The Yuletide Hobby Horse

This post was written for my Witches and Pagans blog A Pyrate’s Perspective, but apparently my blog is currently broken. While they work to fix it, I’m going to go ahead and post this here.

Blessed Yule a little early!

Say, old man, your horse will die,

And I say so and I hope so,

And if he dies I’ll sell his skin,

Poor old horse.

The Hobby Horse. Oss Ol Oss, as they say in Britain and elsewhere. You may be familiar with the May Day Hobby Horse from watching The Wicker Man. Yes, that Hobby Horse. From England to Wales, from Sweden to Norway, the Hobby Horse is meant to bring good luck and fertility to those who are visited by it. Many of these traditions happen around Yule and the New Year.

It is Yule in Britain: the Hobby Horse is brought to each house in a village by young men singing and dancing, in a tradition similar to Wassailing. The tradition is different everywhere you go, but a horse’s head is usually fashioned out of wood (and sometimes from an actual horse’s skull!) and placed on top of a pole. The jaws can usually move and are snapped by the man who carries the pole and who is traditionally hidden under a sheet. The whole hobby horse is bedecked with ribbons and flowers and whatever traditional decorations used in each locale. This hobby horse is then taken around the village to promote luck for the New Year.

1476219_10101439409633428_1892327282_nWhen the Hobby Horse is brought to a house, a contest between the Horse and the household ensues. The Horse would improvise songs, and the household would have to come up with a final verse. If the household couldn’t come up with a final verse, the Horse was allowed entrance to the house, where it would enter and chase the young women of the household. (The Horse was usually allowed to win, since its entrance into the house was considered to bring luck for the coming year). The young woman who was “caught” by the Hobby Horse, was given a seat where she could then view the dance of the young men who “killed” the horse. After the death of the horse, the horse’s head was placed in her lap. The head would then be asked questions for the coming year and the young woman (or in some cases the young man who carried the horse) would be asked questions about the coming year. The answers given were seen to be true predictions.

If kept outside, it would demand to be reshod after its death and rebirth and the singers would move to the next house.

This picture is from the article "The Mast Beast."

This picture is from the article “The Mast Beast.”

In other places, the Horse and its carriers would sing and act out “The Old Horse,” a traditional folksong about the death of the old year. “As with the wren, we take the horse’s strength to keep us going through the coming year”. * In most traditions, the young men are given a pint at each household to keep them warm and to keep the cheer going for the next house.

My favorite Hobby Horse tradition is found in Wales. The Mari Lwyd, or the Grey Horse, is often linked to the Goddess Rhiannon. In this Hobby Horse tradition, a Punch and Judy character usually travel with the horse to each house. Punch would carry a poker and be responsible for rapping on the door of each house when they got there. He would also keep time by tapping his poker on the ground while the Hobby Horse sang its songs. Judy would carry a besom and brush the outside of the house and anyone unlucky enough to get too close. Part of the back and forth of the mummers and the household would have to include the household gaining a promise that Punch and Judy would be behave when they came into the house. If the household did not get the promise, Punch would scatter the ashes of the old fire from the grate before lighting the new one and Judy would scatter them throughout the house instead of sweeping the house floors. Here it becomes obvious why a household might not want the luck of the Hobby Horse for the New Year!

In Germany, many places practice the custom of Schimmelreiter, where a Hobby Horse is lead to each household. This custom is a little tamer; the Horse promises luck in exchange for food and is usually seen to be a symbol of Odin’s horse, Sleipnir. The white horse is seen in many German and Norse traditions.

Another of these is the Dalecarlian or Dala Horse from Sweden. The story goes that soldiers who came to stay in the region of Dalarna during the campaigns of Charles XII first carved the horses for their host’s children as a thank you. These horses bring good luck to the household. I recently came across a beautiful modern retelling of the luck of the Dala Horse, which you can find here.

One custom found throughout the world is the hobby horse made on old sailing ships. When a ship left port, the sailors would fashion a wooden horse that after 30 days would be sacrificed to the sea. This symbolized the sailor’s freedom from the land and the freedom that the sea gave them. This is from the Celtic traditions of the horse representing the sovereignty of the land. By casting off the horse, they were casting off the laws of their nation and embracing the wildness of the ocean. It also signaled the sailors’ first pay period.

The Norse tradition of the Joulupukki is also tied to the Hobby Horse tradition. The Norse Yule Goat is a straw figure carried to each house, or a man who dresses up as a goat, who begs for leftover food. The Joulupukki is tied to Thor’s goats and the Wild Hunt led by Odin. This character is often seen as a Santa Clause character, but instead of climbing down the chimney, he knocks on the front door and asks to be let in. When he is let in he asks “Are there any well behaved children here?”

Joulupukki_Finland

The Hobby Horse is a tradition that continues to live throughout the world. It is a part of traditional Morris Dancing and local customs still seen today. If you’re out wassailing this year and have a little bit more time and creativity, create your own Hobby Horse and carry it with you. The luck of the Hobby Horse is still just as potent and wonderful as it ever was. And who couldn’t use a little bit more luck for the New Year anyway?

dala-horse-and-julbock-yule-goat

*From the article “Poor Old Horse.”

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Fairy Horses

I’m getting ready to start graduate school. I’ve been putting it off for years, but things have finally clicked into place and away I am about to go.

I received my first syllabus tonight. The first book that I have to have read (by the first class, yay grad school!) is Jane Eyre. That’s easy enough, it’s not like I haven’t already read it several times, so it will just be a matter of rereading it and giving it a more “critical” look.

One of the things I love most about this story is that Jane Eyre thinks she has a brush with a piece of folklore.

As this horse approached, and as I watched for it to appear through the dusk, I remembered certain of Bessie’s tales, wherein figured a North-of-England spirit called a “Gytrash,” which, in the form of horse, mule, or large dog, haunted solitary ways, and sometimes came upon belated travellers, as this horse was now coming upon me. It was very near, but not yet in sight; when, in addition to the tramp, tramp, I heard a rush under the hedge, and close down by the hazel stems glided a great dog, whose black and white colour made him a distinct object against the trees. It was exactly one form of Bessie’s Gytrash — a lion-like creature with long hair and a huge head […], with strange pretercanine eyes […]. The horse followed, — a tall steed […]. Nothing ever rode the Gytrash: it was always alone […].  ~ Jane Eyre Chapter 12

Jane Eyre has an encounter with a Gytrash…at least she thinks she does. In reality, this is the scene where she meets Mr. Rochester, her mysterious employer and the hero (anti-hero possibly?), for the first time.

A lot of scholars like to use this as an example of Romanticism in Bronte’s writing. But I think that a lot of it simply has to do with the fact that the Gytrash was a piece of British folklore that most people probably still regularly had encounters with and would have talked about. People were probably warned to watch out for the Gytrash as they traveled through unfamiliar countryside

The Gytrash falls into that category of spirits that haunt lonely roads and weary travelers. Usually appearing as a horse, a dog or sometimes a mule, the Gytrash can either be helpful or harmful.

Jane Eyre is not the only famous piece of literature to depict a Gytrash. The legend of a Gytrash also shows up in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles nearly 60 years later.

There are many types of spirits like this that people would have been weary of meeting on a deserted country road. We’ve all heard of the Will-O-the-Wisp, which are present even in American folklore. The Bridgewater Triangle in Massachusetts is famous for sightings. They even come up in children’s movies these days!

Kelpies and Pukas are also similar to the Gytrash. These water horses can bring good or bad fortune to whoever they encounter. The Puka is known for showing up as a horse, a goat or a rabbit. It is usually associated with Samhain, since it was known for demanding an offering from the last harvested crops. Without the offering, they would cause trouble for the whole community. The Puka can also speak with a human voice and was known for trying to tempt people to come out of their houses at night. (The Puka is also a character in one of my favorite novels, Peter S. Beagle’s Tamsin. If you’re interested in British folklore this is a great book to check out).

Kelpies could appear as beautiful women who would lure men to their watery deaths. The Kelpie usually liked to eat its victims. Sometimes also appearing as a horse, it would tempt someone to get on it’s back and then ride them into a body of water where they could drown and devour their victim. One of the more famous stories of the Kelpie was about one who had convinced nine friends to get on its back. The tenth refused, but put his hand on the Kelpie’s nose. The hand became stuck there and instead of getting on the horses back as the others had done, the tenth child cut off his hand and escaped.

There are also many stories of Kelpies kidnapping women to be their wives in their watery homes which were usually at the bottom of the local loch. (As I write this, my partner is at GenCon without me. This year their guest of honor is another one of my favorite authors…Mercedes Lackey. One of Lackey’s less well-known works is The River’s Gift, a story about a Kelpie. I also recommend this book).

These types of creatures are also related to the Mari Lwyd. The Mari Lwyd or the Grey Mare is a Welsh tradition. Men would carry a horses skull (usually made out of wood or cardboard), decked out in a white sheet (that disguised the man carrying it), ribbons, and a hinged jaw that could snap at people door to door as they wassailed the new year in. Unlike England, where the focus of the wassail ritual was on the birds and the crops, the Welsh focused on the Mari Lwyd, which was a tradition that connects back to the goddess Rhiannon.

We meet Rhiannon in the Mabinogion. Rhiannon is an underworld woman who appears to the hero Pwyll on top of a fairy mound riding a horse. After they are married (which is a long story in and of itself), she is accused of eating her newborn son. In recompense she has to bear men on her back like a horse and tell them what she has done.

The penance that was put on her was as follows: she was to stay at the court of Arbeth for the duration of seven years. There was a mounting-block by the gate. She had to sit beside it every day telling anyone coming by the whole story (of those she supposed did not know it) and offering whichever guest and stranger would allow themselves to carried, to be carried on her back to the court. But only rarely did anyone allow the carrying. In this way she passed the next part of the year.

~ From the third part of the First Branch of the Mabinogion

And while Rhiannon’s son is eventually returned and all is well, it seems as though Rhiannon has to go through her own initiation to lose her underworld nature and does so in this way.

Rhiannon is also usually known for embodying an example of the idea of Celtic sovereignty. Rhiannon represents the land, Pwyll has to marry her to have the right to rule over the land. The book Women of the Celts discusses this idea at length if you’re interested in that.

Rhiannon Alan Lee Illustration, 1984

Rhiannon
Alan Lee
Illustration, 1984

In general, these horse spirits seem to be tied into the land. They either haunt travelers who are in their territory, or they are a part of the rituals of the harvest and the turning of the Wheel. Rhiannon is a goddess that is a big part of my own work. I love that the mythology of the original horse goddess still remains present in a great deal of folklore and literature. I don’t know what I would do if I were to meet a Gytrash or a Puka on the road. They are seductive creatures and even though I know better, even I might be tempted to see where one would lead me…

Other Readings:

The Great Queen and the Sovereignty of Self

Rebellion of the Queen

The Wedding of Sir Gawain & Dame Ragnell

The Celtic Goddess of Sovereignty as Warrior: Boudicca and the Death of a Druid Prince