“The single tree, fenced or walled off, with or without an altar beside it, is a universal feature of European sacred culture, and indeed it appears throughout Eurasia and Africa. In Minoan Crete the icons show people dancing in the walled-off area around a single fig or olive tree.”
–Prudence Jones & Nigel Pennick, A History of Pagan Europe
People danced around living trees in Spring rituals long before trees were felled for maypoles. In fact, attaching ribbons and weaving them around the pole did not come about until the Middle Ages. Contrary to popular belief, the custom of the maypole didn’t originate with Celtic peoples, but in German culture.
The most common explanation of the maypole is that it is a phallic symbol, and that symbolism does seem to befit the season; in the fertile onset of Summer, the Sky Father fertilizes the Earth Mother. However, the greater symbolism is that the maypole is representative of the axis mundi, the World Tree, Irminsul, Yggdrasil.
I hung on that windy Tree
nine whole days and nights,
stabbed with a spear, offered to Odin,
myself to mine own self given,
high on that Tree of which none hath heard
from what roots it rises to heaven.
And so Odin received his wisdom and power- from his initiation on the World Tree, at the center connecting point of the universe. The World Tree is the backbone of our universe, the connection to all the worlds, the cosmic pillar that upholds everything. It is symbolic of all life and is a connecting force like a web. No wonder it is one of the most common motifs in mythology around the world.
Trees connect the world we live in, in very non-metaphoric ways as well. They hold together the soil, clean the air, and produce the very oxygen we breathe. Without trees, we most likely wouldn’t be here. It is a most essential symbiotic relationship. If you look at a river system from the air, it looks like a tree. Our lungs and nerve systems look like trees as well. We have the power of the world tree within us. As above, so below, so without, so within. The ancient Norse knew this, for in the mythology, the first people were from trees- they were driftwood in which Odin breathed life.