Now to the Brocken the
A lot of people celebrate Halloween or All Hallows’ Day Eve, however I’m not familiar with many other than strict Catholics who observe All Hallows’ or All Saints’ Day. Our Gregorian calendar allows people the world over to party on December 31st or New Year’s Day Eve (my birthday), yet few observants of the parties the night before usually appear at New Year’s Day events. Subtle differences exist between those who venture out on April 30 or Walpurgisnacht, and those who take to the streets on May 1st or May Day. We may sometimes agree to party, but invariably some people insist on ruining it for others.
In much the same way as All Saints’ Day was meant to supplant the Celtic festival of Samhain, or that Christmas occurs suspiciously near the Roman celebration of Saturnalia and the Winter Solstice, the Catholic feast day of St. Walburga was probably assigned to May Day to counter the Celtic festival of Beltaine and other pagan traditions. The urge to party is endemic to most of our species. Earth’s natural or seasonal year provides easy options for many calendars, and while the names of the celebrations inevitably change, the party stays the same.
It’s said the barrier between the worlds of the living and the dead is thinnest on Halloween or Samhain. Just the opposite is alleged about Walpurgisnacht or Beltaine. The barrier is at its thickest point and all types of nonsense have been suggested. Our evolving consensual traditions stem from divers sources and the play between new and old is always fascinating. Though all seasons are equally respected, Spring is always appreciated as a most pleasant development after Winter. What we do to mark the arrival of Spring helps to define us.
Beltaine (or Bel Tinne, the fires of Bile) was a major pagan Celtic holiday, reverently celebrated well before the invention of Christianity. As we currently understand the emergence of the Celtic people and their close relationship with the later Saxons and Germans, it should come as no surprise to see the combining of traditions, as well as adaptions, adaptations, and the constant evolvement of such an important matter as the arrival of Spring. It’s twisty, so read carefully.
Early humans had a profound respect for Spring (see “Exploring the Mind of Ice Age Man,” by Alexander Marshack, National Geographic, Vol. 147, No. 1, pp. 64-89). Hunter-gatherers and the later agriculturists developed seasonal calendars to suit their needs (see the discussion of Hesiod’s Works and Days in “Fail-Safe Stellar Dating: Forgotten Phases,” by Harald A. T. Reiche, Transactions of the American Philological Association, Vol. 119, 1989, pp. 37-53). The high esteem shown various trees in Celtic culture is still not adequately understood, however the celebration of Bel Tinne, the fires of Bile (a “scared tree”), was probably very important to the Celts, as demonstrated by the survival of the place-names of Bilem in France and Bilum in Denmark. Connecting Bile, and its variations Bel and Beal to either the Sumerian goddess Belili or the Canaanite Ba’al are futile exercises, as the fantastic historical claims of the Irish (i.e. AURAICEPT NA N-ÉCES, THE SCHOLAR'S PRIMER, BEING THE TEXTS OF THE OGHAM TRACT FROM THE BOOK OF BALLYMOTE AND THE YELLOW BOOK OF LECAN, AND THE TEXT OF THE TREFHOCUL FROM THE BOOK OF LEINSTER, by George Calder, Edinburgh: John Grant, 1917) are understood today as humor, an interpretation not lost on such modern commentators as Robert Graves in his The White Goddess (New York: Creative Age Press, 1948). The lighting of a fire with the wood of a sacred tree in Spring by the Celts may be regarded as a celebration honoring the passing of Winter. As Celtic influences survived across much of Europe, Bel Tinne or Beltaine gave rise to other traditions, some of which included fire.
The Saxons are said to have played games on May Day Eve, engaged in raucous revelry, and sent burning wooden wheels down hills. As England settled into a fusion of Celtic and Saxon elements, the lively Queen of the May and Robin Goodfellow (the “Green Man”) ritual emerged with its phallic Maypole and casual copulating in the fields (see 1973's film, The Wicker Man, or The Wicker Man: a novel of religious sexuality and pagan murder, by Robin Hardy and Anthony Shaffer, New York: Crown, 1978). Despite condemnations by church and state, various forms of May Day celebrations continued well into the 19th century. It’s a shame we can’t have that depth of historical reenactment at any of the various Medieval Manors or Renaissance Fairs!
It’s with the Germans that May Day celebrations get confusing. Walburga was born in England, became a nun, was sent to Germany for missionary work, an imperfect storm arose and was quelled by her prayers, and after arriving in Germany she was hailed as a miracle-worker. Her writings, a biography and travelogue about her brothers, are sometimes regarded as the first known and identifiable works written by a woman in England and Germany. She lived from 710 to 777 and was canonized by the Catholic Church shortly after her passing. It may be assumed the Teutonic May Day traditions were significant enough for the Catholics to associate a woman with this date. The later grade-B associations of witches and Walpurgisnacht are problematic, silly, but understandable in a gross sense. See, it’s about sensationalism, hence the grade-B categorization above.
A tradition developed around the celebration of Walpurgisnacht that witches flew on broomsticks to the Brocken, that is Blocksberg, the highest peak of the Harz Mountains (the “Bald Mountain” of Mussorgorsky), or any other suitable mountain or secluded hill. A confession exists from Quedlinburg in 1570 in which a woman claims she and some other women flew to the Brocken on broomsticks during Walpurgisnacht. Goethe’s mention of Walpurgisnacht (quoted above) inspired Felix Mendelssohn to compose his Die erste Walpurgisnacht, as well as Johannes Brahms’ Walpurgisnacht. With the inclusions of this tradition in Deutsche Mythologie II, by Jacob Grimm (yes, of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales; Berlin, 1876, p.307), and Frazer’s The Golden Bough (Balder the Beautiful II, by Sir J. G. Frazer, London, 1913, p. 159) the silliness seemed all but guaranteed to survive. Such recent scholarship as Michael Harner’s important article “The role of hallucinogenic plants in European witchcraft” (in Hallucinogens and Shamanism, edited by M. J. Harner, New York: Oxford University Press, 1973/1990) and Dreamtime: Concerning the Boundary between Wilderness and Civilization, by Hans Peter Duerr (translated by Felicitas Goodman, New York: Basil Blackwell, 1985, after the 1978 original German edition) solidly refute the fantastic legends of flying witches and explains the Solanaceae drug rituals which inspired all the silliness. However, when confronted and asked to choose between a droll truth or a fun fiction, most will opt for the fun fiction. A Spring celebration, Belatine, Walpurgisnacht and flying witches are what many people want. But, not all people. Some want May Day to stand for something else.
The mutualist socialism of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865) and the spontaneism of Michail Bakunin (1814-1876) inspired the anarchist political movement as described by Prince Pyotr Kropotkin in his article, “Anarchism,” in the Ninth Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, 1875-1889. Please forgive me if I don’t describe and define anarchism, as I’ve never understood its reasoning or appeal. I’ve read descriptions which characterize the movement as “naive,” and I can’t add substantially to that. Anyway, whatever the anarchists believe in, they were reluctantly in attendance at the infamous Haymarket Riot in Chicago, IL in 1886 (a labor demonstration to standardize an eight hour work-day, which the anarchists thought of as “reformist”). After the subsequent violence and executions, the global outcry of American injustice, an international labor conference in Paris during July, 1889, voted to establish May 1st as an international labor day, countering an earlier movement in America to assign the first Monday in September as Labor Day. Unionists, socialists, communists, facists, anarchists, and many others still march on May 1st or May Day. It’s a modern tradition. The communists roll out their troops and tanks, while in most cities there’s just a lot of street fighting between political activists. The anarchists think of it as a high holy day. Silliness.
Chicago, ever mindful of its history and an ongoing commitment to be the city of dislocated shoulders, still harbors an active anarchist movement. In 1989, a thin and nervous, middle-aged African American fellow approached me in The Loop area of downtown Chicago and handed me some of his writings. They were cheap photocopies of several pages of tiny, handwritten script. It was a homegrown anarchist screed, but what caught my attention was the name, home address and telephone number of the popular author, Bob Shea (The Illuminatus! Trilogy, The Eye in the Pyramid, The Golden Apple, and Leviathan, by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson, 3 Vols., New York, Dell, 1975, as well as several historical novels). I’d recently acquired a rare radio-interview featuring Shea, Wilson, and others, and figured I’d telephone Shea and inquire if he wanted copies of the interview and the anarchist screed. He did, and invited me to his home for lunch a few days later.
Shea lived just north of Chicago in the affluent suburb of Glencoe. As I lacked an automobile at the time, Shea was kind enough to pick me up at a nearby train station. His home was modest, almost small, standing out in a neighborhood of impressive, larger homes. Over sandwiches he told me about his personal, small-press publication, No Governor: A journal of anarchistic ideas, Ideas for Individuals, and a long-running feud with the African American anarchist I’d encountered. I can’t recall exactly the reason for their feud, but I believe it concerned something minor and had been going on for many years. Shea was kind and soft-spoken, his white hair and wide smile imparting a Santa Claus look to him. I had trouble associating the nihilistic term “anarchist” with the nice old guy. Maybe it was a hobby, like collecting coins or stamps. I’d previously been hassled by Chicago police a couple of times and they’d accused me (as well as the friends I was with at the time) of being an anarchist. I thought of “anarchist” as a slur against capricious and incorrigible youth. Apparently, some take it seriously.
The trouble at the WTO in Seattle and at the recent economic summit in Quebec has been traced to small groups of anarchists, who are well trained and organized, and who believe in expressing civil disobedience with lots of rocks thrown through windows. For weeks now we’ve been hearing about various anarchist groups who are threatening to shut London down on May Day. They’re going after McDonald’s and The Gap. Gee, if only there was a war for them to protest against! And, April 30th is the anniversary of Hitler's suicide!
I know that various political parties represent different ideologies, and anarchy seems to fly in the face of thousands of years of progress. Make the system better, but don’t get rid if it! It’s Spring, for Scully’s sake, and they should be out having sex in the fields! Some party people celebrate in ways I don’t understand.
Polishing my Maypole,