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Beltaine - Part Two

Updated on April 21, 2012

Maypoles and May Bushes

Come lasses and lads get leave of your dads And away to the Maypole hie, For every he has got him a she and the fiddler is standing by.

(Come Lasses & Lads)

Bannock Cakes and Oatmeal Scones

The Beltaine Fires also formed part of another ritual – the baking of bannock cakes, or oatmeal scones. The traditions involving such cakes vary in their use. For some, alarge round flat oat or barley cake would be baked in the fires. On the surface or within the cake would be marked a black. Someone would then divide the cake among the gatherers. The recipient of the black spot would be the sacrifice. He or she would jump over the fire.

These representatives of human sacrifice and sympathetic fertility magic were found in the Orkneys, the Shetlands, the Highlands and in Wales. The patterns on the cake might differ from area to area, as would the specific custom. In some instances, a family would divide the cake. The one receiving the marked piece would toss it over their left shoulder and say an invocation for the protection and sparing of family property and animals. In other instances, the cake would, instead be baked and then rolled down the hill mimicking the path of the sun. In some areas of Ireland, the burnt piece indicated the finder was forfeit. In other regions, the special piece of bannock was laid upon a pole and danced around.

The May Pole

The May Pole, however, is not to be perceived as an integral part of all May Day celebrations throughout Great Britain and Europe. It was essentially an English tradition. While a central tree concept is common among many cultures – including the Germanic tribes and the Celts, the May Pole also has ties to Roman paganism and the story/myth of Atys. Furthermore, while some may argue for its Druidic origin, and highlight its blatantly phallic and pagan nature, its mention is primarily remarked upon and recorded in England and in English occupied Ireland.

May Bushes NOT May Poles

In Leinster and South Ulster, May Bushes, not poles, were set up in front of homes. They were decorated with tinsel, paper, and hand blown eggs - in early days probably remnants of the Ostara (Spring) festival. May Bushes also figured in processions on the day. It, or a hoop with that very pagan plant - the Rowan, meshed with marsh marigolds, hung with sun and moon balls, was paraded through town. People went door-to-door, singing songs. At each household
a token gift was passed.

While England might have a May Queen and Jack-in-the-Green, or even a May Baby, Ireland had a more earthy representative. On this day, a pole dressed as a female figure was carried into the square. Around it would lewdly dance two members of the "humble" class. This pair,
a man and a woman, would dance and weave to the tune of the fiddle. Thus, Ireland did have a
variation of the May Queen and May pole that hearkens even further back to pagan times. They recreated a fertility rite.

May Dances

Dances were always an important part of May Day celebrations. The communal dances that took place around the pole were lead by a couple. In the dance, one feigned to die then came back to life. This act celebrates and is remembered by many pagan groups today. They dance and, therefore, acknowledge the return of the Green Lord and the Green Maiden in all their glory to the earth on this day. The sexual union as well is celebrated for among many ancestors, orgasm was known as tithe
little death". Not to belabour a point but this is a time for several groups when the Holly (Winter) Lord must die and the Oak (Summer) King takes his place beside the goddess. The death of one of the dancers and his subsequent revival imitates this pattern.


May Day or Beltaine is closely associated with the May Pole and dancing. Many Pagan and neo-Pagan groups continue to dance around a May Pole on this day. In the past, Ireland did not erect a pole. Instead, they used a lowly bush to mark off their celebrations. Part three of this article will look at the ancient custom of “Going-A-Maying.”


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      Diane Ward 5 years ago

      Very interesting. I enjoyed the comparison of the cultures