Sunday, May 3, 2015

The Maypole and May Day - Part 3

In the movie 'The Wicker Man" (1973), a Maypole is is shown with children celebrating around it. Also, in the remake, an elaborate festival is portrayed... which I think was May Day, as in the original. I loved the visuals of that scene. Often at the top of the poles is a tree-like display, with ribbons extending to the ground, where a each person in the circle walks in one direction with it. The little tree shape may turn with the pulling, or it might be allowed to twist around the pole top to bottom. Often the colors red and white are used to decorate the pole, as well as the colors of the ribbons. I have seen other shaped displays, such as a wheel of the year.


The symbolism of the maypole has been continuously debated by folklorists for centuries, although no set conclusion has ever been arrived at. Some scholars classify maypoles as symbols of the world axis (axis mundi). The fact that they were found primarily in areas of Germanic Europe, where, prior to Christianization, Germanic paganism was followed in various forms, has led to speculation that the maypoles were in some way a continuation of a Germanic pagan tradition. One theory holds that they were a remnant of the Germanic reverence for sacred trees, as there is evidence for various sacred trees and wooden pillars that were venerated by the pagans across much of Germanic Europe, including Thor's Oak and the Irminsul. It is also known that, in Norse paganism, cosmological views held that the universe was a world tree, known as Yggdrasil. There is therefore speculation that the maypole was in some way a continuance of this tradition.

Non-Germanic people have viewed them as having phallic symbolism, an idea which was purported by Thomas Hobbes, who erroneously believed that the poles dated back to the Roman worship of the god Priapus. This notion has been supported by various figures since, including the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. Phallic symbolism has been attributed to the maypole in the later Early Modern period, as one sexual reference is in John Cleland's controversial novel Fanny Hill:

"...and now, disengag'd from the shirt, I saw, with wonder and surprise, what? not the play-thing of a boy, not the weapon of a man, but a maypole of so enormous a standard, that had proportions been observ'd, it must have belong'd to a young giant."

The anthropologist Mircea Eliade theorizes that the maypoles were simply a part of the general rejoicing at the return of summer, and the growth of new vegetation. In this way, they bore similarities with the May Day garlands which were also a common festival practice in Britain and Ireland.


Maypole traditions can be found in some parts of the country, e.g. in Friuli, Umbria and Marche.

"After we've gone to get the pole in thirty or forty people, we placed it like a six month child. We walked in procession with this tree and not even a single leaf had to touch the ground. We had to raise it without making it touch the ground, holding it in our arms like a child. For us it was the saint of the 1st of May."

—Quirino Marchetti (ancient peasant of San Benedetto del Tronto), in L'albero di maggio


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