I celebrated this past May Day with my two-year-old daughter Lilly. She ran around a makeshift Maypole with some yarn. We decorated the house with flowers. All pretty innocent stuff. That night, my wife and I watched the movie The Wickerman as a way to get into the season.
First off, we saw the 1973 version with Christopher Lee, and not the 2006 version with Nicolas Cage. A world of difference. The remake paled in comparison. Though not all of it was Cage’s fault. He nixed the happy ending (having him saved) and opted to go down in flames (ironically, like the movie).
But this brings us to the darker side of May Day, also known as Beltane. You see, this is when Druids would sacrifice a human to ensure a good harvest in the fall. Yup. Watch The Wickerman and you’ll see it all go down. I know most of us think of pagan rituals with all the nudity and flowers. And Wickerman delivers. And then there’s the sacrifice burning to death in a giant wicker man.
This made me dig a little deeper into the whole human sacrifice thing. Most Beltane ceremonies use a symbolic sacrifice such as cake thrown in the fire. Maypoles in Spain were each topped with a male effigy which was later burned. Contemporary Pagans burn sacred wood and dried herbs as offerings in their Beltane fires.
It turns out that Beltane has a whole host of other names, like Mayday, May Eve, or Walpurgis Night. When I think of Walpurgis Night, my mind goes instantly to Dracula. Just the way I think. This was the night that Harker arrived at Borgo Pass.
Walpurgis Night is named in honor of Saint Walburga, the patron saint of coughs, famine, plague and storms. Okay, who gets to be the saint of coughs? I guess she healed pagans in Germany (starting in 748) also curing plagues, rabies, etc. Still. I wouldn’t want to be known for diseases. Her canonization coincided with the pagan ritual of Beltane.
Walpurgis Night (April 30th) is the night when witches, demons and spirits hold a huge party. It is celebrated in similar to Halloween, with tricks played on unsuspecting people. Anything that isn’t nailed down—doormats or potted plants—is brought inside or it’ll disappear. In Germany, many people also put out a slice of bread liberally spread with butter and honey, called Ankenschnitt, for the phantom hounds in order to protect all from bad weather and ensure crops don’t fail.
Phantom dogs haunt gates and crossroads. They are sometimes accompanied by the sound of rattling chains, or they walk with an unnerving splashing noise. (Makes me think of trotting in blood). Many times these phantom dogs chase people. It is impossible to escape a phantom hound. The more you run, the faster the beast will give chase. Seeing a phantom dog is an omen of death. Either your own or a member of your family will die. So I guess I’m glad I’ve never seen one.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle used the legend of the phantom (or black) dogs in his story The Hound of the Baskervilles. The phantom was of course fake—an ordinary dog covered in fluorescent paint and starved until it is half crazed and prepared to kill anything—but the atmosphere of fear was on the mark.
A version of these death dealing phantom dogs appeared in the Supernatural series, episode No Rest for the Wicked. Here they were hell hounds meant to drag a victim to hell.
Noise is the most widespread remedy against evil beings during Walpurgis Night. As soon as the sun sets, everyone does their best to make as much racket as possible, from shouting and beating sticks to shooting guns! This is still Germany. People knock back the drinks and generally get into trouble. Which is why May 1st is a public holiday in Germany. Everyone is hung over. This sounds a bit like how we celebrate Cinco de Mayo.
So next May Day, lock your doors, drag in the welcome mat, and set out some bread or the phantom dog might visit you.