May – Magnolia

The month of May (Maius mensis) is named for Maia, the great Roman “mother” of spring, fertility and flowers. Magnolias are considered to be the ancient “mother” of all flowering plants on earth.

In Greek, Maia means “lady or elder mother. In Latin, Maia is related to the words maius, maior, majus, magnus and maiores meaning “larger, greater, magic and illusion”. Maia can be translated as “grand mother” or “great mother”.

Maia was seen as a “great mother” of earth, the stars and the gods. She was associated with Gaia/Terra, Cybele/Magna Mater, Rhea/Ops/Juno, Bona Dea/Demeter, Flora and Fauna etc. In Greek and Roman mythology, Maia was the mother of Hermes and Mercury, through Zeus and Jupiter, as well as the foster mother of Arcus (Ursa Minor/Little Dipper).

Maia and Hermes painted on an Attic Amphora (vessel) c. 500 BCE

The origins of Maia’s name began over 5000 years ago with the Sumerian and Egyptian deities Nammu/Namma and Mut/Nut, whose names are also synonymous with “great mother”. The word ma, meaning “mother”, is one of the first words ever spoken in Indo-European and Asiatic languages.

Magnolias are named in honor of Pierre Magnol. Magnol comes from the Latin magnus, meaning “large, great or important one”, creating another shared connection between Maia and magnolia. Pierre Magnol, a French botanist, invented the concept of “plant families” in 1689. His work contributed to the development of the evolutionary “tree of life” in natural history and the classification of plants.

Blossoming magnolia tree in the Himalayas.

Magnolias evolved around 100 million years ago, during the age of dinosaurs, when gymnosperms (naked seeds) such as conifers, ferns and cycads covered the earth. After the extinction of dinosaurs, flowering plants classified as angiosperms (enclosed seeds) began to flourish. Their presence greatly impacted the evolution of trees, plants, insects and animals by creating dense and biodiverse forests that provided fruits, nuts, vegetables, grains and herbs. Today, angiosperms, define 80% of all living plants on earth.

Magnolia virginiana or sweet bay magnolia, the type species for all angiosperms.

Angiosperms were formerly called Magnoliophyta. This was based on the fact that Magnolia virginiana, commonly known as sweetbay or laurel magnolia, is the “type species” for all angiosperms in the plant kingdom. The magnolia family (Magnoliaceae) is an ancient family that was separated by ice ages, climate catastrophes and continental drift. Its legacy as the “mother” of all flowering plants speaks to its tenacity, strength and enduring beauty. It evolved to attract beetles as pollinators, since bees did not yet exist.

Around the same time that magnolias appeared on earth, the Pleiades (Messier 45) were being birthed in the cosmos. They formed within a cloud of cosmic dust and gas in the constellation of Taurus the Bull. Maia (20 Tauri) is the name of the fourth brightest star in this open star cluster. Its mystical blue appearance in the night sky has inspired the hearts and minds of people around the world for the past 100,000 years.

The Pleiades (Messier 45) also called the “Seven Sisters”.

In Greek mythology, Maia was the eldest and most beautiful daughter of Atlas (the Titan who holds up the sky) and Pleione (the Oceanid). Maia, or “Mountain Maia”, lived in a cave on Mt. Cyllene in Acadia. She was the “Great Mother” of the Greek god Hermes and the Roman god Mercury. She was also known as the “celestial mother” of the planet Mercury and the “foster mother” of Arcus (Ursa Minor – Little Bear). Arcus, the Little Dipper, is a circumpolar constellation that revolves around the North Stars. Our current North Star (Polaris) is found at the end of Little Bears tail. The North Star, the Pleiades and the planet Mercury, have all played important roles in the formation of calendars, maps and astronomy.

Greek mythology identified Orion, as the great hunter who became obsessed with Pleione and her seven daughters. When Pleione pleaded with Zeus to protect them from Orion, he transformed them into doves. When Orion chased them into the sky, Zeus turned them into a cluster of stars known as the Pleiades meaning “flock of doves” or “the seven sisters”.

The Pleiades – Oil painting by Elihu Vedder c. 1885

The earliest record of the Pleiades dates to 2357 BCE China, where their appearance in the night sky marked the beginning and end of the growing seasons. In Japan, they are known as Subaru, “coming together or unite”. In ancient Mesopotamia they were known as the “star of stars”. Legends of the Pleiades are found throughout Africa, Australia, Europe, Asia and the America’s because they were visible in both hemispheres. It’s heliacal appearance and disappearance served as an important marker for the halfway points between winter and spring as well as summer and fall. This glowing blue cluster of stars began to rise just after sunset on the eastern horizon between Oct 1 – Nov 1. It reached its zenith around December 21-25, before descending into the western horizon and disappearing between April 1 – May 1.

In the Northern Hemisphere, the Pleiades disappearance signaled a time of spring and celebration, as flowers began to bloom. The ancient Greeks held festivals in honor of Chloris (goddess of flowers) from late April into early May. The Romans dedicated the first day in May to Maia. The Romans replaced Chloris with Flora, Latin word for flower. Flora became the Roman goddess of spring, fertility and flowers. Her celebration, Floralia, lasted for six days between April 27 and May 3rd.

Floralia Festival – Oil painting by Hobbe Smith c. 1898.

During Floralia people wore floral crowns and made offerings of milk, honey, flowers and grains; while her twin sister Fauna (goddess of animals) was honored with the letting loose of rabbits.

In Rome, on the first of May, women made special offerings to Maia during a processional as they threw lupines (purplish-blue flowers representing the blue Pleiades) and lentils to the crowds.

“Spring” – Oil painting by Lawrence Alma-Tadema c. 1894.

The Romans brought their Floralia festival to Germania and the British Isles over 2000 years ago. It merged with the Celtic celebration of Beltane that signaled the beginning of summer on May 1, which coincided with the disappearance of the Pleiades.

Beltane, comes from the Gaelic word Beltaine “bright fire”. Beltane customs included the gathering of trees for bonfires to reinvigorate the Sun. Cattle were purified by driving them between two fires as they moved from their winter pasture to their summer pasture. Men and women in love would jump through the fire’s smoke for good luck, in preparation to be wed in June. Fresh greens along with white and yellow “mayflowers” would decorate homes, barns and livestock. Oatmeal cakes were eaten by humans and animals alike, for protection.

Beltane fire on a full moon.

Eventually Beltane became known as May Day. Villages throughout Germany erected and decorated Maibaums (Maypoles or May trees). Maibaum’s may date back to the worship of ancient Germanic tree gods such as Woden/Odin and Irmin. The Romans associated Woden/Odin with Mercury, the son of Maia. Wednesday (Woden’s day) is named for Mercury, who was also associated with Hermes, Thoth and Enki as well as Odin and Woden.

Maypole in Bavaria – Painted by Karl Millner c. 1848.

May Day celebrations grew in popularity. The crowning of a May Queen honored the great mothers of May (Maia, Flora and Chloris etc.). Maypoles were erected throughout Europe and decorated with colorful ribbons that flew in the air or were woven together in a circular dance. May baskets and garlands decorated doorways and homes.

Weaving of ribbons on a Maypole on May Day.

During the medieval era, the rapidly expanding Roman Catholic Church began to dedicate the entire month of May to the Virgin Mary, mother of Christ. May soon became known as “Mary’s month” and the Virgin Mary was now the “Queen of May”.

The May “Crowning of Mary” in the Catholic Church.

The “Crowning of Mary” took place on May Day or on the first Sunday in May. It involved a ritual procession where children would place a crown of flowers on a statue of the Virgin Mary and sing songs in her honor. Mary was revered as the archetypal “mother”. She was crowned the Queen of Earth, Queen of Heaven and Queen of the Universe, as the one who brings life to the world.

In Sanskrit, the word Maya (Maia) means “magical power of illusion and creation”. In Hinduism, Maya reigns in the three worlds of creation; physical, mental and emotional. The illusion that these worlds are separate from each other is also an aspect of Maya. Maya encourages us to discern what is truth, and to see through the illusion of separation. Maya challenges us to step out of ignorance, suffering and attachment. The path of true wisdom is the ability to embody the creation and impermanence of our earthly and divine nature.

Tian Tan Buddha in Hong Kong, China.

This lesson of Maya became a principle teaching in Buddhism. Maha Maya, meaning “Great Mother”, is also the name of Buddha’s mother. Many ancient cultures have woven rich and complex stories that tell of the “Great Mother” of humanity and the very nature of life itself.

Magnolia, the “Great Mother” of flowers, has come to symbolize magnificence, dignity, perseverance, purity and love. In ancient China, magnolia is known as the “jade orchid flower,” which embodies the feminine aspects of life. In Japanese, the magnolia translates to Hanakotoba, which is associated with our love of nature.

Magnolias are native to Asia and the America’s. They can be evergreen or deciduous shrubs or trees, that come in a variety of colors including; white, pink, purple, green and yellow.

Magnolia grandiflora also called southern magnolia and steel magnolia.

The Magnolia family (Magnoliaceae) is defined by two genera (genus): 

  • Magnolia (magnolia) – an ancient genus of 210 to 340 evergreen and deciduous species.
Magnolia x soulangeana – Saucer magnolia.
  •  Liriodendron (tulip tree) – a genus of two species of large deciduous trees
Liriodendron tulipifera – Tulip tree or yellow poplar.

May is a month of honoring the “Great Mothers” within our lives and throughout time. Their wisdom resides within all of us, connecting us to the mothering intelligence of the universe and the essence of creation. Enjoy this time of renewal as we honor what is blossoming within us.

Enjoying the magnificence of a magnolia blossom.

Notable Days in May 2022:

  • May 1 – May Day (Beltane)
  • May 8 – Mother’s Day
  • May 15-16 – Full (Flower) Moon & Total Lunar Eclipse
  • May 30 – Memorial Day

Notable Magnolia species and their native habitat:

  • Magnolia virginiana – Sweet bay magnolia – Eastern United States
  • Magnolia grandiflora – Southern magnolia – Southeast United States
  • Magnolia liliflora – Mulan magnolia – China
  • Magnolia denudata – Yulan magnolia – China
  • Magnolia kobus – Kobus magnolia – Japan
  • Magnolia stellata – Star magnolia – Japan
  • Magnolia x soulangeana – Saucer magnolia – Hybrid of Mulan and Yulan magnolia
  • Magnolia salicifolia – Anise magnolia – Japan

Ideas for May:

Walk outside and smell the flowers.

Extend your arms and open your heart to the beauty of life.

Make a floral crown for yourself or someone you love.

Bring flowers into your home.

Gift flowers to your mother or someone who has mentored you.

Remind yourself of the wisdom that has been handed down to you for generations.

Create something.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Ashley says:

    Thank you for this wonderful post. Happy May day!

    Liked by 1 person

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