No discussion of May Day or Beltaine would be complete without mentioning one of the iconic symbols of the day – the maypole.
There is no solid information to tell us exactly where or when the maypole originated. The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who lived in the 1600’s, suggested that it dated back to the Roman worship of the god Priapus…who was of course well known for a certain part of his anatomy. This perception of the maypole has been endorsed by many over the years, including none other than Sigmund Freud himself; and it is even mentioned in the book Fanny Hill, an erotic novel first published in 1748. However, it must be mentioned that Hobbes was himself bitterly opposed to maypoles and to May Day merrymaking itself, and this may have influenced his erroneous statements. There is no historical evidence that maypoles were linked to Priapus or were ever viewed as a phallic symbol.
This begs the question…just where did maypoles come from, and what do they actually symbolize?
One suggestion is that they were linked to the northern European belief in a sacred tree which separated the human and divine worlds. Such a tree did and continues to exist within Germanic paganism – Yggdrasil, the World Tree upon which the god Odin sacrificed himself. It could also signify an Irminsul – a type of wooden pillar which is attested as playing an important role in the pagan practices of the Saxon people; of which the earliest descriptions refer to it as a tree trunk erected in the open air. The fact that maypoles seem to be predominately found in nations of the former Germanic tribes as well as the areas to which they migrated lends some credence to this fact – in the British Isles they were found in the English speaking areas that were infiltrated by the Anglo-Saxons…the Gaelic regions continued to focus on the fire festivals instead. However, once again there is no evidence to support this concept.
Yet another idea was that the maypole was the symbol of a fertility-giving tree spirit. While this could not be refuted by the data, neither could it be proved. A close study of May Day customs in various countries does not turn up any evidence of a belief in such a tree-dwelling spirit.
Thus most historians and anthropologists are left to conclude that the maypoles basically served a similar function to the gathering of green branches – a way of celebrating the onset of Summer and the growth of new vegetation, and of enjoying the sunny days and warmer weather. They were useful frameworks upon which garlands and other decorations could be hung, to form a focal point for celebration.
The existence of maypoles on continental Europe is recorded from the Pyrenees on the France/Spain border all the way to Scandinavia and further east to the Ural Mountains in Russia. We also see their use in England, but as mentioned earlier they were rarely found in the Gaelic-speaking areas of Ireland and Scotland, although we do find them mentioned in Welsh literature. In fact, one of the earliest documentations of a maypole is in a Welsh poem of the mid-fourteenth century, and they are mentioned at the end of the century once again by our friend Geoffrey Chaucer, as he describes the maypole that stood at Cornhill in London. So what we know is that the custom was well established in southern Britain by the 1400’s.
The poles were communal symbols, and their size and weight meant that erecting one was a group activity. The problem with this was that the poles could become associated with group misbehavior, as evidenced by the May Day riots of London in 1517. As a result of these riots, the Cornhill maypole, which was one of the largest in the country, was never erected again. By their very nature, they had to be fashioned from valuable trees, and the owners of woods were not always consulted when their timber was removed: the earl of Huntingdon was furious to find that his estates had been the source of maypoles in 1603.
Along with these observances of misconduct, hostility towards maypoles was strong amongst the evangelical Protestants, who sought to reform not only the Church but society as a whole. It was in fact during the English Reformation movement that the Cornhill maypole was sawed into pieces and burned, after being denounced by a Protestant minister as being a “pagan idol.” Even though Elizabeth I, as previously mentioned, enjoyed the May Day festivities and was fond of the maypole, resistance to them intensified during her reign, with the result that maypoles were banned in much of England from around 1570 until about 1640; we did not start seeing a revival of them until 1660.
In the eighteenth century one could find maypoles dotting the English countryside, and descriptions from the 1700’s and early 1800’s suggests that their appearance and function had not changed much from the time of Elizabeth – they were still painted, still decorated with garlands, still a focal point for dancing, still the target of raids by rival villages, and still occasionally a source of friction with landowners upon whose property they had been cut without permission. Nonetheless, but the end of the 1700’s maypoles were in serious decline as young people turned to other forms of entertainment – such as dancing, singing, games, feasts, may wine and the making, displaying and sometimes selling of garlands. The last maypole within the city of London was removed in 1795. Some areas – particularly out in the countryside – continued the tradition up through the early 1800’s, but by 1840 the village maypole was far and few between.
By the late 1800’s, the maypole dance had shifted to become an activity primarily conducted by the schools, and thus confined mainly to children, particularly young girls…although they were sometimes also carried out by female students on college campuses. This tradition continued throughout the 1900’s and can even today some schools still hold May Day activities. Yours truly can remember being one of the lucky young ladies selected to dance around the may pole at her elementary school in southern Indiana forty years ago in 1972.
In some areas the maypole was replaced by a similar custom of carrying highly decorated sticks or hoops, covered with flowers, greenery and ribbons. This tradition was known as garlanding, and was often accompanied by dancing…what is commonly known in England as the Morris Dance. Similar customs of May Dances – sometimes accompanied by decorated sticks – can be found in other countries around Europe.
These are just some of the many traditions that have been documented as celebrations ushering in the beginning of Summer – there are many others that we don’t have time or space to go into. The important thing to remember is this was a time for people to get outdoors, enjoy the warmer weather, engage in merry-making with others, and to feast, dance, and play games freely.
Some of these celebrations have been adopted by modern-day Neo-Pagans, who see these festivals as an opportunity to return to ancient pre-Christian rites and rituals. Many Pagan groups celebrate Beltaine with bonfires, greenery, and dancing around the maypole. However, it must be understood that these Sabbat celebrations are in fact a modern day interpretation of those ancient customs, not necessarily a historical reconstruction of them. As such, the beliefs and practices of these Pagan groups and their celebrations owe as much to modern myth, romanticism and folklore as they do to anthropological evidence. Certainly they play an important part in the continuation of age-old rites, but they cannot and should not be viewed as necessarily being an accurate depiction of them.
Regardless, the celebration of Beltaine and May Day can seen as an opportunity for all of us to come out of our own darkness…to embrace the Light Half of the year, the return of the sun, and the greening of the planet. We can do our own dance of joy and delight in our own acts of love and pleasure.
As I was writing this post, I asked a good friend of mine who is herself a Pagan High Priestess what significant points she felt were most essential. Her response was:
Sex in the yard.
Hinge in the year.
Life force near unstoppable.
Sex in the yard.
Leaping fires is a good form of exercise.
As is sex in the yard.
Bright blessings, and may you have a wonderful Beltaine!