BY MELISSA RENAY
The obscurity of a ritual in no way makes it less meaningful. In fact, the survival of a custom throughout the passage of times may even enhance its significance.
The annual “Horn Dance” known as the Abbots Bromley is a ritual that’s occurred in the heart of Staffordshire, England, for centuries. If you’ve never heard of this custom, it wouldn’t be surprising, because the ritual dance has a rather obscure origin. Nonetheless, every year on what’s known as “Wakes Monday,” which follows the first Sunday or “Wake Sunday,” after September 4th, you’ll see this magical event take place.
The tradition of using reindeer antlers as the horns for the dance dates back to at least the 11th century. When not in use for the ritual dance, the horns, or reindeer antlers, are kept safely stored at the small village church of Saint Nicholas.
The revelry begins early in the morning on Wakes Monday. A boisterous team of six dancers, each carrying a pair of antler horns, brings the ancient custom alive. The team of dancers include a Foll, a man-woman called Maid Marian, a hobby horse, a bow-man, a triangle player, and a musician. Each dancer must hold the horns aloft throughout the traditional dance.
The reindeer antlers are mounted on a wooden head with a short handle for carrying. Three of the horns are painted white with brown tips, and three are brown with golden tips.
There’s been much mystery surrounding the antlers since reindeer have been extinct in Britain since before the Norman conquest; however, it’s plausible that these antlers were imported at any point in the history of the tradition. What is known about the antlers is that radiocarbon dating carried out on them in 1976 gave a date around 1065 A.D.
Once the traditional folk dance kicks off, you’ll see the “performers perambulating the parish, sometimes progressing in single file, sometimes following the leader in a serpentine movement, but every now and then they form up in lines of three (the hobby horse and bowman join in to make it four and sometimes Jester and Maid Marian) facing each other. They go forward and back towards each other a few times and then cross over. It’s thought to be unlucky if they don’t visit your house or neighborhood,” as referenced in the Dictionary of English Folklore.
As soon as the revelry is over, the horns are deposited back in the church for safekeeping until September rolls around the next year.
There are a few theories on the origin of the Abbots Bromley traditional, folk dance, but the most popular is that it was put in place to commemorate the assigning of hunting privileges to the people in centuries past. Yet, the dance appears to express an even older origin, perhaps even an ancient surviving relic of a long-gone, mysterious past. The dance gives off a vibe steeped in ritual, shamanic magic, when men of yore used both wild dance, nature, and sorcery in a swirling revelry to convince the nature gods to grant them a successful hunt.
Regardless of the true origins of the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, it’s an amazing vision of times past and a lovely wink to our current traditions that continue to thrive.