Dance around the maypole

The most well known symbol of May Day (1st May) is the maypole. The custom of dancing around the maypole is an ancient fertility rite, which is still performed today on village greens and at spring fetes.

The origins of the maypole hark back to ancient times when tree spirits were worshipped and indeed the first maypoles were tall slender trees, usually birch, which had their branches lopped off, leaving just a few at the top to be adorned with garlands and blossom: a far cry from the more elaborate designs of today.

The maypole itself is a phallic symbol representing the planting of the god’s phallus into the mother earth’s womb, thereby illustrating the bringing forth of new life. In addition some maypoles are painted with red and white spiral stripes in much the same way as a barber’s pole and this too has sexual meaning: the red representing the female menstrual blood and the white the male semen. The sexual symbolism of the maypole and all the immoral revelry that went along with it led the Puritans to out-law the maypole custom in 1644. However, this prohibition was soon repealed after the restoration of Charles II in 1660. Many towns and parishes erected permanent maypoles in celebration, some boasting 80 or 90 feet! These permanent poles were left to stand throughout the year but only decorated and danced around on May Day.

Dancing around the maypole was once a very merry and frivolous affair, yet today’s maypole dancing with its colourful ribbons is a relatively modern dance, only dating back to the nineteenth century. However, this new adaptation is now accepted as a very important aspect of the maypole dance. By taking two ribbons and weaving them together the dancers make a new element, thus two makes three representing the sexual union and the offspring.

From Dark Dorset

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