The word ‘pagan’ originally derived from the Latin ‘pāgānus’, meaning ‘of or belonging to a country community’; after the fourth-century AD, it became used generally to mean ‘heathen, [...] opposed to Christian or Jewish’.[1] Within the frame of early modern Britain, paganism refers not so much to Neoclassical practices (those of the Ancient Greeks and Romans) as to the enduring rites and rituals of the ancient Britons, from a pre- or early-Christian era, the descendants of the Trojan hero Brutus who landed on Albion’s soil and rechristened it with his own name.[2] The endurance of ‘pagan’ practices and beliefs seems to be a mainly rural phenomenon, as the word’s etymology suggests. With the development of large urban centres in the early modern period, the ‘nature-worshipping’ elements of British paganism had less relevance.[3] C.L. Barber writes that

During Shakespeare’s lifetime, England became conscious of holiday custom as it had not been before, in the very period when in many areas the keeping of holidays was on the decline. Festivals which worked within the rhythm of an agricultural calendar, in village or market town, did not fit the way of living of the urban groups whose energies were beginning to find expression through [...] the Puritan ethic.[4]

There was, however, some opposition to these neopagan rites: the Puritan Phillip Stubbes wrote in his 1583 Anatomie of Abuses that on May Day, after dancing round the ‘stinking idol’ that was the Maypole,

all the young men and maids, old men and wives, run gadding over night to the woods, groves, hills, and mountains, where they spend all the night in pleasant pastimes [...] And no marvel, for there is a great Lord present amongst them, as superintendent and Lord over their pastimes and sports, namely, Satan, prince of hell.[5]

The pagan calendar

As of October 1582, the Gregorian calendar was introduced after a bull by Pope Gregory XIII to change the Julian calendar. In effect, this meant that the calendar was moved ten days forward, though a greater change was that new year celebrations were moved from March 25th – ‘Lady’s Day’ – to the January 1st, though many English people still celebrated the March date. The Gregorian calendar was also intended to track Easter, a moveable feast, with greater accuracy. Easter and Passover were moveable because they were related to the lunar calendar, being the first full moon after the vernal equinox. Underneath the surface of most Christian feasts of Elizabethan England, lurked the pagan past.[6] As François Laroque points out, this was partly pragmatic – while ‘the Church fathers express horror at the persistence of pagan festivals and beliefs […] it would appear that, circumstances permitting, it strove to integrate pagan celebrations into its own calendar, in the hope of unobtrusively changing their immediate meaning’.[7] This indeed happened – we still celebrate Christmas and Easter on winter and spring equinoxes – however, a certain level of pagan beliefs remained within English folklore, so that, Laroque suggests, a collective memory of a pagan past was triggered at festive times: ‘magical beliefs that had lain dormant for most of the year were suddenly reawakened and came back to life for the duration of the festival’.[8]

Early calendar

Calendar for the month of June from the Codex Gigas, early 13th century. The feast of St. John the Baptist is marked by numerals VIII, the 24th day of the month (Img 1)

The pagan calendar largely derived from Celtic and Teutonic traditions, but this had become infused with Graeco-Roman traditions, and eventually associated with Christian traditions. This variety of different cultures’ rituals leading into the pagan calendar meant that there were general important times, relating to the equinox.  The main cluster of festivals were: in spring, May Eve (April 30th) or Roodmas, which lasting into May 1st derived from the Celtic feast of Beltane and the Roman festival of Bona Dea, and in summer, the Celtic feasts of Lugnasadh, celebrated on August 1st. In autumn came Samhain or Allhallow Eve on 31st October, which converged with the ancient Greek festival of Thesmophoria, though a parallel tradition marked November 11th, St Martin’s Day, which was celebrated as a Christian festival of the dead, the beginning of winter, and indeed the entire year. (In Catholic countries today, this is still celebrated as a harvest festival – with roasted chestnuts or the blessing of the new wine). In winter, a number of festivals such as the Roman celebration of the January Calends, the Celtic ‘Yule’ festival and the Christian festivals of Christmas and the New Year, converged around December 25th and January 1st. In February, the Celtic festival Dimelc and the Greek festival of Anthesteria were celebrated on the 1st February, followed by the Christian feast of the purification of the Virgin, or Candlemas, celebrated the following day.


Fire-festivals were one of the most obvious links back to a pagan past in early modern Britain. Despite ‘attempts made by Christian synods in the eighth century to put them down as heathenish rites’,[9] the ‘superstitious beliefs’ of the country people saw a gathering at significant points of the agricultural calendar.[10] James George Frazer writes of the survival of the festival of the Beltane fires in the Highlands on the first of May as ‘a curious and interesting picture of ancient heathendom surviving in our own country’.[11] He argues that ‘from the standpoint of primitive man nothing might seem more appropriate than to kindle fires on earth at the two moments [the summer and winter solstices] when the fire and heat of the great luminary in heaven begin to wane or wax’.[12] Some have argued that the survival of the fire-festivals is to do with purifying the community, ‘being designed to burn up and destroy all harmful influences’,[13] especially in a period when witchcraft was a hot topic.[14] Others have argued that such ‘magical ceremonies’ as take place in neopagan rites work on ‘the principle of imitative magic, to ensure a needful supply of sunshine’.[15]

Equinox and solstice

The O.E.D. gives the definition of ‘equinox’ as ‘equality between day and night’, and first cites its usage in Chaucer’s Treatise on an Astrolabe (c.1391). An equinox is the moment when the length of daylight hours and night-time hours are the same: the vernal equinox (Aries) falls around the 20th March, and the autumnal equinox (Libra) falls around the 22nd September. Chaucer writes that ‘whan the sonne is in the hevedes of Aries and Libra, than ben the dayes and the nightes ylike of lengthe in all the world. And therefore ben these 2 signes called the equinoxiis’.[16] The word ‘equinox’ appears only once in Shakespeare, in Othello, when Iago says of Cassio that ‘his vice, / ’Tis to his virtue, a just equinox, / The one as long as th’other’, implying his good and bad sides are in equal balance.[17] The equinox has its root in the pagan understanding of the calendar, as did many festivals in early modern Christendom: ‘the year was spangled with festivals. [...] Everywhere the two great festivals were those of Christmas and May Day, the Mid-winter and Summer festivals of the Celtic year’.[18] The Christian festival of Easter derives from ‘a spring equinox celebration in honour of Eostre, the Teutonic dawn goddess’.[19] It has been suggested that The Winter’s Tale, with its themes of renewal and faith, may have been written for the vernal equinox of 1611.[20] Equinoxes retained a pagan mysticism for the early modern Christians: the rains of the autumnal equinox were thought to have healing qualities.[21]

Gold sun dial

Islamic planispheric astrolabe from Andalusia, 1067 (Img 2)

The summer solstice – Midsummer, around June 21st-24th – occurs when the sun reaches its highest point in relation to the equator. The solstice was also the site of a pagan festival overlaid with Christian meaning for the early moderns: Anca Vlasopolos writes of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that ‘the play, like the ritual which informs its structure, maintains a dual frame of reference, Christian and pagan’.[22] The Feast of St John the Baptist was celebrated on the summer solstice,[23] as in the Gospel of Luke it is implied that John the Baptist was born six months before Jesus.



Painting of John the Baptist on gold background

St. John the Baptist, Jacopo del Casentino, c.1330 (Img 3)

Barber writes that the ‘three great features of the midsummer celebration were the bonfires [where originally bones were burnt, hence ‘bonefire’ and, later, ‘bonfire’], the processions with torches round the fields, and the customs of rolling a wheel’.[24] Midsummer was associated with magic and carnivalesque celebration: ‘characterized by exorcisms of evil spirits, and by reconciliations and atonement, the feast of Saint John the Baptist follows the license and misrule of the eve and night preceding June 24’.[25] Midsummer Eve is one of the oldest festivals to celebrate the summer solstice, and was seen as ‘turning point in the year’. [26] In addition, it was ‘particularly a time when spirits were abroad, when particular plants must be gathered and when one might see one’s future true love in the fires or through other magic’.[27] Fertility rites were often enacted on Midsummer Eve, and Spenser links Midsummer festivities with new marriages in his 1595 Epithalamion.[28]

May Day

That Shakespeare was at least aware of the Maying customs is hinted at in the allusion he  makes to it in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where Hermia thus addresses Helena:

“And are you grown so high in his esteem,

Because I am so dwarfish, and so low?

How low am I, thou painted Maypole?” [III.ii.1342 - 1344]

Painting of fairies Oberon and Titania

The Reconciliation of Oberon and Titania Sir Joseph Noel Paton, 1847 (Img 4)

Cesar Barber argues that the plot of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is based on the structure of a typical early modern Mayday, commenting that the action, like the occasion, “moves ‘from the town to the grove’ and back again, bringing in summer to the bridal.”[29] The conclusion of the play also ends like a typical May Day, asserts Barber, with Oberon and Titania bringing blessings of fertility to the newlyweds.[30]

What happened on May Day?

The earlier hours of the previous day are occupied by the children in a perambulation of the parish, calling upon the farm folk and other residents for gifts
of flowers and finery with which to decorate their maypoles.[31]

In the evening the maypole is hoisted on the village green, or in some paddock or orchard lent for the purpose, and the election of the May Queen takes place.[32]

On the morrow the queen and her attendants, as richly bedizened as flowers, ground ivy, May blossoms, and patchwork can make them, again parade the boundary of the parish, singing their May songs round a portable maypole; finally returning to their ground or play-mead, where the songs are sung over again in the following words, to a generally recognised home-made tune:

‘Tis always on the twelfth of May,

We meet and dress so gaily;

For tonite will merry be,

For tonite will merry be,

For tonite will merry be,

We’ll sing and dance so gaily.[33]

After the songs are sung and the daily portion of the festival is over, dancing begins.[34]

etching of May day

A Flemish etching of a May Day ceremony from the 15th century (Img 5)

Stubbes describes May day in the most detail of any contemporary commentator:

“The chiefest jewel they bring from thence is their May-pole, which they bring home with great veneration, as thus. They have twentie or fortie yoke of Oxen, every Oxe having a sweete nose-gay of flowers placed on the tip of his hornes; and these oxen drawe home this May-pole which is covered all over with flowers and herbs, bound round with strings from the top to the bottome, and sometimes painted with variable colours, with two or three hundred men, women and children, following it with great devotion. And thus being reaped up with handkercheefs and flags hovering on the top, they straw the ground rounde about, bind greene boughs about it”[35]

Stubbes also describes the young men and women on May Day in a negative way, implying that May day at the time was a day of licentiousness and moral abdandon. They are depicted as “running gadding overnight into the woods… where they spend the whole night in pleasant pastimes.” He goes on to describe the vexations of falling in and out of love, and of lovers’ quarrels: “And no marvel, for there is a great Lord present among them, as superintendent and Lord over their pastimes and sports, namely, Satan, prince of hell”[i]

When Theseus and Hippolyta find the lovers sleeping, Theseus jumps to the conclusion that:

“No doubt they rose up early to observe

The rite of May; and, hearing our intent,

Came here in grace of our solemnity.” [IV.i.31-3]

May Day and Paganism

Cesar Barber remarks that “In making Oberon, prince of fairies, into the May king, Shakespeare urbanely plays with the notion of a supernatural power at work in holiday”[1]: indeed, the occasion had supernatural and Pagan connotations which made it unpopular under the Puritan regime. The Puritans were not mistaken in tracing the May games from heathen times, and certainly the church had never christianized May Day[2], and sure enough the rise of Protestantism in the 16th century led to increasing disapproval of maypoles and other May Day practices those who viewed them as idolatry.[3] The Long Parliament‘s ordinance of 1644 described maypoles as “a Heathenish vanity, generally abused to superstition and wickedness.”[4] May day celebrations were revived in 1660.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream
will be performed at the Globe from 24 May. Directed by Dominic Dromgoole. Visit the website for full cast listing and how to book tickets.
Image credits 
The images were taken from the original online sources

[1] Ibid, 99

[2] Katharine M. Briggs, ‘The Folds of Folklore’, Shakespeare in His Own Age: Shakespeare Survey, 17, ed. Allardyce Nicoll. (Cambridge, CUP, 1964) p. 178

[3] Ronald Hutton, The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), Page 235

[4] Ronald Hutton, The rise and fall of Merry England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996) pp. 27–8


[1] O.E.D. online, ‘pagan, n. and adj.’ <>.

[2] Cymbeline, ed. Roger Warren (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 37.

[3] O.E.D. online, ‘pagan, n. and adj.’.

[4] Barber, 16.

[5] Barber, 21.

[6] Anne Lake Prescott, ‘Pagan Calendar: “Refusing Translation: The Gregorian Calendar and Early Modern English Writers”’, The Yearbook of English Studies, Vol. 36, no. 1 (2006), 1-11.

[7] François Laroque, Shakespeare’s Festive World: Elizabethan Seasonal Entertainment and the Professional Stage (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 16.

[8] Laroque, 26.

[9] James George Frazer, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion (London: Macmillan and Co., Limited, 1949), 609.

[10] Frazer, 615.

[11] Frazer, 617.

[12] Frazer, 636.

[13] Frazer, 642.

[14] Frazer, 648.

[15] Frazer, 642.

[16]Complete Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, Vol. 3, ed. W.W. Skeat (New York: Cosimo, Inc.), 183.

[17] Othello, ed. E.A.J. Honigmann (London: The Arden Shakespeare, 1997), 2.3.119-121.

[18] Katharine M. Briggs, ‘The Folds of Folklore’, in Shakespeare Survey 17 (1964), 167-179, 177.

[19] The Shakespeare Name and Place Dictionary, ed. J. Madison Davis (Abingdon; New York: Routledge, 1995), 136.

[20] Science, Literature and Rhetoric in Early Modern England, eds. Juliet Cummins and David Burchell (Aldershot; Burlington: Ashgate, 2007), 37.

[21] Goldwin Smith, ‘The Practice of Medicine in Tudor England’, The Scientific Monthly, Vol. 50, No. 1 (Jan., 1940), 65-72, 72.

[22] Anca Vlasopolos, ‘The Ritual of Midsummer: A Pattern for A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, in Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 31, No. 1 (Spring, 1978), 21-29, 21.

[23] Frazer, 622.

[24] Barber, 622.

[25] Vlasopolos, 23.

[26] A Midsummer Night’s Dream, ed. Peter Holland (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994, reissued 2008), 105.

[27] A Midsummer Night’s Dream, ed. Peter Holland (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994, reissued 2008), 105.

[28] Holland, 105.

[29] Cesar L. Barber, ‘May Games and Metamorphoses on a Midsummer Night’ (1959), in Casebook Series: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, ed. Anthony W. Price, (London: Macmillan Publishers Ltd. 1983), p. 99

[30] Ibid, p. 100

[31] George Morley, Shakespeare’s Greenwood, (London: Ballantyne, Hansen and Co., 1900), p. 108

[32] Ibid

[33] Ibid, 107

[34] Ibid, 108

[35] Phillip Stubbes, The Anatomie of Abuses (1583), ed. J. F. Furnival (London, 1877 – 82) p. 149

[36] Phillip Stubbes, The Anatomie of Abuses (1583), ed. J. F. Furnival (London, 1877 – 82) p. 149

[37] Ibid, 99

[38] Katharine M. Briggs, ‘The Folds of Folklore’, Shakespeare in His Own Age: Shakespeare Survey, 17, ed. Allardyce Nicoll. (Cambridge, CUP, 1964) p. 178

[39] Ronald Hutton, The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), Page 235

[40] Ronald Hutton, The rise and fall of Merry England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996) pp. 27–8


By Lizzie O’Connor , Globe Research Team