13 January 2016


David Cameron can take us out of Europe, but can he take Europe out of us?

Over Christmas I kept coming across midwinter rituals of various kinds, particularly Scandinavian Yule Goats for some reason. It inspired me to write this...
Kentish Hooden Horse

I was born and brought up in Kent and have lived for the past 30 years in Derbyshire. Those two places are very different but they have one rather esoteric thing in common… ritual horses.
In Kent a Christmas collecting ritual involves the Hooden Horse. No-one can successfully explain what ‘hooden’ means although there are many theories and I didn’t come across them when I was young. (I left when I was 18.) The hooden horse is what is known as a ‘mast horse’ - a head on a long pole with a cloth draped over the wearer. Hoodening is an old tradition but had almost died out and has been resurrected in the past couple of decades. Folk Festivals or any event where morris men gather are full of hooden horses these days! That’s fitting, of course, for what was one of Britain’s oldest kingdoms which still has a rearing white horse as its emblem.
In Derbyshire we have both the Derby Ram and the Old ‘oss which are often interchangeable and are also part of similar Christmas/New Year collecting rituals. The ‘oss is also a mast horse and the Ram is similar but smaller. Both counties tend to think of their creature as unique and special and the hobby horse generally is often considered to be the epitome of Englishness, along with the Morris Dance. I also bought into that story 40 years ago when I first became interested in traditional songs and customs but, over the years, I have gradually realised that they are not unique to England at all—they are pan-European. 

At this point it would be appropriate to watch my You Tube video of the song Poor Old Horse where you will see pictures from England, Wales, Scandinavia, Romania, Poland and Russia.
There is also a video of me performing the song live.

Winster Morris performing the Derby Ram or the Owd Tup

The version of Poor Old Horse I sing was collected by Sidney Oldall Addy, a Sheffield solicitor and amateur folklorist round about 1888 although the final, Christmas verse is from the related Welsh Marie Lwyd tradition. Before I recorded it I toyed with the idea of including a spoken verse from Cheshire but decided against it because to sound at all authentic it needs the correct accent: 

“Once he was alive and now he’s dead,
Nothing but a poor old horse’s head.
This poor old horse has but one leg
And for his money he has to beg.
This poor old horse has an eye like hawk
And a neck like a rainbow
And a foot like a paver’s jammer
And as many wimbles and jimbles
On his forehead as half an acre of ploughed land.
Whey! Whoa! Stand up Dick and show yourself!”

Addy was very excited about the Derby Ram and decided it was a relic of the Viking occupation of the East Midlands. He wrote:
‘Amongst the earliest recollections of my childhood is the performance of the "Derby Ram," or, as we used to call it, the Old Tup.  With tile eye of memory I can see a number of young men standing one winter's evening in the deep porch of an old country house, and singing the ballad of the Old Tup. In the midst of the company was a young man with a sheep's skin, horns and all, on his back, and standing on all fours. What it all meant I could not make out, and the thing that most impressed me was the roar of the voices in that vault-like porch. The sheep and the men were evidently too harmless to frighten any child, and a play in which the only act was the pretended slaughter of an old tup was not in itself attractive. I remember the following lines:

As I was going to Derby, all on a market day,
I met the finest tup, sir, that ever was fed with hay.
Fay lay, lay lay, folderol, older, I day.

This tup was fat behind, sir, this tup was fat before,
This tup was ten miles high, sir, indeed he was no more.
Fay lay, &c

The wool that grew on his back, sir, it was so mighty high,
The eagles built their nests in it, for I heard the young ones cry.
Fay lay, &c

The butcher that stuck this tup, sir, was up to the eyes in blood,
And all the old women in Derby were washed away by the flood.
Fay lay, &c

Then the ballad went on to tell how and for what purpose people begged for his bones, eyes, teeth, hide, &c but I cannot remember more of it.  However, in a version printed by Jewitt they beg for his horns to make milking pails, and for his eyes to make footballs.  And a tanner begs for his hide, which is big enough "to cover all Sinfin Moor."  Here we have a ballad describing the slaughter of a being of monstrous size, and the uses to which his body was put.  Now when I first read the Edda, [old Scandinavian poems and myths written down in Iceland before the 13th century… ] and came to the passage which tells how the sons of Bor slew the giant Ymir, and how, when he fell, so much blood ran out of his wounds that all the race of frost-giants was drowned in it, I said to myself, " Why, that’s the “Old Tup" and when I read further on and found how they made the sea from his blood, the earth from his flesh, the rocks from his teeth, the heaven from his skull, it seemed to me that I had guessed rightly.  The Old Tup was the giant Ymir, and the mummers of my childhood were acting the drama of the Creation.

There is a video of me singing a version of the Derby Ram HERE   It was filmed for a video project.
Handsworth Tup, A Romanian Capra, the Scandinavian Julbock

For a while I thought Addy was correct about the Scandinavian origin, after-all the Julbock—the Yule Goat, is still an essential part of Christmas in Sweden—but then I read that identical ideas can be found in Germany—that would also make sense, it was brought here by the Anglo-Saxons. Why can we find the Derby Ram being performed in Transylvania, Poland, Russia then? Well, it could have been taken by the Vikings who traded with and settled throughout those lands, or the Germans themselves could have transmitted the idea—there are fair haired people of German origin in Transylvania who trace their ancestry back to the children kidnapped by the Pied Piper of Hamelin! (although the truth is more mundane!) 

Romanian 'Mummers'

Some people cast doubt on any tradition being more than a few hundred years old and this is largely based on the fact that there are no written records. But why, when paper was expensive and time short, would you waste them in writing about a normal thing that happened every year and which everyone knew about? And/or the kind of people who did the writing would not be involved in the rites and rituals of the common folk and might not even know they happened. They definitely wouldn't have been considered noteworthy.  I’m pretty sure that some of the ideas behind our modern customs (but not necessarily the custom itself) are shadows of things which happened thousands of years ago. 

The similarities between these customs in the various countries seem too great for it to be coincidence. Could it be that the custom, the symbol, the idea of the huge midwinter beast, pre-dates the splitting up of peoples into different nationalities? Could it go back to our common ancestors who moved into Europe after the Ice Age? We don’t know what that beast was then but over the years they began to use whatever was common and available—a sheep’s skull, a horse’s head, the reindeer antlers at Abbots Bromley and so on. So, far from being a host of different customs perhaps they are all survivals from one very ancient one(?) 


Perhaps it sums up what it means to be European!?

 I'd love to hear your thoughts on this...

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