What’s That Smell?

May Day has come and gone in west Michigan and the only flowers in bloom here are daffodils, hyacinths, and a few eager dandelions. The tulips are just starting to think about it. Why is this observation important? Because you can’t have May Day until the hawthorns are in bloom, which occurs these days in the British Isles any time around mid-May through mid-June, depending on the latitude.

I bring this up because I’ll never forget a heated discussion I once had with a druid friend who lived near Kalamazoo. He’d just invited me to a huge outdoor celebration for Bealtaine (pronounced BELL-tan-uh) he was planning. The feast of Bealtaine, which some scholars believe is associated with the Celtic god Belenos, survives in the May Day celebrations still practiced in remote parts of the British Isles and Brittany. “The name Bealtaine means ‘bright-fire….It has nothing directly to do with the god Belenos. It neither means the ‘fire of Belenos’ nor is there such a deity as ‘Beal’ in Irish mythology” (MacCrossan, 1991, p. 214). MacCulloch (1991) also agrees with this interpretation.

Back to my druid friend. The conversation went like this. Me: When is the feast? Him: May 1. Me: You’re kidding, right? Him: Bealtaine is traditionally celebrated on May 1. Me: The ancient Irish didn’t have calendars! The druids announced feast days according to the agricultural cycle and possibly the lunar cycle. Look around you. Do you see any native flowers in bloom? It’s too early and it’s too friggin’ cold! I can’t get excited over a dandelion festival.

He wasn’t convinced and stubbornly set the festivities for Saturday, May 1. But let’s get back to the hawthorn. The hawthorn or May-tree “is the only British plant to be named after the month in which it blooms and seems to have acquired its eponymous title sometime in the sixteenth century….How did a shrub that seems to bloom most typically in middle and late May become a symbol of May Day itself, the beginning of the whole cycle of spring festivals? This last anomaly is perhaps the easiest to explain. Before the revision of the calendar in 1752, which did away with 11 days…May Day occurred on what, in the modern (Gregorian) calendar, became 12 May. This is the kind of date on which hawthorn customarily breaks into bloom today, so it is a fair assumption that, for all but the last two centuries, may blossom would have begun opening on May Day – at least in the warmer south and west of Britian.” (Mabey, 1997, p. 210). The same would hold true for Ireland.

Bealtaine is a celebration of the sun’s growing strength, the return of summer, and the fertility of the earth. It remains a time of ritual sacrifice, bonfires, dancing, and great merry-making. Cattle are driven between the fires, often kindled on hilltops – places of sacred power – to protect them from disease and enchantment, before turning them out to pasture. Bonwick (1986, pp. 207-208) describes the ancient Bealtaine customs observed until late in the Scottish Highlands: “The people lighted the fire by the old fashion of friction with two pieces of wood, and then ate the consecrated cake [a bannock]….This was broken up and distributed among the assembly. Whoever got the black bit, hidden in the cake, was considered worthy of sacrifice.” This ritual sacrifice in later times simply consisted of the victim leaping three times over the fire, but in earlier times an animal, or perhaps human, victim was chosen and ritually executed to ensure the fertility of the land in the coming growing season. A certain amount of sexual license at Bealtaine may have lead to ritual couplings as “an appeal to the forces of nature to complete their beneficial work, as well as a magical aid to them in that work.” (MacCulloch, 1991, p. 267).

So, why did Bealtaine come to be associated with the hawthorn? It might have something to do with the smell of its blossoms – a rather complicated scent consisting of triethylamine. “Triethylamine’s fishy scent is…the smell of sex – something rarely acknowledged in folklore archives, but implicit in much of the popular culture of the hawthorn. The Cambridge anthropologist Jack Goody suggests that this may be the reason for different degrees of tolerance of may blossom inside and outside houses: ‘The hawthorn or may was the special subject of attention at May Day ceremonies that centered on the woods, the maypole and the May queen.…In contrast to Christmastide greenery and Easter willow, it is a plant kept outdoors, associated with unregulated love in the fields rather than conjugal love in the bed.” (Mabey, 1997, p. 212).

Love is in the air! (although I won’t catch that whiff of triethylamine until mid-June when my four hawthorns bloom. If you live in the northern tier of the US or Canada and want to observe Bealtaine at roughly the same time hawthorns bloom in Ireland, the apple blossom is a good substitute. Crab apples and other wild apples bloom around May 15 — and they smell much nicer!)

RESOURCES

Bonwick, J. (1986). Irish druids and old Irish religions. New York: Dorset.

Mabey, R. (1997). Flora Britannica. London: Chatto & Windus.

MacCrossan, R. (1991). The sacred cauldron: secrets of the druids. St. Paul: Llewellyn.

MacCulloch, I.A. (1991). The religion of the ancient Celts. London: Constable.

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