How’s that Maypole Thing Work?

Merry May! I thought I’d write a post about Maypoles because many people want to do Maypole rituals for May Day but don’t know the details. So here goes…

First, you’re going to need a pole at least 12′ long and 5″ in diameter. These dimensions are important: you need to embed at least 18″ of the pole in the ground in order for it to be stable during the Maypole dance, and a pole of any narrower diameter will take FOREVER for the ribbons to be wrapped on the pole. Think about it: if every turn around the pole is only taking up a few inches of ribbon, you’ll be going around that pole for a long, long time before you’ve used up the long ribbons you’re dancing with.

Next, you need a location. Level, preferably grass or comfortably springy soil, and available for digging a hole. The area you need depends on the number of dancers you hope to accommodate, but it should be at least 30′ across to accommodate dancers, musicians and those watching but not dancing.

There are multiple ways to do the next part, but I make a flower crown for the Maypole out of baling wire. This crown goes over the top of the pole and held firmly in place there, and is decorated with flowers (florists’ wire is helpful for affixing the flowers to the wire structure). This is often a group activity before the Maypole dance. The ribbons—one for each dancer, about 15′-20′ long—are tied onto the flower crown at the hub (next to the pole). See the photograph above, which is of our 2015 Maypole.

Affix the flower crown to the pole and then dig an 18″-2′ deep hole to receive the pole. Carefully tilt up the pole and put the opposite end from the flower crown in the ground, packing dirt all around it until it is firmly seated.

Now you should have your Maypole! With ribbons dangling down from the flower crown, and ready to be danced and wrapped up.

The Maypole dance is a very simple one: dancers are designated into two groups, each group established by alternating every other dancer standing in the circle around the pole (“A, B, A, B” etc.). The “A”s go clockwise around the pole; the “B”s go counterclockwise, so dancers start out in pairs facing one another, holding their ribbons. As they begin to go around the pole, when dancers pass each other, they raise and lower the hand holding the ribbon rhythmically to guide the ribbon over and then under the dancers they encounter, creating an “over…under…over…under” pattern that weaves the ribbons on the pole. As you dance, make eye contact with the dancers coming towards you, and smile!

Here is a YouTube video that illustrates the dance. Skip to 6:40.

There is quite a bit of traditional British music that is associated with dancing the Maypole. Live musicians are best, but barring that, I quite like the music of the New England ensemble Bare Necessities, from their album Take a Dance.

It is inevitable that while dancing the Maypole, there will be mistakes, and that is a part of the charm. This is a fun and joyous ritual activity, not an exercise in precision.

When the ribbons are mostly woven on the pole and there are only short ends left, blow a whistle to signal that everyone should now go clockwise and simply race around the pole with their ribbons, no longer going over and under. This will wind the ends of the ribbons about the pole and complete the Maypole dance.

All of the elements of the Maypole ritual can be augmented with additional ritual components. I have attended Maypole rituals where the men carried in the pole and anointed it with oil, for example, and women constructed the flower crown and dug the hole. Some may consider this exclusionary of genderfluid and nonbinary folks, however, so be sure you’re thinking through your choices in light of the group you will be working with.

In any event, experiment and make the Maypole ritual your own! While this is a tradition that goes back at least to the Middle Ages in Germanic and Scandinavian countries, it is a living tradition and you should feel free to put your own stamp on it.

A merry, merry May to all of you!


Substance Use, Background Noise, and Reenchanting the World

I’m drinking a beer as I write this.

That’s not a big deal. I’m not drunk and I don’t intend to have another. But I’m sitting at my local with a laptop, and I’m surrounded by a typical Friday afternoon crowd, which will swell considerably after 5:00.

People in my society drink. They drink alcohol, and they drink tremendous volumes of coffee. And quite a large number of them regularly smoke pot, too. I’m still getting used to the fact that it’s legal in California now, but I encounter the smell of burning weed so frequently that I don’t even register it any longer.

And though the numbers are dropping, a lot of people—particularly poor and working class people—smoke cigarettes repeatedly every day, addicted to the vicious central nervous system depressant nicotine.

I mention all this because this is “normal”. It’s background noise. It’s rarely remarked upon because here, it’s as ordinary as breathing air.

It can’t always have been so.

Humans have been pretty seriously invested in getting high by various means since the earliest days of our history. We see it in little kids, who will spin around until they fall down with dizziness, enjoying their ability to torque their ordinary sensorium into something strange and exhilarating.

Sufi Dervishes do that today, still, as a sacred rite.

When we look at the ancient world, we see places that invested tremendous resources in brewing beer and fermenting wine. In the Americas, tobacco was cultivated from at least 6,000 BCE. And in other places, intoxicants such as khat and kava and psychoactive fungi were and are carefully cultivated, all to give human consciousness a pleasurable tweak.  It is conjectured that even before we were modern humans, on the African savanna, some honey and water in a gourd canteen would inevitably have led to the discovery of mead. Alcohol has almost certainly been with us for as long as we have been human.

But I have to imagine that in all those cultures, there was a time when the intoxicants were rare and precious. And there would have been sacred rituals that grew up around them, to frame and shape the experience of taking them.

I don’t know whether this is true or not, but it resonated with me: supposedly, one of the things Native Americans who encountered European-derived settlers would say about them is that they “smoked tobacco every day”.

In other words, they turned something sacred into something ordinary.

I am a product of my culture. It’s hard for me to see alcohol and tobacco as sacred when they’re available in gross tonnage at any neighborhood store.

But that doesn’t mean they aren’t.

I have always had a laissez-faire attitude about substance use in ritual. I find that personally, a single beer or glass of wine is perfect for me prior to ritual, helping to dispel stage fright, improve my ability to be in the present moment and open to my emotional self. More than that is a bad idea. I know this.

I know folks who swear by various substances as their “ritual allies”, ranging from marijuana to LSD. Some don’t do nearly as well as they think they do when altered by these substances, but others are deeply magical and amazing when on them. I have no judgment about it, so long as they aren’t messing things up for others: they’re finding their own ways.

This is meandering, but I guess where I’m going is a meditation on the sheer gluttony of our modern society. Coffee, tobacco, alcohol, chocolate and marijuana aren’t special experiences here; they are ordinary, quotidian, banal. You buy them, you consume them, you do it again.

Imagine what it would be like if only once each year, during a high festival of celebration, there was alcohol.

Or if coffee was rare and only available through initiation into the Coffee Cult.

Would that not drive us into creation of meaningful rituals and sacred moments, instead of crass banter at the bar?

There is so much about our world of instant gratification that robs us of experiences of uniqueness and magic. Our surfeit of luxuries makes us tourists, gobbling up experiences instead of savoring them and connecting them with deeper meaning about our lives.

By gouging 2.3 times the world’s resource production out of our single world each year, we have enabled ourselves—those of us who are privileged, anyway—to wallow in what would ordinarily be rare and special.

It makes us dull-witted; insensitive to the magical specialness of each of those things that should be lifetime rarities instead of daily ordinaries.

If we are to reenchant the world, we must regard everything we take for granted with new eyes. A cup of coffee is not just a cup of coffee, nor a glass of wine a glass of wine. These are alchemical dances of sun and soil and climate, brimming with chemical magic to change and enlighten us.


If we are to reenchant the world, we cannot be asleep. We must recognize each remarkable, unlikely gift that comes to us in our lives for what it is. We must express thanks for our food to the Earth, the Sun and the many hands that toiled to bring it to us. We must toast the brewer, and the barley farmer, and the teamster. We must know that the chocolate square, the marijuana bud, the twist of tobacco is a generous bestowal from the living Earth and from a long line of laboring hands that made it possible.

And when they wonderfully, pleasurably turn our minds to new channels, we must be grateful.

For “just” is a lie. “Just”—the trivialization of the marvelous, the assertion of ordinariness—is the mainstream culture turning magic to gray concrete and ashes.

Enjoy what you do, friends. But know that it is sacred. Know you are gifted—blessed, even—by the generosity of a world that piles gifts so deeply at your feet that it is hard to remember that each solitary one is magic.

That each one would have been the memory of a lifetime for someone 5,000 years ago.


Toward Atheopagan Mysteries

Sacred Mysteries were initiatory rituals or ritual cycles in the ancient world which revealed secret wisdom to participants. Some examples include the Eleusinian Mysteries of ancient Greece and the Mysteries of Dionysos in Rome, and the initiatory mystery religion of Mithraism, also from the Roman period. These rituals and ritual cycles were characterized by solemn oaths of silence, so many of the secrets revealed in them are now lost, or can only be pieced together through comments made by initiates who later converted to Christianity and rejected their prior pagan experiences.

Modern Pagan practitioners have resurrected some of these Mystery initiation traditions by creating new rituals that draw on the symbology and what is known about the meanings of the ancient ones. I am an initiate (a Mystai) in a modern recreation of the Eleusinian Mysteries, and participated as a cast member in two more Eleusinian ritual cycles in subsequent years. We had the advantage of being able to use as a site a complex of caves in a national park, so when it came time to “descend into the Underworld”, that involved a pitch-black staircase of nearly 100 steps.

This was all nearly 20 years ago, mind you. But being involved in these resurrected traditions got me interested in the idea of Mysteries: what they’re for, why they were important in ages now gone. And it showed me that rituals that “reveal” or highlight meaningful “secrets” to initiates can be deeply moving and impactful.

So that got me to wondering: If I were going to create “Atheopagan Mysteries”, what would they be intended to reveal? Typically, there are a small number of meaningful concepts revealed in a mystery ritual—say, four or five; what would they be?

Perhaps the Four Pillars of Atheopaganism? Or a selection of the Atheopagan Principles? An all-night ritual in which initiates are introduced through symbolic, metaphorical ritual activities to the emotional heart of the practice, what makes it meaningful and true?

Time the final revelation for sunrise, and that could be really powerful.

Definitely something to ponder.

Worth fleshing out, for certain. I have a lot more ideas but don’t want to telegraph them here, so someday I can put the event on and the contents will still be a surprise…

I will put more thought into it.

Perhaps, if you like, you can develop your own.