Apr 15, 2023
“This one day converges mythology (Norse), cosmology (Pagan), theology (Christian) and ideology (Marxist) with ancient fertility rites. And for my next trick…”
A very, very long time ago, when I was young, our favorite days of the year were Christmas and Halloween, not necessarily in that order. At Christmas, we were dependent on the kindness of others; but on Halloween we were allowed to make our own fun and express our primal pagan spirits, perhaps for the only time that year.
So what is the most important day of the year? For lovers, it might be Valentine’s Day; for veterans, Memorial Day; for patriots, the 4th of July and for gourmands, Thanksgiving: all worthy to be sure, but perhaps all wide of the mark.
A survey of western traditions suggests that the most important day of the year might be May Day. That’s right, May Day! This one day converges mythology (Norse), cosmology (Pagan), theology (Christian) and ideology (Marxist) with ancient fertility rites. And for my next trick…
Quite a feat! Or is it? As we shall see, it is a common concern with economic justice that ties all of these May Day traditions together; but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
The May Day tradition, in all its forms, is a celebration of Natural Law, a fundamental ordering principle in Universe that underlies astronomical phenomena, natural processes, cultural expression and ethical behavior. In recent centuries, the Zeitgeist has focused on ‘man’s conquest of nature’; this is far removed from the idea of Natural Law.
In Judaism, the law is twice manifest, once in the Written Torah, once in the Oral Torah. The Written Torah consists of 613 mitzvah found in the first five books of the Old Testament, traditionally attributed to Moses.
The Oral Torah is natural law. It is the same law as before, but instead of 613 precepts, it is inscribed in the processes of nature and on the hearts of men and women. According to the Hasidic tradition, there is one law (written and oral) and that law governs the cosmos, the earth and everything that happens on Earth.
According to the pre-Christian calendar of Northern Europe, May 1 is the first day of summer (and November 1, the first day of winter). While this may not make sense from the point of view of weather, it makes great sense astronomically. The summer solstice falls right in between May 1 and August 1, so why shouldn’t that 91-day period be labeled “summer”?
They are two of the Cross Days that divide the pagan calendar into its eight seasons. In pagan lore, the eves of May 1st and November 1st are special times because that is when the spirit world is closest to our physical world. On those two eves, it is as though a ‘portal’ opens that allows direct communication between the two realms. The Christian celebrations of All Hallows Eve, All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day are extensions of this theme.
Many of the activities that we now associate with October 31 were once also associated with April 30: bonfires, wild merry-making, and trick-or-treating, for example. Robert Graves (The White Goddess) wrote: “Christmas was merry in the Middle Ages, but May Day was still merrier. It was the time of beribboned maypoles…”
And why not? Roughly, maypoles are to May Day what Christmas trees are to Christmas. Each links the respective festival to fertility (phallus). Like Christmas trees, a maypole may be a living tree or one that has been cut down for the occasion. It can even be ‘artificial’ in the sense that a bare log (or some aluminum wire?) may be decorated with greenery to suggest a living tree.
Trees are powerful symbols and important examples of the fertility of the earth, and the Maypole’s shape connects human sexuality and reproduction with the more general fertility theme represented by trees. In Tudor England, it was customary for people to spend May Day Eve making love in the fields to promote the fertility of the land. Children conceived on such occasions were known as ‘Merry-be-Gots’.
In Norse mythology, a single tree, Ygdrasil, structures the entire cosmos. Separate ‘homelands’ are allocated to humans, gods, elves, giants, trolls, and others, but the branches of one giant tree, Odin’s ash tree (Ygdr = Odin or Woden), link these semi-autonomous regions into a coherent universe.
The Maypole symbolizes Ygdrasil, the mythological backbone of the world. Beyond mythology, the Maypole also expresses an important astronomical concept. Early on, humans discovered that the periods of Earth’s rotation and revolution were trivial compared to a cycle known as the Precession of the Equinox. Maypoles symbolize axis mundi, the earth’s axis, whose ‘wobble’ defines this 26,000-year celestial cycle.
Does James Joyce reprise this theme in Ulysses, where Stephen Dedalus lives in a tower which he calls Omphalos, the belly button of the world? (Sidebar: That S.D. lives inside the axis mundi, the navel of the universe, is a pretty good clue to the meaning of this supposedly impenetrable novel.)
Finally, trees play a crucial role in early European religion and spirituality. Recall the oak-worship of Celtic Druids, for example. Across Europe, individual trees or whole species of trees were once regarded as divine and only later became associated with anthropomorphic deities alleged to live inside them (e.g. tree nymphs, hamadryas). Did this development in ontology mirror the of nominalization of Indo-European language?
According to Sir James Frazer (The Golden Bough), Teutonic words for ‘temple’ actually derive from words denoting ‘sacred grove’, and the old word for ‘sanctuary’ is the Latin word, nemus, meaning grove or woodland glade. At one time, it seems, our groves and glades were our churches and our cathedrals.
During the persecution of Roman Catholicism by the English government, Irish Catholics practiced their religion in the woodlands, reconnecting them with their pre-Christian spiritual traditions.
More recently, the 20th century poet Ezra Pound recaptured the association between nature and spirit in his Cantos: “Aram vult nemus” (the grove needs an altar). This theme first appears in Canto LXXIV, the opening of Pound’s Pisan Cantos, the beginning of his Paradiso. From LXXIV on, Cantos is Pound’s blueprint for building (rebuilding?) “The city of Dioce” (i.e., Paradise).
Perhaps anticipating by several decades our ‘Green movement’, Pound prescribes the reunification of nature and spirit. He would have been at home among the Druids.
Along with fertility, mythology and cosmology, ancient May Day rites include an economic theme. Again, according to Frazer (The Golden Bough):
“At Thann, in Alsace, a girl called Little May Rose, dressed in white, carries a small May-tree, which is gay with garlands and ribbons. Her companions collect gifts from door to door, singing a song… In the course of the song, a wish is expressed that those who give nothing may lose their fowls by the marten, that their vine may bear no clusters, their tree no nuts, their field no corn…”
“In some villages of the Vosges Mountains on the first Sunday of May, young girls go in bands from house to house, singing a song in praise of May in which mention is made of the ‘bread and meal that come in May’. If money is given them, they fasten a green bough to the door; if it is refused, they wish the family many children and no bread to feed them.”
“… In some villages of Altmark at Whitsuntide…the girls lead about the May Bride, a girl dressed as a bride… They go from house to house, the May Bride singing a song in which she asks for a present, and tells the inmates of each house that if they give her something they themselves will have something the whole year through; but if they give her nothing, they themselves will have nothing.”
How should we understand this pan-cultural focus on May Day giving? In few, if any, cases are the gifts substantial. They seem to be symbolic, but symbolic of what?
First, there is the magical element. It is spring and over the coming months; we will be expecting the earth to give of itself for our benefit. According to the ‘principles of magic’, like begets like. If we expect nature to give, we also must give; just as in England, May merry-makers reproduced (Merry-be-Gots) to encourage the land to reproduce. (Lie quiet Malthus!)
On another level, the welfare of one is understood to be dependent on the welfare of all. In a society where everyone has the necessities of life, the overall economy will be more prosperous. Obviously, the practitioners of early May Day rituals were not trained economists, but they may have intuitively grasped the nature and necessity of social solidarity. It is only in recent centuries that we have lost sight of this essential truth. As the ‘natural economy’ (fertility) benefits everyone, so must the ‘human economy’ (generosity) benefit all.
It is here, of course, that these early May Day rites intersect with later day Christian and Marxist versions. In the Roman Catholic Church, for example, the month of May is dedicated to Mary, the mother (fertility) of Jesus. May 1st, May Day, stands at the head of Mary’s special month.
In many Catholic areas, it has traditionally been a day of brightly colored, florid processions, reminiscent of the pre-Christian festivals (maypoles) mentioned above. Controversially, in 1955 Pope Pius XII designated May 1st as the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker, underscoring yet again May Day’s universal economic aspect.
Mary speaks sparingly in scripture, but when she does, she packs a punch. In her Magnificat (Luke 1: 46 – 52), for example, Mary says of Yahweh, “He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones but lifted up the lowly. The hungry he has filled with good things, but the rich he has sent away empty.”
Are we reading Luke…or Lenin? Mary of the Magnificat is every bit as radical as Marx of the Manifesto…in fact, much more so! Compared to Christians, Communists are wimps! (But I promised no politics, sorry.)
Still, Communists and Socialists are primarily concerned with questions of economic justice, so it cannot be overlooked that they elected, ostensibly for other reasons, to schedule their own chief annual celebration (May Day) on the very day that pagans and Christians choose to celebrate their commitments to economic justice.
We have drawn material from anthropology, mythology, cosmology, theology, and economics; out of all of these cultural expressions, we can, I think, distill a common core: there exists a body of natural law that spans ages, continents, and cultures…and economic justice is integral to that law.
David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.