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The May Day Wreath and Its Roots in Ancient Greece

May Day Wreath
Credit:  kshelbz, CC0, Wikimedia Commons

The name of the month of May, or Maios in Greek (Μάιος), originates from the ancient goddess Maia (in Greek Μαία) and is a reborrowing from Latin, as the Romans were the first to name the month after her.

According to Greek mythology, Maia was one of the Pleiades and the mother of Hermes by Zeus. Daughter of Atlas and Pleione the Oceanid, she the oldest of the seven Pleiades.

In later antiquity and as ancient Roman religion and myth took over, Maia embodied the concept of growth, as her name was thought to be related to the comparative adjective maius, maior – which means “larger, greater” in Latin.

Originally, she may have been a homonym independent of the Greek Maia, whose myths she absorbed through the Hellenization of Latin literature and culture.

The month of May (Latin Maius) was supposedly named for Maia, though ancient etymologists also connected it to the maiores “ancestors”, meaning those who are “greater” in terms of generational precedence.

The first day of Maios (Πρωτομαγιά, or Protomagia, in modern Greek) celebrates the final victory of the summer against winter and the victory of life against death. The celebration is similar to an ancient ritual associated with another minor demi-god, Adonis, which also celebrated the revival of nature.

The celebration of spring in ancient times was in association with the Anthesteria, a festival held in February and dedicated to the goddess of agriculture, Demeter, and her daughter, Persephone.

Persephone emerged each year at the end of winter from the underworld. The Anthesteria was a festival of souls, plants, and flowers, and Persephone’s coming to earth from Hades marked the rebirth of nature, a common theme in all these traditions.

What remains of the customs today echoes these traditions of antiquity. A common May Day custom involved the annual revival of a youth called Adonis, or alternatively of Dionysus, or of Maios (in Modern Greek Μαγιόπουλο, the Son of Maia).

In a simple theatrical ritual, the significance of which has long been forgotten, a chorus of young girls sang a song over a youth lying on the ground, representing Adonis, Dionysus, or Maios. At the end of the song, the youth rose up and a flower wreath was placed on his head.

May Day and the wreath in Thargelia

Other experts trace the May Day celebration and the tradition of the wreath to the Thargelia (in Greek Θαργήλια), one of the chief Athenian festivals in honor of Apollo and Artemis held on their birthdays, the 6th and 7th of the month Thargelion, which is around the 6th and 7th of May.

Thargelia included a purifying and expiatory ceremony. People offered the first-fruits of the earth to the god as a token of thankfulness, as it was also necessary to appease him lest he ruin the harvest by excessive heat and, possibly, pestilence.

The purificatory preceded the thanksgiving service. A wreath was created using twigs from fruit-bearing trees, such as fig trees, almond trees, or peach trees.

The most common aspect of modern May Day celebrations is the preparation of a flower wreath from wild flowers, though as a result of urbanization, there is an increasing trend to buy wreaths from flower shops.

The flowers are placed on the wreath against a background of green leaves and the wreath is hung either on the entrance to the family house/apartment or on a balcony.

It remains there until midsummer night. On that night, the flower wreaths are set alight in bonfires known as St. John’s (Agios Ioannis) fires. People leap over the flames consuming the flower wreaths.

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