“Mythic symbolism will speak to us via our subconscious, there finding a deep resonance within on a primeval level. The intuitive recognition that the Hunted is one with the Hunter, being a manifestation of one facet of the Divine Masculine as the Antlered God, is a philosophical concept of such great complexity that many, including myself, will struggle continually to fully understand. That is the nature of the Mysteries; a lifelong quest for personal gnosis that may prove ultimately, to be beyond our reach this side of the river.”
A quote from Chattering Magpie (D.B.Griffith) (2013) The stag as a totemic manifestation of the divine masculine. Deosil Dance. Issue 58 Yule 2013. Reprinted in Billinghurst F. (Ed.) (2015) The Call of the God. Temple of the Dark Moon, Australia.
On Monday the 7th of September 2015 I travelled with friends, to meet other friends and to experience once more, one of the most important and ancient folk traditions of England. The Abbots Bromley Horn Dance is a spectacle encompassing elements of mythic symbolism that truly resonate within our primeval natures. It is a dance replete with symbolism, hidden in layers and motifs that are difficult to fully appreciate on a single visit or from hearsay. The dance like all such events is best experienced first-hand, tasted in the moment and that moment savoured.
The 2015 Horn Dance was something of a special event, bearing in mind that each year is a special event. It was a centenary marker to commemorate certain happenings from the early twentieth century. In September 1915, when the conflagration of war had been burning across Europe for little over a year, the Horn Dance was itself under threat. Many people from Abbots Bromley, including members of the participating Fowell and Bentley families, had joined the armed forces. This left few if any available to keep this venerable custom alive and it should be observed that many traditions postponed during those war years, sadly never were reborn during peacetime.
Remarkably three brothers of the Fowell family; David, Arthur and Alfred, were granted special leave and travelled home to participate. These three brothers performed in their army uniform, giving the Horn Dance of 1915 its popular name of ‘the Khaki Dance’ and so helped preserved custom for future generations.
On that day in September 1915 the participants gathered outside the church of Saint Nicholas; after the usual early morning blessing of the horns, to pose for a now famous photograph. One hundred years later the Abbots Bromley Nostalgia Group, in conjunction with the organisers of the Horn Dance itself; had arranged that four of the Horn Dancers should participate whilst wearing the uniform of the Men's Army Regiment, so recreating both the photograph and elements of the wartime event.
The recreation of that famous picture and a day spent in uniform, was both a commemoration of the event itself and a homage to those that had died in that human catastrophe, that tragedy of wasted life, the Great War. A thought to ponder if we take a moment to appreciate, that the four dancers of 2015, are decedents of the two brothers that survived the war.
The day’s activities start early, usually at 7am with the collection from the church of the horns, other items and the service mentioned above. Arriving a little before lunchtime we were not present for that early start but this still left plenty for us to see and do. Abbots Bromley is blessed with several pubs, each of which serving good wholesome fare. The local church and Women’s Institute uses Church House, an old timber framed building on Bagot Street, to serve tea, coffee and cake to visitors at a very reasonable cost to the tourist.
Meeting up with our friends we explored the village centre, the shops, the annual Horn Dance Market on the village green itself and the stalls around the Butter Cross. We had our lunch in one of the nearby pubs, explored the church and took our refreshments at Church House. This year being a commemorative event, a special temporary museum had been created in the back rooms of the Crown Pub opposite the village green.
On display were a variety of old photographs and other documents relating to the history of the dance, together with the retired examples of costume. Most of the artefacts were of late nineteenth century provenance. I noted that there was an old a photograph of the older Hobby Oss, shown hanging in situ in the church. Although this Oss is no longer used, having been replaced in the dance by a late twentieth century example; it still hangs on that same bracket in the church and can be seen to this day.
The museum had on display one of the reserve horn pairs. By tradition the horns used in the annual dance are never allowed to leave the parish, being of great age and significance. For public appearances outside the parish boundary and for practice, a reserve set is used as a replacement. Unlike the horns used in the annual dance this reserve set uses the antlers of the red deer and not those of the reindeer. It is to this day one of the greatest puzzles, as to how antlers of a species long extinct in England, should find themselves at the centre of this wonderful tradition.
In the late afternoon we gathered with many others, joining the swelling crowds to watch the dancers enter the village in full procession. At each pub and at other traditional stopping points, they halt to perform and display their prowess. The day is one requiring stamina and determination on the part of the participants, their day started from the church early, the horns will not be returned to the church and ‘put to bed’ until dark.
The Horn Dance itself consists a set piece performance that incorporates both weaving and circular processional elements. Central to the dance however, is the depiction of the annual rut. Here the six dancers face each other in pairs, one team opposite the other and mimic the contest between stags. Peripheral to the dance but of no less importance, are other symbolic elements that offer a supporting motif to the main theme.
The tripartite elements of the mythic symbolism that lie outside of the actual rutting dance; are the Hobby Horse, the Robin Hood and Maid Marion. That latter character is at Abbots Bromley, refreshingly portrayed in the traditional English manner by a cross dressing man.
Many folklorists and scholars view these three characters as being of great importance, for although they may appear separate from the main dance elements, they remain a fundamental part of the experience. The Hobby Horse is a representative of Sleipnir (Oates 2005), that eight legged steed of the God Woden, whilst the boy playing Robin Hood is said to be Woden himself.
The Maid Marion is dressed in blue, which is both the colour of the sky and of the flax flower. We can postulate that this character is Frigg the consort of Woden. This Goddess spins the clouds and can be linked at least to a degree with the Norns, those wondrous Fates of Northern Mythology. Frigg here at Abbots Bromley even carries a ladle and it is from the Ladle, that each man or woman shall receive their allotted measure.
To focus on these three elements does rather detract from a fourth character; the Fool but truthfully that mysterious figure deserves a blog in his own right. An enigmatic and puzzling figure found in mummer’s plays and performances across Europe, it should be no surprise to see him here at Abbots Bromley.
Here in Staffordshire the Fool is a rather traditional Punch style figure, complete with colourful costume, bells and a pig’s bladder on a stick. Somewhat more rustic and primeval than those associated with Cotswold Morris, here there are hints of his origins as Lord of Misrule and he maintains that important element of otherworldly separateness or detachment from the dance proper.
The Abbots Bromley Horn Dance remains today a spectacle but not one as defined by the modern, rather mundane standards of our secular society; where a spectacle is a cheap, gaudy show lacking both depth and meaning. The Abbots Bromley Horn Dance is much more than that and goes far beyond mere street entertainment.
The Horn Dance is a tradition of complexity and vigour, which is still able to leave a lasting mark upon both participant and spectator. The Horn Dance has value, meaning and relevance, for both the local society and the wider English culture. The Horn Dance is a unique expression of the cultural milieu, blended and expressed mythically.
Reference for further reading.
Oates S. (2005) Abbots Bromley, the Wild Hunt and Saint Nick. In The Wytches’ Standard. Issue # 2 Litha. Reprinted in Oates S. (2011) Tubelo’s Green Fire. Mandrake of Oxford.