Nos Calan Mai - the first of the three Ysbryd Nos/ Spirit Nights
Like The Shadow of Nanteos, The Dipping Pool begins high in the mine ravaged Cambrian Mountains of mid Wales. It's May Eve and the people are making their way to the great bonfires that burned on the twmpathau to celebrate. Calan Mai (formerly known as Calan Haf or the Summer Calend), together with Calan Gaeaf, (on All Hallow's Eve), split the year in two. It was time at last to cast off the mantle of winter and embrace the good things; time in Scotland for instance to leave for the summer pastures with the animals that had survived winter; in Wales time to move from Hendre (Old Place) to Hafod (the Summer Home). Time to move from one farm to another, finding new work/workers at the May hiring fairs.
Unlike our rather sanitised May celebrations, there was nothing twee about how having survived the long, hungry winter was marked in the Eighteenth Century. Calan Mai was one of three Ysbryd Nos in which spirits walked abroad and divination could be practised. Bonfires fought back the dark and lots were taken; those who lost leapt three times over the flames or ran thrice between the two burning fires. It is recorded that 'shouts and screams of those who had to face the ordeal could be heard from afar.' It was not unknown for a calf or sheep to be thrown into the fire when there was any disease in the herd or flock. Marie Trevelyan provides a detailed account of these May Eve customs in which whole herds could be driven between the fires to purify them and to 'stop the disease spreading'. Later, when it was 'not considered humane to drive the animals between the fires...the herdsman would drive them through the ashes'. people carried away these ashes - they held magical properties and were effective against pestilence. A few of them in the wearer's shoes protected from great sorrow or woe.
Thanks to Marie Trevelyan's Folk-lore and Folk Customs of Wales and Trevor M. Owen's Welsh Folk Customs.