Unite and unite, oh, let us all unite –
For summer is a-coming today
And whither we are going we will all unite
In the merry morning of May.
So begins the ancient May Day song of my childhood, for the equally ancient rites of ‘Obby ‘Oss in Padstow, north Cornwall, as the Old Oss, a fearsome snapping black and red ‘stallion’ of winter and spring meets his death at the hands of incoming summer leading to autumn on May Day evening, welcomed in today.
The Obby Oss* is led on by a dancing ‘Teaser’, who prods him – he is of course in effect a pantomime horse – with a padded stick, or wand. Behind the teaser are the drums and accordions, and the crowds – these days many thousands – sing the traditional songs. All the time the Oss makes dives into the crowd to snatch a girl or a woman to drag under his cape, in a symbolic and laughing reflection of the old fertility rites of Beltane, for some say that this ritual dates back four thousand years (others say it’s more recent).
The whole event which, in true Celtic style, begins at midnight of April 30, involves much drumming, dancing, laughing, singing and general merriment, and even though the days when it was merely an event for the locals, as when I was a child, have long gone, the general excitement and fizz of its original power still remain. The town is decorated with flowers and a maypole – phallic symbol – and in addition to the Old Oss there is now a more recent ‘Blue Oss’, as well as a ‘Children’s Oss’.
In the old calendar, the year begins at Samhain, November 1st. Beltane, in honour of Bel, the ancient sun-god, six months on, is seen as both the beginning and the peak of true summer.
Traditionally, fires would be lit on the beacon hilltops, and younger people would jump over or through them to ensure fertility. Sometimes pairs of fires were lit, and cattle would be driven between them, for the same reason. (This was also traditionally the time when cattle would be turned out onto summer pasture.)
It’s hawthorn day, that heart-balancer, whose five-petalled blossom represents the Goddess.
At Sancreed Holy Well
And you, solitary waykeeper hunched by this stile
and then again standing proud by the cloutie-well,
one among multitudes, and yet to each of you
your own song, here on this granite peninsula
at the land’s edge where you lean to the northeast
in a slant sweep, your compactness
like the people of this land, surrendering
to wind, to seafret and rainfall, to the deep
lodestones of the ores beneath your roots.
Midsummer, and your spilt five-petalled blooms
a bouquet for Her, sparks of milky light
harvested from sun, from cloud, from the misty
rains that stroll these ancient downlands.
To you, then, hawthorn, the secrets of guardianship
of this land, the protection of her sacred
waters, the wisdom of yielding to the elements
without giving up the one place
where your roots are nourished into blossom.
© Roselle Angwin, Sancreed, June 2016
It would be now that the May Queen, she of the hawthorn, may blossom, as chosen representative of the Goddess of Sovereignty, the Goddess of the Land, in early times would lie with her consort, Cernunnos, the Horned One of the Greenwood. This was in order to bestow kingship, sovereignty, on him that he might make a true servant of the land.
The gift of sovereignty was always more than the right to rule over a country and its clan. It was a divine power, bestowed by the goddess of the land in the guise of a particular living woman on the king, who thereafter acted as her representative. In his symbolic marrying of the Goddess he was also marrying the land. It was only through such a union – either a recognised marriage or ritualised sexual encounter, but always in the spirit of the Sacred Marriage – with her that the king could rule. By joining with the goddess of the land, he in turn became profoundly connected both to the land and to its people.
One such archetypal May Queen, Queen of the Land, was Gwenhwyfar, she who bestowed kingship on Arthur.
On an inner level, this is a time to celebrate the bringing-together of our own masculine and feminine aspects, or anima and animus, ying and yang; for bringing together our inner and our outer lives. It’s time, too, to close the door of winter, for now, and welcome in the building energies of the summer months.
© Roselle Angwin 2017
* for photos, see: http://greatbritishmag.co.uk/lifestyle/what-is-obby-oss (the essay is slight and not entirely accurate but the pictures are true)