Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth

In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.

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Maypole or Bonfire?

The Maypole and the Bonfire have long been the two ritual foci of Beltane celebration.

The logistical problem being that a ritual can't have two centers.

I remember running into this difficulty decades back while planning the community Beltane down at the old River Circle by the Mississippi. We wanted both a Maypole and a Bonfire, but (unless you want to burn the Maypole, which is wrong) they're mutually exclusive options and only one of them can be in the middle of the circle.

In the end we settled for a central bonfire with the Maypole off to the side of the circle. After the Maypole dance, as darkness drew in, people (of course) clustered around the Bonfire, leaving the poor Maypole deserted.

I.e. not really a satisfactory solution.

Historically speaking, the Maypole is a relative newcomer to the Beltane celebrations (there's no documentary evidence for it until the early modern period), while the Mayfire is clearly prehistoric (the name Beltane itself originally meant “bright fire”).

But the tension between Fire and Tree is more apparent than real. Our problem is trying to cram both hands into the same catskin glove.

The Mayfire is the focus of the nighttime celebrations.

The Maypole is the focus of the daytime celebrations.

What, you're not doing both?

You call that Beltane?


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Tagged in: Beltane May Day maypole
Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.


  • john stitely
    john stitely Friday, 28 April 2017

    Kudos. You are the only person (group -since you have one) that celebrated May Eve as well as May Day. It has long seemed to me that we miss a whole portion of the power and mystery of this Holy Day by eliminating the darker portion and then connecting it to the Dawn of Summer/Life.This is a Sabbat that calls for days of celebration. Happily it is built into the schedule her in Paganistan but It would be nice if we worked for the inclusion of May Eve to the Beltaine Season.

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Friday, 28 April 2017

    A bat needs two wings to fly.
    Bwa ha ha.

  • Jön Upsal's Gardener
    Jön Upsal's Gardener Wednesday, 10 May 2017

    Actually, we call that Sumarmál. :-)

    And you're entirely correct; modern society and its artificial cycles of weekday-weekend is largely responsible for the need to change holidays that used to span several nights and days into a single Saturday afternoon, with all of the ritual and symbolic chaos that that entails. It's even worse around Yule, believe me, with events that are supposed to be spread out in a leisurely fashion over the course of a month, culminating in a three-day celebration, being crammed into a single Saturday. It's a crime.

  • Jön Upsal's Gardener
    Jön Upsal's Gardener Wednesday, 10 May 2017

    And just as an aside, written evidence for the Maypole goes back to the 14th century. As it's entirely unlikely it was invented coincident with the earliest surviving mention (in a poem), it's very probable it does indeed go back at least a few centuries beyond that, and it's not inconceivable that it was a converted pagan custom (at least in England), based on that provenance. Early Christians weren't noted for their invention of dance traditions; quite the opposite.

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Thursday, 11 May 2017

    I'm intrigued, Jon: which poem is that? Clearly time to to brush up my Middle English.
    So: we find Maypoles in England. We find Maypoles in Scandinavia, although (understandably) at Midsummer. (But they're still called "May-stangs.") We find Maypoles in Germany, specifically (as I can personally testify) in Bavaria, where the two tallest points in most towns are the steeple and the Maypole.
    A similar practice in similar linguistic/cultural environments. Either this practice spread during late medieval times, or it's older than that, as you suggest.
    Well, well.

  • Jön Upsal's Gardener
    Jön Upsal's Gardener Thursday, 11 May 2017

    Maddeningly, Ronald Hutton in Stations of the Sun (p. 233) doesn't give the title of the poem or the quote, only the author; Adda ap Dafydd. That's the earliest mention he lists, although Chaucer also mentions it in the poem "Chaunce of the Dice" (written sometime 1380-1400):

    Right well and high ye beare your heade
    The weather-cocke as with flying ye would kill;
    When ye be stoft, bet of wine than brede,
    Then look ye, when [that] your womb doth fill,
    As ye would bear the great shaft of Cornehill.

    It's also worth mentioning that in Sweden they're also called Midsomerstangs, but the association with May is still strong, and Maistang is still used as well.

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