Friday, 1 May 2015

FOLKLORE ON FRIDAY - Not So Merry in the Month of May

For many of us in the Northern hemisphere, the month of May signifies a time when if summer is now definitely coming, then at least the winter is certainly behind us. The weather is warmer, the trees are in blossom, and the nights are growing longer. Elizabethan playwright Thomas Dekker dubbed it The Merry Month of May, there's the tradition of dancing round a May pole, and jolly songs like Here We Go Gathering Nuts in May. So then with the brightening weather, the sap rising and flowers blooming, May is a popular month for lovers to finally tie the knot... However the annuals of  folklore beg to differ!

According to folklore and superstition, generally May is considered an unlucky month. But best known, or perhaps that should be best remembered, of all the folk beliefs about May is the widespread claim that it is the unluckiest month to marry in. As an old, and still frequently quoted, rhyme has it -
Married when the year is new, he'll be loving, kind & true,
When February birds do mate, You wed nor dread your fate.
If you wed when March winds blow, joy and sorrow both you'll know.
Marry in April when you can, Joy for Maiden & for Man.
Marry in the month of May, and you'll surely rue the day.
Marry when June roses grow, over land and sea you'll go.
Those who in July do wed, must labour for their daily bred.
Whoever wed in August be, many a change is sure to see
Marry in September's shrine, your living will be rich and fine.
If in October you do marry, love will come but riches tarry.
If you wed in bleak November, only joys will come, remember.
When December snows fall fast, marry and true love will last.
And over the other side of the pond, things weren't much better, with an old American folk rhyme holding that -
January, always poor.
February, wed once more.
March, splendid catch.
April, happy match.
May, turn to hate.
June, enviable fate.
July, poorly mated.
August, better have waited.
September, very wealthy.
October, extremely healthy.
November, quick undoing.
December, Cupid's wooing

 by Daniel Lindsey Thomas and Lucy Blayney Thomas 
(Princeton University Press 1920)

And if that wasn't enough, a third oft-quoted rhyme alleged that - 
Married in January's hoar and rime,
Widowed you’ll be before your prime.
Married in February's sleety weather,
Life you’ll tread in tune together.
Married when March winds shrill and roar,
Your home will lie on a foreign shore.
Married 'neath April's changeful skies,
A checkered path before you lies.
Married when bees o'er May blossoms flit,
Strangers around your board will sit
Married in month of roses — June —
Life will be one long honeymoon.
Married in July, with flowers ablaze,
Bitter-sweet mem'ries in after days.
Married in August's heat and drowse,
Lover and friend in your chosen spouse.
Married in golden September's glow,
Smooth and serene your life will go.
Married when leaves in October thin,
Toil and hardship for you begin.
Married in veils of November mist,
Fortune your wedding ring has kissed.
Married in days of December cheer,
Love's star shines brighter from year to year.
So then while the above three verses give somewhat variable results to the other eleven months of the year, they are in complete accord that May is not a merry month to be marrying in! And as all good folklorists know, three's the charm! More seriously though, the belief that May is an unlucky month for marriages is extremely widespread and very old.

For example, it is often claimed that this superstition was so prevalent that Queen Victoria forbade any of her children from marrying in May. But interestingly, Queen Victoria's parents, Prince Edward, Duke of Kent and Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, had married on the 29th of May in 1818. And despite Edward having mistresses, it is said the marriage though short (due to Edward's death in 1820) was a happy one. So then considering Queen Victoria's birthday was in May, and that she had become Empress of India in on 1st May 1876, if there is any truth is this oft-repeated claim, it is possible that she just didn't desire anymore royal occasions and anniversaries cluttering up the regal calendar!

However it is perfectly true that in Victorian society, May was widely considered to be an unlucky month in which to marry. But where does this superstition originate? Well, it is often claimed that the belief dates back to the ancients. A commonly bandied about theory states that the beginning of May was the festival of Beltane for the ancient Celts, who celebrated it with wild fertility rites involving large outdoor orgies. And hence with all this socially-approved nookie going on, it was a terrible time to get hitched and miss out on all that free love.

It's an entertaining notion, I'll grant you that, but it does suffer from one slight drawback... It's complete codswallop! To begin with, Beltane is actually an old Irish Gaelic festival, and it is only theorised that perhaps it dates back to the Celts. Secondly from the literature and historical records we do have we know that Beltane marked the start of the summer, when livestock was put out to pasture once more. Hence it was celebrated with sacred fires to drive away evil spirits and purify the animals and the lands for the coming summer months. In short, while Beltane is obviously linked with improving agriculture and by extension fertility, at the same time, while we have several historical sources attesting to bonfires, and assorted folk traditions involving lighting fires, there's no mention anywhere of  ancient people staging public orgies.

Now it is true that there are many folk traditions, dating back at least as far as medieval times, that are possibly survivals of ancient pagan rituals celebrating fertility. The common tradition of electing a May Queen, and in some area a May King, to lead May Day processions have been theorised to be the cultural echoes of ancient rites where people honoured assorted earth mother or love goddesses, as incarnations of spring being reborn after winter. However again while such rural customs might be echoes of pre-Christian religious rites, again there is no evidence that such these fertility rituals involved community orgies. Indeed said rituals are largely hypothetical rather than properly historically documented.

But it is true that the concept of May being unlucky for marriages does date back to ancient time. However we should not be looking to the mysterious Celts, but further south to Rome. For indeed, the Romans had a saying  "mense Maio malae nubent" which translates as "they wed ill who wed in May". Now this belief originates with the Roman festivals that were held in May, and no, they didn't involve orgies either. On the 9th, 11th and 13th of May (and according to some sources another two dates aw well at different points in Classical history), the Romans celebrated Lemuria, the festival of the dead.

This was a series of household rites where at midnight the head of the family would ritually purify himself - washing with pure water and donning fresh clothes without any knots, and walk around the entire home and property, casting black beans behind him, and intoning a special prayer nine times. The family and household would follow him, and at the conclusion of the recitation of the prayer, bang assorted instruments made of brass, sometimes actual musical instruments and sometimes just pots and pans. Now the goal of these rituals was to drive away the Lemures - the spirits of the unquiet dead. In addition, during Lemuria sacrifices and remembrances would be held for the family's ancestors and deceased members so they their spirits did not grow restless and return to plague the living.

Furthermore Lemuria was book-ended by two other festivals. From April 28th to the 3rd May saw the Ludi Florales - the games of Flora, which saw outdoor events which included sports and theatre which celebrated the return of spring and were to encourage fertility in the land. And the month of May closed with Ambravalia on the 29th of May, a festival honouring the earth goddess Ceres and involved a purification ritual for the fields to ensure fertility and good crops in the coming months.  Therefore for the Romans, May was very much a month of spiritual housecleaning, setting up home and hearth for a fresh start after winter.

Hence it was a time of setting ones house in order, and not an appropriate time to setting up a new household. During this time it was thought unwise to begin a marriage before these cleansings had been completed. And as Lemuria was a home based festival, the temples of the gods were actually closed. As Ovid said of Lemuria in Fasti, his epic poem detailing the Roman festivals throughout the year -
And the ancients closed the temples on these days,
As you see them shut still at the season of the dead.
Its a time not suitable for widows or virgins to wed;
She who marries won’t live long.
Given the extent of the Roman Empire, you can understand how this belief was spread across Europe. Also as one of the prime sources of information about Classical times, naturally Ovid's words informed later European superstitions and beliefs. And while European customs of remembering the dead aggregated around the end of the agricultural year with the medieval establishment of All Hallows at the end of October (see my Origins of Halloween podcast for more details), evidently the idea that May was an unlucky month for marriage persisted.

However as we shall see next week, May was a somewhat troublesome month for all manner of other things too!

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