The May Queen
For thousands of years, the official beginning of summer on May 1st was celebrated in the joyous fire festival of Beltane. Beltane means “the fires of Bel.” Celts believed that, at this time, the shining God of the Sun returned to Earth to banish winter and marry the Earth goddess. From this sacred union of god and goddess, fertility and abundance would return to the world, ensuring the survival of the people for another year.
Beltane celebrations reflected these ancient beliefs. A May Queen was selected to represent the virgin goddess. Her consort, the May King, or Green Man, was chosen to unite with her in the sacred marriage of Sun and Earth. (In earlier hunter-gatherer times, Herne, the Horned God, was paired with Diana, the huntress.)
On this joyful day, many participated in fertility rites. May 1st was the only day in the year when couples, married or unmarried, were free to go into the forest and make love with anyone they chose. Happy lovers returned to the village in the morning, laden with flowers they’d gathered to make wreaths for their hair, garlands to hang in the trees, May baskets for loved ones, and decorations for the village Maypole.
Maypole dances also symbolized the union of male and female, god and goddess. Ribbons were woven together round the pole in intricate patterns of red and white as dancers moved through ritual steps.
Great fires of new wood were lit on hills. Couples leaped across the flames three times to affirm their commitment to one another. Cattle were driven between fires on their way to fresh summer pastures. Families walked between the bonfires as well, believing that they, like their animals, would be purified and healed of winter’s ills through exposure to the sacred fire and smoke.
Many of these pagan rites were later absorbed or outlawed by the Church, in an effort to wean people from the “Old Religion.” Some of them survive today, in modern celebrations that still seek to honor life, love, beauty, and the sacred fertility of Mother Earth and all her children.