Beltane fires and maypoles

Beltane is coming, and with it, the celebration of love. Spare a thought for those who are left out of all the joyous coupling, and those who are marginalised by less inclusive ways of celebrating love.

Fertility can be re-purposed into a theme of caring for the environment, or of general creativity. And as Doreen Valiente wrote in The Charge of the Goddess, “All acts of love and pleasure are My rituals”.

The Maypole

It is a bit difficult to make the maypole more inclusive, as it’s rather binary. The thing is, you’ve got a pointy thing (the Maypole) and a roundy thing (the hole it goes in), and, well, penetration politics are sure to arise — even if you say that the Maypole represents the lover, and the hole represents the beloved, the Maypole does tend to get viewed as a phallic symbol.

There’s also the question of which way you dance around the Maypole. Regular commenter Woods Wizard suggests the following in a comment on my post about making the wheel of the year more inclusive:

We do get some Gay or Lesbian couples at our Beltane celebration. The May Pole instructions we give are “traditionally, males go widdershins and females go deosil, but circle the pole in whatever direction you feel best suits your energy.” I wish I had a better way of explaining it.

It’s also worth considering that the ribbons on the Maypole are often made from rainbow colours, so there’s a bit of LGBTQIA+ symbolism right there.

It’s also possible that the Maypole is not phallic, and actually represents the cosmic axis (Irmensul or Yggdrasil). So you could construct an interesting ritual on that theme. According to the Wikipedia entry on the Maypole:

The symbolism of the maypole has been continuously debated by folklorists for centuries, although no definitive answer has been found. Some scholars classify maypoles as symbols of the world axis (axis mundi). The fact that they were found primarily in areas of Germanic Europe, where, prior to Christianisation, Germanic paganism was followed in various forms, has led to speculation that the maypoles were in some way a continuation of a Germanic pagan tradition. One theory holds that they were a remnant of the Germanic reverence for sacred trees, as there is evidence for various sacred trees and wooden pillars that were venerated by the pagans across much of Germanic Europe, including Thor’s Oak and the IrminsulIt is also known that, in Norse paganism, cosmological views held that the universe was a world tree, known as Yggdrasil. There is therefore speculation that the maypole was in some way a continuance of this tradition.

Non-Germanic people have viewed them as having phallic symbolism, an idea which was expressed by Thomas Hobbes, who erroneously believed that the poles dated back to the Roman worship of the god Priapus. This notion has been supported by various figures since, including the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. Phallic symbolism has been attributed to the maypole in the later Early Modern period…

If you happen to be any where near Merry Mount, you could commemorate the wonderful Thomas Morton and his respectful and inclusive relationship with indigenous people, which was in marked contrast to that of his contemporaries. Here’s a video of the 375th anniversary commemoration in 2002:

Another video (excerpt 1 and excerpt 2) describes the historical context of the revels at Merry Mount, and Morton’s avowed intent to live in harmony with indigenous people. He also objected to slavery.

The Beltane Fire

Some parts of the British Isles celebrated Beltane with bonfires. The name Beltane is derived from a Common Celtic root word *belo-te(p)niâ, meaning “bright fire”. Cattle were often driven between two fires to bless them. Many Druid and Wiccan celebrations of Beltane involve jumping over a bonfire; but you could revive the practice of having two bonfires, so that wheelchair users could drive between them, as I suggested in my post on creating accessible circles.

Having bonfires instead of a Maypole avoids all that hole and pole stuff, and as it can still be quite nippy outside in May, provides something to keep people warm. People can jump over them in small groups if they are polyamorous, on their own if they are single, and in couples of any gender and orientation.

If you can’t have a real fire for safety reasons, you can always get a few volunteers to be fire dancers and dress up in red and orange and yellow tatters, ribbons, or body paint. I’ve seen this done a few times and it looks great.

As well as being a symbol of purification and healing, fire is a symbol of passion and intuition, so it incorporates a number of different symbolic aspects.

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5 thoughts on “Beltane fires and maypoles

  1. ‘Both and’ rather than ‘either or’ perhaps – the May Pole holds all you mention an much more?
    ‘The pole is the still and quiet center?
    ‘The hole is the hidden root of yang energy the pole with its ribbons the dancing manifest yin’?
    ‘The ribbons are the rays of a loving feminine Sun’?
    ‘The Pole is a loving Feminine Sun’?
    ‘The pole is a loving Masculine Sun’?
    ‘The ribbons are wrapping the pole in her beauty’?
    ‘The ribbons are wrapping the pole in his beauty’?
    ‘The pole is what ever Sex, Gender, Orientation, the Pole desires, and we are so impertinent to asign Hir only one’?
    ‘The Pole is what my deepest desire yearns Hir to be’?
    ‘I am what the deepest desire of the Pole yearns me to be’?

    I could go on and on and on.
    Thank you for this post!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for this! I’ve never seen the pole as a phallic symbol (I go with the world tree/axis mundi interpretation) but I can see why some would, and feel alienated by it. I like your alternative suggestions, and the bonfires (or symbolic fire) really apeals to me, linking Beltane with the fire of the sun and its roots as a “fire festival”.

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  3. Pingback: Beltane is coming | Dowsing for Divinity

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