May Day Myth and Ritual: The Virgin Mary as the May Queen

Since May 1 lies about halfway between the vernal equinox and the summer solstice, our ancestors considered it a good time to mark the transition into summer. Indeed, in most of medieval northern Europe, which observed the Celtic calendar, May 1 was considered the beginning of summer, hence for example the Beltane festival. At the same time, importantly, May Day falls within the 50-day Easter liturgical season. As noted in my May Day post of April 29, 2015, about the goddess traditions of May Day, the Virgin Mary too is venerated on May Day, but I did not elaborate in that post. Now I will, detailing the mythology, ritual, and archetypal psychology behind the “Crowning of Mary” ritual.

Goddess Mythology and May Day

The Goddess of the festival that became May Day goes back to ancient times, in Anatolia, Greece, and Rome. 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 were assimilated into local religion, mythology, holidays, and customs.

The Greeks held an annual spring festival for Rhea, the Titaness who was considered the mother of the first gods, including several Olympians, and thus was the great Mother called Queen of Heaven. We don’t know much about her festival, but she became identified with the Phrygian goddess Cybele, whose mythology and spring festival is well known from after she entered Rome, to which we can now turn.

Cybele and her son-lover Attis, a dying and rising god, were at the center of the Roman Hilaria festival (from Greek hilareia/hilaria (“rejoicing”) and Latin hilaris (“cheerful”), held between the vernal equinox and April 1. In this 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 spring. The tree was then erected before Cybele’s temple, and the people celebrated around it (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 (Greek Chloris), goddess of flowers and spring. When she married Zephryos, the West Wind, 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. They had a son, Karpos (“fruit” or “crop’). Flora/Chloris became the goddess having jurisdiction over flowers, which she spread (by spreading their seeds) all over the earth, which until then was monochrome. More generally she became goddess of spring. 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.

May Day also took on Christian trimmings. In Germany, on May Day Eve (April 30), called Hexennacht (”Witches Night”), famously dramatized by Goethe in Faust, 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, the witches were said to meet with the Devil. Their plans were then foiled through apotropaic May Day rituals. Eventually 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. Most importantly, the Catholic Church developed its May Day “Crowning of Mary” ritual. To understand how Mary’s ritual fits in, we must first summarize May Day rituals in general.

May crowning3

May Day Rituals

May Day rituals began with apotropaic bonfires on May Day eve, as described in my post of May 1, 2015. Then during the night youths of both sexes would go into the forest and gather flowers to be made into garlands for May Day decorations, and also procure a tree trunk to be used for the Maypole, which was erected in town the next morning. In the morning the youths would go house-to-house around town, singing songs and decorating the outside of houses and thorn bushes with the flowers that they had gathered. (Thorns represent suffering (cf. Christ’s crown of thorns) and thus winter; covering them with flowers represents the end of the suffering of winter.) Sometimes they also carried a doll or a small statue of the May Queen. The festivities around the Maypole later in the day typically included a mock contest where the May Queen defeats the Queen of Winter and marries the May King, a Green Man figure covered with foliage. Then the pair would be crowned, followed by dancing and singing around the Maypole.

May Day and the Crowning of Mary Ritual

In the Catholic Church’s liturgical year the entire month of May became devoted to the veneration of the Virgin Mary. The high point has always been the ritual known as “The Crowning of Mary,” said to have been instituted by St. Philip Neri in 16th century Italy, after which it quickly gained widespread grass-roots popularity. This ritual is usually performed on May Day, but alternatively on another early day of the month including Mother’s Day (always the second Sunday of May), and remains popular in Catholic congregations today. Ever since its inception, the ritual has involved a group of young boys and girls proceeding to a statue of Mary and placing a crown of flowers on her head to the accompaniment of singing. After Mary is crowned, a litany is sung or recited in which she is praised and called the Queen of Earth, Queen of Heaven, and Queen of the Universe, among other titles and epithets. (Order; Marian Year) (In the ritual in some places there is also a figure of her son Christ, who also is crowned.) Some Marian hymns also call her the “Queen of May.” In light of these traditions, in 1954 Pope Pius XII officially proclaimed the Queenship of Mary. To be sure, no official Catholic Church documents ever deem Mary quite divine, but the actual popular veneration of her tells a different story. It is not possible to detail the full scope of Mary veneration and Mariology here, so I’ll focus on just the May Day example.

In Catholic thinking, Mary is called Queen “because she is the perfect follower of Christ, who is the absolute crown of creation. She is the Mother of the Son of God, who is the messianic King. . . . Thus, in an eminent way, she won the ‘crown of righteousness’ ‘the crown of life,’ ‘the crown of glory’ promised to those who follow Christ.” (quoted from Order) Indeed, the crown symbolizes such things in New Testament scripture (Jas 1:12 (“crown of life”); 2 Tim 4:8 (“crown of righteousness”); 1 Pet 5:4 (“crown of glory”); Rev 2:10 (“crown of life”); see also Rev 12:1 (“a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars”). Thus, in Christian art Mary was sometimes depicted with a regal crown as early as the 4th century CE. The flowers in her crown are said to represent Mary’s virtues, and the ritual is held in spring because she brought life into the world. Venerating Mary in May also makes sense to Christians because much of May falls within the 50-day Easter season ending with Pentecost –the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles and other followers of Christ – and Mary was with the apostles waiting for the Spirit to descend (Acts 1:12-14).

As a matter of psychology and religious history, however, the May crowning ritual emerged organically as one of popular devotion on the date of more traditional May Day celebrations, to which the Church reacted with formal declarations in order to more formally Christianize and legitimize it. This ritual also has non-Christian roots in traditional May Day mythology, floral rituals of spring, goddess veneration, and the crowning of the May Queen described above. In particular, psychologically speaking, in part it is a later iteration of the perennial early-May goddess traditions in which elements of the mother archetype are expressed in terms of the fertility and fruitfulness of springtime in full swing (see Jung, pp. 81-82), which accounts for why this ritual and the Mary figure in general have stood the test of time: She touches something deep inside our psyche. Calling Mary “our mother” reflects an instinctive and universal identification with her as an archetypal figure, even though it is inevitably difficult for us to consciously articulate the particulars of what this epithet means. Mary is in all of us, which is to say she is important and deserves our attention, whatever one’s religious position. Interestingly, the Catholic manual Book of Blessings, in explaining why the veneration of images of Mary and other Christian figures is not idolatry, states that such images are venerated “because the honor shown them is directed to the prototypes that they represent.” Well, there we have it.

Sources and Bibliography

Ad Caeli Reginam, Encyclical of Pope Pius XII on Proclaiming the Queenship of Mary. Available on the Vatican website at: http://w2.vatican.va/content/pius-xii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-xii_enc_11101954_ad-caeli-reginam.html

Jung, Carl. “Psychological Aspects of the Mother Archetype,” in The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. Collected Works, vol. 9.1, pp. 73-110.

National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Order of Crowning an Image of the Blessed Virgin Mary (here cited as “Order”), part of the aforementioned Book of Blessings.

National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Celebrating the Marian Year (here cited as “Marian Year”).

See also my 2015 May Day posts:

The Mythology of May Day I: The Goddess of May Day

The Mythology of May Day II: The Bonfire Rituals of May Day Eve

The Mythology of May Day III: Maypoles and their Rituals

© Arthur George 2017

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One Response to May Day Myth and Ritual: The Virgin Mary as the May Queen

  1. Pingback: Because tomorrow is Beltaine… | Into The Mist / No Nevoeiro

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