May 07, 2007

Maypole Directions

'Against May, Whitsunday, or other time, olde men and wives, run gadding over-night to the woods, groves, hills and mountains, where they spend all night in pleasant pastimes; and in the morning they return, bringing with them birch and branches of trees, to deck their assemblies withal. ... But the chiefest jewel they bring from thence is their May-Pole, which they have bring home with great veneration. ... They have twentie or fortie yoke of oxen, every oxe having a sweet nose-gay of flowers placed on the tip of his hornes, and these oxen drawe home this May-Pole (this stinking Ydol, rather), which is covered all over with floures and hearbs, bound round about with strings, from the top to the bottome, and sometime painted with variable coulours, with two or three hundred men, women and children following it with great devotion. And this being reared up ... then fall they to daunce about it, like as the heathen people did at the dedication of the Idols, wereof this is a perfect pattern, or rather the thing itself. I have heard it credibly reported (and that viva voce) by men of great gravitie and reputation, that of forty, threescore, or a hundred maides going to the wood over-night, there have scarcely the third of them returned home againe undefiled.' Phillip Stubbes in his "Anatomie of Abuses", 1583

Such was the late-SCA period view of the Pagan custom of Maypoles, and so it was apparently banned in many areas of Britain during the 16th century.

Good thing we recreate the time before that (Maypole dances began in the British Isles either before or during Roman occupation), since I *love* a good Maypole Dance!

I ran another one this last weekend, and thought others might like to know how, so here are directions!

RIBBONS: White and Red are traditional colors (birth and death), but you can choose your own. Just make sure the colors contrast so the weave shows up nicely. I make mine from 8-10 yards of 36" muslin (for a 15-20 foot pole). I split it down the middle, and throw half of it in the dyepot (1/3 bottle of RIT works well, and takes about an hour - follow the directions). Then I cut it into one inch wide ribbons (by folding it into one yard long sectiions and using a rotary blade.)

** Tricky Math: You need one ribbon per dancer, and need an odd number of dancers for each color of ribbon. (x=2y where x is the total number of dancers, and y is an odd number) That means you need 6, 10, 14, 18, 22, 26, or 30 dancers (keep adding 4 for more dancers), otherwise the weave WILL NOT WORK.

I recommend rolling your ribbons and securing them with rubber bands until in the hot little hands of the dancers, otherwise they will get **very** tangled.

POLE: Choose a straight, dead tree (so as not to cut live wood) about 15-20 feet tall, and no more than about 4 inches wide at the base. Trim side branches as close to the trunk as possible, and cut off any remaining roots. Haul to site of dance.

DANCE AREA: For 20-30 people, and a pole 15-20 feet tall, you will need a clear circle about 20 feet across. Soft soil or sand are preferable substrates. If you MUST do this inside (::shudder::) you can sometimes fit a shorter tree in a Christmas Tree stand, but you may want to place rocks on the legs to stabilize it.)
Dig your hole about 12 inches deep, but DO NOT put the pole in yet. Instead, place the TOP of the tree over the hole.

RIBBON RING: You CAN tie the ribbons to the pole directly, but I find that this just isn't worth it. I use a 2+ inch metal ring (you can use shower rings, macrame rings, napkin holders, horse tack, whatever will fit over the top of your tree with at least a 1/2 inch to spare to allow for knots). Unwind each of your ribbons about 12", and tie their ends to the ring, alternating red and white, then take the ring to the top of the tree, and secure it (I usally use another piece of fabric for this, but rubber bands work as well. CAREFULLY unfurl your ribbons so that they will be within reach when the pole is erected.

ERECTING THE POLE: (Yup, this is *supposed* to be phallic. May Day/Beltain is a fertility festival, after all. The pole is the male, the hole in the soil the female. You do the math about what the dancing represents.) Get your tallest person to stand over the hole, and line others along the tree to walk it up into position (use all males/male energies for this if you can). Tamp down the soil around the base of the now erected tree, and place stones or even a large person around the base to stabilize it (insert memories of Thorson holding 'his' pole here... lol).

DANCING: Assemble your two times an odd number of dancers. You can distribute ribbon colors by gender, if desired (white for female, red for male), but make sure that you have an odd and same number of each. Have dancers unfurl ribbons to a comfortable length (an extra can be kept in the hand), and stand alternating red and white around the circle. Have white dancers (ribbons, not race) face clockwise, and red dancers face counterclockwise. Each dancer should now be facing someone else with the opposite color ribbon. If you do not have enough dancers for all of your ribbons (but remember the math), simply cut those ribbons off, or allow them to hang down and be covered by the weaving to come; I do the latter, so late comers can join us (in groups of four to keep the math right).

Do not worry that the top of your pole is a complete tangled disaster, as this is to be expected. Get your drummers to start a tune with a nice steady beat, or clap for them in rhythm, as it really does help prevent traffic jams. Have the white dancers step to their lefts/the outside of the circle, and hold their ribbons high, while the red dancers pull their ribbons towards themselves and dance under the arm of the white dancer facing them. Everyone stands up, and does the opposite of what they just did; red steps out, and white ducks under. Continue until you have woven the ribbons down to about waist height, and tie them off (tie red to the white next to it, with the knots up close to the tree). Congratulate each other and thank your drummers and count how many nicely woven INCHES you have accomplished (I sometimes get 4-5 feet of nice weaving, but I've been leading these for a LONG time.)

If you have a nice straight pole, you can sometimes slide the knot right off the top of the pole. If not, either let it rot, or get a friendly neighborhood Pagan to burn it at Halloween/Samhain, according to custom (fertility gets burned and returned to the soil at the end of the harvest). Do NOT cut the weaving off, unless you HAVE to use the pole for something else, since undoing the weaving undoes the good fertility juju created by the dancing.

I hope this helps, and I'd love hear about your experiences!

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