Every year, we try and have (A)Arti-cles ready for the major days of the Indo-European religious calendars. Some years, we do better than others. Other years – a delay turns out to be a blessing in disguise.
So it may be viz. Beltane.
For we had just in the past few hours happened across postings from two associates – one active in the Celtic sphere of things, the other in the Slavic [W. Bordsen & T. Kokoska, respectively] – that helped to ‘bring together’ a few thoughts in my mind that may be of significant utility as applies not only Beltane but also a Czech observance of pálení čarodějnic that was new to me.
So, let us begin with an excerpt from a yet-to-be-published (or, for that matter, finished) work of mine due for an academic journal.
“However, our purpose in raising Hel is a rather different one. Her name descends from Proto-Indo-European *ḱel-, a term for ‘covering’. We have long believed that ‘Kali’ is also from this root; with the effective sense being of a ‘Veiled’ figure. The ‘Veil’ in question being the ‘Dark’ and ‘Frightful’ (or, for that matter, ‘Aged’) exterior visage that covers the more ‘appealing’ and radiant facing hidden shrouded beneath. This is certainly an apt description for the situation of Kali’s “outer skin” (‘tvakkośaṃ’) and its being “cast off” (‘sahasotsṛjya’) to reveal the ‘Gauri’ (‘Fair’, ‘Beautiful’) form of the Devi within, in Shiva Purana VII 1 25 38.
It should also seem succinctly expressive of the circumstance repeatedly recounted in the Second Homeric Hymnal (to Demeter) – wherein the wandering and wrathful form of the Goddess is recurrently described as being ‘dark-veiled’ or ‘black cloaked’ (κυάνεον δὲ κάλυμμα – ‘kuaneon de kalumma’ and κυανόπεπλος – ‘kuanopeplos’). κάλυμμα / ‘kalumma’ is likewise derived from PIE *ḱel-; whilst κυάνεον / ‘kuaneon’ (related to modern English ‘Cyan’) connotes a potentially rather blue black.
Yet Demeter does not remain in such guise for long. She is also described as changing form (εἶδος ἄμειψε – ‘eidos ameipse’), specifically via ‘casting aside’ ( ἀπωσαμένη / ‘aposameni’ – ‘thrusting away’) Her ‘old age’ (γῆρας / ‘giras’); and in its place, expressing (indeed, radiating) the quality of ‘beauty’ (κάλλος / ‘kallos’ – cognate with Sanskrit कल्य ‘kalya’ (‘auspicious’, ‘healthy’, etc. – and figuratively can mean ‘Daybreak’, a seemingly apt summation of the situation of Demeter’s ‘unveiling’) and कल्याण ‘kalyana’ (‘beautiful’, ‘agreeable’, ‘lovely’, ‘charming’, etc.); all of which are from a PIE *Kal (‘Beautiful’) – perhaps intentionally resonating with the other ‘Kal-‘ in both languages that is seemingly quite its opposite).
This ‘beauty’ is described in overtly luminous terms – with light (λάμπε / ‘lampe’) radiating from Her, and with now-cascading hair of golden (ξανθαὶ / Xanthai) colouration. We are instantly reminded of the aforementioned situation of Nirrti in AV-S V 7 9-10 undergoing a seemingly near identical transition. And, of course, in literal terms, Kali’s transformation to ‘Gauri’ in the subsequent Hindu legendarium.
All of which brings us to another ‘Veiled One’ – the Celtic figure of the Cailleach. Who, as with Hel, presents some ‘difficulties’ for a straightforward application of our typology which may be at least partially attributable to the fact that our perspectives upon Her are restricted to the realms of post-Christianization and ‘folkloric’ accounts rather than the more authentic (then-‘living’) Celtic theology which ought be reasonably presumed to have preceded them. It is also a case of ‘perspectives’ plural – as these folkloric Cailleach figures are now significantly localized and individuated.
Nevertheless, various by now familiar features frequently occur. These include the (frightening) appearance of an old woman, with black or blue skin, decidedly ‘deathly’ association (including via ‘devouring’), and the aforementioned ‘Veiled’ epithet (allegedly from Latin ‘Pallium’, and thusly a term introduced with Christianity). Although we would query the aforementioned Latinate etymologic explication for ‘Cailleach’, as Matasovic identifies an Old Irish ‘Caile’ as deriving from *keh₂l (‘dark’ – assumedly a variant reconstruction for *ḱel-) and with Sanskrit ‘Kāla’ (‘dark blue’, sic.) as a cognate. A more endogenously Celtic derivation is therefore plausible – and quite in-line with our emergent typology. “
And that brings us to the conclusion of me quoting myself in public. For now, at any rate.
The saliency for this situation as applies the transition marked via Beltane ought prove obvious.
Namely, the fertile abundance of the land during the bright months of Summer which are welcomed in via the customs of Beltane.
Hence, Demeter transitioning from a Wrathful form to a Beneficent form springs to mind. The Earth goes from harsh and unforgiving to the opposite, yet is the same Goddess all the while.
Ordinarily, one might feel that this ought be something linked to another point – the Spring Equinox would spring instantly to mind.
Yet perhaps it is a peculiarity of the more northerly climate that things must be more ’emphatic’ at the entry into Summer.
After all, to quote Ó Crualaoich upon the matter:
“In a corpus of legends regarding the ‘worst’, i.e. the coldest or the wettest, night that ‘ever came out of the heavens’ – sometimes named Luan Lae Bealtaine (Mayday Monday) – ” […]
And, to switch over to Henry Arbois de Jubainville’s ‘The Irish mythological cycle and Celtic mythology’ [Best translation]:
“The race of Partholon landed in Ireland on the feast-day of
the god of the Dead, and on the anniversary of the same, was
stricken with the fatal pestilence which destroyed the whole
race within a period of seven days ; this fatal week began on
the first of May, on a Monday, and ended on the following
Sunday, when of the five thousand persons that then inhabited
Ireland, only one remained alive.
The oldest recension contains no reference to the year ; the days
only are indicated. Partholon came into Ireland on the first of
May, which is the Feast of Beltene, or the god of the Dead, the
first ancestor of the human race. In the earliest tradition,
Partholon is the son of Beltene. And he comes into this world
on the day specially dedicated to his father.
It was on a Thursday, the first of May, and the seventeenth
day of the moon, that the sons of Mile arrived in Ireland.
Partholon also landed in Ireland on the First of May, but on a
different day of the week and of the moon — on a Tuesday, the
fourteenth day of the moon ; and it was on the first of May,
too, that the pestilence came, which in the space of one week
destroyed utterly his race. The first of May was sacred to
Beltene, one of the names of the god of Death, the god who
gives life to men, and takes it away from them again. Thus,
it was on the feast day of this god that the sons of Mile began
their conquest of Ireland. “
It would be interesting to consider the above mythology in light of the Greek figure of Phoroneus – and from there to Vedic Manu … but for another time, perhaps.
The point I wish to make with the above is quite simple.
It is evident that things are still pretty ‘Deathly’ heading into the First of May.
Indeed, it is most intriguing to note the saliency of Disease here.
Or, rather, Two Divinities.
A Husband and Wife Pair, in fact.
We would know Them as Rudra and Ambika. (That is to say Devi – Kali / Chamunda / Chandi would be especially salient here)
This fits with the identification of the deity Belenus / Belenos with Apollo, a famously Roudran style deific (and c.f. Book I of the Iliad for the Disease-sending saliency in action, from the Lord of the Silver Bow).
Although as for how it pertains also to His Wife – the situation advanced in the Brahmanas (ritual commentaries attached to the Vedas) incorporates commentary for the Tryambakah Rite wherein the wrathful Rudra is facilitated to depart (by offering Him, inter alia, a packed lunch for His Journey) and thus allowing life to begin and continue more easily.
“9 He offers, with the text (Vāj. S. III, 57 a), ‘This is Thy share, O Rudra! graciously accept it together with Thy Sister Ambikā! Svāhā!’ Ambikā, indeed, is the name of His (Rudra’s) Sister; and this share belongs to Him conjointly with Her; and because that share belongs to Him conjointly with a woman (Strī), therefore (these oblations) are called Tryambakāḥ. Thereby, then, He delivers from Rudra’s power the descendants that have been born unto him.”
[SBr, II 6 2 9, Eggeling translation]
And, to quote myself upon the subject:
“Intriguingly, the Taittiriya Brahmana rendition adds the following detail – “His sister Ambika is the Autumn; with Her He smites (or kills)” [Taitt. Br. I 6 10 4 ; Muir translation], particularly also via the mechanism of disease. “
“[She is] expressly hailed as having potency with regard to disease, per the commentaries of Mahidhara [on VS III 52] and the Taittiriya Brahmana’s [I 6 10 4] renditions upon the subject.”
And, as applies the Goddess Herself specifically and from more recent [i.e. Pauranika] scripture:
“[3-5] O king! Hear about the vow of auspicious Navarātra. This has to be performed with loving devotion in the vernal season; but its special season is Autumn. The two seasons, Autumn and Spring, are famous as the Teeth of Yama, the God of Death; and these are the two seasons, very hard for the persons to cross over. Therefore every goodfaring man should everywhere perform this vow very carefully.
6-8 O king! The people are very much afflicted with various terrible diseases in these two seasons Autumn and Spring and many lose their lives during these portions of the year. Therefore the wise should unquestionably worship with great devotion the Candikā Devī in these auspicious months of Caitra and Āśvin.”
[Devi Bhagavata Purana III 26, Vijñanananda translation]
Strictly speaking, the month of Chaitra finished some weeks ago (contingent upon which lunar calendar one is using and which year it is), however I think that it is the specific potency – and the theme of a time of ”transition” that is most pertinent here. So some ‘leeway’ with the datings, especially across continents and latitudes between India and Ireland, may perhaps be allowable in the name of scientific (and yes, theology is the Queen of Sciences – ref. Junger) inquiry.
We might also make mention of the Irish custom of laying out offerings for the Souls of the Dead that may return to their families upon this May Day occasion – given the strong conceptual association for the Autumnal Navratri with Pitru Paksha (the Fortnight of the Ancestors – indeed its ‘mythic genesis’, for us, has Lord Rama invoking Devi as an Ancestor so that She may ‘awake’ at the otherwise ‘irregular’ time rather than during Spring (Chaitra month) as per usual).
But I digress somewhat.
Our interest in writing for this occasion had been piqued by the aforementioned encounter with W. Bordsen’s posting of a quote from the ‘Liber Nox’ of Michael Howard, pertaining to folk-ways around May Day surviving in Derbyshire:
“There were also rumors of the survival of the worship of a female deity know as Anu, a goddess of the land associated with both Brigid (the summer goddess) and the Cailleach (winter goddess). In her bright aspect Anu was known as “the Mother” and in her dark one as the “Devourer of Men”. A horned god with stag’s antlers or ram’s horns who was the leader of the Wild Hunt was also revered by the local families in the Peak District. He was known by the titles of either the “Lord of the Green Leaves” or the “Lord of Light”.”
We would note the “Phallic” (as Howard declares it to be) May Pole in light of our own ShivLing understanding, the Irminsul of the Germanics, and that particular ‘member’ so affrontedly referred to by Augustine ( City of God 7.21.2–4; Varro ARD 262  Cardauns) when castigating the religious customs of the Romans … and which was sacred to Liber, the Dionysus worshipped alongside Libera (Persephone / Proserpine – and note the position of Dis Pater, Her Husband, as the Ancestor God of the Celts in Roman notation, given the detail as to the father of Partholon in de Jubainville as we have quoted up above).
The Liberalia observance itself is again in March – so weeks too soon for what we are observing here. But again, perhaps things are different much to the south as compared to the climactic necessities of Ireland – or perhaps there are other reasonings to explicate a shift or ‘resonance’ across a month and a half or so. Maybe the month-long observance ascribed to the city of Lavinium is also pertinent here. These are questions for another time.
We would also note the detail given in both Ovid and Varro concerning the prominence of an ‘Anus’ – that is to say an ‘Old Woman’, a ‘Crone’, a ‘Granny’ (as Kovács renders it, who also links this to the ‘Anna Perenna’, the Goddess of the Wheel of the Year) – to proceedings.
Varro has the Anus, the Old Woman in question, as the Sacerdos of Liber and engaged in selling the honey-cake associated with the occasion about the city. It would be tempting to suggest that this is, itself, a mythically resonant ‘expression’ (an ‘Eternal Return’ in the Eliadian sense) for the ‘Crone’ visaged Goddess in fact presenting the fertility of the land and the sustenance for the inhabitants thereof going forward from the date.
Certainly, Augustine’s presentation as to the purpose for the rites of Liber involving this ‘post’ would ‘match up’:
“Then the most respectable woman, a mother of a family, had to place a garland on said dishonourable member. In this way, supposedly, the god Liber was to be propitiated so that all would turn out well with the seeds; in this way the hex needed to be warded off the fields…”
( City of God 7.21.2–4; Varro ARD 262  Cardauns)
However, there is a point we have left unaddressed – and that concerns the potentially rather more ‘direct’ linkage for ‘Death’ to the customs around Beltane than is often acknowledged.
Xavier Delamarre, in his ‘Dictionnaire de la langue gauloise: Une approche linguistique du vieux-celtique continental’ makes the most interesting claim:
“On a rapproché le v.irl. at-bail, epeltu (*eks-beltu) ‘fait de mourir’ qu’on retrouverait peut-être dans le nom du mois de Beltaine (*beltiniā ≈ lituan. Giltinè nom d’une déesse de la mort), d’une racine i.-e. *gʷelə- ‘souffrance, mort’, ags. cwelan ‘mourir’, pruss. gallintwei ‘tuer’, latin uallesit ‘perierit’. Pour K. Stüber, 132-33, v.irl. at-bail est à comparer au grec ekbállō ‘rejette’ et epeltu est de *exs-blātijū, racine *gʷelh₁ ‘jeter’, mais les sens de ‘mourir’ ou ‘rejeter’ conviennent mal pour des anthroponymes et il est probable que le Belatu- gaulois n’a rien à voir avec cette racine; à moins qu’il ne s’agisse d’une “mort” initiatique, comme il s’en pratique chez les peuplades primitives et les demi-civilisés, avec “mort” et “renaissance” (cf. le NP Ate-gnatus ‘re-né’) du jeune guerrier initié (qui “rejette” son état ancien). Très spéculatif.”
“Très spéculatif”, indeed – and yet conceptually at least, he is indelibly onto something. At least, as applies the conceptual association for the occasion of Beltane with Death and – as he notes, if only to discard it as a possibility – ‘throwing away’ … it is just that he has only parsed the possibility of ‘Death’ in an ‘initiatory’ sense.
Whereas if we refer ourselves back to my own remarks from earlier viz. the ‘Unmasking’ of Demeter …
“Yet Demeter does not remain in such guise for long. She is also described as changing form (εἶδος ἄμειψε – ‘eidos ameipse’), specifically via ‘casting aside’ ( ἀπωσαμένη / ‘aposameni’ – ‘thrusting away’) Her ‘old age’ (γῆρας / ‘giras’); and in its place, expressing (indeed, radiating) the quality of ‘beauty’ (κάλλος / ‘kallos’ – cognate with Sanskrit कल्य ‘kalya’ (‘auspicious’, ‘healthy’, etc. – and figuratively can mean ‘Daybreak’, a seemingly apt summation of the situation of Demeter’s ‘unveiling’) and कल्याण ‘kalyana’ (‘beautiful’, ‘agreeable’, ‘lovely’, ‘charming’, etc.); all of which are from a PIE *Kal (‘Beautiful’) – perhaps intentionally resonating with the other ‘Kal-‘ in both languages that is seemingly quite its opposite).
This ‘beauty’ is described in overtly luminous terms – with light (λάμπε / ‘lampe’) radiating from Her, and with now-cascading hair of golden (ξανθαὶ / Xanthai) colouration. We are instantly reminded of the aforementioned situation of Nirrti in AV-S V 7 9-10 undergoing a seemingly near identical transition. And, of course, in literal terms, Kali’s transformation to ‘Gauri’ in the subsequent Hindu legendarium. “
So, Beltane as the occasion for the ‘casting off’ of the Pall (Veil) of Death from the Goddess and welcoming Her Life-Giving, Radiant / Shining / Solar Side.
I think it makes an interesting – if hypothetical – degree of sense.
I also suspect that this need not displace the more ‘conventional’ anticipation for Beltane to pertain to the Solar God, Belenos.
‘Both’, rather than ‘Either’. And perhaps some theonymics and other terminology have ‘run together’ over the ages. As we so often encounter in the Brahmanas – where double-meanings and conflations of otherwise not-quite-related terms to refer to the same Gods are delighted in.
“For The Gods [as They say] Love a Mystic”, the continual refrain goes, as encountered therein.
In any case, the ‘Death’ sense has a rather strong (if unexpected) potential support to it.
And for this, we are indebted to T. Kokoska’s post pertaining to the aforementioned Czech observance of ‘pálení čarodějnic’, an occasion celebrated upon the 30th of April (i.e. the night before May Day).
Now, the link he had posted had the observance as undertaken for the purpose of the banishment of malefic forces that had predominated during the dark and wintry months that had preceded the occasion. And therefore, “witches” were supposed to be burned, for the rather obvious reason of – in a Christianized context – this being a rather ‘good’ way to dispel such baleful (see what I did there?) magic.
Yet as Kokoska observed – “I think “witches” is an imperfect term for what they originally intended to destroy. A better term would [be] “maras” or feminine personifications of death.”
We would go further.
Insofar as it should seem to us to be not so much the case that ‘Death’ is being ‘Destroyed’ – but rather, that there is the transition from the ‘Death’ form to the more beneficent form correlate with the bounteous months of Summer.
Perhaps it was resemblant of the scenario encountered in SBr III 5 1 & 2, wherein Vak is depicted as a wrathful (and implicitly, ‘devouring’ but also ‘roaring’) form, a Lioness (and associated with the South, the Direction of Death and the Jaws of the Underworld) – afore being placated (and therefore, one would surmise, becoming the more positive and beneficent Facing to the Goddess instead).
Not least given the situation of Vak in the Fire (ref. also, in particular, SBr III 2 1, etc.). But we digress.
To return to the Slavic sphere more directly, we are interested to note a Czech manuscript – the famed ‘Mater Verborum’ – that presents Hecate, identified there via the otherwise unnoted “triwia P nocticla” , as equivalent to a Czech Goddess named Morana.
“Triwia P Nocticla” is perhaps not so difficult to interpret – Trivia we are well familiar with , specifically as the Three-Formed Goddess (Diva Triformis) that is Diana / Artemis, Selene / Luna, Hekate and/or Persephone / Proserpine, ; although ‘Nocticla’ presents slightly more difficulty. One would initially be tempted via ‘Noctula’ – as in Owl, or more directly, ‘Little Night’, yet I suspect another probability:
The most likely interpretation, to my mind, is something akin to the “Noctiluca” – the Light by Night , which is, to nobody’s especial surprise by now, the Moon (Luna) … which, per Varro [De Lingua Latina V 68], is also identified not only with Diana (Diviana, indeed), but also (per Ennius as cited therein) with Proserpina (Persephone), and also with Juno Lucina – a form of the Goddess apparently simultaneously the Earth yet also Shining, and with association for the ‘transition’ inherent in the fertility of Childbirth.
Later in the same work [VI 79], Varro also makes the effort to congeal ‘Noctiluca’ as derived from the familiar ‘Nox’ (‘Night’) combined with ‘Luere’ (which he says gives ‘Lucere’, the term for illuminating), a word describing ‘undoing’ or ‘loosening’ or ‘dissolving’. The ‘folk-etymological’ inference being that ‘Noctiluca’ ought therefore mean the ‘Dissolver of Darkness’; connected (in the version reconstructed somewhat in the Kent translation) with the lighting of Torches – “Et facere lumen, faculum”).
However, our chief interest for ‘Noctiluca’ must surely come from Horace:
Doctor argutae fidicen Thaliae,
Phoebe, qui Xantho lavis amne crinis,
Dauniae defende decus Camenae,
Spiritum Phoebus mihi, Phoebus artem
carminis nomenque dedit poetae.
Virginum primae puerique claris
Deliae tutela deae, fugacis
lyncas et ceruos cohibentis arcu,
Lesbium servate pedem meique
rite Latonae puerum canentes,
rite crescentem face Noctilucam,
prosperam frugum celeremque pronos
Nupta iam dices: ‘Ego dis amicum,
saeculo festas referente luces,
reddidi carmen docilis modorum
[Horace, Odes IV 6, 41-44]
Or, per the Conington translation:
“”Sweet tuner of the Grecian lyre,
Whose locks are laved in Xanthus’ dews,
Blooming Agyieus! help, inspire
My Daunian Muse!
‘Tis Phoebus, Phoebus gifts my tongue
With minstrel art and minstrel fires:
Come, noble youths and maidens sprung
From noble sires,
Blest in your Dian’s guardian smile,
Whose shafts the flying silvans stay,
Come, foot the Lesbian measure, while
The lyre I play:
Sing of Latona’s glorious boy,
Sing of night’s queen with crescent horn,
Who wings the fleeting months with joy,
And swells the corn.
And happy brides shall say, “’Twas mine,
When years the cyclic season brought,
To chant the festal hymn divine
By Horace taught.””
And as for why I have deliberately chosen to include both the Apollo-oriented verses and the Diana ones … it is because that ‘Agyieus’ form of Apollo is worshipped particularly a bedecked pillar which should look suspiciously like a ShivLing to my eyes – and therefore reminds us once again of that Maypole conceptry advocated for earlier.
Gosh, my carrying out ShivLing Puja this morning in addition to my Goddess (Chamunda) propitiation really does seem to have been portenteous !
The Kline translation, which is not so artful but may be preferred for literality, is given below:
“Phoebus, musician and teacher of tuneful
Thalia , who bathe your hair in Xanthus’ stream,
defend the Daunian Muse’s honour, O
Phoebus gave me inspiration, Phoebus gave
me skill in singing, and the name of poet.
You noble young girls, and you boys who are born
of famous fathers,
both, protected by the Delian goddess,
who brings down, with the bow, swift deer and lynxes,
follow the Sapphic measure, note the rhythm
of my finger’s beat,
and ritually sing the son of Latona,
ritually sing the fire of the waxing Moon,
the quickener of crops, and swift advancer
of the headlong months.
Married, you’ll say: ‘I sang the song the gods love,
when time brought back the days of the festival,
and I was one who was trained in the measures
of Horace the bard.”
In any case, our other purpose to invoking Horace’s fine work here is, of course, that we find this ‘Noctiluca’ hailed for Her role in securing the ripening of crops … rather pertinent, you would have to say, for the Beltane purposing often thought of in this especial area.
This association of a Goddess otherwise known as ‘Death’ (the Czech ‘Morana’) with the success of the Harvest and natural abundance (quite the opposite, one would usually think – a ‘paradox’; which, as an old English master of mine at secondary school, more truly means “a seeming contradiction – that, upon closer inspection, turns out not to be so”, or words to that effect) is also attested elsewhere in the Slavic sphere.
Jan Długosz, in his ‘Twelve Books of the History of Poland’ makes direct mention of Marzanną , a similar ‘Death’ figure … and with a most interesting suite of ritual conceptry mentioned in other texts.
You see, this ‘Death’ – Marzanna – is to be dispatched via the immersion of an effigy representing the figure in a nearby water-course or pond.
This is suspiciously coterminous with how we Hindus observe at the end of Navratri , the Murti of the Goddess made for the occasion being carried to be immersed within water likewise.
The major difference, of course, is that we do not believe we are “killing” the Goddess (how could we?) – but rather sending Her back to Her Home within the Waters (and ref. upon this particular point, quite a pile-up of materials from across the Indo-European expanse : Vak Herself declares in a line from my favourite RigVedic Hymnal: “mama yonirapsvantaḥ samudre” – ‘My (Mama) Origin (Yonir) lies in (Antah) the Waters (Apsv-), the ‘Great Ocean’ (Samudre)’, with that last term effectively the ‘Celestial’ or ‘Liminal’ sphere for the Worlds Entire; we would also draw attention to Frigg, Odin’s Wife, having Her Dwelling at Fensalir – the Halls of the Deep, a locale that as others have observed, may be coterminous with the Sökkvabekkr inhabited by both Sága and Odin, Who therein drink Together. Presumably, the broad understanding at play here is also underpinning the circumstance of Odin’s Wife, Skaði (a ‘Bright Bride’, indeed – “skír brúðr”), domiciling Herself alternately in Njörðr’s realm (i.e., assumedly, the Sea; notwithstanding Sturluson’s situation of the demesne of Nóatún in heaven in the Gylfaginning) and in Her own preferred environs in an arrangement recalling instantly to one’s mind that of Persephone).
Again, consider this in light of our understanding for the aforementioned Tryambakah Rite – wherein Rudra is sent back to His (Northerly) Dominion (interestingly, at a Crossroads – another point of coterminity for seemingly almost every One of the deifics in various Aspects that we have mentioned above in relevant observances. Certainly, the Liberalia opposed by Augustine is celebrated at such – “carried first around the crossroads in the countryside”, he says. Hekate, Trivia, again, it is well-known; Odin, worshipped at the Crossroads even in post-Christianization folkways as well as this being attested in polemical against the then-living Nordic Faith (viz. the De Falsis Diis’ (‘On False Gods’) of Archbishop Wulfstan II of York); and, of course, Odin’s Wife (per Grimm’s excellent compilation of Germanic folk-beliefs), likewise, to be found there; not to mention Kali – especially as Raksha Kali – at such locales, with the Tree mentioned as the habitation for the Matrikas at such environs also relevant … not least due to SBr II 6 2 17 having a Tree or Post at such a place declared the position to which the Offerings via which Rudra is enjoined to depart in peace (the aforesaid ‘packed lunch’ – I am being only slightly figurative) are affixed … ).
This would , indeed , appear to be near-exactly the understanding detailed across various portions of Central and Eastern Europe by James G. Frazer in his Golden Bough [XXVIII “The Killing of the Tree-Spirit” – 3 ‘Carrying out Death’, and importantly, 4 ‘Bringing in Summer’.].
Now I am not a great fan of utilizing Frazer uncritically – however assuming he did not just fabricate out of whole cloth the folk-traditions of each of these places, then the situation they attest to can be certainly utilized in service to our cause.
And, given the remarks viz. disease that we had made earlier – well, ” In some parts of Bavaria down to 1780 it was believed that a fatal epidemic would ensue if the custom of “Carrying out Death” were not observed.” And, in relation to Leipzig – “By this ceremony they professed to make the young wives fruitful, to purify the city, and to protect the inhabitants for that year from plague and other epidemics.”
“In some Polish parts of Upper Silesia the effigy, representing an old woman, goes by the name of Marzana, the goddess of death. It is made in the house where the last death occurred, and is carried on a pole to the boundary of the village, where it is thrown into a pond or burnt. At Polkwitz the custom of “Carrying out Death” fell into abeyance; but an outbreak of fatal sickness which followed the intermission of the ceremony induced the people to resume it.”
He also details the utilization of burning in various of these customs – wherein the effigy of Death may be placed into such a pyre for reasons that are obvious (and assumedly, ‘purify’ the village and its inhabitants as the result).
We then observe:
“Thus in some parts of Bohemia the effigy of Death is drowned by being thrown into the water at sunset; then the girls go out into the wood and cut down a young tree with a green crown, hang a doll dressed as a woman on it, deck the whole with green, red, and white ribbons, and march in procession with their Líto (Summer) into the village, collecting gifts and singing—
“Death swims in the water,
Spring comes to visit us,
With eggs that are red,
With yellow pancakes.
We carried Death out of the village,
We are carrying Summer into the village.”
In many Silesian villages the figure of Death, after being treated with respect, is stript of its clothes and flung with curses into the water, or torn to pieces in a field. Then the young folk repair to a wood, cut down a small fir-tree, peel the trunk, and deck it with festoons of evergreens, paper roses, painted egg-shells, motley bits of cloth, and so forth. The tree thus adorned is called Summer or May. Boys carry it from house to house singing appropriate songs and begging for presents. Among their songs is the following:
“We have carried Death out,
We are bringing the dear Summer back,
The Summer and the May
And all the flowers gay.”
Sometimes they also bring back from the wood a prettily adorned figure, which goes by the name of Summer, May, or the Bride; in the Polish districts it is called Dziewanna, the goddess of spring.”
“It seems hardly possible to separate from the May-trees the trees or branches which are brought into the village after the destruction of the Death. The bearers who bring them in profess to be bringing in the Summer, therefore the trees obviously represent the Summer; indeed in Silesia they are commonly called the Summer or the May, and the doll which is sometimes attached to the Summer-tree is a duplicate representative of the Summer, just as the May is sometimes represented at the same time by a May-tree and a May Lady. Further, the Summer-trees are adorned like May-trees with ribbons and so on; like May-trees, when large, they are planted in the ground and climbed up; and like May-trees, when small, they are carried from door to door by boys or girls singing songs and collecting money. And as if to demonstrate the identity of the two sets of customs the bearers of the Summer-tree sometimes announce that they are bringing in the Summer and the May. The customs, therefore, of bringing in the May and bringing in the Summer are essentially the same; and the Summer-tree is merely another form of the May-tree, the only distinction (besides that of name) being in the time at which they are respectively brought in; for while the May-tree is usually fetched in on the first of May or at Whitsuntide, the Summer-tree is fetched in on the fourth Sunday in Lent. “
You can probably see where I’m going with this as applies Beltane and the Maypoles strongly associated with same.
But let us return to the Goddess – and I do use the ‘singular’ with great emphasis here.
It is evident to me that there is a fundamental and foundational point of distinction to be observed between those Slavic / Germanic accounts that we had purloined from Frazer, and what we know from the living tradition of the Hindusphere or the then-still-alive perspectives of the Ancient Greek and broader Classical .
Insofar as in those later accounts from further north, we are dealing with malefic figures that are, effectively, ‘banished’ – and in quite forceful, even violent terms. Whereas in the Hindu and Hellenic understandings … one would think very carefully before seeking to outright and loudly curse with words a Goddess, nor physically attack one of Her crafted representations, I am sure.
Because, of course, She is a Goddess – and that handily explains the difference in perceptions here upon ‘both sides’. As applies the more reverent climate of the living Indo-European Faith (the Hindu) and the then-Living one (the Hellenic), upon the one hand … and as applies what appears to have been the ‘demonization’ that accompanied Christianization (although never, it would seem, the full ‘suppression’ of observances – simply the severe transition as to what they were felt to mean and do and to convey. A much more efficacious approach to ‘culture-jamming’) in the Germanic and Slavic spheres.
So, hence we have broadly the same practices for Her ‘leaving’ – and yet these have become very differently understood.
A ‘Banishment’ versus a ‘Propitiation’ and ‘Very Nicely Asking To Leave’.
It is also necessary to point out the degree of distinction between, well, different figures (for Death / Winter etc. and Summer / Life / Abundance) in those post-Christianization ‘folkloric’ residual contexts, and the ‘Different Faces / Forms / Aspects’ of the same Goddess as overtly understood within those actually-Religious (rather than ‘religiously-suppressed’) contexts both more ancient and yet-enduring (and therefore – to me, at least, ‘modernly-familiar’).
That is the quite logical result of Christianization. Because ‘smaller figures’ ‘survive’ easier. A Goddess must be opposed, suppressed – local spirits can become more ‘accommodated’. And as the underlying awareness recedes like the tide (which means that it can come back in … ), like earth bereft of moisture cracks begin to show and chasmatically widen accordingly. One Goddess with localized manifestations because a (separate) figure in every village (and perhaps even ordinary (older?) women are confused for Her and cast into the flames themselves as alleged ‘witches’) – and the nuanced, complex perception of the same Goddess as BOTH ‘Death’ AND ‘Life’ , to be wary of and (yet) also to be welcomed … well, it gives way to a much simpler and seemingly aggressively discrete binary. Aided, no doubt, by the ‘dark’ figure being literally demonized to some extent and the notion of ‘banishing’ the ‘obviously less preferable’ Goddess-form being something that would have met with a hearty Christian approval.
Yet how can we be so sure of the ‘Same Goddess – Different Aspects’ approach’s accuracy? Particularly as applies this occurrence?
Well, to quote myself from an upcoming (A)Arti-cle once more:
“Our major source for Her [i.e. Demeter Erinys] is Pausanias. In the course of his ‘Description of Greece’ [VIII 25 & 42], we encounter the myth via which the ordinarily fair and golden-locked Goddess of life-bestowing abundance becomes instead a terrific and black-veiled wrathful upholder of the Divine Law (hence, in part, the ‘Erinyes’ epithet – and assumedly also the confusion reported by Pausanias at VIII 25 7, wherein the Thelpusian expression of the figure seems to have been hailed as ‘Themis’ (‘Divine Law’) by some) – before ridding Herself of this dark and vengeful visage via undertaking a ritual purification of bathing in the hallowing river Ladon. We also hear in Pausanias [VIII 37 & 42] of Her producing a daughter as part of this, of a name restricted to the initiated and instead referred to as ‘Despoina’ (‘Mistress’) or ‘Kore’ (‘Maiden’) – better known as Persephone.
This instantly recalls the situation recounted in Shiva Purana VII 1 24 & 25, wherein we encounter Devi as Kali – having appeared to uphold righteousness and likewise infuriated with Her Husband (Shiva); eventually (re)assuming Her ‘Gauri’ form via the undertaking of ritual purification featuring a similar bath. With the now-separated black and wrathful exterior being hailed as Her Kanya (‘Maiden’) ‘daughter’ [‘Kanyaka’], Kaushiki and Kali. “
I shall say that again. In both the Hellenic & Hindu contexts, we encounter the Goddess (Wife of the Sky Father) in Black, Deathly, and Terrific Visage [Demeter Erinys / Kali] … only for this to be ‘transitioned’ from back to the Golden and more Life-supporting (indeed, seemingly rather Solar, per my earlier-quoted remarks) Appearance and Aspect [Demeter more regularly / Gauri – literally ‘fair / beautiful / light’].
And in both cases, this is accomplished via a ritual immersion. With, again, in both cases, a ‘Daughter’ or ‘Emanation’ (or, more accurately to both the Hindu accounting and my own belief as to the situation viz. Demeter – an Emanation / Aspect presented as a ‘Daughter’ in figurative terms) that is still rather baleful, resulting.
There also seems to have been a Celtic rendition to the former part to this typology – the Cailleach Bhéarra (aka Buí , the Wife of Lugh, per other tellings), was supposed to undertake a ritual bathing at dawn and before any other being had stirred with sound due to the day, once every hundred years at Loch Bà, in order to restore Her youthful form. Although the folktale that has come down to us (via the work of folklorist G.J. McKay) only has the aged figure failing at this and therefore collapsing as a corpse rather than being renewed.
In any case, assumedly something like much of the above would underpin the Beltaine folk-beliefs around water (from holy wells) and dew and the (pre-dawn or sunrise associated) replenishment effects of such upon the human face, as well.
And whilst it does not, perhaps, contain the ‘bathing’ element, we nevertheless feel it important to mention a further Vedic expression to our typology. Again, to quote myself in anticipation:
“The pattern is unmistakable. And would also seem to resonate further with particular of the ritualistic engagements with the ‘Proto-Kali’ figure of Nirrti in the Vedas. AV-S V 7 9-10, for instance, describes the otherwise (and more usually) ‘black’ (c.f. TS V 2 4 2) visaged Goddess as, having been propitiated, becoming ‘favoured’, ‘fortunate’, ‘auspicious’ [‘Subhaga’] – and of decidedly lighter complexion and golden hair (‘Hiranyavarna’ and ‘Hiranyakesi’, respectively). Given that Demeter is identified as the Earth (as attested in Euripides’ Bacchae, 276), the range of attestations for Nirrti as the Earth (c.f. VS XII 64, Sayana’s commentary upon RV VII 58 1, etc.) would further suggest Her to be a ‘Dark’ and ‘Wrathful / Avenging’ alternate facing to the Vedic Goddess in much the same manner as Demeter Erinys is for Demeter. “
Further exemplars which we might seek to draw from, no doubt, abound.
And whilst there are, of course, any array of additional points and depths I could add at this juncture (particularly pertaining to relevant points of mytholinguistic etymology – I hesitate to term it ‘etymological Trivia’) … I feel it certain that I have already overburdened the long-suffering reader well enough for the moment.
So where does all of that leave us, then?
Well, I can only speak for myself – but marveling at the quite remarkable degrees of underlying inherent unity to various different Indo-European spheres’ perspectives as beheld across a span of some three and a half thousand years (or so), and quite the spectra of different loka-lized circumstances with deference to climate, religious suppression (or, correspondingly, saliency / suzerainty), and other such considerations.
It is true – indelibly true – that, as I noted above, the ‘tide’ has ‘gone out’ upon the understandings as found in much of Europe to this day … these things are either confined to the musty other-sides of museum-glass casing and obscure academic journal articles, or they are dimly pantomimed in half-remembered pageantry by earnestly enthusiastic ‘returners’, building upon the considerably-muted traditions which could be in some form preserved by preceding generations of post-Christianization inheritors.
And yet … the very fact of the tide having gone out has within it the axiomatic truth that the tide can, must, and shall inexorably ‘come in’ again !
And glimpsing the essential, inherent, and underlying unity to all of these Indo-European spheres’ perceptions and heritages in this element, it seems eminently appropriate – to me, at any rate – that Beltane is also a festival of welcoming.
Of renewing the presence and guiding, illuminating saliency for Light, Life, Love, and active piety in Her Name.
Whatever whichever of our attendant descendant cultures might so happen to have That (or, rather, Those) Names attested to be.
Perhaps – as in the Hindu understanding for the relevant Devi Kali => Gauri myth – we hail our blessed reunification of Husband and Wife, (Mother) Goddess and Sky Father, Together again at last (even if it may not necessarily consistently appear ‘and for Always’).
Or perhaps it is simply enough to acknowledge our reunification – via the illumination of faith, knowledge, and your preferred sizes of offering-fires (curious that I had two going during this morning’s pre-dawn observance, now that I think upon it … ), with Her, this Goddess Both Bright and Dark, moving forward.
Jai Mata Di ❤ !
2 thoughts on “A Slightly Belated Beltane Commentary (With Additional Slavic Comparanda)”
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Though the idea of ‘killing’ a pagan goddess by immersion in a body of water may be interpreted as a result of the Christianization of Europe, it should also be noted that numerous pre-Christian offerings have been found in Europe deposited in water that have been ritually destroyed (swords bent, precious items broken, and such), It may be that these items were being ‘killed’ so that they may be ‘reborn’ as newer stronger ones in a similar way to the old season dying and the new coming to life. Of course without any contemporary written accounts to explain these finds, this remains pure speculation.