May Pole Connection


Nancy Sherer

Every year, thousands of 21st century computer users visit the May Day web articles I posted several years ago. Sophisticated people from cultures around the world are drawn to this ambiguous festival.

Throughout recorded history, the May Pole has been connected with ideas as diverse as fertility buffoonery to bloody, religious rituals. The modern May Pole, festooned with ribbons and flowers seems like a quaint party favor, but it has also served in legends of human sacrifice.

We recognize it as part of the calendar of the agriculture seasons of European climate. It is surprising to learn that such poles have been the center of religious traditions dating back to the ancient Greeks. As we know from Jane Harrison's exhaustive study ''Themis" the procession of the May Pole was included in both planting and harvest festivals of the temperate Mediterranean climate.

One of the earliest known depictions of the May Pole is from pre-historic Greece. A procession of people celebrating the cultivation of grapes includes a flowering tree. Jane Harrison translates this as "May Pole" from the Greek description.

Possibly the Dionysus of the Vine was the fore runner of the 'Robin Hood' or 'King Arthur' figures in the licentious May celebration. The May Pole probably had the same significance as the Tree of Life which was sacred to the Great Goddess, Maia as well as the later Judea-Christian gods. This ancient people practiced a similar ritual months later during the harvest, Today this is echoed by the Christmas tree.

Why rituals are important to Homo sapiens is still a mystery. That this icon of May Day has survived over thousands of years in unrelated cultures may give us some clues as to how our mind works. Whether ritual is a key to marking time, building community, or taking control over uncertain forces of climate or fertility, certain rituals like May Pole festivals have some intrinsic hold on the human spirit. For modern people who are far removed from the agricultural cycle and nature itself, the concept of May Day still beckons. 

Nancy Sherer