When it comes to celebrating Beltane, perhaps the most significant symbol of the season you will see is the Maypole. The Maypole dance is regarded as a time of joy where couples, friends, and families can come together in a dance that will strengthen their bonds of love. While the Maypole may seem like just a time to dance, it holds a long-standing symbolism that traditions aim to retain. To get a better idea of how vital the Maypole is for us Witches at Beltane, we will be diving into its origins, history, how other cultures use the Maypole, and even how to make and use one today!
The Maypole is believed to have originated in Germanic Europe as a celebration for the warming days of the season. Some scholars thought that the Maypole might have symbolized sacred wood or trees in Germanic Europe, that they were phallic symbols used to show birth, or that the Maypole was simply a celebration for summer. The Maypole later influenced traditions in the regions around them, which did have some recordings of its use. The earliest record of the Maypole, outside of Germanic Europe, comes from the British Isles between AD 1350 and 1400, where a large log would be erected and had garlands hung from it. But, there is no definite proof of what the origins of the Maypole were, so it is still uncertain what their primary purpose was.
History of the Maypole
The Maypole has gone through many changes in use as it has traveled the globe. Let’s take a quick look at how the Maypole has changed over the centuries.
Starting with the British Isles, the Maypole was used to celebrate the romantic aspect of Beltane and the welcome of Spring. It was erected after the Beltane Bonfire, and the couples who danced around the Maypole were ones who had spent the night before consummating their love in the fields.
Since the Maypole originated in Germany, it quickly started to affect neighboring countries. In Great Britain, the Maypole dance became part of their fertility ritual, most likely due to the Maypole shape and the significance of the dance as a bonding experience. By the Middle Ages, most villages in Great Britain had a Maypole Celebration each year. While the Maypole was erected on a village green during the celebration, urban locations in London had a permanent Maypole that stayed up year-round.
The Maypole was brought to the United States in the 17th-Century by British settlers. The British Settlers continued the traditions of the Maypole, but more lustful as was usually done in England. The more lustful traditions may have occurred since there were fewer regulations in the United States and more freedom for the settlers to express themselves.
Of course, with everything Pagan, some hated the Maypole. The Puritans started to show their distaste of the Maypole in the 17th-century as they saw the Maypole only as a giant phallic symbol instead of its symbol for Spring and growth. The Puritans were able to stop Maypole traditions both in England and in the United States for about two centuries. But by the 19th-century, interest in rural country traditions in England rose, and the Maypole was reestablished. But this time, the Maypole became a part of the May Day celebrations with more structured dances compared to the ancient dances.
It is believed that the dances we do today around the Maypole are connected to the Maypole dance of the 1800s, not the ancient version of the custom. Today, the Maypole has become a significant part of Beltane festivities. The Maypole and the dance are used to connect us to Spring, fertility, and to build connections with those we love.
Making a Maypole
Making a Maypole is rather simple, but it does require some muscles and teamwork to get the Maypole set up and ready to use. The first thing you want to get is a tall tree log; it should be a large tree that has seen many years and has a strong base. You can leave the tree with its bark, or you can make it a group activity to strip and clean the tree before use. Once the tree log is ready, you will need to make a tree topper. The tree topper typically holds symbols of Beltane or Spring. The tree topper should have a way to connect to the wreath, which goes over the top of the Maypole and will have the ribbons attached to it. The ribbons need to be wide and colorful. You can already have the ribbons attached to the Maypole before your participants arrive, but tradition usually asks everyone to bring their ribbon to connect to the Maypole before it is erected. Once the ribbons have been attached to the wreath, you will want to erect the Maypole in the center of where the festivities are being held. It needs to be in the middle as it is where the majority of the people will pass, and most energies have collected.
If you are not able to set up the traditional Maypole where you live, you can substitute a metal rod instead of the wooden log, choose a smaller tree to work with or make a miniature version you can keep on your table indoors. The size and materials of the Maypole are not what makes the Maypole’s tradition; what makes the tradition is that the Maypole is being used at the right time for its intended purposes. If those are upheld, then you can use whatever you have available to make your Maypole.
How to Use the Maypole
There is no other way to use the Maypole other than to dance around it. Watching Maypole dancers weave the ribbons around the Maypole may seem overwhelming at first, but the actual dance is rather simple, and anyone can quickly learn it before or during the Maypole dance.
The main thing you want to be sure of is that there is an even number of people. The even number is essential as it will ensure that there will be a firm wrapping around the Maypole at the end of the dance. Traditionally, there should be an even number of men and women participating in the dance, but that is not necessary. If there is not an even number of men and women, have them count off into groups so that everyone knows what direction they will be going as each group will be going in opposite directions of each other.
When the dance is ready to begin, have each dancer grab a ribbon. The main thing the dancers need to keep in mind is that the pattern of the ribbon is “over, under, over, under.” One group will start with their ribbons raised so that the dancers coming towards them will wrap their ribbon under theirs. On the count of someone watching the dancers, they will call when the dancers switch, meaning the ones going under will now be going over, and the ones that were going above will be going under. The person calling the switches will determine when they are done, and eventually, the Maypole will be covered. The remaining ribbons can be tucked into the wrapped ribbons, or they can be left to hang loose.
If you are using a tabletop version of the Maypole, the weaving pattern still applies, but it will most likely be done by one person or by a pair. If you are doing the Maypole weaving with another person, make sure that both of you are aware of who is in charge of what ribbon and when to switch the orientation. So long as the ribbon is wrapped correctly around the Maypole, then you will still be upholding the tradition of the Maypole and its symbolism.
As you can see, the Maypole holds such a strong symbolism for Beltane that some Witches may not even know. By having a better understanding of the Maypole and its history, you should feel a stronger connection to the Maypole and its dance. Even if you do not participate in the dance itself and enjoy watching instead, you should still feel a stronger connection to the tradition. Even though the Maypole is meant to be a tall pole for people to dance around, you can bring it into your home by making a miniature version of it. Of course, no one is going to be dancing around it to put the ribbons on it, but you can make it a craft for you and your partner, best friend, or respected family member to put the ribbons on the Maypole to strengthen your connections. So long as the tradition of the Maypole is respected, you do not need to make a big Maypole to dance around. But, if you have the opportunity to participate in a Maypole dance, go for it; it’s an experience you do not want to miss out on!