Do We Need Mayday?

maypoleessayMayday, Walpurg, Beltane; however you name it, the rites of the May Queen, the sacred dance around the May Pole are the most deeply sexual rituals of our ancient tradition. I heard both learned scholars, and laughing free spirits both offer the opinion that we did not need this day. The scholars found it frivolous, and debated the lore concerning its practice (as most is low lore, local in origin, and quite disparate in nature). The free spirits thought us lusty enough to not need a celebration to remember our sexuality, or ensure our fertility.

To each, respectfully, no. Mayday is a celebration of sacred sexuality, it is not simply a celebration of human sexuality, but of the fertility of the renewing earth, a celebration that invokes, offers, and ask blessings on the creation and renewal of life. Our women’s wombs, those of our hens, ewes, mares, and cows, are equally important to our survival as a people, are equally tied to the cycles of this shared earth, so blessings are asked on the fruits of each. Since Charming of the Plow we have prepared the earth, since Ostara we have planted, weeded and pruned, at MayDay we ask that the seeds we have put in the ground will give us grain, and vegetable; we ask the trees that we tend bear fruit. In this cycle, plant, animal, insect, man, are all one in both desire and destiny. We literally rise and fall together, and the ancients understood this. The love between man and woman, or between lovers of same gender, is just love. Love is the mental/spiritual, the “higher” aspect of the life affirmation drive. More than just the desire to procreate, it is the desire to love life, to protect life, to fight for life, to strive to improve life, to cherish and treasure it. Love is the force that provides balance and direction to the aggression or acquisition drive that is necessary for competition and survival. Love is the wellspring of our sanity. It is a well we strive in this age to cut ourselves off from.

Our ancestors needed Mayday less than we do. They walked with their flocks, tended their fields, slaughtered and prepared their meat, walked to the battlefield and saw their warriors stand or fall in defense of their tribe. They watched the belts tighten and cheeks hollow as Yule approached and larders dwindled. They rose at dawn, and worked while there was light. Day and night ruled them, spring and summer defined their planting and calving, they lived as one with the cycles of the land, the flocks, the fields. They did not need to renew the connection between themselves and this world, because they lived it with every breath. We-do-not!

Our year was fixed by the Christians with their solar calendar. They called those who clung to the old ways Heathen and Pagan. Both are city folks derogatory terms for farmers or hicks. Christianity moved from the centers of power outward, from the cities to the towns to the hamlets, and the farmers were the last to give up their connection to the old ways, because they were the most connected to it. This had less to do with moral superiority of country folk ( I was raised one, so cannot subscribe to that myth), than it does the truth that cities began the severing of the ties between the folk and the wights.

Technology is a tool we use to make the world more access able, more workable, more survivable for us. Like all tools it comes with associated risks, and like almost all tools I have known, those risks are only discovered by consequence, rather than intuition. Large scale farming, by this I mean non-animal powered farming, made it possible to bring far greater yield per acre, sustainably, than our ancestors could have imagined. It created a small, sometimes prosperous, farming class, and allowed most of the folk to understand grain, fruit, vegetable, and meat only as commodities purchased from a store, rather than as whole seasons of work, worries about rain and hail, frost and blight. Our connection to the field and flock began to whither long before industry. Our connection to the wights of the land, the cycles of the earth began to weaken with the shift to urban population, and it was into this dangerous transition that Christianity was introduced to our detriment.

The fixed solar calendar introduced by the church was accepted for convenience, because for the people that mattered (not peasants), the actual seasons didn’t matter any more. Spring was a mark on a calendar, not a time when you could plant, not a time when the rabbits danced and the crocuses bloomed first. Fall was a mark on a liturgical calendar, not a time the harvest was done, the geese had fled south. This was a sign of the growing rift between our human nature and our natural world. With any such separation between nature and practice, the disharmony brought with it problems of mental and spiritual natures, as conflicts between our natural state and societal expectations begin to be at odds.

Electric lights freed us from the cycle of day and night, which in turn freed us from the cycles of summer and winter, even as central heating and air conditioning stopped many of our bodies from undergoing the seasonal internal changes required to harden against cold in winter, and heat shock in summer. With the loss of these conditions comes a rise in seasonal diseases, as our bodies natural defenses are not in place, and our technological air temperature control assures daily temperature shocks between our controlled spaces and the exterior temperature; while pooling disease in the temperature controlled internal air. We are completely adrift. Cut off from the lands and waters, cut off from the wights, from sun and moon, from field and flock.

I have written previously about the phenomenon of garden gnomes, pets and houseplants; these are physical signs of the unconscious desire of mankind to connect to the wights of the land, the ancient cycles of field and flock. We need this to be sane, we need this to be human. These silly little things are signs of the very basic human need to connect with our primal nature, our animal nature, our place and part in the ancient and holy cycles of the earth.

Now comes Mayday. Derided by the Christian church for centuries (they really frothed at the mouth about it), as nothing more than an excuse for public lewdness and licentious behavior, and by modern heathen scholars as being just another excuse for fluffy-bunny Wiccans to get naked and screw, it is in fact far more than that, and yet pretty much exactly that.

Our genetalia may be the last functional link between our primal selves, our animal nature, and our waking mind. Our sex drive may be the one part of our modern selves that remains connected to these ancient cycles. As a soldier in a gender intergrated army, I learned that surviving almost getting killed sometimes lead to absolutely frantic life affirming sex. Nothing tells you that you are still alive more than the act of love, nothing purges the touch of death from your mind and flesh more than the act of creation. Soldiers and sailors on leave have a reputation for heading for a booty call first thing, and there is a reason for that. Sanity requires that reconnection with life after walking with death. We are not separated by the grocery store, or by our technology, we remain connected through lust and love, through desire and affection.

Mayday comes and we gather to crown the May Queen; Freya walks among us, the symbol of desire, of female sexual power, of love manifest, of life renewed. The May Pole is erected (pun intentional), and the great symbol of Frey’s golden life giving penis rises in the center of our towns and villages, and we dance around it with wild abandon, binding with ribbons the potency of the male with the desire of the female, binding male and female fertility together. As the sun goes down it was traditional for couples to go into the fields and show the gods exactly what they were wishing in their fields, for nothing can invoke fertility like the life affirmation of love. This is not tawdry and trite, this is a connection between our human sexuality, sacred sexuality, and the cycles of life and renewal of the earth. This is the sanity reset button. This is a bringing back into balance of those internal cycles that have drifted apart from our natural rhythms due to our technological disconnect from our natural world.

Do we need Mayday as an excuse to celebrate love? Honestly, we have never needed it more.

[John T Mainer is 43 year old married father of three beautiful daughters.  Heathen since basic training in the Canadian Armed Forces in 1988, he is Freyr of the Heathen Freehold Society of British Columbia and Western Canada Steward of The Troth.  He is also co-author of two heathen children’s books: Kindertales and Kindertales II, and contributor to The Troth’s handbook for Heathen soldiers, Words For Warriors.  He is active in the local Heathen and multifaith scene on Canada’s West Coast and with various online heathen and pagan groups.] 

3 thoughts on “Do We Need Mayday?”

  1. While I certainly think your heart is in the right place with this, John, I have to dispute some of your assertions. A fixed solar calendar has been a part of many cultures since before Christianity: the Egyptians and Romans both had one long before Christian hegemony was the rule of the day. Cities, likewise, have been around for a very long time–the Mesopotamian cities of 3500+ BCE gave us our first narrative literature.

    Also, while you’re right on with the Germanic fertility associations of Mayday, Beltaine is (in native Irish sources) not connected with fertility in this same fashion. But, you weren’t really making any statements on that specifically…though, it’s good to keep in mind that the assumption on that by many Wiccans and other pagans is exactly that–an assumption.

  2. aediculaantinoi, as a Heathen, our ancestors had a lunar calender until the conversion. That is simply a matter of history, not my opinion. Again for Northern European ancestry heathens, the shift to urban lifestyle was again something that happened during they syncretic period; the coming of the foreign belief of Christianity. While Mesopotamia may be interesting to others, its history does not affect the changes in Germanic Spirituality that accompanied our shift from living with nature, to being cut off from it. The human experience is not universal, for each people are shaped by their own experiences and understandings. We do not live experience life from all points of view, but from a single one. From the Heathen point of view, so many of the things that Mayday brings to light are dangerously close to being cut off from our sight.

    • I am not disputing any of the things you’ve mentioned in your comment; my response was due to the “we” and “our” and general first-person plural pronouns you used throughout your piece, which did not then further define who the “we” in question was, until your reply did so. There was no way to know whether you were just talking about Heathens, or all pagans, and thus pointing out that many pre-Christian cultures were urban and had solar calendars, while still not impacting the realities of the Germanic situation, was at least attempting to be more accurate than the widest understanding of “we” and “our” possible in this context might have indicated. Your first line was synonymizing Beltaine, Walpurgisnacht, and Mayday, and–as you yourself said in your response to my comment–those things are not the same, and the singular viewpoints of each one were being grouped together in a way that I felt needed clarification.

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