Okay, first admission: I’m not really talking about Morris Dancing.
No. Our problem is much bigger than that. What I’m talking about is a sinister, macabre figure who penetrates through a significant chunk of European folklore and folk festivals: the Hobby Horse.
The Hobby Horse is a figure that appears in Mummer’s Plays and Morris Dancing right from their inception in the 14th to 15th Centuries: the simplest is a horse’s head on a stick, the ‘tourney horse’ is less threatening still, being a hoop around the dancer’s waist held on with shoulder straps and puppetted around as if it was a an unruly capricious animal for fun and jolly japes.
Not all Hobby Horses are interested in jolly japes.
You see, the hobby horse tends to appear around the same sorts of times of the year everywhere: Christmas and January, certain Christian holy days called the Ember Days, All Soul’s Day…
Do you notice what all those days have in common? The dead. All Souls’ is the festival of redemption that bookends All Hallows, where the souls of the damned are released from purgatory. The Ember Days are days of fasting and prayer where the spirit world is especially close to our own (possibly because they were co-opted from earlier, pre-Christian, festivals by the early church).
‘But surely,’ I hear you cry, ‘not Christmas?’
Don’t believe me? Johann Geiler von Kaiserberg preached about the Wild Hunt – essentially a hunt of damned souls, condemned to wander until doomsday – in a sermon from 1508:
“You ask, what shall you tell us about the Wild Army? But I cannot tell you very much, for you know more of it than I. This is what the common man says: those who die before the time God has fixed for them, those who leave on a journey and are stabbed, hanged, or drowned, must wander after death until there arrives a date that God has set for them. Then God will do for them what is in accordance with his divine will. Those who wander are especially active during the Lenten days, and first and foremost during the lean times before Christmas, which is a sacred time. And each runs in the dress of their rank – a peasant in peasant garb, a knight as a knight – and they race therefore bound to the same rope. One holds a cross in front of him, the other a head in his hand, ”Make way, so God grant you life!” This is the opinion of the common man about which I know nothing…”
Where does a horse fit in all this? Images of death and the devil as a hunter are an incredibly strong tradition through medieval Europe. St. Augustine calls the Devil ‘the worst hunter in all the world…’ and Hélinad of Froidmont (in his Verses on Death) shows death as a huntress on a pale horse blowing her horn as she runs down her quarrey.
And here is where we get the strongest link: in Padstowe the Hobby Horse is a terrifying black thing with a demonic rider accompanied by a horrific dim, not unlike the horrific sound of horns and soldiers that was said to accompany the Wild Hunt and the Furious Army.
In Kent, you get the Hooden Horse paraded on Christmas night. The horse is a horse’s skull on a stick (sometimes articulated so the jaw can open and close). His attendants would either black up their faces or wear frightening masks and roam the villages demanding food or beer.
Because here’s the thing, the hobby horse as a head on a stick has a fairly solid piece of symbolism: death’s horse only has three legs. The Danes east of the Rhine believed that where a horse would be buried alive in a church it would reappear as a three legged animal and knock on the doors of dead men to claim their souls. Otto Höfler points out the existence of a horse with two legs in one wild hunt, and the existence of a horse with eight legs in another, not unlike the Hobby Horse and its unfortunate, soulless human slaves (some people might say those are ‘people wearing the costume’, but they don’t understand, they haven’t seen the truth.)
Not only that but in Medieval myth Death can often appear as a horse: in the story of Hellequin’s Hunt when Oderic gets on the horse of a ghost he feels the burning cold of the otherworld; in the Byland manuscript (a series of ghost stories jotted down by an anonymous monk at Byland Abbey in Yorkshire around 1400) there are two images of death as a horse…
“A man rode home on his horse, which was also carrying on its back a pannier of beans. Sudenly, the horse stumbled and fractured its foreleg, so that the man had to dismount and shoulder himself the sack of beans. As he went on his way, he saw what appeared to be the phantom shape of a horse rearing up on its hind legs and striking the air with its front hooves. Terriefied, the man invoked the name of Jesus Christ and forbade the horse to harm him in any way. Whereupon the phantom horse began to follow him, and after a while the ghost manifested itself in the form of a whirling heap of hay with a light shining in the middle of it…”
“William of Bradeforth, or Birdforth, met a ghost in the shape of a grey horse between Amplforth and Byland Abbey. He implored it to go away and stop blocking the road.”
Traumatised yet? My pleasure.