Dancing May Day Through History

Dancing May Day Through History

by Jon Bergeon

 

As the sun set, the hilltops became alive with fire. The warm spring air filtered gently through the trees and caressed the lush green landscape as a blanket of night fell over the land. Happiness, hope and passion filled the night as the people danced and celebrated this sacred time, taking time to explore the forests, meadows and even each other.

This night, known as Beltaine, has been celebrated in many cultures and in many different ways. Today, it remains as one of the two most important holidays to modern pagans, the other being Samhain.

Also known as May Day or May Eve, Beltaine falls on the first evening of May, or on the last evening of April, as people once considered that the beginning of a new day occurred at dusk. Beltaine, a fertility Sabbat, marks the last day of the planting season, once a very important time before the advent of modern conveniences and inconveniences. Beltaine also celebrates life and renewal and a time of hope; from this time, things started would tend toward their fruition.

Among the customs of Beltaine, two stand out the most. These are the bonfire, also called the balefire, and the ever popular Maypole.

The balefire played such an important role that not only did certain rules cover its making and uses, but a law was even passed in ancient Ireland making it illegal for anyone to light a balefire until the king first did so himself. One of the balefire’s purposes was purification, a practice used for ages to remove negative energies such as disease and physical impurities and replace them with positive energies. In magickal work, purification mostly takes place between the act of banishment and the act of consecration, being a lesser form of each (though playing an important part connecting the two, which some modern practitioners of the magickal arts seem to overlook nowadays).

One of the many things that underwent balefire purifications was cattle, which were often led through the balefire’s smoke. Cattle held a very important place in those days, not only as food, clothing and whatever else can be made out of a cow, but also as a source of wealth and status. Irish sagas such as the “Tian Bo Cuailgne” demonstrate the important place of cattle. In this tale, the province of Connacht, led by Queen Maeve, goes to war with the province of Ulster, under the leadership of the unsuspecting Cuchulain, the only one able to defend his land as every other adult male in Connacht was undergoing labor pains (don’t ask, just read the story). The war, as it was, raged over a single bull, known as the Brown Bull of Quelgny. Odin’s runes also demonstrate the important role cattle once played in ancient society, which can be seen in the first rune of the aettir, Fehu or Fe, which literally translates as cattle but also symbolizes wealth.

Besides purifying, the balefire also consecrated. A couple who planned to marry on May Eve would jump over through the flames of the bonfire to seal their vows and consecrate the union (not to be confused with consummating the union, which did not take place over or in the fire). How it was regarded if the bride or groom burst into flames I don’t know; the interpretation was probably left to the officiating party.

In addition to the purifying and consecrating properties of the bonfires of May Eve, they served also as a method of insurance, allowing a family or way of life to continue. Traditionally, this was achieved by bringing glowing embers of the balefire into the house, where they would be used in blessings to bring joy and happiness to the family that resided there. The ashes were then taken to the fields, where they would be scattered about, thereby blessing the future crops. Such a blessing works magickally through a quality known as “inherent virtue,” where the properties of a known positive thing are applied to another to obtain a positive result. The result was a better crop yield, at least partly because the ashes made a fine growth supplement due to the nitrogen content of the ash.

Another belief behind the balefires concerned the inhabitants of the underworld, or the world of faery. Folk of ancient Europe once believed, and pagans of the faery faiths may still believe today, that the faery folk could not create fire and had to rely on humans to do it for them. Once the fire began, the faery would then cart coals off to the underworld, where they would be tended and nurtured by the inhabitants.

The holiday of Beltaine didn’t only serve as a fertility Sabbat, as it is commonly known today, but also as a time when the dead came out of the underworld to join the living, as on Samhain. At least, so believed the ancient Teutonic peoples, and without doubt also the modern practitioners of the Northern Mysteries. On Beltaine, the living invited deceased friends and relatives to warm themselves by the fireside and toast to a glorious past.

The other outstanding Beltaine tradition, the Maypole, still survives to this day. The Maypole dance is a fertility rite, which is made obvious by the symbolism of the pole itself, which sticks straight up out of the ground in phallic fashion. To the top of the pole are attached an even number of ribbons of varying color. The dancers, which usually consist of an equal number of males and females, hold high their arms, and with a ribbon in one hand circle the pole counter to the dancers next to them, weaving in and out and wrapping the ribbons down the length of the pole. Once done, the dancers turn, changing direction and unwrapping the ribbons.

The Maypole usually consists of a tall straight tree stripped of its branches. For this purpose, the pine is an excellent choice, though some consider the birch even better due to its qualities as a tree of birth and rebirth. These qualities can be seen in the rune Beorc or Birkana and the first letter of the Celtic Ogham alphabet, Beithe, which both represent the birch tree and the energy of birth and rebirth. However, the Maypole need not be made out of either pine or birch; it can be made out of any pole or beam planted in the ground.

Another Beltaine custom was the activity of going “a-Maying,” usually enjoyed by the young folk. Going a-Maying usually consisted of people going into the forest together looking for the blossoms of the hawthorn tree. The hawthorn, a sacred tree, had protective energies, but only on this night could one take branches and blossoms from the tree. The ancients also believed that sitting beneath a hawthorn on May Eve could result in the unfortunate sitter being abducted to the underworld. Fortunately, this event doesn’t appear to happen often, as I have been to the hawthorn on this day to collect wood for an amulet and was spared the experience. The hawthorn was not the only thing deflowered while a-Maying; those gone a-Maying into the forests and other secluded spots also took time to collect on their natural urges.

Once flowers were gathered, the gatherers created from them wreaths and garlands. These were brought back to decorate, bless and protect houses and people.

Flowers also figured in another May custom, that of the May King and his triumph over the winter. Until relatively recently in Sweden, the May King would parade down a town street, dressed head to toe in flowers, with a man dressed in furs. The man in the furs was the personification of winter, and this was his time to go. During the procession, the May King accosted the man in furs, pelting him with flowers, thereby driving him off. The May King, victorious, then began his reign.

Beltaine has many customs, many more even than I have mentioned. It is a holiday worth celebrating, a time of renewal and rebirth when the skins and troubles of the winter, both in the world and in ourselves, may be shed. At Beltaine, we can nurture new ideas and grow as individuals and as a community.

May Eve has survived for many, many years and shall continue to survive for many, many more. Through these years, we can expect a change in the customs, but never in the idea of hope and rebirth.

The Goddess Morrigan

The Morrigan

Goddess Of Battle, Strife, and Fertility

The Morrígan (“phantom queen”) or Mórrígan (“great queen”), also written as Morrígu or in the plural as Morrígna, and spelt Morríghan or Mór-Ríoghain in Modern Irish, is a figure from Irish mythology who appears to have once been a goddess, although she is not explicitly referred to as such in the texts.

The Morrigan is a goddess of battle, strife, and fertility. She sometimes appears in the form of a crow, flying above the warriors, and in the Ulster cycle she also takes the form of an eel, a wolf and a cow. She is generally considered a war deity comparable with the Germanic Valkyries, although her association with cattle also suggests a role connected with fertility, wealth, and the land.

She is often depicted as a triple goddess, although membership of the triad varies; the most common combination is the Badb, Macha and Nemain, but other accounts name Fea, Anann, and others.

Etymology

There is some disagreement over the meaning of the Morrígan’s name. Mor may derive from an Indo-European root connoting terror or monstrousness, cognate with the Old English maere (which survives in the modern English word “nightmare”) and the Scandinavian mara; while rígan translates as ‘queen’. This can be reconstructed in Proto-Celtic as *Moro-rīganī-s. Accordingly, Morrígan is often translated as “Phantom Queen”. This is the derivation generally favoured in current scholarship.

In the Middle Irish period the name is often spelt Mórrígan with a lengthening diacritic over the ‘o’, seemingly intended to mean “Great Queen” (Old Irish mór, ‘great’; this would derive from a hypothetical Proto-Celtic *Māra Rīganī-s.). Whitley Stokes believed this latter spelling was a due to a false etymology popular at the time. There have also been attempts to link the Morrígan with the fairy Morgan from Arthurian romance, in whose name ‘mor’ may derive from ‘sea’ or ‘water’.

The name is also sometimes spelt Morrígu and given in plural as Morrígna in Old Irish.

Glosses and glossaries

The earliest sources for the Morrígan are glosses in Latin manuscripts, and glossaries (collections of glosses). In a 9th century manuscript containing the Latin Vulgate translation of the Book of Isaiah, the word Lamia is used to translate the Hebrew Lilith. A gloss explains this as “a monster in female form, that is, a morrígan“. Cormac’s Glossary (also 9th century), and a gloss in the later manuscript H.3.18, both explain the plural word gudemain (“spectres”) with the plural form morrígna. The 8th century O’Mulconry’s Glossary says that Macha is one of the three morrígna. It therefore appears that at this time the name Morrígan was seen as referring to a class of beings rather than an individual.

Ulster Cycle

The Morrígan’s earliest narrative appearances, in which she is depicted as an individual, are in stories of the Ulster Cycle, where she has an ambiguous relationship with the hero Cú Chulainn. In Táin Bó Regamna (The Cattle Raid of Regamain), Cúchulainn encounters the Morrígan, but does not recognize her, as she drives a heifer from his territory. In response to his challenge, she insults him, but before he can attack she becomes a black bird on a nearby branch. Cúchulainn now knows who she, and tells her that had he known before, they would not have parted in enmity. She notes that whatever he had done would have brought him ill luck. To his response that she cannot harm him, she makes a series of threats, foretelling a coming battle in which he will be killed. She tells him, enigmatically, “I guard your death”.

In the Táin Bó Cuailnge queen Medb of Connacht launches an invasion of Ulster to steal the bull Donn Cuailnge; the Morrígan, like Alecto of the Greek Furies, appears to the bull in the form of a crow and warns him to flee. Cúchulainn defends Ulster by fighting a series of single combats at fords against Medb’s champions. In between combats the Morrígan appears to him as a young woman and offers him her love, and her aid in the battle, but he spurns her. In response she intervenes in his next combat, first in the form of an eel who trips him, then as a wolf who stampedes cattle across the ford, and finally as a red heifer leading the stampede, just as she had threatened in their previous encounter. However Cúchulainn wounds her in each form and defeats his opponent despite her interference. Later she appears to him as an old woman bearing the same three wounds that her animal forms sustained, milking a cow. She gives Cúchulainn three drinks of milk. He blesses her with each drink, and her wounds are healed. As the armies gather for the final battle, she prophesies the bloodshed to come.

In one version of Cúchulainn’s death-tale, as the hero rides to meet his enemies, he encounters the Morrígan as a hag washing his bloody armour in a ford, an omen of his death. Later in the story, mortally wounded, Cúchulainn ties himself to a standing stone with his own entrails so he can die upright, and it is only when a crow lands on his shoulder that his enemies believe he is dead.

Mythological Cycle

The Morrígan also appears in texts of the Mythological Cycle. In the 12th century pseudohistorical compilation Lebor Gabála Érenn she is listed among the Tuatha Dé Danann as one of the daughters of Ernmas, granddaughter of Nuada.

The first three daughters of Ernmas are given as Ériu, Banba, and Fódla. Their names are synonyms for Ireland, and they were married to Mac Cuill, Mac Cécht, and Mac Gréine, the last three Tuatha Dé Danann kings of Ireland. Associated with the land and kingship, they probably represent a triple goddess of sovereignty. Next come Ernmas’s other three daughters: the Badb, Macha, and the Morrígan. A quatrain describes the three as wealthy, “springs of craftiness” and “sources of bitter fighting”. The Morrígan’s name is said to be Anann, and she had three sons, Glon, Gaim, and Coscar. According to Geoffrey Keating’s 17th century History of Ireland, Ériu, Banba, and Fódla worshipped the Badb, Macha, and the Morrígan respectively, suggesting that the two triads of goddesses may be seen as equivalent.

The Morrígan also appears in Cath Maige Tuireadh (The Battle of Mag Tuired). On Samhain she keeps a tryst with the Dagda before the battle against the Fomorians. When he meets her she is washing herself, standing with one foot on either side of the river Unius. In some sources she is believed to have created the river. After they have sex, the Morrígan promises to summon the magicians of Ireland to cast spells on behalf of the Tuatha Dé, and to destroy Indech, the Fomorian king, taking from him “the blood of his heart and the kidneys of his valour”. Later, we are told, she would bring two handfuls of his blood and deposit them in the same river (however, we are also told later in the text that Indech was killed by Ogma).

As battle is about to be joined, the Tuatha Dé leader, Lug, asks each what power they bring to the battle. The Morrígan’s reply is difficult to interpret, but involves pursuing, destroying and subduing. When she comes to the battlefield she chants a poem, and immediately the battle breaks and the Fomorians are driven into the sea. After the battle she chants another poem celebrating the victory and prophesying the end of the world.

In another story she lures away the bull of a woman called Odras, who follows her to the otherworld via the cave of Cruachan. When she falls asleep, the Morrígan turns her into a pool of water.

Nature and functions

The Morrígan is often considered a triple goddess, but her supposed triple nature is ambiguous and inconsistent. Sometimes she appears as one of three sisters, the daughters of Ernmas: the Morrígan, the Badb and Macha. Sometimes the trinity consists of the Badb, Macha and Nemain, collectively known as the Morrígan, or in the plural as the Morrígna. Occasionally Fea or Anu also appear in various combinations. However the Morrígan also frequently appears alone, and her name is sometimes used interchangeably with the Badb, with no third “aspect” mentioned.

The Morrígan is usually interpreted as a “war goddess”: W. M. Hennessey’s “The Ancient Irish Goddess of War,” written in 1870, was influential in establishing this interpretation. Her role often involves premonitions of a particular warrior’s violent death, suggesting a link with the Banshee of later folklore. This connection is further noted by Patricia Lysaght: “In certain areas of Ireland this supernatural being is, in addition to the name banshee, also called the badhb“.

It has also been suggested that she was closely tied to Irish männerbund groups (described as “bands of youthful warrior-hunters, living on the borders of civilized society and indulging in lawless activities for a time before inheriting property and taking their places as members of settled, landed communities”) and that these groups may have been in some way dedicated to her. If true, her worship may have resembled that of Perchta groups in Germanic areas.

However, Máire Herbert has argued that “war per se is not a primary aspect of the role of the goddess”, and that her association with cattle suggests her role was connected to the earth, fertility and sovereignty; she suggests that her association with war is a result of a confusion between her and the Badb, who she argues was originally a separate figure. She can be interpreted as providing political or military aid, or protection to the king — acting as a goddess of sovereignty, not necessarily a war goddess.

There is a burnt mound site in County Tipperary known as Fulacht na Mór Ríoghna (“cooking pit of the Mórrígan”). The fulachta sites are found in wild areas, and usually associated with outsiders such as the Fianna and the above-mentioned männerbund groups, as well as with the hunting of deer. The cooking connection also suggests to some a connection with the three mythical hags who cook the meal of dogflesh that brings the hero Cúchulainn to his doom. The Dá Chich na Morrigna (“two breasts of the Mórrígan”), a pair of hills in County Meath, suggest to some a role as a tutelary goddess, comparable to Danu or Anu, who has her own hills in County Kerry. Other goddesses known to have similar hills are Áine and Grian of County Limerick who, in addition to a tutelary function, also have solar attributes.

Arthurian legend

There have been attempts by some modern authors of fiction to link the Arthurian character Morgan le Fay with the Morrígan. Morgan first appears in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini (The Life of Merlin) in the 12th century. However, while the creators of the literary character of Morgan may have been somewhat inspired by the much older tales of the goddess, the relationship ends there. Scholars such as Rosalind Clark hold that the names are unrelated, the Welsh “Morgan” (Wales being the source of Arthurian legend being derived from root words associated with the sea, while the Irish “Morrígan” has its roots either in a word for “terror” or a word for “greatness”.

Origins of The Morrigan

The origins of the Morrigan seem to reach directly back to the megalithic cult of the Mothers. The Mothers (Matrones, Idises, Disir, etc.) usually appeared as triple goddesses and their cult was expressed through both battle ecstasy and regenerative ecstasy. It’s also interesting to note that later Celtic goddesses of sovereignty, such as the trio of Eriu, Banba, and Fotla, also appear as a trio of female deities who use magic in warfare. “Influence in the sphere of warfare, but by means of magic and incantation rather than through physical strength, is common to these beings.” (Ross 205)

Eriu, a goddess connected to the land in a fashion reminiscent of the Mothers, could appear as a beautiful woman or as a crow, as could the Morrigan. The Disir appeared in similar guises. In addition to being battle goddesses, they are significantly associated with fate as well as birth in many cases, along with appearing before a death or to escort the deceased.

There is certainly evidence that the concept of a raven goddess of battle was not limited to the Irish Celts. An inscription found in France which reads Cathubodva, ‘Battle Raven’, shows that a similar concept was at work among the Gaulish Celts.

Valkyries in Norse cosmology. Both use magic to cast fetters on warriors and choose who will die.

During the Second Battle, the Morrigan “said she would go and destroy Indech son of De Domnann and ‘deprive him of the blood of his heart and the kidneys of his valor’, and she gave two handfuls of that blood to the hosts. When Indech later appeared in the battle, he was already doomed.” (Rees 36)

Compare this to the Washer at the Ford, another guise of the Morrigan. The Washer is usually to be found washing the clothes of men about to die in battle. In effect, she is choosing who will die.

An early German spell found in Merseburg mentions the Indisi, who decided the fortunes of war and the fates of warriors. The Scandinavian “Song of the Spear”, quoted in “Njals Saga”, gives a detailed description of Valkyries as women weaving on a grisly loom, with severed heads for weights, arrows for shuttles, and entrails for the warp. As they worked, they exulted at the loss of life that would take place. “All is sinister now to see, a cloud of blood moves over the sky, the air is red with the blood of men, and the battle women chant their song.” (Davidson 94)

An Old English poem, “Exodus”, refers to ravens as choosers of the slain. In all these sources, ravens, choosing of the slain, casting fetters, and female beings are linked.

“As the Norse and English sources show them to us, the walkurjas are figures of awe an even terror, who delight in the deaths of men. As battlefield scavengers, they are very close to the ravens, who are described as waelceasega, “picking over the dead”…” (Our Troth)

“The function of the goddess [the Morrigan] here, it may be noted, is not to attack the hero [Cu Chulainn] with weapons but to render him helpless at a crucial point in the battle, like the valkyries who cast ‘fetters’ upon warriors … thus both in Irish and Scandinavian literature we have a conception of female beings associated with battle, both fierce and erotic.” (Davidson 97, 100)

The Morrigan and Cu Chulainn

She appeared to the hero Cu Chulainn(son of the god Lugh) and offered her love to him. When he failed to recognize her and rejected her, she told him that she would hinder him when he was in battle. When Cu Chulainn was eventually killed, she settled on his shoulder in the form of a crow. Cu’s misfortune was that he never recognized the feminine power of sovereignty that she offered to him.

She appeared to him on at least four occasions and each time he failed to recognize her.

  1. When she appeared to him and declared her love for him.
  2. After he had wounded her, she appeared to him as an old hag and he offered his blessings to her, which caused her to be healed.
  3. On his way to his final battle, he saw the Washer at the Ford, who declared that she was washing the clothes and arms of Cu Chulainn, who would soon be dead.
  4. When he was forced by three hags (the Morrigan in her triple aspect) to break a taboo of eating dogflesh.

THE GREAT GODDESS MORRIGAN

Created By Calesta

The information on Morrigan is vast, and at times contradictory. It would take many, many webpages to tell all of her stories and it was very difficult to narrow this down! From maiden to mother to crone, from the destruction of war and death, to the beauty of the river of rebirth, Morrigan shows us the full circle of life. As with many Divine Feminine images, time can distort, and different cultures take on different attributes. What I have found that is close to the truth in my experience with her follows.

Morrigan is an Irish and Celtic Goddess. She can shapeshift into a crow or raven. It is said that she would take this form and fly over battlefields “calling upon the spirits of slain warriors.” (p. 252, McCoy) She is a triple goddess, with the aspects of the “virgin Ana, flowering fertility- goddess; the mother Babd, “Boiling” the cauldron perpetually producing life; and the crone Macha, “great Queen of the Phantoms” or Mother Death.” (p. 675, Walker). I believe she was also originally connected to the Great Irish Mother Goddess, Anu (later called Danu). In her aspect of Macha she was so powerful her name was the ancient capital of Ireland (p. 186, Kimball).

In the tales of the first people of Ireland, the Tuatha De Danann (literally the people of the Goddess Danu, pg. 189 Kimball), Morrigan was said to have blown a protective fog over all of the land, so that they would not be invaded. This shows the strength of Morrigan, and the protection the people received from her. Morrigan is also connected with death and destruction and battles. One story tells that Macha was forced to race while pregnant with twins, and when she (easily) won she gave birth to the twins. She was so angry at her tormentors for giving birth in public that way, she cursed them with the pain of childbirth before enemies were closing in. For nine generations when Ulster came under attack the men would experience the pains of childbirth (p. 192 Kimball).

Morrigan is a “Goddess of rivers, lakes and freshwaters”, and she was seen by Cu Chulain before his death, washing the clothes and arms. It is said that if one sees Morrigan by the river washing their clothes or body, is is a prediction of death before going into battle. Looking at this story, one can see the river or water as a place of rebirth, that Morrigan as the Goddess washing, anointing the body before being reborn.

Calling upon the strength of a woman that can fight off armies, and wash the dead is very powerful. Darkness, death, is a natural part of life, and brewing in the cauldron of rebirth is new life. But what I have found is to recognize that over time most Goddesses have been demonized… made to be solely focused on sex or death. Taking out pieces of the cycle, and turning them into something evil. Just as the wise crone was turned to hag.

 

Hymn to the Morrigan by Isaac Bonewits

 

O Morrigan, we call your name Across the dusty years.
You speak to us, of blood and lust. You show us all our fears.
You are a goddess, old and wise. Of holy power you have no dearth.
Beneath your wings : Black, Red and White, We learn of death and birth.

 

You walk about, this ancient land, Your hungers raw and clear.
You make the crops, grow rich and strong, As well your geese and deer.
A flirting maid, a lusty hag, A mother of great girth :
Without the touch of your black wings, We cannot heal the earth.

 

You float upon, a blood red wave, Of swords and spears and knives.
Your voice inspires, fear and dread, That you’ll cut short our lives.
You try the warriors’, courage sore, Our inner souls unearth.
Without the touch of your red wings, We cannot know our worth.

 

You fly above the silver clouds, To Manannan’s shining Gate.
You lead the dead along that path, To meet our final fate.
The joke’s on us, we find within, A land of laughter and of mirth.
Without the touch of your white wings, We cannot have rebirth.