A Dance of Life

This is the 700-somethingth annual Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, which I attended. It is the village of Abbots Bromley’s fundraising event for local charities.  Each year in this charming hamlet in Staffordshire, dancers don medieval costumes and are led into the streets by men wearing and holding six big sets of reindeer antlers.  The Horn Dance draws visitors from all around the world, so if you plan to go make sure to reserve lodgings months ahead of time.  We stayed at Lea Hall Farm in nearby Admaston.  This working farm with a two-story Georgian house doubles as a bed & breakfast.  We were made very welcome by Mrs. Parkinson, who looked like the actress who played Alice on The Vicar of Dibley.  We got up early and met another guest who was a swordsman and stunt performer in historical films.  He had been in Braveheart, and showed us his book of press clippings.  After breakfast we walked the two miles to Abbots Bromley just in time for the beginning of the procession as it left St. Nicholas’ Church.

The “horns” have been carbon-dated to 1065, but reindeer had not arrived in England by that date so some Viking must have brought them, or just their antlers.  The procession has been held since at least 1226, though it probably evolved from an older pagan tradition.  It’s given on Wakes Monday, which is the first Monday after Wakes Sunday, which is the first Sunday after September 4th.  The costumed performers dance to cheerful tunes played on fiddle and accordion.  Jesters shake cans at the crowd, entreating them to put in coins to benefit the poor.

The group is composed of twelve, the first six wearing or holding the horns.  All who wear the horns have been members of the same local families.  From the 16th to the 19th century, the horn-bearers were members of the Bentley family, the “Forester of Bentylee” being a hereditary title named for the woods of this area.  In 1914, a marriage alliance granted the passage of responsibility for the horn-bearing to members of the Fowell family, who have had it since.  After the horns, six more characters follow:

  • ·  Maid Marion
  • ·  Hobby Horse
  • ·  Boy with Bow and Arrow
  • ·  Fool
  • ·  Musician
  • ·  Boy with Triangle

All the parts (even Maid Marion) used to be played by males, but girls may now play the “boys”.  The procession progresses to each appointed destination where they form a circle to perform the simple dance.  It has to be pretty simple, because those horns are heavy, and they’ll be dancing from 8am to 8pm (breaks included).  The dance winds all around the village and local parish until it finishes where it began, at the Church of St. Nicholas, with a compline service.

Look at all the rich symbolism contained in this tradition.  There are twelve in the parade, like the months of the year, the astrological symbols and the Apostles.  You have reindeer going out from and returning to the Church of St, Nicholas.  This is a parallel to both Santa’s journey of generous giving, and the power of forest creatures.  You have Maid Marion, who represents the fertility spirit of the druids, the mother of Jesus AND Maid Marian of the Robin Hood tradition, all at once.  Then you have a hobby horse, in one sense a representation of the journey from innocence.  In the times before cars, children rode hobby horses to imitate their parents who rode real horses.  There are also other folk traditions using hobby horses as symbols of the need to journey forth in life, including Soul Caking in Cheshire, Morris dances, and the Welsh Mari Lwyd (Grey Mare) that goes visiting from house to house.  The original Old English word “hobyn” is also a variant of Robin, so he’s in this disguise too.  The horse is followed by the bow-carrying Merry Man stand-in, also representing a child learning to fend for itself, everyone’s journey to maturity.

Next comes the Fool, the spirit of joy and generosity freed from the conservatism of normal living.  The Fool represents living by faith, for he has no means of his own, and asks for the charity of the crowd, as would a traveling pilgrim or an early disciple prior to the institutionalization of Christianity.  The happiness the fool’s acts produce is underscored by the Musician (originally a fiddler), and the parade is completed by a child playing triangle, the young Jesus carrying the blessing of the Trinity upon our procession through life.

You don’t have to swim in the depths of all this symbolism to enjoy the Horn Dance, just as you don’t have to know anything about the American Revolution to enjoy fireworks on the Fourth of July.  I just like to look for deeper meanings.  The residents and visitors to the event come to enjoy it because it’s fun and colorful, and you can go from pub to pub all day long as you follow the route of the dance.

(There’s a link to a YouTube VIDEO of the dance in the Comments.)

Have you participated in any symbolic folk traditions?

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “A Dance of Life

  1. Phil Monk

    Many years ago my neighbor and I were trout fishing around Decorah, Iowa the weekend they were celebrating Nordic Fest. Though I’m not Scandinavian (that I know of) it was hard not to get caught up in some of the entertainment and activities that honor that heritage. This year is their 44th anniversary. http://www.nordicfest.com/

    • How cool, Phil! Thanks for the link. Decorah’s a beautiful area. I saw Richie Havens perform there at Luther College many, MANY years ago but I haven’t been to Iowa lately. Should put it on the “wish list”.

  2. The Cheesby article sited on “Polnytt” (News of the Poles):

    http://hornorkesteret.wordpress.com/2010/01/18/the-horn-dance

    is the only information I have found on this peculiar ritual/dance so far. The amusing but short description is not in my words, but lifted straight from:

    http://www.goldilox.co.uk/engfolk/cheesby/dance.htm

    where other traditonal english dances are also mentioned.

    I am fascinated by your article:

    http://invisiblemikey.wordpress.com/2010/01/30/a-dance-of-life

    especially the carbon dating which means as you imply that the antlers must have come from Scandinavia, probably Norway. Where did you get this information? Do you have any additional information about the horn or antler dance tradition?
    And what a nice picture!

    It is fascinating to see how a tradition such as this could have survived a 1000 years. It could possibly be remnants of a much older ritual, probably pagan. All over Europe there seems to be old dances or parades involving costumes and props and symbolic acts that seem to be pre-christian in nature.

    Hornorkesteret who run the “Polnytt” blog are a band playing instruments made from reindeer antlers. On “Polnytt” (News of the Poles) we collect news and sometimes our own words on the arctic, antlers, music, the inuit, the sami, polar explorers, the environment and other things we care about.

    Homepage:

    http://www.hornorkesteret.no/

    Myspace offers streaming music by us:

    http://www.myspace.com/hornorkesteret

  3. Mikey,
    Thanks for this delightful post. A great mini travelogue. When you told me you’d written about the Abbots Bromley horn dance, I didn’t realize you meant you had, as the Brits might say, “actually been”.

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