The May Queen's Shadow

(Part 2 of a 2 part series of musings on Hawthorn.)

A late April snow covers the Hawthorns here in Maine, their buds still tightly closed.

In times past, the blossoming of the Hawthorn marked the coming of the May Queen, ushering in the bright half of the year, ending the darkness that began at Samhain when the Hawthorn’s last fruits were dry upon its branches.

This year, it as though the May Queen has seen her shadow.

The winter that fell last year brought an ill wind, bearing pestilence.

Outside, that wind still shakes the Birches and Pines.

All around, the pestilence has become a plague.

In the stories of my ancestors, the blossoming of the Hawthorn came as a signal of the birth and death of worlds.

The Hawthorn bloomed when the Tuath Dé, the tribe of the gods, the ancient shining ones, came from the North in flying ships to deliver the land and its people from the cruel scourge of a leader who demanded slavery and sacrifice and whose one great eye corrupted and destroyed everything he gazed upon. That king was defeated by the spear of the sun king, Lugh, a weapon akin to the single shaft of light that penetrated the burial chamber at Newgrange at the mouth of the Boyne at the Winter Solstice.

The Tuath Dé knew the language of all things and could summon the wind and the rain.

When ships sailing from Spain arrived, carrying the Milesians, the Galatian people who would become the Gaels, the Tuath Dé sent a storm to send them back. But the Milesian bard, Amergin, spoke to the land and the sea and the sky, telling them who he was and that he knew the unity of all things, and the storm dispersed.

As the Milesians landed, the Hawthorn bloomed again, signaling the death of one world and the birth of another.

The coming of the Milesians marked the coming of civilization, and the withdrawal of the Tuath Dé from the world.

Manannán mac Lir, son of the god of the sea, made homes for them beneath ancient earthen burial cairns, and they became the Daoine Sídhe, the ones the English would call faeries. He himself departed to the “land under wave.”

Hawthorns grew atop the hollow hills where the Daoine Sídhe went to dwell, guarding the entrance to the Otherworld.

Those who cross into the Otherworld say that there the Hawthorn blooms at Samhain.

Strange, animalic alkaloids give Hawthorn’s flower the scent of sex and death, beginning and end.

Whenever the Hawthorn is blooming in either world, the Daoine Sídhe walk more closely among us.

Traditionally in Ireland, on the morning of Beltaine, the old celebration of the Earth’s ecstasy, when the Hawthorn was in bloom, dew shimmering on its blossoms with the splendor of the fine raiments of the Gentry, people would tie ribbons to the tree with prayers for abundance, and hang cloths from its branches that would be saved for use as bandages. But the thorns of the Hawthorn suggested the wrath that would be visited upon any who dared to damage it.

As late as the 1990’s, folklorist Eddie Leninhan found many people in the west of Ireland who shared stories of the woes that befell those who damaged Hawthorns: one spoke of the tree beginning to bleed when cut with a cross-cut saw, another spoke of a man who, after cutting a Hawthorn, felt thorns in his bed every night for the rest of his life. Those were among the milder consequences associated with such desecration.

Such understandings arise from experiencing the world as alive and animated by very different consciousnesses than our own.

Drawing from her own experiences, Cora Anderson, grand-daughter of an herbalist who emigrated from Ireland to Alabama during the Great Hunger, wrote:

"The [Fairy realm] is not some place put here for the sole benefit of humans. It is teeming with many forms of life, including those who are malevolent and dangerous to humans not because they are evil but because they are different. They are the wildlife of their native habitat. Most of their antagonism is caused by corruption and destructive behavior toward the environment."

This Beltaine, a virus unleashed into the world by the destruction of wild places, accelerated by changes in the climate and the seasons, spread across vectors of human commerce rages through the population. In the season after so many of the world’s forests burn, lungs are afire.

In England of old, young lovers would go into the woods on May Eve and come back in the morning, decorating the village with green boughs. The custom was outlawed in the early days of capitalism, no doubt in part because of the way the green marriage of the young lovers mirrored the marriage to the land that is the one true source of sovereignty in this world.

May Queens crowned in ritual held the place in this world of the Otherworld Queens who called the trees to blooming. The May Pole was the Axis Mundi.

Now, with climate change and economic collapse, the world seems to be wobbling off its axis.

The green boughs of young lovers are replaced with garlands for the dead.

It is as if the May Queen’s shadow has fallen on the Earth.

The May Queen has a dark twin, the Cailleach Béara.

She is stone and earth, older than the hills. She rules the dark of the year.

Some say she is the bride of Manannán, waiting for him to return across the sea.

Cailleach is often translated into English as “hag,” a word whose modern connotations are bound up with our fear of the darkness of the grave, which is also the darkness of the earth and the darkness of deep waters and the darkness of the womb.

When I see her, I see the color of moonlight and granite and driven snow. She smells of Hawthorn and Datura in flower and of Apples frozen halfway through fermentation. Her beauty is no less seductive that that of her twin.

In old stories, a man encounters a hag along the road who asks him to kiss her. The kiss blesses and transforms them both, and she becomes beautiful to him. With that blessing, the way opens for him to become the Sacred King who gives life to the land.

Who scorns the kiss is cursed.

Rumi says “the price of this kiss is your life.”

This is true whether we accept or reject the curse.

The only question is whether we surrender the life of our soul, accepting a dead world of concrete, or accept the invitation and initiation and wedding to the living Earth that is the one path to true sovereignty.

I suspect that part of the Mystery is the the May Queen and the Cailleach Béara are one and the same, two seasons, two aspects, two faces of the same Otherworld Queen.

In this strange season, she appears as both at once, offering blessing and curse.

Her curse is the death that comes from dishonoring the land whose life she is – which is also a blessing, sparing us from living to see what will happen if the civilization that drove her people beneath the hollow hills continues to rule on Earth.

Her blessing is the life that comes from coming back into connection with the living Earth – which is also a curse that makes us feel the suffering around us, suffering soothed only by the sweetness of that kiss.

Wherever Hawthorns grow, she waits to meet us, waits for us to choose.

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