Crop Fertility Rituals
Crop fertility rites have been practised since Pagan times and these take many forms amongst these are Wassailing, Maypole dancing, Cheese Rolling, Well Dressing.
All of these are carried out in most regions in the British Isles but particularly in the rural area’s.
Wassailing, its origins lost in the mists of time are carried out by Morris dancers, the dances are to ensure the good fertility of crops and the dances vary from region. The mode of dress also varies.
As an example – On the Cotswolds, The Ilmington Morris Men dress in, Grey tophats, Blue & Yellow Baldric and Armbands. Red spotted neckerchiefs, grey cord trousers, blue and yellow ribbons on bellpads. Their style of dance is Cotswolds Morris.
The jingling of bells during the dance is meant to frighten evil spirits and the clashing of sticks represent the fight between good and evil. The dancer who weaves in and out of the team of dancers is known as the Fool and whilst his dance seems to be that of a random nature, in fact his is a very intricate dance and represents the naivety of man. A dancer who is dressed as an animal character shows mans reliance on nature. Handkerchiefs emphasise the hand movements during the dance.
It is possible to see The Ilmington Morris men perform at various venues on the Cotswolds.
Border Morris dancing differs very much in style, the dance is much more vigorous and the style of dress differs, an example in this case is the Silurian men, of Ledbury in Herefordshire, have their faces blacked, their headgear is black bowler hats, black tail coat, black trousers , white shirt with strips of coloured rags sewn on, a coloured sash with a matching ribbon on the bowler and around the knees to which the bells are attached. A pair of Dr, Martin boots complete the ensemble.
Cradley Morris men (Herefordshire) usually accompany the Silurian dancers at xmas time and perform with them regularly.
Their dress is most colourful as all characters dress in multi –coloured rag covered trousers, coat and hat. (Weight is about 30lb.)
A regular venue of theirs is at the Slip Tavern Much Marcle, the wassailing takes place in a nearby orchard, meeting at the pub a torchlight procession makes its way to a selected tree with the Silurian men leading the way with drum beating, the procession encircles the selected tree which has fires surrounding it and the wassailing ceremony takes place.
Toasted bread soaked in cider hangs from the apple tree branches.
Cider is poured at the root of the tree and one of the fires (known as the Judas fire) is stamped out.
A wassailing bowl is passed around for all present to take a sip.
The wassailing song is sung, a shotgun fired at the tree to wake it up for the coming season after which everyone makes their way back to the tavern where the Morris men play and sing folk songs.
Another style of wassailing is practiced at Brinsop, Herefordshire.
Here men stand in a circle around a fire chanting repetitively – Auld Ci-der, the effect being alike to a dirge and as cider is sipped frequently it could be said that this is a kind of self-hypnosis.
Clog dancing, practiced mainly in the northwest is regimental in style and is much more disciplined, however there are a number of clog–dancing groups who visit villages in the Midlands area of England. As many of these groups are female, the mode of dress differs greatly from group to group, they are fascinating to watch and dance with considerable skill.
For more information about - Morris Dancing. More info about - Wassailing.
Traditionally danced as the name suggests, in May.
The pole was usually Hawthorn or Birch. In 1664 it was banned by an act of Parliament but revived upon the restoration of Charles II.
The dance nowadays mainly involves children and takes the following form; a group of children encircle the pole to which ribbons are attached, each dancer holds a ribbon and dance in a circle around the pole, by dancing in rotation the ribbons wrap around the pole and an intricate pattern is formed.
The purpose of the dance is to herald the Spring and to bring luck to the crops.
A number of villages still have a Maypole amongst these are Welford-on-Avon Warwickshire and Offenham, Worcestershire.
Although practised mainly in the U.K its origins are believed to be of Germanic Pagan symbolism.
Mistletoe – Welsh farmers associated this with fertility and believed that a good crop of mistletoe was a harbinger of a good food crop the following year.
Each year there is a cheese rolling competition on Coopers Hill Nr Brockworth, 4 miles south of Gloucester, reached via the A46
This ancient competition has its origins going back possibly as far as the Phoenican period.
It may go back to Pagan times and was regarded as a healing ritual.
The event itself involves rolling a large cheese down the hill, which at some points has an incline of 1in1 so the cheese rollers need to be extremely fit.
The winner is the one who completes the course in the fastest time.
It is a popular spectator event and several thousand gather at the top of the hill to enjoy watching the rough and tumble.
Besides the downhill event there is an uphill event which takes place between the downhill races.
More sinister fertility rituals include human sacrifice
It was on St. Valentines day 1945 that Charles Walton of Lower Quinton left his home to cut hedges on the nearby Meon hill, amongst the tools he carried was a trouncing hook and a hayfork.
When he failed to return home at his usual time his niece who kept house for him contacted neighbours and a search began.
By torchlight the searchers checked the fields where he had last been observed and after a short time they came upon the body of Charles Walton, he had been murdered with his trouncing hook which was still in his throat and was pinned to the ground with his hayfork, a cross had been carved into his neck and chest and the blood flowing from the wounds soaked the soil surrounding the body.
The murderer was never traced, despite intensive investigations by both Spooner and Fabian of New Scotland Yard, these being two of the most respected police officers of the time.
Charles Walton was buried in the churchyard at Lower Quinton but no trace of his burial place is now visible as the area has now been landscaped and the headstone removed.
It was believed in the middle ages that the date was the best day for a blood sacrifice as at this time the earth was revitalising itself from the winter and a ritual sacrifice would ensure a good crop for the oncoming season.
Local superstitions believe this could be the case or was it just plain murder, it is doubtful that the truth of this will ever be known
However superstitions still abound.
Spooner referred Fabian to a book, Folklore, Old Customs and Superstitions in Shakespearland. It had been written in 1929 by J.Harvey Bloom a local vicar, the book told of a weak minded young man who had killed a woman named Ann Turner with a hayfork because he believed that she had bewitched him.
Another part of the book mentions that in 1885, a ploughboy named Charles Walton had met a black dog on nine consecutive days whilst returning home from work and that on the ninth day the dog was in the company of a headless woman.
Legends abound about black dogs heralding death it is possible that this young man was the same Charles Walton who met his death so brutally on that fatal day in 1945.
Interestingly, in another book of Warwickshire, published in 1906 and written by Clive Holland, a local, man, he describes the murder of Ann Turner and the trial of a John Hayward who was found guilty of her murder. In Haywards defence it was said that he considered that he had acted for the good of the community as Ann Turner had bewitched the cattle and land of the local farmers.
Ann Turner was found with her throat slashed by a billhook and she was pinned to the ground by a hayfork.
John Hayward was found guilty of murder and hanged.