The Goddess Around the Pole
of the May Pole
Copyright © 2003 Linda Darby.All rights reserved.
First of May
Is the Time to Play
The Abundance of the Flowers
Shows the Goddesss Powers.
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.
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
Tanits role as the Snake Goddess in the birth, death and rebirth
cycle of sacrifice.
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 childrens 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
Saints protection from snake bite.
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.
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
+ 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,
+ Queen of the May Pole, Copyright © 2003 Linda Darby. All
+ Caduceus, Copyright © 2003 Sage
Starwalker. All rights reserved.
+ be-ribboned tree,
courtesy of Rally For