Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain

By Ronald Hutton | Go to book overview

8
HOBBY-HORSE AND HORN DANCE

EVERY May Day two hobby-horses dance their way through the Cornish coastal town of Padstow, representing different halves of the community. Each consists of an oval frame covered in black oilskins, with a small horse's head in front but also a fearsome mask in the centre, red and white with glaring eyes and snapping jaws. For twelve hours they move around separate circuits, each led on by a 'Teaser', a person in white prancing in front with a painted club. Each also has a retinue of people, also in white clothes, some playing accordions and drums. They sing the local version of a Mayers' song, with the unique addition that at times the tune becomes a dirge, and the 'Oss sinks to the ground and lies flat; till the chorus swells triumphantly again and the beast rises and progresses on the next stage of its course. The tradition represents a tremendous reaffirmation of communal pride and solidarity in this small and normally quiet settlement; nobody is allowed to take part in either procession unless their family has lived there for at least two generations. It is also a major attraction for visitors, and one of the most famous and most dramatic folk customs of modern Britain.

In 1931 it attracted Mary Macleod Banks, soon to be the President of the Folk-Lore Society, who took it upon herself to upbraid the 'Teaser' (a name only later adopted) for dressing as a clown and so 'spoiling the rite'. Her point was that on her previous visit in 1929 he had been attired as a woman. For once the bonds of social deference snapped, and he told her angrily that there was no one traditional costume for his part. What she was hearing was valuable folklore but it made no favourable impression upon her because she had already decided that the custom was a relic of a pagan sacred marriage between earth and sky, and the presence of a man-woman was as essential to her theory as that of a clown was inconvenient. 1 Other luminaries of the FolkLore Society obviously made a more favourable impression later on, because on my own visit in 1985 the tradition was confidently explained to me by townspeople as a particular stage of devolution from a prehistoric ritual in which a man representing a fertility god was sacrificed for the good of his people. The details of this theory made it instantly recognizable as one propagated by one of Mrs Banks's colleagues, Lord Raglan, ultimately based (like hers) upon those of Sir James Frazer, and systematically refuted within academe in the late 1960s. 2 The official pamphlet printed by the town avoided

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Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Preface vii
  • Acknowledgements and Note xiii
  • Contents xv
  • List of Plates xvii
  • List of Maps xx
  • 1 - The Origins of Christmas 1
  • 2 - The Twelve Days 9
  • 3 - The Trials of Christmas 25
  • 4 - Rites of Celebration and Reassurance 34
  • 5 - Rites of Purification and Blessing 42
  • 6 - Rites of Hospitality and Charity 54
  • 7 - Mummers' Play and Sword Dance 70
  • 8 - Hobby-Horse and Horn Dance 81
  • 9 - Misrule 95
  • 10 - The Reinvention of Christmas 112
  • 11 - Speeding the Plough 124
  • 12 - Brigid's Night 134
  • 13 - Candlemas 139
  • 14 - Valentines 146
  • 15 - Shrovetide 151
  • 16 - Lent 169
  • 17 - The Origins of Easter 179
  • 18 - Holy Weekz 182
  • 19 - An Egg at Easter 198
  • 20 - The Easter Holidays 204
  • 21 - England and St George 214
  • 22 - Beltane 218
  • 23 - The May 226
  • 24 - May Games and Whitsun Ales 244
  • 25 - Morris and Marian 262
  • 26 - Rogationtide and Pentecost 277
  • 27 - Royal Oak 288
  • 28 - A Merrie May 295
  • 29 - Corpus Christi 304
  • 30 - The Midsummer Fires 311
  • 31 - Sheep, Hay, and Rushes 322
  • 32 - First Fruits 327
  • 33 - Harvest Home 332
  • 34 - Wakes, Revels, and Hoppings 348
  • 35 - Samhain 360
  • 36 - Saints and Souls 371
  • 37 - The Modern Hallowe'En 379
  • 38 - Blood Month and Virgin Queen 386
  • 39 - Gunpowder Treason 393
  • 40 - Conclusions 408
  • Notes 428
  • Index 519
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