May in the Southern Hemisphere means Autumn leaves and the first taste of winter in the air. For those in the North it is the traditional beginning of Spring, with all the ritual and ceremony that was part of an agrarian culture for as far back as 10,000 years. That is of course until a small cult from the Near East rose to power and took over most of the world, stamping out ancient traditions with coercion or violence wherever they went.
I have made a recording of Hal An Tow on my You Tube channel. This website, focused on Proto-Indo-European Religion, has an excellent few pages covering May Day celebrations, including the Hal An Tow and other Furry Day activities. Furry, as in the Latin Feria, meaning Faire, rather than the Furry types that identify/dress as animals. Though having said that, I am sure there is some crossover with pre-Christian animal totems and personification of deities as animals.
Most sites indicate that the etymology of the name ‘Hal-An-Tow’ is unclear. Some claim a connection with a ‘Heel and Toe’ dance, others imply that the Cornish words mean Calender (Halan) and Garland (Tow). Most are in agreement that the original nature and true meaning of the festival held annually in early May at Helston in Cornwall are lost. The ceremony claims medieval origins, and includes many staple characters of English folklore, i.e. Robin Hood and Marion, St. George and Mary.
Some verses of the song show up in Shakespeare’s play As You Like It:
What shall he have that killed the deer?
His leather skin and horns to wear.
Then sing him home.
(The rest shall bear this burden.)
Take thou no scorn to wear the horn.
It was a crest ere thou wast born.
Thy father’s father wore it,
And thy father bore it.
The horn, the horn, the lusty horn
Is not a thing to laugh to scorn.
Shakespeare, As You Like It, Act 4, Scene 2, 1599
Interestingly, the dialogue before this song references the Romans. It is unlikely, after having visited the Roman ruins in Bath and watched my share of Time Team episodes, that many of the Agrarian rituals of the Roman religions did not make their way into the traditions of Great Britain.
This brings me to the crux of my issue, authenticity. Whether it be those attempting to revive the ritual and lore of the Norse, the Greco-Roman mysteries, the Tuatha Dé Danann in Ireland or any other culture where 1500 years of Christian suppression stands in your way, it is a daunting task.
One the one hand, many of us feel a primal pull to the ceremony and ideology. On the other hand, this innocence lends itself to exploitation by charlatans.
I recently became aware of this book, Thought Vibration by William Walker Atkinson. Atkinson operated in the early 1900s in America and wrote under at least three, possibly four or more, pseudonyms. It is not just that he used an assumed name, but that his pseudonyms were tied to assumed identities, Indian Yogi’s, French Mentalists and others. Atkinson was far from a pioneer in this form of con, with L. Ron Hubbard, Helena Blavatsky and William Westcott (Golden Dawn) being other examples. At the risk of the wrath of some neo-pagans I would also put Gerald Gardner in the same basket.
These people all claimed access to higher knowledge either through ancient races, alien cultures or uncovered texts or artifacts and in most cases used this information to part many a person from their money.
The sad reality is that Christianity did a very good job of stamping out all genuine records of the worship of Isis in ancient Egypt, Herne the Hunter in England or Odin in Scandinavia. In fact, the tradition goes back beyond Christianity, with Greek and Roman gods often swallowing the gods of the conquered.
We see only remnants of these ancient characters, so loved and respected or feared by our ancestors. I loved the way that Marion Zimmer Bradley describes the continuation of the Celtic goddesses in the figure of Mother Mary in her book Mists of Avalon. However, it seems unfair that these entities can only persist into the future while in hiding.
The version of Hal An Tow that I recorded owes a lot to The Waterson’s version, but I have also include a verse that Damh the Bard uses as nod to the undeniably pagan origins of the song.
Like many people, I am disillusioned with a belief system that has severed itself from nature. A doctrine of human ‘dominion’ that led to our pollution of the environment, pollution of our bodies and an education system that leans towards facts, impersonal logic and false certainty. I’m not looking back teary eyed at a perfect past, but wishing that there was some way to teach respect for the earth and all its creatures along with the other advances in human knowledge.
So happy May to my northern friends, in the knowledge that the turning of the earth and the movement of the sun still governs our lives, no matter how much we try and distance ourselves from it.