A very, very long time ago, when I was young, our favorite days of the year were Christmas and Halloween, not necessarily in that order. At Christmas, we were the beneficiaries of the generosity of others but on Halloween we were allowed to make our own fun and express our primal pagan spirits, perhaps for the only time that year.
As a Roman Catholic, I later learned that the Church understandably views Easter as the apex of the liturgical year, but as an adult I have come to reverence the liturgy and symbolism of Holy Thursday, the Christian version of the Jewish feast of Passover.
So what is the most important day of the year? For lovers, it might be Valentine’s Day; for veterans, Memorial Day; for patriots, the 4th of July and for gourmands, Thanksgiving: all worthy to be sure, but perhaps all wide of the mark.
A survey of Western traditions suggests that the most important day of the year might be May Day! That’s right, May Day.
This one day links pagan fertility rituals, mythology, cosmology, Christian theology and Marxist ideology. Quite a feat! Or is it? As we shall see, it is a common concern with economic justice that ties all of these May Day traditions together; but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
The May Day tradition in all its forms is a celebration of Natural Law, a fundamental ordering principle in Universe that underlies astronomical phenomena, natural processes, cultural expression and ethical behavior. In recent centuries, the Zeitgeist has focused on ‘man’s battle with nature’ and ‘man’s conquest’; this is far removed from the concept of Natural Law.
In Judaism, the law is twice manifest, once in the Written Torah, once in the Oral Torah. The Written Torah consists of the first 5 books of the Old Testament, traditionally credited to Moses. Here the law consists of 611 specific precepts and 2 summary precepts: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your strength and with all your might…and love your neighbor as yourself”.
The Oral Torah is the Natural Law. It is the same law but instead of 613 precepts it is inscribed in the processes of nature and on the hearts of men and women. According to the Hasidic tradition, there is one Law and that same law governs the cosmos, the earth and everything that happens on the earth.
Pagan May Day celebrations include many of the traditions we associate with Christmas and Halloween. According to the pre-Christian calendar of Northern Europe, May 1 is the first day of summer (and November 1 the first day of winter). While this may not make sense from the point of view of the weather, it makes great sense astronomically. The summer solstice falls right in between May 1 and August 1 so why shouldn’t that 91 day period be labeled “summer” as opposed to the 91 days between the solstice and the equinox?
In pagan lore, the eves of May 1st and November 1st are special times because that is when the spirit world is tangent to our physical world. On those two eves, it is as though a ‘portal’ opens that allows direct communication between the two realms. The Christian celebrations of All Hallows Eve, All Saints Day and All Souls Day are extensions of this theme.
Many of the activities that we now associate with Halloween (October 31) were once also associated with May Eve (April 30): Bonfires, wild merry-making and trick-or-treating, for example. Robert Graves (The White Goddess) wrote: “Christmas was merry in the middle ages but May Day was still merrier. It was the time of beribboned Maypoles…”
Very roughly, Maypoles are to May Day what Christmas Trees are to Christmas. Each links the respective festival to fertility. Like Christmas trees, a maypole may be a living tree or one that has been cut down for the occasion. It can even be ‘artificial’ in the sense that a bare log may be decorated with greenery to suggest a living tree.
Trees are powerful symbols, and important examples, of the fertility of the earth and the Maypole’s phallic shape connects human sexuality and reproduction with the more general fertility theme that trees represent. In Tudor England, it was customary for people to spend ‘May-eve’ making love in the fields to promote the fertility of the land. Children conceived on such occasions were known as ‘Merry-be-Gots’.
In Norse mythology, a single tree, Ygdrasil, structures the entire cosmos. Separate ‘homelands’ are allocated to humans, gods, elves, giants, trolls and others; but the branches of one giant tree, Odin’s ash tree (Ygdr = Odin or Woden), connect these semi-autonomous regions to form a coherent Universe. The Maypole symbolizes Ygdrasil, the mythological backbone of the world.
Beyond mythology, the Maypole also expresses an important astronomical concept. Early on, humans discovered that the periods of the Earth’s rotation and revolution were trivial compared to a cycle known as the Precession of the Equinox. The Maypole symbolizes axis mundi, the Earth’s axis, whose ‘wobble’ defines this 26,000 year celestial cycle.
Finally, trees play a crucial role in early European religion and spirituality. Recall the oak-worship of Celtic Druids, for example. All across Europe, individual trees or whole species of trees were once regarded as divine and later became associated with anthropomorphic deities alleged to live inside them (e.g. tree nymphs, hamadryas).
According to Sir James Frazer (The Golden Bough), Teutonic words for temple actually derive from words denoting ‘sacred grove’ and the old word for ‘sanctuary’ is identical to the Latin word nemus meaning grove or woodland glade. At one time it seems, our groves and glades were our churches and cathedrals.
During the persecution of Roman Catholicism by the English government, Irish Catholics practiced their religion in the woodlands. The persecution allowed them to reconnect with their pre-Christian spiritual traditions.
More recently, the 20th century poet Ezra Pound recaptured the association between trees and spirituality in his Cantos: “Aram vult nemus” (the grove needs an altar). This theme first appears in Canto LXXIV, the opening of Pound’s Pisan Cantos and the beginning of his ‘Paradiso’. From LXXIV on, Cantos is Pound’s blueprint for building “the city of Dioce” (Paradise). Perhaps anticipating by several decades our ‘Green movement’, Pound prescribes the reunification of nature and spirit.
Along with fertility, mythology and cosmology, ancient May Day rites include an economic theme. Again according to Frazer (The Golden Bough):
“At Thann, in Alsace, a girl called Little May Rose, dressed in white, carries a small May-tree, which is gay with garlands and ribbons. Her companions collect gifts from door to door, singing a song…In the course of the song a wish is expressed that those who give nothing may lose their fowls by the marten, that their vine may bear no clusters, their tree no nuts, their field no corn…”
“In some villages of the Vosges Mountains on the first Sunday of May, young girls go in bands from house to house, singing a song in praise of May in which mention is made of the ‘bread and meal that come in May’. If money is given them, they fasten a green bough to the door; if it is refused, they wish the family many children and no bread to feed them.”
“…In some villages of Altmark at Whitsuntide…the girls lead about the May Bride, a girl dressed as a bride…They go from house to house, the May Bride singing a song in which she asks for a present, and tells the inmates of each house that if they give her something they themselves will have something the whole year through; but if they give her nothing, they themselves will have nothing.”
These traditions express a powerful Natural Law principle: it is in giving that we receive.
In Canto XC, Pound links his eschatological vision (above) to May Day’s economic theme: “’Beatific spirits welding together as in one ash-tree in Ygdrasail. Baucis, Philemon…Templum aedificans, not yet marble…” As myth would have it, once upon a time gods in disguise tested the charity of the people by asking for food and drink. Only Baucis and Philemon passed the test and were rewarded while others were punished (‘trick-or-treat’?). In Pound’s view, such acts of charity ‘build the temple, not yet marble’.
How should we understand this pan-cultural focus on May Day giving? In few if any cases are the gifts substantial. They seem to be symbolic, but symbolic of what?
First, there is the magical element. It is spring and over the coming months, we will be expecting the earth to give of itself for our benefit. According to the ‘principles of magic’, like begets like. If we expect nature to give, we also must give; just as in England, May merry-makers reproduced (Merry-be-gots) to encourage the land to reproduce. (Lie quiet Malthus!)
On another level, the welfare of one is understood to be dependent on the welfare of all. In a society where everyone has the necessities of life, the overall economy will be more prosperous. Obviously, the practitioners of early May Day rituals were not trained economists but they may have intuitively grasped the nature and necessity of social solidarity. As the ‘natural economy’ (fertility) benefits everyone, so must the ‘human economy’ (generosity) benefit all.
It is here, of course, that these May Day rites intersect with later day Christian and Marxist versions. In the Roman Catholic Church, for example, the month of May is dedicated to Mary, the mother of Jesus. May 1st, May Day, stands at the head of this special month. In many Catholic areas, it has traditionally been a day of brightly colored, florid processions, reminiscent of the pre-Christian festivals mentioned above. Controversially, in 1955 Pope Pius XII designated May 1st as the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker, underscoring yet again May Day’s economic import.
Mary speaks sparingly in scripture but when she does, her message packs a punch. In her Magnificat (Luke 1: 46 – 52), for example, Mary says of Yahweh, “He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones but lifted up the lowly. The hungry he has filled with good things but the rich he has sent away empty.” Are we reading Luke…or Lenin? Mary of the Magnificat is every bit as radical as Marx of the Manifesto…perhaps more so!
Christian economic doctrine is complex. In Acts of the Apostles (4: 32), for example, the prescription seems to be pure communism:
“The community of believers was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they had everything in common.”
But just 2 verses later, the message softens a bit (Acts 4: 34 – 35): “There was no needy person among them, for those who owned property or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds of the sale, and put them at the feet of the apostles, and they were distributed to each according to his need.”
Paul’s Second Letter to Corinthians presents a further developed doctrine of economic justice (8: 8, 13 – 15):
“I say this not by way of command, but to test the genuineness of your love by your concern for others…not that others should have relief while you are burdened, but that as a matter of equality your surplus at the present time should supply their needs, so that their surplus may also supply your needs, that there may be equality. As it is written: ‘Whoever had much did not have more, and whoever had little did not have less.’”
Paul’s letter reads a lot like John Rawls’ Theory of Justice. According to Rawls, there are two primary imperatives: (1) civil liberty including equality before the law and (2) a social system that guarantees that the basic economic needs of all persons will be met at all times. So long as these two criteria are met, some inequality of distribution is acceptable, especially if that inequality produces more overall wealth which in turn benefits the community as a whole.
Paul’s concept of equality seems consistent with Rawls’. It is not merely a matter of statutory equality but it includes an element of economic equality so far as basic needs are concerned. In light of Paul, I think we should regard the pure communism of Acts as a particular expression of the Pauline doctrine in a specific context and under very special circumstances.
In 1891, the Second Congress of the Second International designated May 1st as the day dedicated to the celebration of work and the worker. So far as we know, these delegates were not thinking of pagan or Christian May Day traditions; they were commemorating the Haymarket Massacre that took place on May 4, 1886.
Nonetheless, Communists and Socialists are primarily concerned with economic justice so it cannot be overlooked that they elected to schedule their principal annual celebration on the day when pagans and Christians celebrate their own commitments to economic justice.
We have so far drawn material from anthropology, mythology, cosmology, theology and economics; but to what effect? As we suggested much earlier, out of all of these cultural expressions, we can, I think, distill a common core: there exists a body of Natural Law that spans ages and continents, and economic justice is integral to that law.
In today’s highly specialized intellectual environment, we rarely seek out connections among concepts drawn from disparate disciplines such as agriculture, astronomy, mythology, theology, politics and economics. The May Day tradition tears down those siloes. The primordial focus on fertility links with our understanding of the Earth’s astronomical motions; together, they form the basis for cosmology. But fertility is futile without just distribution; together they form the basis for economics and politics. Supply side + demand side economics!
The study of May Day spans and links a broad spectrum of cultures, eras and intellectual foci. It is incredible then that all of these themes and ideologies should be embodied in a single person: Robin Hood!
Robin is one of those rare but crucial figures who combine history and legend (mythology) into a single cultural phenomenon. It is highly likely that the story of Robin Hood began as the story of a real life, flesh and blood figure. We just can’t say which figure. Several potential ‘Robins’ have been identified in the record but we cannot be certain which, if any of them, is the historical Robin Hood.
What can we claim to know with reasonable certainty is this:
(1) Robin lived in a forest with a man called ‘Little John’ and sundry other ‘Merry Men’.
(2) Robin was fiercely religious, devoted to the celebration of the Mass and to the Virgin Mary, but just as fiercely opposed to the church hierarchy.
(3) Robin was often at odds with secular authority but always faithful to his own Natural Law ethic that included ‘robbing the rich to give to the poor’.
Based on the unanimous testimony of the earliest source material, it seems highly likely that these aspects of Robin’s story contain at least some elements of historical truth. Nonetheless, for our purposes, it matters not whether these things are true as ‘history’ just so long as they are true as ‘mythology’.
How do these meager biographical details connect Robin Hood to May Day?
(1) The forest location connects Robin to the tree-worship of his Celtic ancestors and to the sacred grove (Nemi) of Rome. Early sources have Robin hearing Mass in the deep woods, while hiding from the Sherriff’s men, as often as three times a day. With Robin, the grove indeed found its altar!
(2) By robbing the rich to give to the poor, Robin associates himself with the original May Day concern that the fruits of labor be justly distributed and with the message of Mary’s Magnificat.
(3) Robin ignores the legalism of church and state and instead promulgates and follows a number of Natural Law precepts. This echoes the anti-authoritarianism that has informed May Day (and Halloween) rites from pre-Christian Europe to post-modern American suburbia (“trick or treat”).
A slightly later tradition introduces a ‘love interest’ for Robin, Maid Marian (or Marion). This apparently innocent romantic embellishment is in many ways the real key to the whole Robin Hood phenomenon. In traditional May Day lore, Maid Marian was a shepherdess who was also “Queen of May”. She is referred to in this context as far back as 1300 in France.
Maid Marian did not become part of the Robin Hood legend in England until the 16th century. Who is Maid Marian, really? Texts suggest an alternate spelling of her name: ‘Marion’, a derivative of ‘Mary’. Interestingly, a modern Roman Catholic hymn refers to Mary as “Queen of the May”, almost the exact same title give to Maid Marian in the 14th century.
If this interpretation is correct, Maid Marian and Mary, the mother of Jesus, are one and the same person and Robin’s love affair with Maid Marion is mystical rather than romantic. This interpretation is consistent with the evidence we have of historical Robin’s devotion to Mary.
It also potentially sheds light on another mystery, Robin’s “Merry Men”. What makes a bunch of outlaws, hiding in the forest for fear of the Sherriff, living off the land and facing almost certain execution if caught, so darn merry? Robin’s ‘Merry Men’ are more likely Robin’s ‘Mary Men’, men who, like their leader, are devoted to the cult of the Blessed Virgin. And what was her message? “He (Yahweh) has thrown down the rulers from their thrones but lifted up the lowly. The hungry he has filled with good things but the rich he has sent away empty.” Is this not a virtual manifesto for Robin and his band? And does it not summarize the spirit of May Day from pre-Christian times to today?