Many people find their way to Hoodening via the folk music scene or Morris Dancing, although we don't feel there is any strong link. If you want to explore the world of Morris you could start with Wikipedia, but for their 'beasts' in particular, try the Morris Ring Animal Archive, or the Morris Beasts pages of Richard Holmes or 'Webfeet'. The StreetSwing site also has a good description of the history of the Morris. There are lots of old (archived) links on Chris Clarke (Gnasher)'s site. The book Ritual Animal Disguise by Dr E. Christopher Cawte is a wonderfully comprehensive study, highly recommended, while a similar, more recent work is Crossing the Borderlines by Nigel Pennick. The ultimate resource may eventually be the English Folk Play site operated by the Traditional Drama Research Group at the National Centre for English Cultural Tradition (University of Sheffield). This includes information on e.g. the Alex Helm inventory of about 3,700 records on British folk plays, Morris dancing and related traditions. On this page I will try to concentrate on customs not closely connected with the Morris.
| Having said that, many of the Kentish groups who claim to do Hoodening are in fact Morris sides, or overlap closely. Probably the only feature most of them share with us is that a wooden horse is somehow involved… Anyway, here are some links.
Hobby Horses are frequently associated / confused with Hooden Horses, and are actually connected with the Morris. In addition to the horsehead-pole-wheels variety that children often play with, Morris teams sometimes use tourney horses, which generally consist of a frame with a horse's head at the front and a tail at the back, draped in fabric and worn about a dancer's waist. Hobby Horses and Associated Rites provides an excellent description of this field, including the Padstow and Minehead horses (see below). Banbury Town Hobby Horse is also worth a look, while the Banbury Hobby Horse Fest has now become a large-scale, annual event. Here is a nice old photo of a whole herd of hobby horses at Gainsborough in 1927.
This custom is local to Cheshire, and dates from at least 1820. Despite nearly dying out a few times it now seems to be performed in various areas of the county, such as Halton and Comberbach (where the soulcakers' motto, 'Never Knowingly Over-Rehearsed' could equally well apply to the Hoodeners!). Like Hoodening it involves death and resurrection, but is performed at Halloween rather than the winter solstice. The name comes from 'soul cakes', food left out to appease the dead spirits and later given to children or those involved in the play. The horse ('Dicky Dalton') and driver only appear in an interlude. The other characters and the main plot are very close to Mumming (King George kills the Black Prince, who is then cured by a Quack Doctor, etc.) so this 'tradition' may actually be a mixture of Mumming and some form of Hoodening. However, although some have thought the line 'this horse was born at seven oaks' might be a reference to the Kentish town of that name, this is apparently incorrect: there is another Seven Oaks very close to Antrobus. See also this interesting article by Roy Clinging, and many recent photos by Duncan Broomhead.
|Mari Lwyd ('Pale Mary' or 'The Grey Mare')
In Wenvoe and other villages in Glamorgan, people used to gather on New Year's Eve with a horse (a genuine skull rather than a wooden one, but equally 'hooded' — with a white sheet) to visit local houses and demand hospitality. They would compete with those inside the house both in singing improvised songs and 'debating' (i.e. mocking each other). Some reports also mention blackened faces, characters called Punch and Judy, and a 'fine' for anyone caught by the horse's teeth. The comprehensive information at FolkWales shows how the custom — once thought to be extinct — still exists in LLangynwyd (Old House Inn has the oldest surviving Mari Lwyd), LLanwrtyd Wells, LLantrisant, Pontypool, and many other locations throughout Wales. It has also been revived by students in Aberystwyth and Morris dancers in LLanfihangel Tor-y-mynydd (archive page), amongst others. artworks etc. featuring hooden horses e.g. pubs, whitstable, Hooden Horse of the Apocalypse @gogowhippet Matt Rowe craft-action @TheGhastling Mari Lwyd - photo 1904, tradition of the Mari Lwyd BBC Cymru Youtube On the same site, the Horse's Head tradition in Mumbles near Swansea claims to be distinct from the Mari; see also The Mumbles Book (archive page). The Welsh Christmas page says that in Pembrokeshire instead of an actual horse's head they used a canvas or horsehair sheet, sewn to form a snout & head and adorned with buttons & gloves for eyes and ears. A Catalan site has some examples of Mari Lwyd verses with English translations, as well as some more Mari Lwyd verses just in Welsh (both archive pages).
Note: the spelling Mari LLwyd is incorrect, as in Welsh 'llwyd' (grey) undergoes a soft mutation to 'lwyd' after a feminine noun. 'Mari' undergoes a soft mutation itself in some circumstances, so 'The Mari Lwyd' would become 'Y Fari Lwyd'.
|Note: there was a Mari Lwyd conference at the Oakdale Institute, St Fagans on 4 March 2006. If proceedings were published they could be very interesting, but we have not yet managed to see any.|
In several parts of Germany there is a custom known as the Schimmelreiter; maybe I ought to say 'customs', as there are several types which seem only distantly related. The essential feature in each case is that the horse is white: this is thought to be derived from Odin's steed Sleipnir in Norse mythology. It is interesting to note that dreaming of a white horse was thought to be an omen of death in both Germany and England (qv A.H. Krappe's 'La Genèse des mythes, 1952).
The group in Westphalia (about which we have least information) would blacken their faces as Hoodeners do, and visit local farmers with a horse to wish them luck and receive food and drink in exchange. Their horse consisted of just a frame with nobody underneath, somewhat similar to a tourney horse. There are some detailed structural diagrams on a page mentioning various locations in a different area south/southeast of Frankfurt.
In many other areas, it seems the Schimmelreiter may often have simply been one of several characters accompanying 'St Nicholas' (a.k.a. Sankt Nikolaus, Sinterklaas, Santa Claus, Klaus, Kloaskerl, Klosbuer, Klausohm, Sunnerklas, Seneklos, Pelzmartel, Pelznickel, Pelze Nicol, Belsnickle, Nickel, Christnickel, Christkindl, Christpuppe, Christmann, Weihnachtsmann, Klingelklaschen, Hans Trapp, Knecht Ruprecht, etc.), who rewarded good children while punishing the bad. The Schimmelreiter would often in turn be accompanied by a Klapperbock (a.k.a. Habergeiß), a feathered, three-legged goat whose lower jaw was hinged and could be slammed shut with a rope, just like a hooden horse. Both Schimmelreiter and Klapperbock (in this case evidently a stork) can be seen in the photograph above from East Prussia.
Another companion would sometimes be Beelzebub, who also appears in Soul Caking. St Nicholas was often depicted riding a white horse, and would sometimes be called the Schimmelreiter himself. The following site offers quite a good description of how the Schimmelreiter would behave.
Finally, many Germans know the name from the novel (of the same name) by Theodor Storm. The story concerns a 'dykemaster' in Northern Germany who rode about on a white horse, at first as a real human and later as a type of 'guardian spirit' protecting the local communities. It is not clear if Storm invented this legend, or simply made use of it for his book; anyone who knows, please tell us!
I was once told that there are similar customs in the Black Forest, such as the plays by Hans Sachs (a 'cobbler poet' meistersinger), but have not been able to find any relevant information. There is a lot of information on the Web about German Yuletide customs in general, and www.hagzissa.de has brief entries for various mythical beasts such as the Schimmelreiter, Klapperbock and more. The Swiss village of Ottenbach has a related custom called Spräggelen (sometimes written as Spraeggele, Räggele, Strättele or Sträggele / Sträggele-nacht, although this last one is more commonly used to refer to a witch character from Lucern, described in Grimm's Fairy Tales). The custom involves stork-like characters called Schnabelgeissen, as commemorated on this stamp (the closest any country has come to featuring Hoodening on its stamps? folklore mask stamps are however quite common, especially in carnival connections).
There are also some similarities with a Polish custom involving a tourney horse, which apparently symbolizes one of the Tartar invaders of the 13th century. For more information see the Polish Lajkoniks. However, this is a summer custom. In winter, the Poles have jasełka (nativity plays) or kolędowanie (carolling) which in certain areas include a hooded & horned aurochs called the Turoń (better pictures of the beast itself on this Polish page); its behaviour seems remarkably similar to that of a hooden horse in many respects.
|Others — mainly UK and Europe
There is an Irish horse called the Láir Bhán ('white mare'), possibly similar to the Mari Lwyd; apparently it was sacred to Muck Olla, the Druids' sun god, and appeared at Samhain. Interestingly, Láir Bhán also appears to be the Celtic word for the Milky Way! The similar Laare Vane on the Isle of Man (and possibly St Kilda?) appeared at both Twelfth Night and harvest time. Both appear in association with wrens, as does the Mari Lwyd. One site on shamanism has a long and interesting page, which includes references to a white Irish 'Mare of Sovreignty' but it is not clear whether this is the same as above or entirely different. Other beasts mentioned as possibly being connected include the Padstow Blue Ribbon 'Obby 'Oss (used at May Day celebrations; the original Old 'Oss is alleged to have a history of four thousand years, while the Blue Ribbon 'Oss was added in the 1890s by the temperance movement), the Minehead Horse, the Lancashire Old Ball, the Faksi Christmas spirit from Setesdal in Norway, the Danish Hvegehors (and possible also two similar customs known as Bette Fanden and Hvidemær =? white mare), and the unnamed horse's head used in the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance. The Banbury crowd found an interesting nine-person 'Poulain' (foal) in Languedoc, along with a bull and a wolf.
The Dore to Door site has an interesting description of the Old Horse of Dronfield in Derby, reproduced below verbatim (with permission).
This Old Horse
The Old Horse was a traditional folk play performed locally at Christmas and the New year. It was an unaccompanied ballad chanted by several men and enacted by one man dressed in a black cloak topped by a symbolic, stylised horse's head.
The group would visit farms, public houses, and the houses of leading citizens. As well as performing in Dronfield, neighbouring villages were also visited including Dore. At the end of the performance a hat would be passed round, or drinks would be offered.
In later years the horses head was a large, heavy, fearsome papier mache construction formed around the skull of a blind pony killed while failing down Holmely Quarry. It was donated by the Lucas family. This head was fixed onto a broom handle so that the operator, enclosed in the material, could flaunt and flourish the head and snap the jaws as the story unfolded. Gallant but abused the horse falls to the ground in doleful death throes, then rises again in resurrection and celebration.
This custom survived well into the twentieth century, and it may be that there are still some alive who remember the tradition.
Like many folk customs The Old Horse was an irreverent occasion accompanied by heavy drinking and a great deal of noise. On at least one occasion it resulted in tragedy.
In January 1869 it was reported in the Derbyshire Times, that a man was lost on the moors. 'A number of persons, including James Greenwood and Thomas Oxley, had left Dronfield the previous Thursday to go to Barlow and neighbouring villages, to act in what is well known in Derbyshire as the 'Old Horse'.
'On Friday evening Greenwood and his comrades visited the Bulls Head Inn, Calver. Words of an angry character are said to have passed between Greenwood and Oxley, which ultimately ended in a fight, and Greenwood leaving the party, as it is supposed, to go home. He was last seen as late as 12 o'clock at night, and being defective in sight and also worse for liquor at the time he left the Inn, it is supposed that he may have (being a stranger) missed his way, and perished on some part of the moors, or otherwise have got into the river Derwent, which was much swollen by the heavy rain falling at the time.'
The paper went on to describe his appearance 'He is of middle stature, with a scar on his left cheek near to the jaw, and had on two coats, one of fustian and a dark overcoat mended at the elbow of one of the sleeves, dark trousers and a pair of light clogs…'
The next issue of the Derbyshire Times reported that his body had been found in the Derwent about a quarter of a mile from the public house.
Ed. The Dore Village Society has recently managed to transcribe a copy of the performance.
This site had an interesting story, originally contributed by David White, which I again reproduce below verbatim (with permission). This is an example of a shaming ritual more generally known as skimmington, rough music, or charivari.
The following extract is taken from an article entitled 'Ancient Wiltshire Customs'' by F.A. Cannington, published in the very first copy of the Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine published in 1853.
In the villages near Marlborough, this is a mock procession got up by the village lads, when conjugal infidelity is imputed to any of their neighbours. At a little before dusk, a blowing of sheep's horns and a sounding of cracked sheep bells may be heard about the village, and soon afterwards the procession is formed.
I saw two of these Woosets; one in the year 1835 in Burbage, the other about five years after at Ogbourn St George. The procession was in each instance headed by what is called 'a rough band'' which in the latter instance was numerous. Some beat old frying pans, others shook up old kettles with stones in them; some blew sheep's horns, others rang cracked sheep's bells, and one of the performers was trying to extort music from a superannuated fish kettle, by beating its bottom with a marrow bone. Four more carried turnips on long sticks, each turnip being hollowed out very thin, and the features of a face cut thinner still on it. and a lighted candle put in the inside. These were followed by a person bearing a cross of wood of slight make, and seven feet highboy the arms of which was placed a chemise, and on the head of it a horse's scull, to the sides of which were fixed a pair of deer's horns, as if they grew there; and to the lower part of the horse's scull the under jaw bones were so affixed that by pulling a string, the jaws knocked together as if the scull was champing the bit; and this was done to make a snapping noise during pauses in the music.
This procession repeated on three nights following, when it goes past the houses of the supposed guilty parties; it is then discontinued for three nights; resumed for three nights more, discontinued for another three night and then resumed again for another three nights, and then it concludes. As those of you familiar with the Wiltshire dialect will know, the 'W' at the start of a word followed by an 'o' was silent, so the thing was commonly called an 'ooset'.
Although we are now moving away from horses, the Straw Bear Festival looks quite interesting too. In the same vein, Dave Eyre kindly sent me the following information on the Pyrenean 'Bear Dance', based on Violet Alford's 'Pyrenean Festivals Calendar Customs, Music and Magic, Drama and Dance', pub. Chatto & Windus, London 1937:
Alford suggests that the Bear Festival is found all around the Pyrenees. The index devotes 20 pages to it, in three separate entries. She describes (pp 16…) the festival in Arles-sur-Tech which is in what they now call Catalunya Nord (the Catalan speaking part of France):
The Cobla (band) appears, a strange company which stops outside the Mayor's House where he gives a discourse in Catalan. He is accompanied by a man/woman… (Rosetta)… there is a dance… sportsmen with muzzle loaders… (modern day equivalent 'trabucaires')… a dance… everyone goes out to a local meadow… other figures… painted faces… wooden noses… garlic leaves as hair… a second face on the back.(imagine a French legionnaire's headdress with the face painted on the shade bit at the back)… dressed in women's skirts… below which are 8/10 cowbells… little hobby horses (these were left over from last year's carnival (Carnival is the period from Jan 1st to… err, not quite sure… Easter or Lent)…
Now a head appears above the bank dark and shaggy with great, bloody teeth. A shambling body rears up… shots ring out, children scream, men with poles aid the orator of the morning and after ten minutes the beast is caught alive, chained and led back into town.
The Cobla repeats the bear tune a hundred times and as it approaches the cry goes up 'L'ous, l'ous!' (modern day Catalan spelling 'Os'… cf. Latin 'ursa'), The bear eventually becomes a dancing bear and takes a drink but… desires Rosetta — the man/woman referred to at the start.
The bear is led to a 'cave'… the beast breaks loose seizes someone out of the crowd who amid shrieks is dragged into the lair… The bear enters too… door is closed… they are shut up together… all passes off peacefully and the bear offers his lady sausages, cakes, and white wine. Things move to their appointed end… they seat the beast in a chair… his trainer begins to dance… a cloth, a basin, an apple, a hatchet, come out of the crowd… the beast is shaved… using the apple for soap… the beast leaps again upon Rosetta… a shot rings out… his great body falls helpless to the stones… a moment's silence… a dance around the bear… bear is carried away to dirge-like music.
'Without a shadow of doubt here is the ancient Spring Rite faithfully carried out each year by the modern Carnival Committee of Arles-sur-Tech'.
… founded primarily on a dread of hunger it is made up of magical doings by means of which helpless man sought to control the forces of Nature. Things old and weak must be done away with, things new and strong must take their place. The well-being of everyone was bound up with the Kingship… he bore his all-important burden for a space of time only. When signs of age appeared… he disappeared to give place to another, younger and stronger and therefore more magical in fertilizing powers. The king is dead, long live the king… and growth, warmth, and fecundity continue as before.
Often the victim was a divine being… the basic idea — get rid of last year's weakening forces, replace them with forces renewed and fresh, that with them the force of humans in the village beasts in the corral, vegetation everywhere… is one of the foundations of primitive man's make-up.
She then goes on to argue a difference between initiation rites (boy into man) with communal rites (as she argues this is)…
Finally… 'When we look at our divine bear yearly impersonated by a modern Catalan workman we find all the essentials to the main rite in their places… the procession through the town, the inevitable man-woman, the disguises, the bells, the ritual death, the drink, the license, — the old fertility rite if ever there was one'.
She goes on to describe similar festivals at other places.
The Derby Mummers perform a play with the Old Tup / Derby Ram, whose origins seem very — and verifiably — old; see also folkplay.info. Some other Mummers at Tresham in Gloucestershire in the late 19th century apparently used a hollowed out swede on a pole, which they called an 'ox's head' (the ox was called Broad); according to this website, other villages had more expensively constructed Bull's Heads. The Dorset Ooser is actually a human head with bull's horns, and it is interesting to note that its owner Thomas Cave later became Vice-Principal at Wye College, whose students found two of the Kentish hooden horses.
|Others — further afield
A festival in Amiens (France) in December 2001 included a play featuring some creatures from Mali which look remarkably like hooden hippos and crocodiles: judge for yourself! (Click here for a brief description in French).
|There are numerous customs in Japan with vague similarities to Hoodening, such as Kadozuke (qv Ise Manzai, Hachinohe Emburi or Jane Marie Law's book Puppets of Nostalgia: Life, Death and Rebirth of the Japanese Awaji Ningyo Tradition, but obviously none which are directly related.
Sacred Spiral has a brief mention of Were-Wolves and Tibetan dancers in conjunction with Hodening [sic]. Coincidentally, a friend on a visit to Lhasa managed to capture a snapshot of the 'Hooden Yak' shown here.
Produced by +Ben Jones (contact details), with invaluable assistance from Chris Little. All rights reserved. .