‘You ask where I think the name of May comes from? Its origin’s not totally clear to me.’ (Ovid)
Oh, Ovid: I love you more and more. Though he was writing about the passing and naming of time and the feast days of the calendar in his Fasti, in a bid to flatter an Emperor and ease his own exile, he said what he knew, and what he knew was that he wasn’t sure:
You ask where I think the name of May comes from?
Its origin’s not totally clear to me.
As a traveller stands unsure which way to go,
Seeing the paths fan out in all directions,
So I’m not sure which to accept, since it’s possible
To give different reasons: plenty itself confuses.
And yet here in the twenty-first century, only certainties seem welcome, if not valid: something that can be expressed in a tweet or even a tiny entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica:
‘May, fifth month of the Gregorian calendar. It was named after Maia, a Roman fertility goddess.’
Boom. Nailed it.
This is the version that you will see repeated everywhere. Yet, if Ovid, a Roman, considered this to be only one possibility, how can the Encyclopedia Britannica or anyone else be sure?
While that remains a mystery to me, for the time being at least, here are three (or four) explanations offered by Ovid himself about the origins of the name of the month.
His sources? Three of the Muses. What else for a writer? At least he’s honest about it. He’s also careful not to praise one explanation above another, because in those days it seems that one certainty that people relied on was that their lives were governed by the goodwill or otherwise of their gods and other supernatural beings.
First up is Polyhymnia, the Muse of Sacred Song: she derives May (Maius) from Majesty (Maiestas)
According to Ovid, Majesty is a she, born in the earliest time after the first Chaos, to Honour and Reverence.
noble from her day of birth.
She took her seat, at once, high in the midst of Olympus,
Conspicuous, golden, in her purple folds.
Modesty and Fear sat with her: you could see
All the gods modelling their expression on hers.
At once, respect for honour entered their minds:
The worthy had their reward, none thought of self.
This state of things lasted for years in heaven
Surviving an attack on the gods by a race of giants, Majesty
attends on Jove, Jove’s truest guardian,
And allows him to hold the sceptre without force.
The story continues that she, Majesty, had been worshipped by Romulus, creator of Rome, and by Numa, who was King in its early days, and by others in later ages. In the present tense for Ovid, she ‘maintains fathers and mothers in due honour’.
This last sentence is important, as it seems to provide a link to the next explanation of the origin of the name of the month of May, which comes from Urania, the Muse of Astronomy. She says that the name is taken from maiores for the city elders
Once great reverence was shown to white hair,
And wrinkled age was valued at its true worth.
The young waged work of war, and spirited battle,
Holding to their posts for the sake of the gods:
Age, inferior in strength, and unfit for arms,
Often did the country a service by its counsel.
The Senate was only open to men of mature age,
And Senators bear a name meaning ripe in years.
The elders made laws for the people, and specific
Rules governed the age when office might be sought:
Old men walked with the young, without their indignation,
And on the inside, if they only had one companion.
Who dared then to talk shamefully in an older man’s
Presence? Old age granted rights of censorship.
Romulus knew this, and chose the City Fathers
From select spirits: making them the rulers of the City.
So I deduce that the elders (maiores) gave their own title
To the month of May: and looked after their own interests.
Numitor too may have said: “Romulus, grant this month
To the old men” and his grandson may have yielded.
In this version of the origins of names, the following month, June, is named not for the goddess, Juno, but for the young men, iuvenes.
Last comes Caliope the ‘beautifully voiced’ chief of all the Muses, who presides over eloquence and epic poetry. She gives us the explanation which comes close to the one with which we seem most familiar: the name of the month of May derives from Maia, daughter of Pleione and Atlas, whose children were the seven Pleiads.
Among them, Maia’s said to have surpassed her sisters
In beauty, and to have slept with mighty Jove.
She bore Mercury, who cuts the air on winged feet,
and Caliope, through Ovid, declares that:
you, Mercury, patron of thieves, inventor
Of the curved lyre, gave your mother’s name to this month.
Again, there is a veneration for elders, which seems a little at odds with the idea of May as a time of blooming youthfulness, were it not for the idea of Maia, as a beautiful mother, blooming with child.
Ovid concludes the explanations given by these Muses:
All three were equally convincing.
May the Muses’s favour attend me equally,
And never let me praise one more than the rest.
And the fourth possibility? Slipped elsewhere into the text is this, when Ovid comes to describe what happens on May 9.
It will be the ancient sacred rites of the Lemuria,
When we make offerings to the voiceless spirits.
The year was once shorter, the pious rites of purification, februa,
Were unknown, nor were you, two-faced Janus, leader of the months:
Yet they still brought gifts owed to the ashes of the dead,
The grandson paid respects to his buried grandfather’s tomb.
It was May month, named for our ancestors (maiores),
And a relic of the old custom still continues.
Again this seems at odds with our idea of burgeoning springtime in the Northern Hemisphere, although Ovid also describes the Roman festival of Flora, which began in April and continued into May.
It seems that Ovid, who was born in 43 BC, was quite aware that there were many rituals and ideas associated with the name and the month of May, peering, as he did, back into the earlier history of Rome, and telling us what he knew went on in his own lifetime.
Another way to interrogate the naming of the month of May is to look at the etymology of the word ‘May’ itself.
Merriam Webster gives us the familiar:
Origin and Etymology of May: Middle English, from Anglo-French & Latin; Anglo-French mai, from Latin Maius, from Maia, Roman goddess
The Free Dictionary takes us further back, past Maia, the Italic goddess (probably based on Maia, a Greek goddess), all the way to the Indo-European root ‘meg’ meaning ‘great’, which has given us ‘majesty’ and ‘major’ as well as May.
Perhaps the root is the answer to it all? For May is a great word for a great month isn’t it? One way or the other.
And to speak of May blossom?
Do you have any theories about May?
If your name is Meg, did you know that it means great? So don’t take too much notice of ‘Family Guy‘.
All quotes from Ovid taken from Poetry in Translation: Ovid, Fasti, ‘On the Roman Calendar’, translated by A.S. Kline, 2004
All words and images copyright Maria Donovan 2018. If you wish to use any images from my website please contact me for permission.