Mythology of May Day
First we talk about the Goddess who lies behind May Day; second will be about the bonfires of May Day Eve and third the mythology and rituals behind the Maypole.
Since May 1 lies about halfway between the vernal equinox and the summer solstice, it was considered a good time to mark the transition into summer. Indeed, in most of medieval northern Europe (meaning the Celtic calendar), May 1 was the beginning of summer. By then the seeds for crops had just been sown (so farmers and their laborers could take a short break), and it was time to drive cattle and sheep out to their summer pastures. Both the sprouting crops and the soon-to-be pastured cattle needed divine protection from the dangers of the natural and supernatural worlds, which is why May Day developed as a holiday and took on the associated rituals and mythology that it did. And a goddess was a good figure to deal with such human concerns.
The Goddess of what is now May Day goes back to ancient times, in Anatolia, Greece, and Rome. Spring goddesses came to be venerated at two Roman holiday festivals that led to our May Day. The Roman Empire is important here because it took over much of Europe and the British Isles. Its mythology, associated rituals, and holidays spread there and merged with local conditions, mythologies, holidays, and customs.
The first of these goddesses of spring holidays was the Hilaria festival (from Greek hilareia/hilaria (“rejoicing”) and Latin hilaris (“cheerful”), held between the vernal equinox and April 1. It goes back to when the Phrygian goddess Cybele was introduced to Rome, at the end of the 3rd century BCE. In her myth, she had a son-lover, Attis, a dying-and-rising god who was mortally gored by a boar. Cybele knew that he had not died for eternity but that his spirit simply had taken refuge in a tree for the winter, and that he would be reborn from the tree in the spring, on the vernal equinox. When Cybele was introduced in Rome, she was given her temple of Magna Mater on the Palatine hill and a also a holiday with corresponding rituals. In her festival, a pine tree (that of Attis) was cut and stripped of its branches, wrapped in linen like a mummy, and decorated with violets (Cybele’s flower, because in the myth violets were said to have sprung from the blood of Attis).
It was then brought before Cybele’s temple on wagons in what resembled a funeral cortege, since Attis was “dead” inside the tree. This was followed by days of frenzied grief and mourning (including scourging) known as the “blood days,” when the tree was symbolically buried in a “tomb.” Attis then resurrected (rose out of the tree) on the day of Hilaria and was reunited with Cybele, symbolizing the beginning of spring. The tree was then erected before Cybele’s temple, and the people celebrated around it. The celebrations ended on April 1, which may be the origin of our April Fool’s day (the people were having a “hilarious” celebration). This has obvious parallels with the Maypole and May Day celebrations.
The second of these holidays was the Floralia, named after Flora, goddess of flowers and spring. Originally she may have been a Sabine goddess, about whom we know nothing other than that she had a spring month named after her on the Sabine calendar (Flusalis, linguistically related to Floralia) and that supposedly an altar to her in Rome was established by the Sabine king Tatius during the legendary period of his joint rule of Rome with Romulus. But none of her Sabine mythology has survived. In Rome Flora acquired her entire surviving mythology from the Greek spring goddess Chloris (from chloros – “pale green”),
who, as Ovid tells us, was originally a beautiful nymph in the Elysian Fields catering to the pleasures of the fortunate dead. There she also attracted the attention of Zephryos, the god of the West Wind and of spring, who quickly had his way with her. But then he married her, in what turned out to be a happy, loving marriage. As a wedding gift he filled her fields (her dowry in the marriage) with a flower garden, the flowers in which were said to spring from the wounds of Attis and Adonis. Zephyros, as the West Wind, brings the spring rains that grow the flowers. Thus, Virgil wrote that “the meadows ungirdle to Zephyros’s balmy breeze; the tender moisture avails for all.” Chloris also bore from Zephryos a son, Karpos, in Greek meaning “fruit” or “crop.” Through Zephyros’s wedding gift she became the goddess having jurisdiction over flowers, which she spread (by spreading their seeds) all over the earth, which until then was monochrome. She became goddess of spring. As Flora in Rome, in the late 3rd century BCE a festival was instituted in her honor that lasted from April 28 to May 2. It included theater, a sacrifice to Flora, a procession in which a statue of Flora was carried, as well as competitive events and other spectacles at the Circus Maximus. One of these involved releasing captured hares and goats (both noted for their fertility) into the Circus, and scattering beans, vetches, and lupins (all fertility symbols) into the crowd. The celebrants wore multi-colored clothing symbolizing flowers and spring, as later was customary on May Day in Europe. It was a time of generally licentious behavior. Flora also had a rose festival on May 23.
(Detail from Botticelli’s Primavera, ca. 1482. The flowers coming out of Chloris’s mouth match those on Flora’s dress, strengthening their connection.)
To their left is Primavera (Flora), into whom the nymph Chloris had been transformed following her marriage. She is depicted in a multicolored flowery dress and as spreading flowers over the ground, as in her myth, a dress based on that of Aphrodite (Venus). According to Fragment 6 of the Greek epic Cypria, when Aphrodite emerged from the sea she was clothed in garments that the Graces and Horae made for her, which were dyed in the flowers of spring. One of the three Horae was Thallo (“the one who brings blossoms”), who in Rome became Flora.
The above goddess motifs appear in the May Day festivals in medieval and pre-modern northern continental Europe and the British Isles. In Scotland, there was a goddess of winter called Cailleach (meaning “hag” or “old woman”) or Beira, and correspondingly a summer goddess Brìgde. (They parallel the Slavic goddesses Vesna and Morena discussed in my April 3, 2015, blog post.) Each spring (or first day of summer, May 1) there was a festival marking Brìgde’s arrival. This annual spring transition of goddesses forms the background to the tradition of the May Queen.
In this crowning ritual the May Queen would be married to the May King in a ceremony that harks back to the annual reunion of Cybele and Attis.
In the tradition of Flora, May Day festivities also involved picking flowers, making them into garlands, spreading the garlands and flowers throughout each village, and (as with the tree of Attis) decorating the May Pole with flowers (including violets).
This festival was also called Beltane with the Celts and was the beginning of summer for them. The goddess background to May Day also took on Christian trimmings. In Germany, on May Day Eve (April 30), called Hexennacht (”Witches Night”), witches were said to gather on the Brocken, the highest peak in the Harz Mountains, to foment their evil plans (after the advent of Christianity, they were said to meet with the Devil then), dramatized by Goethe in Faust. Their plans were then foiled through protective May Day rituals. Over time, that Eve became known instead as Walpurgis Night, named after the abbess St. Walpurga (ca. 710-778), who is said to have been instrumental in bringing Christianity to Germany in the 8th century. More importantly, in the 18th century if not before, May Day became an occasion for Catholics formally venerating the Virgin Mary, nearly as a goddess.
Beltane can be seen as the feast of Holy Marriage or else as the feast of fertilization in nature. The Goddess is at her best in an array of flowers and flowers. The God is green and horned. This marriage takes place in nature around us, it takes place between the God and the Goddess, between man and woman, but it is also an inner marriage of the male and female energies within you. This is the feast of the actual cosmic orgasm, which is only achieved in complete indolence or in complete unification. It is the mixing of the red stream of the Goddess, with the white stream of the god. At the most plastic this is (menstruation) blood and semen. But it is also the descending and ascending, the incoming and outgoing energy flow. When these currents are in harmony with each other, unification arises and thereby fertility and creativity.
Purification by May Day bonfires
Traditionally, in most countries of northern Europe the May Day bonfire ritual was at least as important as the Maypole ritual.
Generally speaking, the bonfires were more important to pastoralists dependent on their herds of cattle and sheep that were about to be let out to their summer pastures, while the Maypoles and their associated rituals were more meaningful to farmers’ newly sprouting crops; but these two kinds of rituals were usually combined in one May Day celebration.
May 1 is a perilous but ultimately optimistic moment of transition from the old to the new, from the winter to the summer season. Whereas vernal equinox holidays celebrate the anticipated victory of spring and fertility, May Day, being halfway between the equinox and the summer solstice when the sun’s waxing light and warmth is more clearly felt, celebrates and guarantees the full blown forces of summer (which according to the Celtic calendar indeed began on May 1.
At this point winter is finally defeated and left behind, as symbolized in rituals such as the May Queen defeating the Queen of Winter. This transformation process also entails other rituals of cleansing and renewal, for which task fire is perfectly suited.
Generally in mythology, fire is a purifying and cleansing agent, which enables it to destroy the causes and manifestations of evil. Fire is therefore an agent of transformation.
The sun is thought to be made of fire, meaning that fire on earth is just a lesser manifestation and representation of the same solar substance, which is divine by nature. Of the traditional four ancient essential elements, fire was the only one which humans could participate in creating, which connected them to the divine. Building a fire on earth could be both a process of sympathetic magic designed to ensure the supply of light and heat from the sun and stimulate the growth of crops, as well as an apotropaic rite to ward off evil and protect people, livestock, and crops.
Thus, at least as far back as the ancient Near East, fire was used in incantations to counteract evil spells and annihilate sorcery. The ancient Greeks too had a ritual of running over hot coals (pyrobasia), which appears to have originated as a springtime purification ritual like those described below. The most relevant springtime fire ritual in the Classical world, however, was that of the Parilia festival in Rome.
The Parilia, celebrated on April 21, was the pastoral festival of the god and goddess Pales, deities of shepherds and sheep, and goes back to pre-Republican times. It was intended to protect shepherds, sheep, and their stalls from harm prior to putting the sheep out to pasture for the summer season. As reported by Ovid in his Fasti, the original ritual involved cleaning out the sheep pens and decorating them with green branches and garlands of flowers. A bonfire was then lit, and the shepherds would leap through the flames, taking their sheep with them. Offerings of cakes and milk were made to Pales, and then the shepherds wet (i.e., purified) their hands with dew, prayed, and consumed a beverage that was a mixture of milk and boiled wine. Then they would leap through the flames three more times.
In medieval Europe forward, similar May Day bonfire rituals were observed both in northern continental Europe and the British Isles, with the Gaelic Beltane bonfires in Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and the Isle of Man being the most emblematic.
The word “Beltane” is a combination means “bright fire,” “Bel” being derived from Biel (or Bel), a god of fire and purification. His name is probably not a corruption of “Baal” in the Hebrew Bible, as one often hears, since the word is not Semitic but ultimately derives from the Proto-Indo-European root *bhel, meaning to shine, flash, or burn.
The modern Beltane Fire Festival on Calton Hill in Edinburgh.
People thought that on May Eve (April 30), witches and evil spirits were generating their evil plans for the people, livestock, and newly planted crops, so that is when the bonfires were lit and rituals were performed to counteract this evil.
The process began when all hearth fires and candles in people’s homes were put out, so that the village bonfire could then be generated. Typically, the bonfire was started by the most primitive means possible, by rubbing two wooden sticks together (or by plank and wimble) to produce sparks emanating from the wood. (The rubbing also had sexual overtones.) The party is famous and infamous for its erotic symbolism and sexual debauchery. Beltane means ‘brilliant or bright fire’. It was the time when the winter fires were extinguished and the ‘tein eigin’ the purifying ‘emergency fire‘ was made by rubbing a wooden staff in a wooden bowl. Only this ritual can already be seen as loaded with sexual symbolism. By inserting and rubbing the male staff into the female bowl, a purifying fire is born!
Starting the bonfire with wood in this way made it most holy, and at the moment it was the only fire in the land. After the festival was over at sunset on May 1, the people took embers from the bonfire to re-start their hearth fires at home, and the ashes from the bonfire were scattered over the newly sprouting crops.
Other aspects of the bonfire ritual resemble those of the Parilia. The herders placed boughs of rowan-tree and wood bine over the doors of the cow-houses. Then they led their cattle around the fire; alternatively, there were two bonfires and they would pass between them. The smoke and heat were considered agents of purgation and protection that would drive out any winter disease and protect the livestock and the farmers from harm for the summer season. In some cases bones were thrown into the fire, because the foul smoke that they emitted was considered more effective for driving away evil spirits. A fire that consumes bones is actually the etymological origin of our word “bonfire.”
In most cases the bonfire ritual also involved preparing some kind of cakes or pies, at least one piece of which was darker than the others (or was marked as such). The pieces were distributed by chance among the participants, and the unlucky person(s) with the dark portions had to leap over the fire three times, and bore a stigma for the rest of the ritual and even into the following year. This act, performed as representative of all the village people, likewise ensured protection, though more for crops than for livestock. Some commentators see evidence of earlier human sacrifice in this rite.
The bonfire ritual was followed by sending youths of both genders into the woods all night.
Romance was in the air, but the youths also would gather flowers, boughs of newly flowering hawthorn or blackthorn, and a tree trunk for the Maypole to be erected the next day.
These days the May Eve bonfire rituals are celebrated by neopagans and others in several festivals around the world. The most important is the Beltane Fire Festival held in Edinburgh, now a tourist attraction to which anyone can buy tickets. Showing the complete degenration of the modern world.
we focuse now on the idea behind Maypoles, and the various rituals involving them (collectively known as “Maying”).
The festivities as we know them today come to us largely from the 19th-century revival of the holiday, which differ markedly from the original celebrations in northern continental Europe and the British Isles that I cover here. Indeed, the original May Day never occurred in what would become the USA. Early attempts to celebrate it here after European settlement were frowned upon by the Puritanical establishment (as in Cromwellian England), and the holiday gained some traction only in connection with workers’ rights in the aftermath of the Chicago Haymarket massacre in 1886. Today it is celebrated here most enthusiastically by neopagans and some New Agers.
In pre-modern Europe, the Maying rituals would begin after the May Eve bonfire rituals ended.
That night youths of both sexes would go to the woods. Besides having sex, they would gather flowers (especially violets and daisies), boughs of newly flowering hawthorn or blackthorn, and a tree trunk for the Maypole to be erected the next day. (If the Maypole was large, it would be brought in on oxcarts.)
Many of the flowers were made into garlands. The tree trunk was stripped of its branches, though in some locations the branches and leaves at the very crown of the tree were left intact as a reminder that they were dealing not only with a representation life but with something sacred which has a divine tree (or vegetation) spirit behind it. This serves to remind us to pause and reflect on certain mythological aspects of trees.
Trees are the tallest and most venerable living things on earth. Their lives span many human generations, and so they represent longevity. They are green, and either remain so all year (evergreens) or grow new foliage each spring. They therefore represent life and its preservation and renewal. And since life was divine, trees were associated with one or another deity (male or female) or tree/vegetation spirit. Importantly, trees exist not only in the realm of “earth” but also grow their roots into the earth toward the divine realm of the underworld; on the other hand they grow their branches upwards toward the heavens. Trees thus serve as means of accessing divinity in both heaven and the underworld; in both cases they are conduits to the divine. Naturally, trees were also oracles, used in divination. Tree veneration was ubiquitous both in the ancient world and in pre-modern Europe, so it was natural to utilize trees and their foliage in a spring/summer festival dedicated to the renewal and preservation of life.
The Maypole was brought from the forest and decorated with painted spirals or horizontal rings, and festooned with flowers and ribbons. It was then erected on the village green. In some locations, smaller Maypoles were placed in front of people’s houses. Normally, Maypoles were used just once, but as time went on Maypoles in large cities tended to become permanent, being reused each year until they had to be replaced.
The largest was erected in 1661 in London on the Strand, stood over 134 feet high, and lasted over 50 years. When it was taken down, Sir Isaac Newton purchased it and put it to the novel, scientific use of supporting Huygen’s new large reflecting telescope. More commonly, once taken down, Maypoles were employed as ladders or as beams in buildings.
Along with Maypoles themselves, in some localities the celebrators would also cut and similarly decorate a thorn bush (even if it was already flowering) with flowers, ribbons, and bright shells, which became known as the May Bush.
As with the Maypole, May Bushes could be both household and communal (for the whole village, on the village green). Thorn bushes were symbolically important for at least two reasons.
First, the combination of thorns and blossoms on bushes and thistles represented opposites, in this case the opposites of winter and summer. Thorns typically represent adversity, suffering, and tribulation, and so are symbolic of winter. Decorating them in a spring/summer motif was not merely symbolic of the transition to summer, but apparently was a ritual of sympathetic magic designed to facilitate that transition.
Second, in Gaelic lands thorn bushes were associated with the sí, or fairies. The good fairies were seen as helping to bring on and protect summer and summer growth, so they needed to be encouraged.
On May Day morning women would rise early and rush to the fields and meadows to partake of the morning dew, applying it to their faces, which was thought to have magical healing and cosmetic properties.
Then the youths who had been out in the forest all night would make the rounds of the village, decorating the outside of people’s houses with flowers, garlands, and boughs while singing songs and blowing horns.
In some places they would also carry a miniature representation of the Maypole and a doll representing the May Queen, both of which ultimately represented the divine forces at work in the trees and thorn bushes. (Sometimes the main Maypole was decorated with women’s clothes and/or a similar doll was hung on the Maypole, making the connection clearer.) The idea here was one of exchange: The youths were mediators conferring through the flowers, boughs, and dolls divine blessings, good luck, and protection on households and their crops and animals, and they expected to be rewarded with gifts in return for their good will and services, much as in Halloween’s trick-or-treat tradition. The gifts were rather nominal and symbolic and included eggs, tea, bacon, sausage, cream, cakes, and money, but it was still thought that the generosity of the gift to the youths (and ultimately to the divinities) would influence the magnitude of the blessing conferred. In this way the entire village, house-by-house in a private, family-specific manner, came under divine blessing and protection.
Representation of May Day in a larger English town, prior to the inauthentic late 19th-century plait dance.
As the day wore on, the villagers would gather around the Maypole, where the organized communal rituals took place. They would typically include some contest in which summer defeats winter, as when the May Queen defeats the Queen of Winter as described in my April 28 post, her marriage to the May King, who was a Green Man figure, typically a youth totally covered in foliage.
Then the pair would be crowned and perhaps a mock sacred marriage would be held, marking the revival of fertility at the base of a symbol with obvious phallic significance.
After that the people celebrated with dancing and singing around the Maypole. The elaborate dances that we see performed today involving the intricate plaiting of ribbons were not original to the holiday but arose only as part of the holiday’s 19th-century revival. Originally it was a simpler ring dance. In due course Morris dancing (probably originating as a sword dance in Moorish Spain) became part of the festival, mainly in England.
Note: The dance around the pole
This process is depicted in the ritual of the election of the May King and May Queen and then in setting up a pole with a glass wreath or hoop, which is decorated with red and white ribbons. Sometimes snakes are carved into the bark of the pile. The pole decorated with serpents and ribbons can be seen as the cosmic tree that connects heaven and earth and as the energetic current in your own body that can do the same. It is also a symbol for phallic masculinity. The wreath at the top then represents the female gender. By braiding the red and white ribbons during the ribbon dance, the rising and falling energies are harmoniously connected.
Sometimes no ribbon dance but a spiral dance is done around the pole. The spiral symbolically leads to the underworld. There in the darkest heart of yourself you can find and liberate the spring bride. Sometimes the hen king also has to prove himself by climbing in the post. In this way he reaches the female symbol: the wreath with hawthorn blossom. He has symbolically liberated the meikoningin from the Other World and can take her back to earth.
That this process often goes wrong can be read in a story from the Welsh Mabinogion: Lludd and Llevelys. In it, a white and a red dragon fight each other on May evening. They scream so loudly that then everyone in the country – including the cattle and the crop – loses its fertility. Later they let the tower of Vortigern, the king of the British, crash. If there is no harmony, but rather friction between the two energy flows, then the energetic tower will be built up to make it more dramatic. The cosmic orgasm and the inner marriage is then not reached.
That this process fails can also be obtained from the name of the month of May. This is taken from the. This goddess is the leader of the Pleiades and the mother of Hermes. We know her Indian counterpart Maya as the goddess of illusion, the external phenomena. The month of May is the height of beauty of the outer world. Every time the man only goes for this external picture instead of the actual content, his meikoningin will prove to be a fatal woman. He will not achieve perfect unification and will lose energy. Similarly, this is the case with the woman and her fatal husband.
Maya is seen as goddess of magic, mother of the Buddha and creator of the world of the senses. With that, maya is also a term for beautiful appearance. Matter is her most seductive form. Her counter part is the goddess Kali. Kali is a goddess of death but She brings the death of the ego as the illusory self-centered view of reality.
The hero, however, must not marry her for her beauty, but for who she really is, deeply.
The son of Maia – Hermes – has the weapon with which that unification can be reached: The caduceus. It is the staff where two snakes swing around. The two snakes wriggling love – as if they are dancing or making love – around each other.
In the story of Lludd and Llevelys something similar happens: the two dragons (in fact snakes with wings) fall into the center of Britain in a barrel with which they fall asleep. Whoever knows how to stay in his center during the sacred dance / free party of male and female energies, will eventually be able to step out of his physical body and be truly free. He will go into the spirit and melt together with his inner lover.
Marry with the spring bride
In the story of Culhwch and Olwen, also from the Mabinogion, the hero falls spontaneously in love with the virgin Olwen. He too threatens to make the whole land infertile with a scream if King Arthur does not help him find his bride. This seems to be unreachable. Only by performing 39 seemingly impossible tasks can he win her from the hands of her father the giant Hawthorn (Ysbaddaden Penkawr). Here the hawthorn is the thorny hedge that forms a barrier between this and the Other world where the bride can be found. But anyone who can shave and cut the giant can also pass the border. You could see this giant thorn hedge as the world of matter in thought that seems impenetrable, but melts away for true love and purpose as snow in the sun.
In the Scottish fairy tale ‘the battle of the birds’ there is also a king’s son in love with the daughter of a giantess. He too is given impossible tasks that he does clear with the help of the giantess. Eventually he has to climb a tree without lateral branches (compare the pole) to give the giant eggs that are in a nest there. This is only possible by sacrificing the daughter herself. By killing her, he can make a kick from her bones and reach the top of the tree. Once again below he collects the bones and the daughter of the giant comes back to life. Of course he eventually marries her. You could say that he sees through and kills her outer appearance and so, by continuing to penetrate more and more into her being, she can climb higher into the tree in order to reach the eggs of fertility and creativity.
The battle for the May Queen
In one episode from the long story of Culhwch is told of an epic battle between Gwythyr ap Greidawl and Gwyn ap Nudd for the hand of Creiddylad. They must compete every first May day for her hand until the end of time. Gwyn is the ruler of Annwn, the Welsh underworld and Gwythyr is nicknamed ‘the scorch’ and is therefore probably a king of the summer and the upper world.
Winter and summer compete in such a perpetual battle for the spring bride. A battle that will take place at the beginning of the summer for the Celts: 1 May. But neither can win definitively. At the turning of the year halves they will be forced to hand over the goddess to the new king, king summer, or king winter or else the king of the outgoing and the king of the rising year.
The same theme also emerges in the 12th century chivalry of Chretien de Troyes from the kidnapping of Guinevere by Melwas / Meleagant. Guinevere (In Welsh Gwenhwyfar, the white lady), wife of King Arthur, goes ‘mein’, or she goes into the forest to pick flowering branches for the May Festival. There she is kidnapped by the king of the ‘Summerland’. This is probably a euphemism for the underworld. Lancelot can be seen here as May King. He chases them and goes over the razor-sharp sword bridge to enter the Other World. There he fights with Melwas and overcomes him. He liberates Guinevere and that night they make love with each other. Because she is of course already married to Arthur, here comes a serious dilemma of this time: The king does not want to lose his spring bride, wants to stay king forever and does not transfer his wife to Lancelot who has won her love. Since Arthur’s cycle of life and seasons is not respected, his kingdom must come to an end.
Also relate to the story Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is The Marriage of Sir Gawain
The tests of the May festival
That the ideal bride – the bride who can bring back the lost unity of man and woman – is difficult to win and that you have to be made worthy of it – through trial and initiation – is also reflected in a number of May celebrations.
The young men go out into the village in the meinacht and into the forest in search of flowering branches and bring them to the window of their beloved in the village. The pole is placed in the middle of the village and crowned with a branch or wreath of the flowering hawthorn. The young men of the community must compete in a running or riding competition who is the new honey king and then try to climb into the pole to get the meat crown (sometimes the pole is smeared with soap).
The young men must endure these trials to be worthy of their beloved. By extracting the treasure – the flowering branch – from the other world, they can, as it were, awaken their beloved from the slumber of their enchantment.
During the pagan Beltane, the May King and the May Queen will have performed the ritual of holy marriage. They do not flee with each other as just a young man and woman, but as king and queen of the May, as the God and the Goddess. This ritual of unification brought fertility to the community. They brought a bit of heaven on earth, but also earth in heaven, they made a connection!
Ananda K. Coomaraswamy had this to say about the metaphysical dimension of folklore:
[By] “folklore” we mean that whole and consistent body of culture which has been handed down, not in books but by word of mouth and in practice, from time beyond the reach of historical research, in the form of legends, fairy tales, ballads, games, toys,crafts, medicine, agriculture, and other rites, and forms of organization, especially those we call tribal.
This is a cultural complex independent of national and even racial boundaries, and of remarkable similarity throughout the world. . . . The content of folklore is metaphysical.
Our failure to recognize this is primarily due to our own abysmal ignorance of metaphysics and of doctrines are received by the people and transmitted by them.
In its popular form, a given doctrine may not always have been understood, but so long as the formula is faithfully transmitted it remains understandable;
“superstitions,” for the most part, are no mere delusions, but formulae of which the meaning has been forgotten. . . . We are dealing with the relics of an ancient folk metaphysics its technical terms. . . . Folklore ideas are the form in which metaphysical wisdom, as valid now as it ever was. . . . We shall only be able to understand the astounding uniformity of the folklore motifs all over the world, and the devoted care that has everywhere been taken to ensure their correct transmission, if we approach these mysteries (for they are nothing less) in the spirit in which they have been transmitted (“from the Stone Age until now”) with the confidence of little children, indeed, but not the childish self-confidence of those who hold that wisdom was born with themselves.
The true folklorist must be not so much a psychologist as a theologian and metaphysician, if he is to “understand his material”. . . . Nor can anything be called a science of folklore, but only a collection of data, that considers only the formulae and not their doctrine. . . .
René Guénon says about folklore:
“What may be popular is solely the fact of “survival,” when these elements belong to vanished traditional forms…. The people preserve, without understanding them, the relics of former traditions which go back sometimes to a past too remote to be dated, so that it has to be relegated to the obscure domain of the “prehistoric”; they thereby fulfill the function of a more or less subconscious collective memory, the contents of which have clearly come from elsewhere.”
The King and Queen in Alchemy
The King and Queen, a common symbol in alchemical iconography, represent Sulfur and Quicksilver, Spirit and soul—or, on the purely spiritual level, the union of Shiva and Shakti, the Divine Subject as absolute Witness and the Divine Object as universal manifestation in the mode of power. The union of Subject and Object posits the spiritual Center, another symbol of which is the Heart, which is the “center in the midst of conditions,” just as the King and Queen are in the center of “a company more.” Those “before” have the King and Queen behind them, out of their field of vision, as their unconscious motivating force, and are proceeding on foot; these are the psychics (referring not to people who read minds and tell fortunes, but to those whose understanding is limited to the psychological level)—the religious exoterics. Those “behind” the King and Queen have them in plain view, and are aristocratically mounted, symbolizing their transcendence of and control over their lower selves; these are the esoterics, the gnostics or pneumatics. And on another level, the King and the Queen are the Grace and Wisdom of God that simply carry us along, the hidden power that moves behind all the hard, trudging work of being good.
Hermes or Mercury is the most important symbol of the tradition of Alchemy. Yet, the Alchemists always kept its true identity veiled. In the modern era, the veil has been removed; now it is time to work with Mercury and transform oneself in a radical way.
“Hermes has an ancient tradition. He is the messenger of the sun. He is the closest companion to the sun. And of course we know the planet Mercury is the closest planet in our solar system to the sun, and has a very rapid orbit. In mythology he is said to be an intercessor, or a messenger who works on behalf of the sun, or with the Christ.
When we study Hermes or Mercury, we understand that he was always viewed as a God of fertility. And as a God of fertility, he was worshipped symbolically by piles of stones that were placed at crossroads. And this contains a very potent symbolism.”