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Maids, Moors, and Monsters

Maids, Moors, and Monsters

The Folklore of Morris 

by Richard Freeman.

Few people who have seen Morris men dancing on a village green or in a pub garden realise the complexity and antiquity of the dance they are witnessing. The pleasant spectacle has a history that stretches back thousands of years and is peopled by grotesque and sometimes disturbing characters. Morris is a dance of gods and monsters, of forgotten rituals and secret brotherhoods. Once you have studied the background of Morris you will never look on this 'quaint' English custom in quite the same way again.

One of the commonest explanations for the name 'Morris' is that it is derived from 'Moorish.' Some Morris men, such as those in the Cotswolds town of Bampton, dance with blackened faces, possibly representing the Arab foes from the time of the crusades. We must remember that in those days an average Englishman had never set eyes on a non-European. Hence, a dark-skinned man would be a thing not easily forgotten.

In England true Morris dancing is confined to the counties that fall under what was the kingdom of Saxon Mercia. This includes the Cotswolds and the Welsh borders. Danish Mercia and Northumberland have the radically different sword dances (although many still retain mummer-type characters). so it is to pre-Christian Britain we must now turn.

Celtic horse goddess Rhiannon
Celtic horse goddess Rhiannon

The Morris dance seems to have links to the Celtic horse goddess Rhiannon. She is one of the many manifestations of the triple-faced goddess who can appear as a maid, a mother or a hag. This reflects both changing seasons and the three ages of womanhood. Rhiannon is usually portrayed as a beautiful young woman in white, adorned with bells and ribbons. She might be interpreted as the 'fair lady' in the rhyme `Ride a cock `oss`

Ride a cock `oss to Banbury Cross
To see a fair lady upon a white horse
With rings on her fingers and bells on her toes
She shall have music were ever she goes.

Rhiannon was linked to fertility cults and fairs were held on Beltane at Crouch Hill in Oxfordshire and on April 13th at Giant`s Cave. The Morris men`s attire may have been inspired by Rhiannon`s. The first proto-morris dances in England may have been held at these fairs. The dance was probably a form of ritual worship and the garb worn that of the priests of Rhiannon. After the Christanisation of England such events would have been dammed as 'witches sabbats' and the like. To survive they had to change.

The ancient rituals carried on in disguise. A good Cotswolds example is found at the town of Charlton on Ottmoor. The Celts paraded a figure of Blodeuedd, the flower maiden created by Gerydion, to be the wife of Lleu in Celtic mythology. Under the Christians Blodeuedd became the Virgin Mary and her rituals a dance. In later centuries the rite incurred the wrath of the puritans who destroyed the fine figure of the Virgin that graced St Mary`s church. The dance and procession survived, however. Today a female figure is made from branches and carried through the streets on May Day.

The Green Man
The Green Man

On May Day the Morris men of Oxford are accompanied by a gigantic verdant figure; a towering wicker framework covered in a shaggy coating of leaves and vines. This is the Green Man or Jack-in-the-Green, one of the dramatic personae of Morris. He is an old archetype, a spirit of the woods and wild places. He is seen as a protector of the wilderness and forest. One Celtic tradition was the battle of the Oak King and the Holly King who fight with clubs for dominance. The Oak king wins in spring the Holly King with the onset of winter. His transition into the Christian era was seamless. He graces many churches and cathedrals in the form of bosses, carvings and miserycords. Here he is generally portrayed as a green face spewing leaves and vegetation. There are many Green Man pubs whose signs show a vegetable giant, usually wielding a great club.

The Fool
The Fool

Another important character is the fool. Most Cotswold Morris teams are accompanied by a jester, clown or fool. Usually he is armed with a bladder on a stick. His purpose is to remind us of the essentially silly nature of existence with his capering. Self-mocking, he often plays other characters like old men and the doctor in mumming plays. It is often the fool who is killed and resurrected. Despite his clownish nature the fool is the leader of the whole affair. We can track his genesis back to various trickster gods. Most pantheons have such a deity who delights in chaos and pranks. These include Loki in Norse mythology, Pan from Greece and the Coyote from the legends of the American Indians.

The Sword Dance

The Sword Dance

Many Cotswold Morris dancers have a sword bearer who dances outside of the ring with a cake impaled upon a large sword. He gives slices of the cake to all women in the audience. Some have suggested that the sword bearer is of Phoenician origin. The Phoenicians traded with the ancient Britains for tin and had several settlements. They also practiced human and animal sacrifice. In the city of Carthage hundreds of victims were butchered to appease Bal-Hamoron, god of the city. Victims would fall into the bloody upturned palms of a gigantic statue of the ram-horned god. This sacrifice was not alien to early Morris men. A stag was hunted on Whitsun in the forest of Wychwood and its flesh eaten as a sacrament by the Morris men.

One could easily write a whole volume on the folklore of Morris and I have only scratched the surface. What seems to us now a jolly bit of fun on a sunny day once had deep religious meaning. Within the dance hide many mysteries like the beasts of the wild wood and only by pushing deeper in to the tangled forest that is the Morris dance, can we begin to unravel them.

Richard FreemanRichard Freeman, cryptozoologist, author, explorer, adventurer, and Zoological Director of The Centre for Fortean Zoology, the world’s largest mystery animal research organisation.  He is the author of ‘Dragon’s More than a Myth’, ‘Explore Dragons and soon to be published ‘The Great Yokai Encyclopedia: An A to Z of Japanese Monsters’.  He has also co-written, or edited a number of books, and has contributed widely to both Fortean and zoological magazines, as well as other newspapers and periodicals, including Fortean Times, Paranormal Magazine.

Copyright - Richard Freeman 2010

Article updated Saturday 27th March 2010