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The "Tower of Song" begins, at least  for the Gypsy Scholar, in the Renaissance with the "Temple of Music."


Known to the Renaissance occultists as “The Temple of Music,” it was written that: “No other invention, ancient or modern, is more seemly for consorts nor more desirable for symphonies, nor more admirable to the ears of listeners. Time destroys not the sweetness of its sounds, neither do fickle inventions seduce men’s affections from it, however rare, unusual, or more easily learnt these may be.” This “pagan mystery” of the Renaissance was a magical device whereby the Magus, using hermetic/kabbalistic interpretation, contemplated the harmonic relationships (of which the musical was itself a metaphor) and entered the Temple of Music in order to “hear Apollo’s lyre, i.e. experience the celestial worlds” in a scaled flight of soul through the cosmos. 


Pythagoras can be seen through the main archway on the bottom floor, entering through a door. Directly above, in the alcove beneath the twin portals representing ears, a Muse stands pointing at a musical phrase in three parts. Above and to the left, the god of music and father of the Muses, Apollo, plays his lyre in the archway below the clock.

Today, we may be witnessing the revival of Pythagorean musical mathematics and its Renaissance towering music magic by way of the music generated by the fractal chaos mathematics. 


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The Background & History of the

Gypsy Scholar's "Tower of Song" Program

The Gypsy Scholar actually started in radio from a high tower. It was 1973, at an Ivy League college that had a traditional tower at the center of campus. He helped out his college dorm mate, who had a radio program in a studio atop the college tower. 


When the GS was an undergraduate student of literature, a younger breed of professors were beginning to breech the academic code that kept popular culture off limits as a serious subject of study. Thus, there were studies (books and essays) on high-culture poets and writers having epigraphs (and maybe more quotations throughout) from Beat poets and popular 60s singer-songwriters, such as Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen. These groundbreaking professors, coming of age in the academy of the 1970s, represented a new sensibility for literature, one that was informed by the revolutionary period in which they lived. However, the young GS wasn't even satisfied with the occasional academic reference to popular Sixties music. The GS wanted serious studies dedicated to it (feeling that the popular rock-music critic should be part of the constituency of academic "literary critics."). As a student of the Romantics, he felt like Bono felt about Leonard Cohen (whose critics were aghast when this academically-trained poet "prostituted" himself to become a popular singer-songwriter!): "Here was a man, who inside of a pop-song ... you know, puts big ideas, big dreams. It reminded me of Keats or Shelley or, you know, they were poets I was reading as a kid. I said this is our ... Shelley, this is our ... Byron. You know, there was an otherness to the language. It was just a sensory overload of the language that first got to me." [I'm Your Man, 2005]  The GS had, in other words, realized that the Sixties musicians were the heirs of the Romanticsand to study the one meant to also study the other. Always listening to music when he studied (and thus experienced a steady stream of correspondences between the ideas and the music), the GS wanted more than academic tomes just referencing Sixties singer-songwritershe wanted snippets of song verses jumping out everywhere between the lines of essays on literary texts! But, he recognized this was clearly impossible (unless a professor of literature could provide an audio tape with his book). However, the GS did come up with a way that this could be done (i.e., in another medium of communication), but it was only well after he left the university. 

Since the GS's university days, the split between academic high-culture and popular low-culture has been largely overcome, as a result of popular culture, most prominently in the form of music and movies, infiltrating the precincts of the Ivory Tower. For instance, you can now find academic works on popular singer-songwriters, such as Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen. Thus, today, there are bona fide university departments dedicated to the study of media and popular culture, and find entire books written on the subject of how the elements of popular culture are the equivalent of serious, canonical literature: "At the same time, it became important ... to argue that popular culture representations were as potentially complex and worthy of interpretation as the ‘great’ canonical texts of European literature that were always being used to demonstrate the poverty of popular culture and of youth culture in general." (Carla Freccero, Popular Culture)  Furthermore, you know that the exclusive walls of the Ivory Tower have been totally breeched when Sixties singer-songwriter Bob Dylan is awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature! 


Yes, the GS did find a way, in the early 1990s, to not only bridge the gap between high academic culture and low pop-culture but also to realize his fantasy of liberally punctuating essays with music—song-lines jumping out of the text. It was through the medium of radio, when the GS invented his own form of "radio-text;" i.e., the Orphic Essay-with-Soundtrack. "Songs will literally jump out at you at the perfect moment and talk to you." (DJ at a community radio station) Here, on radio, the "Gypsy Scholar" didn't present his academic essay from the Ivory Tower, but from "that tower down the track"—the TOWER OF SONG. Back then, on "community radio," the GS was actively doing somethingwith his "romance of scholarship" and "flowers of discourse" notionsthat some daring academics now call "Re-enchanting the Academy." (And, as far as the academic essay is concerned, the word "enchantment" comes from the Latin word incantare [in = En- + cantare = sing]; lit., in-song-ment.) Thus, the Orphic Essay-with-Soundtrack is a "Re-enchanment" of  the academic form of the essay.​

The TOWER OF SONG program is designed to harken back—"way, way back"—to the early days of what was called "underground" (or "freeform," or "alternative," or "progressive") radio of the 1960s and '70s, most especially nocturnal (FM) radio, with its experimental "non-format format" of mixing not only different musical genres but also music and talk (of the new "flower-power" radio stations). It is predicated on the notion that there is not only an economic difference between commercial and non-commercial radio, but also a biological difference between the diurnal rhythms of day and night; the night having a special reality of magic that is absent from the day (and the noisy busyness of daytime radio). Therefore, the TOWER OF SONG program is about a different radio sensibility, one designed to cater to the rhythms a special kind of listener. [See "School of the Night" page.]

The TOWER OF SONG is the great metaphor/symbol for the Gypsy Scholar's once-and-future program, "Everybody Knows / Tower of Song," which he conducted for seven years, beginning in 1989 on community radio station KKUP. Conceived on the model of sixties "underground radio," its range covered topics from the spiritual to the political. With this midnight program, the GS presented an alternating program format of dialectics (interviews or spoken-word essays) and popular music. The program began with this introduction from the GS's "Re-Vision Radio Manifesto & Visionary Recital":

The noetic EVERYBODY KNOWS segment alternates with the mythopoetic TOWER OF SONG segment—an eclectic mixing of music and spoken-word readings from a variety of texts. It's hosted by the Gypsy Scholar, with flower in one hand and sword in the other. Thus, Everybody Knows, it's "flower-power" radio—with the philosophic power of Blakean "Staminal Virtue." It is, then, RE-VISION RADIO: a "Soul-making" Philosophical & Literary inter-view program that re-views—looks once again in-depth at—ideas, books, issues people in the news religion and politics movements and movies. RE-VISION RADIO is, as Everybody Knows, not for everyone but for "Romantic Outsiders" only (like its counterpart, the 1960s "Magic Theater" of the Imagination—"for madmen only"). 

Thus, this was the "Everybody Knows/Tower of Song" program, with its unique mix of talk (dialogue and interviews, with phone-calls from listeners) and essays put to popular music—high philosophy & deep song. Little did the GS know then that around the same time a film by well-known director Oliver Stone had come out, Talk Radio (1988), which told the story of a popular and controversial radio host. Viewing  it later on video, the GS couldn't help but feel that the coincidence of the controversial host's first name with his first name was too uncanny! But this weird coincidence was shortly to be matched by another. Significantly enough, not long after the GS began his own "underground" style of radio out of a converted garage (KKUP), he received another uncanny match to his own novel radio conception when the 1990 film, Pump Up the Volume, hit the theaters. It opened with the protagonist starting a pirate radio program in his "basement" (literally "underground radio"). And his theme-song? You guessed it—"Everybody Knows"! (By chance, did the filmmaker once hear the GS's radio program?) 

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How I Became a “Gypsy Scholar”: a Countercultural Biography


Let us bring to bear the persuasive powers of sweet-tongued Rhetoric and . . . let us have as well Music, the maid-servant of my house, to sing us melodies of varying mood.

~Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy


As a young, aspiring scholar at college, when assigned to write papers, my predilection was to take a controversial position on an issue and argue an unpopular opinion, challenging the status quo. However, as far as the composition of a paper was concerned, because of my passion in polemical argument, I oftentimes felt a certain limitation, a constriction, with formal academic writing. This restriction of expression made me yearn for something more than a dry academic essay. This lead to fantasizing a different kind of expository essay; something more energetic and edifying, which—when read aloud—was on the order of heightened speech.  


Indulging in these flights of imagination, I soon came to have a secret fantasy I dare not share with any of my professors. I imagined a professor at a lectern giving a lecture with such passion that his speech becomes heightened, so much so that he must finally break off the formal lecture altogether. At that point, he picks up an electric guitar and sings the rest of his orphic lecture, whereupon the lecture hall magically transforms into a concert hall. This wild fantasy was for me the antidote to the ponderous academic essay; so that the end of the academic essay is not “murders to dissect” (Wordsworth’s Romantic complaint) but instead a kind of intellectual ecstasy, which leads to a quasi-mystical contemplation. Thus, it followed that the ideal scholar was not the sedate academic but rather the (Renaissance) “Inspired Scholar.” However, if I wanted to be serious in pursuing such an off-the-wall academic fantasy, I had to ask myself if there was actually any model of this kind of alternative scholar in the real world, particularly one in the modern period who had solid academic credentials. (For a laying out of this academic fantasy pictorially, see the last section of the Gypsy Scholar’s “Musekal Philosophy” page of the Tower of Song website.)


After much research, finally a name came up: Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was known as the quintessential “American Scholar.” But, upon further researching, I discovered that Emerson was identified with another title: “The Orphic Scholar.” (What applies here about the legendary Orpheus, the archetypal musician as magician, is that he is described as not only “singer of love songs” but also a “divine rhetorician.” “Orpheus is philosophy personified.” –Francis Bacon) What I came to understand about what I had discovered was the idea that scholarship (at its highest level) has a musical dimension, which issues not in an end-state of critical reason but rather one of a transcendental joy. This is eloquently and powerfully described by Emerson—rejecting the model of scholarship of his day—as the “joyous science” (from the 12th-century troubadours’ gay saber):


“Ah ye old ghosts! ye builders of dungeons in the air! why do I ever allow you to encroach on me a moment; a moment to win me to your hapless company? In every week there is some hour when I read my commission in every cipher of nature, and I know that I was made for another office, a professor of the Joyous Science, a detector & delineator of occult harmonies & unpublished beauties, a herald of civility, nobility, learning, & wisdom; an affirmer of the One Law, yet as one who should affirm it in music or dancing, a priest of the Soul yet one who would better love to celebrate it through the beauty of health & [the] harmonious power [of music].”


And Emerson elaborates on what he means by “the power of music:”


“The power of music, the power of poetry, to unfix and as it were clap wings to solid nature, interprets the riddle of Orpheus. I do not wonder at the miracles which poetry attributes to the music of Orpheus, when I remember what I have experienced from the varied notes of the human voice. They are an incalculable energy which countervails all other forces in nature, because they are the channel of supernatural powers.”


Thus, the orphic scholarship of an enthusiastic “joyous science” means that “The office of the scholar is to cheer, to raise and to guide men by showing them facts amid appearances.” Emerson, as the “Orphic Scholar,” is the Professor of the Joyous Science and thus what cold be called a “Troubadour of Knowledge.”


With is fateful discovery, the young, aspiring scholar looking for his own out-of-the-way mentors—his own spiritual kin—had all he needed to affirm and authorize his wild, undergraduate fantasies. Thus, sometime after my English Literature graduation, I came up with a designation for this mode of alternative scholarship, a moniker that would express the sense of an independent or outsider-type of scholar, or even renegade scholar, who is a defector from the Ivory Tower’s halls of academe. Riffing off of Matthew Arnold’s most popular poem, ”The Scholar Gipsy" (1853), I came up with “The Gypsy Scholar.” (Arnold prefaces the poem with an extract from Joseph Glanvill, the 17th-century English writer, philosopher, and clergyman, which tells the story of an impoverished Oxford student who left his studies to join a band of gipsies, and so ingratiated himself with them that they told him many of the secrets of their trade. He learned that the gipsies “had a traditional kind of learning among them, and could do wonders by the power of imagination, their fancy binding that of others.” Actually, Arnold’s poem was a perfect model—not only because of its message of the “power of the imagination” but also because of its musical reference; that is, it is also familiar to music-lovers through Ralph Vaughan Williams' choral work “An Oxford Elegy.”) 


It was shortly after my graduation that a related academic fantasy began to be entertained—writing a book that came with a CD in order to adequately express one’s ideas. (And this made me ask, rhetorically, shouldn’t all scholarly books come with a CD?) I confess that I can’t now recall exactly how I came to such an odd-ball notion in the first place—I mean blending argument and song. It must have started (as far as I can remember anyway) with something a simple as my undergrad habit of reading papers and books (many of which were extracurricular, “out-of-the-way books” [Coleridge]) while listening to popular music. I would sometimes experience an odd coincidence of the lyrics of a song matching (in some curious way) what I was pondering in regard to the reading (and sometimes it was as if the song lyrics were like marginal notes as running commentary on the text). When this type of synchronicity accumulated enough to become my personal heuristic method, I found that the act of reading became intensely associative, invoking my imagination to come up with connections between seemingly disparate things that would ordinarily not be associated, which allowed me to gain insights into matters I was studying. Thus, when I had this type of hermeneutical mojo on full blast, I would experience what Theodore Roethke described in one of his poems as “a steady stream of correspondences.” These were a series of correspondences between text and song, a sometimes complex and convoluted tapestry of correspondences that defied any systematic accounting for meaning—it was enough to make your head spin! (The Gypsy Scholar has tried to replicate a small portion of this kind of synchronous hermeneutic on radio through this “Orphic Essay-with-Soundtrack.” When the orphic magic works, it gives the illusion that the song that punctuates an idea or a set of ideas in the essay was tailor-made for the essay.) In any case, perhaps the vocation of the “Gypsy Scholar” started with reading with music in the background. (For an in-depth exposition of what the “Orphic Essay-with-Soundtrack” is all about, see the Gypsy Scholar’s “Re-Vision Radio Manifesto” page on the Tower of Song website.) 


However, in the working world after graduation, it was difficult to ply my idiosyncratic trade of orphic scholarship. Until, that is, I found the perfect outlet— community fm radio. In this popular medium of communication, working as a “public intellectual,” I could combine ideas with music to realize my longtime academic fantasy. And, since this was in the social context of the countercultural music revolution that started in the 1960s, I could drive home the points made in my academic essays via the ecstatic mode of folk-rock and rock songs. (Actually, this was now a more accepted combo, since sixties singer-songwriters, such as Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, had breached the exclusive walls of the Ivory Tower, for now their music was accepted as a bona fide subject academic study. Indeed, professional literary critics devoted much scholarly ink to popular singer-songwriters and, conversely, popular music critics started to come across as major intellectual interpreters of culture, producing scholarly and literary essays that placed rock music in a broader framework of culture and politics; e.g., Rolling Stone’s Greil Marcus.) 


Now, the unequal balance of elite, high culture over popular, low culture had shifted. (This began to take place around the late 1970s. Thus, today, you can find entire university departments devoted to the study of “popular culture;” e.g., UCSC.) You could say that it was during this countercultural time period that I came of age vocationally, at the same time as being a college student. I remember the first evidence of the shift in the relationship of high and low culture. There were a younger generation of scholars who, when writing either academic papers or books, would head their sections or chapters of literary criticism concerning serious poetry or novels with choice epigraphs from the lyrics of singer-songwriters, such as Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell., or et al. I remember the profound influence this had on an impressionable college freshman. However, as my college years went by, I was no longer completely satisfied by such partial intrusions of a popular culture art form into the hallowed halls of academe. No, I wanted something more—a full-scale invasion of low-brow, popular culture into high-brow, academic culture. I desired the liberal arts text to be punctuated with intervals of associative song lines; song lyrics breaking out all over the page (hermetic correspondences all over the place)! I desired serious, academic studies of the music of our generation of popular singer-songwriters—introduced with choice epigraphs from high-brow poets and writers. In short (like the premodern “carnivalesque” phenomenon I’m now so fond of presenting to my listeners), I desired the “world turned upside down”!  And, today, I’ve lived long enough to see my wild, undergrad fantasies impinge upon the real world (“Ah, the dreamers ride against the men of action / Oh, see the men of action falling back!” ~Leonard Cohen), as reformist movements seek to revision the nature of the academy, such as the one called “Re-enchanting of the Academy” (re-enchantment, lit. re-singing), which I interpret as a move away from the reality-principle of logos to the pleasure-principle of eros, which issues in unity, liberation, contemplation, and joy. (In Nietzsche’s terms—that other 19th-century philosopher of the troubadourean “joyous science”—it is in terms of replacing an “Apollonian” mode of discourse with a “Dionysian” one. And, here, I owe a debt of gratitude to one living professor who did encourage my undergrad fantasies about an alternative kind of scholarship—N.O. Brown. He probably started the reform movement early on in the 1960s by rejecting the academic orthodoxy he called “Protestant literalism,” which is based upon the literal interpretation of Scripture. Indeed, he identified it with modern scholarship: “Protestant literalism is modern scholarship…. Textual criticism is part of the search for one true and literal meaning…. Modern humanistic, literary and historical scholarship, Geisteswissenschaft, is the pursuit of literal truth …. There is also the new hierarchy of scribes, controlling the interpretation, the higher scholarship.” Because “the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life,” Prof. Brown advocated an alternative form of scholarship that he called “Dionysian symbolism.” “The spirit inspires: the god is Dionysus.”) In other words, to me, this (Romantic-oriented) “re-enchantment of the academy” means moving out of the narrow “halls of academe” to the spacious outdoors (perhaps the pastoral environs of “Scholar Gipsy”) of its original home; to wit, “the groves of academe.” (And over its garden gate an inscription from Horace’s Epistles, Atque inter silvas academi quaerere verum, which translates from the Latin as “And Seek for Truth in the Garden of Academus.”) This is an environs where the “romance of scholarship” can blossom in flowers of discourse.     


Therefore, it was here in this radio medium that the free-lance “Gypsy Scholar” found his niche in the wall of the Ivory Tower. Here, the Gypsy Scholar could ply his trade by invoking the image behind the concept of his “Tower of Song” program: “Not the Ivory Tower, but ‘that tower down the track / the tower of song’.” (L. Cohen) This meant that the Gypsy Scholar could apply the high form of the academic essay to radio and, at the same time, complement it—and enhance it—with the low form of popular music (a format that he dubbed “high argument and deep song” in the form of “Argument & Song,” the latter term lovingly borrowed from William Blake’s structuring of some of his poetic works). However, for the Gypsy Scholar, whose “orphic musical essays” were designed to both educate and entertain, the emphasis of these two contrasting cultural domains was always on the “low.” Here, again, he could look to the “Orphic Scholar,” Emerson, for the model: “I embrace the common, I explore and sit at the feet of the familiar, the low.” Because it was the popular song that gave the energy, passion, and ecstatic undertone to the academic essay. (The Gypsy Scholar was wonderfully validated in conceiving of an essay supercharged with rock music when he found this from singer-songwriter Patti Smith: “Three-cord rock merging with the power of the word.”) It was all the justification the Gypsy Scholar required in order to call what he does on radio “scholarship as performance at.” (Again, taking his cue from Blake: “Mental Studies & Performances.”) Gypsy Scholar likes to think of his radio program as doing his small part in the (Romantic/Dionysian) project of “re-chanting the academy.”


This, then, is how I became the “Gypsy Scholar.”  (That said, it’s lucky that the radio handle of “Wolfman Jack” was already taken!)

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The Tower of Song Musekal-Memorial Library

as a Temple of Wonder, Temple of Knowledge, and Universal Library


The Tower of Song houses a library, the Musekal-Memorial Library & Imaginal Museum.” As such, it retains the memory of the earliest “sacred libraries” of old and, more specifically, the “Universal Library” and “Museum” (“home of the muses”) at Alexandria, one of the “wonders of the ancient world,” and now known as the “Vanished Library.” 


Historians have told us that “the germ of the library is as early as man's mind” (thus the “library” is a psychological archetype) and that “The oldest of alleged libraries are the libraries of the gods.” For example, the “sacred libraries” of ancient Egypt, where the “House of Books” was presided over by the god Toth (Hermes) and the goddess Hathor-Seshat, who was called the “Lady of Libraries” and “Mistress of the Hall of Books.” (The moon-goddess Seshat was an aspect the Great Goddess, Isis, herself.) According to some historians, Seshat is older and more primary than Toth. As Hathor, she was called “Maat,” (Truth) and functioned as the “inventor of writing.” Thus, Hathor-Seshat is assimilated to “the great mother” and “is one of the favorite goddesses among the Egyptian pantheon.” Thus, Egyptian libraries were also the shrine-oracles of the gods (most usually of goddesses). 


Our great modern libraries have their origins in such early “sacred libraries.” Indeed, the religious mythologies of the world claim there were book collections even before the creation of the world. For instance, in the Hindu Vedas it is claimed that a library existed even before the creator god, and the Koran maintains that such a collection co-existed from eternity with the uncreated God. 


Furthermore, many of the creator gods were described in terms of knowledge or the Word (logos), and were even looked upon as incarnate libraries. In some mythologies all creation is looked upon as a “vast library,” and thus the stars in the heavens were seen, astrologically, as a book in which can be read the secret destiny of heaven and earth—a “house of wisdom.” There is also the ancient notion of the creation as “The Book of Life.” Other mythological traditions tell of the “Pre-Adamite” or “Antediluvean Library” written by Jehovah in several volumes, which composed Adam's entire library until the Fall. After the fall, it is reported that Jehovah wrote a revised edition in one volume on stone and placed it in a “house” on a mountain east of the Garden of Eden, where lived the Cherubim. This may be why angels were often associated with libraries—and still are to this day. (For example, the 1987 film Wings of Desire.) This was thus the very first “House of Books” and, accordingly, the angels became the first librarians, or “keepers of the stone books.” This divine library was bequeathed to Noah, which he preserved from the Flood (thus the mythical “Antediluvian Library”). Legend has it that this library was dug up after the Flood and became the nucleus of the great libraries of the ancient world. These original libraries of the earth were all “sacred libraries,” since they seem always to have belonged to the temples. As historians inform us: “It is no accident that libraries have from the earliest times been associated with holy places. It is no accident that libraries have from the earliest times been associated with holy places.... Awe decreases with familiarity, and today we tend to forget the reverence ... paid the scholar. Writing is indeed a miracle that conquers time and space, and penetrates the mysteries of the universe. Most men in their hearts still acknowledge the marvel of this miracle. Learning has its own mysteries incarnated in pen and ink, and if we have the eyes to see, the magic of it overwhelms us. The instinct which invests learning with holiness is sound.” Thus, even in the medieval period, the great architectural achievements, the Gothic cathedrals, were sometimes called “books in stone.”


Given, as previously stated, a feminine spirit has, from the beginning, been associated with great libraries as a tutelary deity (e.g.; the Egyptian “Lady of Libraries”), the legacy of tutelary deities presiding over libraries still persists (although it’s merely a formality today), in some of our modern libraries. For instance, a bronze bust of Athena-Minerva, goddess of wisdom, is above the north entrance of Doe Library on the UC-Berkeley campus.


The Tower of Song’s “Musekal-Memorial Library & Imaginal Museum” has its real-world archetype in two libraries of the past. 


The first is the ancient library at Alexandria in Egypt, which was one of the “wonders of the ancient world.” Founded by Alexander the Great in the fourth century BC, built and enlarged by Ptolemy I, Alexander's successor, the city's library comprised perhaps as many as 700,000 manuscripts, which was whole corpus of knowledge accumulated by ancient poets, philosophers, and scientists. And it was all contained in a magnificent building considered by the ancients to have been of surpassing beauty. 


The library was likely created after Ptolemy had built what would become the first part of the library complex, the “Temple of the Muses”—the Mouseion (The Latin word “museum” is derived from this Greek word.) The Greek Mouseion was much more than what we understand to be a library today. Besides a library or gallery of manuscripts (also a gallery of sacred texts), it was the home of music, poetry, and a philosophical school, such as Plato's academy of philosophy. The Musaeum (in the 3rd century BCE) was directed by a group of literary and scientific scholars who received support from the Ptolemies. 


The great Library of Alexandria, the “Cathedral of Books,” was “a building devoted to learning and the arts, regarded as the home or seat of the muses” (museum) and housed an esoteric community of adepts, who were “isolated from the outside world and equipped with a complete library and retreat were they could cultivate the muses.” This “Universal Library” contained more than the sum of its two most outstanding literary traditions, Greek and Egyptian, because it included Jewish, Babylonian, Zoroastrian and many other writings including manuscripts from as far away as India. Buddhist writings were also there, since Buddhist monks were part of a special envoy sent by the emperor Asoka to Alexandria during the time of Ptolemy II Philodelphus. 


The Alexandrian Library was modeled on the Egyptian “sacred library” that was not only a “House of Books” but also a labyrinthine “temple of initiation” (both buildings were labyrinths). The library slowly declined over the next four centuries, until by 400 CE it had vanished altogether, and the era of Alexandrian scholarship came to an end a few years later. But the memory of the ancient Library of Alexandria lived on. It continued to inspire scholars and humanists everywhere. The reputation of the Musaeum as a venue of knowledge and learning spread through the centuries. Many dreamt of one day reviving the great Alexandrian Library. In some sense, the Alexandrian Library was the forerunner of today's great national and university libraries, since its mission was to collect all the important works of Hellenic civilization.


There is one further aspect of the Alexandrian Library Musaeum and its “cultivation of the muses” that’s important to mention regrading the meaning of the Tower of Song’s “Musekal-Memorial Library & Imaginal Museum.” Inscribed over the entrance of the chamber of oldest library of the ancient world (in Egypt), the following enigmatic words: “THE PLACE OF THE CURE OF SOUL.” The words “psycheis therapeia” denote “the dwelling or workshop where the Ka [soul] resides and where it operates.” This is why some translate the enigmatic inscription as “The Hospital of the Soul.” Thus, if we go back far enough in the history of libraries, we can re-vision what we today understand as a “library”—what it really is and what it is for. In the final analysis, it is the “House of Soul,” a special place where is kept not only a storehouse of memory (memoria) and the “home of the muses” but also a hospital for “the cure/care of soul” (which is the original meaning of “psycho-therapy;” and thus the “cure/care of soul” may be synonymous to the “cultivation of the muses.”). This makes sense, since, concerning the Alexandrian Library, the greatest librarian of the ancient world was Hypatia, who was not only called “The Philosopher” (of Neoplatonic philosophy) but also “The Nurse”—for the “cure/care of soul.” Thus, the following equation can be made: libraries = muses = goddesses = angels = memory = wisdom = care of soul. 





Why a Mus-e-kal Library? A Note on the Muses and Libraries


Muses and libraries were clearly considered a natural association by the first century BCE. The relationship was most fostered by the library at Alexandria, which had its own museum with its own statuary muses. The dates are significant. The library at Alexandria was established at the beginning of the third century BCE. Plato, in the fourth century BCE, sets up one of the first, if not the first, “mouseion” (museum). Within Plato's Academy at Athens, there is an altar to the Muses and another to Hermes. Here, it can be seen that Plato feels the necessity of surrounding himself and his school with the reinforcers of memory and hence learning. This union of the muses and learning continued throughout classical antiquity.


The Muses were the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne (Memory). They presided over song, and prompted the memory. They were nine in number, and each of whom presided over a particular department of literature, art, or science. Therefore, while it is true about the Library of Alexandria that “not a trace of it survives” (“The Vanished Library”), in another sense (or dimension) it truly does still survive—as the imaginal place, that archetypal library in the mind that the Gypsy Scholar calls the Tower of Song’s “Musekal-Memorial Library & Imaginal Museum.” 





The second real-world library that the Tower of Song library retains a memory of, that serves as a model for, is the hilltop library called the “Tour Magdala” in Southern France (the home of the troubadours). Legends say that Mary Magdalene came to southern France, after arriving on its coast by boat at Les Saintes Maries dela Mer (with the Grail Cup, and thus imitating the romance literature of the Holy Grail). Her name and memory are all over the Languedoc region, especially at the hilltop village of Rennes-le-Chateau, where over a 100 years ago the Abbe Saunière built the Tour Magdala that he dedicated—as well as the church—to Mary Magdalene. It is said that the Tower of Magdala was built over a cave that descends into the earth. Both the tower and church were built on an ancient temple site to the goddess Isis. It is also believed that beneath them lies part of a magnificent Venus Temple covered with earth during the Deluge thousands of years ago. The hillside town of Rennes-le-Château is located in Languedoc (Southern France), the epicenter of troubadour activity. The little village has played a key historical role, both as the center of the troubadour-related Cathar heresy in the region and its subsequent suppression, as well as in traditions connected to the Templar movement and its complete annihilation. Archeological surface findings around the hilltop and the church suggest the area has long historical past including pre-Christian pagan religious sites and as a provincial center in the Greco-Roman period. 


Here is a description of the Tour Magdala: “But what was this Tower Magdala for, other than for viewing the area? It was used as a library, yes, but it doesn’t look like a library. What it looks like is a symbol of something, a sample of greater splendor, say, a miniature of what Saunière was dreaming of. This is a tiny castle. A castle that suggests or leads to a larger castle, perhaps a ‘castle-in-the-air’ to those who have eyes to see, the castle in which the lost Magdalene could feel at home. Or perhaps it’s meant as a gateway to some sort of spiritual Grail Temple or Refuge, as others have speculated. Whatever, it may be significant that its door does not open to the outside. You must be inside Saunière’s park to climb up to the esplanade to enter the door. Does this symbolically convey that one must be an ‘insider’ to enter the Mystery? There is a well-known notion that the Gothic cathedrals were ‘books in stone,’ and possibly even ‘alchemical books in stone.’ It would seem that Saunière’s entire estate, but especially his tower, combine with his church to add up to some sort of non-verbal book. Which says, ‘let those who eyes to read, read.’”


This description of the Tower Magdala and its library is another key to the nature and function of the Tower of Song’s library. In short, “The Musekal-Memorial Library & Imaginal Museum” could be said to fit the description: “What it looks like is a symbol of something a sample of greater splendor, say, a miniature of what Saunière was dreaming of. This is a tiny castle. A castle that suggests or leads to a larger castle, perhaps a “castle-in-the-air” to those who have eyes to see ….” In other words, “The Musekal-Memorial Library & Imaginal Museum” could also be called “The Magdalene Musekal-Memorial Library”—that refuge or sanctuary, “where the poetic champions compose,” and, for feeling at home, that visionary “Retreat and View” (Van Morrison)—is actually, to the imaginal eye, a “book in stone.” (The archetypal “castle-in-the-air” has, with the modern technological invention of radio—that “revolutionary new force in modern life”—become a real phenomenon, defying the realist’s derogatory usage of the term. See the book The Empire of the Air for the “American visionaries whose imagination and dreams turned a hobbyists’ toy into radio, launching the modern communication age.”) To put it another way, the Tower of Song’s “Musekal-Memorial Library & Imaginal Museum” is “a symbol of something, a sample of greater splendor, say, a miniature of what” the Gypsy Scholar “was dreaming of.” This is why the Gypsy Scholar can say that “Our Dark Lady of the Romantic Tower of Song—Magdalene Sophia—is the Goddess-Muse of Eternal Wisdom & Wit and ancient Lonely-Tower Libraries.” [From “Re-Vision Radio Manifesto & Visionary Recital.”] 


Yes, a “castle-in-the-air to those who have eyes to see”! Therefore, the question is, concerning the history of the “Tour Magdala” esoteric library in Southern France, the home of the troubadours: What was the Gypsy Scholar “dreaming of” when he began investigating the troubadour phenomenon and envisioned the Tower of Song and its “Musekal-Memorial Library & Imaginal Museum” for radio? [For a comprehensive view, for “those who have eyes to see” and want to “see what I mean” by the metaphorical title of the “Tower of Song” and its symbolic nature, go to the “Metaphorical Key to the Tower of Song” page.] 


There is one more thing to be considered for a full view of the meaning of the Tower of Song and its “Musekal-Memorial library.” This is that the Tower Magdala library was not only a “temple of books” but also a “temple of love”—the Mari-Ishtar-Aphrodite “Temple of Love.” In medieval legend, Mary Magdalene is equated with Venus, goddess of love, beauty, and sensuality. [For “The Magdalene” as high-priestess of the Aphrodite-Dianic cult of love in Southern France, see subpage “Our Dark Lady.”] However, as fanciful as this may come across to the average person, there is a history of speculation regarding the relationship between libraries (and philosophy) and erotic love (eros).  


A good place to start is at the beginning of Western philosophy with Socrates and the priestess Diotima, “the teacher of love,” whom Socrates claimed taught him everything he knew. Plato’s dialogue, The Symposium, records the drinking party in which Diotima appears and makes her famous speech on the inseparability of philosophy and eros. Then comes the Alexandrian Library and its legacy. Since the institution of the library in the Western world begins with the founding of the “Universal Library” and “Museum” at Alexandria by Plato's student Aristotle and his Peripatetic School, and since the beautiful and learned Hypatia resided there, we can make the connection between eros, philosophy, soul, and libraries. (“‘Give attention to the soul’ is a phrase that practically defines the whole teaching of Pythagoras and Socrates.” —Jacob Needleman) Therefore, the Gypsy Scholar would re-vision the “Magdalene Musekal-Memorial Library” as both temple of learning and love, with “Our Dark Lady of the Tower of Song” as an erotic librarian, guiding lovers to the secret places between the stacks. That's why everybody knows that “Our Dark Lady of the Tower of Song”—fusing the heights intellectuality with the depths of sexuality—gives good read! “The liberation of the Imagination is always an erotic event” —James Hillman) 


The following essay on preserving public libraries came along after the fact to magnificently capture all the Gypsy Scholar has imagined about the Tower of Song’s “Magdalene Musekal-Memorial Library” as a temple of learning and love.


“I wonder how many people have fallen in love in a library. The place is a hotbed of romance. The sight of someone pouring over a book, devoted. The beatific inclination of the head. In no other pose does the human body look at once so strong and vulnerable, tense and at ease. Something beautifying happens to a person in the process of reading a book. There's the soft library light and the quiet helps too, but mainly it has to do with the act itself; the words, the ideas, transferring from one mind to another, and the recipient mind glowing like a smitten teenager. The library is a love nest, hot. You'd think they'ed shut the thing down. In New York, in fact, that's exactly what the powers have contemplated: shutting down the public libraries, permanently closing the local branches, or shortening the hours. What this amounts to, at the moment, is lost love in the city of New York. But with the economy falling apart everywhere, library closings could occur in any city. America without public libraries! Think of it. Where would you find the reader of your dreams? What such closings will mean is not merely the end of libraries but the end of books. Many people can perceive that end eventually, with or without public libraries. But the removal of libraries will speed the process hectically. The kid in Brooklyn, Queens or Houston, Texas who is inclined to read and finds no books available to him, will soon incline toward television or nothing. Books will become the special property of the rich or of oddballs, and reading will become a hobbyist activity equivalent to pinning butterflies on a page. In the term "public library" the emphasis is on the word public, an emphasis important to this country. In a set up like ours, the public library is an essential equal opportunity institution. Anybody, anywhere, can grace his mind—that is the deep and real romance of a library. Every book, on every shelf, in every stack holds the promise of more. The politicians talk of merely closing the libraries a couple of days a week, but that will kill them too. The beauty of the place is that its there, always there, waiting for everybody, open like a pair of arms. Closing the public libraries should not be lamented; it should be forbidden. People—all people—should rise in outrage and self-interest to keep the institution going forever. Picture him, picture her, poised over that book, the book that broke into their hearts and gave them life. Think of yourself at the moment of liberty, when the feelings of the book became your feelings, its thoughts your thoughts; its information yours—all in the marriage of true minds. There you were never lovelier.” —Roger Rosenblatt 

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Lady Philosophy-Boethius 1.jpg

Top: Lady Philosophy Presenting Seven Liberal Arts to Boethius (Henri de Vulcop)

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Bottom: Lady Philosophy offering wings to Boethius, so his mind can fly aloft (French School 15th c.)

Philosophy For The Masses & The National Love Affair With Philosophy

“Music has depth and attempts philosophical thought and meaning with discussion of infinity, eternity, and mortality.” (David Gilmore of Pink Floyd)


Jacob Needleman, Prof. of Philosophy (Harvard, Yale, San Francisco State,) writes in his book, The Heart of Philosophy [1982], that he wants to “show the place that great philosophical ideas can occupy in the everyday life of contemporary men and women….” He cannot overestimate the importance of “philosophy” in our times: “The love of meaning, the search for meaning, is the only real, objective force for good in the life of modern man. Everything else we hope for and wish for ourselves and our children depends on it…. Man cannot live without philosophy.…” Prof. Needleman believes that “There is a yearning in the human heart that is nourished only by real philosophy and without this nourishment man dies as surely as if he were deprived of food and air.” (Emphasis added)

In this introduction, Prof. Needleman asks the question: “Philosophy, Where Are You?” He explains that when he began teaching philosophy twenty years ago, his colleagues didn’t take him seriously. But he points out that this depreciation of the value of philosophy was part of the general cultural malaise: “But this part of the human psyche is not known in our culture…. As for people outside the academic profession, their matters were even worse. Anyone foolish enough to admit he was a philosopher invited either outright ridicule or else victimization ….”

This is a very unfortunate state of affairs, because of the “philosophical” nature of human life: “In human civilization, and in the individual life of every human being, behind every problem to be solved, there is a question of philosophy to be asked — and not only asked as we usually ask but to be pondered and live with as a reminder of something we've forgotten, something essential….”

However, at the time of writing his book, things have changed: “Things are different now. In fact, it is nothing short of remarkable to see what the word “philosophy” now invoke some people from all walks of life…. not a trace of ridicule…. Open today's newspaper and you will see: Events are becoming “philosophical.”

Traveling on the lecture circuit, Prof. Needleman discovers something astonishing to behold concerning “philosophy” in our time—a veritable “secret national love affair” with philosophy:

“I am astounded by how many successful men and women in our society seriously study philosophy in their youth…. Asked to speak about those studies of philosophy, they undergo a change. Certainly, their faces were young, and then, Justice suddenly, they smile sadly or cynically. Their numbers are truly astonishing. I feel as hough I encountered a secret national love affair…. It is not hard to see that these people are still carrying a torch.”  (Emphasis added)


Jack Bowen, a teacher of Philosophy, has written a book on the subject of philosophy with the catchy title If You Can Read This: The Philosophy of Bumper Stickers. [2010] Bowen has definitely brought the arcane subject of philosophy out of the Ivory Tower; indeed, he has literally brought it right into the streets! Talk about “popularizing” philosophy! Using car bumper sticker slogans as a lens to explore philosophy, Bowen wants to get people away from the idea that philosophy is some elite enterprise, fit only for guys in togas (referring to Plato and company) and guys in caps and gowns.


Below is a snippet the Gypsy Scholar transcribed form the interview with philosopher Bowen on KUSP radio. (April 11, 2010).

JB: Yeah, I think you're exactly right. And that's what got me going writing this book, because I realized people are doing philosophy all the time, and we don't need bumper stickers to tell us that. When we're talking about—we're talking politics and we're talking rights and duties and how we aught to distribute healthcare and money, we're talking philosophy. When we're talking about love and relationships, we're talking philosophy. Bumper stickers are just a really great catalyst for getting that going, because a typical bumper sticker is very catchy; it's got some rhetoric, often some sarcasm, but it really gets you engaged, and once your engaged you're willing and excited to talk about the issues behind it.  (Emphasis added)

JB: As writer of pop-philosophy books, I'm hoping to show as many people as possible that it's not this thing with old stodgy men in the tall ivory towers of academia. I mean that's clearly being done in every discipline. But I want to show that philosophy is fun and it's accessible and its relevant in our current day, and there are philosophers from many different demographics and many different ages and that we're all capable and actually, I think, are core philosophers. (Emphasis added)

Interviewer: And it also suggests, I think, interestingly, that, you know, philosophy is fun. It can be entertaining, and that in the most intellectually challenging and interesting philosophy is also some of the most entertaining stuff out there. (Emphasis added)

JB: I would certainly think so!




Prof. Christopher Phillips (who has taught at New York University and the University of Pennsylvania) is another academic philosopher who has brought philosophy out of the Ivory Tower—this time into the cafes! He is an award-winning scholar, author, sought after speaker, consultant and moderator. He is known best as a foremost specialist in the Socratic Method through his books, Socrates Cafe: A Fresh Taste of Philosophy [2001] and Six Questions of Socrates: A Modern Day Journey of Discovery through World Philosophy. [2004] His mission in writing and lecturing is to revive the love of questions that Socrates inspired long ago in ancient Athens. To this end, Prof. Phillips started what he called “Socrates Cafes,” which are Socratic discussion meetings in a variety of venues such as cafés, libraries, nursing homes, churches, schools, and prisons (where the gatherings are sometimes called “Philosophers' Clubs”). This is why Public Radio International called Phillips the “Johnny Appleseed of Philosophy.”

Dr. Phillips travels the world over holding dialogues with people of all walks of life. He encourages people to become “philosophers” themselves by asking questions like Socrates did “about the way one should live.” In this way, he believes, people can become our own best thinkers (with profound reflections on the meaning of love, friendship, work, growing old, death—“Life’s Big Questions”) and discover their own unique stories of wisdom. He says his goal is to inspire curiosity and wonder of a transformative sort, one that nurtures self-discovery, openness, empathy.


These three professional philosophers, each in their own way (two of which start with Socrates and Plato), all demonstrate the desire to liberate "philosophy" from the specialist confines of academic departments and let it run wild in the world of everyday people. And this is because people “can’t live without philosophy” and “behind every problem to be solved there is a question of philosophy to be asked,” because “great philosophical ideas” are part of the “everyday life of contemporary men and women,” because “events are becoming philosophical,” because “people are doing philosophy all the time” by “talking philosophy” in all areas of their lives, because everyday people are themselves “core philosophers” without knowing it, and because, on top of all this, “philosophy is entertaining and fun.” 


Given that this is the situation of “philosophy” in the world today, the Gypsy Scholar, a twenty-year veteran of radio, feels that his program—one which both educates and entertains—can be “philosophical,”  because it's dedicated to the “life of the mind,” and because of a philosophical attitude to whatever topic is discussed. Thus, the Tower of Song program is about Ideas; the ideas in the music and, conversely, the music in the ideas.


However, the Gypsy Scholar has one minor misgiving concerning Dr. Phillips’ range of venues for philosophy discussion. The GS can't help but wonder why he leaves out “drinking party” for his “Socrates Cafe” venues, since that’s where Socrates did some of his best philosophizing [i.e., at the Symposium]! But, seriously, the Gypsy Scholar would want to see Dr. Phillips have “Socrates Cafes” in another venue apparently not yet utilized for philosophizing—a radio station! But, come to think about it, since the Dr. Phillips’ idea is for people to start their own Socrates Cafes, the Gypsy Scholar might have already started such when, back in the mid-1990s, he presented on radio his Essay-with-Soundtrack entitled “Notes Towards A Musekal Philosophy,” which focused on “philosophy” as Socrates and Plato conceived of it.


A Footnote: Philosophy & Love


“You can call my love Sophia, / I call my love Philosophy.” -Van Morrison

Because Socrates defined philosophy as “the love of wisdom,” Jack Bowen makes the connection between “philosophy” and “love.” (This is probably having to do with the fact that in the Symposium Socrates invites Diotima, “the teacher of love,” to discourse on how love, eros, raises the philosopher the highest level of being.) The Gypsy Scholar was very pleased to hear this, because he remembered what he had written in one of his past musical essays, “The Troubadours & The Beloved:”


“Thus, since philosophy & love are so dialectically intermingled for the poets and minstrels of the Middle Ages, everybody knows by now that, in the final (mythopoetic) analysis, nobody knows whether the poet-philosophers are singing the praises of love, or the minstrel-lovers are discoursing on the virtues of philosophy.” 

Now, the Gypsy Scholar might be faulted for gross exaggeration here, if it weren't for the fact that (a) he’s already cited philosopher Jacob Needleman in declaring he discovered “secret national love affair with philosophy” and that the sheer excitement some people demonstrated for their once youthful love of philosophy indicated that “these people are still carrying a torch;” (b) there are professional philosophers themselves who declare their relationship with philosophy as a “falling in love” The book, Falling in Love with Wisdom: American Philosophers Talk About Their Calling, edited by Karnos and Shoemaker [1993], presents sixty-four memoirs by academic philosophers on their love of philosophy. One statement in the collection stands out for the Gypsy Scholar: “I sometimes think that one becomes a philosopher the same way one becomes … a lover ….” (It should be noted that in both the Greek philosophical tradition and the later Judeo-Christian tradition wisdom was personified as female; e.g., “Sophia,” or  Lady Wisdom.”)

As for the Gypsy Scholar’s own secret love affair with “Lady Philosophy,” he, too, studied philosophy as a  young student—and now he’s “still carrying a torch.”

I'm carryin' a torch for you
I'm carryin' a torch
You know how much it costs
To keep carryin' a torch

Flame of love it burns so bright
That is my desire
Keep on liftin' me, liftin' me up
Higher and higher

You're the keeper of the flame
And you burn so bright
Baby why don't we re-connect
Move into the light

I've been going to and fro on this
And I'm still carryin' a torch
You must know how much it's worth
When I'm carryin' a torch (alright)

Baby you're the keeper of the flame
And you burn so bright
Why, why, why, why, why, why

Don't we re-connect
And move on further, into the light

Cause I'm carryin' a torch (yeah)
Cause I'm carryin' a torch (yeah)

Van Morrison, 'Carrying A Torch'

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A Note on the Dating of Beltane


Because the dating of the Celtic Beltane festival can be confusing to the general public, the following explanation is offered.


Beltane (the Celtic May Day known in Ireland as “Old May”) is a mid-Spring seasonal festival welcoming in the summer. It is celebrated (in the Northern Hemisphere) on the eve of May 1st (since the Celts marked the new day at sunset). This has become, in the modern period, the customary date on which Beltane begins. However, this festival date (like the other three “cross-quarter” festival dates on the four-spoked “Celtic Wheel of the Year”) is not a precise date on our solar calendar. This has to do with calendrical changes; (a) the change from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar and (b) the Celtic use of a lunisolar calendar. Thus, the dates of the festival are different depending on which Celtic country it's celebrated in. For example, in Ireland Beltane began the evening of the 11th of May, while Scotland it was commonly celebrated on the 15th of May. Before the use of calendars, it is said that many Paleo-Celtic peoples celebrated Beltane when the first pinky-white blossoms of the sacred hawthorn tree (also known as “the May”) blossomed during this month in Ireland and the British Isles.


Again, these different calendar dates marking the time of Beltane are due to various calendrical changes down through the centuries. However, besides the “Fixed Date” on the calendar (“Calendar Beltane”), there is a second method of dating, which is the “Astrological Date” and is called “True Beltane,” because it’s astronomically accurate. Thus, the calendar date of Beltane is not the same as its astrological date. Beltane in this astrological calculation occurs when the Sun is at 15° Taurus, the exact astronomical midpoint between the Spring Equinox and Summer Solstice, or the full moon nearest this point. (This means that Beltane is not just a day in duration, because in astrology a date is never just a date but a degree of the Zodiac. Thus, the celebration of Beltane was not traditionally just one day, as it is now customarily celebrated. Historically, in many locales the celebration of either Beltane or May Day lasted anywhere from a few days to a couple of weeks and, it some locales, an entire month, thus the famous British appellation: “The Merrie, Merrie Month of May.”) Hence, the “True Beltane” falls around May 4th eve and May 5th, but even this can vary from year to year. (It should be mentioned that there is also “Astronomical Beltane,” which occurs when the constellation Pleiades can be seen on the dawn horizon. It is said that the ancient Celts, who were well-versed in astronomy, would have been aware of changes to the stars that heralded a change in seasons. Thus, they knew the time of Beltane was near when they saw the rising of the constellation Pleiades on the dawn horizon. The Pleiades are also known as the Seven Sisters and the first born and most beautiful of the Sisters is named “Maia,” from whom the month of May is named.)


That said, trying to pin down the “real” date of when the ancient Celts celebrated Beltane is impossible. However, since the Celtic year was based on both lunar and solar cycles (a lunisolar calendar), it is possible that the holiday was celebrated on the full moon nearest the midpoint between the Spring Equinox and the Summer Solstice; i.e., the full moon of Taurus as it passes through Scorpio. (The first full moon in May is called “Lunar Beltane.”) This astrological date has long been considered a “power point” of the Zodiac. Again, this date, like all astrologically determined dates, may vary by a day or two depending on the year. However, it may be calculated by determining the date on which the sun is at 15° Taurus, usually around May 5th. Therefore, astrologically calculated, Beltane occurs in the mid-point of Taurus, when the Sun reaches 15° degrees Taurus. (It should be pointed out that the “Fixed Date” was a later development in calculating when to celebrate Beltane. The early Celts used their Coligney calendar, a lunisolar calendar, which was different from our Gregorian calendar. Prior to this, because of the change from the Roman Julian to the Gregorian calendar, Beltane fell on May 13th or 14th. Actually, there is nothing astronomically significant about the May 1st date, nor was it significant to the ancient Celts, since it’s based on the Gregorian calendar which was only invented in 1582 CE., when Pope Gregory XIII moved the date backwards by 11 days in most European countries. Overnight, May 12th became May 1st. To add to the complication of the dating of Beltane, England and America did not adopt the Gregorian calendar until 1752. Furthermore, in Medieval and Renaissance times, these Beltane celebrations took place 11 to 15 days later in the season, at a time when the weather was noticeably warmer, dryer, and when many more spring flowers bloomed.)


Concerning the astrological dating of Beltane (“True Beltane,” May 4th or 5th) Celtic folklorists call it Beltane O.S. for “Old Style” and neopagan Wiccans often refer to this date as “Old Beltane.” (The neopagan or Wiccan calendar is closely intertwined with astrology.) However, within the neopagan community there are different schools of thought about when exactly Beltane is supposed to be celebrated. Furthermore, even if there were general agreement on the “Fixed Date“ of May 1st, discrepancies in the actual time of celebration arise because of convenience only. Hence, one can find this or that neopagan group celebrating on a weekend before or after May 1st, if Beltane falls on a weekday.

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Beltane on the Celtic Wheel of the Year

In ancient Celtic times, the four-spoked Wheel of the Year honored the turning of the seasons in the Northern Hemisphere. (The modern, Neo-Pagan Wheel of the Year is eight-spoked, adding the two equinoxes and two solstices.) These four major seasonal points on the Wheel of the Year are known as “cross-quarter” days and recognized by the ancient Celts as “Gates of Power” and, therefore, magical times. Still celebrated today for their imaginal power, these “fire festival” days are Samhain, Imbolc, Beltane, and Lughnasadh. These were traditionally celebrated on the calendar “Fixed Dates” of the eve of October 1st, February 1st, May 1st, and August 1st respectively. There are also the precise “Astrological Dates” of the festivals, which were periods when the sun was at the midpoint of the fixed signs; i.e., Scorpio, Aquarius, Taurus, and Leo. They always occur when the Sun is at the midpoint of 15º of a fixed sign. (For more information on the complex methods of the dating of Beltane, see my accompanying “A Note on the Dating of Beltane.”) 

The ancient Celtic peoples found the mid-point of the fixed signs to be magical and called them the “Gates of Power,” the most potent moments for transformation. Astrologically speaking, the Beltane “Gate of Power” occurs in the mid-point of the Earth-sign Taurus, which technically occurs either May 4th or May 5th when the Sun reaches 15 º Taurus. Beltane falls exactly between Spring Equinox and Summer Solstice, with the Sun in Taurus, exactly at the opposite end of the ceremonial year to Samhain (our Halloween) and celebrates life as Samhain honors death. (This is because to ancient Celts divided the year into two basic seasons, the dark half and the light half. The dark half began with Samhain and the light half with Beltane. More on this will be found below.)


It is said that the ancient Celts called the cross-quarter festival “Beltane” (or Beltaine), from the ancient word for “bright fire” which honored the god Bel, the god of solar light. Thus, Beltane is sometimes literally translated as “bright” or “brilliant fire,” and is supposed to refer to the bonfires lit by a presiding Druid in honor of a proto-Celtic god variously known as Bel, or Belenos. (The actual translation of the word is debatable. Scholars agree that taine or teine means “fire” because the word is used to express fire today in both the Scottish and Irish Gaelic languages. The first syllable, Beal or Bel is not clearly defined. One theory is that the festival is named after the Celtic god Bel, also known as Beli, or Belenus. While the second part of Irish Beltaine and Scottish Bealtuinn dearly means “fire,” from the old Celtic word teine, linguists are uncertain as to whether Bel refers to Belenos, the Gaulish Apollo, or is simply derived from bel, meaning “brilliant.” Another theory says it might even derive from bil tene, or “lucky fire,” because the jump between two Beltaine fires was sure to bring good fortune, health to your livestock, and prosperity. However, most scholars agree that the old Irish “Beletene” means “bright fire.” Therefore, “Beltaine” probably means “fires of Bel.” Beal, the Gaelic word for “shining one” or “brilliant,” gives Beltane the meaning of “brilliant fire.” The Gaelic “Bealtaine” means the month of May.)

In Irish Gaelic the month is known as Bealtaine and the festival as Lá Bealtaine (“day of Bealtaine” or, “May Day”). In Scottish Gaelic the month is known as either an Cèitean or a' Mhàigh and the festival is known as Latha Bealltainn or simply Bealltainn.  As an ancient Gaelic festival, Bealtaine was celebrated in Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man.  There were similar festivals held at the same time in the other Celtic countries of Wales, Brittany, and Cornwall. Due to the change from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar, Bealltainn in Scotland was commonly celebrated on the 15th of May while in Ireland Sean Bhealtain / “Old May” began about the night of the 11th of May.  The lighting of bonfires on Oidhche Bhealtaine (“the eve of Bealtaine”) on mountains and hills of ritual and political significance was one of the main activities of the festival. In modern Scottish Gaelic, Latha Buidhe Bealtuinn (“the yellow day of Bealltain”) is used to describe the first day of May. This term Lá Buidhe Bealtaine is also used in Irish and is translated as “Bright May Day.” In Ireland it is referred to in a common folk tale as Luan Lae Bealtaine; the first day of the week (Monday/Luan) is added to emphasize the first day of summer. 

However, astrologically speaking, the May 5th date has long been considered a “power point” of the Zodiac and is symbolized by one of the four main symbols of the constellations, Taurus the Bull. Astrologers know these four figures as the symbols of the four fixed signs of the Zodiac (Scorpio, Aquarius Taurus, Leo), and these naturally align with the four “Great Sabbats” of the neopagan religion of Wicca. Some say that wherever one is in the world and whatever tradition one follows this date is still a “power point,” celebrated many places in the Latin world; for example, as Cinco de Mayo, May Day and other holidays.

For the ancient Celts, time was circular rather than linear, and their calendar was both solar and lunar (i.e., lunisolar). This is reflected in their commencing each day, and each festival, at sunset rather than dawn, a custom comparable with that of the Jewish Sabbath. Caesar confirms this by an explanation in his Conquest of Gaul: “The Gauls claim all to be descended from Father Dis (a god of death, darkness, and the underworld), declaring that this is the tradition preserved by the Druids. For this reason, they measure periods of time not by days but by nights; and in celebrating birthdays, the first of the month, and New Year’s day, they go on the principle that the day begins at night.”  (Gauls were ancient Celtic tribes of what is now France, Luxembourg, Belgium, most of Switzerland, and parts of Northern Italy, the Netherlands, and Germany.) 

Thus, traditionally beginning on the night of May 1st (April 30th), Beltane is a mid-Spring festival about rebirth after the cold and dark of winter and the sprouting season of early spring, when plants are coming out of the ground, and young animals are being born. Anticipating the summer, it is a time to celebrate the rebirth of life, growth, love, and sexuality: “the force that drives the green fuse through the flower,” in the words of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas.

Of the four great cross-quarter festivals that turn the Celtic Wheel of the Year, the two greatest of these are said to be Samhain (October 1st) at the beginning of winter, and Beltane (May 1st, or May Day), the beginning of summer. Being opposite each other on the Celtic Wheel of the Year, they separate the year into halves, the dark and light halves. Samhain is recognized by some folklorists as the “Celtic New Year” (since the Celts marked the new year beginning with the dark half of the year and, concomitantly, recognized the new day beginning with the sunset) and is generally considered the more important of the two, though Beltane runs a close second. Indeed, in some areas (notably Wales) it is considered “the great holiday.” According to Celtic folklorists and neopagans, the ancient Celts were attuned to the time cycles of seasonal changes. They believed that Samhain is a good time to become more introspective and plant the seeds of new projects, allowing them to germinate over the winter months. On the other hand, they believed that Beltane is a time to embark on projects requiring courage and energy. It was a time for feasts and fairs, for the exuberant mating of not only the animals but also for people. And, like Samhain, because the veil between the worlds was at its thinnest, it was a time for travel between the worlds, from this world to the “Otherworld” (the realm of the Si or faerie folk). Beltane was also a magical time when the legendary poet Taliesin is said to manifest. Harsh climates throughout Europe and elsewhere in the Northern Hemisphere, compounded by lack of food, supplies, and medicine, provided long and challenging months. Surviving these winter conditions of hardship with one’s life intact in the warmth and renewal of spring was indeed something to celebrate. On the eve of the “fire festival” of Beltane, bonfires were lit throughout the land to invoke protection for the crops and for the purification of farm animals for the coming year.

“. . . 

Gotta get through January

Gotta get through February

Gotta get through January

Gotta get through February

Gotta get through January

Spring in my heart 

Fire in my belly too 

I come apart 

I don't know just what to do 

Got a heart and a mind

And a fire inside

And I'm crazy about you . . . ”

~ Van Morrison, “Fire In The Belly”

Anchor 8

The Troubadour Genre of the Alba & the Kalenda Maya

"Kalenda Maya" by Raimbaut de Vaqueiras

Kalends of May
Nor leafy spray
Nor songs of birds, nor flowers gay
Please me today
My Lady, nay,
Lest there’s a fine message I pray
From your loveliness, to relay
The pleasures new love and joy may
And I’ll play
For you, true lady, I say,
And lay
By the way
The jealous ones, ere I go away.

My belle amie
Let it not be
That any man scorns me from jealousy,
He’d pay me,
Dearly indeed
If lovers were parted by such as he;
Never would I live happily,
No happiness without you I see;
I’d flee
Run free
No man would find me readily;
An end
Of me,
Fine Lady, were you lost utterly.

How could I lose her
Replace her ever
Any fine Lady, before I had her?
No beloved or lover
Is just a dreamer;
When he’s a lover, no more a suitor,
He has accrued a signal honour,
A sweet glance produces such colours;
Yet I here
Have never
Held you naked, nor any other;
Longed for,
Lived for,
You without pay, I have though, forever.

Should we part ever,
Sorrowful, my Beautiful Warrior,
For my heart never
Seems to deliver
Me from desire
Nor slakes it further;
Gives pleasure only to the slanderer
He, my lady, who finds no other
Joy, the man there
Who’d feel my utter
Loss, and thanks would offer,
And consider
Insolent starer
You, the one from whom I suffer.

Flowers so kindly,
Over all brightly,
Noble Beatrice, and grows so sweetly
Your Honour to me;
For as I see,
Value adorns your sovereignty,
And, to be sure, the sweetest speech;
Of gracious deeds you are the seed;
You have: and great learning truly;
Decked, with your generosity.

Lady so graced,
All acclaimed and have praised
Your worth with pleasure freighted;
Who forgets, instead,
May as well be dead,
I adore, you, the ever-exalted;
Since you have the kindest head,
And are best, and the worthiest bred,
I’ve flattered
I’ve served
More truly than Érec Énida.
Words are fled,
All is said,
Sweet Engles – my estampida.

Anonymous (10th Century) 


With pale Phoebus, in the clear east, not yet bright,

aurora sheds, on earth, ethereal light:

While the watchman, to the idle, cries: ‘Arise!’


Dawn now breaks; sunlight rakes the swollen seas;

Ah, alas! It is he!  See there, the shadows pass!


Behold, the heedless, torpid, yearn to try

And block the insidious entry, there they lie,

Whom the herald summons urging them to rise.


Dawn now breaks; sunlight rakes the swollen seas;

Ah, alas! It is he!  See there, the shadows pass!


From Arcturus, the North Wind soon separates.

The star about the Pole conceals its bright rays.

Towards the east the Plough its brief journey makes.


Dawn now breaks; sunlight rakes the swollen seas;

Now, alas! It is he!



Giraut de Bornelh  (c. 1138 - c.1215)


Glorious King, true light and clarity,

Lord God all powerful, if it please Thee, 

help my companion faithfully, for I 

have not seen him since night came on, 

 and soon it will be dawn. 


Fair companion, do you sleep or wake? 

Sleep no more, but get up gently, 

for in the East the morning star rises, 

bringing day—l can see it clearly—

 and soon it will be dawn. 


Fair companion, I call to you in song: 

sleep no more, for the birds sing too, 

seeking daylight through the woods, 

and I fear some jealous fool might come, 

 for soon it will be dawn. 


Fair companion, come to the window 

and look at the stars in the heavens! 

You shall see I’m a faithful messenger; 

you must, or harm will come to you, 

 for soon it will be dawn.


Fair companion, I have not slept 

since I left you, but remained on my knees 

praying God, the son of Saint Mary,

to bring back your loyal companionship; 

 now soon it will be dawn. 


Fair companion, outside on the stairs 

you begged me not to be drowsy 

but to watch all night till day came, 

and now my song and presence displease you, 

 yet soon it will be dawn! 


Fair sweet companion, so rich is my delight 

that I wish dawn and day would never come, 

for the gentlest lady ever born of mother 

I now hold in my arms; what then care I 

 for jealous fools or dawn! 


[This well-known alba is identified by the title Reis Glorios, “Glorious King”.]



Raimbaut de Vaqueiras (c. 1155 - c. 1207)


Keep a watch, watchman there, on the wall,

While the best, loveliest of them all

 I have with me until the dawn.

 For the day comes without our call,

  New joys all,

  Lost to the dawn,

 The dawn, oh, the dawn!


Watch, friend, watch there, and call and cry,

I’m rich indeed, all I wish have I.

 But now I’m vexed by the dawn,

 And the sorrows, that day brings nigh,

  Make me sigh,

  More than the dawn

 The dawn, oh, the dawn!


Keep a watch, watchman there, on the tower,

For your lord: jealously he holds power,

 He’s more vexing than the dawn:

 While words of love we speak here.

  But our fear

  Comes with the dawn,

 The dawn, oh, the dawn!


Lady, adieu! No longer dare I stay;

Despite my wish, I must be away.

 Yet heavily weighs the dawn,

 How soon we’ll see the day;

  To betray

  Us, wills the dawn,

 The dawn, oh, the dawn!


[An alternative translation has the second stanza read: “Stand sentinel, my friend, and keep watch and cry out and shout, for l am rich, and I have what I most desire. But I am dawn’s enemy, and the swindle that the day works on us displeases me more than the dawn.”] 



Anonymous Albas (12th - 13th Century)


 (Translation #1)


In a deep bower under a hawthorn-tree

The lady clings to her lover closely,

Till the watchman cries the dawn he sees,

Ah, God, Ah, God, the dawn! Is here so soon.


‘Please God, now, night fail us not cruelly,

Nor my friend be parted far from me,

Nor day nor dawn, let the watchman see!

Ah, God, Ah, God, the dawn! Is here so soon.


Fine gentle friend, let us kiss, you and I,

Down in the meadow, where sweet birds sigh,

And all to each other, despite jealous eye.

Ah, God, Ah, God, the dawn! Is here so soon.


Fine gentle friend, we’ll have sweet loving,

In the garden, where the small birds sing,

Till the watch his pipe sets echoing,

Ah, God, Ah, God, the dawn! Is here so soon.


Out of the sweet air that rises from my

Dear friend who’s noble, handsome, and bright,

By his breath I’m touched, like a ray of light.’

Ah, God, Ah, God, the dawn! Is here so soon.


The lady’s delightful and greatly pleases

Her beauty draws to her many gazes,

Yet in her heart love loyally blazes,

Ah, God, Ah, God, the dawn! Is here so soon.


 (Translation #2)


Within a bower, ’neath the mayflowers white,

Lovers dreamed away the livelong night, 

Until the watcher cries the East grows light.

Ah God, ah God, the dawn, how soon it comes!


“Would God the night might never yield to morn, 

And that my love might leave me not forlorn, 

And that the watcher ne’er might see the dawn. 

God, ah God, the dawn, how soon it comes!


“Beloved, when I kiss thee, kiss thou me, 

While in the fields the birds make melody; 

Let us do this in spite of jealousy. 

Ah God, ah God, the dawn, how soon it comes! 


Beloved, let us dream together here, 

Within the garden, where the birds sing clear, 

Until the watcher warns us day is near. 

Ah God, ah God, the dawn, how soon it conies!


“Sweet is the breeze that wafts to me the kiss 

Of my fair joyous love, and it is bliss 

To drink his sweet breath with my lips like this. 

Ah God, ah God, the dawn, how soon it comes!”


Gentle the lady is, and courteous too,

And many men her beauty love to view;

Her heart is given to faithful love and true.

Ah God, ah God, the dawn, how soon it comes!” 




When the nightingale  sings away

To his mate both night and day

My true love and I are lying

 ‘Mid the flowers,

Till the watchman on the tower

Cries loudly: Lovers, now arise!

I see the dawn, and day’s clear skies.




The Calends, Latin Kalendae, corresponded to the first days of each month of the Roman calendar, signifying the start of the new moon cycle. The troubadours’ spring celebrations of kalenda maia and their courtly worship of ‘the lady’ probably drew on remnants of pre-Christian worship. Ezra Pound mentions Kalenda Maya in Canto CXIII.

Engles is Boniface Marquess of Montferrat (ca. 1150-1207), leader of the Fourth Crusade, called here Engles, the ‘Englishman’, for some unknown reason. Beatrice was his eldest daughter.

Beatrice is probably Boniface’s daughter Biatrix. The vida claims that Raimbaut spied on Beatrice in her shift practicing with her husband’s sword, after which he called her his Bel Cavalier.

Érec et Énide is Chrétien de Troyes’ first romance, completed around 1170 and the earliest known Arthurian work in Old French. It tells the tale of Érec, one of Arthur’s knights, and the conflict between love and knighthood he experiences in his marriage to Énide.

The Estampida, a medieval dance and musical form called the estampie in French, and istampitta (also istanpitta or stampita) in Italian was a popular instrumental style of the 13th and 14th centuries. The earliest reported example of the musical form is this song Kalenda Maya, supposedly written to the melody of an estampida played by French jongleurs. All other known examples are purely instrumental pieces.

Anchor 9

The "Nature Introductions" of Troubadour Poetry


The exordium and reverdie ("greening") were terms used to describe the nature introductions of troubadour love poems (cansos) dealing with spring and summer.

Guillaume de Poitiers (1071 - 1127)



Out of the sweetness of the spring,

The branches leaf, the small birds sing,

Each one chanting in its own speech,

Forming the verse of its new song,

Then is it good a man should reach

For that for which he most does long.


From finest sweetest place I see

No messenger, no word for me,

So my heart can’t laugh or rest,

And I don’t dare try my hand,

Until I know, and can attest,

That all things are as I demand.


This love of ours it seems to be

Like a twig on a hawthorn tree

That on the tree trembles there

All night, in rain and frost it grieves,

Till morning, when the rays appear

Among the branches and the leaves.


So the memory of that dawn to me

When we ended our hostility,

And a most precious gift she gave,

Her loving friendship and her ring:

Let me live long enough, I pray,

Beneath her cloak my hand to bring.


I’ve no fear that tongues too free

Might part me from Sweet Company,

I know with words how they can stray

In gossip, yet that’s a fact of life:

No matter if others boast of love,

We have the loaf, we have the knife!




Since we see, fresh flowers blowing

Field and meadow greenly glowing,

Stream and fountain crystal flowing

Fair wind and breeze,

It’s right each man should live bestowing

Joy as he please.


Of love I’ll speak nothing but good.

Why’ve I not had all that I could?

Likely I’ve had all that I should;

For readily,

It grants joy to one who’s understood

Love’s boundary….



Jaufre Rudel (fl. 1128 - 1148)




When the days are long in May,

I like a sweet song of birds from afar,

And when I choose from there to stray,

I am reminded of a love from afar;

I walk bent and bowed with desire,

And neither song nor hawthorn flower,

Can please me more than winter’s ice.


I hold the Lord for truth always

By whom was formed this love afar,

But for each good that comes my way

Two ills I find, since she’s so far.

Would I were a pilgrim at this hour,

So staff and cloak from her tower,

She’d gaze on with her lovely eyes!


What joy it will be to seek that day,

For love of God, that inn afar,

And, if she wishes, rest, I say,

Near her, though I come from afar,

For words fall in a pleasant shower

When distant lover has the power,

With gentle heart, joy to realise.


Sad, in pain, would I go away,

Should I not see that love afar.

For I don’t know when I may

See her, the distance is so far.

So many the roads and ways lower,

That indeed I can say no more,

But let all things be as she likes.


The delights of love I never may

Enjoy, if not joy of my love afar,

No finer, nobler comes my way,

From any quarter: near or far.

So rich and high is her dower,

That there in the Saracen’s tower

For her sake I would be their prize.


God that made all that goes or stays

And formed this love from afar

Grant me the power to hope one day

I’ll see this love of mine afar,

Truly, and in a pleasant hour,

So that her chamber and her bower,

Might seem a palace to my eyes.


Who calls me covetous, truth to say,

Is right, I long for a love afar,

For no other joy pleases me today

Like the joy in my love from afar.

Yet what I wish is not in my power,

It is my godfather’s curse, so sour,

That I love, yet love should be denied.


For what I wish is not in my power,

Cursed my godfather’s word so sour,

Who has ruled my love should be denied.




When the sweet fountain’s stream

Runs clear, as it used to do,

And there the wild-roses blow,

And the nightingale, on the bough,

Turns and polishes, and makes gleam

His sweet song, and refines its flow,

It’s time I polished mine, it would seem.


Oh my love, from a land afar,

My whole heart aches for you;

No cure can I find, for this no

Help but your call, I vow,

With love’s pangs sweetest by far,

In a curtained room or meadow,

Where I and the loved companion are.


I shall lack that forever though,

So no wonder at my hunger now;

For never did Christian lady seem

Fairer – nor would God wish her to –

Nor Jewess nor Saracen below.

With manna he’s fed as if in dream,

Who of her love should win a gleam!


No end to desire will my heart know

For her, whom I love most, I vow;

I fear lest my will should cheat me,

If lust were to steal her from me too.

For sharper than thorns this pain and woe

The sadness that joy heals swiftly,

For which I want no man’s pity.


Without parchment brief, I bestow

On Filhol the verses I sing now,

In the plain Romance tongue, that he

May take them to Uc le Brun, anew.

They rejoice in it, I’m pleased to know,

In Poitou, and in Berry,

In Guyenne, and Brittany.



Marcabru (fl. 1129 - 1149)


By the orchard stream,

Where the grass grows green

Near the bank beneath

The shade of a fruit tree,

Surrounded flowers all white,

Where spring sang its melody,

I met alone without company

One who wishes not my solace.


She was a maiden, beautiful,

Daughter of the lord of that castle;

But when I thought the songbirds, 

The verdure and the gentle 

Springtime would bring her joy 

And that she would hear me out, 

She suddenly became transformed.


Her tears flowed, the fountain beside,

And from her heart her prayer sighed.

‘Jesus, King of the World,’ she cried,

‘Through you my grief is at its height,

Insult to you confounds me, I

Lose the best of this world wide:

He goes to serve and win your grace.


With you goes my handsome friend,

The gentle, noble, and brave I send;

Into great sorrow I must descend,

Endless longing, and tears so bright.

Ai! King Louis to ill did tend

Who gave the order and command,

That brought such grief to my heart’s space!’


When I heard her so, complaining,

I went to her, by fountain’s flowing:

‘Lady,’ I said ‘with too much crying

Your face will lose its colour quite;

And you’ve no reason yet for sighing,

For he who makes the birds to sing,

Will grant you joy enough apace.’


‘My lord,’ she said, ‘I do believe

That God will have mercy on me

In another world eternally,

And many other sinners delight;

But here he takes the thing from me

That is my joy; small joy I see

Now that he’s gone so far away.’ 

Cercamon (fl. 1137 - 1152)


When the sweet air turns bitter,

And leaves fall from the branch,

And birds their singing alter

Still I, of him, sigh and chant,

Amor, who keeps me closely bound,

He that I never had in my power.


Alas! I gained nothing from Amor

But only had pain and torment,

For nothing is as hard to conquer

As that on which my desire is bent!

No greater longing have I found,

Than for that which I’ll lack ever.


In a jewel I rejoice, in her

So fine, no other’s felt my intent!

When I’m with her I dumbly stutter,

Cannot utter my words well meant,

And when we part I seem drowned,

Loss of all sense and reason suffer.


All the ladies a man saw ever

Compared to her aren’t worth a franc!

When on earth the shadows gather,

Where she rests, all is brilliant.

Pray God I’ll soon with her be wound,

Or watch her as she mounts the stair.


I startle and I shake and shiver

Awake, asleep, on Love intent,

So afraid that I might wrong her,

I don’t dare ask for what I meant,

But two or three years’ service downed,

Then she’ll know the truth I offer.


I live nor die, nor am made better

Nor feel my sickness though intense,

Since with her Love I want no other,

Nor know if I’ll have it or when,

For in her mercy does all abound,

That can destroy me or deliver.


It pleases me when she makes me madder,

Makes me muse, or in gaping rent!

It’s fine if she plays the scorner

Laughs in my face, or at fingers’ end,

For, after the bad, the good will sound,

And swiftly, should that be her pleasure.


If she wants me not, I’d rather

I’d died the day my service commenced!

Ah, alas! So sweet she did murder

Me, when she gave her Love’s assent,

And tied me with such knots around,

That I desire to see no other.


All anxiously I delight in her,

For whether I fear or court her then

Is up to her; or be false or truer,

Trick her, or prove all innocent,

Or courteous or vile be found,

Or in torment, or take my leisure.


But, who it may please or who astound,

She may, if she wants, retain me there.


Say I: scarce courteous is he crowned,

The man who shall of Love despair.



Guiraut de Bornelh (c.1138 - c. 1215)


When the cold with its ice and snow 

Departs and the warm weather returns 

Bringing on spring verdure, 

When I hear the birds trill, 

I so love the sweet time at the end of March 

That I feel more agile than a leopard, 

Livelier than a deer or chamois. 

If she to whom I’ve given myself 

Would honor me to the point of suffering 

To be her faithful lover, 

Be the richest man on earth. 


Her body is so gay and lithe, 

With such charming hues, that never 

From rose or other plant 

Did a fresher flower bloom; 

Nor would Bordeaux 

Have a more gallant lord than I 

If she would deign to receive me 

And allow me to be her serf. 

Let them call me a Bezierite if any man 

Hears me divulging secrets 

Which she privately has told me, 

Thus angering her lovely heart.


Good lady, the ring you gave me 

Has rendered great service 

In lessening my sorrows, 

And the sight of it makes me happier than a starling; 

Moreover, for you I feel such courage 

That I am sure neither lance nor dart 

Nor steel nor iron could harm me. 

Yet, through excessive love

I feel as lost ship driven from its course, 

Lashed by wind and waves—

Thus do my thoughts afflict me….


And you, True Love, be kind 

 (for you should keep lovers from committing follies) 

And guide me, leading me towards

The lady who has conquered me.


Messenger, take this new song 

Bear it with all speed to that 

Lovely lady, source of all wealth, 

Tell her that I am hers even more 

Than her own cloak.

Bertran de Born (c. 1140 - c. 1215)




The joyful springtime pleases me

That makes the leaves and flowers appear,

I’m pleased to hear the merriment

Of birds as they make their song 

 resound through the woods; 

And I’m pleased when I see the green fields 

Covered with tents and pavilions; 

 and great is my joy 

When the countryside is lined

Knights and horses in armor…. 




When I see lilies yellow, violet and blue 

Coming into bud throughout the orchards, 

The voice of the birds soothes me, 

And the melodies the minstrels sing 

As they go agreeably playing their fiddles 

And singing their verses high and clear; 

Then I want to compose a song for my lady to hear....


Raimbaut de Vaqueiras  (c. 1155 - c. 1207)


Deep waves that roll, travelling the sea,

That high winds, here and there, set free,

What news of my love do you bring to me?

What passes there? Never his ship, I see.


And ah, God of Amour!

Now you bring joy, and now dolour.


Ah, sweet breeze, from there, true, you sigh,

Where my love joys, sleeps, and suspires.

A sip of his sweet breath for me, send by.

My lips are parted, so deep my desires.


And ah, God of Amour!

Now you bring joy, and now dolour.


False love he makes, slave of a far country,

Now laughter and jests turn to misery.

I’d not dreamed my friend would ask of me

That I grant him such love as he did seek.


And ah, God of Amour!

Now you bring joy, and now dolour.

Arnaut de Mareuil (fl. 1171 - 1195)


It’s sweet when the breeze blows softly,

As April turns into May,

And in tranquil night above me,

Sing the nightingale and jay.


When each bird in his sweet language,

In the freshness of the morn

Sings, joyful of his advantage,

At ease with his mate, at dawn.


As all things on earth have joy so,

Are happy when leaves appear,

Then I’ll recall a love I know

And rejoice in all the year.


By past usage and by nature,

It seems now that I must turn

Where soft winds revive the creature,

And heart must dream and yearn.


Whiter she is than Helen was,

The loveliest flower of May,

Full of courtesy, sweet lips she has,

And ever true word does say.


Open-hearted, her manner free,

Fresh colour and golden hair,

God who grants her all sovereignty

Preserve her, the best is there.


I’d be blessed, if she’d not treat me

To endless quarrelling here,

But grant me a kiss discretely

For my service costs me dear.


Then we’d go on a brief journey,

Often, a fine short play;

For her sweet body has led me

Willingly on that way.



Bernart de Ventadorn (fl. 1145 - 1175)


So full is my heart of joy now,

All is changed for me.

Flowering red, white, and yellow,

The winter seems to be,

For, with the wind and rain, so

My fortune’s bright I see,

My songs they rise, and grow

My worth proportionately.

Such love in my heart I find,

Such joy and sweetness mine,

Ice turns to flowers fine

And snow to greenery.


I go without my clothes now,

One thin shirt for me,

For noble love protects now

From the chilly breeze.

But he’s mad who’ll not follow

Custom and harmony,

So I’ve taken care I vow

Since I sought to be

Lover of loveliest,

To be with honour blest:

Of her riches I’d not divest

For Pisa, for Italy.


From her friendship I’m severed

Yet my faith’s so in place,

That I can barely counter

The beauty of her face.

I cannot hope to wed here

Such happiness and grace,

On the day when I see her

Weightlessness I taste.

To Love my heart’s as near

As body to spirit clear,

Though she is far from here,

Fair France where I am placed.


I’m full of hope that’s true now.

But that’s little use to me,

She holds me in suspense I vow

Like a ship upon the sea.

From sad thoughts that follow,

I cannot win free.

Each night, head on pillow,

I turn fretfully.

More pain of love I suffer

Than Tristan the lover,

Who felt much dolour

For Iseult, her beauty.


Oh God were I a swallow

Flying through the air,

Rising from the depths below

Where I now despair.

Sweet and joyous lady, know

Without your loving, there,

I die, my heart it breaks so

The pulse is scarcely there.

My lady for your grace

I clasp my hands and pray

Lithe body and fresh face,

Have brought me many a care.


The world and its affairs

Could not absorb me so,

That when men spoke of her

My heart it would not glow,

My face not brighten there.

When I speak of her also

You’ll quickly judge I care

Seeing my laughter grow.

My love for her’s so deep

Often too I must weep,

So that my sighs taste sweet

Sweeter for tears they share.


Messenger, go now, fleet

Of foot, tell those you meet

Of all the pain and grief

It brings, the suffering I bear.




When flowers are in the leaves green

And the sky’s serene and clear,

And the song of birds rings keen,

Sweetening my heart, as I wake here,

Then since birds sing with their art

I who have greater joy at heart,

Must sing true, since my daily bread

Is joy and song, all that’s in my head.


She whom I want most on this earth,

And love the more with heart and faith,

She joys to hear and keep my words,

Gathers and stores my pleas always.

And if men die by true love’s art,

Then I must die, since in my heart

I bear her love, so true and fine,

All are false to one whom she’ll loyal find.


I know when I retire at night

That I shall barely sleep a wink.

My sleep I lose, forego it quite

For you, my lady, as I think!

And where a man hides his treasure

There will his heart reside forever.

Lady I can’t leave, if I see you not,

No sight is worth the beauty of my thought.


When I recall how I loved so

One who was false, without mercy,

I tell you such sorrow I did know

There was no path to joy for me.

Lady, for whom I sing and more,

Your lips wounded me to the core,

With a sweet kiss of love heart-true,

Grant joy, save me from mortal sorrow too.


Such as the proudest hearts may feel

When great joy or great good they see!

But I a finer spirit reveal,

And truer when God is good to me.

For when I’m on the fringes of love,

From fringe to centre then I move.

Thanks, lady: no one equals me.

I lack not, if God saves you for me.


Lady, if I should see you not,

Do not grieve more than I grieve,

Know well I see you in my heart!

He strikes at you because of me.

But if he strikes through jealousy,

Take care the heart he cannot reach.

If he vex you, annoy him too,

Then he’ll not win good for ill from you.


God, guard my Sweet-Sight from harm

Whether I’m near to her or far.

God, my lady and Sweet-Sight save,

That’s all I wish, no more I crave.



When the greenery unfolds

And the branch is white with flower,

With sweet birdsong in that hour

My heart gently onward goes.

When I see the blossoming trees

And hear the nightingale in song,

Then how can a man go wrong,

Who chooses loving and is pleased.

For I have one I’ve chosen

Who gives me strength and joy.


And if all the world now holds –

All those under heaven’s power,

Were gathered in some sweet bower,

I’d only wish for one I know.

Only she my heart can please,

Who makes me sigh all day long,

So at night my sleep is gone,

Not that I desire to sleep.

She, the slender dainty one,

True heart, does true speech employ.


If I were brought to her stronghold,

Prisoned by her in some tower,

And daily ate my morsel sour,

Happily I’d there grow old,

If my desire she granted me!

She should try to do no wrong:

If she made me yearn too long,

Neither life nor death I’d see:

Life for me as good as done,

While there with death I’d sadly toy.




When fresh leaves and shoots appear,

And the blossom gleams on the bough,

And the nightingale high and clear

Raises his voice, and sings aloud,

I joy in him, and enjoy the flowers,

And joy in my lady and I, for hours;

By joy on all sides I’m caught and bound,

But this is joy, and all other joys drowned.


Alas, how I die of musing deeply!

Many a time I’m so deep in thought,

Ruffians could abduct me, neatly,

And of the business I’d know naught.

By God, Love, you find me an easy matter,

With few friends, and no other master.

Why did you not constrain my lady

Before desire took me completely?


I marvel now how I can bear

Not to reveal to her my longing.

For when I behold my lady there,

Her lovely eyes are so charming

I can scarce stop myself running to her.

And so I would, were it not for fear,

For never has one so shaped and made

For love such diffidence displayed.


I love my lady and hold her dear,

And dread her, and respect her so,

I never dare speak of myself for fear,

Nor seek anything, nor ask aught, no;

Yet she knows of my pain and dolour,

And, when it pleases her, does me honour,

And, when it pleases her, I do with less,

So no reproach worsens my distress.


If I could work the enchanter’s spell,

I’d make children of all my foes,

So none could ever spy or tell,

Nor do aught that might harm us both.

Then I’d know I’d see my noble one,

Her sweet eyes, fresh complexion,

And kiss her mouth in such a way

It would show for a month and a day.


It would be sweet to find her alone,

While she slept, or pretended to,

Then a sweet kiss I’d make my own,

Since I’m not worthy to ask for two.

By God, lady, little of love we’ve won!

Time goes by, and the best is done.

We need secret signs, you and I:

Boldness fails, so let cunning try!


A man should blame his lady indeed,

When she deters him from loving,

For endless talk about love may breed

Boredom, and set deception weaving.

For one can love and lie elsewhere,

And lie all the more smoothly where

There’s no proof. Good lady deign

To love me, and I’ll not lie or feign.


Go, messenger, no less esteem me

If I’m afraid to go see my lady.


Arnaut Daniel (fl. 1180 - 1210)


I see scarlet; green, blue, white, yellow

Garden, close, hill, valley and field,

And songs of birds echo and ring

In sweet accord, at evening and dawn:

They urge my heart to depict in song

Such a flower that its fruit will be amour,

And joy the seed, and the scent a foil to sadness.


The fire of Love burns in my thoughts so

That desire, always sweet and deep,

And its pains a certain savour bring,

And gentler its flame the more the passion:

For Love requires his friends to belong

To truth, frankness, faith, mercy and more,

For, at his court, pride fails while flattery’s harmless.


I’m not altered by time and place though

Or what fate, advice, good or bad, may yield;

And if I give you the lie in anything

Never let her look on me night or morn,

She’s in my heart, day-long and night-long,

Whom I’d not wish to lack (for false is the call)

On those shores where Alexander once proved ruthless.


Often my boredom without her I show

And I wish to tell, not leave concealed,

Of her at least some part of this thing,

Since my heart never wavers or is torn:

Since of aught else I never think for long,

Since of what’s good I know she’s best of all,

Seen in my heart, in Puglia or Flanders’ fastness.


I’d wish simply to be her cook and, lo,

Thus receive such wages in that field

I’d live more than twenty years a king,

She makes me so happy, never forlorn:

Such a fool am I: for what do I long?

For I want none of those riches, not all

That Meander and Tigris enclose with all their vastness.


Amongst others I feign the status quo,

While the day seems tedium congealed:

And it grieves me the God of Everything

Won’t let me cut short the time I mourn,

Since lovers languish, waiting over-long:

Moon and Sun your course begins to pall!

It grieves me your light so seldom yields to blackness.


Now go to her, my song, to her I belong,

For Arnaut cannot show her treasures all,

Much greater wit he’d need to reveal her richness.


Peire Vidal (c. 1183 – c. 1205)


Though spring’s glorious

Lovely and sweet,

I’m not complete,

Painful defeat

Is mine today,

Through her who holds my heart in play;

So I prize not April or May,

For she blithely turns away

One I honour and love always.

And if I’ve lost my songs so sweet

Those fair words and fine melodies,

I used to make when love was there,

Happiness is I know not where.


Not once have I thus

Broken accord,

Order ignored,

Unless I’m floored,

Too low to grace

Her lovely body’s dwelling place;

So I fear slanderers have their say,

Who cause ladies and lovers dismay,

Lower us, and drive all joy away,

And each and every way harm me.

Yet, as I hide my love cleverly,

My worth shall seem more than it is;

Still, opportunity I miss.


No Greek among us

Has dealt such pain

Cruelty plain,

I would maintain,

As that I’ve seen:

In such misery and fear I’ve been,

My eyes scarcely move it seems

When I see her, fear so extreme,

Sweet, gracious words lacking I mean.

Since with pleasure I’m out of tune,

And nothing can I force her to,

For I know that I’ll win nothing,

Except by praising, and by loving.


People and rivers

I’ve sung their praise

Five hundred ways,

All of my days,

To those who treat me

Worse than they could, though you’d agree

They’ll hear nothing but good from me.

And if I wished them to fare badly,

Then I could, may God preserve me,

Show pride and scorn towards them too;

It’s not in my power so to do,

For at a smile and a glance,

I forget sorry circumstance.


Yet now it’s grievous,


Death’s my portion,

Sense and reason

Flee in the night;

Not one song I write,

I’ve lost the power to rhyme aright.

And since I’ve neither heart nor might,

How should I sing or find delight?

For from her there’s no response,

And when I seek an amorous song,

It flies off, there’s none to hear me:

See then how you must persuade me!


Ashamed among us

One’s always grave,

Yet mercies save,

And orders brave

From heart that’s true,

Bring joy to lovers through and through.

And he who takes what love brings too,

Though little it grant of hope’s fine brew,

Cannot fail to find pleasures new

And in fresh joy rich recompense:

So that I praise the honours sent,

The gifts, neck, hands that make me kiss,

My remedy for all amiss.


My Vierna, bitter it is,

The sight of you I often miss.


Lord Agout, though scant praise is this,

You’ll gild my song, such as it is.

Sordello (fl. 1220 - 1265)


Alas, what use are my eyes
If they see not what I prize?

Though summer renew and adorn
Itself with leaf and flower
Yet however I sing and mourn,
She, the lady of pleasure,
Cares not for my prayers forlorn,
I’ll sing, I’ll die a lover,
So loving her, dusk to dawn,
For little do I see her.

Alas, what use are my eyes
If they see not what I prize?

Although love cause me to sigh,
I’ll not complain of a thing;
For the noblest, I choose to die,
Though evil for good may sting,
So long as she consents that I
Hope, mercy she yet may bring,
Whatever suffering I may buy,
I’ll not claim for anything.

Alas, what use are my eyes
If they see not what I prize?

I die if her love she’ll not give,
For I cannot see or dream
Where I can turn or how I’ll live,
If she so distant seem,
No other could please I believe,
Nor make me forget, I deem;
Whatever the love I conceive
The more Love shall I esteem.

Alas, what use are my eyes
If they see not what I prize?

Ah, why does she treat me harshly?
She knows how it comforts me,
To sing, and praise one so worthy,
I’m hers, the more painfully
She exalts or abases me,
I can’t prevent it, truly,
Far from her I’d not wish to be,
Though living death is my fee.

Alas, what use are my eyes
If they see not what I prize?
So I’ll beg my sweet friend in song,
Please don’t kill me, sinfully.
If she knows it to be a wrong
When I’m dead she’ll grieve for me,
Yet I’d rather she brought death on,
Than live as her pleasure decree,
Worse than death not to see the one
Whom I love so tenderly.

Alas, what use are my eyes
If they see not what I prize

Anchor 10

The Morris & Mummers Dances


The Morris Dance was introduced into England from Spain, with a connection to the Spanish Morisco—hence the name “Morris,” or “Moorish” dance (also spelled the “moresque” or “morys”). It is a form of English folk dance usually accompanied by music. It is based on rhythmic stepping and the execution of choreographed figures by a group of dancers. The Morris Dance has its connections in pagan festivals from across Europe and beyond. In the reign of the Tudor king, Henry VIII (1509-1547), Morris dancing attained great popularity, where it formed an essential part of most rustic and parochial festivities. A common feature is that the dancers attend the needs of a pagan god who celebrates his revival after death and the dances are supposed to have magical power and bring good luck wherever they perform. Sometimes there is a Mayday procession including a man-horse, where the central figure, “Oss Oss,” is a witch doctor disguised as a horse and wearing a medicine mask. The dancers are again attendants who sing the Mayday song, beat drums, and in turn act the horse or dance. No Morris dance festival is complete without a sword dance in which the dancers weave their swords into intricate patterns.

When later the Morris Dance became associated with the May Games, the dancers frequently represented characters from the Robin Hood legend, especially Maid Marian and Friar Tuck. Thus, with the Morris Dance we again encounter that familiar character out of myth and folklore, because there seems to have been at that time two principle performers in that dance—a Robin Hood and a Maid Marian. Along with them were a friar, a piper, a fool, and the rank and file of the dancers. In Elizabethan times (mid-16th century) when bawdy seasonal fairs, such as May Day, were popular, the Morris Dance may be said to have reached the zenith of popularity. Before the English Civil War (1642–1649), the working peasantry took part in Morris Dances, especially at Whitsun, a festival of dedicated to brewing an alcoholic beverage called “Whitsun ales, and for making love in greenwood bowers. Then there was Whit Monday, the day after Whitsun, which remained a holiday in the UK until 1978 when the movable holiday was replaced with the fixed Spring Bank Holiday in late May. Whit was the occasion for varied forms of celebration, including the parades with brass bands and choirs. Traditionally, Whit fairs, sometimes called “Whitsun ales,” took place. In England, Whitsun took on some characteristics of Beltane. Whitsuntide, the week following Whitsunday, was one of three vacation weeks for the medieval serfs, when they were free from service on their lord’s manors. (Eventually, the feast called Whitsun, Whitsunday, or Whitsuntide became the celebration of Pentecost, one of the prominent feasts in the Christian liturgical year commemorating the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Christ’s disciples. This year Whitsunday, the seventh Sunday after Easter, was celebrated on May 24th.)

There is a carved oak panel from Lancaster Castle (c. 1500 CE, during the reign of Henry VII) depicting one of these Morris dances. The figures from left to right are: (1) Maid-Marion (a man dressed as a woman); (2) a taborer in cloak and feathered cap, with his flute-pipe and drum; (3) a nude girl dancer; (4,5,6) Morris-men in short coats; (7) a fool, with cap, bells, bauble or baton. (These figures can all be seen in the picture gallery.)


As regards to the moral disgust and outrage of the Puritans, we can imagine the reaction of nude Morris dancers. Several Puritan writers, including John Stockwood in his Sermon (1578) and Christopher Fetherston in his Dialogue (1582) fume “against light, lewde, and lascivious dancing” and the “greatest abuse” of all as “dancers dancing naked in nets” (which should be taken to mean some kind of semi-transparent cloth). These Puritans specifically condemn the invasion of their churches by Mayday revelers (mentioned above). To quote Stockwood: “these Morris dancers shamed not to come and dance about the church during divine service, and without to have men dancing in nets, which is most filthy.”  The popularity of the Morris Dance continued into the next century.

In Tudor times (from 1509 onwards), the Morris Dance was also popular in parish festivals and pageants. We have accounts of churches being invaded by troupes of revelers, which was denounced by the Puritans of later times, that indicate that wild Morris dancing was at first countenanced in this period. The decline of the Morris Dance, like the May Day festivities in general, is, once more, due to the increasing power of the English Puritans and their chilling austerity of the Puritans, of whom it was said that they “like nothing; no sex, no music, no dancing—unlawful even in kings; no kind of recreation, no entertainment—no, all are damned.” We have evidence in Old English verse of a common complaint against the excessive moralism of the Puritans:


These teach that Dauncing is a Jezabell

And Barley-breake the ready way to Hell,

The Morrice, Idolls; Whitson-ales can bee

But profane Reliques of a Jubilee;

These in a Zeale, t'expresse how much they doe,

The Organs hate, have silenc'd Bagg-pipes too,

And harmlesse Maypoles, all are rail'd upon,

As if they were the towers of Babilon


 (The Barley-Break is an old English country game frequently mentioned by poets It was played by three pairs, each composed of a man and a woman. Its use in literature usually has sexual connotations. A good example of the “barley-break” tradition is in a madrigal by the most famous composer of secular music in Elizabethan England, Thomas Morley (1557–1602); the phrase, “Now is the Month of Maying,” probably means something similar to the idiom “roll in the hay.”)

The Puritan government of Oliver Cromwell suppressed Whitsun Ales and other such festivities. When the crown was restored by Charles II, the springtime festivals were restored. In particular, Whitsun Ales came to be celebrated on Whitsunday, as the date coincided with the birthday of Charles II. Morris dancing continued in popularity until the industrial revolution and its accompanying social changes.

Medieval Mummers.jpg

Anchor 11

May Day Poems

May day! Delightful day! 

Bright colors play the vale along. 

Now wakes at mornings slender ray

Wild and gay the blackbirds song.

Now comes the bird of dusty hue, 

The loud cuckoo, the summer-lover; 

Branchy trees are thick with leaves; 

The bitter, evil time is over. . .

Loaded bees with puny power

Goodly flower-harvest win; 

Cattle roam with muddy flanks; 

as ants go out and in.


Through the wild harp of the wood

Making music roars the gale—

Now it settles without motion,

On the ocean sleeps the sail.

Men grow mighty in the May, 

Proud and gay the maidens grow; 

Fair is every wooded heights;

Fair and bright the plain below. . .

Loudly carols the lark on high

Small and shy his tireless lay.

Singing in wildest, merriest mood

Delicate-hued, delightful May. 


~ Irish poem (9th c.)

‘Tis like the birthday of the world,

When earth was born in bloom;

The light is made of many dyes,

The air is all perfume:

There's crimson buds, and white and blue,

The very rainbow showers

Have turned to blossoms where they fell,

And sown the earth with flowers."

~ Thomas Hood

Barley Break Poems, from Brand's Antiquities (1841)

. . . . She went abroad thereby,

A BARLEY-BREAK her sweet swift feet to try.

Afield they go, where many lookers be,

Then couple three be straight allotted there,

They of both ends the middle two do fly,

The two that in mid place, Hell called, were,

Must strive with waiting foot, and watching                                                        

To catch of them, and them to hell to bear,

That they, as well as they, Hell may supply:

Like some that seek to salve their blotted name

Will others blot, till all do taste of shame.

There you may see, soon as the middle two

Do coupled, towards either couple make,

They, false and fearful do their hands undo;

Brother his brother, friend doth friend forsake,

Heeding himself, cares not how fellows do,

But if a stranger mutual help doth take;

As perjured cowards in adversity,

With sight of fear, from friends to friends do fly.


~ Philip Sidney (from "Lamon's Song," Arcadia, 1593)



We two are last in Hell: what may we fear

To be tormented, or kept prisoners here:

Alas! if kissing be of plagues the worst,

We'll wish in Hell we had been last and first.


~ Robert Herrick , "Barley-Break, or Last in Hell" (1648)



Love, Reason, Hate did once bespeak

Three mates to play at Barley-Break.

Love Folly took; and Reason Fancy:

And Hate consorts with pride, so dance they:

Love coupled last, and so it fell

That Love and Folly were in Hell.


They break; and Love would Reason meet,

But hate was nimbler on her feet;

Fancy looks for Pride, and thither

Hies, and they two hug together;

Yet this new coupling still doth tell

That Love and Folly were in Hell.


The rest do break again, and Pride

Hath now got Reason on her side;

Hate and Fancy meet and stand

Untouched by Love in Folly's hand;

Folly was dull, but Love ran well,

So Love and Folly were in Hell.


~ John Suckling (17th c.)

For winter's rains and ruins are over,

And all the season of snows and sins;

The days dividing lover and lover,

The light that loses, the night that wins;

And time remembered is grief forgotten,

And frosts are slain and flowers begotten,

And in green underwood and cover

Blossom by blossom the spring begins.

~ Algernon Charles Swinburne


A delicate fabric of bird song
Floats in the air,
The smell of wet wild earth
Is everywhere.

Red small leaves of the maple
Are clenched like a hand,
Like girls at their first communion
The pear trees stand.

Oh I must pass nothing by
Without loving it much,
The raindrop try with my lips,
The grass with my touch;

For how can I be sure
I shall see again
The world on the first of May
Shining after the rain?

~ Sara Teasdale, "May Day "

May day is coming

When all will be gay,

‘Twil be fun and frolic

All the live, long day.

Flowers in the green woods

In the orchard, too,

Leaflets are growing

Every thing so new.


May, May, May

May, May, May,

May, May, May

Is that all that I can say.


May day is coming

May day is here,

The very happiest day

Of all the glad new year.


Call me early, Mother

Call me early, pray.

For we must crown the King,

The King, and Queen of May.

 ~ Della Hodgson James,

"May Day Ditty"

Note on the "Barley Break" game.

"The game of barley-break, which furnishes the idea of these verses, is explained in the last ecloque of Philip Sidney's Arcadia. It was played by three couples: the middle couple was said to be 'in hell,' and had to catch the other couples. The catching pair were not allowed to separate till they had succeeded; while the other pairs, if hard pressed, were allowed to ' break' or separate, from which the game derived the second part of its name. When all had been caught, new couples were formed, and the pair which failed to occupy one of the ends of the grounds was 'in hell.' "

Ralph Waldo Emerson, "May-Day"

Daughter of Heaven and Earth, coy Spring,

With sudden passion languishing,

Teaching Barren moors to smile,

Painting pictures mile on mile,

Holds a cup with cowslip-wreaths,

Whence a smokeless incense breathes…


Was it a squirrel's pettish bark,

Or clarionet of jay? or hark

Where yon wedged line the Nestor leads,

Steering north with raucous cry

Through tracts and provinces of sky,

Every night alighting down

In new landscapes of romance…

It is a sound, it is a token

That the marble sleep is broken,

And a change has passed on things….


To tread the forfeit Paradise,

And feed once more the exile's eyes;

And ever when the happy child

In May beholds the blooming wild,

And hears in heaven the bluebird sing,

'Onward,' he cries, 'your baskets bring,—

In the next field is air more mild,

And o'er yon hazy crest is Eden's balmier spring.' ….


April cold with dropping rain

Willows and lilacs brings again,

The whistle of returning birds,

And trumpet-lowing of the herds.

The scarlet maple-keys betray

What potent blood hath modest May,

What fiery force the earth renews,

The wealth of forms, the flush of hues;

What joy in rosy waves outpoured

Flows from the heart of Love, the Lord….


Where shall we keep the holiday,

And duly greet the entering May?

Too strait and low our cottage doors,

And all unmeet our carpet floors;

Nor spacious court, nor monarch's hall,

Suffice to hold the festival.

Up and away! where haughty woods

Front the liberated floods:

We will climb the broad-backed hills,

Hear the uproar of their joy;

We will mark the leaps and gleams

Of the new-delivered streams,

And the murmuring rivers of sap

Mount in the pipes of the trees,

Giddy with day, to the topmost spire,

Which for a spike of tender green

Bartered its powdery cap;

And the colors of joy in the bird,

And the love in its carol heard,

Frog and lizard in holiday coats,

And turtle brave in his golden spots;

While cheerful cries of crag and plain

Reply to the thunder of river and main….


Wreaths for the May! for happy Spring

To-day shall all her dowry bring,

The love of kind, the joy, the grace,

Hymen of element and race,

Knowing well to celebrate

With song and hue and star and state,

With tender light and youthful cheer,

The spousals of the new-born year….


The bitter-sweet, the haunting air

Creepeth, bloweth everywhere;

It preys on all, all prey on it.

Blooms in beauty, thinks in wit,

Stings the strong with enterprise,

Makes travellers long for Indian skies,

And where it comes this courier fleet

Fans in all hearts expectance sweet,

As if to-morrow should redeem

The vanished rose of evening's dream.

By houses lies a fresher green,

On men and maids a ruddier mien,

As if Time brought a new relay

Of shining virgins every May,

And Summer came to ripen maids

To a beauty that not fades


  I saw the bud-crowned Spring go forth,

Stepping daily onward north

To greet staid ancient cavaliers

Filing single in stately train…

On carpets green the maskers march

Below May's well-appointed arch,

Each star, each god; each grace amain,

Every joy and virtue speed,

Marching duly in her train,

And fainting Nature at her need

Is made whole again…..


Poets praise that hidden wine

Hid in milk we drew

At the barrier of Time,

When our life was new.

We had eaten fairy fruit,

We were quick from head to foot,

All the forms we looked on shone

As with diamond dews thereon.

What cared we for costly joys,

The Museum's far-fetched toys?

Gleam of sunshine on the wall

Poured a deeper cheer than all

The revels of the Carnival.

We a pine-grove did prefer

To a marble theatre,

Could with gods on mallows dine,

Nor cared for spices or for wine.

Wreaths of mist and rainbow spanned.

Arch on arch, the grimmest land;

Whittle of a woodland bird

Made the pulses dance,

Note of horn in valleys heard

Filled the region with romance...

("II. May-Day and Other Pieces,"

from The Complete Works, Vol. IX. Poems.)

Anchor 12

“The May Queen” 


YOU must wake and call me early, call me early, mother dear;

To-morrow ’ill be the happiest time of all the glad New-year;

Of all the glad New-year, mother, the maddest merriest day,

For I’m to be Queen o’ the May, mother, I’m to be Queen o’ the May.

There’s many a black, black eye they say, but none so bright as mine;

There’s Margaret and Mary, there’s Kate and Caroline;

But none so fair as little Alice in all the land they say,

So I’m to be Queen o’ the May, mother, I’m to be Queen o’ the May.


I sleep so sound all night, mother, that I shall never wake,

If you do not call me loud when the day begins to break;

But I must gather knots of flowers, and buds and garlands gay,

For I’m to be Queen o’ the May, mother, I’m to be Queen o’ the May.


As I came up the valley whom think ye should I see

But Robin leaning on the bridge beneath the hazel-tree?

He thought of that sharp look, mother, I gave him yesterday,

But I’m to be Queen o’ the May, mother, I’m to be Queen o’ the May.


He thought I was a ghost, mother, for I was all in white,

And I ran by him without speaking, like a flash of light.

They call me cruel-hearted, but I care not what they say,

For I’m to be Queen o’ the May, mother, I’m to be Queen o’ the May.


They say he’s dying all for love, but that can never be;

They say his heart is breaking, mother—what is that to me?

There’s many a bolder lad ’ill woo me any summer day,

And I’m to be Queen o’ the May, mother, I’m to be Queen o’ the May.


Little Effie shall go with me to-morrow to the green,

And you’ll be there, too, mother, to see me made the Queen;

For the shepherd lads on every side ’ill come from far away,

And I’m to be Queen o’ the May, mother, I’m to be Queen o’ the May.


The honeysuckle round the porch has woven its wavy bowers,

And by the meadow-trenches blow the faint sweet cuckoo-flowers;

And the wild marsh-marigold shines like fire in swamps and hollows gray,

And I’m to be Queen o’ the May, mother, I’m to be Queen o’ the May.


The night-winds come and go, mother, upon the meadow-grass,

And the happy stars above them seem to brighten as they pass;

There will not be a drop of rain the whole of the livelong day,

And I’m to be Queen o’ the May, mother, I’m to be Queen o’ the May.


All the valley, mother, ’ill be fresh and green and still,

And the cowslip and the crowfoot are over all the hill,

And the rivulet in the flowery dale ’ill merrily glance and play,

For I’m to be Queen o’ the May, mother, I’m to be Queen o’ the May.


So you must wake and call me early, call me early, mother dear,

To-morrow ’ill be the happiest time of all the glad New-year;

To-morrow ’ill be of all the year the maddest merriest day,

For I’m to be Queen o’ the May, mother, I’m to be Queen o’ the May.

~ Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1832)

Anchor 13

a-Maying Poems

Corinna's Going a-Maying”


Get up, get up for shame! The blooming morn   

    Upon her wings presents the god unshorn.   

    See how Aurora throws her fair   

    Fresh-quilted colours through the air:   

    Get up, sweet slug-a-bed, and see          

    The dew bespangling herb and tree!   

Each flower has wept and bow'd toward the east   

Above an hour since, yet you not drest;   

    Nay! not so much as out of bed?   

    When all the birds have matins said   

    And sung their thankful hymns, 'tis sin,   

    Nay, profanation, to keep in,   

Whereas a thousand virgins on this day   

Spring sooner than the lark, to fetch in May.   


Rise and put on your foliage, and be seen   

To come forth, like the spring-time, fresh and green,   

    And sweet as Flora. Take no care   

    For jewels for your gown or hair:   

    Fear not; the leaves will strew   

    Gems in abundance upon you:   

Besides, the childhood of the day has kept,   

Against you come, some orient pearls unwept.   

    Come, and receive them while the light   

    Hangs on the dew-locks of the night:   

    And Titan on the eastern hill   

    Retires himself, or else stands still   

Till you come forth! Wash, dress, be brief in praying:   

Few beads are best when once we go a-Maying.   


Come, my Corinna, come; and coming, mark   

How each field turns a street, each street a park,   

    Made green and trimm'd with trees! see how   

    Devotion gives each house a bough   

    Or branch! each porch, each door, ere this,   

    An ark, a tabernacle is,   

Made up of white-thorn neatly interwove,   

As if here were those cooler shades of love.   

    Can such delights be in the street   

    And open fields, and we not see 't?   

    Come, we'll abroad: and let 's obey   

    The proclamation made for May,   

And sin no more, as we have done, by staying;   

But, my Corinna, come, let 's go a-Maying.   


There 's not a budding boy or girl this day   

But is got up and gone to bring in May.   

    A deal of youth ere this is come   

    Back, and with white-thorn laden home.   

    Some have despatch'd their cakes and cream,   

    Before that we have left to dream:   

And some have wept and woo'd, and plighted troth,   

And chose their priest, ere we can cast off sloth:

    Many a green-gown has been given,   

    Many a kiss, both odd and even:   

    Many a glance, too, has been sent   

    From out the eye, love's firmament:   

Many a jest told of the keys betraying

This night, and locks pick'd: yet we're not a-Maying!   


Come, let us go, while we are in our prime,   

And take the harmless folly of the time!   

    We shall grow old apace, and die   

    Before we know our liberty.

    Our life is short, and our days run   

    As fast away as does the sun.   

And, as a vapour or a drop of rain,   

Once lost, can ne'er be found again,   

    So when or you or I are made

    A fable, song, or fleeting shade,   

    All love, all liking, all delight   

    Lies drown'd with us in endless night.   

Then, while time serves, and we are but decaying,   

Come, my Corinna, come, let's go a-Maying.

~ Robert Herrick (1648)

Now is the Month of Maying”

Now is the month of maying,

When merry lads are playing,

Fa la la la la la la la la,

Fa la la la la la lah.

Each with his bonny lass

Upon the greeny grass.

Fa la la ...


The Spring, clad all in gladness,

Doth laugh at Winter's sadness,

Fa la la ...

And to the bagpipe's sound

The nymphs tread out their ground.

Fa la la ...


Fie then! why sit we musing,

Youth's sweet delight refusing?

Fa la la ...

Say, dainty nymphs, and speak,

Shall we play barley-break?

Fa la la ...

~ Thomas Morley 

Morley's ( the most famous composer of secular music in Elizabethan) “Now is the Month of Maying” is one of the most famous of the English ballets (a light part song similar to a madrigal, although it has been called such), frequently with a fa-la-la chorus, common among Elizabethan and Italian Renaissance composers. (It is based on the canzonet, "So ben mi ch'a bon tempo" used by Orazio Vecchi in his 1590 Selva di varia ricreatione. It was printed in Thomas Morley's First Book of Ballets to Five Voyces in 1595.) This fun song delights in bawdy double-entendre. It is apparently about spring dancing, but this is a metaphor for sexual activity. For example, a "barley-break" would have suggested outdoor sexual activity (rather like we might say a "roll in the hay"). The use of such imagery and puns increased during the Renaissance. The song forms a key part of Oxford's May Morning celebrations, where the choir of Magdalen College sing the verses from the roof of the college's Great Tower.

Anchor 14

May Day Love Poetry, Prose, & Song

Fosterer of tender lovers is May.


Is it true, the girl that I love,

That you do not desire birch,

The strong growth of summer?

Be not a nun in spring,

Asceticism is not as good as a bush.

As for the warrant of ring and habit,

A green dress would ordain better.

Come to the spreading birch,

To the religion of the trees and birds....


~ Dafydd ap Gwilym  (14th c. Welsh poet)

The young May moon is beaming, love. 

The glow-worm's lamp is gleaming, love.

How sweet to rove,

Through Morna's grove,

When the drowsy world is dreaming, love!

Then awake! -- the heavens look bright, my dear,

'Tis never too late for delight, my dear,

And the best of all ways

To lengthen our days

Is to steal a few hours from the night, my dear!  

~ Thomas Moore, “The Young May Moon”

Oh, do not tell the Priest our plight,

Or he would call it a sin;

But we have been out in the woods all night,

A-conjuring Summer in!


~Kipling, “A Tree Song” (1905)



Tra la, it’s May, the lusty month of May

That lovely month when everyone goes blissfully astray

Tra la, it’s here, that shocking time of year

When tons of wicked little thoughts merrily appear

It’s May, it’s May, that gorgeous holiday

When every maiden prays that her lad will be a cad

It’s mad, it’s gay, a libelous display

Those dreary vows that everyone takes

Everyone breaks

Everyone makes divine mistakes

The lusty month of May


~ Lerner & Lowe, “The Lusty Month of May” (1960)

The Lusty Month of May


“And thus it passed on from Candlemass until after Easter, that the month of May was come, when every lusty heart beginneth to blossom, and to bring forth fruit; for like as herbs and trees bring forth fruit and flourish in May, in like wise every lusty heart that is in any manner a lover, springeth and flourisheth in lusty deeds. For it giveth unto all lovers courage, that lusty month of May, in something to constrain him to some manner of thing more in that month than in any other month, for divers causes. For then all herbs and trees renew a man and woman, and likewise lovers call again to their mind old gentleness and old service, and many kind deeds that were forgotten by negligence. For like as winter rasure doth alway arase and deface green summer, so fareth it by unstable love in man and woman. For in many persons there is no stability; for we may see all day, for a little blast of winter's rasure, anon we shall deface and lay apart true love for little or nought, that cost much thing; this is no wisdom nor stability, but it is feebleness of nature and great disworship, whosomever useth this. Therefore, like as May month flowereth and flourisheth in many gardens, so in like wise let every man of worship flourish his heart in this world....

Wherefore I liken love nowadays unto summer and winter; for like as the one is hot and the other cold, so fareth love nowadays; therefore all ye that be lovers call unto your remembrance the month of May, like as did Queen Guenever, for whom I make here a little mention, that while she lived she was a true lover, and therefore she had a good end.”


~ Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte d'Arthur: Book XVIII, Chapter XXV. “How true love is likened to summer.”


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Now I've been a-rambling all of the night

For we are up, as soon as it is day-o, 

For to fetch the summer home, 

the summer and the May-o, 

for summer is a-coming in

and winter is a-gone. 

 ~ “Cornish May Song"

Hark to the song of the blithesome May!

May-day singeth a rondelay;

In Nature’s key and in Nature’s way —

In the rippling brook and the sunbeam’s ray,

in the warbling thrush and the chattering jay —

May-day singeth her rondelay.


~ Antoinette Newell,“A Rondelay” (19th c.)

Good morning lords and ladies, it is the first day of May,

We hope you'll view our garland, it is so bright and gay,

For it is the first of May, oh it is the first of May,

Remember lords and ladies, it is the first of May.


We gathered them this morning all in the early dew,

And now we bring their beauty and fragrance all for you,

For it is the first of May, oh it is the first of May,

Remember lords and ladies, it is the first of May….


And now you've seen our garland we must be on our way,

So remember lords and ladies, it is the first of May,

For it is the first of May, oh it is the first of May,

Remember lords and ladies, it is the first of May.


~ “Bedfordshire May Song”

Winter time has gone and past-o,
Summer time has come at last-o.
We shall sing and dance the day
And follow the 'obby 'orse that brings the May.

Chorus (after each verse):
So, Hail! Hail! The First of May-o!
For it is the first summer’s day-o!
Cast you cares and fears away,
Drink to the old horse on the First of May!

Blue bells they have started to ring-o,
And true love, it is the thing-o.
Love on any other day
Is never quite the same as on the First of May!

Never let it come to pass-o
We should fail to raise a glass-o!
Unto those now gone away
And left us the 'obby 'orse that brings the May!

~ BeggarsVelvet, “May Song”

Unite and unite and let us all unite

For summer is i-cumen today

And whither we are going, we all will unite

In the merry morning of May.

Arise up Mr. ..... I know you well afine,

For summer is acome unto day,

You have a shilling in your purse

And I wish it were in mine,

In the merry morning of May.

All out of your beds,

For summer is acome unto day,

Your chamber shall be strewed

With the white rose and the red

In the merry morning of May.

Where are the young men that here now should dance,

For summer is acome unto day,

Some they are in England some they are in France,

In the merry morning of May.

Where are the maidens that here now should sing,

For summer is acome unto day,

They are in the meadows the flowers gathering,

In the merry morning of May.

Arise up Mr. .... with your sword by your side,

For summer is acome unto day,

Your steed is in the stable awaiting for to ride,

In the merry morning of May.

Arise up Miss ..... and strew all your flowers,

For summer is acome unto day,

It is but a while ago since we have strewn ours,

In the merry morning of May...


~ “Padstow May Day Song”

We have been rambling all of the night,

The best part of this day;

And we are returning here back again

And we've brought you a garland gay.


[I have been wandering all this night

And most part of this day,

So now I come for to sing you a song

And to show you a branch of May.


For summer is a-comin' in

So join us, gather 'round

In the greenwood, where bluebells grow

And lords and ladies abound.]


A branch of May so fine and gay,

Up at your door it stands,

It's nothing but a sprout but it's well budded out

And it's the work of God's own hand.


[By the work of Our Lord's hand.

By the work of Our Lady’d hand.

By the work of our own hands.]


Oh wake up you, wake up pretty maid,

To take the May bush in.

For it will be gone and tomorrow morn

And you will have none within.


The heavenly gates are open wide

To let escape the dew.

It makes no delay it is here today

And it falls on me and you….


The hedges and fields are clothed all round

With several sorts of green;

Our heavenly Father waters them

With his heavenly showers of rain.

And now our song is almost done,

We can no longer stay.

God bless us all both great and small

And we wish you a joyful May.


~ “May Song" or “Mayer's Carol”

All these songs are traditional, except for  the “A Rondelay” and “May Song” by Beggars Velvet. The traditional “May Song” or “Mayer's  Carol,” also known as the “Northhill May Song,” [right side] is quite ancient, going back before Christian times. To quote renowned English folk singer Shirley Collins, who sang “May Carol”  on her 2016 album Lodestar, the song  is Pagan in origin:

“May carols, a Pagan survival and once widely known throughout the English countryside, were sung from village to village and door to door, to welcome in the Spring, the Mayers bringing branches of hawthorn to the households they visited. Such customs also gave farm labourers, having survived a lean winter, a chance to collect a bit of money.…”

Many of these songs were christianized by adding a Puritan verse, either at the beginning or end, but those verses were obviously tacked on and often they do not even fit the meter. The reference to the fertilizing rain or dew of the “heavenly father” is probably very old, going back to Pagan times, and refers to a Storm God such as Thor.

The song has many variations in the lyrics, depending upon the locale in England or, to a lesser degree, the individual singer's poetic license. Some of these lyrical variations are included in brackets. I have chosen the most popular variations of the song. There are about a dozen traditional May Songs in English but they are difficult to separate because the titles are interchangeable; almost all are simply titled “May Day Song” or “May Day Carol.” Some that were recorded by folk song collectors are known by the district in which they were first collected (such as “Northill,” “Bronham,” “Cheshire,” “Cambridgeshire,” or “Buckworth May Song”). Some of the verses in these songs are known as “floating verses” because they are found in all the songs. The version “as sung at Hitchin in Hertfordshire” is one of the most widely known of the May Songs because it is mentioned in Hone’s Everyday Book and in Popular Music in the Olden Time by Chappell. It is familiar because of the first verse: “We have been rambling all the night, / and almost all the day ....” The “Northill May Song ” and “Bronham May Song” versions have a Night Song and a Day Song, with the same tune. The Night Song was used when young people would go from house to house on the night before May Day and leave branches of hawthorn flowers or May flowers at the doors of their neighbors. The Day Song was used the next morning when everyone went from house to house singing and welcoming the spring. They were greeted by the householders who offered them whatever hospitality was popular at the time.


Anchor 15

“The Lord of Misrule”

“On May days the wild heads of the parish would choose a Lord of Misrule, whom they would follow even into the church, though the minister were at prayer or preaching, dancing and swinging their may-boughs about like devils incarnate.”

~ Old Puritan Writer.



ALL on a fresh May morning, I took my love to church,

To see if Parson Primrose were safely on his perch.

He scarce had got to Thirdly, or squire begun to snore,

When, like a sun-lit sea-wave,

A green and crimson sea-wave,

A frolic of madcap May-folk came whooping through the door:—

Come up, come in with streamers!

Come in, with boughs of may!

Come up and thump the sexton,

And carry the clerk away.


Now skip like rams, ye mountains,

Ye little hills, like sheep!

Come up and wake the people

That parson puts to sleep.

They tickled their nut-brown tabors. Their garlands flew in showers,

And lasses and lads came after them, with feet like dancing flowers.

Their queen had torn her green gown, and bared a shoulder as white,

O, white as the may that crowned her,

While all the minstrels round her

Tilted back their crimson hats and sang for sheer delight:

Come up, come in with streamers!

Come in, with boughs of may!

Now by the gold upon your toe

You walked the primrose way.

Come up, with white and crimson!

O, shake your bells and sing;

Let the porch bend, the pillars bow,

Before our Lord, the Spring!


The dusty velvet hassocks were dabbled with fragrant dew.

The font grew white with hawthorn. It frothed in every pew.

Three petals clung to the sexton’s beard as he mopped and mowed at the clerk,

And “Take that sexton away,” they cried;

“Did Nebuchadnezzar eat may?” they cried.

“Nay, that was a prize from Betty,” they cried, “for kissing her in the dark.”

Come up, come in with streamers!

Come in, with boughs of may!

Who knows but old Methuselah

May hobble the green-wood way?

If Betty could kiss the sexton,

If Kitty could kiss the clerk,

Who knows how Parson Primrose

Might blossom in the dark?

The congregation spluttered. The squire grew purple and all,

And every little chorister bestrode his carven stall.


The parson flapped like a magpie, but none could hear his prayers;

For Tom Fool flourished his tabor,

Flourished his nut-brown tabor,

Bashed the head of the sexton, and stormed the pulpit stairs.

High in the old oak pulpit

This Lord of all misrule—

I think it was Will Summers

That once was Shakespeare’s fool—

Held up his hand for silence,

And all the church grew still:

“And are you snoring yet,” he said,

“Or have you slept your fill?

“Your God still walks in Eden, between the ancient trees,

Where Youth and Love go wading through pools of primroses.

And this is the sign we bring you, before the darkness fall,


That Spring is risen, is risen again,

That Life is risen, is risen again,

That Love is risen, is risen again, and Love is Lord of all.

“At Paske began our morrice

And, ere Pentecost, our May;

Because, albeit your words be true,

You know not what you say.

You chatter in church like jackdaws,

Words that would wake the dead,

Were there one breath of life in you,

One drop of blood,” he said.

“He died and He went down to hell! You know not what you mean.

Our rafters were of green fir. Also our beds were green.

But out of the mouth of a fool, a fool, before the darkness fall,

We tell you He is risen again,

The Lord of Life is risen again,


The boughs put forth their tender buds, and Love is Lord of all!”

He bowed his head. He stood so still,

They bowed their heads as well.

And softly from the organ-loft

The song began to swell.

Come up with blood-red streamers,

The reeds began the strain.

The vox humana pealed on high,

The Spring is risen again!

The vox angelica replied—The shadows flee away!

Our house-beams were of cedar. Come in, with boughs of may!

The diapason deepened it—Before the darkness fall,

We tell you He is risen again!

Our God hath burst His prison again!

Christ is risen, is risen again; and Love is Lord of all.

~Alfred Noyes (1915)

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Anchor 16

“The Worker's Maypole”



World Workers, whatever may bind ye,
   This day let your work be undone:
Cast the clouds of the winter behind ye,
    And come forth and be glad in the sun.

Now again while the green earth rejoices
    In the bud and the blossom of May
Lift your hearts up again, and your voices,
    And keep merry the World's Labour Day.

Let the winds lift your banners from far lands
   With a message of strife and of hope:
Raise the Maypole aloft with its garlands
    That gathers your cause in its scope.

It is writ on each ribbon that flies
    That flutters from fair Freedom's heart:
If still far be the crown and the prize
    In its winning may each take a part.

Your cause is the hope of the world,
    In your strife is the life of the race,
The workers' flag Freedom unfurled
    Is the veil of the bright future's face.

Be ye many or few drawn together,
    Let your message be clear on this day;
Be ye birds of the spring, of one feather
    In this--that ye sing on May-Day.

Of the new life that still lieth hidden,
    Though its shadow is cast before;
The new birth of hope that unbidden
    Surely comes, as the sea to the shore.

Stand fast, then, Oh Workers, your ground,
    Together pull, strong and united:
Link your hands like a chain the world round,
    If you will that your hopes be requited.

When the World's Workers, sisters and brothers,
    Shall build, in the new coming years,
A lair house of life--not for others,
    For the earth and its fulness is theirs.

~ Walter Crane

Written: April 13, 1894 for "The Worker's Maypole" cartoon.
Published: Justice, 1894

Anchor 17

The Roman Rosalia Festival and The Symbolic Rose March for Bread & Roses


In the Roman Empire, Rosalia or Rosaria was a festival of roses celebrated on various dates, primarily in May, but scattered through mid-July. The observance is sometimes called a rosatio ("rose-adornment") or the dies rosationis, "day of rose-adornment"…..As a commemoration of the dead, the rosatio developed from the custom of placing flowers at burial sites. [My emphasis. Cf. the Roman practice of placing  flowers on burial sites with the GS' contention that what unites both the seasonal May Day and the Workers' May Day with Veteran's Day (where flowers are traditionally placed on the graves of soldiers)—all three occurring in the month of May—are flowers (from the Roman goddess Flora and the floral imagination, as especially represented by artists).]

Flowers were traditional symbols of rejuvenation, rebirth, and memory, with the red and purple of roses and violets felt to evoke the color of blood as a form of propitiation. Their blooming period framed the season of spring, with roses the last of the flowers to bloom and violets the earliest. As part of both festive and funerary banquets, roses adorned "a strange repast ... of life and death together, considered as two aspects of the same endless, unknown process." In some areas of the Empire, the Rosalia was assimilated to floral elements of spring festivals for Dionysus, Adonis and others, but rose-adornment as a practice was not strictly tied to the cultivation of particular deities, and thus lent itself to Jewish and Christian commemoration. Early Christian writers transferred the imagery of garlands and crowns of roses and violets to the cult of the saints. [My emphasis. From Wikipedia article on the Roman Rosalia.]


“For the rose’s cosmic origins in fundamental, primitive explanations of the universe had been greatly diminished in the customs and lyrics of an entirely civilized people.... For modern writers who wish to discover primitive, unconscious, or historical origins must inevitably return to those origins from the perspective of a Christian era.... But both primitive roots and classical blossoms have come down to us filtered through the Christian centuries.... For the pagan rose had achieved such popularity that it had to be taken account of and adapted to Christian purposes by the early Church. Certainly, most of its meanings on the planes of earth and heaven had already existed long before the Christian era.”

–Barbara Seward

The transcendent element that attached to the rose was a further elaboration of a preoccupation for symbolic flowers that long pre-dated Christian iconography. Roses, sacred to the once Great Goddess Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty, and her son Eros, were the “queen of the flowers” that made up the original heaven—the pagan of Elysium—and were later transplanted into the Christian Garden of Eden and Paradise of the Blessed.  After a long hiatus, pagan roses still bloomed in the imaginations of the twelfth-century troubadour poets and inspired the love songs of medieval Europe, retaining the popularity they had enjoyed in pagan times as flowers of the spring rebirth and earthly love.  As “queen and flowers” the rose became the attribute of the poet’s beloved…. [From the GS'  “Troubadours & The Beloved” musical essay series.]


To reiterate the point the GS made in “The Beltane / May Day” musical essay series: the Women's Suffragette movement, coupled with the Labor movement, of the early twentieth century rediscovered the  pagan “queen of flowers,” the ancient symbolic rose and its goddess Venus-Aphrodite,  who was also the goddess of Beauty. 


As we go marching, marching
Unnumbered women dead
Go crying through our singing
Their ancient call for bread
Smart art and love, and beauty
Their drudging spirits knew
Yes, it is bread we fight for
But we fight for roses, too

With these simple lyrics, the entire aesthetic dimension of life is made the other essential desire of  the Labor movement in the USA. (And it was slow in getting any official theoretical recognition and incorporation into the Labor movement's agenda—until the Neo-Marxist theorist, Herbert Marcuse, came along!)

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A Note on Carnivalesque


Carnivalesque is a term coined by the Russian philosopher and literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin (1895 - 1975), which refers to a literary mode that “subverts and liberates the assumptions of the dominant style or atmosphere through humor and chaos.” Bakhtin’s concept of carnivalesque is described as a form of “heterotopia” (i.e., “places and spaces that function in non-hegemonic conditions”), which emerged from his study of the writings of Rabelais and his descriptions of medieval festivals. From his studies of medieval and Renaissance carnivals, Bakhtin sees the carnivalesque as a way in which satirizing and the mocking of authority inverted religious and civil (i.e., church and state) traditions through the celebration of idleness, play, drunkenness and debauchery. During these carnivalesque revels (especially those of the premodern May Day), there is a momentary disruption of hierarchical distinctions and barriers, norms and customs, official ordering of time and space, and all forms of political coercion. In other words, this hierarchical inversion means “the world turned upside down.”


This carnivalesque heterotopia began in the medieval carnival and continued in a greater form in later premodern (Renaissance) carnival (notably, the May Day festivals), where social hierarchies of everyday life—their conventional moralities, solemnities, pieties, as well as all ready-made truths—are profaned and overturned by normally suppressed voices and energies. Thus, fools become wise, kings become beggars; opposites are mingled (fact and fantasy, heaven and hell). Civic and religious truths are endlessly tested and contested, and all demanded equal dialogic status. The “jolly relativity” of all things is proclaimed by alternative voices within the carnivalized festivity or literary text that de-privileged the authoritative voice of the hegemony through the mingling of sacred and profane or high culture with low culture.

Carnivalesque festivities mimicked the serious rituals of high society. Fools and clowns parodied everything that was serious. Furthermore, carnivalesque carnivals were events that embraced all people to participate. Carnival time offered a “temporary suspension” of caste and rank. It allowed laughter with indecent, vulgar, and grotesque behavior. In his book Rabelais and his World, the central esthetic idea is “grotesque realism.” Rabelais created images of the grotesque body; he emphasized the features of “lower bodily strata.” The grotesque body is opened to the world, its physiology is not hidden, and this body degrades and regenerates actively. According to Bakhtin, “In grotesque realism ... the bodily element is deeply positive. It is presented not in a private, egoistic form, severed from other spheres of life, but as something universal, representing all the people.” Bakhtin found the Renaissance, with its carnivalesque forms, was a period of the benign balance between destructive and regenerative features of grotesque realism. Bakhtin wrote: “The essence of the grotesque is precisely to present a contradictory and double-faced fullness of life. Negation and destruction (death of the old) are included as an essential phase, inseparable from affirmation, from the birth of something new and better. The very material bodily lower stratum of the grotesque image (food, wine, the genital force, the organs of the body) bears a deeply positive character. This principle is victorious, for the final result is always abundance, increase.” In Bakhtin's view, satire or comedy in the form of “grotesque realism” relocates the spiritual from the top (a head and the face) to the bottom (the belly, the genitals, the bowels). This inversion of the top and the bottom reduces the idealistic/spiritual pretensions of an authoritarian society to the gross, material level and, at the same time, exposes the naked political reality of such high and mighty pretensions—subverting these mechanisms of social control: “The essential principle of grotesque realism is degradation, that is, the lowering of all that is noble, high, spiritual, ideal, abstract.” Bakhtin understood that through the use of the grotesque body in his novels, Rabelais related political conflicts to human anatomy, and in this way, he used the concept as “a figure of unruly biological and social exchange.”


Satire and the grotesque (especially the grotesque body), then, are thus key elements in Bakhtin's concept of carnivalesque. Satire combines chaos, sex, grotesque bodies, and excessive feasting and drinking. Bakhtin brings out the utopian strain in laughter. For Bakhtin, laughter is the solvent of all boundaries; the body which connects us to everyone and everything; these are celebrated in carnivalesque carnivals, where a kind of carnal Parousia is adumbrated. The principle of laughter through satire and the carnival spirit on which grotesque is based destroys seriousness and all pretense of an extratemporal meaning and unconditional value of necessity. It frees human consciousness, thought, and imagination for new potentialities. All these idioms symbolized change and renewal within society. But more than just pointing the way, carnivalesque carnivals were real alternatives to a totalitarian society, if only for short periods.


Through carnivalesque a social ritual of inversion occurs—“the world is turned-upside-down.” This collective resistance to authority opens up a space (a heterotopia) where cultural, and potentially political, change can take place.

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A Note on the Pagan Origins of Carnival



To understand what the annual expression of unbridled hedonism that is carnival has to do with the practice of the Christian religion of Catholicism, we need to go back in history to the beginning of religion as recorded in both secular and biblical history.


Mardi Gras, synonymous with the Carnival preceding Lent, translated from the French, literally means “fat Tuesday.” This takes place in February and is the final day prior to Ash Wednesday on the Roman Catholic calendar (Shrove Tuesday on the Anglican calendar), the Tuesday before Lent begins. Lent is a tradition in the Roman, Anglican and Orthodox versions of the Christian religion. The common view is that Carnival, or Mardi Gras, is, at its origin, a Catholic festival that precedes the season of Lent, which is itself also assumed to be of Christian origin. Carnival traditionally has been seen as the last opportunity to let off steam and indulge the flesh before the denial that is supposed to accompany Lent, the 40-day period that precedes Easter (another annual festival that is wrongfully assumed to be Christian in origin). Briefly put, Carnival is the time of celebration and entertainment that precedes Lent. It begins on January 6, Epiphany Day, and ends on Tuesday, the eve of Ash Wednesday. For Roman Catholics, Carnival represents the final blowout before saying goodbye to eating meat or, more broadly, it could represent a farewell to matters of the flesh (carne). The essence of the celebrations of Carnival, in their displays of excess and letting go, contrast with the mood of Lent in which the matters of the spirit outweigh the importance of worldly things. This, then, is the official way Carnival is understood without question by both Christians and non-religious people alike. But the question is: Do the historical facts bear this out?


The etymology of the word carnival has given rise to a host of controversies, as scholars don’t agree on its meaning, proposing some six different variations of Latin terms  (carne vole or carovale, carne levamen [for carnis levamen], carn avallare, carnalia, carnis privium). If we question the consensus view of Carnival, beginning with its etymology, it suggests two sources. One suggests carne vale, from the Latin “farewell meat,” as the source. This would appear to be quite a legitimate meaning of the term, given that the onset of Carnival signals the last gastronomical indulgence prior to the fasting at Lent. However, there is another more ancient derivation for Carnival suggested in some sources. This would be either the Latin carnous navilus, meaning “fleshy ship-cart” or carrus navalis, meaning “ship cart” or “naval wagon.” (The Latin word carrus means a wagon, a four-wheeled baggage cart, cartload or wagonload. It is known to be derived from the Gaulish karros and from Proto-Celtic karros meaning chariot or wagon.) This etymology has given rise to three alternate theories of the origin of the Catholic Carnival.


The first locates the earliest origin; that of the Navigium Isidis (“the Vessel of Isis”), which was an annual ancient Roman religious festival in honor of the goddess Isis, held on March 5th. It celebrated influence of the Great Goddess Isis over the sea and served as a prayer for the safety of seafarers and, eventually, of the Roman people and their leaders. It consisted of an elaborate procession in which an image of Isis on a model ship was carried from the local Isis temple to the sea or to a nearby river in order to bless the beginning of the sailing season. The procession included Isiac priests and devotees with elaborate masks, costumes, and sacred emblems. These characteristics could be the precursors of modern Carnival tradition involving floats and masks. In the Roman Empire, it was still celebrated in Italy at least until the year 416 CE. In Egypt, it was suppressed by Christian authorities in the 6th century. According to this theory, the modern Carnival resembles the Roman festival of the Navigium Isidis, and some scholars argue that they share the same origin via carrus navalis, meaning naval wagon, i.e., a float, which later becomes the word car-nival.


The second theory is based upon the fact that the ancient religions of the Great Mother, Isis, Demeter, and Dionysus had something of an ecclesiastical year. The seasonal festivals were inherited from old tribal ceremonies that had been closely associated with the sowing and reaping of corn and with the production of wine. The religion of Dionysus was closely associated with that of Demeter, and, thus, sowing and reaping were also celebrated in Dionysiac festivals. In Roman times, important Isis festivals were held on December 25th, January 6th, and March 5th. This theory, then, locates the origin of Carnival not only in the Roman Isis festival but also in the Roman Dionysian festival. The March festival, as it was celebrated in Corinth, was a spring festival that celebrated the beginning of the seafaring season. A ship was carried on a cart (carrus navalis) through the city. It was followed by a procession of choruses, mystai (initiates of the mystery-cult of Dionysus) in bright clothes wearing masks, and priests carrying the insignia of the goddess. The ship was let into the sea and the participants returned to the temple, where initiation ceremonies, banquets, and dances were held.


The third theory locates the origin of Carnival, via the carrus navalis, in the naval vessel that bore the Teutonic god of the North from his northern home southward to join in the annual pagan winter festivities. (For images of Carnival as “carrus navalis” see the “Carnivalesque” webpage of the ToS website; under the section entitled “Thematic Images for Early Carnival & Carnivalesque.”) One of the earliest carnivals we have records for depicted there is the Nuremberg Shrovetide Carnival of 15th-century Germany. (“Shrovetide,” is the traditional term for the Pre-Lenten Season or “Forelent,” the Christian period of preparation before the beginning of the liturgical season of Lent. Thus, it’s the premodern precursor of the Mardi Gras carnival. Again, see the “Carnivalesque” webpage for images of the Shrovetide carnival.) The second and third images in the gallery show this carrus navalis (“ship-cart” or “wheel-boat”) as a full-size sailing ship being pulled through the street with carnival revelers aboard. The fourth image shows “Carnival Procession of the Blue Barge" (1539), the most famous carrus navalis of the Jester Guild, which was led by the Chief Jester or “Prince of Fools.” (These images are from the “Schembart Manuscript.”) Therefore, the carrus navalis is a kind of processional float that was as much a significant part of the Carnival pageantry in the medieval and premodern period as floats are today.


However, if there is no consensus on the etymology of the word carnival, at least there is agreement on its origins.


Looking to ancient history, it tells us that the ancient religions of Babylon, Egypt, Greece and Rome had one thing in common; namely, the highlights of the year on the religious calendar tended to revolve around the winter, signifying the cessation of agrarian productivity and the anticipation of spring, celebrating the renewal of fertility. The pagans, especially the Celts, created annual rites and festivals around these seasons. Rome adopted and promoted the most widely practiced of these pagan festivals and spread their practice throughout its empire under its own names. Thus, the celebrations around the winter solstice became the Saturnalia and Brumalia festivals of winter, which were celebrated in December. These winter solstice festivals honored Saturn/Cronus and Ceres/Demeter, and Bacchus in some cases. (Bacchus was the name for the Roman Dionysus.) The pre-spring festivals at the onset of the final lean month of winter led into the spring festival of Ishtar in Babylon, or Osiris in Egypt, signaling new birth. In between was the “love-fest” of Lupercalia. Given the importance of this agricultural cycle, it should be noted that these festivals were associated with both agricultural seasons (taking place just before the beginning of spring) and sexuality. As a result, it is also possible that when the festival became Christianized sometime later these two aspects were simply replaced by carne vale, a more appropriate beginning to Lent.


(A note on the strategic placing of Carnival on the Catholic liturgical calendar. When the Roman Catholic Church began to spread its influence throughout the world, it found that, wherever it went, the indigenous peoples hung on tenaciously to these annual pagan festivals. Thus, the church simply compromised. Rather than force Catholic dogma on the local populations, it simply “Christianized”—i.e., co-opted—the pagan festivals enjoyed by the masses. This means that Saturnalia and Brumalia became Christmas, merging with the Catholic teaching of the nativity. The spring festivals, retaining the name “Easter” after the pagan fertility goddess Eostre or Ostara, merged with the Roman church’s interpretation of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In between was Carnival, leading into Mardi Gras, out of which the Vatican created the season of Lent, leading to Easter, by imposing its own interpretation of Christ’s 40-days total fast in the wilderness by setting a time for the denial of meat in the 40 days leading up to its Easter celebration. In between Carnival and Easter, the licentious Roman festival of Lupercalia became catholicized into St. Valentine’s Day.)


Getting back to the ultimate origins of Carnival, even though they are remote and uncertain, we can be sure they don’t begin with Roman Catholicism. Some cultural historians and folklorists say they took place 10, 000 years before Christ in rural celebrations, when men, women, and children wearing masks, and having their bodies painted and costumed got together after the winter season in spring and summer, performing ritual dances for renewal. Others say carnival history started later in the celebrations for goddess Isis and the god Dionysus, the Dionysia, or in the Saturnalias, Bacchanals, and Lupercalias amongst the Greeks and Romans. The Bacchanals, in honor of the god of wine and ecstasy Bacchus (the Roman Dionysus), took place in February and March, celebrating the return of the Sun and the beginning of spring. The Lupercalia, celebrated around February 15th, was in honor of the wild goat-god Pan of the woods. Lupercans, Pan’s priests, used to leave the temples wearing no clothes and soaked in goat blood, and after being milk-washed and covered with male goat-leather, they ran after people on the streets beating them with a belt. Virgin women, when touched, believed they would be fertile, and the pregnant ones, if touched believed they would have a painless labor. Celebrations linked to natural time cycles have taken place since ancient times and were linked, as already noted, to agriculture. Thus, Saturnalias were celebrated in honor to god Saturn, who had taught the art of agriculture to Romans.


However, as the theory goes, as societies were getting more organized under strict laws, people needed escape valves to let off steam, as it were, so the festivals became more licentious, transgressive, and unruly. By the late medieval period and into the early modern period, this unruly aspect of Carnival became more and more pronounced. A “Lord of Misrule” was elected to preside over the revelries, which issued in what sociologists call the “ritual of social inversion,” wherein the dominate social hierarchy is inverted. In other words, “the world is turned upside-down”—beggars become kings and kings beggars. However, the idea of the inverse world (where everyday laws are turned upside down and those who usually have to bow their heads and serve call the shots) again reaches back to antiquity. The chasing away of winter, darkness, and evil spirits has been a tradition since ancient times.


This ritual inversion of hierarchy resulted in “lowering of all that is high.” During this pre-carnival festival time, “everyone rejoices to sing in unison, the music and singing renders a festive carnival spirit … and the whole atmosphere reinforces how carnival laughter is,” as Mikhail Bakhtin put it, the “laughter of all people.” The way of the carnival spirit embodied in defeating the opponent with laughter or subverting hierarchies of power through derision, can be employed by an “isolated-comicevent.” The carnival transforms into a tool for presenting the liberation of the oppressor through laughter where the oppressor cannot be part of the experience of a group of people or an individual resisting the harmful effects of power through laughter. Carnival was described by Bakhtin as an event where “everyone participates” and “since carnival lasts, there is no other life outside.” This is what Bakhtin’s theory of “carnivalesque” is all about.


Among these wild Roman festivals, it seems the real origin of Carnival is the Saturnalia, which celebrated fertility. The analogies are too striking and the succession too natural to allow the slightest doubt. But, in a more general way, one finds there the vestiges of the religious festivals that all the populations since antiquity celebrated at the beginning of each new year to make it favorable or in the spring to symbolize the rebirth of nature. During the Saturnalias (December 17 to 23), social differences were abolished, slaves were set free, schools and courts were closed. Everybody sang and danced in the streets, feasted and drank excessively. These were days and nights of total anarchy. The Roman Saturnalia’s main characteristic was the opening parade with big carts imitating ships—the carrum navalis—accompanied by naked men and women dancing wildly and obscenely. (Again, some cultural historians say that the Italian expression “carnivale” originated from carrum navalis.) Regarding to these lascivious Greco-Roman festivals, Francisco Duarte, a carnaval historian, explains: “Saturn, Bacchus and Dionysius, from the first echelon of Greek-Roman Gods, used the ‘virtues’ from these two Sub-Olympus Gods to ‘activate’ their priests and priestesses in said festivals, festivals that gave origin to our present and fond carnival. It was first celebrated in 1855 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.”


At the end of the Middle Ages, the carnival was already the occasion of exuberant festivities, even of great excesses. Regarding these unruly carnivals, the Church sometimes supervises, sometimes promotes, sometimes condemns. If some popes seek to develop the festivities, some members of the clergy, on the contrary, preach against the carnival and its obscene manifestations. In any case, there is little they can do to counter the popular craze that surrounds these festivals all over Europe. Of all expressions of the universal festal culture instinct, the grand pageant of Carnival may well be the most enduring and widely observed in the world today. Ostensibly, a festival of Christian affiliation with origins in the laity of the Roman Catholic Church, the essentially pagan and secular nature of Carnival and its celebration of sensuality makes for a timeless phenomenon with natural mass appeal to comers of all persuasions. Thus, according to Mikhail Bakhtin, the carnivalesque Carnival is a sort of emblem of free popular culture, and he described its subversive festivity as “the second life of the people, based on the principle of laughter.”

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Schembartlauf carnival.jpg
Schembart Carnival figure 5.jpg

A Note on the Nuremberg Schembart Carnival


Nuremberg’s Schembart (Shrovetide) Carnival history was documented by hand in around 80 Schembart manuscripts that are still preserved today.


The “Schembart Carnival” or “Nuremberg Shrovetide Carnival” (German: “Schembartlauf”) was a popular pre-Lenten season festival (or “Forelent”) that took place in Nuremberg, Germany, from around 1449 to the end of the Middle Ages (i.e., from the 15th to the 16th centuries). From 1475 they carried carnival floats called “Heels” or “Hell”. One of the most important of these processional floats was the “carrus navalis” (“ship-cart” or “wheel-boat,” which is a possible Latin word origin for the word car-nival). The carnival featured costumed men with bearded masks carved of wood, carrying on, lampooning elites, and generally acting foolishly. 


In 1539 there was a political uproar after the carnival participants ridiculed a popular preacher. Due to the complaints of an important town dignitary, the carnival was banned in 1539.


The famous German humanist, theologian, and master of Canon Law, Lorenz Behaim (c.1457 - 1521), from Nürnberg, wrote to his friend Pirckheimer on February 21, 1507: “You should have let off steam while fasting. Had I known, I would have come to Nuremberg to romp with you.” A few years later, a visitor to Nuremberg reported from Augsburg: “The noble councilor had the opening of the carnival joy proclaimed. As soon as the mummies jumped out of the houses happily and happily, they had dolled themselves up as Moorish women, heathen men, as lusty women, beautiful women and wandering women, some as birds, sea women ….”


Some authorities on the subject of the Schembart Carnival believe it's the premodern precursor of the Mardi Gras carnival.

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The Commedia dell'Arte

Commedia dell'arte, meaning "comedy of the profession,” was an early form of professional theatre, originating from Italy, that was popular in Europe from the 16th to the 18th century. Commedia dell'arte was formerly called Italian comedy in English. Commedia is a form of theatre characterized by masked "types" which began in Italy in the 16th century and was responsible for the advent of improvised performances based on sketches or scenarios. A special characteristic of commedia dell'arte are the lazzi. A lazzo is a joke or "something foolish or witty", usually well known to the performers and to some extent a scripted routine. Commedia dell'arte was often performed outside on platforms or in popular areas such as a piazza. The form of theatre originated in Italy, but travelled throughout Europe and even to Moscow.


The commedia genesis may be related to carnival in Venice. It is uncertain at what point the characters donned the mask. However, the connection to carnival (the period between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday) would suggest that masking was a convention of carnival and was applied at some point.


Although Commedia dell'arte flourished in Italy during the Mannerist period, there has been a long-standing tradition of trying to establish historical antecedents in antiquity. While it is possible to detect formal similarities between the commedia dell'arte and earlier theatrical traditions, there is no way to establish certainty of origin.


Some date the origins to the period of the Roman Republic (Plautine types) or the Empire (Atellan Farces). The Atellan Farces of the Roman Empire featured crude "types" wearing masks with grossly exaggerated features and an improvised plot. Some historians argue that Atellan stock characters, Pappus, Maccus+Buccus, and Manducus, are the primitive versions of the Commedia characters Pantalone, Pulcinella, and il Capitano. More recent accounts establish links to the medieval jongleurs, and prototypes from medieval moralities, such as Hellequin (as the source of Harlequin, for example). The name of the commedia's most famous character, Harlequin, is derived from the Erl-King, the leader of the Wild Hunt, the army of the dead. 


The first recorded commedia dell'arte performances came from Rome as early as 1551. Commedia dell'arte was performed outdoors in temporary venues by professional actors who were costumed and masked.


In commedia dell'arte, female roles were played by women, documented as early as the 1560s, making them the first known professional actresses in Europe since antiquity. The Italian scholar Ferdinando Taviani has collated a number of church documents opposing the advent of the actress as a kind of courtesan, whose scanty attire and promiscuous lifestyle corrupted young men, or at least infused them with carnal desires. Taviani's term negativa poetica describes this and other practices offensive to the church, while giving us an idea of the phenomenon of the commedia dell'arte performance.


I Gelosi, “the Zealous Ones”, was an Italian acting troupe that performed commedia dell'arte from 1569 to 1604. By the mid-16th century, specific troupes of commedia performers began to coalesce, and by 1568 the Gelosi became a distinct company. In keeping with the tradition of the Italian Academies, I Gelosi adopted as their impress (or coat of arms) the two-faced Roman god Janus. Janus symbolized both the comings and goings of this traveling troupe, and the dual nature of the actor who impersonates the "other."


Zanni, Zani or Zane is a character type of Commedia dell'arte best known as an astute servant and a trickster. The Zanni comes from the countryside and is known to be a "dispossessed immigrant worker". Through time, the Zanni grew to be a popular figure who was first seen in commedia as early as the 14th century. It is one of the oldest characters in commedia dell'arte but over the course of time became subdivided into a number of similar characters with more specific traits.


Curiously, commedia dell'arte was equally if not more popular in France, where it continued its popularity throughout the 17th century (until 1697), and it was in France that commedia developed its established repertoire. Commedia evolved into various configurations across Europe, and each country acculturated the form to its liking.


During the Napoleonic occupation of Italy, instigators of reform and critics of French Imperial rule (such as Giacomo Casanova) used the carnival masks to hide their identities while fueling political agendas, challenging social rule and hurling blatant insults and criticisms at the regime. In 1797, in order to destroy the impromptu style of carnival as a partisan platform, Napoleon outlawed the commedia dell'arte. It was not reborn in Venice until 1979.


Compagnie, or companies, were troupes of actors, each of whom had a specific function or role. A troupe often consisted of ten performers of familiar masked and unmasked types, and included women. These compagnie traveled throughout Europe from the early period, beginning with the Soldati, then, the Ganassa, who traveled to Spain, and were famous for playing the guitar and singing—never to be heard from again—and the famous troupes of the Golden Age (1580–1605): Gelosi, Confidenti, Accessi. However, each troupe had its impresse (like a coat of arms) which symbolized its nature. The Gelosi, for example, used the two-headed face of the Roman god Janus, to signify its comings and goings and relationship to the season of Carnival, which took place in January. Janus also signified the duality of the actor, who is playing a character or mask, while still remaining oneself.


Magistrates and clergy were not always receptive to the traveling compagnie (companies), particularly during periods of plague, and because of their itinerant nature. Actors, both male and female, were known to strip nearly naked, and storylines typically descended into crude situations with overt sexuality, considered to teach nothing but "lewdness and adultery...of both sexes" by the French Parliament. The term vagabondi was used in reference to the comici, and remains a derogatory term to this day (vagabond). This was in reference to the nomadic nature of the troupes, often instigated by persecution from the Church, civil authorities, and rival theatre organizations that forced the companies to move from place to place. This nomadic nature, though influenced by persecution, was also largely due in part to the troupes requiring new (and paying) audiences.


Women, who usually played servants or lovers, wore less stylized costumes than the men in commedia. The lovers, Innamorati, would wear what was considered to be the fashion of the time period. They would only wear plain half-masks with no character distinction or street makeup.


Conventional plot lines were written on themes of sex, jealousy, love and old age. Many of the basic plot elements can be traced back to the Roman comedies of Plautus and Terence, some of which were themselves translations of lost Greek comedies of the 4th century BC. However, it is more probable that the comici used contemporary novella, or, traditional sources as well, and drew from current events and local news of the day. Not all scenari were comic, there were some mixed forms and even tragedies. Shakespeare's The Tempest is drawn from a popular scenario in the Scala collection, his Polonius (Hamlet) is drawn from Pantalone, and his clowns bear homage to the zanni.


Comici performed written comedies at court. Song and dance were widely used, and a number of innamorati were skilled madrigalists, a song form that uses chromatics and close harmonies. Since the productions were improvised, dialogue and action could easily be changed to satirize local scandals, current events, or regional tastes, while still using old jokes and punchlines. Characters were identified by costumes, masks, and props, such as a type of baton known as a slapstick. These characters included the forebears of the modern clown, namely Harlequin (arlecchino) and the zanni. Harlequin, in particular, was allowed to comment on current events in his entertainment.


The classic, traditional plot is that the innamorati are in love and wish to be married, but one elder (vecchio) or several elders (vecchi) are preventing this from happening, leading the lovers to ask one or more zanni (eccentric servants) for help. Typically the story ends happily, with the marriage of the innamorati and forgiveness for any wrongdoings.


Music and dance were central to commedia dell'arte performance. Brighella was often depicted with a guitar, and many images of the commedia feature singing innamorati or dancing figures. In fact, it was considered part of the innamorati function to be able to sing and have the popular repertoire under their belt.



The Ancient Origins of the Commedia dell'arte


The Commedia dell'arte claimed its origins partly in the ancient masked comedians, retrieving an archaic imagery for the modern European stage.


In the early twentieth century, there was an influential group of classical scholars (mostly at Cambridge University), the “myth and ritual school,” who traced the commedia back to Roman Comedy, Greek New and Old Comedy, and even further, to unwritten fertility dramas.


The ritualists concluded that the commedia dell’arte derived from ancient sources. Immediately, it derived from earlier forms of Italian comedy which in turn derived from the Roman comedy of Plautus and Terence. They in turn drew on Greek New Comedy, which evolved from Old Greek Comedy (Aristophanes). New Comedy sophisticated Old Comedy, which used particular people, by being based on universal types.


Greek theater was a competitive event enmeshed within a complex religious festival. The drama played within a ritual that may have included the sacrifices and prayers and feasting of the Dionysian rite. Indeed the endings of some Old Comedies go right into the ritual feast itself.


Old Comedy was thus religious and political, and it aimed originally at purifying the city of its faults, embodied in this or that person, by making fun of them and rejecting them. More secular, New Comedy like Menander’s turned the characters of Greek Old Comedy from actual persons into familiar types from everyday life. Less particular, more farcical and romantic, this kind of comedy fitted all times and places, expressing the philosophical, even psychological, interests of the later period.


Both New and Old Comedy, however, according to the “ritualist” school, fitted their characters into types derived from even earlier forms. They may have stemmed from the komos, a kind of roving drinking party associated with the worship of Dionysus, god of laughter, drunkenness, and dark psychic forces—in general, the irrational. The komos involved ritual abuse—a “roast,” we would call it—like Old Comedy.


The Old Comedy roast derived ultimately from prehistoric, unrecorded fertility dramas. These unwritten fertility dramas served a ritual, religious purpose. They sought to ensure a good harvest by re-enacting the triumph of spring over winter, plenty over famine, or the new year over the old. They took the form of a fight between a protagonist and an antagonist, throwing out the latter and thereby cleansing the community


The protagonist was known as the eiron, who appears in whiteface because dead and reborn (whiteness was associated with the dead, hence the modern European “white” clown). The antagonist was known as the alazon, who is associated with death and so appears in blackface. (In French passion plays, the stock character Hellequin was a black-faced emissary of the devil.) In the drams, at first the alazon seems to triumph, but the eiron comes back to life and wins in the end, marrying the goddess-like woman, who stands for the community or plenty or the earth.

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The Land of Cockaigne and the Country of Cuccagna

The dream of the common person’s utopia was more than a little bit different during medieval times. Whereas today we have visions of lands o’ plenty like a huge mountain made of rock candy, the common peasant living in the muck and the mire of medieval Europe had a whimsical, satirical dream land known as Cockaigne. *


While there have been many different versions of Cockaigne appearing in literature throughout the ages, in general, the Land of Cockaigne was a medieval dream world where the regular order things was flipped on its head. In Cockaigne, the poor would be rich, food and sex were freely available, and sloth was treasured and respected above all else. It was often portrayed as the perfect daydream of the common peasant, a place where the drudgery and struggle of medieval life was nowhere to be seen. However, even though it was depicted as a serf’s perfect world, it’s unclear how aware of the concept of Cockaigne the average person would have been.


This literal land of milk and honey made its mark in the popular imagination thanks to countless poems and writings that began to appear all across medieval Europe from the 1300s onward. ‘It’s very hard to say how well common people would have known of Cockaigne,’ says Karma Lochrie, author of the book, Nowhere in the Middle Ages, which looks at the medieval origins of utopian thought. ‘We know that visions of Cockaigne existed in all major European languages in the Middle Ages and beyond, but these visions would have only been accessible to elite readers who could read.’ *


Nonetheless, with the spread of the printing press, tales and poems of Cockaigne became widespread enough that they would eventually reach a wider audience. As Lochrie says, while there are a great number of versions of Cockaigne, the most widely known account is a poem from around 1350 called ‘The Land of Cockaygne.’ Contained in what is thought to have been a friar’s notebook, the poem details many of the barely imaginable wonders that Cockaigne had to offer, and gives us an unforgettable look into both the nature of the satire and the aspirations of people of the time....”


(From website:

“Life in Cockaigne is full of pleasures and delights….


Although it may be the idea of insatiable gourmets and unquenchable gourmands that comes to mind, originally it was other pleasures – freedom, youth and sensuality – that were satisfied in Cockaigne. The historical context explains the myth that is, according to some historians, the only utopia of the Middle Ages. Cockaigne first appeared in oral accounts in the middle of the 12th century in Europe, at a time when, for all the economic and social development, food shortages had not been eradicated.


The first known text, the French Fabliau de Cocagne, dates back to around 1250. Fifty-eight of its 188 verses are about food, and can be seen as the dream of heavenly abundance on earth, in which hunger, and especially the fear of there being too little, are unknown. In an eternal month of May, idleness reigns and money never runs out, a fountain of rejuvenation heals and gives eternal youth, men and women indulge unrestrictedly in countless physical delights without law or morality to spoil the fun....”


(From website:

In the late 12th century one Goliardic poem in Latin, Carmina Burana, mentions the name ‘Cucania’ and speaks about a self-styled ‘abbot of Cockaygne’ (an abbas Cucaniensis), who presides over drinking and gambling. It gives the descriptions of the two abbeys in Cockaygne, which invert the usual norms of religious life....

An Old French poem from the 13th century, Le Fabliau de Cocagne, offered a description of Cokaygne with houses made of food and rivers of milk and beer. Le Fabliau de Cocagne literally means ‘land of plenty.’ Modern French spells it ‘pays de cocagne’ with the same meaning, and also has ‘vie de cocagne’ for a life of pleasure.

A letter to Lucia, venerable abbess of Cokaygne, composed by Henricus de Isernia, a notary at the court of King Ottokar II of Bohemia (1253−78), described a land of milk and honey where no harmful creature could exist, where there was a river, full of jewels, that descended from paradise, and a fountain of youth, and sensual nuns swimming naked in a stream. It was an island where manna rained down from heaven and people desired no other food. It was a land of perfect harmony, no one was poor, and no one was adulterous....”

(From website:



“The name ‘Cockaigne’ essentially means ‘land of plenty.’ The word has its roots in the Latin ‘cucaniensis’, and in turn passed into Middle English as ‘Cokaygne’ Middle French as ‘cocaigne’ and Middle German kokenje – all of which are names for small cakes. Across Europe, the Cockaigne had other variations. In Italy, it was ‘Paese della Cuccag,’ while in Belgium it was ‘Luilekkerland.’ To the Germans, it was Schlaraffenland while in Spain it was País de CucaÖ the fool’s paradise. All, however, continued to encompass the idea of a land of leisure and plenty.


This concept of a ‘land of plenty’ predates the Middle Ages. Besides the obvious similarities between the Christian heaven and the Garden of Eden, Cockaigne was a concept that drew heavily on earlier classical traditions. Lucian’s True History, which dates from the second century AD, gives an idea of where the concept of Cockaigne originates. In his account, Lucian describes his voyage to several mysterious islands, which were forty days beyond the pillars of Hercules. Each isle contained elements which eerily reminiscent of Cockaigne regarding unlimited food and drink, leisure and uncensored promiscuity.


The first island featured a great river of wine, whose source was ‘mighty great vine trees of infinite number.’ The roots of these trees distilled the wine that flowed down the river. Further along on their journey, the sailors encounter another island made of a whole cheese afloat in a sea of milk. They then journey to a strange land whose crops bore whole loaves of bread instead of the grain to make them and more rivers of wine, and this time milk. It was in this land that the sailors feasted in woods of unnatural beauty, garlanded with flowers of the perfect color and scent in the company of unlimited sexual partners of both sexes.....”

(From website:


“Cockaigne isn't heaven, according to medieval peasants—it's better than heaven. The 14th-century English poem ‘The Land of Cockaygne’ actually opens with a description of heaven. Paradise, the poem explains, is boring. It's just grass and trees, with some fruit to eat. And worse of all, there's ‘no bench, no chamber, and no hall; no alcoholic drink at all.’ How could a place be Paradise without alcohol? For medieval peasants, in addition to the abundance of meat, Cockaigne is a utopia because it has rivers of wine. Peasants who were tired of drinking water probably loved the promise that ‘water's uses there are few—for washing in, and for the view.’” ~Genevieve Carlton

The word cuccagna may be related to the name “Cockaigne,” a paradise on earth where no one ever goes hungry, grows old, or has to work hard. Here rocks are made of melted cheese and trees of butter. Houses are lined with cheese tarts and have doors made of cakes. Rivers and lakes are made of wine, milk, and honey, and the heavens rain candies....


The Italian town of Cuccagna is an ideal place, mentioned in many texts from every era, where well-being, abundance and pleasure are within everyone's reach....

Among the most complete descriptions of the country of Cuccagna made by Italian authors we remember the ‘New History of the city of Cuccagna,’ written at the end of the fifteenth century by Alessandro da Siena, where all the refinements of a country full of wonders are described with great effectiveness of the palate and also of different pleasures....


The greatest Italian novel, I promessi sposi by Alessandro Manzoni, quotes ‘the Country of the Cuccagna.’ Another description, with more details, is found in the anonymous poem published in Siena in 1581 entitled ‘Capitolo di Cuccagna,’ where everything is pleasant, life passes eating and sleeping at will, where everyone can live blissfully without masters, without distinction of class and without work.... *

(Wikipedia: “Country of Cuccagna”)


(Wikipedia: “Country of Cockaigne”)

Italy was famous for Cuccagna festivals. These carnivalistic festivals represented an earthy paradise where no one went hungry. Cuccagna festivals brought the dreamworld of Cockaigne to life. Festivals often began with a procession down a city’s main street. Floats and carriages with royalty on board drove through hungry throngs. Once they reached the palace, the royals joined their noble guests in a sumptuous feast replete with edible art in the form of “edible monuments” and sumptuous decorative tablescapes. For centuries, European poets and artists described the magical land of Cockaigne, or Cuccagna, where the lazy were king and food fell from the sky. One 14th-century poem described rivers of milk and honey. The most elaborate Cuccagna festivals were always in Naples. The city elite watched from their balconies, but the Cuccagna was meant as entertainment for the whole city. The first Cuccagna displays were more like parade floats, but by the 18th century, they were stationary. The philosophy of the Cuccagna was always excess. “Too much was never a concept they absorbed,” obverses Marcia Reed (chief curator at the Getty Research Institute) of the Neapolitans, whose idea of a good time was “More fireworks, more food, more fountains.” While there aren’t many similar events these days, Reed notes that food is still a central theme at festivals, such as Macy’s Day Parade. Other researches into Cuccagna festivals liken them with Mardi Gras carnivals.


The Land of Cockaigne, known in Dutch literature as Luilekkerland, is  a “country of the lazy and gluttonous.” This moralistic attitude is evident in Bruegel’s 1567 painting, “The Land of Cockaigne,” which shows a soldier, peasant, and a clerk lying under a table around a tree are shown sleeping off the effects of their overindulgence, or waiting for more drink to imbibe. The image's moralizing intent—to decry the vices of sloth and gluttony—is apparent from the first part of the Dutch inscription below: “The lazy and gluttonous farmers, soldiers, and clerks get there and taste all for nothing.” Though Bruegel is credited with the inspiration for the design—“P. Bruegel. inventor” appears in the lower left corner—it is unclear whether the master was involved in the production of the print, which was probably engraved by Pieter van der Heyden. This negative judgment on The Land of Cockaigne is why I have excluded  Bruegel's painting.


* The word “Nowhere” in Lochrie’s book title refers to the term “utopia,” which literally means “nowhere” or “no place.” A utopia or eutopia typically describes an imaginary community or society that possesses highly desirable or nearly perfect qualities for its members. It was coined by Sir Thomas More for his 1516 book Utopia, describing a fictional island society in the New World. However, it may also denote an intentional community. Centuries later, in 1890, the artist, designer, and socialist pioneer, William Morris, published his classic work, News from Nowhere, which combined utopian socialism and soft science fiction.


* Etymology of Cockaigne: The term Cockaignecomes Old French Cocaigne from the 12 century and from the Middle French phrase pais de cocaigne,  which literally means the land of plenty. The word was first popularized in a 13th-century Old French poem, “Le Fabliau de Cocagne,” that is known in English as The Land of Cockaigne.” (Variant etymology: From Old French Cocaigne, of obscure origin, but the many references to sweet delicacies in the 13th century poem that is the first record of the word indicate that it came from a Germanic word for a cake, probably the ancestor of the modern German kuchen.)


* Etymology of Cuccagna: The term Cuccagna derives from the Provençal cocanha (Old French cocagne) and this from the Gothic kōka (“cake” see German kuchen, English cake. Gascon coco, Catalan coca).


The name Cocaine comes from the ancient Anglo-Saxon culture of Britain. It was a name for a person who was considered a dreamer derived from the Old French word coquaigne, which referred to an imaginary paradise. Accordingly, other references show Cockaigne or Cockayne as a medieval mythical land of extreme luxury as noted in poems like The Land of Cockaigne. (Cocaine History, Family Crest & Coats of Arms.)

Anchor 23

America Personified as a Female Goddess and Other Figures


In the both the European and American imagination, America was pictured as female. In other words, womanhood was metaphorical.


With its independence and freedom established by the Treaty of Paris in  1783,  the  United  States of America set forth on the adventure of nationhood. The adoption of the Federal Constitution, the successful presidential administrations of Washington, the admission of the first new states, and evidences of growth and prosperity inspired Americans of every station to feel the promise of American life and the significance, for all mankind, of their experiment in republican government. The ideals of liberty, independence, federal union, opportunity, and plenty were held to  be part of the legacy of the new nation and their attainment within reach.


In the national pride and aspiration of this era, there was a continuous need to refer to the new nation as a living entity with a palpable spirit. Following an ancient impulse, Americans personified their country for a hundred purposes and occasions to represent a grateful nation on Congressional medals, a dignified nation on official coins, a unified and prosperous nation on banners carried in civic parades, a nation interested in the arts and sciences on frontispieces of national magazines, a noble, attractive nation  in  prints  to  be  placed  on  the  walls  of  homes, a  heroic,  powerful nation on the sculptured decoration of public buildings. The United States was actively and continuously represented by symbolic figures giving it a needed public image during the years from 1783 to 1815. The figures which artists employed to personify the country during these years reflect diverse ways of thinking and feeling about the early Republic both in this country and abroad.


One prominent public image that was used to personify America and its ideals was the invented goddess Columbia. Columbia was also a poetic and historical name applied to not only the Americas and to the New World in general but also the original Thirteen Colonies which formed the United States.  (Columbia is a New Latin toponym, in use since the 1730s with reference to the  Thirteen Colonies. It originated from the name of the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus and from the Latin ending -ia, common in the Latin names of countries, paralleling BritanniaGallia, and others). While poets had begun depicting Columbia before the American Revolution, the earliest political cartoons utilizing her as the personification of the United States date from the War of 1812. Columbia was similar in function to Uncle Sam today. She has been used to show the more "respectable" aspects of the U.S., such as freedom and equality, liberty and more, even though she was also originally used to represent the progress of "Manifest Destiny." She was often depicted as a young white woman in flowing garments, though features such as clothes, hair, and facial structure varied by artist to artist. Columbia became a very important figure during the American Civil War, a time when the country was in fear of splitting apart. Comic artists often used Columbia to illustrate the plight of the American people and to critique the government. Columbia’s role during this time was to serve as a motherly figure and to remind Americans of their roots and promise to be a country free for all.

The earliest type of personification of the Americas, seen in European art from the 16th century onwards, reflected the tropical regions in South and Central America from which the earliest travelers reported back. These were most often used in sets of female personifications of the Four Continents. [First two images depict this America and Four Continents.] While Europe possessed the image of a noble or a Roman goddess, America "was usually envisioned as a rather fierce savage – only slightly removed in type from the medieval tradition of the wild man." (This is not to suggest that only America was radically different from Europe in terms of the figure’s appearance. Outside of personification, Asia took a dramatically different appearance from Europe.) The cultural elements or wildlife depicted did not always stand up to what America’s reality actually was. Indeed, as time went on, instead of familiarity breeding authenticity in depictions, artistic license became even more rampant. "As the New World became less threatening to Europeans, its personification grew softer, more decorative, more Arcadian. Amazons gave way to graceful young women, whom the European taste for exoticism endowed with an ever more voluptuous appeal." By virtue of this, the depiction of America as a wild savage shifted into being a noble savage, or "Indian princess." The first personification images made by Europeans settled in America included some versions of the European types, including engravings by Paul Revere, but such European-Americans were not long happy being symbolised by Native Americans, with whom they were often at war. Before independence they had already begun to use figures combining aspects of Britannia and Liberty, and after it quickly dropped the former. The figures were now sometimes called "America" and sometimes "Liberty," later mostly settling on the latter. Through most of the nineteenth century American coins carried a neoclassical female head labelled "Liberty". Although Columbia was in literary use from around 1730, she does not seem to have been used in images until later, around 1800. Columbia was the mythical figure adopted by the founding generation of the early United States.


America was depicted as a woman who, like Africa, was only partly dressed, typically in bright feathers, which invariably formed her headress. She often held a parrot, was seated on a caiman or armadillo, with a cornucopia. Massachusetts Chief Justice Samuel Sewall used the name Columbina (not Columbia) for the New World in 1697. The name Columbia for America first appeared in 1738 in the weekly publication of the debates of Parliament in Edward Cave's The Gentleman's Magazine. Publication of Parliamentary debates was technically illegal, so the debates were issued under the thin disguise of Reports of the Debates of the Senate of Lilliput and fictitious names were used for most individuals and place-names found in the record. Most of these were transparent anagrams or similar distortions of the real names and some few were taken directly from Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, while a few others were classical or neoclassical in style.Thus, the name "Columbia" for America used in the sense of "European colonies in the New World." The use of Columbia as a personification of America began as early as the late seventeenth century. 

By the time of the American Revolution, the name Columbia had lost the comic overtone of its Lilliputian origins and had become established as an alternative, or poetic name for America. The name Columbia rapidly came to be applied to a variety of items reflecting American identity. However, no serious consideration was given to using the name Columbia as an official name for the independent United States, but with independence, the name became popular and was given to many counties, townships, and towns as well as other institutions. Thus, after the defeat of the British in 1783, America found itself free from international harassment and a wide open frontier of unknowable bounty. What was needed was an icon, a symbol by which to galvanize and direct the consciousness of the American people. In part, the more frequent usage of the name "Columbia" reflected a rising American neoclassicism, exemplified in the tendency to use Roman terms and symbols. (For instance, this neoclassicism can be seen in the selection of the eagle as the national bird and its heraldric use, the use of the term Senate to describe the upper house of Congress and the naming of Capitol Hill and the Capitol building were all conscious evocations of Roman precedents.) In the imagery of this period, Columbia did not have either the feathered or plumed headdress, but often either went bareheaded or had the helmet associated with Minerva, the Goddess of Wisdom. She tended to be dressed in classical white robes or sometimes the national banner. She also was usually accompanied by other symbols of America, such as the shield, flag, and eagle. The adjective Columbian has been used to mean "of or from the United States of America" such as in the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition held in Chicago, Illinois. It has occasionally even been proposed as an alternative word for American.  


As a quasi-mythical figure, Columbia first appears in the poetry of the African-American Phillis Wheatley in 1776, during the Revolutionary War:

One century scarce perform'd its destined round,
When Gallic powers Columbia's fury found;
And so may you, whoever dares disgrace
The land of freedom's heaven-defended race!
Fix'd are the eyes of nations on the scales,
For in their hopes Columbia's arm prevails

Especially in the 19th century, Columbia was visualized as a goddess-like female national personification of the United States and of liberty itself, comparable to the British Britannia, the Italian Italia Turrita and the French Marianne, often seen in political cartoons of the 19th and early 20th century. The personification was sometimes called "Lady Columbia" or "Miss Columbia." The image of the personified Columbia was never fixed, but she was most often presented as a woman between youth and middle age, wearing classically-draped garments decorated with stars and stripes. A popular version gave her a red-and-white-striped dress and a blue blouse, shawl, or sash, spangled with white stars. Her headdress varied and sometimes it included feathers reminiscent of a Native American headdress while other times it was a laurel wreath, but most often, it was a cap of liberty.


Such iconography usually personified America in the form of an Indian queen or Native American princess. From the 16th to the 19th century, European and American artists used the images of Native American women as allegorical representations of the American continent, the American colonies, and the United States of America.  These dramatized images changed in form and substance during their several hundred of years of use.  But the consistent goal of Europeans and Americans in creating and circulating these images was to dictate new narratives about indigenous peoples that suited their colonialist gaze. First depicted as an “Indian queen” in printed engravings, tapestries, and sculptures, this representation of native women carried implements of war and postured near severed heads and exotic plants and animals. (These depictions of female  personifications of America by European artists, tending as time went on to soften the rather savage image into an "Indian princess" type, were by the 18th century becoming rejected by settlers in North America, who wanted figures representing themselves rather than the Native Americans they were often in conflict with.)  These images reflected European reactions to the “new world,” which they perceived as a foreign and hostile environment.  As European exploration progressed, artists started depicting an opulent, heavyset Indian queen sitting or standing among the abundant natural resources of the Americas.


From 1755 to the War of Independence, an “Indian princess” replaced the queen as a symbol of America.  The younger, thinner, less warlike representation became an allegory of the American colonies, distinct from Great Britain.  A feathered headdress and skirt became customary dress and complexions became lighter.  This new imagery could be found on political and non-political prints, serial publications, map cartouches, figurines, medals, and other objects.  But it most frequently appeared in images pertaining to British-colonial relations, the American pursuit of liberty, and issues of commerce and trade. Following the War of Independence, Columbia and neoclassical female figures gradually replaced the Indian princess as the symbol of America.  (Columbia would in turn be overshadowed by Brother Jonathan and Uncle Sam in the antebellum United States.) Columbia’s figure appears on or within many state and federal buildings constructed in the 19th century, usually cast in bronze and often pointing or facing West. She adorns the Wisconsin Capitol building, sculpted by the same Daniel Chester French who constructed the greatest rendition of Columbia in history, the 65-foot-tall Statue of the Republic commissioned for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago, Illinois. She reposes atop the Texas Capitol holding the sword of Justice and raising aloft a blazing golden star. She lends her name to numerous towns across America, she is the patron of Columbia University and the seat of governmental power stands in a district built in her honor: The District of Columbia.


Beginning in the 1780s, other allegories for America became prevalent in print culture.  Having defeated the British in the war, the New Republic began to re-imagine its national identity.  These changes meant that the Indian princess allegory no longer fit the United States’ vision of itself as an independent country. As the Indian princess replaced the Indian queen, a figure who represented both the natural resources of the Americas and settler fears of indigenous peoples, the Revolutionary-themed Indian princess allegory would also be replaced by Columbia.  Columbia embodied classical ideals that the United States turned to during its Greek Revival period, and represented a more powerful figure as the United States looked toward becoming a colonial power.


Consequently, the Indian princess allegory turned into a popular folk figure.  In these representations, she often retained her trademark bow and arrows and feathered headdress and skirt.  The Indian princess becomes Anglo-European in appearance, yet in keeping with contemporary American views of indigenous peoples, she is still portrayed as an exoticized woman. 

Images of the Statue of Liberty (Liberty Enlightening the World, erected in 1886) largely displaced personified Columbia as the female symbol of the United States by around 1920, although Lady Liberty was seen as an aspect of Columbia.

The second style of America that appeared in prints was a goddess-like figure in Greco-Roman robes and with a headdress plumed with ostrich plumes (instead of eagle feathers as for the Indian figure). This change was the result of the popularity of the neoclassical style which influenced American architecture, poetry, dress and the graphic arts beginning near the end of the eighteenth century. This Greek figure would often be accompanied by other classical figures and symbols like a pyramid, altar, or urn. (A good example of this is the print of "American Guided by Wisdom." [See below for description.]

The third style for America in prints was that of the Goddess of Liberty, based upon the Roman goddess Libertas. Libertas traditionally appears in the visual arts as a female who wears a Phrygian cap (also referred to as a pileus) and who holds a staff or stake, the so-called "liberty pole." In Latin, the word libertas means freedom, the state of being free from physical constraint or despotic control. The personification of liberty thus derives from antiquity, where it first stood for personal freedom from manumission and, later, in the Roman empire, when it referred to both political liberty and constitutional government. (Libertas, or Liberty, who is often associated in the Roman Empire with the freeing of slaves. This was represented by her holding out a pileus, a felt cap, which was then given to a slave as a sign that they were now free.) The personification became codified in seventeenth-century emblem books and was used subsequently during the American and French Revolutions. During that time, Libertas symbolized freedom from tyranny, as is evident in the Paul Revere masthead for the Massachusetts Spy in 1781. [See "Thematic Images of  the Goddess of Liberty" gallery for this masthead.] Symbols of Liberty (the pole and cap of Liberty) were often associated with other figures representing America, but the American Revolution and the founding principles of the new nation were so closely identified with the cause of Liberty, that the figure of this goddess soon became, in effect, Americanized. She would often be shown with the American flag, shield, or eagle, or associated with stars representing the states. The Statue of Liberty is a prime example of this.

Anchor 24

Description of Prints for America as Personified Female Allegories


The six allegorical (engraved) prints ending the section "Thematic Images of the Imagination of America, from 16th to the 19th Centuries" depict the 19th-century evolution of the "Indian Princess" and the "Goddess Columbia" as allegories of America. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, educated viewers understood far more than we do about classical iconography and were able to read and understand allegories. (The description of the thumbnail prints in the galleries are placed in the expanded windows of each image.) 


The prints are described in order of placement from left to right as follows:

(1) "The Female Combatants, or Who Shall" (1776)

In this allegorical political cartoon (by an unknown artist) an elegantly dressed and coiffed woman, representing Britain, exchanges blows with the tatooed female America, naked but for a skirt of feathers and a feathered headdress, representing the popular anthropomorphic image of the North American colonies as a beautiful but vulnerable, hostile but virgin Native American princess in a “state of nature.” The first says "I'll force you to obedience you rebellious slut," as America answers "Liberty, liberty for ever Mother while I exist." In the left foreground a shield bearing a compass rose leans agains a tree which is shedding its leaves. A corresponding tree on the right has full foliage with a cap of liberty at its top, while the shield before it displays a pointing hand on which stands a rooster. Ribbons below the British and American shields are titled, respectively, "For obedience" and "For liberty". The verbal exchange between the combatants (who, in other contexts, are the goddess Britannia vs. the goddess Columbia) demonstrates the differing ideological premises of the colonists and the English. The brawl between Mother England and Daughter America (a mother-daughter motif of the relationship between Britain and America that was popular at the time) points toward the cleavage of the colonies from the metropole and helps us understand the ideological fracturing between English systems of natural authority and submission and the new American conceptualization of government as, unlike a parent-child relationship, based upon free choice and consent. In the foreground are images pertaining to America as the Goddess of Liberty: the ancient Phrygian cap of liberty perched atop a flourishing tree, holding a banner “FOR LIBERTY,” and a shield marked with the Gallic rooster of France. These symbols mark the allegiance of the American colonists with the enlightened French and the right to freedom from an oppressive government. On the side of Britannia lies a withering stump upholding a banner “FOR OBEDIENCE” and a German-style shield with a northern-facing compass rose—nodding toward both Lord North, the Revolutionary-era prime minister of Great Britain, and the authoritarian German government.

(2) "The Commissioners" (1778)

This allegorical engraving by M. Darly satirizes the Carlisle peace commission which attempted to negotiate peace with America in 1778. Here, America as an Indian princess, beginning her long career of negotiating foreign affairs, is teaching the British John Bull about respect, free trade and seamen’s rights while Napoleon looks on. The Indian princess, wearing a drape instead of a feathered skirt, is enthroned on bales and barrels of tobacco, rice, and indigo for trade in continental ports. The suppliant commissioners beseech her to surrender with arguments such as “We have ravaged your Lands, burnt your Towns, and caus’d your captive Heroes to perish, by Cold, pestilence & famine.”

(3) "The Tea Tax Tempest, or the Anglo-American Revolution" (1778)


This allegorical cartoon by Carl Guttenberg is a satire expressing a Continental European view of the American Revolution. It depicts America (seated on the left) and a sombre Britannia. Father Time, using a magic lantern, gives a presentation on the American Revolution to project the image of a teapot exploding (the Boston Tea Party) over a fire that is fueled by paper taxed by the Stamp Act and fanned by the Gallic cock sitting on a bellows. As American troops (on the right) advance through the smoke, frightened British troops (on the left) flee. Figures representing world opinion look on: an Indian for America, a black woman representing Africa, a woman holding a lantern symbolizing Asia, and a woman bearing a shield for Europe.

(4) "America Triumphant and Britannia in Distress" (1782)


This allegorical print depicts America as a resilient Roman goddess (Minerva, the goddess of wisdom and war), while also depicting Britannia as a grieving woman who dropped her trident. It's an allegory of American prosperity and victory over England. Below the image an Explanation reads: "I America sitting on that quarter of the globe with the Flag of the United States displayed over her head; holding in one hand the Olive branch, inviting the ships of all nations to partake of her commerce; and in the other hand supporting the Cap of Liberty. II Fame proclaiming the joyful news to all the world. III Britannia weeping at the loss of the trade of America, attended with an evil genius. IV The British flag struck, on her strong Fortresses. V French, Spanish, Dutch &c shipping in the harbours of America. VI A view of New York wherein is exhibited the Trator [sic] Arnold, taken with remorse for selling his [country?] and Judas like hanging himself." America is represented by a Minerva figure, seated beneath a dead tree, with a shield bearing a snake. The shield is ringed with another snake, the Uroborus. The American flag has thirteen stars.

(5) "Liberty Triumphant or the Downfall of Oppression" (ca. 1773-74)


This allegorical political cartoon by Henry Dawkins depicts the New England colonists' response to the British Tea Tax, enacted by Lord North's ministry in 1773, superimposed over a map of the Northern and Middle British Colonies. The artist’s opposing scenes concern the American resistance, beginning late 1773 and early 1774, to the tea tax and the East India Company monopoly, presumably engraved shortly after the Boston Tea Party but before news arrived of the retaliatory “Intolerable Acts” that would close the Port of Boston. Each of the historical figures is identified from a key provided at the bottom, including Lord North, Lord Bute, John Kearsley, John Vardill, the Duke of Richmond, and others (18 in all). Interspersed with the living characters are allegorical figures, such as Beelzebub, the Prince of Devils, who whispers to Kearsley, “Speak in favor of ye [the] Scheme Now’s the time to push your fortune” and Kearsley replies “Gov T[ryon] will cram the Tea down the Throat of the New Yorkers.” The depiction of America is split equally between transplanted Europeans and Native Americans. Labeled the “Sons of Liberty,” one says “Lead us to Liberty or Death” (printed approximately one year before Patrick Henry made his speech to the Second Virginia Convention proclaiming “Give me liberty or give me death”). The Native Americans are in fact colonists dressed up to look like American Indians, led by a queen rather than a male warrior, reflected above in the Goddess of Liberty, who proclaims “Behold the Ardour of my Sons and let not their brave Actions be buried in Oblivion.”

(6) "Thomas Jefferson"  (1807)

This allegorical print, a portrait by John Norman, depicts the Goddess Liberty holding a portrait of Jefferson while looking at another of Washington. The text of this print reads: "In the Center is the Goddefs of Liberty sitting on the Globe supporting on her knee with one Hand the Portrait of THOMAS JEFFERSON, President of the United States, with the other she is pointing him out as the Favorite of the People. Round her head are the sixteen Stars to represent the different States. On the Monument is the Portrait of the Late General GEORGE WASHINGTON. The eyes of the Goddefs are fixed thereon in remembrance of past services. The rays of glory from the sixteen Stars strike their splendid beams on each Portrait. The emblems of Monarchy are under the foot of the Goddefs. At the foot of the Monument is the Genius of Peace presenting the Olive Branch to the Portrait of Gen. Washington. The Genius of Gratitude is crowning him with Laurels. The Back-Ground is distinguished by the Rays of Glory, shining on a Vessel at a distance, to denote the protection of Commerce. The Supporters to the Work are: Brittania Neptune Fame Abundance."

(7) "America guided by Wisdom" (ca. 1812)

This print, "America Guided by Wisdom," is an allegory based on a design by John Janes Barralet and the engraving by Benjamin Tanner. The citizens of the new republic hoped the government would be guided by wisdom and this is a hope that citizens have had since the founding of the country. In the early days of the republic, there was more belief and optimism than today. The print was issued just after the War of 1812, which was often called the “Second War of Independence” at the time. Following a series of naval victories and battles at Baltimore and New Orleans, Americans were infused with a new optimism based on a peace treaty that arranged for them to be left alone to develop their new country. This print uses symbols of republican virtues to express pride in the new country, paying tribute to the nation's growing industry and trade. This positive attitude is nicely expressed this allegory. Liberty holds a portrait of Thomas Jefferson while looking at another of George Washington hanging on a “Monument” (a pyramid) nearby. She is crushing the symbols of monarchy under her foot and the American eagle is by her side. The text explains that the focus of the image is Minerva, Goddess of Wisdom (a pre-Roman Etruscan deity who Athena is modeled upon), who points to an escutcheon of the United States with the motto “Union and Independence,” emblazoned on a shield held by female figure with a feathered headdress, representing America. As the description says, it is by "Union and Independence" that "the country enjoys the prosperity signaled by the horn of plenty, at the feet of America." Just beside America is a spear and shield with the visage of Medusa. To the left of Minerva and America is a tableau that is explained by the printed descriptive text: “Commerce is represented by the figure of Mercury, with one foot resting on bales of American manufactures, pointing out the advantages of encouraging and protecting Navigation... to Ceres [the goddess of agriculture] and she is surrounded by symbols of America's rich agricultural prosperity, including a plow and wheat sheaves and a barrel and bundles of other goods.”

(8) "America! with Peace and Freedom Blest ..." (1789)


This print (the Columbia magazine frontispiece) depicts an allegorical figure of America as a young woman ("the Genius of Foederate America") enjoying the benefits of education and surrounded by the symbols of that education and prosperity. By her side is her shield with the Great Seal on it. Her staff and liberty cap lean against a tree behind her. She sits in the shade of a palm tree surrounded with books, a globe, a cornucopia, and bow and arrows. The god Apollo holds a lyre and points to the statue of Fame atop a temple and says: "America! with Peace and Freedom Blest. / Pant for true Fame, and scorn inglorious rest: / Science invites; urg'd by the Voice divine, / Exert thyself, 'till every Art be thine."

(9) "Columbia Teaching John Bull his new Lesson" (1813)

This print by William Charles is a War of 1812 satire on Anglo-American and Franco-American relations. England's "lesson" is about the seriousness of American determination to maintain freedom on the high seas, while France is warned of Yankee firmness on matters of "Retribution" and "Respect." On the left, Columbia, as a maiden with staff and liberty cap, a shield with stars and stripes, and an eagle, gestures toward John Bull, saying, "I tell you Johnny, you must learn to read Respect --Free trade -- Seamans rights &c -- As for you Mounseer Beau Napperty, when John gets his lesson by heart I'll teach you Respect -- Retribution &c. &c." Bonaparte, standing on a hillock in the center: "Ha-ha -- Begar me be glad to see Madam Columbia angry with dat dere Bull -- But me no learn respect -- me no learn retribution -- Me be de grand Emperor." John Bull, in knee breeches, standing at right: "I don't like that lesson -- I'll read this pretty lesson." He points to the pages of a book that read, "Power constitutes Right." ​