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Goddess in the Wheel of the Year
by Linde

Beltane 2003, Vol 2-3
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MatriFocus, a Cross-Quarterly Web Magazine for Goddess Women Near & Far
Queen of the May Pole
Copyright © 2003 Linda Darby.All rights reserved.
Beltane: The Goddess Around the Pole
The First of May
Is the Time to Play
The Abundance of the Flowers
Shows the Goddess’s Powers.

Beltane celebrates the return of summer, the light half of the year. At Beltane, the Goddess and God enter into the sacred marriage to ensure the fertility of the land.

To celebrate May Day, people in Europe and England would chop down a tree for a May Pole. The tree would be crowned with a wreath, symbolizing fertility, and long ribbons would be tied to its apex. Women, holding red ribbons, and men, holding white ribbons, would dance around the May Pole, interweaving the ribbons in a complex pattern. The woven ribbons symbolized the generative energy of the female and male, personified by the Snake Goddess and her consort.

Many May Day traditions are derived from the Roman festival of Floralia, celebrated on the five days between April 28 and May 2. The festival honored Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers and patroness of prostitutes. Worshippers offered milk and honey to Flora to secure her favor and to ensure the abundance of the blossoms so critical to vegetative success.

The origins of the May Pole pre-date the Floralia. The May Pole recalls the ancient religions that worshipped the Goddess in her manifestation as the Tree of Life. The Goddess, the Tree of Life, and the Serpent are common motifs, dating from early Mesopotamia. Cylinder seals from the 2nd millennium BCE show the Goddess as Ishtar with the Tree of Life and the serpent. The Canaanite goddess, Asherah, was symbolized as a stylized tree and worshipped in sacred groves. She was referred to as Lady of the Serpent.

Tanit, the patron goddess of Carthage in North Africa, was also associated with the Tree of Life, depicted as the palm tree of that desert region. In some depictions, the tree was shown with wavy lines, representing serpents, emanating from it. Tanit, whose name means Serpent Lady, was associated with a sacred “caduceus”, a vertical bar with two snakes curved like a figure eight at the end. Tanit and the caduceus wand are common motifs on the coins and stele of late Carthage, symbolizing Tanit’s role as the Snake Goddess in the birth, death and rebirth cycle of sacrifice.

As it grew in power, the Christian church closed the temple of Tanit in Carthage at the end of the 3rd century CE. However, according to worshippers of the goddess, the temple remained protected by serpents, especially vipers. Because the site retained its sacred goddess nature, the Christian church was not able to appropriate it, as it had done with other temples, and the church finally destroyed it in 422.

Worship of the Tree of Life persisted in Roman times when worshippers would tie ribbons on trees for protection. This continued until the end of the 4th century CE, when Emperor Theodosius banned many pagan rituals, including decorating a tree with ribbons. This rite once again became popular with the May Pole, and again, the celebration of the Tree of Life was banned. In 1644, setting up May Poles was outlawed in England and Wales. Regardless, the tradition continues to this day and is often celebrated as a children’s festival, with children dancing around the May Pole.

In another May Day tradition, the people of the Italian village of Cucullo, east of Rome, celebrate a snake festival, the Serpari Festival, on the first Thursday of May. This festival is traced back to the worship of the Snake Goddess, Angitia, by the Marsi, a tribe who lived in central Italy from the 9th to the 1st Century BCE. Angitia had a temple and sacred grove on the shores of a lake, and was skilled in the medicinal use of herbs. In modern times, Angitia was replaced with the Catholic Saint Domenico Abate (951-1031). Villagers collect snakes emerging from their winter hibernation and keep them until early May. On the first Thursday, the live snakes are draped over the statue of the Saint Domenico Abate, which is then paraded through the village. The villagers also wrap live snakes around themselves. The festival is held to seek the Saint’s protection from snake bite.

be-ribboned tree
courtesy of Rally For a Cure

One myth tells how Saint Domenico charmed all the venomous snakes in the area and drove them out. This myth, like the myth about Saint Patrick ridding Ireland of snakes, may reflect the transition from goddess worship to the association of the sacred snake of the Goddess with evil. In earlier times, snakes were associated with healing, prophecy and wisdom. For example, the Greek goddess of health, Hygiea, had a sacred snake, and a serpent lived at the Oracle of Delphi, originally a sanctuary of the earth goddess, Gaia.

In 1995, a group of North American women brought back the ancient tradition of celebrating the Tree of Life during a pilgrimage, led by author Carol Christ, to sacred sites on the Greek island of Crete. A sacred myrtle tree grew at the convent of Paliani. Each woman in the group tied a ribbon to the tree, making a wish as she did so, then reflected on the color of the ribbon she had been given. The ritual was powerful for the women involved, destroying the myths associating woman, tree and snake with evil.

Beltane is the time for romancing, dancing and merrymaking. It is a good day for planting flowers or flowering vegetables, such as beans, and wearing green clothing.

References
+ Ackerman, Susan. “The Queen Mother and the Cult in Ancient Israel”. Journal of Biblical Literature 112, no. 3 (Fall, 1993): 385-401.
+ Christ, Carol P. Odyssey with the Goddess: A Spiritual Quest in Crete. New York: Continuum, 1995.
+ Graves, Robert. The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1993. (Originally published 1948).
+ Lerner, Gerda. The Creation of Patriarchy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.
+ Routery, Michael. The First Missionary War. The Church take over of the Roman Empire, 1997.

Graphics Credits
+ Queen of the May Pole, Copyright © 2003 Linda Darby. All rights reserved.
+ Caduceus, Copyright © 2003 Sage Starwalker. All rights reserved.
+ be-ribboned tree, courtesy of Rally For a Cure.

Contributors retain the copyright to their work; please do not take art or words without permission. All other graphics and reference materials are used and attributed as per the Fair Use Provision of The Copyright Act and individual terms of use.
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