymns at chosen stop points as the church ministers blessed the crops.

Beating The Bounds

The book does feature ancient  tradition where evidence has supported this, such as for example the affirmation of the Beltane as an accepted fire festival in certain regions of Northern Europe and the outlaying regions of the British Isles (unlike the later Samhain, for which evidence of a major ‘Celtic’ fire festival is less apparent). With greater detail due to the weight of evidence available however, Hutton explores the cultural progress towards our more modern current perspectives, for example plotting the development of the ‘May‘ (which unsurprisingly did have ancient antecedents in the delight of Spring returned) as people initially adorned self and home with garlands and greenery, which in time became a tradition of young women selling garlands, later children took over this role, and in their turn both to manage the unruly and the revenue these were eventually taken over by schools and local institutions. By contrast, the Mummers Plays with their essentially Christian derived themes of battle, death and resurrection, were more officially sanctioned groups from the outset and had less to do with earlier pre Christian traditions.

Group of Mummers

                                                                     

Raising The May Pole

Despite growing religious and institutional involvement in previously communal activities and traditions, the populace applied themselves with great enthusiasm to any occasion of social bonding, often at some cost to the societies they lived in (other than merely of money or means) such as the many community Maypoles stolen by rival villages and towns resulting in pitched battles between the two, the anarchic Saturnalia of Misrule as witnessed at the Shrovetide street ‘foot-ball’ games played across whole towns which could involve thousands of people and provided an occasion for licensed misrule resulting in damage to property and individual (although less violent than the serious riot and rebellion which was reserved for the Summer games as a time more suited for battle on the streets or field).

 The Church Ales or festivals also developed their Abbots of Unreason and a myriad practices of inversion and nonsense (Samuel Butler now we know where your inspiration came from).
 Charting how an apparently arcane ‘folk tradition’ once also considered a surviving pagan fertility rite had originated in high social circles of the Royal Courts and devolved into the rural communities, Hutton’s’ research into the Morris dancers is fascinating for its explanation of how we may create ‘new’ ancient traditions.

Modern Jack in The Green, Hastings

Perhaps my favorite exposition in this work is that of the origins and evolution of The Jack in the Green, identified as a ‘survival’ of an ancient pagan fertility rite by the Frazerite Lady Raglan of the Folklore society in 1939, established on her view linking the dancing Green-Man in May day processions with the foliage faces on church walls. This was a lineage unresolved till 1979 Roy Judges study revealed the true origins to be somewhat less arcane, and linked them to a more traditional social ritual evolved as so many traditional customs of display were, to celebrate the new season with a display deigned to garner reward.
To explain, during the17thC, London milkmaids danced the streets on May Day with their pails covered in flowers which symbolized the Springs new growth and so presented the promise of new grass for the cattle thus promising fresh milk, cream and butter. These displays earned them money as reward and therefore can be seen to serve a double purpose, of advertising their wares, as well a gathering much needed financial support after a lengthy winter without much income. They later left the pails for lighter wooden frames similarly covered in flowers and greenery, and later still were imitated in their greenery attired frames and street dancing display by the London Chimney sweeps whose claim for sympathy at this time was based on the end of winter cold meaning no more fires or work for them till next fall.

May Day Jack In The Green

Hutton surmises this work with a number of provocative and insightful observations, for example that the notion of a distinctive ‘Celtic’ ritual year with four festivals at the quarter days and an opening at Samhain, is a scholastic construction of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries which should now be considerably revised or even abandoned altogether.
Whilst the debt to a medieval, magical Catholicism seems to be growing apparent in my reading of serious studies of the origin of neo-pagan traditions, Hutton’s final words over the changing Christian influence upon the traditional festivals of the year are revelatory.
He establishes that soon as the system of salvation through ritual was scrapped at the Reformation, the merry making began to be regarded as a liability by the social and religious elites….thus the
evolution of a religious ideology …(had) produced a society imbued with a general taste for ceremony and acted as a means to endorsement of secular festivity.
In other words, Merry England was inspired by the fires of hell

Finally that ‘the rhythms of the British year are timeless and impose certain patterns on the calendar customs’, to celebrate spring, to make merry in summer and draw close at fall, despite government and mass media atomization of community, seems a fair conclusion.
Overall this book suggests to me that whilst certain traditions may not have an established ancient provenance, nevertheless because people are increasingly applying such meanings to the seasons cycles as an inherent pagan response to nature itself, we may now be seeing a further reversal of the community oriented neglect of seasonal festivals and a resurgence of a more nature based community oriented society at large.

Not a book for the exclusively poetic or mythologically minded, but if read in the objective manner with which it is presented, this book provides a wealth of insight and understanding into the seasonal festivities as they have evolved in these British Isles and the influence they bear on modern pagan perspectives, Recommended.


Happy Reading,  
Celestial Elf ~

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Beltane Blessing (Beannachadh Bealtain) 30 April-1 May

It is established and steadfast and bright and true,
That from Beltaine eve, Summerland magic leaps through,
And as a cup full of the fullness of natures invocation,
Generous as three times thrice the incantations wisdom to view.

Before the Sky and the Earth and the Sea, they have all called together,
Before the Sun and the Moon and the Stars, they have spoken as one,
By the breath of the Taliesin and of the Ganna Bandruich,
Upon the height of the hill of the many feathered winds,
Of the Eight Lesser Winds and Four Major Winds and a Wind Above all the winds as yet still not hewn,
From the Druids tongue of flames, a roaring fire will be declared here, twice in the runes,
It is a Blaze that will go all around them to the left and to the right,
To purify the night, turning aside adversity and transformed in its shape,
To burst forth the day of flowers, which is certain.

Star light shining bright empowers the Queen of the Faeries this night,
Be also empowered O people of the world lest you melt in her powerful sight,
Be not a ghost all spindled in Wonder exceeding Wonder,
But see the Fairy Host dancing within forest field and river, chanting and singing petitions of hope in the heart,
Each of a hundred-fold Sidhe will go around you and around you,
And they will come upon Him as it is always arranged,
And they will Vanish in the morning light, interwoven with the cool dew and the soft light,
And they will yield away completely, melt into forever the home of the fey.

I do bestow a fishfull sea and fertile lands soon prolific with prosperous harvests,
And green and fruited trees drooping down with the heavy growth of the fruits upon them,
And waxing fleshfull fleeced and round of sheep, goats and cattle amongst the fresh filled pastures roaming,
And delight as the Maidens sweet as wild honey each, and as fair as the lily after spring has spoken.

Joy/As May Queen manifest and with her the Green Man to the Great Rite eternal today,
A Sacred Marriage shall arise among them as in precious Chalice they set Earth’s Athame..
Opening here the secret gates behind the departed darkness of night,
And outside of the brilliance of the brightness of day,
And our flowering ones will lead us in to the Summerlands, the excellent lands, in the most beautiful way.

Be celebrated each and all then in this dance of the May,
As maids skip a ring, A’ conjuring the new Summer in,
Weaving lives, love and laughter, beside and before you, weaving bright welcome gladness all around.

And By the essence of the Oak, of Rowan and of Hawthorn in hedgerow,
By the magical energy within which I turn,
Peace Joy and Abundance to the Sky and to the Earth beneath Sky,
And to all of the peoples upon the Earth on this day
And of the binding of this blessing, I do myself bind it,
To the heart be it binded, a deep blessing from today.

It is established.

c. Celestial Elf 2011.

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On the tradition of Druid Rhetoric and Poetry;
Whilst Druid’s occasionally carried magic wands and stones, in the majority of cases the Druids’ only magic ‘tool’ was their voice and their words…
They were sage advisers and most often called upon to counsel Kings and other social leaders.
Above all else, they were exemplary poets and in Ancient Ireland this position was honored with status and rights surpassing even that of the Kings whom they advised.
The Rosc that such Druid’s wrote(pl Roscanna)is a rhetorical, usually magical, chant, more than just a poem, these are poems that can invoke or topple the Gods and conjure whole nations from thin air.
Intended to be obscure, full of puns, and often set in deliberately ‘pseudo-archaic’ forms intermixed with more modern idioms, these poems were not public proclamations but ‘magic’ spells and prophecy, conceived to draw mystic power from having multiple meanings and ancient obscure diction.
This multi-faceted aspect of the language of Roscanna has the same insistence on ambiguity which one finds in ancient Celtic and Irish art wherein a given figure is not merely a spiral or a face or an animal or a leaf, but is all of them at once in an exquisite gestalt.

So it has been said ~

Of Taliesin;
Taliesin is probably the most famous of the Cynfeirdd, the early Bards.
As such he has assumed an almost mythic status to the extent that two distinct Taliesin’s have emerged: the historic figure of the late sixth century and an entirely mythological figure whose legends were chronicled into the Ystoria Taliesin (Tale of Taliesin) by Elis Gruffydd in the mid sixteenth century.
His name is derived from the proto-Celtic elements talo(forehead) and jes-t-īn-o(bright) and has been interpreted as ‘radiant brow’ possibly referring to his blonde hair, but equally possibly representing the radiance of his gift of poetry, his awen.

Of Ganna Bandruich, the Female Druid;
Whilst most Roman records referred mainly to male Druids, the existence of female Druids is confirmed by the written sources from the Greek and Roman who were fascinated by the role of women in Celtic society.
The Celtic culture as a whole was known to accord equal status and high regard to their women folk in contrast to Roman world where women had no political rights and very limited civil rights, Roman women could not for example own property or inherit land, were kept in seclusion and considered ‘chattel’.

Because the rights of Celtic women were many times better than the rest of Europe, we can make an educated guess that a persons gender mattered little when one wished to study the Druid ways.
All that would be needed is a strong memory and intellect and the desire to learn.
In addition there are references to bandrui in the medieval Irish tales, ban signifiying female and drui for Druid.
Conchobor Mac Nessa’s mother Nessa was a druid, Finn was raised by a female druid and Scathach is explicitly called both a flaith or ‘prophetess’ and a druid and she prophesies about Cú Chulainn.

Of the name Ganna, Dio Cassius mentions that a Druidess named Ganna went on an embassy to Rome and was received by Domitian, younger son of the Roman Emperor Vespasian, this serves as precedent for the name here used..

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On the Beltane Festivals;
Beltane or Beltane is the Gaelic name for the festival that rightly begins on April the 30th or Beltane’s eve and continues on 1st May and is a celebration of purification and fertility.
The name originates from the Celtic god, Bel – the ‘bright one’, and the Gaelic word ‘teine’ meaning fire, giving the name ‘bealttainn’, meaning ‘bright fire’.
Marking the beginning of the Summer season with the lighting of two great bon-fires on Beltane’s eve signifies a time of purification and transition, these fires may be made of the nine sacred woods, Alder, Ash, Birch, Hawthorn, Hazel, Holly, Oak, Rowan and Willow.
Heralding in the season in the hope of a good harvest later in the year, Beltane festivals were accompanied with ritual acts to protect the people from any harm by Otherworldly spirits.

Significantly, as the Goddess (Brigid) moves through her various phases, Beltane sees the womanly aspect of the Summer Goddess banish the Old Crone aspect of the Winter Goddess in readiness for the maternal time and the fruits of nature to follow.

As this is one of the magic turning points of the Sacred Seasons, the veil between worlds is thought to be especially thin, and as a result many of the Fairy Host, the Sidhe and the Tuatha De Danann may be seen crossing between the worlds.
Particularly, the Faery Queen is thought to travel about on this night and if you gaze too long on her enchanted beauty she may whisk you away to live in her Other realms outside of time for an eternity.
The Faery Queen also represents the May Queen, although in practice the honor is usually carried out by young women who are soon to be married.

The May Queen’s role in the Beltane proceedings, along with her May King, mythically a Jack in The Green, the Green Man or Horned God, is to take part in the Great Rite.
This is the Sacred Marriage of the God and Goddess, often reenacted by a symbolic union during which the Athame (magical knife symbolizing male energy) is placed by the King of May into the Chalice (Sacred Cup symbolizing female energy) held by the Queen of the May.
For a more detailed account of how this ritual was enacted in earlier time,
I refer the reader to Marrion Zimmer Bradley’s moving account in her fiction The Mists of Avalon.

Following this union which serves to Open the way to the Summer Lands,
festivities ensue, particularly that of dancing around the May Pole.
The May Pole itself is a symbol of the union of the God and the Goddess, as the red ribbons represent the fertility of the Goddess, the white represent the fertility of the God.
Men begin the weaving by dancing under the upheld ribbon of the first women facing them, accompanied by music, drums beating or chanting. The dancers move forward, stepping alternately over and under each person who’s dancing toward them.
The dance continues until the Maypole is completely wrapped, then the ribbons are tied off and the wreath from the top is tossed to the earth to bring its gathered power into the ground.

Whilst such public festivals are not as widespread as they once were, famously at Padstow in Cornwall there still is held an annual ‘Obby-Oss‘ day, which is believed to be one of the oldest survivng fertility rites in the United Kingdom.
St. Ives and Penzance in Cornwall are now also seeing a revival of similar public festivities.

Other Beltane Lore;
During Medieval times, a man might also propose marriage by leaving a hawthorn branch at the door of his beloved on the first day of May.
If the branch was allowed to remain at her door, it was a signal that the proposal was accepted. If it was replaced with a cauliflower, the proposal was turned down.
Crosses of birch and rowan twigs were hung over doors on the May morning as a blessing and protection, and left until next May day.
Going ‘A-Maying’ meant staying out all night to gather flowering hawthorn, watching the sunrise and making love in the woods, also known as a ‘greenwood marriage’
The dew on the May day morning is believed to have a magical potency – wash your face and body in it and you will remain fair all year.

Blessed Beltane to You ~

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