Today is May first, also known as May Day, Beltane, Walpurgis, International Workers’ Day. In the fashion of our occult origins of holidays series, we would like to share with you the truth about the origins of this springtime event.
Beltane, Beltaine, or May Day is celebrated on May 1. Alternative celebrations are sometimes held on May 4 – 10. The name is derived from the Gaelic and Irish names for the month of May. As an ancient Gaelic festival, Bealtaine was celebrated in Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. There were similar festivals held at the same time in the other Celtic countries of Wales, Brittany and Cornwall. Bealtaine and Samhain were the leading terminal dates of the civil year in Ireland though the latter festival was the most important. The festival survives in folkloric practices in the Celtic Nations and the diaspora, and has experienced a degree of revival in recent decades.
Let us now take a look at the history of the word “Beltane,” its origins, and its meaning. This is an excerpt from Witchology.com:
Beltane derives from the Irish Beáltaine or Scottish Gaelic Bealtuinn; both from Old Irish Beltene “bright fire” from belo-te(p)niâ), where belo- is allied to the English word bale (as in bale-fire), the Anglo-Saxon bael, and also the Lithuanian baltas, meaning “white” or “shining” from which the Baltic takes its name.
In Gaelic the terminal vowel -o (from Belo) was dropped, as shown by numerous other transformations from early or Proto-Celtic to Early Irish, thus the Gaulish god-names Belenos (“bright one”) and his partner Belisama. Belenos was probably the same divinity, originally from belo-nos “our shining one”, is also from the same source, as was Shakespeare’s Cym-beline.
From the same Proto-Celtic roots we get a wide range of other words: the verb beothaich, from Early Celtic belo-thaich (to kindle, light, revive, or re-animate); baos, from Baelos (shining); beòlach (ashes with hot embers), from beò (originally belo) + luathach, “shiny-ashes” or “live-ashes”.
Metaphorically a beolach was also a shining youth or a lively youth, a hero, beò-lach or belo-lach; for -lach (youth). Similarly boil, boile came from “fiery madness”, through Irish buile, Early Irish baile: and boillsg (gleam); bolg-s-cio-; related to Latin fulgeo, “shine”, English effulgent, Lithuanian blizgù, glance, shine, English blink (where the shine causes eyes to shut), Proto-Indo-European bhleg -> fulgeo (Grimms’ Law). In this way the Celtic tribe of Belgae in Northern France from which Belgium today takes its name, may derive from the same root. One of its tribes was called the Bellovaci. Some have suggested that the Ancient Irish “Fir Bolg” (i.e. “the Shining Ones”) of Celtic mythology may have derived from the same word.
Origins of Beltane
Early Gaelic sources from around the 10th century state that the Druids would create a need-fire on top of a hill on this day and rush the village’s cattle through the fires to purify them and bring luck (“Eadar dà theine Bhealltuinn” in Scottish Gaelic, “Between two fires of Beltane”). People would also go between the fires to purify themselves. This was echoed throughout history after Christianization, with lay people instead of Druid priests creating the need-fire. The festival persisted widely up until the 1950s, and in some places the celebration of Beltane continues today.
Beltane is a specifically Gaelic holiday, not “Celtic”, as other Celtic cultures, such as the Welsh, Bretons, and Gauls, do not celebrate it – though many cultures did celebrate a springtime festival known by various names.
The same source also gives us some insight into the Neo-Pagan revival of this holiday and where it is celebrated.
The Beltane Revival
A revived Beltane Fire Festival has been held every year (except 2003) during the night of 30th April on Calton Hill in Edinburgh, Scotland since 1988, and attended by up to 15,000 people.
In neopaganism, the name Beltane or Beltaine is used for a sabbat, one of the eight solar holidays, which is celebrated on this day. Although the holiday uses features of the Gaelic Beltane, such as the bonfire, it bears more relation to the Germanic May Day festival, both in its significance (focusing on fertility) and its rituals (such as maypole dancing). High Beltaine is celebrated through a reenactment of intercourse between the May Lord and Lady. Gerald Gardner, the principal originator of the Wiccan religion, referred to the holiday as May Eve.
Among the neopagan sabbats, Beltane is a cross-quarter day; it is celebrated in the northern hemisphere on May 1 and in the southern hemisphere on November 1. Beltane follows Ostara and precedes Midsummer (see the Wheel of the Year).
May Day also has a Germanic cousin known as Walpuris Night or Walpurgisnacht.
From Encyclopedia Britannica:
The origins of the holiday date back to pagan celebrations of fertility rights and the coming of spring. After the Norse were Christianized, the pagan celebration became combined with the legend of St. Walburga, an English-born nun who lived at Heidenheim monastery in Germany and later became the abbess there. Walburga was believed to have cured the illnesses of many local residents. After her death she was canonized as a saint on May 1. Although it is likely that the date of her canonization is purely coincidental to the date of the pagan celebrations of spring, people were able to celebrate both events under church law without fear of reprisal.
The festivals in Germany are centered more around Bone-Fires (known today as “Bonfires”) rather than the usual phallic Maypole.
Walpurgis Night (Walpurgisnacht) is a traditional spring festival on 30 April or 1 May in large parts of Central and Northern Europe. It is often celebrated with dancing and with bonfires. It is exactly six months from All Hallows’ Eve.
The 17th century German tradition of a meeting of sorcerers and witches on May Day is influenced by the descriptions of Witches’ Sabbaths in 15th and 16th century literature.
Walpurgisnacht, the night from 30 April to 1 May, is the night when witches are reputed to hold a large celebration on the Brocken and await the arrival of spring.
“Walpurgis Night (in German folklore) the night of 30 April (May Day’s eve), when witches meet on the Brocken mountain and hold revels with their gods…”
Brocken is the highest of the Harz Mountains of north central Germany. It is noted for the phenomenon of the Brocken spectre and for witches’ revels which reputedly took place there on Walpurgis night.
The Brocken Spectre is a magnified shadow of an observer, typically surrounded by rainbow-like bands, thrown onto a bank of cloud in high mountain areas when the sun is low. The phenomenon was first reported on the Brocken.”—Oxford Phrase & Fable.
In some parts of northern coastal regions of Germany, the custom of lighting huge fires is still kept alive to celebrate the coming of May, while most parts of Germany have a derived Christianized custom around Easter called “Easter fires” (Osterfeuer).
In rural parts of southern Germany, it is part of popular youth culture to play pranks such as tampering with neighbours’ gardens, hiding possessions, or spraying graffiti on private property.
In Berlin, traditional leftist May Day riots usually start at Walpurgis Night in the Mauerpark in Prenzlauer Berg. There is a similar tradition in the Schanzenviertel district of Hamburg, though in both cases, the situation has significantly calmed down in the past few years.
April 30th was the date of Adolf Hitler’s suicide, and much has been made of this fact by those researchers seeking to investigate links between Nazism and the occult, such as Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke.
International Workers’ Day is the commemoration of the 1886 Haymarket affair in Chicago. The police were trying to disperse a public assembly during a general strike for the eight-hour workday, when an unidentified person threw a bomb at them. The police reacted by firing on the workers, killing four demonstrators. “Reliable witnesses testified that all the pistol flashes came from the center of the street, where the police were standing, and none from the crowd. Moreover, initial newspaper reports made no mention of firing by civilians. A telegraph pole at the scene was filled with bullet holes, all coming from the direction of the police.”
In 1889, the first congress of the Second International, meeting in Paris for the centennial of the French Revolution and the Exposition Universelle, following a proposal by Raymond Lavigne, called for international demonstrations on the 1890 anniversary of the Chicago protests. May Day was formally recognized as an annual event at the International’s second congress in 1891.
Subsequently, the May Day Riots of 1894 occurred. In 1904, the International Socialist Conference meeting in Amsterdam called on “all Social Democratic Party organizations and trade unions of all countries to demonstrate energetically on May First for the legal establishment of the 8-hour day, for the class demands of the proletariat, and for universal peace.” The congress made it “mandatory upon the proletarian organizations of all countries to stop work on May 1, wherever it is possible without injury to the workers.”
In many countries, the working classes sought to make May Day an official holiday, and their efforts largely succeeded. May Day has long been a focal point for demonstrations by various socialist, communist and anarchist groups. In Germany, May Day coincides with Walpurgisnacht. May Day has been an important official holiday in countries such as the People’s Republic of China, North Korea, Cuba and the former Soviet Union. May Day celebrations typically feature elaborate popular and military parades in these countries.
Following the Civil War, particularly following the Depression of 1873–79, there was a rapid expansion of industrial production in the United States. Chicago was a major industrial center and tens of thousands of German and Bohemian immigrants were employed at pauper’s wages, about $1.50 a day, approximately $40 per day in 2009 dollars. American workers worked 9 to 14 hour days (on average just over 10 hours), six days a week, all year long. The city became a center for many attempts to organize labor’s demands for better working conditions. Employers responded with repressive tactics, including acts of violence. These fights were carried into the pages of the press, with established newspapers facing off against the labor and immigrant press. During the economic slowdown that extended from 1882 to 1886, socialist and anarchist labor organizing was very successful. In Chicago, the anarchist movement of several thousand, mostly immigrant, workers centered about the German-language Arbeiter-Zeitung (“Workers’ Times”) edited by August Spies. Some anarchists were a militant revolutionary force with an armed section that was equipped with guns and explosives. Its revolutionary strategy centered around the belief that successful operations against the police and the seizure of major industrial centers would result in massive public support by workers, revolution, and establishment of a socialist economy.
In October 1884, a convention held by the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions unanimously set May 1, 1886, as the date by which the eight-hour work day would become standard. As the chosen date approached, U.S. labor unions prepared for a general strike in support of the eight-hour day.
On Saturday, May 1, rallies were held throughout the United States. Estimates of the number of striking workers across the U.S. range from 300,000 to half a million. In New York City the number of demonstrators was estimated at 10,000 and in Detroit at 11,000. In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, some 10,000 workers turned out. In Chicago, the movement’s center, an estimated 30,000-to-40,000 workers had gone on strike and there were perhaps twice as many people out on the streets participating in various demonstrations and marches, as, for example, a march by 10,000 men employed in the Chicago lumber yards. Though participants in these outdoor events added up to 80,000, it is unclear if there was ever a single, massive march of that number down Michigan Avenue led by anarchistAlbert Parsons, founder of the International Working People’s Association [IWPA] and his wife Lucy and their children.
On May 3, striking workers in Chicago met near the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company plant. Union molders at the plant had been locked out since early February and the predominantly Irish-American workers at McCormick had come under attack from Pinkerton guards during an earlier strike action in 1885. This event, along with the eight-hour militancy of McCormick workers, had gained the strikers some respect and notoriety around the city. By the time of the 1886 general strike, strikebreakers entering the McCormick plant were under protection from a garrison of 400 police officers. Although half of the replacement workers defected to the general strike on May 1, McCormick workers continued to harass strikebreakers as they crossed the picket lines.
Speaking to a rally outside the plant on May 3, August Spies advised the striking workers to “hold together, to stand by their union, or they would not succeed.” Well-planned and coordinated, the general strike to this point had remained largely nonviolent. When the end-of-the-workday bell sounded, however, a group of workers surged to the gates to confront the strikebreakers. Despite calls by Spies for the workers to remain calm, gunfire erupted as police fired on the crowd. In the end, two McCormick workers were killed (although some newspaper accounts said there were six fatalities). Spies would later testify, “I was very indignant. I knew from experience of the past that this butchering of people was done for the express purpose of defeating the eight-hour movement.”The RallyThe rally began peacefully under a light rain on the evening of May 4. August Spies, editor of the German-language Arbeiter-Zeitung (“Workers’ Times”), spoke to a crowd estimated variously between 600 and 3,000 while standing in an open wagon adjacent to the square on Des Plaines Street. A large number of on-duty police officers watched from nearby.Following Spies’ speech, the crowd was addressed by Albert R. Parsons, the Alabama-born editor of the radical English-language weekly The Alarm. The crowd was so calm that Mayor Carter Harrison, Sr., who had stopped by to watch, walked home early. Parsons spoke for almost an hour before standing down in favor of the last speaker of the evening, Samuel Fielden, who delivered a brief 10 minute address.
At about 10:30 pm, just as Fielden was finishing his speech, police arrived en masse, marching in formation towards the speakers’ wagon, and ordered the rally to disperse. Their commander, Police Inspector John Bonfield, proclaimed:
A home-made bomb with a brittle metal casing filled with dynamite and ignited by a fuse, was thrown into the path of the advancing police. Its fuse briefly sputtered, then the bomb exploded, killing policeman Mathias J. Degan with flying metal fragments and mortally wounding six other officers.
Witnesses maintain that immediately after the bomb blast there was an exchange of gunshots between police and demonstrators. According to the May 4 New York Times demonstrators began firing at the police, who then returned fire. Others, notably historian Paul Avrich, point out that accounts vary widely as to how many returned fire at the police. He maintains that the police fired on the fleeing demonstrators, reloaded and then fired again, killing four and wounding as many as 70 people. What is not disputed is that in less than five minutes the square was empty except for the casualties. Policemen then carried their wounded comrades and some wounded demonstrators into the adjacent police station. Other wounded demonstrators found aid where they could. The exact number of dead and wounded among the demonstrators is unknown.