Winter Solstice & Abbots Bromley Horn Dance

On Darkness:

The child is born in the darkness of the womb; the chicken hatched after incubation. Birth begins in darkness, as dawn follows the long night, and spring springs from winter. We must not interrupt the incubation period within us, or force it to bear fruit before its time. To pull a seed out of the earth before it sprouts, to open a chrysalis before the emerging butterfly forms its wings may prevent new life from awakening.
Torrey Philemon


“You darkness, that I come from,
I love you more than all the fires
that fence in the world,
for the fire makes
a circle of light for everyone,
and then no one outside learns of you.
But the darkness pulls in everything;
shapes and fires, animals and myself,
how easily it gathers them!—
powers and people—
and it is possible a great energy
is moving near me.
I have faith in nights.”
– Rainer Maria Rilke, On Darkness
Out of darkness, light: Solstice and the lunar eclipse
by Starhawk, 10-20-2010
Winter Solstice–the shortest day and longest night of the year. For Pagans, Wiccans and Goddess worshippers, this is one of our most sacred holidays. As winter closes in, the darkness grows and the light recedes. For Pagans, darkness is the necessary balance to light. We don’t conceive of the dark as evil, but as a place of potential, of gestation–the black, fertile soil where the seed puts forth roots and shoots, the dark womb where new life is nurtured. But being humans, we also have a natural affinity for the light, the time of growth and new beginnings, of warmth and color and bright new hopes. Solstice reminds us that no darkness, no loss, no grief or disappointment is final. Out of darkness, light is born. Every ending gives rise to a new beginning. Out of disappointment and despair comes new courage, new hope.
This year, Solstice coincides with a total lunar eclipse. The last time this happened was in 1544. The earth aligns directly with the sun and the moon, casting a shadow on the moon’s face. The moon is a Super Moon, at its closest to the earth. And, so my astrologer friends tell me, we are also directly aligned with our Milky Way’s Galactic Center, where the galaxy gives birth to stars. We are in a great birth canal, on the night when mythically Mother Night gives birth to the Sun Child of the New Year.
What does this all mean? For those of you who like to align your meditations and your magic with the movements of the stars, we stand tonight between the past and the future. For the first hour and a quarter of the eclipse, (starting at 1:30 am East Coast Standard Time), it’s as if we step out of time. We are free of the past, and we can consciously create the future, for ourselves, for our communities, for the earth.
It’s a night to take a good look at what you want to shed. What are the behaviors, the beliefs, the patterns that no longer serve? Let them go. Make the commitment to change.
And it’s a night to envision the future you want to create. What world do we want to see? How will we step up to face the huge challenges of healing our communities, our economies, our climate and our environment? What risks will we need to take? What will we need to let go of, and what will we need to embrace?
And hey, even if you think all astrology is bunkum, take a moment tonight to go out, to marvel at the moon with the mark of the earth written across her face, to let go of what you no longer need and call in what you want. And if you can do this with friends, and family, in community, with good food and a warm fire and a few candles, and raise a cup of gratitude for all we have and all we share, you may find that the courage, the support, the power, the love and luck you need for this New Year are born in the depths of the night, and awaken at dawn with the rising sun.
A blessed solstice to you all!
And with that in mind I’d like to share with you this special mysterious ancient solstice tradition that was still being performed the last time there was a full-eclipse on a winter solstice, some hundreds of years ago. I’d like to specially dedicate this post to Joski at Merlin’s New Rags and Gadaya at the Old Weird America, for their superb scholarly posts and special collections of different versions of ancient folk tunes.
“Besides for solace of our people, and allurement of the savages, we were provided of Musike in good variety not omitting the least toyes, as Morris dancers, Hobby horses, and Maylike conceits to delight the Savage people, whom we intended to winne by all faire means possible.”
The Abbots Bromley Horn Dance

The Abbots Bromley Horn Dance is the oldest surviving ritual dance in the northern hemisphere. The dance dates back at least to the early medieval period. The first written record of its performance is from the Barthelmy fair in 1226. Historians have suggested that it celebrates the purchase of hunting rights in Needwood Forest from the Abbot of Bromley, restoring previous Saxon privileges. It is performed every year on Wakes Monday in the village of Abbots Bromley, in the English Midlands. At 8:00 a.m. the horns are taken from the church, where they are kept during the year, and the dancers make their rounds, stopping at various locations throughout the village and its surrounding farms and pubs, a distance of about ten miles. After dancing all day, the horns are returned to the church in the evening.

The Horn Dance team consists of six Deer-men, a Fool, a Hobby Horse, Maid Marion (a man dressed as a woman), a Bowman (Robin Hood or Boy Cupid), and two musicians. The horns are a mystery. They are large reindeer horns mounted on wooden effigies of stags’ heads, with the largest pair weighing about 25 pounds. Chemical dating places them at around 1000 years old. Since there are no records of reindeer living in Britain since Neolithic times, there is speculation that these may have been imported especially for the dance. Three of them are painted black, and three brown. Once they were red and white, said to represent the battle between winter and spring, darkness and light.

Does the dance represent a ritual combat between the forces of light and darkness? Or does it reenact a stylized hunt? In primitive societies, the miming of a successful hunt is often used as ‘sympathetic magic’ to give power over real quarry. The famous wall paintings at Les Trois Frères, France, known as “The Sorcerer” show a naked man dancing in antlers and a deer mask. A carving found at Pin Hole Cave, Creswell Crags, Derbyshire, (known to have been used by Neolithic hunters) portrays a man in an animal headdress. Both suggest that pre-historic shaman used animal disguises in their rituals.

According to the locals, the dance is supposed to bring good fortune to the people and fertility to the crops. In its slow and serpentine windings, is it stirring some ritual magic from a long-forgotten past? There is no way of knowing, and that is part of the enigma of the horn dance.

Although traditionally performed on Wakes Monday, the dance was also performed on other special occasions. For over 400 years now, the leadership of the horn dance has remained in the Bentley family. Although generally performed only by the men, in the 2000 dance Robin Hood was played by a young girl. The mysterious tune generally associated with the dance was first written down in 1857.


There are several theories concerning the roots of this peculiar festival. It may well have begun as a Winter Solstice ritual, but it has also been suggested that it was born when King Henry I (1100-1135 AD) granted hunting rights to the people of the area. The dance was supposed to have been created as a mark of gratitude.
The hunting rights theory is suspect, however, because the Horn Dance shows signs of having had a much earlier, pre-Christian beginning when magic and fertility ceremonies were very much aspects of the lives of ordinary people. It’s interesting to note that some of the figures to be seen in the world-famous cave paintings at Lascaux look very like the Abbots Bromley Horn Dancers. These figures are over 20,000 years old, so perhaps the true origins of the dance you can see today at Abbots Bromley are far more ancient than most people realize.

The Abbots Bromley Variations
1. Tony Hall – The Abbot’s Bromley Horn Dance
2. Martin & Jessica Simpson & Lisa Ekstrom – Abbotts Bromley Horn Dance/In Winter’s Shadow
3. Andrew Cronshaw – Wheelwright Robinson’s tune for the Abbots Bromley horn dance
4. Trotto – Abbotts Bromley Horn Dance
5. Leif Alpsjö – The Abbots Bromley
6. Richard Greene & Beryll Mariott – Abbot’s Bromley Horn Dance
Tony Hall’s and Trotto’s versions are probably the most traditional forms of the tune, though one with just tin whistle and drum would be even moreso. And yes, I do realize that Jessica Simpson’s voice on “In Winter’s Shadow” is totally annoying. But it’s a fine poem, and a damn good tune. Richard Greene’s version is, unsurprisingly, totally gorgeous.
So. Turn off your lights. Go outside. Look at the moon. Then come in, light a candle, and put the tune on, and drift off into the otherworld. And at the high point of each musical phrase, imagine antlered men clashing heads, locked in a stately, solemn dance.
And, as an extra wintery bonus, some poems:
from FOUR QUARTETS: East Coker by T.S. Eliot
O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark.
The vacant interstellar spaces……
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

HAIKU by Basho
Turn this way,
I also am lonely
This evening of winter.
from OUR QUIET TIME by Nancy Wood
In our quiet time
We do not speak, because the voices are within us.
It is our quiet time.
We do not walk, because the earth is all within us.
It is our quiet time….
We rest with all of nature….
I AM SINGING THE COLD RAIN
A Cheyenne Poem
I am singing the cold rain
I am singing the winter dawn
I am turning in the gray morning
Of my life
Toward home.
FIRST SNOW by mary oliver
the snow 
began here

this morning and all day

continued,
its white

rhetoric everywhere

calling us back to why,
how,

whence such beauty and what

the meaning;
such

an oracular fever!
flowing 
past windows,
an energy it seemed

would never ebb,
never settle

less than lovely!
and only now,

deep into night,

it has finally ended.
the silence

is immense,

and the heavens still hold

a million candles;
nowhere 
the familiar things:

stars, the moon, 
the darkness
we expect

and nightly turn from.
trees 
glitter like castles

of ribbons, the broad fields

smolder with light, a passing

creekbed lies

heaped with shining hills;
and though the questions

that have assailed us all day

remain–not a single

answer has been found–
walking out now

into the silence and the light

under the trees,

and through the fields,

feels like one.
from new and selected poems.
This entry was posted in Folk, poetry, seasonal. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Winter Solstice & Abbots Bromley Horn Dance

  1. Anonymous says:

    Thank you for the wonderful gathering of thoughts, which having seen such a gathering brought mine like fragile moths to a safe, small light.
    Bottleneck from Cape

  2. Elisabeth says:

    Great post, thank you so much 🙂

  3. Anonymous says:

    mmmmmmmm have to say – the sight of the Horn dancers coming down the main street of Thaxted village ( just in the dusking) is probably one of the scariest things I have ever seen. It is just so spooky- especially if your in the crowd and all you can see is the horns weaving.
    it does the same thing for me that the opening chords of Vaughn Williams variation on a theme of
    Thomas Tallis – takes me to a point far away from here – somewhere not quite real….

  4. thanks for your comments! glad you enjoyed the post.

    The horn dance that I grew up seeing in America has left an indelible mark on my mind. After a 6-hour solstice party full of contra dances, morris dances, and other merriment, the lights are turned off, a circle of candles is lit in the dancing hall, and the music begins, outside the room, gradually growing louder until a procession of white-clad dancers enters, going about their ritual dance with complete presence and solemn dignity. mysterious and timeless, and haunting to be sure, though i'd never think of it as being scary. it just seems, well, right.

  5. oh, and i just realized i forgot to put the link for the music in. it's there now, or here: The Abbots Bromley Variations

  6. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for the music! Here's another (well-known) winter poem (though the linebreaks will probably be buggered). Happy winter!

    The Snow Man
    by Wallace Stevens

    One must have a mind of winter
    To regard the frost and the boughs
    Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

    And have been cold a long time
    To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
    The spruces rough in the distant glitter

    Of the January sun; and not to think
    Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
    In the sound of a few leaves,

    Which is the sound of the land
    Full of the same wind
    That is blowing in the same bare place

    For the listener, who listens in the snow,
    And, nothing himself, beholds
    Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

  7. thanks anonymous! happy winter to you too!

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