MAYPOLES AND MYSTICS IN THE SUN

~ Posted by Charles Nevin, May 2nd 2013

May, Sun and Spring have arrived in England together, bringing with them those pastoral fancies of dance, song and general cavorting (hey, nonny, no!) that form part of the nation's hazy idea of Englishness. And nowhere better to be on a diamond-bright day than Glastonbury, the Somerset town selected as chief representative of that idea in last year's Olympics opening ceremony.

The town, home to every variety of British mysticism and beyond, from Celtic myth to Arthurian legend, Old to New Age religions, Eastern and Western beliefs, was well en fête, marking May Day, or the ancient festival of Beltane, as they prefer it. Celebrants unselfconscious in flowing robes and green foliage walked the streets (Glastonbury is a conservation area for that sadly threatened species, the Hippy, and they always did like dressing up).

At the Chalice Well, a maypole, symbol of fertility, birth and growth, was set up beside the iron red water said to have sprung when Joseph of Arimathea washed the chalice, or grail, used at the Last Supper. Joseph is believed to have brought Jesus here, a finely chauvinistic notion immortalised by William Blake in "Jerusalem"; Arthur and Guinevere are supposed to have been buried here when it was better known as the Isle of Avalon, before the surrounding land was drained, before the founding of the famous Abbey. Chalice, maypole, Arthur: as fine a mingling of legend and belief as even Glastonbury can contrive. 

Watching and pole dancing were John, Priest of Avalon and accountant; Clare, of the Pilgrims B&B, all beds taken for Beltane; and Zoltan, Hungarian poet, singer and sweat-lodge leader. It's easy to be flip about these things, but when all raised their arms to the pole and set up a low hum it was strikingly evocative of something half-remembered, even if I cannot say what, atavistic, real or imagined.

Festivities moved to Glastonbury's market square, led by numbers of Green Men around their unerect maypole, a simple slender trunk. The head Green Man, comprehensively and verdantly hued, and a doughty horn-blower, revealed himself to be the bouncer at the nearby pub. Bards declaimed, more than matched by the Mayor of Glastonbury, Ian Tucker, a farmer, more conventionally dressed but finely tuned to the occasion: "Our farms are just finished lambing, we're halfway through calving and the buds in the cider orchards are just starting to break".

Then it was up the High Street, past shops selling crystals and such, the parish church, the Soul Therapy Meditation Centre, and bemused tourists, to a common below Glastonbury Tor, the town's dominating mount, where the maypole was erected under the warm sun amid much ceremony. A priestess was playing a welcoming tune on a flute sounding uncannily like the jaunty theme of those legendary (in another way) English comedians, Morecambe and Wise, "Bring Me Sunshine". I thought of asking her about it; but some things are better left a mystery.

Charles Nevin is a frequent contributor to Intelligent Life. His recent posts include That's enough Sing Sing Sing and Love is minding the gap