Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Mysterious Mythical May


Weather-wise, May can be a checkered month. I often saw snow in May in my upstate NY childhood during the early 50's. The last time I had such a surprise was while living near Hartford, CT, when I boarded a commuter bus, annoyed that I had snow all over my new high heels. The entire drive to bus, along slippery country roads, I'd seen the white stuff threatening to break the blossoming branches in orchards and front yards. I'm not likely to ever see that again! 

May even feels a little a little unsteady, at least inside my seasonally-minded head. From the little we can know about early European religions, it appears many of our ancient relations felt that way too. May was a between month--between winter and summer--neither one thing nor the other. In many cultures, then as now, it was a time of clearing out of the grime left behind by winter cooking and heating, of freshening and storing away of the heaviest clothing. On the farms, young animals now frolicked in the fields; fresh milk was in. The spring cycle of plowing and planting was already underway, but, in the spiritual sense, this month was a pause.

Now, you may be thinking "Well, what about May Day and May Eve, two nights of dancing, feasting, and coupling, with or without, benefit of clergy?" All that is also true. May traditionally began with a party. We are familiar with the British tradition has the men riding out at dawn wearing sprigs of blooming Hawthorn followed by the Maypole dance. Perhaps the disconnect is a result of a lunar calendar and a year which accomodated thirteen months instead of our twelve. At any rate,

the "unlucky" time, the time of mourning and cleansing, the time of celibacy and onerous spring cleaning, began later in our May, perhaps beginning on the 13th and extending until the 9th of June.

"Ne'er cast a clout ere May be out." (Don't change your clothing) This saying was current in Britain and even into northern Spain, for the idea of an unlucky May was widespread. May was a time to abstain from sex across ancient Europe, from Greece to the west in Ireland, explaining why, traditionally, May is unlucky for marriage. In Britain, the month is associated with the Hawthorn or "Whitethorn," the tree of the Crone Goddess Cardea, who cast spells using hawthorn branches. The Greek's called her "Maia," a deity the romantic poets have led us to believe was young and fair, but Maia actually means "grandmother," a goddess whose son conducted the dead to the underworld. The Greeks propitiated the old Crone at marriages--"for the custom was hateful to the goddess," by carrying five torches of hawthorn-wood.*  

In the temples, May was month of cleansing. Altars were purified, religious images were removed and washed, not only with water, but with rituals.  Ovid, in his Fasti, says that the Priestess of Juppiter told him that his daughter should not enter into marriage until "the Ides of June, (mid-month) for until then there is no luck for brides and husbands. Until the sweepings of the temple of Vesta have been carried down to the sea by the yellow Tiber, I must myself not comb my locks which I have cut in sign of mourning, nor pare my nails, nor cohabit with my husband, though he is High Priest of Juppiter. Be not in haste. Your daughter will have better luck in marriage when Vesta's fire burns upon a cleansed hearth."

In Welsh mythology, Yspaddaden Penkawr, the Hawthorne giant, was father to the Fair Olwen (She of the White Track). No man could have her until her father received a dowry of thirteen treasures--all nearly impossible to obtain, of course. At last, a hero arrived. This man, fated to marry her, was named Kilhwych. Olwen was kept mewed up in a castle which was guarded by nine porters and nine watch dogs--note all those magical numbers! Until the unlucky power of May was broken, the Hawthorn's curse held sway.

 In Ireland, we find  many legends concerning magical wells and associated Hawthorn trees. According to E.M. Hull 's "Folklore of the British Isles," a man who destroys a hawthorn tree will suffer the loss of his children as well as the death of all his cattle.  In "Historic Thorn Trees of the British Isles," It is noted that 'St. Patrick's Thorn' at Tin'ahely in County Wicklow was still celebrated into the 19th Century. Here, celebrants paraded to the church and circled the holy well. Here, they tore bits of cloth from their old garments and left them upon the thorns of the ancient Hawthorn that grew there. Long ago, all over Europe, this practice was a sign of mourning and propitiation that must take place before the time of weddings and bringing in the first fruits of summer, which would take place in June. 

I realize that this has been a long wander into the tangles of ancient mythology. Much of this information comes to me from a controversial source: "The White Goddess" by Robert Graves, who was a poet, and, naturally, often occasionally afflicted by bee in his bonnet fits of hubris and madness. Nevertheless, he was also a man who understood many ancient languages well and who moved in scholarly academic circles. I find it interesting that many of his suppositions, arrived at through his knowledge of ancient languages, has actually anticipated many of the new DNA researches into the migrations of people into Europe, from the steppes and even from what is now Turkey and the Middle East. It amazed him, and it still amazes me, all the journeys that the ancestors made and the places in which they ended.

~~Juliet Waldron

Amazon - All my historicals

1 comment:

  1. Amazing how modern science is slowly catching up to ancient knowledge. I hope one day those reconcile and we understand how the universe really works. Thanks for sharing.


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