Folk Dances and Rhymes

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Abbots Bromley Horn Dancers. Courtesy Raymond Buckland.

Folk Dances and Rhymes

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

Folk songs, nursery rhymes, and folk dances often continue ancient pagan sentiments and contain elements of myth and magic, serving as the means of preserving old beliefs despite centuries of persecution and attempted obliteration. Many English folk dances contain ancient ritual steps and gestures. Obvious examples are the Morris dances, now performed around the world.

The well known children's nursery rhyme, "Ride a Cockhorse," is a good example of retained paganism: Ride a cockhorse to Banbury Cross To see a fine lady upon a white horse. With rings on her fingers and bells on her toes, She shall have music wherever she goes.

A "cockhorse" was a hobbyhorse and is featured in many Morris dances. There is one in the famous Abbots Bromley Horn Dance (see Dance). A hobbyhorse is made with a wooden framework that hangs from the "rider's" shoulders. There is a horse head at the front, often with a moveable jaw that can be "snapped" when the rider pulls a string. There is also a tail at the rear. A skirt is attached around the frame, hanging down to hide the performer's legs. Often there are bells hanging from the framework and from martingales. (A similar figure is found in a Balinese dance where ritual, rhythmic movement on the part of the dancer brings on ekstasis.) The cockhorse is a greatly refined version of riding astride a simple pole, broomstick, or pitchfork, as was done by the early practitioners of sympathetic magic when dancing around the fields to promote crop fertility.

The goddess Epona was especially associated with horses, as the white horse was a very ancient figure in British folklore. There are many huge figures of horses carved into the white chalk of hillsides across southern England. St. George, the patron saint of England, was originally the old god of sheep, cattle, horses, and vegetation. In his honor, bells were rung to drive away evil spirits from the animals and plants. The bells on the toes of the riding lady in the nursery rhyme might also be connected to such an exorcism. Additionally, it was traditional on St. George's Day to parade a white horse, bedecked with bells, through the streets of London (specifically the Strand), Leicester, and other towns and cities, possibly including Banbury. There is the strong possibility that the traditions associated with Epona and with St. George were brought together, for some now unknown reason. George was not adopted as the patron saint of England until 1348. Prior to that he was a spring culture hero, and, according to Lewis Spence, "slew the dragon and thus let loose the magical tank of life-giving moisture which the monster guarded. . . . His legend may have been superimposed upon that of an ancient British goddess of fructification, whose female worshipers passed to their secret rites in a state of nature (naked)."

The nursery rhyme refers to the lady going to Banbury Cross. This would indicate a crossroads at Banbury. Crossroads were regarded as magical places, particularly where three roads, rather than four, came together.

The Furry Dance at Helston, Cornwall, is an ancient remnant of paganism that has continued for centuries. It takes place from May Day through May 8, which is variously referred to as Furry Day, Flora Day, or Faddy Day. The word "furry" comes from the Cornish fer, meaning a fair day or day for rejoicing. A band parades through the town on May Day, with hundreds of local children wearing lilies-of-the-valley and dancing after it. At different times throughout the next few days, different age groups dance. Apparently the dancing is spontaneous and not rehearsed or organized in any way. Village houses are decorated with sycamore branches, flowers, and evergreens. The "Hal-an-Tow" (heel and toe) song is sung, which tells of bringing in the summer. The principle dance begins at noon on May 8, led by the mayor and his officials, all dressed in their formal best. They dance through the main streets, through gardens, houses and stores, in one door and out another. The purpose is to usher in the summer months and drive out any negativity associated with winter.

Dancing around the Maypole on May Day is another pagan custom that is still enjoyed today. The Maypole itself has been traced back to prehistory. There is a fine representation of dancers around a Maypole in the stained-glass windows of Batley church, Staffordshire, England, dating from the reign of Henry VIII. The figures dancing include a hobbyhorse, a jester, and a May Queen. The dance footed around the Maypole traditionally is in the nature of an ordinary round dance, to the tune "Sellenger's Round," in which the performers sometimes take hands and at other times dance alone. Occasionally the dance takes the form of "plaiting" the Maypole with the streamers that hang from it.

Guise dancing took place in Cornwall and elsewhere at Christmas; the dance obviously dated back to ancient Yule celebrations. In the Scilly Isles it was known as "goose" dancing. It took the form of a general round dance, but with the men dressed as women and the women dressed as men.