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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The Worst Maypole Dance I Ever Saw

To begin with, real Maypoles don't have streamers.

Oh, they may have ribbons: brightly-colored ones, along with the garlands of flowers and fresh greenery.

But “wrapping the Maypole,” now: that's a 19th century import from Bavaria—where the two highest points in any given town are usually the steeple and the Maypole—that educators loved because it was such a “pretty” custom. Ugh.

(In Bavaria, the streamer dance is performed as a show of skill. The point is not to wrap the maypole, but to wrap and then unwrap it. Now that shows prowess.)

Nope; when it comes to Maypoles, the real thing is a real, live tree, fresh-cut that morning and borne rejoicing from the woods (the original magic here is to bring home the vitality of the Wild) by the young folks of the village, who probably did a little early-morning rejoicing of their own in the woods. You lop off all the branches except the ones at the very top, deck it with the flowers and greenery that you gathered in the woods, and set it up as the centerpiece of the May Day merriment.

(In the Rites of May, the Maypole presides only over the Day festivities, the centerpiece of the Night revels being, of course, the Fire of Nine Woods.)

Real Maypole dances don't have anything to do with streamers. They're ring dances performed around the Maypole.

The worst Maypole dance that I ever saw—fortunately I was a musician that year and hence not criminally liable—was perpetrated by an enthusiastic crew with lots of Wiccan training under their cinctures, each one just brimming with magical Intent.

Unfortunately, they all had different Intents.

Their dance not only raised no power whatsoever: it actually absorbed whatever power there was around it and killed it, killed it dead. (A beautiful day, a bunch of half-drunk pagans in a holiday mood: there was plenty of power to be had, if only they'd had a clew about how to go about it.)

Here's the worst part: the dance was expected to come to a grinding halt each and every time someone came to the end of his or her ribbon, so that he or she could “tie off” his or her spell with a knot.

Oh, they tied it off, all right. In magical theory, this process is known as “ligature”: destroying a thing's proper function by the malign use of magic.

In Old Craft circles, I sometimes hear discussion—usually from former Wiccans—about whether Wiccans count as real witches or not. To me, such discussions seem pointless. When it comes to defining who is and who isn't, I'm regularly reminded of my freshman-year dorm-room discussions about Art. My friend Scott, probably the most thoughtful of us, always used to argue for defining art broadly. “That leaves plenty of room for good art and bad,” he'd say.

I will admit, though, that that pathetic mockery of a dance made me wonder, if for just a moment.

Well, purism is its own punishment. Maybe we can't hit the bull's-eye every time, but that's no reason to stop aiming.

So, for all of me, you're perfectly welcome to wrap your PVC pole, with its wreaths of faux flowers, in acetate ribbons if you want to, and to stop the dance every time someone wants to “tie off” the “magic.” Go right ahead: be my guest.

But don't ask me to sing for it.



Pieter Brueghel the Elder (ca. 1525-1569)

The Dance Around the Maypole


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Tagged in: 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.


  • JudithAnn
    JudithAnn Wednesday, 01 May 2019

    Great piece on traditional Beltane. Now only if I lived in a place where flowers and greenery might be gathered on May first. At least I can find some pussy willows and forsythia.

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Thursday, 02 May 2019

    Some years we have to make do with box and holly. Oh, well.
    In Scandinavia, the "May Stang" goes up at Midsummer's. All paganism is local....

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Thursday, 02 May 2019

    And thank Goddess for greenhouses! How the ancestors would have loved them.

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