May Day

When I was a small girl, I remember my Welsh grandmother getting very upset because I had brought a twig of hawthorn in flower into her house. That incident has stuck in my mind for nearly sixty years and at various times I have burrowed about, trying to find out more about that particular superstition. When I discovered The White Goddess (Robert Graves), I thought I had found the answer, but I am no longer so sure. Even if the hawthorn was sacred to a pre-Christian (and rather bloodthirsty) deity, I still do not understand why my grandmother should get so very upset about the whole thing some time in the early 1950s.

Anyway, today I was wandering around the internet in my by now familiar futile search for useful sites on early Welsh history when I came across something on the celebration of May Day.  ttp://www.applewarrior.com/celticwell/ejournal/beltane/wales.htm The site outlined differences in the traditions between North and South Wales, talked about kindling a fire with nine kinds of wood but no metal and described various maypole traditions. But what made me sit up in some excitement was the information that despite traditionally decorating the outside of the house with hawthorn blossom on May Eve, it was unlucky to bring it into the house. No explanation, unfortunately.

So does anybody out there know whether the superstition was current in England, Scotland, Ireland, and not just Wales? And where might I find some useful thoughts on the origin of the idea? I have to say, I was so spooked by my grandmother, all those years ago, that I have never brought hawthorn blossom into the house and what is more, I passed on the superstition to my facebook queen of a daughter!

By the way, back in the 1950s when I was attending Tring CofE Primary School, I remember practicing maypole dancing for weeks before hand then setting up a maypole in the playground and dancing around it to produce intricate patterns with our ribbons.

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5 Responses to May Day

  1. Mark Carter says:

    The White Goddess examines the tale of Cardea from Ovid’s Fasti, but Graves is reinterpreting the myth and therefore not working straight from the source. The White Goddess says, “Cardea was Alphito, the White Goddess who destroyed children after disguising herself in bird or beast form, and the hawthorn which was sacred to her might not be introduced into a house lest she destroyed the children inside.” However, Ovid was an ancient Roman poet and Graves seems to be mixing his work with more recent European traditions.

    Most of the other material Graves offers about hawthorn is actually only connected to hawthorn because Graves believes it is associated to the month of May. This connection isn’t well established and much of what Graves says isn’t trustworthy because of that. Graves does mention 2 of his sources for his hawthorn material. They are E. M. Hull’s Folklore of the British Isles and Historic Thorn Trees in the British Isles by Vaughan Cornish. Both books are probably out of copyright, and may be online for free, but I checked Internet Archive and Project Gutenberg and found no results. Graves also hints at the legend that the crown of thorns Jesus wore was made from hawthorn and a couple other traditions which tie it to Christianity, but doesn’t list his sources.

    Frazer’s Golden Bough mentions a couple of hawthorn superstitions and also cites his source, Sir Henry Piers’s Description of Westmeath, 1682. The Golden Bough is online, of course, but I didn’t find Henry Piers’s book.

    If I find anything else I can share it with you. I recently published a book which studies The White Goddess and the impact it has had on modern paganism. I find it fascinating and I’m always doing more research on the subject. (My book is Stalking The Goddess by Mark Carter, if you’re interested.)

    • Sally says:

      Thanks for that Mark. I had suspected that my own view had been heavily coloured by Graves, but I had not realised that his sources for this were more or less exclusively classical! However, that does not explain my grandmother’s view. She grew up ‘in service’ as they used to say, in the South Wales valleys, so I strongly suspect that she had no exposure whatsoever to either Graves or his classical sources. Interesting how these ideas get around, though, and Graves’ impact on modern paganism sounds like a very interesting topic.

  2. Kris Hughes says:

    Hi Sally!
    I stumbled on this post while doing research on Cardea. I’m short of time, so perhaps you will forgive me for answering your question about the Hawthorn taboo with a link to my own blog. I think you will find some answers there.
    http://www.godeeper.info/2/post/2013/03/a-tonic-for-spring1.html

    Best wishes,
    Kris

  3. Sally says:

    Thanks Kris for that very interesting link. I am also delighted to say hi to a fellow horse lover.
    X

  4. S Dimond says:

    Dear Sally,

    I work at The Dacorum Heritage Trust, a Museum Store and Archive that collects and cares for artifacts relating to the history of the west Hertfordshire area of Dacorum. We are currently involved in a Heritage Lottery Funded project celebrating the traditions and historic customs of the area, for more info please see here http://www.dacorumheritage.org.uk/events/

    During our research I came across your above post mentioning your involvement in May Pole dancing at school in Tring, and I was wondering if you had any further memories you might consider sharing or imagery? As one of our themes we are illustrating, at a pop-up exhibition we are holding in the Marlowes Shopping Centre, next month, is May Day.

    If you would like to contact us directly my email is mso@dacorumheritage.org.uk.

    I look forward to hopefully hearing from you.

    Best wishes,
    Sophie

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