Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Men (and Women) Behaving Badly: May Poles

Wednesday, May 5, 2010
Susan reports:

We're in the merry month of May Day and May poles. While most of us today think of May poles with school children clutching the ribbons, that sweetly pretty version is a Victorian invention. Earlier May poles were much less innocent, with pagan antecedents so distant that no one knows exactly when the first was, ahem, erected.

But there's no mistaking their symbolism: a phallic pole firmly planted in Mother Earth, part of the annual celebration of fertility, procreation, and returning spring. Most May Rites were in that spirit, too, with much drinking and bawdy carousing. Puritanical Christians were appalled, as this description from Anatomy of Abuses (1583) by conservative pamphleteer Philip Stubbs (c.1555-1610) attests:

"All the young men and maids, old men and wives, run gadding over night to the woods, grove, hills, and mountains, where they spend all the night in pleasant pastimes; and in the morning they return, bringing with them...their May pole, which they bring home with great veneration, as thus: they have twenty or forty yoke of oxen, every ox having a sweet nose-gay of flowers placed on the tip of his horns, and these oxen draw home this May pole (this stinking idol, rather) which is covered allover with flowers and herbs, bound round with strings, from the top to the bottom, and sometimes painted with variable colours, with three hundred men, women, and children following with great devotion. And thus being reared up...they fall to dance about it, like as the heathen people did at the dedication of the Idols....I have heard it credibly reported (viva voce)...that of forty, three-score, or a hundred maids going to the wood over night, there have scarcely the third part of them returned home again undefiled. These be the fruits with which these cursed pastimes bring forth."

Could there be any coincidence that May with its May pole and night-long "gadding" is soon followed by June, the traditional month of weddings? Nahhhh......

Above: The May-pole Dance, c. 1620. While there are many written descriptions of 17th c. May poles, both in their favor and against them, this demure illustration is the only contemporary one that I could find. Perhaps all the artists were too busy running into the woods?


Keith said...

Good post, very interesting.

Jean R. said...

I love how this description includes everyone from the young men and maids to the old men and wives. Sure sounds like a good time to me!

Rowenna said...

I agree with Jean--funny that the pamphleteer focuses on all those "defiled maids" but doesn't seem to acknowledge that most of those "gadding" would have been married already if everyone, young and old, was participating...though actually, the threat of running into one's parents would be enough to keep me from carousing about in the woods!

nightsmusic said...

Hmmm...let's see; may poles, June weddings, may "poles", June wed...nope, not a thing to do with each other.


And I had to laugh at Rowenna's comment about running into one's parents. I think I'd stay home too! ;o)

Alexa Adams said...

Funny that a fertility rite would result in fertility. So very bacchanalian.

LaDonna said...

My school always had a Maypole on May Day. But because it was an all-girls school, everything was super girly and innocent, white dresses and babies-breathe. But if we could've, we would definitely have gone 'gadding' with the boys from our brother-school!

Susan Holloway Scott said...

Arggh!! I've had internet problems today -- which is why I'm so slow replying.

I hadn't considered meeting up with parents in the woods! Why, if there were truly "old men and wives", then there could well even be grandparents. Whoa!

I do, however, have a special fondness for May Day celebrations. In one of my earlier job incarnations, I worked at Bryn Mawr College, which celebrates May Day on a very grand scale. There were oxen pulling the antique May poles, of which there were five (one for each class, plus the graduate school), a May Queen on horseback, strawberries and cream at dawn, Morris Dancers, the whole nine yards. Even we administrators wore costumes on May Day, and it really was a great time.

Even if there wasn't any coed gadding into the woods. *g*

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