This post includes a video of dancing around the maypole. The video is not captioned, but can still be understood and enjoyed by deaf and hard of hearing viewers.
When one thinks about Beltane, the image that comes to mind for many is the maypole.
Indeed, the maypole is probably the best known and best loved of all symbols of this particular Sabbat, and dancing around the maypole is a common ritual for celebrating this particular day.
dancing around the maypole at a Pagan Beltane celebration
in Glastonbury, England
But while everyone seems familiar with this icon of May Day, exactly how did the may pole get its start? Where does it come from? And what exactly does it represent?
The maypole is a tall wooden pole erected as part of various European festivals – most occurring around the first of May, although in some countries it makes its appearance at Midsummer, around June 21st. While its actual origins remain unknown, it is commonly believed to have begun in Germanic Europe, as a part of ancient Pagan rites of the people of that area. The practice of the maypole spread throughout Europe, and still today the tradition can be found in a number of European countries, as well as within European communities in other parts of the world.
What exactly does the maypole symbolize? It’s long been thought that it was in fact a phallic symbol; a representation of the God in all his sexual glory. In truth, there is no historical basis for such a claim, and no research has indicated that people of the past actually viewed maypoles in such a fashion. It has also been suggested that they represent the divine tree – The Tree of Life; The World Tree; known as Crann Bethadh to the Celts and as Yggdrasil to the pagan Saxons…who also venerated a pillar of wood known as the Irminsul. Once again, there is no evidence to support this hypothesis either. The harsh reality is that there is little documentation to tell us just how or why maypoles came to be. At best, we can assume a simple general explanation that they represented the returning warmth and comfort of the season; a symbol of the celebration of greenery and vegetation that marked this time of the year.
Ronald Hutton, the British scholar who has authored several books on the history of Paganism in the British Isles, has done considerable research on the celebration of Beltane and the month of May in medieval England…including the existence of maypoles. While there is no real evidence to indicate when maypoles first arrived in the British Isles, they make their first documented appearance in a Welsh poem of the mid-fourteenth century. Writing in the late fourteenth century, Geoffrey Chaucer tells of the maypole which stood at Cornhill in London. Thus we know that by the year 1400 the custom of the maypole was well established across southern Britain. However, the practice did not seem to extend to the Gaelic regions of Scotland and Ireland, where fire ceremonies were still the focus of celebrating Beltane.
The tradition of dancing around the maypole enjoyed widespread popularity during the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries; however, by the late 1500’s maypoles were losing support. Much of the hostility comes in the form of the Reformation, when evangelical Protestants sought radical change in both the church and the community. Maypoles were seen as symbols of dancing, drunkenness, and debauchery, and had no place in polite society…thus they were banned in several towns, including Canterbury, Shrewsbury, Leicester and Bristol. Tolerance of them ended in 1644, when Parliament issued an ordinance directing the removal of them.
Restoration of the monarchy in the late 1600’s led to a resurgence of maypoles, and they began popping up everywhere, being seen all over the English and Welsh countryside. Their appearance and function did not seem to have altered – they were still painted, still decorated with garlands, and still served as a focal point for dancing. Interestingly, they generally did not include ribbons – this seems to be a more modern invention. Such popularity continued for approximately one hundred years, but by the end of the 1700’s maypoles had fallen out of vogue – people were finding new forms of entertainment, and the old customs of merry-making were disappearing. The last maypole in the London area was removed in 1795.
Today maypoles are seeing a resurrection, undoubtedly enhanced by the growing interest in NeoPaganism. Many covens and Pagan gatherings celebrate Beltane with the erection and dancing around the maypole, and they are frequently permanent fixtures in the medieval villages of Renaissance Festivals. Many schools include dancing around the maypole as part of their annual May Day celebrations.
Whether or not you choose to usher in the Merry Month of May by dancing around the maypole, this tall wooden object has become synonymous of the rites of the month, and the celebration that often accompanies the returning warmth of the sun and the greening of the earth. It is a custom steeped in ancient practices and historical folklore, coupled with modern day beliefs and traditions. Whether or not it is viewed as a representation of one’s spiritual path and a symbol of one of the Greater Sabbats in the Wheel of the Year, dancing around the maypole can still be a fun way of engaging in the merry making of the month.