The Wearing of Horns

Part One – Antlers

Red deer

One of the enduring images of our British animals is that of the stag with its crown of antlers.

Antler – from the old French antoiller – ante (“in front of”) + oueil (“eye”)

Imagining you possess a crown of antlers encourages you to take your attention right out above your head and to sense and feel with the tips of the antlers. During their growth period, the deer’s antlers are very sensitive and full of nerve-endings. The deer are aware of the space above and around their heads.

In Celtic lore, the stag was a symbol for the god Cernunnos, or The Horned One. Cernunnos was often portrayed with antlers himself, and was a god of the forest and wild animals.

Cernunnos on the Gundestrup Cauldron

Horn Dance

The idea of wearing horns survives in the ancient Horn Dance of Abbots Bromley in Staffordshire. Not only do the horns remind us of the symbolism of strength, power and speed associated with the stag – the King of the Forest, but the dance is also interesting because of its underlying structure, which points us to something bigger with its numerical symbolism of 3, 6, 12 and the division of the horns into two differentiated sets of three. The dance was obviously designed to tell us something.

The first recorded reference to the dance is in Plot’s Natural History of Staffordshire, written in 1686, but a carbon analysis done in the 1970’s reveals that the actual antlers used in the dance date back to the 11th century.

Nowadays the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance takes place on Wakes Monday, which is the first Sunday after 4th September, although in previous times, according to Violet Alford, a well-known folklorist, it used to be performed on Twelfth Night. Twelfth Night was traditionally a day when the usual order of things was reversed, and there was a temporary suspension of societal rules and norms. On this day servants could become masters, wise men fools and vice versa.

photographer unknown

The actual ‘dance’ starts with a service of blessing in St Nicholas Church, where the horns are housed. The “horns” are six sets of reindeer antlers, three white and three dark. Since there are not believed to have been any reindeer in England back in the 11th century, the horns must have been imported but it is a mystery as to who brought them here and why, and to why they were divided into two sets of three.

There are 12 dancers, traditionally all male. Six carry the horns and they are accompanied by a musician, a man playing Maid Marian, plus the Hobby horse, a jester, a child with a bow and arrow, and another with a triangle. (The hobby horse deserves a post on its own, so more of that later.)

Many videos of the actual dance exist on Youtube. They are well worth watching to see tradition in action. Here is a personal favourite, a more abstract interpretation by the band Stick in the Wheel.

But it’s not only at Abbots Bromley that this idea can be found. The use of deer masks, fashioned from the skulls and antlers of red deer can also be found at Star Carr, a Mesolithic site in Yorkshire, 9000 years old.

Archaeologists’ research suggests that, rather than being used as hunting disguises, the masks were used in dances and ceremonies as part of a ritual costume.

What does it all mean? What is it trying to tell us?

You don’t need the real thing to find out. You can discover a lot by trying on the imaginary antlers for size, taking a walk in the forest, and seeing where they take you.

For the latest news about the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance go HERE

all images in the public domain or from Wikipedia.