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.
When 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.
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?”
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?
*From the article “Poor Old Horse.”