Beltane: Of Flower Brides and Green Men

The ancient festival of Beltane is celebrated at the beginning of May when the sexuality of life and the Earth itself is at its peak and now turns to conception and the initiation of a new life force. This is when the Greenwood marriage was celebrated, the union between the May Queen, or the Flower Bride, and the Green Man, the young oak king or the Jack-in-the-Green. Even today this ritual is still re-enacted in villages around the country, where a May Queen decked in flowers weaves the ribbon of the male pole, symbolising the fertility of the god, in a dance that follows the spiral of life.

Traditionally Beltane began when the hawthorn blossomed, drenching trees, hedges and paths with scented petals like the scattered confetti of a bridal feast. The blossom was taken into the house and used together with mead and cake in handfasting ceremonies, where a couple tied hands with a red chord bound in a figure of eight and pledged to stay together for a year and a day. It was also the time when everyone went to the fields and celebrated the Greenwood marriage; children born to these couplings nine months later were considered sacred.

Beltane is above all a fire ceremony when bonfires are lit to honour the sun and its role in bringing forth life on Earth. It was probably named from the god Bel, a complex composite god originally belonging to the Sumerian/Babylonian (Bel = Baal = Lord) pantheon, and then adopted by the Celts as their sun god. This was when a special fire was lit called the Tein-eigen (‘teine = fire in Gaelic)[1] and everyone would gather together and jump over it to purify, cleanse and bring fertility. Cattle were also driven through the smoke to protect them from disease. Afterwards everyone would take a spark of this original fire with them to rekindle the home hearth. There is also some evidence that bonfires were lit along special places that were aligned to rising sun at Beltane, giving rise to some huge scale alignments such as the Michael Mary line. [2]The fires were lit on top of mounds and aligned Heaven and Earth, drawing down and harmonising energies, renewing the sacred bond afresh each year with this sacred act.

There are two stories about Flower Brides, or May Queens, and they are both told in the Mabinogion. In keeping with the prevailing Welsh culture of the early Middle Ages, the stories are told from a male perspective and the female protagonists appear somewhat lacking in their own authority. However, as ever there are deeper thread discernible just below the surface.

The first story is about Creiddylad, the beautiful daughter of Lludd Silverhand. She was fought over by two men, ‘carried off by one before the other had slept with her.’ Acts of revenge were carried out between the two parties, until King Arthur himself heard tell of it and came north to settle the dispute. He decreed that ’the maiden should remain in her father’s house, unmolested by either side,’ and there should be battle between the two ‘suitors’ each Beltane ‘for ever and ever, from that day till doomsday.’

So Creiddylad in this way, remained the eternal May Queen around which the seasons revolved, fought over by the holly and the oak king, or the powers of the waxing and waning sun, locked in a continuous battle for supremacy as a result of the yearly seasonal cycle.

The May Queen in the second story also has two male suitors, but of quite a different form. This is the tale of Bloueuwedd, the flower bride, created for the son of the goddess Arianrhod (more on her later) by his uncles to thwart his mother who declared he would not marry a mortal woman. Together they ‘took the flowers of the oak, and the flowers of the broom, and the flowers of the meadowsweet, and from those they called forth the very fairest and best endowed maiden that mortal ever saw.’ [3]She was duly presented in marriage to Arianrhod’s son, who changes his name throughout the story, but here is called Llew Llaw.

After they have been married a while, he leaves her alone in the castle and goes to visit his uncles who have promised him some land. However, in the meantime a hunting party arrives and Blodeuwedd invites the leader of the party into the castle. They immediately fall in love and ‘she knew great joy at heart, and their talk that night was of the affection and love that they had conceived for the other.’ [4]Losing no time, they plot to kill her husband on his return.

Showing a degree of cunning that has earned her a reputation for betrayal, Blodeuwedd tells her husband that she fears for his untimely demise. He tries to reassure that this would not be easy for in order to die, he must be killed with a spear that was a year in the making. Not only that, but the manner of the death is very specific. ‘By making a bath for me on a river bank, and making a vaulted frame over the tub, and thatching it well and snugly too thereafter, and bringing a he-goat and setting it beside the tub and myself placing one foot on the back of the he-goat and the other on the edge of the bath. Whoever should smite me so, he would bring about my death.’[5]

Bloudeuwedd listens demurely. ‘Why’ she replies, ‘I thank god for that. That can be avoided easily.’

Armed with this information, her lover gets to work and fashions the spear needed to kill his rival. A year later, once they have their plan in place, Blodeuwedd once gain feins concern and asks her unsuspecting husband to demonstrate how he might meet his untimely death. This he dutifully does and as he stands precariously with one foot on the bath tub and the other on the back of a he-goat,  her lover jumps out and stabs him with the spear. Llew Llaw flies up in the form of an eagle and gives a horrid scream, and after that he was seen no more.

But that is not the end of the story. Llew’s aggrieved uncles once again come to his rescue and set out to find him. Eventually they find a maggot covered eagle and sing him out of a tree, changing him back into the form of a man with the tap of a magic wand. Llew Llaw is in a pitiful state and it takes him a year to get his strength back. But then he comes back to the castle where his wife and her lover are ensconced to seek revenge. Blodeuwedd’s maidens are all drowned in a lake whilst trying to escape, but she herself survives. For her is reserved the fate of being turned into an owl ‘so that she may never show her face in the light of day, and that there be enmity between thee and all the birds and that it be their nature to mob and moles thee wherever they may find thee.’[6]

So, it could be said that the flower maiden, made as the perfect wife to serve her husband, falls in love and thereby empowers herself. This enables her to take the sort of ruthless action that those  deprived of choice must take. But she must take responsibility for her action as she matures, symbolised by the owl, an ancient symbol of wisdom and cronehood. She also achieves independence and self-determination in the end (the owl), and like Creiddlydd, remains connected to the cycle of nature for ever more. Her suitors also face each other in combat, but unlike in Creiddlydd’s story, her lover is killed, though only after he has served as the king, or consort for allocated time (the timings are very precise in this story). So in this way, the story may be perceived in terms of the May Queen, goddess of the land (Sovereignty) and her two suitors, the holly king and the oak king, or the Green Men, who act as consort to the goddess, forever locked in an eternal cycle of waxing and waning, linked to the seasonal power of the sun.

[1] http://www.goddessandgreenman.co.uk

[2] ‘The Sun and the Serpent’ by Paul Broadhurst and Hamish Miller

[3] The Mabinogion, ‘Math Son of Mathonwy,’ 1991, Everyman

[4] As above

[5] As above

[6] As above