The Hooden Horse

In the town I used to live in, there was once a pub called the Hooden Horse, sadly now renamed to something much less interesting. I was reminded of this at an exhibition at Maidstone museum on Hooden Horses. Hooden Horses? Well, briefly…

Hoodening is a rural folk tradition unique to East Kent, England. Going back a few hundred years, in the week or so running up to Christmas, groups of farm labourers would dress up as various characters and go from door to door requesting money, cake and beer. One of the characters would be the Hooden Horse, which was an artificial horse’s head made of wood, with a jaw operated by string, on a wooden pole, held by one of the performers with his body covered in cloth – usually sacking. A sort of play was then performed in rhyme, a mixture of plot and satire, usually featuring a few local characters who would be well known to the watchers and might be the butt of jokes and scorn, as well as stock characters such as Molly, a waggoner, and the Mayor. And of course the horse (him)self, invariably called Dobbin. There would also be music performed on whatever might be available – accordions, fiddles, drums or whistles.

The relationship to Morris dancing and Mummers is hard to avoid and, like these traditions, has been revived in modern times by enthusiastic traditionalists.

A photo from the early twentieth century

A modern Hooden Horse

Another early twentieth century photo.

There are many other traditions in Britain involving what is known as ‘animal guising’, where men or women take the guise of an animal, the Padstow ‘obby ‘oss being perhaps the best known of these. The performance on May Day in Padstow, Cornwall, invariably draws large crowds.

On the left, a Hooden horse, and on the right a Mari Lwyd, the ‘skull horse’ of Welsh tradition. Although unconnected (as far as I know) the Welsh had a similar tradition, also taking place around Christmas and New Year. Skull horses are to be found in other parts of England, however, including Yorkshire.

Stag guising is another old tradition – possibly older than horse guising. It was certainly in existence during medieval times and survives today in the form of the Abbots Bromley Horn dancers, Staffordshire, who perform carrying reindeer antlers on poles on the Monday following ‘Wakes Sunday’ in September. Wakes Week became a tradition in industrial Northern England when factories and mills closed down for a week for maintenance giving the workers a holiday. This began in the early nineteenth century, but before this the ritual presumably took place at a different time of year.

The exhibition is on until 17th July 2023 and there is a link to their site here.

Winter – 3

Winter would have brought a period of enforced leisure for our ancestors. Their days would have become shorter with the increasing hours of darkness, until in midwinter the daylight hours would make up only one third of the time.

All outdoor activities would effectively cease in the darkness, and even during the day the worsening weather would limit what could be achieved outdoors. But other than those tasks that could be carried out, what did they do in these times? how did they pass those long hours?

At times, no doubt, there would have been feasting and merry-making because they would have required some cheer and a sense of well-being to help them get through the winter. But they must also have been mindful of husbanding scarce food resources through those long barren months.

it may be that they played games. Although archaeology hasn’t furnished us with evidence of board games or dice or variations on these, it is still possible they would scratch, perhaps, some form of grid into the beaten soil of the floor and play games of skill or chance. It is not beyond possibility that some flat rocks with strange scorings and lines on them were used for that purpose.

With no TVs or books or computers, it might seem to us that time would have weighed heavily on their hands. But you are used to what you are used to, and they would have seen things differently. They may have looked forward to a period of relative inactivity; long hours of no talk, sitting or lying down, the mind slowing down until hours were passed in no thought. Did they then also pass unusually long hours in sleep? A kind of semi-hibernation as a way of conserving energy?

But long hours also, of talking. They must have talked: of daily life and plans and past disasters and glories, of gossip, and told stories both new and handed down from previous generations. These stories would have been incredibly powerful tools for the preservation of the tribe. With no written word, the spoken word becomes the only way knowledge is transmitted. And thus it has to be memorised, both for use and also to transmit in the future. As aids to memorising, powerful tools are repetition, rhyme and rhythm. We cannot know exactly how this was utilised, but it cannot have been long before poetry and song evolved.

It can be no coincidence, but in all the early societies we know of who had no written records, those of which we know about through records left by others – such as the Romans writing of the Britons – it is clear that poetry and song were important, and the bard a highly valued member of that society. Indeed, the writings left by Romans, who tended to denigrate anyone not Roman as barbarian and primitive, violent, and uncultured, still make it clear these ‘barbarian’ tribes valued poetry and song highly. Partly, this must have been for educational purposes, but they seem also to have been valued for themselves, for their beauty. It is taking things too far to suggest this proves the same would have applied in Neolithic times, but it is certainly possible. At some point, there would have been music. I imagine this developed out of ritual, perhaps through repetitive chanting and the beat of drums…

And so, I can imagine this at first being perhaps the preserve of the shaman, until becoming a specialised ‘post’ – that of the bard – and acquiring the value of entertainment, as well as instruction.