Wednesday, 2 May 2007

More on Maypoles (& Witches)

In my previous post I talked briefly about the maypoles that are the centre feature of many village greens in this part of the world. It doesn't take much scratching of the Czech modern veneer to find the ancient and pagan beneath. Maypoles may have become a thing of the past in England or at least a quaint custom with school children dancing rather tweely, but here in the Czech Republic the tradition is alive and strong. Today I took the train from Prague to Cesky Krumlov and it gave me a good vantage point to spot the maypoles in the villages and towns along the route. It is clearly a matter of pride to erect (and protect) the largest maypole, created from a very tall and straight fir. The maypole stays at the centre of the village for the year's length until the new replaces it, by then of course the brightly coloured ribbons at the poles tip have faded at best or been whipped away by a winter wind, but with the dawn of the new summer a new maypole springs erect.

On the last night of April in some places the custom of burning the witch takes place. We have yet to see the ceremony although we caught sight of her on her broomstick in the town square at Prachatice. This year we were invited to a party. The wine flowed, meat was barbecued, a witch turned up together with cat on her shoulder and was welcomed into the group and our friends sat around a log fire singing Czech folksongs to the accompaniment of the local priest on accordion and a herbalist on a guitar. As it grew dark and the turn of the season approached we women jumped over the bonfire to ward off evil spirits and then we all danced in a circle around the flames. Clearly these were Beltane celebrations - a throwback to our common ancestors the Celts. But there was something wonderfully makeshift about them, things just happened as someone in the party took a mind to it, but it felt all the more the genuine for that.

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