This month is named after the goddess Maia, to whom the Romans sacrificed on the first day of the month. Maia was one of the Pleiades, the seven daughters of Atlas and Pleione. They were all transformed into pigeons that they might escape from the great hunter Orion, and flying up into the sky were changed into seven stars, which form the constellation known as the Pleiades. On any clear night you may see these stars clustered closely together, but they are not very bright, one of them being very faint indeed. A story says that at first they shone brightly, but after the capture of Troy by the Greeks they grew pale with sorrow. Another story says that all but one were married to gods, and that when they became stars the one who had married a mortal did not shine so brightly as her sisters.
Maia was the Goddess of the Plains and mother of Mercury, the messenger of the gods. In order that he might perform his duties as messenger more swiftly, Mercury was given by Jupiter wings for his feet, and a winged cap for his head. He is said to have invented the lyre, or harp, and to have given it to the Sun-god Apollo, who gave him in return a magic wand called Caduceus, which had the power of making enemies become friends. Mercury, in order to test its power, put it between two fighting snakes, and they at once wound themselves round it. Mercury ordered them to stay on the wand, and, in statues and pictures, the god is nearly always holding in his hand this wand with the snakes twisted round it.
Mercury was not only the messenger of the gods, but was also the God of Rain and Wind, and the protector of travellers, shepherds, and thieves. Festivals were held every year in Rome in his honour during the month of May.
Atlas, the father of the Pleiades, was a giant who lived in Africa and held up the sky on his shoulders. The great Hercules, when seeking for the Golden Apples of the Hesperides (daughters of the Evening Star), came to Atlas to ask him where he could find the apples. Atlas offered to get them for Hercules if he would take his place while he was away, so Hercules took the heavens on his shoulders, and Atlas set off to fetch the golden fruit. But on his return he told Hercules that he must stay where he was, while he himself would take the apples to the king, who had set Hercules the task of finding them. Hercules, as you may imagine, had no wish to spend the rest of his life holding up the sky, and, by a trick, succeeded in getting Atlas back to his place, and so was able to set out on his homeward journey.
The last story of Atlas we read in the account of the great hero Perseus, who, after slaying the Gorgon Medusa, passed Atlas on his way home. Now the face of the Gorgon turned to stone all who looked on it, and Atlas, worn out by the terrible burden he had to bear, persuaded Perseus to show him the Gorgon's head. "Eagerly he gazed for a moment on the changeless countenance, but in an instant the straining eyes were stiff and cold; and it seemed to Perseus, as he rose again into the pale yellow air, that the grey hairs which streamed from the giant's head were like the snow which rests upon the peak of a great mountain, and that, in place of the trem bling limbs, he saw only the rents and clefts on a rough hill-side."
Thus Atlas was changed into the mountains which bear his name, and are to be found in the north-west of Africa.
Hercules, whom we have mentioned in this story of Atlas, is one of the best known of the Greek heroes, and to this day we often speak of an especially strong man as a Hercules, and we also have the expression "a Herculean task". Hercules was a son of Jupiter, and devoted his life to ridding the country of the fierce beasts which brought death and destruction to many of his people. But through the hatred of the goddess Juno, Hercules knew much sorrow, and underwent great trials. To atone for crimes committed in a fit of madness sent upon him by Juno, he was condemned by the gods to become for a year the slave of the King of Argos, who set him twelve labours. The first of these labours was to slay a lion known as the Nemean lion. In spite of the attempts of many brave men to kill this fierce animal, it still continued to carry off men and women, and steal cattle and sheep. Hercules at once set out, and, tracking the lion to its den, seized it by the throat and crushed out its life. He then tore off the lion's skin and made it into a covering which he always wore.
The second task was also to destroy a monster--a seven-headed serpent, known as the Hydra. Hercules attacked the serpent with a sword and cut off one of its heads, but was horrified to see seven new heads spring from the wound. Thereupon the hero called to his help his friend Iolaus, who seared the wounds with a lighted torch and thus prevented the new heads from growing. In this way Hercules finally slew the cruel Hydra.
Another task set the hero was to capture and tame the horses of the King of Thrace. These horses were fed on human flesh, and the king had ordered all strangers who entered his kingdom to be executed and given as food to the horses. Hercules succeeded in securing these animals, and, after throwing the king to his own horses as a punishment for his cruelty, led them to his master, the King of Argos.
Of the remaining labours, one was the fetching of the Golden Apples of the Hesperides, which we have mentioned; but the most famous was the cleaning of the Augean stables. King Augeas possessed enormous herds of cattle, and their stables had not been cleaned for many years. Hercules might well have lost heart at the sight of such a task, but he very cleverly overcame the difficulty. Near by the stables ran a swift river; this Hercules dammed and turned from its course, making it run through the stables, which in time it washed perfectly clean. Then, his task accomplished, Hercules led the river back to its course.
After a life of trial and labour, Hercules finally met a tragic death. By a trick he was persuaded to put on a robe which had been stained with poison. The poison ate into his flesh, and all the hero's attempts to tear off the robe were in vain, so at last he resolved to die. He built an enormous funeral pyre by tearing up oak trees by the roots, and then laid himself on the pyre, to which one of his friends put a torch. In a short time roaring flames rose up to the sky and consumed the great Hercules, the man of might.
The Angles and Saxons seemed to have called this month of May "Tri-milchi", meaning that, owing to the fresh grass of spring, they were able to milk their cows three times a day.