If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow
Don’t be alarmed now
It’s just a spring clean for the May Queen…
-Jimmy Page & Robert Plant, “Stairway to Heaven”
I was very fortunate to grow up in the 1970s, with parents who loved music. On Sundays, especially, the house was always filled with the sounds of Elton John, Simon & Garfunkel, Carole King, and even Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin every now and then.
The lyrics above, from the Led Zeppelin classic, Stairway to Heaven, captured my imagination from a very young age. Who was the May Queen, I wondered? Although I had never heard of her, I could sense her shimmering, blossoming magic, and I felt a deep longing to know more about her.
In the British and Celtic traditions, the May Queen is the embodiment of spring and summer. She is the Maiden aspect of the Goddess, the beautiful and youthful face of Mother Earth.
In May Day festivities across the British Isles, a young woman, usually a teenage girl, is chosen to personify the May Queen. Wearing a crown of flowers and a white dress, she leads a procession through her village that culminates in feasting and dancing around a Maypole. The Maypole, representing the God, is crowned with a wreath of flowers and greenery representing the Goddess. In the dance, long and colorful ribbons are woven around the Maypole to symbolize their union, and the spiral of life itself.
Of course, like many of our modern-day celebrations, May Day has its roots in a very old holy day: Beltane.
A joyful celebration of life, Mother Earth, abundance, sexuality, and fertility, Beltane is a major fire festival on the Pagan Wheel of the Year, and marks the beginning of Summer. It began as a way to honor Bel, the ancient Celtic sun god, whose light and warmth would nurture and encourage the growth of the crops and the fertility of the animals. Bonfires were lit to celebrate, and couples would jump the fire together to seal their commitment to one another. Animals were led through the smoke of the fires to bless and protect them, and encourage their fertility.
The Queens of the May
In British and Celtic legend and folklore, there are many personifications of the May Queen. A few of them are listed below.
Welsh goddess of Spring, Blodeuwedd’s name means “flower face”. She was created from nine different flowers by the magicians Gwydion and Math. She represents the blooming, beautiful face of the Goddess of the Land; but her beauty is of a temporary nature and contains shades of the dark half of the year.
Otherworld Queen and wife of King Arthur, Guinevere’s name means “white phantom”. In some tales she, like Blodeuwedd, is fashioned from flowers. As the May Queen, she represents the embodiment of the land, and marriage to her gives kings the right of rule–as long as they respect their contract to protect and honor her. She is the lover aspect of the goddess, and her energy is of new growth, seduction, and blossoming.
A key figure in the tales of Robin Hood, Lady Marian is a personification of the Maiden aspect of the Goddess. She embodies youthful energy, passion, and abundant beauty that blooms with the sensuality and fertility of Summer. She inspires us to reconnect with our instincts and intuition, and to stand up for what we believe in.
The Virgin Mary
You might be surprised to learn that there are many parallels between Mary and the May Queen. In the Catholic tradition, the entire month of May is dedicated to the Virgin Mary (the Goddess in her Maiden aspect). On or around May Day, a ritual called the “Crowning of Mary” is performed, during which young girls and boys place a crown of flowers on a statue of Mary. Afterwards, songs praising her as Queen of the Earth, Queen of Heaven, and Queen of the Universe are sung to honor her.
May Day and Beltane is usually a time to gather together with family, friends and loved ones to celebrate the arrival of the Light Half of the Year. This year, given the current global COVID-19 pandemic, we will have to celebrate a little differently. Instead of a large gathering, perhaps you can create a springtime feast just for yourself, or for those who share your home. Buy as many flowers as you wish and place them all over your home, or plant some flowers in your garden, to honor the May Queen. Instead of a bonfire, light a fire in your fireplace or, barring that, simply light a candle. We may miss all the trappings of a big festival, but we can take some comfort in knowing that our intentions and energy are the most important aspects of our celebrations.
However you choose to celebrate Beltane and May Day, I wish you many blessings for health, happiness, love and abundance in the summer months and beyond!