When I was a young kid, growing up in poor, post-war South London on the edges of the County of Surrey, each April we rehearsed MAY POLE DANCING.
(If you wish, you can read all about my 1950s exploits in South London in the novel “The Sisterationship: A Charlatan’s Story” — a suburban folk-tale about a plain-clothes Nun… and I feature in it!)
Maypole dancing was a mandatory activity (which I hated) and it continued during the weeks leading up to May the First which is, as I’m sure you know, May Day. More or less each afternoon, we’d meet in a musty old school hall and we (the young school kids) circled a tall pole, recently varnished. At the top of the tall pole was a swivel shaft which (I think) contained curtain grommets. And from each buttonhole (or grommet) hung a long ribbon. Each ribbon was of a different colour.
Then we had to practice, for endless hours, what they called the “May Pole Dance.” This dance was basically boy-girl, boy-girl. Each of us held a ribbon and danced happily & supposedly merrily around the pole holding our end-of-ribbon in our little fingers, going in and out of other children, sometimes turning to go the other way, passing under arms or over arms… until eventually, and together, we made some pretty latticework patterns with the ribbons, a bit like a cat’s cradle (if you know what that is) only a bit tighter, like loose macramé. Then the teacher would come and unravel the latticework. And we’d start all-over, dancing in-and-out to make a new pattern.
Ultimately, after hours of practice, we got “good enough” to be shown off on the big day! So, on or around May Day, i.e. May the First, there was a concert (it was often held in the School Hall because it was raining) but the most magical May Day celebrations were held outside in the School Garden. All the adults (parents, teachers, notables, and even the mayor) came to watch as we danced around the maypole that had (now) been re-located onto the school lawn. They also “crowned” the May Queen at the same gathering. This was a little girl who was deemed the most beautiful girl in the school (by adult teachers, presumably which, now I think about it, is a bit concerning) and she was dressed in a wedding dress type outfit, and sat on a flower-decorated throne and was paraded around wearing a wreath-crown made of fresh flowers and holding a May Wand. She resembled a fairy princess.
Of course, not only is the May Pole a conspicuous phallic symbol, but the conjuration involved in this ancient ceremony (preadolescent and virginal children dancing around a phallus, to celebrate fertility and usher-in fecundity) is so manifestly pagan that I’m surprised the educational authorities of the day (much less the church) didn’t stamp it out long before the 1960s. I imagine the custom has gradually diminished. I don’t remember my children, raised in the 1980s, doing maypole dances at school (thank goodness.)
Although, when I was walking through the Salzkammergut (Austria’s lake district) in the mid 1990s, I noticed that every tiny village, every little green, had a maypole. So clearly, the Austrians still force their children to observe this rather strange custom.
What is a maypole?
Scholars think that maypoles have been around for a very long time. There has always been a fascination with planting a stick in the ground and watching it grow. I don’t know if you are aware of this (I’m an amateur gardener so I talk about such things) — but some bushes and trees can develop and even flourish from being “just a stick” driven into the ground. They don’t need roots or leaves, or branches, to get themselves growing. They are literally just a stick. A “stick” will grow, ask any gardener. I put a “grow stick” in my backyard this year, so I can show you what I mean by this (the photo below) and you can see how the new leaves have already formed by this May (2021) even though I thrust the stick into the ground just a few weeks ago. And the ground was still frosty when I stuck the stick into the ground. (Sorry, the photo isn’t very exciting… it’s not meant to be, it’s a stick with leaves.)
There are some sticks that grow better than others. What I mean by this is that some trees and shrubs may survive in a dormant state (separate from a “mother” tree, if you wish) yet will eagerly take root if you thrust them into a nourishing bit of earth. The most notable of these is the “thorn tree” Crataegus in Latin, also known in Europe as the hawthorn; it’s also called the quickthorn (quick as in alive) the thornapple and, yes, the May-tree.
Most people (who care about gardening) call these twigs hawthorns. Haw actually means hedge (Old English), so my stick will one day become a hedge with thorns. It will bear small fruits known as HAWS. The fruits are edible and we will use ours (harvested from the twig) to make jelly. The leaves are also edible, either as a salad or to make tea. In South Asian and South American countries the leaves and fruits are still eaten on special occasions. They say the leaves, made into tea, aid digestion.
Now think about it: a person can drive a dead stick into the ground. And magically, in just a few weeks (for example, I thrust my stick in the ground in February and it already has a good crop of leaves, as you can see from the photo) a twig will appear to thrive. One day, perhaps soon, my family could eat the leaves, eat the berries, use the thorns as fish-hooks, burn the older branches for firewood, and enjoy this tree that grew from a dead stick. There is magic for you.
According to one legend, the legend of the “Glastonbury Thorn” there’s a tree that blooms twice a year in Somerset, and it was supposed to have miraculously grown from a staff planted by none other than Joseph of Arimathea, near the mysterious Glastonbury Tor. Although legend has it he pushed his staff into the ground and it turned into an apple tree… I think it’s a fair bet his staff was probably made from Crataegus, the thorn tree. If you don’t know who Joseph of Arimathea is, by the way, because you didn’t do Bible studies, he’s the rich guy who paid for Jesus’ funeral.
We often find hawthorn trees beside clootie wells which I talked about in Myth & Magic Episode 49 that aired on Sep 2, 2020. At these mysterious wells we sometimes call hawthorn trees “rag trees” because pilgrims attached strips of cloth to the thorns as part of their healing & cleaning rituals. Compare this to my earlier description of May Pole dancing at school, with ribbons tied to a tall pole. Were we children also involved in a healing ritual as well as (the obvious) fertility rite?
Of course, shoving sticks into ground to see if they will grow and eventually bear fruits was probably one of the first farming experiences for a tribe. If a stick grows, they must have thought, what about twenty sticks? What about two hundred? I suppose that throwing seeds and “sticking” are a tribe’s first tentative steps towards a settled relationship with mother Earth.
If the tribe wandered away from their twenty sticks, perhaps to find a new home or follow the herds, someone else might take their sticks or break them. Or a pest could eat them, or they could die in a drought. So the tribe left people with their sticks, left people to take care of them. A stick in the ground is the first step on a path that leads to civilization. One last thing about hawthorn: in Gaelic folklore, the hawthorn marks the entrance to unseen otherworld dimensions… and because of this, it is strongly associated with fairies and the liminal (threshold between reality and fantasy) that I often talk about… so hawthorn is a threshold between “our world” and “theirs”.
Lore says that it is very unfortunate to cut down a tree at any time other than when it is in bloom; however, during blossom time (May) a hawthorn bush might be cut and some branches used to make wands or used to crown and adorn a May Queen. This warning persists into modern times; There was once a famous automobile factory known as the DeLorean Motor Company in Ireland that went bankrupt in 1982, just eight years after it was founded. You will know the car they manufactured because it is Marty’s time machine in the “Back to The Future” film franchise. The company destroyed a fairy thorn to make way for its production plant. Hence the failure of a highly capable engineer (Delorean) who was a leading business innovator, and a famously successful entrepreneur. The company went bust, because he didn’t respect the thorn or the fairies.
So anyway, when you have a collection of valuable fruit trees (now I’m moving away from hawthorn and toward orchard trees such as apple, pear, cherry, plum, olive, apricot, peach, walnut) you must keep them safe, keep them comfortable, and keep them well nourished. It makes perfect sense to celebrate them once a year… because they bring you and your tribe food, drink, tools, firewood, and wealth. It is best to pay your respectful tributes when the flowers are out, and thus the promise of fruit (yet to be harvested) can be imagined. That’s when the fruit trees are honoured. On May Day.
But let’s look at the other part of the word: the “Pole” part of maypole. I have touched on this topic before. If you lie on your back, in a field, on a cloudless starry night, please look-up at the star directly above your head. We sometimes know this as the pole star. If you had time, you could observe that all the other stars seem to revolve around this star. I guess it’s fair to point out that it depends where you are in the world and it may not always be the same celestial body that everyone sees, but there will always be one star that all others in the galaxy seem to revolve around. And that star is the one that sits directly above your head. If you stuck a long vertical pole into the ground, and stood beside the pole, and then looked up… it would seem as if all the universe spiralled around your pole-stick. The stick would become (in essence) a real and tangible link between you and the stars. (Note: people living in Southern latitudes will have to use Sigma Octantis, the so-called Southern pole star.)
If you imagine the pole you stick in the ground as the Axis mundi (the axis around which the entire universe revolves) and focus on the mystical nature of your mental images for a moment, you will come to understand that a vertical pole stuck into the ground isn’t just a stick that provides life: it also offers a genuine, and unmistakable link with the galaxies. And furthermore, it seems to indicate that we, us, all humans… have a direct connection with infinity as it spins and swirls above our heads. We are connected with infinity through a pole in the ground! Best of all, wherever you jab your stick (to establish your axis) you’ll experience the same sense of interconnectedness, interrelationship and interweaving. It’s as if a single stick in the ground connects the many physical and metaphysical worlds that make up our understanding of the everlasting infinity of space.
And interweaving brings me back to the maypole dance at school. Gosh, how I loathed it!
words: @neilmach May 2021 ©