in the face of conventionbecause I cant fly a planeIm
going to begin this article with a list of sources because I feel they are
that important. Anyone who is serious about doing research on the topic
of British customs and traditions needs to make a trip to the library (but
not mine, I stole all the topical books!) (Yes, yes, I paid for them...)
Anyway, heres the list, and Im putting them in Patties
Order of Importance. So, right off the bat, you must buy this book:
The Stations of the Sun by Ronald Hutton. Oxford University Press,
Not only a great read, its indispensable as a resource. Go buy it...
now... Ill wait...
Then find: The National Trust Guide to Traditional Customs of Britain
by Brian Shuel. Webb & Bower, Exeter 1985.
My first theft on the topic! An excellent book, not only for the info, but
the pictures are magical... steal it if you cant buy it. (Sadly yes,
its still out of print. Maybe some enterprising young perky American
will do a revision... in my ample spare time.)
Chambers Book of Days by R.L. Chamber 1863-64.
These two volumes, a set, are perhaps the oldest books in our house. Happily
the whole has been scanned in by The University of Wisconsin-Madison Libraries
(bless them and their spare time!) http://www.library.wisc.edu/etext/BookofDays/
Lots of fun all around!!
The Customs and Ceremonies of Britain by Charles Kightly (no, that
is not a typo.) Thames and Hudson (where would we be without T&H?!!)
This book has more mayors in it than all of America. (It seems England just
loves to dress its mayors up and do things with them... like, weigh them.)
This resource is set up like a dictionary, which is great for avoiding things
Customs and Traditions of England by Garry Hogg. Arco Publishing
Comp, New York 1971.
Yes, its an old book, but another thats a gold mine of pictures
(and besides, laughing at the fashions of the time only adds to the fun!)
Once a Year: Some Traditional British Customs by Homer Skyes. Gordon
Fraser, London 1977.
Of the two 1970s books Id like to see this one re-done more,
which would suggest it should precede the Hogg, but until it is revised,
Ill have to rely on Hogg first.
Okay, there you have the basis for almost all
of my research. I have other books, but nothing as factual as these, and
they form the bedrock of my library. When you begin to seriously delve into
this topic you will come across the usual crowd of re-creationists, and
Philip Stubbes, over and over, but with perseverance youll come out
the other side with a better understanding, and a delight in all things
Now onto the topic at
I began this years talk by
disenchanting those present of the age-old belief that the May Pole,
in all its phallic glory, is the upright part of a Pagan fertility rite.
It is, in fact, nothing of the sort. Hard to believe? The funny thing
is, if you tell yourself something, and it makes perfect, logical sense,
youll believe it. If you mention it to a friend, and they agree
its an obvious idea and why didnt they think of it, you
then begin the cycle that, while charming in its nature, is the death
knell to factual research. There probably isnt a person in the
Pagan community who hasnt, at one point, picked up anything by
Graves and been blown away. After all, youre in your early 20s
and are a blank page for people like Graves and Frazer to paint on.
Youll believe anything. Including, and not limited to, that that
large white pole on the village green is an enormous penis screwing
the earth mother. A perpetual Great Rite right under our very noses.
Well, sorry to say, there is no supporting evidence to this assertion;
and while it makes all us Pagans feel like weve gotten another
one over on our less enlightened neighbors, i.e. the local Christians,
the bottom line is, there is no Pagan connection. No Great Rite. The
May Pole wasnt a Pagan custom that the Christians, in their eagerness
to fit in, subsumed.
May Poles were, and in some rare cases are, a sort of communal Christmas
tree. (And, indeed, at one time every house had a may bush,
indoors.) Imagine a community coming together to celebrate the fact
that they can now go abroad without a coat, and for the express purpose
of decorating the May Pole. Fresh greens, flowers, ribbons... all harkening
back to the Roman festival of Flora, which 99.9% of the people of long-ago
Britain couldnt possibly have known about. And while they are
indeed using the Pagan fire festival of Beltane as the night/day for
the party, the free license of the evening had become less important
and had transmuted to the tradition we call Dancing the May Pole. You
wonder why perhaps? Everything loops around to one thing, improving
But Maying was a party, plain and simple, and the hidden
meaning was only grafted onto it later. In fact, we can lay the basis
for this incorrect assertion at the feet of one Philip Stubbes (Anatomie
of Abuses, 1583... a rollicking good read...) in his oft (and
I mean oft!) quoted statement:
...But the chiefest jewel they bring from thence is their Maypole,
which they bring home with great veneration, as thus. They have twentie
or fortie yoke of oxen, every oxe having a sweet nose-gay of flouers
placed on the tip of his hornes, and these oxen drawe home this May-pole
(this stinkyng ydol, rather...
(sic, in case you couldnt tell.) For the rest we will call
Sir James Frazer to task. As Hutton says in your new copy of Stations
of the Sun, Frazer saw forest spirits in everything.
Now, while Stubbes does manage to paint a delightful picture in my mind,
(fresh-faced nymphs, et al) this is one of those cases I warned you
about earlier (and did you notice the other?) If he says it, and I believe
it, it becomes fact. Get ready for the cold water to the face, okay?
(And speaking of water, there are some sources who say that May
Pole is actually a poor translation of May Pool! Imagine
dancing around a pool of water... but I digress...)
If a town did indeed have a forest around them that might yield a suitable
tree, and they did manage to make off with it without the landowners
knowledge, they would hardly bring the pilfered pole home with pomp
and procession! Theyd do it under cover of the night and pray
that all involved kept their bloody traps shut because you know what
a talker George is when he gets a few in him and why did I let them
talk me into this and if the wife finds out Im in the goad come
Sunday... but it did seem like a good idea last night at the pub....
whoops, Im getting away from the point.
Suitable trees would have been slated for the noble occupation of ships-mast
(more on that later) and what town had access to 20-40 oxen? (And even
if they did, would all the owners be on good enough terms with each
other to allow the animals to be thus employed?) May Poles were, in
fact, such an expense that parishes would sometimes pool their funds
to buy one. There are even cases of poles being stolen by rival parishes!
Is nothing sacred?! To combat this, some poles were left up all year.
These poles came down on a regular schedule, say every 3-7 years, to
be repainted and repaired if need be. The tallest May Pole on record
was 86 feet tall, and was actually 2 trees spliced together.
Someone this year asked if apple trees were preferred owing to their
trainability. The ready answer is no. No working tree would have been
used for such a frivolous task, and while I agree apples are eminently
trainable, they would not reach the height needed for a pole.
Another commonly held belief (and were talking Pagans here) is
that this years May Pole is this years Yule Log. An enchanting
idea, yes? I think Ive adequately explained why this would have
been a foolish waste of good wood.
But what about places where trees, any trees, were scarce? Enterprising
man will always find a way to have his cake and eat it too. Did you
know ships masts were removable? They are. They had to be, in
case repairs needed to be done, or heaven forbid they should splinter
and break. You cant scuttle a ship for want of a mainmast! So
there were some May Poles that were doing double duty. Neat huh?
Lets move closer to the big city, where there are even less trees.
There is a record of the last May Pole in London coming down in 1795,
and we have to assume that that one was of the permanent variety. May
Poles suffered occasional lulls in interest, owing to things like, oh,
Cromwell, and then a revival owing to things like, oh, the Restoration
of the Monarchy. And the Victorians were wild for the golden days of
Medieval England where they believed all was idyllic and, oddly, whitewashed.
It was during this time that milk-maids began parading the streets with
pyramids of silver on their heads, and chimney sweeps (climbing
boys) began employing Greens for fund raising during
the long summer months when their services were no longer needed. But
Ive already written on that topic and you can read all about it
on the Web page: http://www.othergods.org/research/green%20jack.html
There! Youve gone there and read that. Ive torn this bucolic
scene to shreds and am ready to move on.
Speaking of bucolic (and ovcolic?!) Beltane was, in almost all parts
of England, the time when you turned the flocks out into the summer
pastures. But would you allow them to just go without some sort of protection?
A sort of charmed flea collar was needed. Livestock was invaluable and
every care had to be taken to ensure their good health.
There has been the suggestion that Beltane was the age-old festival
of Baal, the Canaanite solar deity (that must have been a hefty airfare!)
or, Belenos, a local solar guy, and that owing to this solar association
Beltane was a fire festival. It was during this feast that bonfires
would be lit on hilltops, and in some places, lit closer to home. The
real reason for this was to bless the cows before turning them out.
Imagine if you will, two raging bonfires, and a herd of panicking cows.
Now the idea is to walk (drive) them between the twin gateposts of flaming
matter, and to make sure the smoke coated them. This done they would
have received the blessing of Baal and you could release them with a
clear conscious. Not surprisingly there came a time when one cow, representing
all cows was smoked, rather than driven between the fires.
Ah me, another pastoral scene destroyed, but at least I didnt
ruin this one.
In conclusion Id like to expand upon something that I personally
do every May morning, namely, washing my face in May dew.
It has long been believed that the dew that collects on Beltane had
the ability to cure freckles, keep your skin fresher as
you age, and reduce wrinkles. All of these I have no problem with, and
make it a habit to pat May dew on my face once a year. What you may
not know is that there are differing views about where this dew should
come from. (Personally Im not picky... that grass right over there
that no ones walked on yet is just fine...) Good dew gathering
points were: hawthorne bushes (heck, they were the source for knots
of May so this wasnt a stretch,) ivy (another non-surprise,)
under oak trees (like that one) and perhaps the strangest, from new-filled
Ill leave you to ponder that at your leisure.
TO WELCOME PAGE