Beltane is a holiday rich in tradition. Its celebrated with both centuries old customs and modern practices. Many of those modern practices vary from group to group and path to path. In my younger days in Michigan my local Pagan community celebrated Beltane with a campout, a dance around the Maypole, and at least two rituals most times. It was a celebration of friendship and extended family, and often marked our first “outdoor ritual” of the new calendar year. In my group of friends back then Beltane was a very big deal; it was the most important community sabbat we celebrated all year. No matter the physical distances between us as we all grew into true adulthood, Beltane was an event worth coming back “home” for.
A lot of the traditions I associate with Beltane are centuries old, and some of them might even date back to pagan antiquity. While much of Beltane’s pageantry got absorbed into the Christian tradition of Easter, the fact that the cross-quarter date of the festival was never co-opted into a Christian holiday means that it remains a truly pagan holiday. (Somehow it never became a feast day for a major Christian Saint, this makes me happy.) When I celebrate Beltane today I don’t have to share the holiday with those outside of Pagandom like I do with Yule or Samhain. It’s very much ours if that makes sense. And even if some of its traditions aren’t explicitly and conclusively ancient pagan, many of them were re-popularized in the Nineteenth Century specifically because people thought they were pagan! So tie a yellow a ribbon ’round the old oak maypole, it’s time to celebrate Beltane!
The Maypole. The most popular of all Beltane symbols is the maypole. Many Modern Pagans see it as a phallic representation of the green and fertile earth, but associations between the maypole and the penis are of a more recent vintage. They only go back about 150 years, though the maypole goes back much further. Even though there are no specific references to maypoles before the 1300’s, some historians have suggested that it might date back to pagan antiquity. (1) Certainly the decorative flowers and greenery which were attached to the maypole date back to ancient paganism.
While the maypole has been a part of Spring celebrations for at least 700 years (and likely much longer) its uses have changed over the centuries. Originally maypoles simply served as gathering places for people in mostly rural communities. Putting up a maypole was a sign that winter was over and it was time to go back out into the world again. Maypoles during this era weren’t specifically sexual in nature, though the folks who tended to gather under them tended to be young. Eventually gatherings under the maypole turned into games and dancing under the maypole. In addition to flowers and greenery some maypoles were decorated with flags and ribbons depending on the local custom. Over the centuries the popularity of the maypole waxed and waned from place to place and at the start of the Nineteenth Century it was very much in the middle of a waning stage, but that wouldn’t last for long. (2)
By the end of the Nineteenth Century the maypole had made a triumphant comeback. In Great Britain people were attracted to it as a way to reconnect with the natural world and the diminishing countryside. That most folklorists thought it was an ancient pagan survival probably did more to help its cause than to hinder it too. By the start of the early Twentieth Century “dances under the maypole” were starting to become the dances most of us are familiar with today. Ribbons were tied to the top of the pole with people weaving in and out between one another.
Morris Dancing. One of my dearest Craft teachers used to travel at dawn every May 1 to greet the rise of the sun with a troupe of Morris Dancers. Many of the same spectators showed up at dawn year after year too. She never found if any of them were Pagan or not, but they all used to give each other knowing looks when the dances ended. She said you could almost hear their smiles say “Blessed Be. See you right here next year.” Morris Dancing has always been something that’s felt pagan, but its history is more complicated than that.
If the first people to do something get to claim ownership of that something then dancing its self is an ancient tribal or pagan practice. Long before there were Christians or even any monotheists, its likely that people were dancing. Drums date back to at least 8000 years ago, and I’ve seen some scholars date flutes back even further (maybe even 15,000 years ago). I can’t imagine people listening to those instruments and not dancing. So in a sense plain old dance is old and dates back to pagan times (and maybe even times that are so old they can’t be classified as pagan!). What’s impossible to prove is that Morris Dancing as we know it today evolved directly out of some sort of pre-Christian pagan dance.
The oldest yet found reference to Morris Dancing dates back to only 1458 where a silver cup “sculpted with moreys dauns” is referenced in a will. (3) All of the other early references to Morris involve courtly settings, which is why most scholars view Morris Dancing as a dance that began in the halls of English power. It was the favorite dance of both Henry the VII and Henry the VIII, and like many things popular with the rich and powerful it was soon a favorite of the common folk as well. By 1541 Morris was so popular that it began to be criticized. Church leaders denounced it as a vice and some even called it “devilish.” More than 10,000 bells were imported into London during 1567-8, all for teams (or sides) of Morris Dancers. By 1570 people were being prosecuted for Morris Dancing in churchyards all while local communities saw their dancers as a source of civic pride. (4) Eventually Morris as a fad began to die out, but it continued as a tradition across England, developing many regional variants.
Much like the maypole, Morris increased in popularity during the Nineteenth Century, with costumes becoming more elaborate. By the end of the century it was being linked back to ancient paganisms (as most things were back then). James Frazer (author of The Golden Bough) was one of the first to popularize the claim in scholarly circles and it was accepted as orthodoxy for decades afterwards.
Morris is probably related to similar dances that began on the European continent at the end of the Middle Ages. The word could be related to the word “moor” which then referred to Arabs living in Spain. (5) It’s worth noting that all of these dances arose centuries after the Christianization of Europe, though it’s certainly possible that some of the dances represented older pre-Christian traditions.
Even if Morris isn’t a pagan survival, it’s always sort of felt that way. Writing in 1583 pamphleteer Phillip Stubbs wrote:
” . . . they bedeck themselves with scarfs, ribbons, and laces hangalled all over with gold rings, precious stones and other jewels. This done they tie about either leg 20 or 40 bells with rich handkerchiefs in their hands, and sometimes laid across their shoulders and necks, borrowed for the most part of their pretty Mopsies and loving Besssides, for bussying them in the dark. These things set in order, they have their hobby horses, dragons and other antiques, together with their bawdy pipers and thundering drummers, to strike up the Devil’s Dance withal, then march these heathen company towards the church and churchyard, their pipers piping, drummers thundering, their stumps dancing, their bells jingling, their handkerchiefs swinging about their heads like maddmen, their hobby horses and other monsters skirmishing amongst the throng; and in this sort othey go to the church (thought he minister be at prayer or preaching) dancing and swinging their handkerchieves over their heads, in the church, like devils incarnate” (6)
That certainly all sounds fine with me.
May Queens and May Kings The tradition of May Royalty is a difficult one to trace. The earliest written references to the tradition of May Royalty date back to 1450 and mention a “mock-king.” (7) Lords of Misrule at holiday gatherings have a long tradition and were popular at pagan Midwinter celebrations and later Christian celebrations of Christmas. That there would be an equivalent for the celebration of the May shouldn’t be a surprise. So while references to lords and ladies of the May don’t back to ancient pagan antiquity the early ideas associated with them certainly did.
As English May Day celebrations evolved the idea of a May King and May Queen evolved with it. May Day celebrations eventually became community gatherings, a time for feasting, games, and the like. May Kings and Queens served as “masters of ceremonies” over such events, and are probably not much different than the modern winner of a county fair beauty pageant. Like most of the things being written about here the idea of May Royalty went through various periods of popularity. In the Nineteenth Century the idea rose in popularity once more (though the tradition never ceased in certain areas), and was eventually linked to the ideas of fertility gods as popularized by Frazer. By the early 1930’s interest in May Kings and May Queens began to wane in England, but with the celebration of May Day essentially a pagan tradition linked explicitly to the turn of the seasons it got picked up by Modern Paganism in short order and has been a part of our Beltane celebrations ever since. (8)
Jack in the Green Perhaps the strangest figure often associated with Beltane is the Jack in the Green. In 1939 Lady Raglan suggested the figure was connected to the images of foliate heads which adorn many Medieval Churches in England and the continent. She named those figures “Green Men,” a title taken from a popular tavern sign at the time. Raglan didn’t base her assumption on any real research, but her ideas were consistent with what most scholars believed at the time. (9)
While the Jack in the Green figure is likely not related to Green Man images, it’s origin is still fascinating. The male Jack in the Green evolved from a Seventeenth Century custom involving milkmaids. The milkmaids originally danced from door to door their heads and milk pails adorned with greenery and flowers. Eventually they began to wear wooden pyramids on top of their heads, all adorned with flowers and ribbons. Later rag-pickers picked up the custom on May Day and eventually it was appropriated by chimney sweeps, with the wooden pyramid on top of the head evolving into a full costume. The Jack in the Green became an advertising vehicle, encouraging people to get their chimneys swept. It was a great way to bring in business during a slow time of year for most sweeps. (10)
In some ways though the Jack in the Green is pagan through and through. Ancient pagans would have decorated themselves with flowers and greenery in the days before Christianity, just like the later milkmaids. “Jack” eventually evolved into less of an advertisement and more into a figure celebrating the start of Spring. In that sense he’s very pagan, and probably why my friends and I will be crowing a May Queen and a Jack of the Green this Beltane.
For more Beltane reading, including the origin of the name click here.
1. Pagan Britain by Ronald Hutton. Published by Yale University Press, 2014 page 372
2. Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain by Ronald Hutton. Published by Oxford University Press, 1996 The maypole information was taken from pages 233-236, and pages 301-302. I basically paraphrased all the material here from an earlier article (also written by me) in 2013.
3. Stations of the Sun page 264
4. Stations page 268
5. Stations page 263
6. Stations page 262 (Yes I realize I use this book a lot.)
7. Stations page 247
8. Stations page 301 (I’m not going to apologize for using this book.)
9. Stations page 241
10. Stations page 242 (Yup, you guessed it, more of the same book.)