Apr 29 2017

Ireland in the Merry Month of May

Some final notes before I ship off to Dublintown:

The tourist busy season begins in May and reaches its peak in July and August.

On the mythology of May, starting with Robert Graves:

Five (V) was the number sacred to the Roman Moon-goddess Minerva. The month extends from April 15th to May 12th, and May Day, famous for its orgiastic revels and its magic dew, falls in the middle. It is possible that the carrying of sallow-willow branches on Palm Sunday, a variable feast which usually falls early in April, is a custom that properly belongs to the beginning of the willow month….[1]

The hawthorn, then, is the tree of enforced chastity. The month begins on May 13th, when the may is first in flower, and ends on June 9th. The ascetic use of the thorn, which corresponds with the cult of the Goddess Cardea must, however, be distinguished from its later orgiastic use which corresponds with the cult of the Goddess Flora, and which accounts for the English mediaeval habit of riding out on May Morning to pluck flowering hawthorn boughs and dance around the maypole. Hawthorn blossom has, for many men, a strong scent of female sexuality; which is why the Turks use a flowering branch as an erotic symbol. Mr. Cornish proves that this Flora cult was introduced into the British Isles in the late first-century B.C. by the second Belgic invaders; further, that the Glastonbury Thorn which flowered on Old Christmas Day (January 5th, New Style) and was cut down by the Puritans at the Revolution was a sport of the common hawthorn. The monks of Glastonbury perpetuated it and sanctified it with an improving tale about Joseph of Arimathea’s staff and the Crown of Thorns as a means of discouraging the orgiastic use of hawthorn blossom, which normally did not appear until May Day (Old Style)…. [2]

Christmas was merry in the middle ages, but May Day was still merrier. It was the time of beribboned Maypoles, of Collyridian cakes and ale, of wreaths and posies, of lovers’ gifts, of archery contests, of merritotters (see-saws) and merribowks (great vats of milk-punch). But particularly of mad-merry marriages ‘under the greenwood tree’, when the dancers from the Green went off, hand in hand, into the greenwood and built themselves little love-bowers and listened hopefully for the merry nightingale. ‘Mad Merry’ is another popular spelling of ‘Maid Marian’, and as an adjective became attached to the magician Merlin (the original ‘Old Moore’ of the popular almanacks) whose prophetic almanacks were hawked at fairs and merrimakes. Merlin was really Merddin, as Spenser explains in the Faerie Queene, but Robin Hood had taken his place as the May Bride’s lover, and he had become an old bearded prophet. The ‘merritotter’ is perhaps called after the scales (representing the Autumn equinox) in the hand of the Virgin in the Zodiac, who figured in the Mad Merry Merlin almanack: devoted readers naturally identified her with St. Mary Gipsy, for true-lovers’ fates tottered in her balance, see-sawing up and down….[3]

The main theme of poetry is, properly, the relations of man and woman, rather than those of man and man, as the Apollonian Classicists would have it. The true poet who goes to the tavern and pays the silver tribute to Blodeuwedd goes over the river to his death. As in the story of Llew Llaw: ‘All their discourse that night was concerning the affection and love that they felt one for the other and which in no longer space than one evening had arisen.’ This paradise lasts only from May Day to St. John’s Eve. Then the plot is hatched and the poisoned dart flies; and the poet knows that it must be so. For him there is no other woman but Cerridwen and he desires one thing above all else in the world: her love. As Blodeuwedd, she will gladly give him her love, but at only one price: his life. She will exact payment punctually and bloodily. Other women, other goddesses, are kinder-seeming. They sell their love at a reasonable rate—sometimes a man may even have it for the asking. But not Cerridwen: for with her love goes wisdom. And however bitterly and grossly the poet may rail against her in the hour of his humiliation—Catullus is the most familiar instance—he has been party to his own betrayal and has no just cause for complaint.[4]

From Frank O’Connor:

‘May Day’, so lovely that we have all tried our hand at translating it, exists only in one obscenely inaccurate transcript of which Kuno Meyer and Gerald Murphy have tried vainly to make linguistic sense. In spite of the fact that Meyer ascribed it to the ninth or early tenth century and Murphy to the eighth or ninth, I feel certain it was written by the author of the previous poem, scarcely earlier than the eleventh century, and that what Kenneth Jackson calls its ‘curious style’ is the deliberate archaism of an excellent scholar, who not only played with new metres, but omitted definite articles and the conjunction ocus.

Gairt cuí cruaid den
‘Is fochen sam saír!’
Suidid sine serb
I mbí cerb caill chraíb.

Cerbaid sam sruth snuad;
Saigid graig luath linn;
Lethaid fat fraích folt;
For-beir gort fann finn.

Fubair os scéith sciach;
Im-reith réid rian rith;
Cuirithir suan sál;
Tuigithir bláth bith.

Berait beich bec nert
Bert bonn bochtai bláth
Berid slabrai sliab,
Feraid seng sian sáith.

Seinm crot, caille ceol
Co ngrenn seol síd slán;
Sethair den do dinn;
Dethaid loch linn lád.

O’Connor’s translation:

The harsh, sturdy cuckoo calls, ‘Welcome, beautiful summer.’ The expanse of the heather’s hair spreads and the pale weak corn thrives.

The budding of the hawthorn threatens the deer; the sea tide runs smoothly; the sea goes to sleep and blossom covers the earth.

Bees of small strength carry a load of plucked blossom; the mountain sustains the cattle; the lean one sings a song of plenty.

The music of the wood is like harp-playing, a perfect peace of melody. The house is cleared of garbage, the flooded pool drops. [5]

From Jeffrey Gantz:

The first day of May, called Beltene, marked the beginning of summer; this feast has since given rise to May Eve[,] Walpurgisnacht and May Day. Beltene was a less important day, and consequently, less information about it has survived; the name seems to mean ‘fire of Bel’ (Bel presumably being the Irish descendant of the continental god Belenos) or ‘bright fire’, and there is a tradition that cattle were driven between two fires on this day so that the smoke would purify them. In any case, the rites of Beltene were probably directed towards ensuring the fertility of land and stock. The Welsh hero Pryderi is born on the first of May, and this fact coupled with the unusual circumstances of his birth (the concurrent birth of colts, the otherworld visitor) suggests that Beltene was also a day when the real and the fantastic merged.[6]

Owen Barfield on why the month of May is always “merry”:

Thus, when a Roman spoke of events as auspicious or sinister, or when some natural object was said in the Middle Ages to be baleful, or benign, or malign, a herb to possess such and such a virtue, an eye to be evil, or the bones of a saint to be holy, or even, probably, when Gower wrote:

The day was merry and fair enough,

it is true that these things were described from the human point of view, but the activity was felt to emanate from the object itself.[7]

Some May miscellany:

‘And now, Sally, I’m safe in bed. Stir the fire, my old darling.’ For although it was the first week in May, the night was frosty. ‘And tell me all about the Tiled House again, and frighten me out of my wits.’[8]

A shaven space of lawn one soft May evening. [9]

When I answered that I did not know, she said, “the month of May, because of the Virgin, and the lily of the valley, because it never sinned, but came pure out of the rocks,” and then she asked, “what is the cause of the three cold months of winter?”[10]

NOTES

[1] Graves, White Goddess – A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth. 1948. NY: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. Second Edition. 1975. p. 174.

[2] Graves, White Goddess – A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth 175–76.

[3] Graves, White Goddess – A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth 398.

[4] Graves, White Goddess – A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth 447–48.

[5] O’Connor, (A Short History of Irish Literature: a Backward Look. NY: Viking. 1967. pp. 77–78.

[6] Gantz, Jeffrey. Early Irish Myths and Sagas. NY: Penguin. 1981. 1988. “Introduction” 13.

[7] Barfield, Owen. History in English Words. NY: George H. Doran Co. 1926. p. 159.

[8] Le Fanu, Joseph Sheridan. The House by the Churchyard. London: Tinsley, Brothers. 1863. Reprint. Dublin: James Duffey. 1904. “Chapter XI – Some talk about the haunted house—being, as I suppose, only old woman’s tales,” 54.

[9] Joyce, Ulysses. 1922. Random House: NY. 1946. XIV [“Oxen of the Sun”] 414.

[10] Yeats, The Celtic Twilight. 1893. “Happy and Unhappy Theologians.”


Sep 14 2016

11 Thoughts on Kaepernick & the Election

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  1. In the Marines, “you’re not allowed to say ‘I’ because you’re taught to mistrust your own individuality….”[i] But for the rest of us outside the military, does this mean we ought to always rely on the herd, run with the rabble, riot with the mob, keep camouflaged within the crowd?
  1. When I played football, it was more sacrilegious to sit on your ass––or worse, your helmet––than to take a knee. Taking a knee used to be considered basic protocol.
  1. No one ever fought a war just to fly a flag and sing a song.
  1. Think of how many GIs got enemy kill shots in Iraq simply by kneeling?
  1. Rodney King did a lot of kneeling in 1991:

  1. What is this ritual of the national anthem but “nostalgia driven blindness?”[ii] Nostalgia blinds us from the bad old days, and lets us get away from them by thinking that they were good; but those days were so bad we purposely forgot all about them.
  1. Nostalgia allows citizens go through the motions to keep up appearances:

Most people act, not according to their meditations, and not according to their feelings, but as if hypnotized, based on some senseless repetition of patterns.[iii]

  1. If the regime were to mold voting booths into the shape of slot machines, might I have more enthusiasm about this election?
  1. The choice matters not; the tuna salad in the fridge will taste the same after Election Day as it did the day before.
  1. But when will Elation Day arrive? Shouldn’t we instead dread that mark on the calends?
  1. I see myself in the voting booth and know that I am not that voter:

Should I or shouldn’t I? Should I acknowledge him? Admit that it is me? Or should I pretend I’m someone else, someone strikingly resembling me, and look completely indifferent?” Golyadkin asked himself in indescribable anguish. “Yes, that’s it: I’m not me and that’s all there is to it,” he thought, his eyes fixed on Andrei Filipovich as he took off his hat to him….[iv]

 

NOTES

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[i] Vance, J. D. Hillbilly Nation: a Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. NY: HarperCollins. 2016. p. 163.

[ii] Levin, Yuval. The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism. NY: Basic Books. 2016. p. 103.

[iii] Tolstoy, Leo. A Calendar of Wisdom. Translated by Peter Sekirin. 1997. “September 28,” p. 284. Compare Milton, John. Paradise Lost, VIII, 79–84:

when they come to model Heaven
And calculate the stars, how they will wield
The mighty frame; how build, unbuild, contrive
To save appearances; how gird the sphere
With centric and eccentric scribbled o’er,
Cycle and epicycle, orb in orb

See also Owen Barfield, Saving the Appearances: a Study in Idolatry. Second Edition. Middletown, CN: Wesleyan UP. 1988. pp. 62–64, 123–24.

[iv] Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. The Double. 1846. In Dostoyevsky Notes from the Underground. Translated by Andrew R. MacAndrew. NY: Signet Classics 1961. pp. 151–52.