Professor Ronald Hutton, writing in The Stations of the Sun (1996), surmises that the beasts in British folk culture fall into three categories: midwinter beasts such as the Mari Lwyd of South Wales, hobby horses that provided entertainment in the English courts of the late medieval period, and animals heads on sticks that attended rural festivities in the 19th century. Attempts to link them to pagan fertility rites invariably fail – the historical evidence is somewhat lacking. That they have lasted so long, having been the subject of countless extinctions and revivals, is perhaps down to an unabated desire for organised (and not-so-organised) chaos. As Hutton explains, “two of the simplest ways of expressing festive licence and signalling the existence of legitimate misrule have been for the sexes to cross-dress or for people to put on animal skins and masks. Both indicate the suspension of the normal.”
Whether the historical documentation to support antiquity or pagan rites exists or not, it is the ‘suspension of the normal’ that appears to lure modern audiences and practitioners. At a time when we are increasingly tied to screens and unending, always-on work hours, the desire to step outside of the normal and experience something that appears to have defied time itself is incredibly attractive. Ironically, by dressing up as something non-human, we’re engaging in a very human desire to commune, throw caution to the wind, and engage in our unending love affair with things that can’t properly be explained.
Indeed, explaining it seems to go against its very reason for being, but that’s what this article shall attempt to do, however briefly. Read on and you’ll find…
- A brief history of the hobby horse
- A menagerie of beasts
- Beasts in the modern world
- A gallery of beasts and hobby horses
A brief history of the hobby horse
The ‘hobby’ in ‘hobby horse’ comes from the Anglo Saxon word, ‘hobby’, meaning ‘small horse’. So, the translated phrase is a tautology – a word repeated twice: “small horse horse”.
Hutton points to three early modern references to hobby horses. Gruffudd Gryg mocked the beast in a Welsh poem in the 1300s, saying that despite being a “much-admired recent novelty”, it actually had, “a miserable pair of lath legs, kicking stiffly.” A “hobye horse” is next spied in a London Parish in 1460, performing with a child who was paid to dance with it, and again in 1504, when it arrives in the Cornish play, Beunans Meriasek, as a ‘hebyhors’ surrounded by its entourage (‘cowetha’: ‘comrades’).
In Hutton’s words, “all that can be said with confidence is that a model horse with human ‘rider’ or operator was a popular entertainment in Britain by the late 14th century”, although other historians have attempted to ride the critters a little further.
What types of hobby horse exist?
Steve Roud writes that there are two basic hobby horse constructions: the tourney horse and the mast horse.
The tourney horse
The tourney horse is easily brought to the mind’s eye. This is the hobby horse that sits on a frame around the rider’s waist, making use of their legs to replicate the horse’s hindquarters, with the rider’s upper body appearing to ‘sit’ on the horse. A replica horse’s head, often minuscule in comparison to the body, protrudes from the front. Of course, a tourney horse is almost as mobile as its rider and doesn’t require any entourage to lead it as its vision is as good as that of its owner.
The mast horse
Steve Roud describes the Mast Horse as, “decidedly more primitive-looking than the tourney horse”, consisting of a head on a pole with a cloth draped around it to mask its inner human. Given that the operator can only see when the clacking mouth is open, it is less mobile than its tourney relation, and has to travel in the company of an entourage if it is to get anywhere without causing itself harm.
Within the mast horse family, but with amendments, you’ll find ‘hooden horses’, owing to the hood-like appearance (the ‘hood’ in ‘hooden’) of the animal’s head on top of the rider’s body. Like the mast horse, the hooden horse would often be accompanied by a stable lad (usually carrying a whip), someone to try and mount it, and a cross-dressing man known as ‘Mollie’ who carried a broom. Ronald Hutton notes that this ritual was recorded in 1807-8 in Kent, Swalecliffe and Ramsgate, and that revivals of the tradition began to occur in the early 1950s, particularly in Canterbury and Whitstable (the latter claiming to be ‘the Ancient Order of Hoodeners’).
As Roud so succinctly puts it, “There is little doubt that the tourney horse, at least, owes its existence to its entertainment value rather than any supposed ritual or ceremonial function. But the real paradox for the hobby horse historian is that the apparently primitive mast horse only starts to make an appearance in documentary records from the mid-nineteenth century onwards.”
When did the hobby horse begin hanging around with Morris dancers?
An almost impossible question to answer. Hutton suggests that they were certainly enjoying each other’s company by the 16th century, and continued to do so, “until the 1630s, when horse and dance came apart again until the Victorian revival of May games in a Tudor image.”
Dr David Clampin of Liverpool John Moore’s University, also a keen dancer with the Mersey Morris Men, has (in the company of Richard Stapleton) studied the history of his side’s “Mersey Duck”, and, in doing so, researched the Morris/beasts entanglement at length. He explains that, “The Beast in the context of the Morris is part of that spirit of misrule, disruption and disguise which has a long history.”
“Without doubt the purpose was to make merry and, in effect, cause trouble. The beauty of doing so whilst taking on the form of an animal was such as to disguise the deviant and perhaps thereby avoid censure or prosecution… From the perspective of the church, such behaviour represented the highest form of deviance, being ‘devilish and abominable’… to all intents being unholy.” Clampin quotes from The Kentish Notebook, Volume 2 (1891), which explains that, “In the sixth or seventh century, ecclesiastical authorities in Scotland forbade, ‘any man from dressing as a horse or wild beast and dancing widdershins [i.e., anti-clockwise] in the kalends of January, for this is devilish.’”
“For the Morris and its associates,” he continues, “the Beast tended to be set on the wreaking of chaos and mayhem to practical effect… The role of the Beast in the context of the Mummers play, and those Beasts which appear with Morris dancers, is as an attention-seeking discordant creature scattering the masses and making space for the dance. At his command is precisely the mystery and unknown which makes grown men and women wary and likely to back off… So it was that the Beast became a useful companion to Morris dancers both by way of heralding the prospect of a performance, aggressively clearing a space and then, once dancing is underway, whipping in the audience, embellishing the scene, and extracting recompense.”
As we shall see, the role of beasts and hobby horses at Morris dance-outs continues along much the same lines today.
A menagerie of beasts
Folk beasts come in many shapes, sizes, species and perversions. A handful are perhaps better known than others, having achieved a level of celebrity and legend of their own.
The Padstow ‘Obby ‘Oss
This much-celebrated hobby horse dances through the streets of Padstow, Cornwall, on May Morning. Steve Roud describes the Padstow ‘Obby ‘Oss as, “a strange monster… It walks, sways, dances, swings, and swoops – not much like a horse, admittedly, but like a live creature all the same.” Interestingly, it appears to be neither tourney horse or mast horse, taking on a form and appearance unique to the town.
The ‘Oss is lead by the Teaser, a kind of keeper that encourages the performance and guides it through the packed streets, grooving to its hypnotic song…
Unite and unite and let us all unite
For summer is a-come unto day
And whither we are going we will all unite
In the merry morning of May
On occasion, the ‘Oss appears to dip to the ground and sleep, only to rear again as the crowd’s enthusiasm climaxes. It appears ritualistic, seemingly without modern explanation, and is therefore an object of fascination… not to mention alternative facts. The historical documentation for its existence is scarce, although some locals believe that it dates to the arrival of a French warship off the coast of Padstow (date unknown). Hoping to ward off an invasion, the local women dressed as the ‘Oss, which so perplexed the French warmongers that they fled the scene.
Inevitably, something this unusual and inexplicable tends to attract wild conjecture. Professor Hutton tells an eye-opening story concerning Mary Macleod Banks, president of the Folk-Lore Society, who visited Padstow in 1929 and witnessed a cross-dressing Teaser. Banks assumed that he represented, “a pagan, sacred marriage between earth and sky”. When she visited again in 1931, the same man was dressed as a clown, which thoroughly annoyed the President. She took him to task for, “spoiling the rite”. He responded angrily that his part in the proceedings required no specific outfit, and that he was essentially living the tradition while she was simply making things up to suit her agenda. Indeed, any assumptions made by Banks appear to have been her own fantasy, but one that she successfully put about via her lofty role. The best part of a century later, some of those assumptions have muddied the waters. When Professor Hutton visited Padstow on May Day in 1985, participants told him that the procession was, “a prehistoric ritual in which a man representing a fertility god was sacrificed for the good of his people”.
Historians Judge and Cawte found that the earliest record of Padstow Obby Oss activity dates from 1803. This, of course, doesn’t mean that it didn’t exist prior to that, but it’s interesting that it doesn’t seem to have attracted any earlier attention. Hutton suggests that it wasn’t until Francis Etherington, a friend of Cecil Sharp, visited in 1907 that it started to develop a reputation as a kind of tourist attraction. Before that, it was largely unknown beyond its immediate locale.
The modern appearance of the Padstow ‘Obby ‘Oss is a crowded affair, the future of which seems somewhat uncertain given recent safety issues. However, the inhabitants of the town continue to guard their tradition fiercely. Visitors are welcomed strictly as observers and are not encouraged to join in the dance or procession. The only official participants must be able to prove that they have roots in Padstow going back at least two generations.
The Mari Lwyd and friends
A hellish, glass-eyed vision of animal death, it’s perhaps not obvious on first horrific meeting that you’re confronting a kind of hobby horse. However, ‘Mari Lwyd’, originating from South Wales, translates as ‘Grey Mare’, so the clue is in the name if you know what to listen out for.
A fine example of a mast horse, the Mari Lwyd often appears draped in a white cape that partially obscures its shining eyes. Part supernatural beast, part hobby horse, this fiend, sporting a real horse’s skull (no clacking, childish wood sculpture here), would arrive outside your house with its entourage during the Christmas period. It would then sing to you, begging admittance…
Wel dyma ni’n dwad,
I ofyn am gennad
I ofyn am gennad i ganu.
Which translates as…
Well here we come,
To ask leave
To ask leave
To ask leave to sing.
Innocent enough, it would seem, but surely the stuff of nightmares for many Welsh children. Interestingly, the entourage (which would eventually gain admittance) also contained someone with a broom (to sweep the floor ahead of the New Year) who was often dressed as Judy, meaning that Punch was usually close behind. Examining this tradition from the outside, it’s hard to imagine a more distressing scene for impressionable young minds.
Hutton notes that the Mari Lwyd sometimes operated under different beast guises and with different names. In English-speaking Gower, it was known simply as ‘The Horse’s Head’, in Ceredigion, ‘Y Wassael’ (‘the Wassail’), in West Glamorgan, ‘Aderyn bec y llwyd’ (‘the Grey-Beaked Bird’). He links the Mari Lwyd to the ‘Laare Vane’, or ‘White Mare’ on the Isle of Man, who commonly chased girls until he caught one, dressed her in the mare’s outfit and made her watch the mock beheading of the group’s fiddler. Once decapitated, his disembodied head was required to, “answer questions about the nature of the coming year”. Happy Christmas, best wishes, The Wicker Man.
The rites and rituals of the Mari Lwyd could also be found in the coal mining and iron-working communities around Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire during the mid-1800s, under the guise of the ‘Poor Old Horse’, a beast with a similar appearance (although the skull was usually crafted from wood) and a similar song. The horse was sometimes replaced by a sheep, or ‘The Old Tup’, whose theme tune was ‘The Derby Tup’ or ‘The Derby Ram’. The custom also included a ritual slaughtering (why not, indeed?) In the Cotswolds it was a ‘Broad’, or bull’s head made from animal skin, that lost its life to the sounds of ‘The Gloucestershire Wassail’.
The Dorset Ooser and the Wiltshire Wooset
The Dorset Ooser was reasonably rare in that it took the form not of a rural animal but of an angry, grotesque human face, seemingly intent on damning any mortals that crossed its path to a lifetime of checking under their beds before lights out.
Hutton notes that it existed in the local traditions of Melbury Osmond, just down the A37 from Yeovil, but that the original Ooser went missing in 1897. Locals felt sure that it was “the idol of a former god of fertility”, but – as usual – there doesn’t appear to be any historical record to back this up.
According to Hutton, “The name, which remains a mystery in itself, may be related to the Wiltshire dialect word, ‘Wooset’, used for a horse’s skull with a deer’s horns fixed upon it, set on the end of a pole. [The Wooset] was carried by youths in the Marlborough district until the 1830s, in noisy processions to mock neighbours whose partners were suspected of marital infidelity; horns were the traditional sign of a cuckold.”
The Dorset Ooser has more recently returned in the guise of the Darkest Ooser, more on which shortly.
The Abbots Bromley Horn Dancers
If the likes of Padstow cannot legitimately claim connection with pagan rituals and pre-history, the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance does at least have antiquity on its side.
This North-Midlands custom is commonly danced in early September, but Hutton suggests that this date was moved during a revival in the early 18th century (following a 100-year lapse), the dance originally having been a mid-winter tradition.
A description published in 1686 suggests that it was originally danced for charity, the money for which, “repaired their church [and] kept their poor, too.” Rather than dress in mock-beast clothing, the dancers famously carried (and continue to carry) a set of reindeer antlers, passed down across the generations. The ancient horns, still in use, have been carbon-dated to the 11th century. Wild reindeer were most probably extinct in the British Isles by this period, so the antlers must have been imported for a very specific reason – possibly to be attached to the hobby horses used in the original Abbots Bromley Horn Dance.
Whatever this ritual signifies, two things are for certain: it appears to be demonstrably very old, as well as being entirely unique. No other dance of its nature exists in this country or on the continent. It is a true one-off.
Beasts in the modern world
During the process of creating the Tradfolk May Day Morris Dancing Directory, we asked a number of sides about the beasts they dance with and the nature of their relationship (by which we mean not to sound as suggestive as we clearly do). In modern times, it seems that the beasts are there to invite intrigue, to draw the audience in, to facilitate an element of storytelling, to bring local folklore to the fore, and to create a connection with the land.
What is immediately interesting is that the beasts have evolved as Morris dancing has become more international, often taking on local, indigenous forms. You’ll find the Liver Duck (also known as Ivor the Liver Bird, based on the Liverpool Liver Birds) dancing with the Mersey Morris Men, just as you’ll find New Zealand’s Whangārei City Morris dancers dancing in the company of a pūkeko bird, or Seattle’s Sound and Fury Morris dancing with Ogo Pogo, a North American Loch Ness Monster equivalent.
Asked why the Mersey Morris Men have danced with Ivor since the mid-70s, they explained that he serves the dual purposes of bringing, “chaos, terror, comedy, and extracting money,” and is, “a distraction if things go wrong or nothing is happening.” Onlookers are struck with, “a mix of terror and humour. Although it is obvious that there is a human operator, people are wary and not sure what the duck will do.”
Jim, a mast horse built by the late Jim ‘The Ram’ Bywater of Wantsum Morris, began making appearances at Whitstable May Day Jack-in-the-Green procession in 1976. He fell out of service and lived a quiet life in an attic for many years, before being resurrected by Oyster Morris in 2005. Jim’s friend, James Frost (who, coincidentally, is curating an exhibition on Animal Guising and the Kentish Hooden Horse at Maidstone Museum, between February and June, 2023) says that, “the horse adds an element of clowning and chaos to the procession (along with Boris the Bear). He has been known to chase bicycles and policemen, run into shops and jump on buses. Some members of the public scream, some children cry, but mostly they seem delighted.”
Stanley the Bull started life as Stanley the Stag, undergoing a species transformation because, “the antlers proved rather tricky, and sometimes even dangerous.” He has been dancing with Chapel-en-le-Frith Morris in one form or other since 1981. His presence brings the Morris side a “playfulness”, as Stanley is given to disrupting the musicians and dancers, not to mention partaking in the modern pastime of photo-bombing. “The response is generally laughter,” says Stanley’s friend, Will Newman, “though small children can occasionally be spooked.”
In our recent interview with Boss Morris, Lily Cheetham explained, “I always feel like the beasts really add to our presence at a performance. Obviously, with the Boss Morris side, we try and get as many people out when we’re performing, but the beasts tend to be some of our partners or our plus-ones or whatever. And obviously, if any kids are around then they all end up in the middle of the dances. It helps make it an interactive thing, doesn’t it? Sometimes there’ll be an interlude in the dancing, so we introduce a beast and they do a little jig of their own. It’s just another facet that makes it look even more interesting, rather than just being straight dancing all the time.”
Sleipnir is a Mari Lwyd that accompanies the Border Morris side, Huginn and Muninn. Named after the eight-legged horse of Norse mythology, this truly international beast originates from Poland. Sleipnir has a waterproof raincoat coat and flashing lights for eyes. He has been dancing with the side since 2021, and likes nothing better than going to heavy metal gigs. His friend, Vaughan, tells us, “the audience loves Sleipnir and he complements the Huginn and Muninn style, although he is quite heavy. Morris dancing is magical and dark and sinister and pagan and wonderful, and a skeletal beast is part of that.”
If you’re keen to see as many Morris beasts as possible in one sitting, the Blackthorn Ritualistic Folk Side has a menagerie in attendance, including Black Vaughan (a ghostly bull that represents the apparition of Thomas Vaughan, killed in Kington, Herefordshire, and reappearing – local legend has it – as a black bull terrorising the local market), the Darkest Ooser (based on the Dorset Ooser, mentioned earlier in this article), Twiggy Witch (a folk creature of Herefordshire legend), Ceirw Arian (based on the red deer, seen as a guardian of the forest in Celtic mythology, inhabiting the liminal spaces between the living and the dead), the Apple Tree Man (or the spirit of the oldest apple tree in the forest), the Green Man, and Pwca – a Mari Lwyd who dances with them to commemorate the eerie discovery of 24 horse skulls nailed to the underfloor of the Portway Inn, Herefordshire, and 27 more beneath a property in Peterchurch (you can read more about this story here).
“We feel that the beasts bring another dimension to the storytelling that we incorporate into our gatherings,” explains Blackthorn. “We have always aimed to spread British folklore, particularly local folklore, to our audiences. After our performances, our spectators often ask for photos with the beasts and ask questions about them. Arian’s roamer is the youngest member of the side, which often results in younger members of the audience approaching her. Children like to be involved with Arian, and although they initially find her frightening, they like to talk about the skull and learn about the natural history of the area.”
The Sidmouth Horse Trials
If beasts and hobby horses are something you have a growing interest in, you’ll want to head to the Sidmouth Horse Trials, a key feature of Sidmouth Folk Festival since 2015. Although a mere whipper snapper as traditions go, the horse trials have quickly become one of the largest mass gatherings of beastly things in the country.
The event is essentially a parade along part of the Sidmouth seafront. Judged by Peter Lord of Aardman Animations (Wallace and Grommit, Morph, Sean the Sheep), who also designed the trophy in his distinctive style, the procession is zoo-like in its breadth and depth of species. You’ll see all manner of creations and abominations cantering, stumbling and dancing, all with a level of dignity unique to this enthralling tradition. Long may it last.
A gallery of beasts and hobby horses
Huge thanks to all those that helped put this article together, and for the use of the photos we’ve included in the gallery below. Click on each image to enlarge it as you peruse this weird and wonderful world – this ‘suspension of the normal’.
Images courtesy of Blackthorn Ritualistic Folk Side, the Mersey Morris Men, Chapel-en-le-Frith Morris, Sidmouth Folk Festival, Whitstable Jack-in-the-Green, and Huginn and Muninn. Photo credits include Sin Eater (Blackthorn’s Apple Tree Man), and Tavis Amosford (Blackthorn’s Green Man).
The information in our Customs Uncovered series comes from several books, most commonly The English Year (Steve Roud, 2006), and The Stations of the Sun (Ronald Hutton, 1996).
An interesting read. Thankyou. The Tourney horse. Some time back I read of a reference to tourney horses
in Hastings. I wish I still had the reference. In the account it describes the horses as being boat shaped
with the rider equipped with a wet mop. The object of the tourney was to hit the opponent with the mop
and turn him over with the prow of the boat shaped horse. Other than that I know nothing, other than the tour
tourney took place in ‘Ladies Parlour,’ adjacent to Hastings Castle, on the West Hill which was, apparently
the first tourney ground in England.