Then on May-day we sons of soot
Through the streets do feetly foot,
With silver garlands are so grand,
With silver garlands are so grand,
And thus we dance our saraband
With a ruttock, a cluttock,
A wallet, a satchel
O rare May-day.
We be kings and queens and duke,
Here is Lord Tye-Wig and Lady Jewkes
And hand in hand with Madam Flaskin
The great grandee Don Galligaskin
So Ladies now we bid adieu,
May May-day wever smile on you,
And thus in all our gear so fine
With Madam Montague we dine.
The Chimney Sweepers Glee By Dr. J. Beckwith of Norwich and words by J. Walker, 1790
I think many of us in the British Isles could be forgiven for allowing May Day / Roodmas / Walpurgis / Beltane (delete as applicable) to pass us by this year. If I’m honest I have found it hard to even acknowledge the season, which is odd considering it’s actually one of my favourite times of year. But given that it seems to be unusually cold and incredibly wet, plus the Hawthorn has only just started coming into its own, it hardly seems worth it! To be honest I am so bored of this bloody rain, it’s turned me into a grumpy old man!
That being said, the local festivities commenced as is traditional on Blue Bell Hill on the 1st of May at dawn when Morris troops and dedicated members of the public gather upon the hill to wake Jack in the Green. From what I hear it rained continuously and was pretty miserable. I say “Well done!” to those brave men and women who got out of their warm beds at 5am (and the Wolfs head and Vixen Morris who apparently danced for over an hour in the pouring rain). I have no problem admitting you are better folk than I. I had every intention of going (I usually do) but cold, torrential rain at 5am just didn’t thrill me!
We did visit Rochester’s annual Sweeps festival however. It rained (again!) but it was still worth it even if only for the Hog Roast and Cider. There didn’t seem to be as many Morris troops or visitors this year, the rain tends to put folks off. However a sudden down pour did usher us into the Cathedral for a quick look…I’m glad we did because even there, hidden away almost out of sight the Green Man makes an appearance or two!
Back outside a few school children dressed in grey school uniforms were reservedly pacing round a temporary maypole whilst the teacher pressed play on an ancient CD player. “Dull” is the only way to describe what in my eyes should have been a joyful dance of colourful revelry…I grumpily blamed the Victorians and walked away feeling slightly deflated towards the Tea Tent! Whilst it’s great that towns and villages try to keep old customs alive (my Mother was in Chislehurst May Queen when she was young!) I sometimes wonder whether it would be better to do away with them completely than pay half-hearted homage to some Victorian legacy where most visitors (and participants) don’t have a clue what the point is. At no point did I see anyone even try to educate the masses. At one point I heard a woman explain to her young son that the maypole was part of “the ancient magic”. Most revived traditions and customs are barely recognisable, one would imagine! I do love the Morris troops however, the blacked out faces, debauched crude lyrics and the phallus carved sticks banging together. I’d happily watch them for hours. Sadly the majority of the dancers are camp old geezers stiffly waving hankies in the air…please!
When the closing procession started, Jack in The Green was met with cheers and applause from all in attendance, spirits were lifted momentarily but I was ready to go home, get dry and fill my already soaking grumpy boots with tea!
At home I tried to get myself in the spirit of things by adorning the home and altar. My own Jack in the Green was ‘woken’ and adorned with fresh greenery and the Old Chap was furnished with a crown of young Oak, Ash and Ivy sprigs, only fitting for the once and future King. I finally got to try some new incense which I made last month dedicated to Ol’ Hornie. It smells exactly as it should (i.e. Hornie!!) and suddenly it started to feel a little like Beltane!
The Altar was refurbished with a green cloth, more fresh greens and plenty of red and white flowers. And yes that is what you think it is emerging from the Cauldron!
Don’t however be fooled into thinking that the presence of a large phallus standing erect in a cauldron means I am part of some Pagan fertility cult. I would like to echo what others (such as Robert Cochrane) have said in the past. Traditional Witchcraft is not Paganism (it’s not even a religion!).
Beltane for me is not about fertility (at least not in the physical sense), even though it may appear otherwise Cauldron and Phallus are symbols, not literal representations of what I venerate. I seek juicier fruit hanging upon a loftier branch. The symbols I employ, practises I enjoy around seasonal festivities are means to an end not the final destination, they are reflections of what I seek to tap into on a much ‘higher’ level…As the old axiom goes “As above, So Below”.
For me the significance of May Day goes above and beyond ‘Male’ fertilising ‘Female’…it does indeed represent a marriage, but not a marriage of God and Goddess per se. The great Dame created all “for humanity is greater than the Gods’, although not as great as the Goddess.” (Robert Cochrane, letter to Joe Wilson 1966). It therefore does not make sense to me to assume that our great Mother is dependent on being ‘fertilised’ in order to create ‘life’ as we humans are. This is a concept which has taken (is taking) a great deal of time for me to realise and fully understand. Our Lady is nature but that extends far beyond what we see around us. Like I said Traditional Craft is a Mystical path in the truest sense of the word…what we do on the surface may appear to be Paganistic fertility worship however what we actually seek lies hidden far beyond the veil of appearances …“As Above, So Below”
My own personal observance took place upon the night of the Full Moon. A full moon I never got to see due to the permanent blanket of cloud (man, I miss seeing the moon and stars!) I travelled to one of my usual working sites, amongst the trees, the carpet of Bluebells and cloaked in rapidly dimming twilight. As the light vanished from the sky a light was kindled within the circle. The breeze whistled in music from distant unseen musicians. Despite the cold, grey and atypically cold spring, life has returned, the fire is kindled once again in honour of the light, the cunning flame between the horns of the Old One. Unity, Truth and Beauty reign supreme, born of dark ignorance, the bitter-sweet experiences of trial and tribulation shall bring wisdom in their wake…
…to all of you I offer a big tall drink of everything life has to offer, the bitter and the sweet. So drink up and be merry (or grumpy as it suits!) Long Live the King!
Thanks to Matt Baldwin-Ives of Miles Cross for the ‘Light Betwixt The Horns’ Photo