“I’m to be Queen o’ the May, mother, I’m to be Queen o’ the May”
May day and the choirs at Oxford greeting the dawn from the towers of Magdalene; the milk maids seen dancing in the Strand by Pepys, their pails wreathed in flowers; and girls rushing out to bathe their faces in the morning dew to be beautiful for ever. In England it’s usually pouring and frequently chilly, but May Day still has a vestigial magic to it after so many centuries of pagan ritual that was banned only by Cromwell’s Commonwealth and otherwise absorbed and tolerated by the Church. There is after all a great religious symbolism too in this ancient unbridled celebration of growth and greenery and nature’s renewal. Despite the phallic fertility of the maypole and the 1st of May being celebrated as the anniversary of the death of Robin Hood, May came also to be the month dedicated by the medieval church to the Blessed Virgin.
And this in itself absorbed the old Roman dedication of the month to the virgin goddess, the Bona Dea, which led in turn to the month being considered unlucky for weddings. Even forty years ago in Italy no pious Catholic girl would wed in May. A curious paradox of fertility and chastity which was perpetuated in medieval English lore – “wantons marry in the month of May” – and given an extra fillip in Tudor times by the arrest, trial + beheading of Queen Anne Boleyn (“the great whore she is called by the people + the great whore she is”) within 3 weeks during May 1536.
The name May derives from the Latin and denotes the growing month, the shooting month, the month of budding green. The two Roman festivals in honour of the goddess of flowers took place at this time: the week-long Floralia in which all manner of licence was permitted, followed by the Rosalia on May 23rd. This was the day which honoured the rose: one of the first six Latin words I learned, aged 4. Our translation exercises were endless permutations on the theme “the girls decorate the farmers with roses/ the sailors decorate the table with roses”. May is old Dutch is called “the blossoming month” and the French Revolutionary Calendar named it Floreal, the flowery one.
In England, the name of the month has become transferred to the colloquial name for hawthorne which froths, foams and fills the lanes, fields, ditches and hedges at this time of year. Now this is a real old pagan smell! Rich + manurey; creamy, spicy, dusty – full of peppery sneezey pollen; the scent of fields and dung and exploding fertile vegetation and blossom. You can see that I like it. Tiny white flowers on prickly stems, cupped in tender brilliant green leaves, “the poor man’s bread and cheese” as it staves off the worst hunger pangs if you’re really down and out. In the language of flowers it means hope: the hope of rebirth amid the new beginnings of spring, the foliage once used to decorate the cradles of babies and the crowns of brides.
It makes the occasional appearance in modern perfumery, not usually as a dominant note on account of its farouche quality but woven in as an accord of flowery freshness or spice. It is radiantly lit up in the Manuel Canovas candle Fleur de Coton, one of the best scented candles for spring and summer evenings: a beautiful clear smell of hay fields and hawthorne hedges, sweet and golden and rather dry. Hawthorne is also an integral part of the enchanting Ellena fragrance L’Eau d’Hiver, that paradoxical warm cologne which uses a medley of unusual oils to produce a graceful and ambiguous airiness. But its finest curtain call is taken by Pierre Guillaume’s veiled masterpiece Louanges: a beautiful secretive perfume which surrounds the wearer in a cloud of technically floral notes, but which manifests more as a faintly earthy oriental or transparent chypre. Its full name is Louanges Profanes – “profane hymns” or “worldly praises” – perfect for this perfume which mixes the old heathen may with the the earthy odour of lily bulbs (charged with growing life and vigour), neroli and incense. A perfume for a highly sophisticated and knowing May Queen.
Image from Humanbodydetectives.com