Friday, August 30, 2013

The History of the Maypole

An extremely summarised history of the maypole, but a history nonetheless. A book certainly can be written on the subject, and many have been, but I wrote this piece for the Mount Franklin Pagan Gathering blog of which I am an organiser of, so I meant to keep the article short.
Any British folklorist out there have usually read the history of the maypole, and indeed even pagans usually like to read about the history of the festivals they love to celebrate. Most of the information here may be knowledge that a lot of people already know, but as the maypole is a large feature of the Mount Franklin Annual Pagan Gathering, it’s a good idea to write about maypole history, just in case someone out there doesn’t know.

According to J. G Frazer, it all starts with the worshipping of trees. Centuries ago, Europe and Britain were covered in forests, gradually being cut back with the growth of human population. Many countries that were covered with forests had human inhabitants that respected the tree. In Germany, tree worship is still evident today. To damage a tree was death to the criminal. Sacred groves and copses were regarded as divine and holy, and to kill or damage a tree was like killing a human. It was believed that trees cried out in pain when cut or damaged, thus in felling a tree, you must first ask its pardon – pagans still do this today.

As trees were a symbol of fertility, the trees were worshipped by women who desired to be mothers. This occurred in the East as well as Europe – the maypole supposedly possessed similar powers over both women and cattle. During the late spring and summer months, maypoles were cut from the forest and blossoming branches were strung around the house entrances. The reason for this was that the people welcomed the blessings of the tree-spirit and its power.
According to C.A Burland, it is linked to phallic worship. The maypole represented the phallus of the fertility god. This is why the maypole is surrounded by dancing couples, and why May Day festivities are associated with couple love-making in the forests overnight. Burland suggests that it is possible that the maypole, as a phallus symbol, came over from Europe with the Anglo-Saxons. Ronald Hutton mentions that the Saxons worshipped the pillar Irminsul, but there is no evidence that the maypole was a reflection of it.
According to Kondratiev, the maypole is linked to the Hawthorn Giant’s role as fertiliser of Fomorian nature – a cut tree is the ‘castration’ of the Giant, without the loss of potency – and revered in the Celtic tribes. Its magic is passed on to those who dance around it. Cerne Abbas, the hill giant of Dorset, is also supposedly connected to this phallic worship, as was many standing stones.
According to Cooper, the maypole goes back to the Phrygian pine tree of Attis, taken in procession to the temple of Cybele, coming from Rome into Europe, then Britain. Hutton says that Hobbes declared the maypole a relic of the Roman God Priapus. There is no documented evidence of maypoles in Britain until the Middle Ages, and even then, there may have been some around during the Anglo-Saxon times.
Whatever theories Frazer, Burland, Kondratiev and Cooper have, today May Day is all about green boughs, blossoms, branches of hawthorn and other greenery bordering doorways and shrines, and the maypole itself. It almost does not matter what origin the maypole was – it’s quintessentially pagan. The May Queen is usually seen parading with maypoles – her retinue of girls often carrying small maypoles garlanded with flowers. Maypoles were decorated each spring, on display on the village green all year, in some villages on May Day it was replaced. Each village, country and people had its own annual tradition of maypole celebration. The maypole was often the target of raids by rival villages – people seemed to know how to strike at the heart of other people. In the 1500s, maypoles were well documented in Britain. In 1644, the Puritans passed an Act of Parliament and banned the maypole and the festivities surrounding it, and there was no dancing around the pole of village greens until the Restoration era of Charles II in the 1660s. Towards the end of the 1700s, the village maypoles were often abandoned, left to rot, blown down, not replaced, or standing disused upon the green. They fell out of fashion. Eventually, maypoles and May Day festivities returned in the Victorian era, when people began to romanticise the older days. People also may have needed merry-making and festival when the Industrial Revolution took them away from the country villages, summer celebrations and the happiness of human revelry. The use of ribbons on the maypole came in the 1800s from Europe and the Mediterranean.
On the Eve of St John (Midsummer) in Stockholm, thousands of maypoles from 6 inches to 12 foot high decorated with leaves, flowers, slips of coloured paper, gilt egg shells strung on reeds are for sale. This pole consisted of a straight and tall space pine tree, stripped of its branches. Hoops and wood placed crosswise are attached to it and decorated with foliage and ribbons (above).
The largest maypole in London stood at 134 feet high in the Strand, in the 1660s to celebrate the return of the Monarchy. Today, England’s largest maypole is in the village of Barwick-in-Elmet, Yorkshire, standing at 86 feet tall and is the tallest permanent maypole in England, since around 1829. It is only taken down to be repainted and renovated. Four garlands are made by different communities in the village. Each garland consists of around 2,000 silk rosettes and 48 red, white and blue ribbons, with bells. This maypole is not used for ribbon dancing because of its height, and that it is so close to buildings. Instead, the children of the village use a smaller maypole to dance around. It takes three hours and 150 men to erect the large maypole.
The Mount Franklin Pagan Gathering turned 30 in 2011, yet it's maypole is younger than that, believed to be 20+ years old. A bicycle wheel adorns the top and green and red ribbons - 8 each – are unravelled just before the pagans dance with it again. Every Sunday morning at Mount Franklin Beltane, before the pole is erected, the bicycle wheel is covered with Hawthorn blossoms (if it’s flowering) and pink roses (if they’re flowering) from the Mountain side.
Since 2004, the maypole song from ‘The Wicker Man’ has been sung during the dance. Often, afterwards, depending on the success of the dance and the pattern of the ribbons, someone with the talent foretells the future 12 months, from the pattern the ribbons made. Whatever the maypoles history, we want this tradition to continue at MFAPG, and I am certain most of you will agree.
Books referred to:
Alexander, Marc. ‘A Companion to the Folklore, Myths and Customs of Britain’, Sutton Publishing Ltd, 2002.
Bord, Janet & Colin. ‘Dictionary of Earth Mysteries’, Thorsons, 1996.
Burland. C.A. ‘Echoes of Magic: A Study of Seasonal Festivals through the Ages’, Peter Davies, 1972
Cooper, J. C. ‘The Dictionary of Festivals’, Aquarian Press, 1990
Dalesman Magazines – March 1999 & April 1996
Frazer, J.G. ‘The Golden Bough’, Macmillon Press, 1922.
Hutton, Ronald. ‘The Rise and Fall of Merry England’, Oxford University Press, 1994.
Hutton, Ronald. ‘Stations of the Sun’, Oxford University Press, 1996.
Judge, Roy. ‘The Jack-In-The-Green’, The Folklore Society, 1979.
Kondratiev, Alexei. ‘The Apple Branch: A Path to Celtic Ritual’, Collins Press, 1998.
Matthews, John. ‘The Summer Solstice’, Godsfield Press, 2002.
Pegg, Bob. ‘Rites and Riots’, Blandford Press, 1981.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Marsden Imbolc Fire Festival (MIFF)

The Green Man
I had the fortune to live in Marsden not long after I arrived in the UK in late 2011, although I did not know about the village beforehand, indeed it was just another village in West Yorkshire where a friend lived, but since I have come here I have discovered just what English village life is all about. There is an amazing sense of true Yorkshire community here, a pagan-friendly, open-minded, folk music driven hamlet in the south-west end of the Colne Valley and its festivals are revered and maintained annually. Every year for 20 years now, there has been an Imbolc fire festival held here.

This is the fire display I was a part of
I also had to fortune of participating in the 2012 festival – as a fire twirler. I met and had become friends with the original, and still present organiser, Angela Boycott-Garnett, who also runs our local Morris team, the Thieving Magpies. Angela appears to organise almost all the local festivals here in Marsden; from when I met her, she was organising the Imbolc festival, and the moment that event ended, it was straight into organising Cuckoo Day (held in April). Angela is a great lover of English folkloric festivals – attending morris and sword dancing events, Mummers’ plays, Rush-cart festivals and anything else where the traditions of Merrie England is possible.

The 2012 MIFF event was held on the 4th of February and on that day, perfect snow fell. Nice and crunchy underfoot. The festival starts in the village near the train station by the Railway pub. Drummers and people masked as foxes walked with lanterns, heading a procession towards the Imbolc festival location – the Standedge Visitor Centre. All the people follow in the procession – carrying homemade lanterns made of willow withy and white tissue paper. Along the road were several lanterns hanging from trees, glowing like little moons. When the procession reaches the visitor centre, they see down from the road, the sight of the fire twirlers on their hill, already performing their synchronized routines.

Earlier, all the fire swingers and performers, in their layers of black clothing, had gathered in the Visitor Centre where it was warm with heaters and a variety of hot soups. The Standedge Visitor Centre is on the canal, by a man made tunnel  - a canal tunnel that runs through the hills and is the largest and longest in the UK. The performance is held on a slope by the visitor centre. Along with the fire performance is a lot of fireworks and a battle between two giants – Jack Frost and the Green Man – and being Imbolc, you know the outcome – the Green Man always wins.

That is me on the far left, twirling my poi
At school, the children participate in an art workshop run by Angela every year regards to Imbolc. They make winter masks to wear to the event. They commented this year that they were sick of the Green Man winning and were planning to ‘cheer on’ Jack Frost. And indeed they did – from our position after our fire twirling show, we could hear the crowd cheering for Jack, especially the little voices of the children. But the Green Man won in the end, of course, because Spring is on its way and the proof of that was the snowdrops and crocuses that were beginning to grow.

The event was over quicker than it started, and was a huge success – the people loved the snow, they all felt that Jack Frost won this time – it seems he did, after the blizzard finished, which was going on during the entire show, it was a crisp, icy winter wonderland, and the moon was almost full upon the white landscape.
The parade, starting in the village of Marsden, was led by the Crow and
the Mr Fox morris team
What the parade of people saw as they came upon the road above
Standedge Visitor Centre
I am one of these people here waiting

Jack Frost and his retinue
Jack Frost
The Green Man
The fight between Winter and Spring
The Victorious Green Man

Fire displays

Jack Frost

The drummers of the event

My friend Paddy is the Crow

The Green Man and his retinue

Finale fire displays
Green Man now brings Spring.
(photos courtesy of Ali Smithie, Gary Stevenson, and the Daily Mail)

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Twilight of the Celtic Gods… & other pre-Christian delicacies…

I was in the United Kingdom from the 9th of November 2011 to September 26th 2012. A few days after I got into Yorkshire to Marsden on the 21st November 2011, I went to the Village of Uppermill, which is over the Pennines, right on the border of Yorkshire and Lancashire, or Greater Manchester, right near Saddleworth. In fact, I think it USED to be in Yorkshire, but now is in Saddleworth, which is a civil-parish. Stan, Caitlin's husband, told me about a stone face in a bridge in Uppermill, and he wanted to show it to me.

We first drove up Manchester Road out of Marsden past a few pubs on the top of the Pennines. There were two pubs near each other up there. One of them is called The Carriage House and our morris team danced there near Midsummer 2012. The other is named the Great Western. The Great Western was pointed out to me for a reason. Back at the Fortean Times Unconvention (Nov 2011) in London, Andy Roberts’ son Kai was there - I never got introduced at the time, but Caitlin knew him as she had taken photos of the Huddersfield area for his book - which is about
local folklore and stuff- like what his father Andy writes. Kai lives on the other side of Huddersfield from where I was, and I later met Kai just before I went home to Australia in September 2012. Caitlin revealed that Kai's book mentions hauntings of a couple of boggarts - and one of them was at the Great Western. Found that rather interesting.

At Uppermill, we saw not only the stone head in the bridge, but a few other stones that had some mystery to them.
The Stone head on the bridge

A carved stone said the bridge was re-built in 1986
but I'm not sure of the age of the head
The 'ravenstone' in the park next to the library has
even more mystery

The day before New Years Eve, I went with my Uncle Gareth to Ilkley to do the Cup and Ring tour. I had brought with me the book Twilight of the Celtic Gods by Andy Roberts and David Clarke) again to the UK to read again, and see what I could mentioned in the book (last time I brought it, I got Dave and Andy to sign it for me). I had brought the book with me to my Aunt and Uncles place for Xmas, because I knew my Uncle Gareth would have liked to read it - I even left it with him to finish reading – for 9 months! We happened to look through it for any local stones and found in Ilkley that there was a Goddess on a stone in the Ilkley Parish Church. The Goddess 'Verbeia' (according to Andy and David's book) was apparently an altar stone that was Roman in the church. What would make more sense was that the stone was found in the river.

Verbeia, a River Goddess?
'She of the Cattle' - was the Goddess of the River Wharfe in North Yorkshire (one of two Roman altars found in the north-west corner of the church - probably Demeter, Goddess of the fields or her daughter Libera (Persephone) or a local Celtic deity similar to Demeter.
So in we went to the Parish Church. What was more of a touristy thing were the Church’s three Celtic Crosses that have been in the churchyard for years and eventually moved inside for protection and saved from pollution. 

All about the Church, nothing of the pagan idols in it.
It does not amaze me that some of the literature that you can get on these kinds of historical relics is very Christian in the way of thinking - there are never any cited dates of possible creation or who made them. An academic would cite everything if they wrote the brochures on these things. It was the same with the Shoreditch Church brochure back in London - uncited Christian tripe made the writings completely dull and unbelievable. No dates or years were ever cited on the Shoreditch brochure. It felt the same here - the Christians who write this stuff that tell you nothing about an objects true history, tells me that it might not have been even a Christian creation - many brochures written up do not seem to want to acknowledge the ancient pre-Christian past. I'll bet any money that there was a Celtic or even Roman religious site in the same spot, thus trampled on.


If Christian worship began there in 627 AD then clearly NOTHING else would have been worshipped there before then at all (note sarcasm). There was probably 'no such thing.'
I am amazed the Church indulges in such acknowledgments
It's an Earth Goddess! Not an earth goddess
Anyway, we then drove up to the Panorama Rocks that were put in a park next to another Ilkley church. This is right on the edge of the Moor.

Achtung! Caged Rocks for your safety.
Cup and Ring stones bite!

I am not sure where the original placement of these rocks were on the moors – as it was a wet day, I did not make time to read the information board.

We got even wetter going up along the edge of the moor walking to the
Swastika Stone - which was carved on a rock overlooking the valley towards Addingham. The carving is worn away and on a stone next to it is a Victorian reproduction that is clearer to look at.

The original Swastika Stone - thousands of years old?
(Some of these symbols have been carved on mammoth tusks)

The 19th century reproduction that is next to it
Gareth and I got quite wet today - and were only going to get wetter. We were on a mission to get to the Badger Stone. He also wanted to go to the  Twelve Apostles stone circle but there was no way we were going to make it - we would have been too wet by then, and it was getting dark.

Looks nothing like a Badger

...But a lovely example of Cup and Ring carvings..
A late start to the day, water, dark clouds, moorlands of any kind, and a winter's day a week after midwinter do not mix well.

We were drenched! And beginning to get cold. It was best we headed back home and not further into the misty droll Ilkley Moor or Burley Moor, as it was getting dark and we were not well equipped for a jaunt over boggy moorland and sphagnum moss...

Back in Marsden, a couple of weeks later in January, I was invited out to the pub with my friend Angela for a drink after we had spent the day at the Marsden Infant and Nursery School helping the young kiddies make their Imbolc masks. It was then when I told her about the Great Western boggart, and she told me about the Green Man in Marsden Park.

She said that nobody knows how old it is, but that it was concreted there years ago. I did not see it till about month later when Ang and I went for a walk around behind the primary school to look for her stolen compost bin (a kid had said he'd seen it there). Just as I walked toward the rotunda, I asked where the Green Man was and she said 'there' and pointed right behind me - below a monument was the green man. Lovely!

The mysterious Marsden Green Man


This year, a friend of mine got into carving on slate, and as I loved the Swastika Stone, got him to carve this for me…
My own swastika stone!
A little bit of Ilkley Moor and Yorkshire in my world….