Calan Mai marks the end of winter and beginning of summer. It is a time of deep magic pivoting around the defeat of otherworldly and wintry forces and the celebration of life, love and fertility.
Rhiannon and Pwyll Festival celebrating Rhiannon’s return from Annwn at Gorsedd Arberth into this world as a sovereignty goddess who takes Pwyll as her husband. Gwyn, Gwythyr and Creiddylad Festival marking Gwyn’s battle with Gwythyr for Creiddylad. Gwythyr wins and enters a sacred marriage with Creiddylad bringing fertility to the land. Gwyn is defeated and retreats to Annwn.
Calan Mai – the calends of May – or of Summer. What does it mean for us and how does it relate to the traditional festival of Beltane? As the cycle of the year turns through the six-point wheel of our seasonal observances, the first day of May is significant because we have arrived at that part of the year that brings us to the summer months with their long hours of daylight when everything is burgeoning and the life of the year is fresh and vibrant all around us. Each year is different, the seasons shift, the calendar is arbitrary; all these things are also true. So the fixed date may not be the precise time that the things the traditional date celebrates actually arrive. But traditional dates are still important for our shaping of the pattern of nature in our cultural lives. So we mark the coming of May as a pivotal point in the year, marked too by our ancestors, and all the festivals that have been celebrated in the past, and up to the more recent present, that express the significance of this time of year: festivals that celebrate the fertility of the land and all who live on the land, the bursting forth of life and lusty energy, the coupling of the Lord and Lady of Summer, the crowning of the May Queen and her betrothal to the Green Man, the May Games … all these and more. All of them, whether historically attested or creatively imagined, resonate with the season and enact the varying layers of myth, traditional lore and cultural celebration of the life of the lands of Brython as experienced here, now, in an enduring present that has always been. So although the first day of May is a significant calendrical date, the month of May as a whole is a season when these things happen and we might want to await the significant events such as the flowering of hawthorn or other resonant markers of the season which we find relevant for our observances and our celebration of this festival.
We link our observances to the cycle of the year and are in tune with the natural seasons. Sometimes this can be seen as a conflict as Winter gives way to Spring and then Summer. So there are stories about the gods that enact this. One such is found in the medieval Welsh tale Culhwch and Olwen where Gwyn ap Nudd, the Winter King, is supplanted by Gwythyr ap Greidawl, the Summer King when they fight each May Eve for the hand of Creiddylad daughter of Lludd Llaw Eraint. Gwyn retreats to Annwn, the Brythonic Otherworld. In such episodes within larger stories are our myths found, silver veins running brightly through the medieval Welsh tales, poems and other remnants of Brythonic lore. We are pagans, inspired by these myths of the turning seasons; we are also polytheists. We recognise many gods and many ways of following and devotionally acknowledging them. As Brythonic polytheists, working in a tradition that has as one of its expressions these medieval Welsh tales contained in the collection known as The Mabinogion, this season is resonant of the coming of Rhiannon on a pale white horse to claim her lover. Pwyll had gained the title ‘Pen Annwn’ when he changed places with Arawn in his otherworld domain. Now the gates of the Otherworld open and Rhiannon rides forth bringing all the enchantment of the season in her wake. We might think here, too, of Olwen, the daughter of the giant Ysbaddaden Pencawr, in another tale, who, as she walks, leaves a track of white clover in the path she has trodden. On the breezes blowing through the gates of Annwn are the scents of Summer, the blossom on the boughs and the flowers of the woods and fields, the sensuousness of the season revealed as Rhiannon lifts her veil – as the tale tells it – to speak with Pwyll and demand a fealty that she knows it is in his heart to give her. So he tells her: “If I had a choice of all the women and maidens in the world, it is you that I would choose.”
Here is Rigantona, the Brythonic sovereignty goddess, validating the occupancy of the land; here is Rhiannon, bringing all the magic and enchantment of the season into our world with her enigmatic riding seeming both slow and stately but also too quick and elusive for anyone to catch up with her, inhabiting her own time and space, but revealing herself as a presence in our world. In this season she comes among us and so we celebrate her coming and mark it devotionally at the appropriate time. That time is hers rather than ours, so to fix too precise a date would be presumptuous, though because we must do so, we do it as sensitively as possible in response to her coming, and we devote the time to her. She is enchantment itself. Her felt absence through the Winter is now a felt presence.
So we speak to her, as in these words from one of the altars maintained by Brython members:
Rigantona, I strew rose petals about your altar For your coming from the Otherworld.
Spring is all about us, The hawthorn tree has leaves Emerging from the Otherworld.
I feel your presence in the blossoming boughs, In the flowers of the fields, In the green leaves and the many-coloured petals. These petals from another year I have kept for you Until roses bloom again And you ride Through the gates of the Otherworld Across the land in splendour. Rigantona, I strew rose petals about your altar For your coming from the Otherworld.