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Stag and Earth Mother: Pagan Beliefs in Ancient Britain (Robert W. Nicholls)

Stag and Earth Mother: Pagan Beliefs in Ancient Britain

Robert W. Nicholls





The timing and form of many celebrations in Britain are rooted in activities that date from the pre-Christian era.

       The British Isles were polytheistic prior to the introduction of Christianity, and the days of the week reflect the forgotten gods of the Anglo-Saxon past. Sunday and Monday (Sunday and Moon Day) are self-explanatory. Tiu of Tuesday is a mythical Germanic sky god. Woden (Othin) of Wednesday is the principal god and progenitor of the Saxon people. Thor (Thunor) of Thursday is a Norse god of thunder. Frigga of Friday is wife to Woden and is the spirit of fertility, marriage, and the home. Saturn of Saturday is a Roman god of agriculture whose festival “Saturnalia,” with its exchange of gifts, has been incorporated into our celebration of Christmas.
       In London, during the Roman period, temples were dedicated not only to Roman gods, but also to Isis, the Egyptian goddess, and Mithras, the Persian sun god. The former was worshiped in Hellenistic Greece and Rome; the latter, the soldiers’ god of light, was a widespread cult throughout the Roman Empire. Christianity in Britain developed both as a reaction against, and in accommodation to, the paganism of the inhabitants, and its final form was conditioned by the old religion. That is why today, our holy day is the Sun Day and our most celebrated festival, Christmas, is timed to coincide with the winter solstice.
       The pagan gods that are presently best known were introduced during the terminal phases of British paganism and were documented because their appearance coincided with the beginning of literacy. Woden was a recent god, introduced by the incoming Anglo-Saxons as a special protector of kings and the military classes, while Thor was known as the protector of lesser folk. The cults of Woden and Thor were superimposed on far older and better-rooted beliefs related to the sun and the earth, the crops and the animals, and the rotation of the seasons between the light and warmth of summer and the cold and dark of winter. These ancient beliefs were so well established that whatever the name of the great god who for the moment was favored by the state rulers, whether Mithras or Woden—or Christ—the old practices, so essential for the fertility of the crops and for good luck in life, were maintained in farming communities until Christian decrees and the feudal system led to their final attrition.
       Little is known about the religious beliefs that sustained the rural population of pre-Christian Britain. But some idea can be deduced from the injunctions to shun heathen practices made by King Canute (c. 1016), who enumerates them specifically: “namely, the worship of idols, heathen gods, and the sun or the moon, fire or water, springs or stones or any kind of forest trees, or indulgence in witchcraft.” The range of pagan deities—earth, water, fire, the sun, stone, and wood—supported as they were by agrarian production, suggests a religion that had a sound practical base. Two illusive figures appear as a backdrop to rural beliefs and demonstrate a male-female, winter-summer bipolarity: an ancient Earth Mother, who preceded the rise of later goddesses and grain deities, and a horned god of the hunt, who was the pivotal focus of a totem cult of stag masqueraders.

Festivals of purification and propitiation
       In the ancient Germanic and Celtic calendar, both the first day of winter and New Year’s Day were celebrated on November 1, or more precisely (for Caesar tells us the Celtic day began at nightfall), the eve of October 31—Halloween. Early in the Christian era a conflation occurred among three different festivals, the arrival of winter on October 31, the midwinter solstice festival on December 22, and the Anglo-Saxon new year on January 1.
       Winter, however, still began on October 31. As a result, ancestral animal spirits who were released from the underworld for a short period during the seam between the old and new year, and who were associated with Halloween, became part of the Yule festival. Yule celebrated the arrival of the new year during the last week of December, and animal pageants featuring masqueraders in the guise of the stag, the calf, and the horse formed part of the cycle of Yule entertainment.
       The beliefs of the early European pagan were essentially animistic, whereby the creator and the thing created represent the same reality. Natural elements and forces—earth, fire, and water; the sun, moon, and stars; thunder, wind, and rain—are imbued with greater or lesser amounts of spiritual energy. The early Celts worshiped the sun, and sun symbols are found carved on ancient Irish tombs. A bog at Trudholm in Denmark was found to contain a bronze casting of a horse, dated to about 1500 B.C., symbolically carrying a gold-plated sun across the sky and down into the underworld at dusk. As late as the first century A.D., when the Romans came to Britain, the Celts under their Druid priests were still using Stonehenge as a temple for sun worship.
       Sun worship by fire occurred during the winter and summer solstice festivals, Yule Eve and Midsummer Eve respectively. The Midsummer Eve Bonfire Night remained an important occasion in Ireland until modern times. In the Middle Ages, according to one observer, peasants would not weed the fields until Midsummer’s Eve, then on that day “the boys collected [sic] bones and certain other rubbish and burn them, and … go about the fields with brands” to drive away evil spirits.
       Fire used as a means of purification still occurs during the May celebration in Celtic settlements in northern Italy, France, Britain, and Ireland. Cattle purification ceremonies, for example, involve driving the beasts between two fires. For the Celts the festival of Beltaine was celebrated on May 1, in honor of the god Belenos, who encouraged the growth of crops and the health of cattle. It was considered a springtime festival of optimism. Fertility ritual again was important, connecting to the waxing power of the sun, symbolized by the lighting of bonfires around which people danced in a sunwise direction.
       In England, Plough Monday, which opens the farming year after the Yule holiday, has survived until modern times. In former days plough-charming ceremonies used the beneficial effects of fire. Henry Parker in his Dives and Pauper (1493) speaks of “leading the plough about the fire as for good beginning of the year, that they should fare better all the year following.” Throughout Britain in pagan times, shiny objects (such as metal and, later, mirrors) and bright colors were thought to capture the essence of the sun and thus repel evil.
       It is often suggested that the bonfires lit in England on Guy Fawkes’ Night, November 5, are a remnant of the festive fires lit on Halloween in honor of the sun. Until quite modern times bonfires were an integral part of Halloween celebrations held in Scotland and Wales. In fact in Scotland a great midwinter fire is still lit at Burghead. In Allendale, Northumberland, the winter solstice period is celebrated by a procession through the town by young men carrying trays of blazing tar on their heads. About midnight, when their burdens become too hot to hold, they throw them onto the bonfire and dance around it.
       The early Europeans believed that a spirit of the earth owned the land and a migrating people would have to make a pact with the land before they could settle. The idea of a duality of the earth below and the sun above, with man placed between two great powers, is inherent in the old English term middangeard with its inference that the habitation of humans is a middle-dwelling. The oak with its roots in the earth and branches in the sky was a sacred tree for the Druids (Druid translates as “oak-wise”). Prayers were offered in a place made holy by a conjunction of natural elements—trees, water, or rocks—typically a copse of oak trees on a grassy knoll with a pool or small stream nearby. Certain trees, such as the ash and the yew, and plants like holly, ivy, and a belief both in dryads (tree spirits) and naiads (water nymphs) was common. Such animistic deities were not perceived as persons but as amoral spirits who could help or harm according to how they were treated. Rites were conducted to propitiate their good auspices in such a way that their powers benefit man.
       The primary rite of propitiation involved a votive offering. Offerings to the earth were placed in ritual shafts driven deep into the ground. Eight shafts have been found in Surrey and two in Norfolk in England, and others have been found in Scotland and on the Continent. Most of those discovered were over twelve yards deep, while a Bavarian shaft plunged to a depth of forty yards. The contents illustrate the kinds of objects used to solicit the favors of the underworld: brooches, bracelets, and rings; pottery and bronze vessels; nuts, apples, and cherries; pieces of antler and boar tusk; the unburnt bones of deer, boar, oxen, cow, sheep, and hare; and the bones of ravens, buzzards, and starlings, birds the Celts used as portents.
       Offerings were also made to lakes, springs and wells. The remains of reindeer found lashed to boulders in pools at an ancient lakeside camping place near Hamburg are thought to be votive offerings of the migratory hunters that roamed Europe during the closing phases of the last ice age. A pool at the source of the River Seine, dedicated to the local Celtic goddess Sequanna, contained a series of oak sculptures, including entire statues. Some figures were deformed—one had a clubfoot, others were limbless—and representations of eyes, breasts, and genitals apparently depicted ailments the supplicant wanted a cure for. An archetypal wishing well in Northumbria, dedicated to the goddess Coventina, contained over 13,000 coins deposited over the four centuries of Roman occupation.

Attributing gender to seasonal changes
       From the earliest times the cycle of winter and summer was a critical consideration. Prior to the domestication of cattle, hunting remained important to the stone-using sedentary agriculturalists of the fourth and fifth millennia B.C. During the summer the nomadic European peoples could gather plant produce in abundance, but in the winter, when they retreated to cave shelters, hunting became their main source of food. The importance of seasons and the need for a rudimentary calendar led, in the third and fourth millennia B.C., to the construction of stone astronomical observatories such as the Grand Menhir and Carnac stones in Brittany and Stonehenge in south England, which could locate both the winter and summer solstices. Even New Grange, the collective tomb on the River Boyne in eastern Ireland, is oriented to the winter solstice. By fixing the date of the solstice, the various seasonal festivals, rural fairs, regeneration rituals, and feast days could serve to further delineate the passage of the year.
       The summer and winter seasons likely differentiated by the ascription of gender, and the concept of an ancient male and female bipolarity is evinced by two major figures that appear with regularity among the art that has survived from the distant past. The female principle is evidenced in the concept of Mother Earth, who embodies the fertility and growth of summer. The male gender betokens winter, and is represented as a zoomorphic deity with antlers or horns, variously known as the Lord of the Animals, Cernunnos the horned god, or Herne the Hunter.
       The oldest references to these figures come from art that is over 20,000 years old. In addition to painting game animals in the caves where they sought refuge, the Gravettians, who populated an area from southwestern France to southern Russia, made little statues of animals in reindeer antler, mammoth ivory, bone, limestone, and fired clay. An engraving of a reindeer on a reindeer antler was found in the French Pyrenees. The walls of caves at more than a hundred sites in southwestern France and northern Spain are also adorned with paintings by the Solutreans and Magdalenians who sheltered in the 18,000 to 10,000 ago.
       Most of the drawings depict reindeer, bison, horses, and extinct wild oxen, which were the main sources of food. Scattered among the animal figures are dozens of therianthropes (part man, part beast). Those found in the cavern of Teyjat in Dordogne, France, have the horns and faces of some kind of antelope, but human legs and feet. The paintings at Les Trois Freres, Ariege, in the French Pyrenees, however, are the most revealing. A figure of a man wrapped in an animal hide is playing a rudimentary flute, while another figure with the head, horns, and hoofs of an ox but the legs and lower torso of a human dominates a frieze of several hundred animals. Another incongruous figure has become known as the Dancing Sorcerer. He is enveloped in an animal skin and has stage antlers and a bushy tail, but the hands, feet, and bearded face of a man are clearly visible.
       There is a general consensus that these early art galleries were in fact shrines and the art had a ritual purpose. Although the semihuman figures could be tribal deities, the most common interpretation is that they are shamans in animal disguise, who, through sympathetic magic are conducting rituals to bring favor to hunting and gathering activities. Masks with animal horns may be a hunter’s decoy disguises. The hunter can be envisioned draped in animal skins with antlers, stalking a herd of deer. During winter rites related to the migration of animals, hunters may also have donned their animal disguises for processions or dances for general entertainment.
       Stories of transformation from human to animal form abound in folklore. For example, in the ballad “Leesome Brand” are the lines:
       Ye’ll take your arrows and your bow
       And ye will hunt the deer and roe
       Be sure ye touch not the white hynde
       For she is o the woman kind.
       By adopting the animal disguise, shamans were perhaps thought to have been metamorphosized into their quarry.

The Stag and the Earth Mother
       The evidence of later finds reinforces the idea of the stag as a cult animal. Antlers found in the third millennium B.C. burial at New Grange suggest that the stag was the royal beast of the Irish Danaans. In the twelfth century manuscript The Cattle of Cuailgne, a guild of deer-priests called “The fair Lucky Harps” had their headquarters at Assaroe in Donegal. There is also evidence that the stage was a cult animal of Anglo-Saxon kingships. In the Sutton Hoo ship burial commemorating the death of an East Anglian king, an iron standard was found, topped by a bronze stag with widespread antlers. The names of Celtic deities have also survived on inscribed stone altars that became popular during Roman times, and they include an inscription to Cernunnos, as well as various depictions of horned deities without inscriptions.
       The Gravettians also carved representations of women. Their 20,000-year-old Venus of Laussel emphasizes the sexual features, with massive breasts and hips, but having neither face nor feet. Other early representations reduce the female figure to a single characteristics—for example, a pair of breasts adorn an ivory baton found in Czechoslovakia. The ample curves of the 30,000-year-old limestone Venus of Willendorf, carved in Austria, are now well known.
       The term Terra Mater (Earth Mother) was first documented in the first century A.D. by the Roman historian Tacitus in his description of the workshop of Nerthus the Earth Mother of the German Anglii, ancestors of the Anglian tribes of England. With its image of the goddess on a sacred island, the Nerthus cult was well organized and had drawn the neighboring tribes together in a bond of common worship. In Europe the mother goddess had many names, including the Celtic names Danu, Dana, or Anu. In Roman times she was identified with Diana, but more as a result of linguistic likeness than of any similarity of characteristics. The ancient Celts in Ireland called themselves Tuatha De Dannan (the people of Danu). Finally, two small mountains in the West of Ireland called the Paps of Anu are thought to represent the Earth Mother’s breasts.
       The most numerous dedications on the Roman-style altars were made to mother goddesses, referred to simply as the matres. They are pictured normally as a triad, and frequently carry infants, cornucopia, and baskets of fruit, showing the links to the ancient mother goddess. The tutelary powers of the matres often involved the protection of towns and even military camps. Celtic soldiers in the Roman army would set up altars dedicated to the matres. The Venerable Bede (A.D. 673-735) calls the octave corresponding to our Christmas and New Year holiday Modranect, Mother-night.

The seasonal festivals
       In the Celtic calendar, the transitions from summer to winter and winter to summer were significant times. For the Celts a new day began at nightfall, and the New Year started at the beginning of winter, November 1, or more precisely, the eve of October 31. This was a particularly critical time, for it involved a metamorphosis of supernatural dimensions—a time when the goddess of the earth turns over her reign to the horned god of the hunt, the transition form life to death, from agrarian pursuits to hunting, from warmth to coldness, from light to darkness.
       The seam between the seasons is symbolized by images of death and resurrection or depicted as a battle, between the holly and the ivy, for example. Is it coincidence that holly—an evergreen with a “horned” leaf—represents the male principle against the female ivy? In eighteenth-century Kent, burning roughly made figures of a holly boy and an ivy girl on Ash Wednesday coincided with the departure of winter.
       For Britons living at the beginning of the Christian era, the reality of winter was severe enough. Bede describes November as blotmonath (blood month), the month of sacrifices. Following sacrifices made by the king for a prosperous year, those cattle and livestock that could not be maintained through the winter were dedicated to the gods and slaughtered. For the Celts, Halloween coincided with Samain—New Year’s Eve, the greatest festival of the year. It was then that the store laid by for winter use were declared open. During the feasting it was believed that the souls of the departed mingled with the living. Offerings were made to tribal ancestors lest they be angered at the site of the winter stockpiles. If they were not appeased, they might bring famine and misery upon the land.
       The Druids declared that on Halloween, Samon, Lord of Death, freed for one night only the souls of those who had been condemned to dwell in barren places or whose spirits had entered the bodies of animals. Even now in Ireland, Halloween is known as Oidhche Shamhna, the Vigil of Shamhna, the Irish equivalent of Samon. It is this aspect of Halloween, featuring an assortment of misplaced souls from the underworld that has survived to modern times. November 1 was chosen for the Christina feast of All Saints, while November 2 became All Souls Day, when the dead are remembered and flowers placed on the graves of loved ones. In Cheshire, songs survive from the “Souling” celebrations, when soul cakes were baked as a symbolic offering to the ancestors.
       Because seasonal celebrations were essentially rituals aimed at achieving specified goals, various practices established by custom would have been observed. Little is known of the ritual activities of the spring months in the pagan era. Bede records that February was called Sol-monath, because cakes were offered to the gods (probably ancestors) during that month. (In both ancient Greece and Rome, food was prepared for returned souls in February, and when the dangerous days were over, they were swept out). March was called Rhed-monath, with sacrifices to Eostra, apparently a goddess of the dawn.
       The Celtic pastoral feast of Imbolg on February 1 has been scantily documented, but it also seems to have been a fertility ritual primarily concerned with the lactation of ewes. However, we may get a clue from Greek and Latin authors who wrote of priestess motherhoods like the Daktyles on Mount Ida, and the Korybantes and Kurates in the Dictean cave. Their job was to call in the spring. Clashing swords against shields and making other noises were means of expelling winter. Thudding the earth with sticks, leaping, and stamping were performed to shake Mother Earth, skipping to make the crops grow, jumping to make the corn tall. Reportedly in the tenth century, Goths in masks and skins, clashing staves and shields, led a procession at Constantinople.
       More is known about the May Day celebrations in Britain, celebrating the first day of summer. The whole village joined in activities to persuade the spirit of growth and fertility to enter their fields. They lit “need” fires to attract the spirit of warmth and sunshine, covered themselves in the greenery and flowers of the spring life, washed in the dew, and danced around the garlanded and decorated tree that preceded the maypole.
       Processions undertaken to bring beneficial influences to the areas visited are exemplified by the ritual procession of Nerthus, the Earth Mother of the Anglii in Germany. The procession of the goddess in her cow-drawn shrine was a time of peace, and weapons were banished. Her procession, like that of Frey later in the Scandinavian North, was a fertility rite bringing peace and plenty to the regions visited. A processional known as “Beating the Bounds” survived in England until modern times. It traditionally takes place in August and serves to bring luck and dispel misfortune within a circumscribed area.

Yule-time festivals in midwinter
       One of the most celebrated festivals of the year was the midwinter Yule festival, which then as now involved great feasting and merrymaking. At some point, the conflation of festivals occurred involving the Celtic New Year festival the midwinter solstice festival, and the Anglo-Saxon’s New Year’s Day. With Roman occupation, additional elements from Saturnalia, celebrated on December 17, were incorporated. Saturn was the Roman god of agriculture, and his festival is known for its unrestrained eating and drinking as well as for its carnival. The British Yule similarly involved an adequate sampling of the fruits of the earth, and its dedication as Modranect surely refers to the primordial fertility deity, the Earth Mother, who was banished for the winter period by the horned god of the hunt. Possessing many of the characteristics of the earlier New Year festival, Halloween, the Yule was a time during which the barriers between humans and the supernatural were lowered. New Year’s Day was a time for spinning, sewing, and winding magic skeins.
       Music making and dancing were important aspects of the Yule festival. The word carol, meaning Christmas song, was derived from carole, which described the round dances performed at this time, possibly around a decorated tree. Folk plays were also staged during the festival. In animal pageants men would don animal horns, heads and skins (of stags, calves, and horses, for example) while others wore masks of straw. These figures were known across Europe and featured in the Saturnalia carnival, and it was believed that they appeared at midwinter during their twelve-day leave from the underworld. We first hear of a “stag” from the Bishop of Barcelona in A.D. 370; and in A.D. 636, Saint Isidor of Seville wrote of Spanish pagans who dressed up as beasts. Some centuries later, according to the Decretum, the “Corrector” of the Burchard of Worms (d. A.D. 1025) asks, “Hast thou done anything like what the pagans did, and still do on the first of January, in the guise of a stag or a calf?,” with reference to the pagan new year. Included in Shakespeare’s As You Like It is the Forestor’s Song:
       What shall he have that killed the deer?
       His leather skin, and horns to wear.
       Take thou no scorn, to wear the horn;
       It was a crest ere thou wast born;
       Thy father’s father wore it,
       And thy father bore it (4.2).
       The fact that the stag and his cohorts were perceived as residents of the underworld, the habitation of departed souls, suggests that the masqueraders probably represented ancestral spirits temporarily resurrected in animal disguise. The repeated reference to “thy father” in the Forestor’s Song would reinforce this. By a further stretch of the imagination, they might even represent departed hunter-shamans, adorned once again in their ritual decoy disguise, performing for the amusement of their descendants.
       All this being said, it may be surprising that pork, not venison, was probably the meat of choice at the Yule festivals. In Scandinavia, the greatest boar was sacrificed to the god Frey (akin to Nerthus) as an atonement offering. Binding oaths were taken by placing hands on its head and bristles. A boar’s head procession took place at Christmas in medieval England and still does today at Queen’s College, Oxford.
       During the sixth century Pope Gregory sent Saint Augustine to England to establish a church on the continental model. To facilitate the conversion, and attempt was made to reconcile the incoming doctrine with customs already in existence. Any pagan symbolism that did not positively clash with Christian doctrine was incorporated into the new faith. By building a church on a holy site, such as a chieftain’s barrow or tumulus, the missionaries attempted to discourage potential conflict. Some temples were converted into Christian churches—for example, a temple outside Canterbury became the Church of Saint Pancras. The terms in which the newly converted Anglo-Saxons interpreted the Christian religion were shaped by the tribal culture impregnated by the pagan beliefs of the old religion. Pope Gregory advised that Christian holy days should be near in date to the replaced pagan festivals. This mingling of Christianity and paganism is the reason why Easter is named after Eostra, an Anglo-Saxon goddess of the dawn, and why Christ’s birthday is celebrated on December 25—the date of the old midwinter festival commemorating the rebirth of the sun. The Yule logs, the woodland wreaths, the holy tree decorated with candles and shiny bright ribbons and tinsel, the holly and the mistletoe, all are relics of a pagan past. When, later, the Roman church was accused by the Eastern church of sun worship on December 25, we realize how difficult was the defense againt change.

The conflation of Christian and pagan festivals
       Apparently clerics danced in church as late as the twelfth century and the “carole” tradition of round dancing continued even later. But prevailing Christian attitudes saw dancing as incongruent spiritual activity, and the suggestion arose that the syncretism of pagan and Christian festivals encouraged relapse into paganism, as is evidenced by the promulgation of the Canons of Edgar against “heathen songs and devil’s games on Christian feast days.” The animal pageants, performed for public amusement, likewise did not amuse the church, which found them particularly irritating. Thus the Bishop Caesarius of Arles angrily reported around A.D. 500 that at the New Year even baptized women disguised themseves as deer or bitches, covered themselves with the skins of animals, or put on animal heads. The Council of Auxerre forbade dressing up as a stag or a calf on the “calends of January” in A.D. 578. But the old customs did not die out at once, for Theodore, Archbishop of Canterbury (A.D. 668-690), in his Liber Poenitentialis, said, “If anyone at the Kalends of January goes about as a stag or a bull; that is, making himself into a wild animal and dressing in the skin of a herd animal, and putting on the heads of beasts; those who in such wise transform themselves into the appearance of a wild animal, penance for three years because this is devilish.” In this manner the church discriminated against the traditional Yuletide masquerade and condemned it as devil worship. Thus, Lucifer came to be depicted as horned. Those who persisted in going against the church’s injunctions were often persecuted as sorcerers or witches. After the coming of the Vikings, Edward the Elder and the Dane Guthrum issued joint legislation dictating that wizards and sorcerers were to be driven from the land or killed.
       Under Christianity, the music and dance once considered a whole experience became bifurcated. Choral elements and harmonies were separated from the dance elements and tabor rhythms, and adopted in Christian worship. They influenced the plainsong melodies and chants of the monasteries of the Middle Ages. The round form, hocketing, and polyphony of the medieval mass reflect the choral style of an earlier area. While no carols survived intact to the present, the opening lines of some give a clue to their pagan ancestry. For example, “The Holly and the Ivy” and “I Saw Three Ships” retain a lilt in the melody that hints at origins in round dances. The rhythms and drive of pre-Christian music have survived to a greater degree in Gaelic jigs and reels which are replete with percussion and often use polyrhythms. The same is not true of folk and country dances.
       Over the years folk dance in Britain and Ireland has been sanitized. The earth orientation of ritual pagan dances gas given way to the sky orientation of the new religion, with stamping and swaying replaced by hopping or skipping. The posture of the dance, like Gothic steeples, aspires heavenward, while the heel-and-toe vertical stance reflects escape from the earth’s surface. The country dancer may batter the ground with his feet and perform intricate pattern, but the arms and body remain rigid.
       Although masquerading has not been retained as a continuous tradition, within the Plough and Mummer’s plays of the nineteenth century, survivors from the old tradition were, and in some cases still are, in evidence. Players adorned themselves with the body parts of animals, as they did following the winter sacrifices. The Fool for example may brandish a stick with a calf’s tail on one end and a bladder on the other. The animals killed by hunters are, however, smaller. Fox-skin caps were worn at both Hexham and Thenford in England. At Richmond in 1814 the Fool was covered in skins and wore a hairy cap with a foxtail hanging down his back. The Grenoside captain still wears a cap of rabbitskin with its head still attached. Plough costumes also are sometimes decorated with mirrors and ribbons. Like the streamers and tinsel that decorate the Christmas tree, they are vestiges of the belief that bright things contain the essence of the sun and repel evil.
       The Bovey Tracy players featured a Giant who wore “a wooden thing for a head with bullocks teeth.” The Abingdon Morris dancers carried a large effigy of the head and horns of an ox mounted on a pole. Every September at Abbots Bromley in Staffordshire, a horn dance is performed in which six dancers carry reindeer horns. Although the stag no longer appears as a masquerade, the hobbyhorse has retained a place in folk carnivals. A wild horse with snapping jaws, made from a horse’s skull, carried on a pole by a youth draped with a horse cloth, was associated with All Souls rites in Cheshire. Apparently most parishes in Cheshire used to own a horse skull, which was prized, fought for, and stolen by rival gangs. Another animal disguise that used to appear with the Soulers in Cheshire was Old Tup, made from a ram’s head with a skin or rug covering the holder. Within living memory the Christmas mummers of Ballymenone in Ireland wore featureless masks and costumes made of straw, and toured the villages performing folk plays from Christmas to the New Year.
       And what of the Earth Mother? How did Christianity, with its all-male trinity, accommodate the need of the laity for a female deity? This matter had been virtually resolved in Europe by the time missionaries reached British shores. In A.D. 430, amid opposition, the Greek philosopher Proclus preached a sermon hailing the Virgin Mary as divine and a mediator between God and man. Then in 431, Cyril of Alexandria defended Mary’s divinity, insisting that she filled the void in human affections left vacant by the departure of Isis and Diana. Finally the church inaugurated the Feast of the Assumption as one of its holy days. Henceforth Mary was the Blessed Mother of God, absorbing the worship of the goddesses that preceded her.
       In England the Earth Mother was an ancient figure and no longer the focus of a cult. Like Mother Nature, she fulfilled her role through ensuring the fertility of the crops and was supplicated (along with the fertility deities that followed her) with greenery and flower garlands. Dressing the Wells, an ancient ceremony still performed in few English villages, dates back to pagan times as a means of worshiping the water nymph. At Bisley in Gloucestershire, for example, the dressing is done by placing flowers and little leaves in a well. Corn Dollies were also derived from olden times, when they were made from the last sheaf taken from the field, along with lanterns and spirals, to depict Mother Earth. It has been suggested that Greek goddesses of the classical era enjoyed a Renaissance in rural England to the extent that the green ribbon that decorates corn dollies stands for Persephone, the young goddess of the fields and the green corn, while gold is for the mature goddess Demeter and the ripe corn.

Robert W. Nicholls is a media specialist with the Howard University Research and Training Center in Washington, D.C.

[The World And I (New York), December, 1988]


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