Friday, May 02, 2014

Supernatural Friday: May Day

Beltane kicks off the merry month of May.  This fire festival is celebrated on May 1 (in the northern hemisphere) with bonfires, maypoles, dancing, and sexual energy. The Celts honored the fertility of the gods with gifts and offerings, sometimes including animal or human sacrifice.
Beltane festivities usually kicked off the night before with a big bonfire. The Maypole celebration usually took place shortly after sunrise the next morning. This was when couples (and probably more than a few surprised triads) came staggering in from the fields, clothes in disarray and straw in their hair after a night of bonfire-inspired lustiness. The pole was erected on the village green or common, or even a handy field. It would be thrust into the ground either permanently or on a temporary basis, with brightly colored ribbons attached. Young people danced around the pole, each holding the end of a ribbon. Weaving in and out, men going one way and women the other, it created a sleeve of sorts -- the enveloping womb of the earth -- around the pole. By the time they were done, the Maypole was nearly invisible beneath a sheath of ribbons. I remember doing this in Sixth Grade at my school (though doubt it was for fertility reasons).

Beltane is traditionally a time when the veil between our world and of the Fae is thin. In most European folktales, the Fae kept to themselves unless they wanted something from their human neighbors.  In many stories, there are different types of faeries--like a class distinction, as most faerie stories divide them into peasants and aristocracy. 

Early Myths and Legends
In Ireland, one of the early races of conquerors was known as the Tuatha de Danaan, and they were considered mighty and powerful. It was believed that once the next wave of invaders arrived, the Tuatha went underground. In hiding from the Milesians, the Tuatha evolved into Ireland's faerie race. Typically, in Celtic legend and lore, the Fae are associated with magical underground caverns and springs -- it was believed that a traveler who went too far into one of these places would find himself in the Faerie realm.

Another way to access the world of the Fae was to find a secret entrance. These were typically guarded, but every once in a while an enterprising adventurer would find his way in. Often, he found upon leaving that more time had passed than he expected. In several tales, mortals who spend a day in the fairy realm find that seven years have passed in their own world.

Mischievous Faeries
In parts of England and Britain,  if a baby was ill, people believed that chances were good that it was not a human infant at all, but a changeling left by the Fae. This belief had them exposing the child on a hillside, so the Fae could come reclaim it. William Butler Yeats relates a Welsh version of this story in his poem, The Stolen Child. Parents of a new baby could keep their child safe from abduction by the Fae by using one of several simple charms: a wreath of oak and ivy kept faeries out of the house, as did iron or salt placed across the door step. Also, the father's shirt draped over the cradle supposedly kept the Fae from stealing the child.

In some stories, examples are given of how one can see a faerie. It is believed that a wash of marigold water rubbed around the eyes can give mortals the ability to spot the Fae. It is also believed that if you sit under a full moon in a grove that has trees of Ash, Oak and Thorn, the Fae would appear.

Are the Fae Just a Fairy Tale?
There are a few books that cite early cave paintings and even Etruscan carvings as evidence that people have believed in the Fae for thousands of years. However, faeries as we know them today didn’t really appear in literature until about the late 1300s. In the Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer wrote that people used to believe in faeries a long time ago, but did not by the time the “Wife of Bath” tells her tale. Earlier cultures had encounters with a variety of spiritual beings, who fit into what 14th century writers considered the archetype of the Fae, but were they fairies?

So go out and celebrate spring, Beltane or whatever, it’s all about enjoying the flowers blooming and greenery returning to the earth, with summer close behind spring’s heels. 

Happy May!

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