The Dark Underbelly of May

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“I am sure you will not be late,” he added, and smiled, “for you know what night it is.”

Bram Stoker did not stop at just the one great sinister terrifying classic. It is well worth taking a look at some of his short stories, heavy with gothic dread. Take ‘Dracula’s Guest.” The words which open this post were spoken as the first uneasy hint that something is wrong in Munich, though the air is full of the first joyousness of Summer. And of course, its hero stays out too late with satisfyingly eerie melodrama, and all goes very wrong.

I loved this little piece of the undead from start to finish, my stomach knotted, my heart beating faster than it should, a fit of the Victorian vapours only a gasp away. But it is based on a certain night of the year; one which has, mercifully, just passed us by. It is the night before May begins. WalpurgisNacht.

The naming of the day drips red with irony, for St Walpurga herself was a comfortable 8th century abbess who seems to have lived a blameless and illustrious life as a writer. She was a great woman of the church, she died, she was buried, she did not wake up again.

But her feast day falls on April 30th, which just happens to be a feast honoured as Beltane, a night for witches to be out and about doing their thing, and for evil to stalk the earth on approximately two legs.

The feast is honoured in locations throughout Europe: but here in Britain we do not ask questions. Witches are quite entitled to welcome in the Spring in the privacy of their own covens , as long as they don’t brag unbecomingly how many eyes of newts they used (they are an endangered species these days) and how many laps of their cul-de-sac they did on their broomsticks.

No: here, our May celebrations are just overtly very weird indeed.

You know of maypoles, of course, where ancient fertility rites are celebrated by getting small children to dance round a large erect pole. We have many more traditions like that: you may well know about the Cornwall port of Padstow and its propensity to dress grown men as horses which look nothing like horses, and to call them ‘Osses because that’s what they have called them for centuries. Every May-day there’s a procession through the streets of Padstow by the Red ‘Oss and his gang, and the Blue ‘Oss and his entourage, and they fight. And someone wins every year, and I have no idea if, and if so how, they fix it.

 

Pic via bbc.co.uk

Pic via bbc.co.uk

You see, MayDay has been adopted as Christian, but in many quarters it is still very, vey pagan indeed.

I was meandering round the Victoria and Albert Museum when I came across the oddest piece of what looked like stained glass.

 

This stained glass was made for a house which has long since been demolished. Experts think it was made between 1560 – 1621, and its house was near Newcastle, in a place called Betley. When they knocked the first house down and made a grand second, it held sufficient sway with the owners to be preserved and put in the new house as a reminder of May, and what it stood for.

It has the characters you would find at any May fair in ancient times – including the Lady and the Fool, a time-honoured story of old England.

It is clearly a humorous piece.

But I’ll be honest. It gives me the willies.

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20 thoughts on “The Dark Underbelly of May

  1. I think I can see the humor in the expressions and wouldn’t probably have experienced the willies, but it doesn’t hold much appeal. Of course, that it was cherished enough to make it through two homes, does interest me. i have to admit that May Day didn’t even cross my mind. I feel a little neglectful! 🙂

  2. I can see why 😉
    PS – I went to Penzance Primary school (in South Africa) and we danced the maypole every year on sports day (I think it was sports day). I never did make much sense of it as a child.

  3. Bram Stoker certainly did provide a chilling tale. One that still captivates audiences today. I loved the part about the main character – not Dracula – knowing shorthand. Very clever. Your tale also is intriguing, Kate.

    1. Stoker was on the cusp of a world of new technology, wasn’t he, Judy? The phonograph features, and all those steam train journeys where steam races the ancient journeying power of the sea – it’s a recurrent theme. Fabulous stuff. One of my favourite books ever.

  4. Japes weren’t only done by the fair and talented, once upon a time. Or perhaps they were, and looking back, our tastes have changed… Seems likely, though, that the ones doing the japes were pretty creepy!

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