Horn dance is oldest custom

Our oldest custom, the Abbot's Bromley Horn Dance.
Our oldest custom, the Abbot's Bromley Horn Dance.

Written by Heather Elvidge

Welcome to September, the month of chilly mornings and the drawing-in of the nights. The sun is hurrying to bed with unseemly haste — four minutes earlier each evening, as the autumn equinox approaches.

But there are consolations. September brings ripening fruit, autumn flowers, and some very pleasant days. And robins are singing again, a slow, short trickle of sweetness to brighten the cool mornings.

September 8 is an important date for an old Staffordshire village. It’s the day of what is probably England’s oldest surviving custom: the Abbot’s Bromley Horn Dance.

At 7.30 the dancers collect six sets of antlers from the parish church. Ahead of them stretches a ten-mile dance tour of houses, pubs and farms, before they return the antlers in the evening.

The Deer Men’s dance is rather stately, and who can blame them as the heaviest set of antlers weighs 25lbs. With them there’s a Fool, a Hobby-horse, a Bowman, and Maid Marian (a man in a medieval-style gown). Today a melodeon provides the music; a century ago it was a fiddle and earlier still, the pipe and tabor.

Nobody knows how old the dance is. There are claims for 1226, although the earliest record is from 1532 when the dance was performed at Christmas. Understandably, the Horn Dance lapsed during the Civil War, but a good description aided its restoration in the early eighteenth century.

The biggest puzzle is the antlers. Red deer antlers were easy to come by in Staffordshire and yet someone went to the trouble of sourcing antlers from an animal long extinct in Britain — radiocarbon dating has shown that a reindeer cast one of the sets around 1065. But that still doesn’t tell us when the antlers came to Abbots Bromley.

While the custom is unique in Europe, there is a record of men dancing with reindeer antlers in seventeenth-century Iceland. Perhaps the dance does have a link with the far north, after all.

Moonstruck

The harvest moon is the name given to the full moon closest to the autumn equinox. This year it will fall on the night of September 8 to 9.

The full moon always rises around sunset. Then on each night following it rises about 50 minutes later. But after the Harvest Moon it comes up sooner than this, because it is rising further north along the eastern horizon.

This gives moonlight from dusk till dawn for several days, which was a tremendous boon in the past to harvest workers rushing to beat the weather. Under the harvest moon the shadows are stark, but there’s more than enough light to see what you’re doing.

Our ancestors found the moon somewhat mysterious, and no wonder. How high the moon climbs, and the points on the horizon where it rises and sets, are variable because of the relation of its orbit to the earth. A complete cycle through all the variations in the moon’s orbit takes 18.6 years.

So the moon comes and goes, grows and shrinks, and disappears. But it always comes back. From light to dark to light, from life to death to life, the moon is reborn in an eternal circle.