The Honored Maidens
of the Merry Mary Month

by Maria Barron
Among the changing months, May stands confest
The sweetest, and in fairest colors dressed.

— James Thomson, Scottish poet, On May

Daisy chains and crowns of posies bedeck the Maidens of May, the symbols of awakening feminine potential that come down to us across time and cultures in May — which everybody knows is Mary’s merry month … or the May Queen’s … or Maia’s … or Mia’s, or maybe even Ma’at’s.

In the Northern Hemisphere, May bursts with the vivacious unfolding of life; not the struggling sprouts of April, but the colorful blossoming of May flowers, delicate yet trusting in the month’s perfect blend of moisture, warmth and sunlight. In the United States, we celebrate Mothers Day in the midst of May. And no matter a mother’s age, the day can’t help but recall for her an earlier day, when her own vivacious maidenhood changed over — from the charge of potential fruitfulness to the reality of actual motherhood.

It’s the pre-maternal energy … the potential that is gliding, dancing and growing toward fulfillment … that makes itself so apparent in Nature, customs and symbols associated with this fifth month of the year, which is figuratively the eve of summery, fruitful June.

May is a spirited month, full of grace and beauty and alive with promise. However one chooses to personify or identify with that spirit, it is here now to be felt — but never fully grasped. For it is a spirit that moves like a breeze, touched by the scent of blossoms and bearing a foretaste of the fruit that follows the flowers in the orchards and vineyards of creation.

Although May has its lusty fertility symbols, and some see the month’s essence in that vein, May’s young, fresh sweetness is honored in much traditional and ancient lore, art and culture with an emphasis on essential innocence and purity. May is, above all, maidenly.

How Mary’s Garden Grows

In Catholicism, May is Mary’s Month, a time of special devotion in honor of the young Nazarene’s maidenly enthusiasm to call to herself the Holy Spirit, and, united with that Spirit, to conceive God — as a radiantly divine potential, borne within herself — and then to produce the gift of God’s love and mercy in human form, as Jesus Christ, in the world.

People’s dedication of the month to Mary was practiced at least as far back as the 1200s, although the church didn’t officially adopt the custom until the 18th century. Still, Mary, the Blessed Virgin Mother, the “flower of flowers” in Chaucer’s words, had been referred to in flowery spring imagery since the earliest days of the church.

According to early Church Fathers and current belief, Mary’s role and that of her child Immanuel (“God with us”) was foretold by the Old Testament prophet Isaiah: “But a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom.” This stump of Jesse’s grapevine, his tribe cut small, would flower miraculously from its roots, which would be remarkable indeed for a grapevine. But the spirit — the life force — prevails and comes to flower with surprising assurance in its time. And so it does in the month of May.

In the flowery imagery that grew up around Mary, she is identified primarily as a spotless lily and a mystic rose — although dozens of other flowers, including the modest violet, the marigold, the blue iris and blue columbine, are seeded with Marian meanings. In Europe, the strawberry plant, which bears fruit while still flowering, is Mary’s plant, symbolizing virgin birth. By medieval times, devotees were planting Mary Gardens, full of flowers symbolic of both the joyful and sorrowful events of Mary’s life, a practice that continues today at some monasteries and convents. In another May tradition, children make wreaths or crowns of flowers to decorate statues of Mary in outdoor shrines and grottos during Mary’s Month. Devout adults pray to Mary as their holy mother, taking to heart Jesus’ words on the cross to his disciple, John the beloved, “Behold your mother.”

Unlike many of the other maidens celebrated in May (most of whom are also identified as mothers of gods), Mary is not identified as a goddess. But in a Mary’s Month address in 2001, Pope John Paul II, who loves Marian devotions and has encouraged new attention to Mary in the church, emphasized that Christ and the Holy Spirit are always present in, with and through Mary. After all, he said, it is she who calls down the Holy Spirit from on high through the enthusiastic assent she gives when the Angel Gabriel, carrying a lily, prophecies her impending motherhood, an event celebrated as the Annunciation in early spring.

By the time of the Visitation, celebrated May 31, Mary is so radiant with the Spirit of God that her visit to her pregnant cousin Elizabeth causes Elizabeth’s baby-to-be (who will be John the Baptist) to leap for joy within his mother’s womb. It is also at Mary’s urging that Jesus works his first public miracle, at a wedding. And again, she is present at Pentecost in the upper room with the disciples when the Holy Spirit descends upon the apostles with its special gifts.

“The ‘yes’ of the Virgin, ‘fiat,’ draws down the Gift of God upon humanity: as in the Annunciation, so in Pentecost,” the pope said. “So it continues to happen throughout the Church’s journey. Gathered in prayer with Mary, let us implore an abundant outpouring of the Holy Spirit …”

Mary embodies, in the most historically human form, a number of energies and meanings that resonate throughout the symbols of revered maidenhood passed down from ancient times many Mays ago.

The Triple Goddess of Nature

Although Christians and Pagans would disagree over whose symbols best express what ought to be honored in life, the concept of Mary the Virgin Mother does match up nicely with early European nature religions’ concept of the Triple Goddess in her first and second personages: the Maiden who will blossom into Mother. What gets short shrift in the Christian version is the Wise Crone, for Mary, though wise and merciful, is never, ever old.

In terms of a symbol of Nature’s cycles, as well as the constantly aging life that humans live, the Triple Goddess makes the match more naturally. And yet, even in her symbolic earthiness, the Triple Goddess is abstract … a personification and characterization of what humans experience in the world, not a human herself who experienced simple personhood together with birthing the divine. In art, the goddess’ physical representation is most often rendered as three conjoined Moons in different phases. And in spring, the Maiden form of the Triple Goddess gives birth to the divine in a supernatural, rather than a natural way.

In the native religion of Celtic countries, the Maiden aspect of the Triple Goddess was honored in May as the elfin May Queen. At the Beltane festival at May’s beginning, she would overcome the Crone and engage in a ritual courtship of the Green Man — a courtship that ended with him being torn apart and reborn … so that he might grow anew into the Green Man of Summer.

Maia Shines in Her Namesake Month

The month of May was most probably named for a rather obscure Greco-Roman era goddess named Maia. Born on a mountaintop, shyest of the seven daughters of Atlas in Greek mythology, she bore for the leader of gods, Zeus (or Jupiter), a son who would be another of the culture’s major deities: Hermes (or Mercury).

Like Jupiter and Mercury, Maia was also a bright point in the heavens for the star-worshiping Greco-Roman cultures. She is a fixed star, the third brightest in the Pleiades star cluster in the constellation Taurus. The Pleiades are noticeable on the horizon in May and November, and their May appearance likely accounts for the month being named for Maia, the shy maiden in the cluster who birthed a god. The winged Boy Wonder grew overnight and the next day he was stealing cattle from Sun God Apollo and inventing the lyre.

Beyond that, Maia’s surviving lore is a jumble of vague associations. Although her name was apparently chosen during Roman times to name the month, she was mostly defined by her earlier Greek stories, and those Greek stories may have decended from the meanings of a pre-Greco-Roman “Italic” goddess of spring named Mia. Once Maia made it into Roman lore, she became re-associated and identified with another, also relatively obscure, May-time goddess, Fauna or Bona Dea (“the Good Goddess”).

And there the meaning darkens. Bona Dea was said to be a Roman woman, a human, related to the rustic fertility god Faunus, yet a “chaste matron” nonetheless. She was said to have been elevated to goddess status after being murdered by her husband, based on his unfounded jealousies. The Bona Dea or Maia Maiesta Festival in her honor on May 1 in Roman times was therefore celebrated by vestal virgins and respectable matrons, with no men allowed. During her festival, Bona Dea would convey prophecies. Of all the maidens and chaste mothers of May, Maia, with her scattered collection of disparate associations, is perhaps the most difficult symbol to relate with in a merry spirit. Many moderns, instead, simply reinterpret the goddess in her shy, betrayed innocence and call her a goddess of growth, as certainly the month named for her is one of astonishing growth.

Along the line, in one of her surviving tales, Maia was said to have been married to Vulcan, a fire god and smithy to the gods who also was married to Aphrodite (Venus). A painting from the late 1500s poses a nude and blushing young Maia in the arms of the older, lustful Vulcan, recasting Maia’s role as simply a goddess of fertility.

Ma’at, Maiden of the Afterlife

Another intriguing maidenly mother of gods with May associations is the goddess Ma’at (pronounced Mayet) of ancient Egypt. Abstracting even further from the stories of the human Mary; and of Nature’s earthy Triple Goddess in Maiden form; and of Maia, spring goddess in the form of a star; Ma’at, the Egyptian goddess of truth, whom one would encounter in the afterlife, was always understood as less a being than a principle.

Portrayed with an ostrich feather in her hair and sometimes with long wings, Ma’at was the embodiment of truth and order. She was, for Egyptians, a pre-existing principle, like other cultures’ concepts of the Tao or the Logos, the essential underlying “rightness” without which nothing would be. Although she is always portrayed in maidenly, even teenage form, she is also mother of eight major gods, themselves considered creators of the world.

Somewhat like the figure of the “First Christian,” Mary, Ma’at is also a merciful, maternal presence to humans. She is portrayed as having been concerned about the souls of the people when they left earthly life and went to have their hearts judged to see if they could enter eternity in the Kingdom of Osiris. Ancient Egyptians believed that before they would be allowed entry, their hearts would be weighed against Ma’at’s feather of truth. Heavy hearts would be devoured by a beast. But Ma’at could bestow her feather on a soul before he reached the scales, providing him by her merciful action the way to the blessing of the ruling god and eternal life.

Although Ma’at’s foremost feast day is during our autumn, a 16-day festival cycle in her honor would begin May 30 this year under the calendar of ancient Egypt. Her statue would be carried to the Temple of Ra, putting her — as the embodiment of Truth and Mercy — on par with the power of the Sun. Believers would purify themselves ceremonially and pray to Ma’at and her consort, Thoth, for truth, knowledge and mercy.

Like most of the other Maidens of May, a sense of purity is an important characteristic of Ma’at. And like the rest of the group, she is strongly associated with a spirit of potential, a promise on its way to fulfillment, and the ability to bestow blessings on humans. As reflected in these symbols of holy or divine maidenhood, the inherent energies of the month of May likewise blossom and grow toward fullness and a promise of abundant blessings in summer.

The Maiden Spirit

Menfolk, feeling a bit left out of the month’s cultural messages, may protest that manly symbols have their place in the fertility celebrations of spring. But the Maypole, even when interpreted as a phallic symbol, still is danced about by maidens. And the Green Man of nature religions, said to be reborn this time of year, is still subjected to a less-than-gentle death by the May Queen and her handmaids in the rebirthing ritual.

From the May-time customs, art and literary descriptions that persist, the month of May most clearly expresses and glorifies the potential magic, miracles and even saving graces of young, feminine energy. Whether we can most readily appreciate the May energy as expressed through Ma’at, Maia, the Maiden Goddess, the Virgin Mary … or some other maiden full of potential and pureness of spirit … now is a fine time to honor this uniquely creative power — in which the human spirit assents and merges in motion with the unfolding power of the divine as it rushes forth, flowering. To life!