May Day Is No Bull

We shouldn't be surprised that a celebration that can be linked with both Taurus and Mithras - two Anatolian deities - is a big deal in Berlin's favourite Turkish district. But few people seem to realize that there is any deeper connection between them. In this article, I explain how the seeds of the May Day rituals we know and love today were sown in ancient Turkey. 

When it comes to May Day in Berlin, the connections between the holiday and the city's Turkish population seem like they are mostly incidental. The aged, cynical patriarchs of the Turkish community seem reluctant to deal with the drunken tourist crowd, even as they desperately compete to entice it into their shops and restaurants to spend, spend, spend. But the Turkish community may well have more of a right than some Germans do to take more of an interest in May Day; after all, its connection to the spring holiday stretches back far beyond the Kreuzberg riots of the 1980's. In fact, it stretches back almost 12,000 years, to the dawn of civilization itself.

Anatolia: Sowing the Seeds of May

In Turkey, at the foot of the Taurus mountains in Anatolia, the ruins of the world's oldest civilization suggest that the fertility rites that would eventually become May Day started all the way back in Neolithic times. There wasn't much written language back then, but the reality of those early Anatolians is described in carved images that are still strangely meaningful to us, today. Carvings of a bull - which is still the same symbol that we use for the month of May today - are found all over the ancient site. A sun is often depicted between the bull's horns - the same sun that is traditionally celebrated across Europe on the eve of May Day each year, by burning bonfires and dancing all night long. 

"The question is why the bull, above all other animals, remained such a powerful symbol for over 15,000 years," writes one author about the bull carvings in Gobelki Tepe. His words echo the perplexity of countless archaeologists before him, as they tried to explain what those symbols might mean.

I don't think it's all that mysterious, actually. The bull is still a fairly potent symbol for people who happen to be born under the sign of Taurus - and that's a purely abstract connection, based on the almost-invisible movements of stars that we can't even touch, taste or smell. For ancient Anatolians (and Egyptians... and Persians... and Sumerians... and Romans...) the bull and the sun had a much more tangible connection to their lives, and to springtime.  May was when the growing season typically started and, as such, it was a time to harness one's bull to a plough and start putting down seeds that would sprout and grow tall under the summer sun.

So, right from the dawn of settled human civilization some 12,000 years ago, the link between fertility, bulls, females, and the sun was pretty explicit. The same author writes that, "stone and clay female figurines, showing young woman; woman giving birth to child, ram, or bull" are found in Gobelki Tepe.  Clearly women were considered to be pretty instrumental in the whole animal-domestication process, somehow. Maybe they were the ones who delivered new bull calves into the world by hand - who knows?  At any rate, the people living next to the Taurus mountains attributed the presence of their sacred bulls to women, or to female gods.

Even the name of the Taurus mountains seems like kind of a flashing, neon sign, announcing to the world that the area has been known for bulls since time out of mind.  And it makes sense they would have been important species: they were probably the most powerful animals that had ever been domesticated by humans, up until that point. Cattle would have been instrumental in helping Neolithic humans plough the fields and plant grains on a mass scale... as they still are today, in some places. Rearing crops would have made those Neolithic peoples unimaginably rich compared to their hunter-gatherer peers. The bull and the sun were all the tools that a Neolithic clan needed to rear a few decent crops that they could live off of and prosper, all year round.

In that sense, having a bull in your village must have been the Neolitihic equivalent of owning a Porsche or a Mercedes...  and we all know how many modern humans deify those tools. Why wouldn't the same reverence be given to the original 'engine' of human development - the humble bull?

Then again, these animals probably could have easily turned on and killed their human 'owners' at any time. I reckon that would have made Neolithic peoples just a bit more eager to earn their livestock's cooperation, by paying homage to their gods.

The bull worship cult isn't exactly dead, yet, either: some people think that it may be the reason why cows are still considered sacred in India, today.

Minos: Taking the Bull by the Horns

Anatolian peoples later helped to found the Minoan culture in Crete, which was a peaceful and apparently egalitarian culture that, weirdly enough, inspired the patriarchal Greek civilization that came after it. Women seem to have been in charge of the spiritual life in Minoan society though.  Minoans also loved the arts, and they fed everyone well and housed them, regardless of their status. They also worshipped bulls in a very hands-on way, like their ancient foremothers had. In Minoan artwork, young men and women are often shown grabbing actual bulls by their literal horns and flipping over them... why, you ask? Probably because it was the most badass thing that a teenage Cretan could do in those days. 

The Minoans' creation myth also stated that Crete was founded when a Phoenician queen named Europa moved to the island by hitching a ride there on the back of a god who was disguised as (drum roll, please)... a bull.  She later married and had kids with the god, thus creating the Minoan race.

Rome: Earth Revolves Around the Son

Even the Jesus story in Christianity seems to have been shaped in such a way as to replace yet another, ancient bull & sun cult: namely, Mithraism.  Mithras was a 1st Century A.D. Roman deity who was connected with the sun, and who was traditionally shown wearing Anatolian clothing.... for reasons that will probably seem clear when one looks to Gobelki Tepe, and the Taurus mountains. Like Jesus, he also was born of a virgin on December 25th (the Roman solstice) and what we know about his story tends towards the same theme of salvation. But unlike Jesus, Mithras was a pagan god and therefore, heretical. It's the main reason why he didn't last that long.

Unfortunately for bulls everywhere, Mithras also had a bad habit of slaughtering the animal once a year. Yes, he may have been a pagan deity but, rather than working together with the "feminine" energies of the bull, he seemed more hellbent on sacrificing her for his own glory... which kind of says something about the the core values of the soldiers who worshipped Mithras, I think.

Modern Christianity commemorates Jesus' rebirth (Easter) and Ascension on dates that are closely connected to the old pagan rites of Mithras and of spring... rites which are in turn connected to the mating of livestock, the return of the sun to its full productive strength. All rituals that can be traced back to the birth of agrarian civilization at Gobelki Tepe and Catal Hyuk, another 12,000 year old site in Turkey. 

Beltane: The Bonfire of Vanities

Photo via the Festival Sherpa website
Every year in Germany on the 30th of April - also known as 'witches night' - bonfires are still lit (probably to symbolize the sun) and women are expected to dance the night away with men... each other... anybody, really... probably so they can fall into bed with a hot stranger the next morning, and sow some fields together.

Today, many central European countries claim that their May Day traditions include bonfires because they symbolize the burning of women... the Church used to do, back in the bad old witch-hunting days. This interpretation may reflect more recent historical events, but the older origins of those fires can be glimpsed in Scotland and Wales, where the bonfire celebrations that happen every May Eve and May Day are liberating events that focus on enjoying life and setting stuff on fire. Beltane, as the holiday is called, is a decidedly positive celebration where bonfires, fireworks and dancing are combined into a purely exhibitionist, hedonist way... and that's before you even get to the May Pole surrounded by dancing women. 

These old rituals, which are pretty much unchanged since Celtic times, suggest that European May Day traditions have historically been more about bringing the sexes together to celebrate life... not about turning them against each other to cause death.

Mayday: Butting Heads with Authority

The American left-wing scene unconsciously harnessed the thrusting creative energy of May the 1st when it decided to make the day a holiday, celebrating workers' rights. May Day commemorates a grim day back in the late 19th century, when several anarchists were executed in Chicago because they had committed the 'crime' of organizing a demo that had turned violent. But it's more likely that May Day became so popular with the masses because it was connected to those ancient yearnings to create life, rather than being anything to do with death. Bringing everything back in a full circle, modern Turkey has also been the scene of some incredibly dramatic, and tragic May Day, events: the 1977 Taksim Square massacre killed dozens of protestors.

When you take all of the above histories into account, it seems almost inevitable that May Day - the day when the Bull constellation charges back into the skies, and the Anatolian sun god Mithras returns to his full strength - centres around Kreuzberg, which has got to be one of the best-known Turkish 'expat' neighbourhoods in Berlin. It seems strangely fitting that the most radical, hopeful May Day events tend to happen around there, too.

May Day is a time when most people in Berlin feel a rush of reckless energy, pushing them to start whatever changes that they feel are necessary after a long winter, spent in reflection. Don't be afraid of playing your part, this Monday... just grab a bull by the horns and jump in.


Popular Posts