The Abbots Bromley Horn Dance

One part of many winter Revels performances that captures the mystery of mid-winter celebration is the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, an age-old procession of 10 figures, still done each September in Abbots Bromley in Staffordshire, England. In that long-standing local ritual, six men carry sets of caribou horns, followed by a hobby horse, a man dressed as a woman, a boy with a bow and arrow, and a fool who periodically dings a small triangle. The dance is serpentine and includes a figure in which lines of five dancers each approach and retire and cross and repeat, with some clashing of the horns. This is done in the Revels to a haunting tune first notated in the 1850's by an Abbots Bromley resident, William Robinson who said it was old in his time.

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The horns in Abbots Bromley, which for the rest of the year hang on the walls of the local church, have been carbon dated to 1065. At least one historian of the dance has identified them with an 11th century monk named Wulfric, counselor to King Ethelred and founder of a Benedictine Abbey on whose land the village was founded in 1004. He speculates that the horns were from caribou brought in by Vikings, possibly those against whom Wulfric defended Mercia in 1010. Nothing is known of the dance in that early time, or even if there was such a dance then.

The earliest reference in writing appeared in 1686, when Dr. Robert Plot, in A Natural History of Staffordshire, described a dance he called "the hobby horse dance," involving six sets of caribou horns and a hobby horse. At that time, the dance was done at Christmas. Since the 19th century, the dance has been performed on the Monday after the first Sunday after September 4th, for reasons no one knows. It is an all-day dance, with local processions in town and travel to outlying areas. There is much food, drink, singing, and general social merriment throughout the day, and the horns are then retired to the church to wait another year.

The dance was adapted to The Christmas Revels by John Langstaff. Its appeal is the appeal of ancient ritual: it cannot be explained, only experienced, with no ready understanding of the figures or the movements except a sense that it has to do with hunting and takes us back to a time when, in a rural setting where hunting was crucial to survival, some even more ancient invocation to the hunt's victim was practiced every winter, and always in the same way.