All Focus with Sherry Gewitzke

I BRING you more fascinating folklore and mythology, rural and herb lore, the traditions of maypole dancing and the Celtic fire festival of Beltane.

According to the early-medieval texts Sanas Cormaic and Tochmarc Emire, Beltane was held on May 1 and marked the beginning of summer. To protect cattle from disease, the druids would make two fires ‘with great incantations’ and drive the cattle between them.

Since 1988, a Beltane Fire Festival has been held every year during the night of April 30 on Calton Hill in Edinburgh, Scotland. We have more local Beltane celebrations – on Butser Hill in Hampshire they have a sunset celebration in the Celtic tradition.

In the calendar of the ancient Celts, it is easy to understand the importance of the first day of summer. The ‘fire of Bel’, or Beltane as it was called, was celebrated with bonfires to welcome the new season. Known today as May Day, it has through the ages remained the most important day of the folklore year.

Despite being opposed through the centuries, many May Day festivities survive today. Maypole dancing, with its sinister hints of tree worship, was described by the Puritans as ‘a heathenish vanity’ and was accordingly banned. Dancing did not start again until after the restoration of Charles II.

Other ways to welcome the summer include the crowning of the May queen, the mad antics of Jack-in-the-Green and the rampaging of the Hobby Horses!

Beltane or Beltain is also the Gaelic May Day festival. Most commonly it is held on May 1, or about halfway between the spring equinox and the summer solstice. Historically, it was widely observed throughout Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man.

A similar festival existed in ancient Rome called Floraliaand was dedicated to the Flower Goddess Flora on May 1. In medieval times the branches of a slender tree were cut, coloured ribbons tied to the top and the revellers held on to the ends of the ribbons and danced.

The symbolism of the maypole has been debated by folklorists for centuries, although no set conclusion has ever been arrived at. Some scholars classify maypoles as symbols of the world axis and pagan tradition. One theory holds that they were a remnant of the Germanic reverence for sacred trees, as there is evidence for various sacred trees and wooden pillars that were venerated by the pagans across much of Germanic Europe, including Thor’s Oak.

It is also known that, in Norse paganism, cosmological views held the universe was a world tree – Yggdrasil. There is therefore speculation that the maypole was in some way a continuance of this tradition.

In 1644, maypoles were described as ‘a heathenish vanity’ and were generally abused as superstition until the 19th century when the Victorians seized on it as a ‘rustic delight’. But many of the significant Pagan aspects of the day were ignored by our strait-laced ancestors and instead of a fertility rite, dancing around the maypole became a children’s game of wickedness.