Updated: Apr 29, 2022
May Day, May Day, we're going down!
Down into the earth, that is. There, beneath the surface, lies the truth about an ancient tradition of the western world, one which once served as a major taproot of European culture but today has been nearly forgotten. It would behoove us to remember, because an understanding of its true meaning also holds the key for our thriving, sustainable future.
Beltane, or May Day, as it is called today, is vaguely recalled by some as having something to do with a May pole and provided an opportunity for merriment, as depicted above in the masterful canvas by Peter Brueghels the Younger. Others may have some inkling that the old holiday had sexual overtones and served as a kind of fertility festival. Yet the truth is both of these, and so much more.
The old traditions had as much to do with blood as anything else. In all of my archaeological tours, dating from the Iron Age all the way back to the Neolithic, I have found the moon to be my constant companion; lunar imagery ranks among the oldest, most ubiquitous and longest-enduring of all symbolism that I've seen in the Mediterranean. Tied in with the many other facets of this complex symbol, there has always been blood; the Blood Mysteries of life and death stand among the most ancient traditions held anywhere in our world, and one can find their influence in any culture which practiced ritual animal sacrifice -- indicating the nearly total ubiquity of these most ancient Mysteries.
What do animal sacrifices and the May pole have to do with the moon? Both traditions emerged out of the extremely ancient "red tent" practices of Neolithic Europe and the Mediterranean; the Neolithic village's red tent, timed with the moon's phases, kept the village's time.
Consider a typical European city of the Middle Ages. The church bell tower would have stood at the center, beside the public square known as the commons, where villagers kept gardens and enjoyed the bounty of the land. Proud, tall and erect, it would have been the highest point in the town in those times before skyscrapers and hillside subdivisions. And it kept the time, then as today. Though most Europeans at the time knew it not, their beloved church tower kept the tradition of the axis mundi, the eye of the world around which all the world turned. In this special, central place, time did not move as it does everywhere else; within the sacred walls (literally, the esotera) flowed only the sacred time of eternal renewal. Every hour, with the striking of the bells, this sacred time would burst from the temenos to emanate out and renew all of the town -- the integration of the profane with the sacred, the renaissance of time itself.
Peering back further, much further, in time, one finds that this lofty church tower began its astounding career as a wooden pole, staked firmly in the ground. And just like the stone tower that replaced it, this pole -- the May pole -- marked the time of the agricultural year from its place at the axis mundi.
In the Neolithic, European calendars were predominantly lunar -- they followed the cycles of the moon. I learned from Ohad Pele Ezrahi's book Kedesha that, at least from the ancient Semitic perspective, the phases of the moon served as the original template of the 7-day week. Back then, weeks could be either 7 or 8 days, as necessary to intercalate with the 29.5-day lunar cycle and -- here comes the blood again -- the fertility cycles of the village's women. When the proper time in the moon's cycle came, the fertile women of the village would gather in their tent in the fields outside of town, and bleed directly onto the earth. I strongly suspect that this or similar temporal systems prevailed throughout the Neolithic Mediterranean.
This tent, like any other, would have required a pole. Staked proudly erect in the ground, this wooden prominence would have brought an emphatically masculine element to an otherwise fully feminine affair, and in continuance with the fertility theme. Perhaps more significantly, it also marked the village's time, from its central place as the axis mundi, the place from which the moon and earth both renewed. For nowhere could ancient peoples have missed the profound and paradoxical connection between female blood flow and the renewal of the fertility of the land: at the emptying, flowing terminus of the feminine cycle, marking a new beginning, came the blood which brought new life to the soil. These are the very same traditions which would later influence the religions of Attis and Jesus Christ, among many others, which celebrated the renewal of human life (and, indeed, the human soul) upon the spilling of blood into the ground.
So what happened? How did the red tent -- and its masculine counterpart, the May pole -- turn into the church bell tower? The answer can be found, as so often otherwise, in European society's transition from its ancient ways into patriarchy, which has always made strict control of feminine sexuality its number one goal. And it has succeeded nowhere more profoundly than through its absolute coup over Western notions of time.
The lunar calendar became the solar calendar; the 7-8 day week defined as 1/4 of a moon cycle became redefined as exactly 7 days as the moon got written out of timekeeping entirely. Missionaries tore down the sacred trees, altars and poles which once marked the axes mundi of the ancient world, building churches and their bell towers on the exact same spot. And as the world got busier, the keeping of once-sacred time moved from every month, to every Sunday morning, to eventually the ringing out of the hours on the hour for the convenience of busy men who've entirely forgotten that sacred time ever existed at all.
Deprived of a reliable source of feminine blood to assure the fertility of the fields, patriarchal religion turned to violence. The priests of Attis famously cut themselves and flung their own blood onto the earth as an offering; male novitiates had to prove their devotion by cutting off their own genitals and offering them as well! Other cultures turned instead to animal and even human sacrifices, turning to ever more desperate acts of violence to quench a thirsty earth. Meanwhile, feminine moon blood, rich with nutrients, became a waste product.
So this May Day, I find myself contemplating the violence we do to ourselves, to animals and to the earth itself, as unconscious heirs of this old culture of blood-spilling. I must say, we cannot afford it much longer! The May pole still stands, offering its alternative to lovingly penetrate the land and to shower it with gifts. If we keep taking, and taking, and taking -- eventually, we'll run out. It's a good time for renewal. This May Day, let's try making love with the earth again, just like old times.
For the curious, most of my thinking on this topic has been profoundly influenced by Mircea Eliade, whose masterwork Cosmos and History has been particularly informative on the point of sacred time. Enjoy! -JD