May Day, Beltane, and Hawthorn

The title of this post almost sounds like the name of an alt-folk band, but it’s actually just a plain title for a seasonal holiday, a holy bonfire, and an amazing tree. A large part of my work within mythology involves restoring our ancient mythic knowledge about the natural world.

Archaic and ancient myths still hold clues that we held the greater natural world as sacred. May 1 offers another opportunity to understand how the cycle of the Sun and a festival honoring the Great Goddess are linked. May 1 is the date of Beltane; an old Celtic holy day that reflects an ancient holy day celebrating a solar marker and the regional goddesses of love, sexuality, fertility, and life. These holy days (holidays) were held throughout Europe. Traditionally, both Beltane and May Day have been outdoor celebrations which may include bonfires, feasting, and dancing along with abundant flowers decorating a maypole, people, and houses.

The Seasons by Walter Crane.
The Seasons by Walter Crane.

The Sun’s position in the sky and the exuberant flowering of a particular tree, the hawthorn, are key to understanding this holiday. May Day celebrates the Sun’s position of being equidistant in the sky between the spring equinox and the summer solstice points. This ecliptic midpoint of 45° marks May Day or Beltane as a “cross-quarter” day (as are August 1 /Luġnasaḋ,  All Hallows Eve / Samhain, and February 1 / Imbolc).

The lovely May tree

Hawthorn (Crategus laevigata or monogyna) grows to 15’, possesses sharp thorns, and bears abundant flower clusters that bloom at the end of April and the start of May. Hawthorn bark is white and blossoms range from white or cream to pink or red. Later, the hawthorn bears bright red fruit shaped like apples or large eggs. Hawthorn is native to Europe, Western Asia, the Mediterranean, and Northern Africa and the mythologies of these regions reflect it. Just like the hawthorn, two predominate colors of goddesses in these regions are red and white.

Hawthorne flowers.
Hawthorne flowers. public domain.

Blooming hawthorn branches were the prominent flower decorating the May Day maypole, and May Day garlands for homes. Classical Greeks and Romans regarded the hawthorn as a symbol of hope, happiness and protection. Hawthorn blossoms were associated so often with love, desire, happiness, and good fortune that they simply became known as the May flower. And, yes, the Mayflower, the ship that carried the Puritans to America, was named after hawthorn blossoms.

The May Day holiday also reflects our archaic reverence for trees. Humans have regarded trees and groves of trees as sacred for millennia. Regarding the hawthorn, it was part of a select number of trees that comprised the Celtic tree alphabet. It marked the month of Huath and stood for the letter “H.”  The name given to sacred groves is nemos (Gk.) after the goddess of memory, Mnemosyne.

The goddess of summer, who may have also represented specific trees, had many names depending upon the region where she was worshipped: Flora, Olwen, Auxo or Auxesia, Àine, Aestas, Maia, Bloudewedd, and more. In ancient Ireland, death was the penalty for the unlawful felling of a sacred grove.  Similar laws regarding sacred groves were evidently widespread. The goddess Nemesis was invoked to wreak divine vengeance upon persons who committed crimes against a sacred tree/grove or other taboos.

Kings and queens of old may have been crowned with hawthorn branches. Neimhead means “nobility or sacrosanctity [and] was applied to kings or chieftains, poets, and groves” in ancient to medieval times. Myths relating to kings and queens whose beds are trees range from ancient times such as the Odyssey or Inanna and Gilgamesh to the various Grail legends in medieval times.

Beltane and ardent ardor

Beltane is a Celtic version of May Day. It honors the cross-quarter day and the start of summer. Beltane celebrations, both now and in ancient times, center on large bonfires. Etymologically, Beltane means “white fire.” It derives from the Gaelic bealltainn and the Old Irish Bel(l)taine. The “Bel” of Beltane  arises from PIE *bhel and Sanskrit bhrajate both meaning “shining white.” The “tainn” means fire.

In the celebration of May Day / Beltane, this “white shining” is both literal and metaphorical. This “white shining” refers to the hawthorn tree. White-barked hawthorn wood burns very hot—hot enough to melt pig iron. It literally gets white-hot. Metaphorically, May Day has always led the season of another kind of heat, the heat of desire and love. May Day celebrated sexuality, the beauty of the blossoming world, and joyousness. An old-fashioned word that describes feeling desire or passion is ardor. Being ardent in love gives someone that “burning love” feeling Elvis Presley sang about. You may not burn as hot as hawthorn, but you might include them in a special personal ceremony. Hawthorn blossoms have been a favorite for wedding bouquets and corsages both in the past and in the present.

Hawthorn_fruitHawthorn has yet another connection to our human hearts. Hawthorn berries are a cardiotonic.  Packed with potent antioxidants, hawthorn berries can strengthen the heart, lower blood pressure, and possibly, lower levels of blood fats. When we lived much closer to the land and knew not only the Sun’s position in the sky, but the medicinal benefits of the plants and trees around us, the hawthorn would be regarded as life-sustaining. Blooming at the start of summer and, often, the start of new love entering our hearts, the hawthorn symbolized the joy and hope of the season.