The Mythology of May Day III: Maypoles and their Rituals

This final post about the mythology of May Day focuses on the idea behind Maypoles, and the various rituals involving them (collectively known as “Maying”). The festivities as we know them today come to us largely from the 19th-century revival of the holiday, which differ markedly from the original celebrations in northern continental Europe and the British Isles that I cover here. Indeed, the original May Day never occurred in what would become the USA. Early attempts to celebrate it here after European settlement were frowned upon by the Puritanical establishment (as in Cromwellian England), and the holiday gained some traction only in connection with workers’ rights in the aftermath of the Chicago Haymarket massacre in 1886. Today it is celebrated here most enthusiastically by neopagans and some New Agers.

In pre-modern Europe, the Maying rituals would begin after the May Eve bonfire rituals ended. That night youths of both sexes would go to the woods. Besides having sex, they would gather flowers (especially violets and daisies), boughs of newly flowering hawthorn or blackthorn, and a tree trunk for the Maypole to be erected the next day. (If the Maypole was large, it would be brought in on oxcarts.) Many of the flowers were made into garlands. The tree trunk was stripped of its branches, though in some locations the branches and leaves at the very crown of the tree were left intact as a reminder that they were dealing not only with a representation life but with something sacred which has a divine tree (or vegetation) spirit behind it. This serves to remind us to pause and reflect on certain mythological aspects of trees.

Trees are the tallest and most venerable living things on earth. Their lives span many human generations, and so they represent longevity. They are green, and either remain so all year (evergreens) or grow new foliage each spring. They therefore represent life and its preservation and renewal. And since life was divine, trees were associated with one or another deity (male or female) or tree/vegetation spirit. Importantly, trees exist not only in the realm of “earth” but also grow their roots into the earth toward the divine realm of the underworld; on the other hand they grow their branches upwards toward the heavens. Trees thus serve as means of accessing divinity in both heaven and the underworld; in both cases they are conduits to the divine. Naturally, trees were also oracles, used in divination. Tree veneration was ubiquitous both in the ancient world and in pre-modern Europe, so it was natural to utilize trees and their foliage in a spring/summer festival dedicated to the renewal and preservation of life.

The Maypole was brought from the forest and decorated with painted spirals or horizontal rings, and festooned with flowers and ribbons. It was then erected on the village green. In some locations, smaller Maypoles were placed in front of people’s houses. Normally, Maypoles were used just once, but as time went on Maypoles in large cities tended to become permanent, being reused each year until they had to be replaced. The largest was erected in 1661 in London on the Strand, stood over 134 feet high, and lasted over 50 years. When it was taken down, Sir Isaac Newton purchased it and put it to the novel, scientific use of supporting Huygen’s new large reflecting telescope. More commonly, once taken down, Maypoles were employed as ladders or as beams in buildings.

Along with Maypoles themselves, in some localities the celebrators would also cut and similarly decorate a thorn bush (even if it was already flowering) with flowers, ribbons, and bright shells, which became known as the May Bush. As with the Maypole, May Bushes could be both household and communal (for the whole village, on the village green). Thorn bushes were symbolically important for at least two reasons. First, the combination of thorns and blossoms on bushes and thistles represented opposites, in this case the opposites of winter and summer. Thorns typically represent adversity, suffering, and tribulation, and so are symbolic of winter. Decorating them in a spring/summer motif was not merely symbolic of the transition to summer, but apparently was a ritual of sympathetic magic designed to facilitate that transition. Second, in Gaelic lands thorn bushes were associated with the sí, or fairies. The good fairies were seen as helping to bring on and protect summer and summer growth, so they needed to be encouraged.

On May Day morning women would rise early and rush to the fields and meadows to partake of the morning dew, applying it to their faces, which was thought to have magical healing and cosmetic properties. Then the youths who had been out in the forest all night would make the rounds of the village, decorating the outside of people’s houses with flowers, garlands, and boughs while singing songs and blowing horns. In some places they would also carry a miniature representation of the Maypole and a doll representing the May Queen, both of which ultimately represented the divine forces at work in the trees and thorn bushes. (Sometimes the main Maypole was decorated with women’s clothes and/or a similar doll was hung on the Maypole, making the connection clearer.) The idea here was one of exchange: The youths were mediators conferring through the flowers, boughs, and dolls divine blessings, good luck, and protection on households and their crops and animals, and they expected to be rewarded with gifts in return for their good will and services, much as in Halloween’s trick-or-treat tradition. The gifts were rather nominal and symbolic and included eggs, tea, bacon, sausage, cream, cakes, and money, but it was still thought that the generosity of the gift to the youths (and ultimately to the divinities) would influence the magnitude of the blessing conferred. In this way the entire village, house-by-house in a private, family-specific manner, came under divine blessing and protection.

Maypole4

Representation of May Day in a larger English town, prior to the inauthentic late 19th-century plait dance.

As the day wore on, the villagers would gather around the Maypole, where the organized communal rituals took place. They would typically include some contest in which summer defeats winter, as when the May Queen defeats the Queen of Winter as described in my April 28 post, her marriage to the May King, who was a Green Man figure, typically a youth totally covered in foliage. Then the pair would be crowned and perhaps a mock sacred marriage would be held, marking the revival of fertility at the base of a symbol with obvious phallic significance. After that the people celebrated with dancing and singing around the Maypole. The elaborate dances that we see performed today involving the intricate plaiting of ribbons were not original to the holiday but arose only as part of the holiday’s 19th-century revival. Originally it was a simpler ring dance. In due course Morris dancing (probably originating as a sword dance in Moorish Spain) became part of the festival, mainly in England.

There is much more to be told about May Day than I can relate in these three blog posts. For those who are interested in digging further into this, I list below a few select books that are useful resources. For reasons of space I have had to describe the May Day festivities rather generically in these posts, but many of these sources, especially Frazer, bring out the similarities and differences between this holiday in the various localities in continental Europe and the British Isles.

© Arthur George 2015

Suggested further reading (in no particular order):

Ovid, Festi. Describes the Roman equivalent festivals of Hilaria, Floralia, and Parilia, and any Greek antecedents.

H.H. Scullard, Festivals and Ceremonies of the Roman Republic. More scholarly detail of the same.

James Frazer, The Golden Bough. See especially the sections entitled The Relics of Tree-Worship in Modern Europe and The Beltane Fires.

Anthony Aveni, The Book of the Year: A Brief History of our Seasonal Holidays. It has a chapter on May Day, though it emphasizes the modern evolution of the holiday.

Jean Harrowven, Origins of Festivals and Feasts. Includes a section on May Day, from an English perspective.

E.O. James, Seasonal Feasts and Festivals. By a renowned English anthropologist and scholar of comparative religion. Somewhat dated (1961, but often relying on much older scholarship).

Kevin Danaher, The Year in Ireland.

Ronald Hutton, Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain.

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2 Responses to The Mythology of May Day III: Maypoles and their Rituals

  1. Druscilla French says:

    Thank you for these articles. I appreciate the research and enjoyed reading them.

    Like

  2. Thanks, Druscilla, for your kind comment. Look out for more posts on the mythology behind our holidays to come! You can be automatically notified of future posts by clicking “follow” on my home page here.

    Like

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