The Wild Hunt Bedlam Morris team was formed in September, 1991, meeting appropriately in the shadow of a hill known as Bedlams Bank at Merstham in Surrey. The name of our team is taken from a legend with ancient origins deeply rooted in myth and race memory across much of Northern and Central Europe and this is reflected in our style of dancing and the kit we wear.
The Wild Hunt was said to sweep over fields and through woodland in the dead of night, preceded by a pack of coal black hounds with glowing red eyes accompanied by the wild calls of hunting horns. At times, the hunt was said to take to the air riding on the chill night winds. Odin was said to lead the hunt in Teutonic myth and the quarry was a beautiful maiden. In Celtic Britain, the hunt was led by Cernunnos, the horned god of animals, whose name lives on in place names beginning with Cerne such as Cerne Abbas in Dorset – home of the chalk giant. In English legend, the quarry is a stag of purest white.
The Wild Hunt is a ‘mixed’ team dancing in the energetic, noisy and more exuberant Border tradition with men and women dancers and musicians. We wear ‘tatters’ – tattered jackets predominantly black interspersed with green rags for men and red for women. Many Border sides dance with blacked-up faces, but The Wild Hunt is a masked side, an alternative that was believed to be unique when it was introduced, but has now been copied by other sides. Battery-powered light emitting diodes just above the eye sockets glow red when dancing at dusk, but the team also has its own Green Man, Graham Hyde, who wears special kit and has eyes that flash green in the darkness.
Our dances blend ancient North European mythology with our own interpretation of English Bedlam Morris and several portray the legend of the Green Man. We aim to capture some of the original mystique and provide a magical experience for our audience with the emphasis on drama and spectacle. The team performs about twice a month on average from April to December and apart from performing at local pubs, also takes part in folk festivals and other exciting events around the country.
Take a look at our website: www.wildhunt.org.uk
Here is a story that Taffy Thomas M.B.E. (The Lakeland Storyteller) often tells in the Storyteller’s Garden in Grasmere at Christmas time. Following the tale, the song is sung, similar to the one posted below by Bruce, and mulled cider is passed around the assembled company in a Wassail Cup.
Taffy originally hails from Somerset and he tells the tale in dialect:
THE APPLE-TREE MAN
There was this hard-working chap that was eldest of a long family, see, so when his dad died there wasn’t anything left for him. Youngest gets it all, and he gave bits and pieces to all his kith; but he don’t like eldest, see, so all he lets him have is his dad’s old dunk (donkey), and an ox that was gone to anatomy (a skeleton), and a tumbledown cottage with two or three ancient old apple trees where his dad had lived with his grandfer.
The chap doesn’t grumble but he goes on cutting grass along the lane, and the old dunk began to fatten, and he rubs the ox with herbs and says the old words, and the old ox he perks himself up walks smart, and then he turns his beasts into the orchard, and those old apple trees begin to flourish a marvel.
But all this work doesn’t leave him time to find the rent. Oh yes, the youngest has to have his rent. Dap on the dot too!
Then one day the youngest comes into the orchard and says, “Twill be Christmas Eve come tomorrow, when beasts do talk. There’s a treasure hereabouts we’ve all heard tell, and I’m set to ask your dunk where it is. He mustn’t refuse to tell me. You wake me just afore midnight and I’ll take a whole sixpence off the rent.”
Come Christmas Eve, the chap he gave the old dunk and ox a bit extra and he fixed a bit of holly in the shippen (cattle-shed), and he got his last mug of cider, and mulled it in the ashes, and went out to the orchard to give it to the apple trees.
At nightfall, who should come wandering into the orchard but the little cat from down Tib’s Farm. Not much more than kitten, her were, dairymaid of a cat. And you know what they say about curiosity and the cat? Well here she were, wandering about the orchard in the ‘owl-light’ when out popped the Apple-Tree Man! And he said to the cat, “You get on home, my dear! This is no place for you. There’s folks coming tonight to pour cider through my roots and fire guns through my branches. You get on home, and don’t you come back here before St.Tib’s Eve!”
Well the little kitten ran off with her tail stiff with fright. Properly scared, she were and she didn’t come back at nightfall, never no more – ’cause she didn’t know when St. Tib’s Eve were!
When the older brother came, the Apple-Tree Man was a-waiting for him and he calls to the chap and he says, “You take a look under this great diddicky root of ours. You’ll find a chest full of the finest gold. ‘Tis yours and no one else’s”, he says. “Put it away safe and bide quiet about it”. So the chap did that. “Now you can go and call your brother”, says the Apple-Tree Man, “’Tis midnight.”
Well, the the youngest brother he ran out in a terrible hurry-push and sure enough the dunk’s a-talking to the ox. “You know this great greedy fool that’s a-listening to us, so unmannerly, he wants us to tell him where the treasure is hid to’” “And that’s where he won’t ever get it”, said the ox, “’cause someone has taken it already!”
You can hear Taffy telling this story on his CD “Tell Someone a Story for Christmas”. Check it out here: http://www.taffythomas.co.uk/frame1.html
Posted by Leslie Melville www.thestorytelling-resource-centre.com
The ancient tradition of ‘Wassailing’ the apple trees on the 17th January (Old Twelfth Night) is particularly associated with Somerset and the South West of England, and is one of a number of folk customs termed ‘Wassailing’. In this instance the aim of the wassail is threefold, to drive evil spirits out of the orchard, to invite the good spirits in and to wake the apple trees up from their winter slumber. It is also a time to drink copious amounts of scrumpy cider and have a pig roast and a bonfire.
The evil spirits are dealt with easily enough by banging on pots and pans, blowing whistles and maybe firing off a shotgun or two. This accomplished the wassilers now sing to the apple trees to wake them up. There are many traditional wassailing songs and different localities have there own versions. The song below is sung each year at the Butchers Arms pub in Carhampton, Somerset, where they claim to have the oldest continuous apple tree wassail in the country, and is a fairly typical example.
Old apple tree, we wassail thee
And hope that you wilt bear
For the Gods doth know where we shall be
Come apples another year
To bloom well and to bear well
So merry let us be
Let every man take off his hat
And shout out to the old apple tree
Old apple tree, we wassail thee
And hope that you will bear
Hatfuls, capfuls, three bushel bagfuls
And a little heap under the stair
Three cheers for the old apple tree:
Hip, hip, hooray
Hip, hip, hooray
Hip, hip, hooray
Obviously the ‘little heap under the stair’ is more cider brewing. In some ceremonies the trunk of the tree is knocked on hard with a stick to help wake the tree. This may also have the beneficial effect of dislodging harmful insects. Finally the good spirit of the orchard is invited in. The good spirit is not, however, represented by our old friend the Green Man, but rather by the robin. Toast soaked in cider is hung amongst the branches of the trees as an offering to the birds. The robins are also very good at hoovering up any parasitic insects that were dislodged the previous night.
Wassailing the apple trees as a custom very nearly died out in the late 20th century, but clung on in Carhampton and a handful of orchards across Somerset. In recent years, however, there has been something of a Renaissance in these folk customs and wassails have been cropping up right across the West Country and even further a field. But what is the antiquity of this custom? The term wassail is derived from two Old English components, namely ‘waes’ and ‘hael’, meaning literally ‘good health’. The traditional reply to this ancient toast was supposed to be ‘drinc hael!’ and is first recorded in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain written c.1140. Some authors dispute this and see ‘waes hael – drinc hael’ as a 12th century confection rather than a genuine Anglo-Saxon toast. In The English Year (2006) Steve Roud looks at the linguistic evidence.
‘Wassail as a general salutation existed in Old Norse as well as in Old English, but the use of the word as a drinking toast is not found in any of the Teutonic languages, and appears to be a peculiarly English formation from the Eleventh or Twelfth century… Later use of the word, in the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries, show that it had undergone a considerable extension of meaning, with wassail meaning a party, or the drink that was enjoyed there, or the words said when drinking, or even the songs that were sung.’
This is no doubt the reason that we have a plethora of folk customs all termed ‘Wassailing’ and is why we cannot trace the antiquity of wassailing the apple trees through etymology. My personal feeling is that the ceremony pre-dates the name given to it and I strongly suspect pre-Christian and possibly pre-English roots.* And where is my evidence to support this claim? Well that, like the origin of the Green Man, is proving rather elusive.
[*] The expansion of the English kingdom of Wessex into the territory of Dumnonia, a British kingdom which encompassed south Somerset, Devon and Dorset, only happened late in the 7th century, by which time Wessex had officially converted to Christianity.
One of two Green Men located on St Margaret’s Street in Bradford on Avon Wiltshire today. I’m unable to find references to them in any other source. Both have been added to the Gazetteer, the flickr gallery and the map, all accessible via:
They are set either side of a porch on a private house on this busy street. They appear fairly modern but as yet I have no date for them. Pictured above is the least damaged of the two.
Posted by COTGM Member Leslie Melville.
Prior to 1939 and Lady Raglan’s view that the foliate head carvings in churches and cathedrals should be called ‘Green Men’, these carvings had no known name – they were merely sculptured decorations, created by the stone-masons of the time that the churches were being built. If this is true, why would the Christian Church allow Pagan images to adorn the walls and ceilings of their most Holy places?
It has been suggested that maybe the sculptures were subversive protests by Pagan stone-masons who resented the usurping by Christian priests of their Old Religion and that church leaders were unaware of their real significance.
In 2004 at the Lakeland Storytelling Festival, Mike O’Connor, storyteller/musician and Cornish Bard, told a story that suggested to me a different answer; one that I have not seen proposed in any of the many books that I have read on the subject. The story comes from ‘The Cornish Ordinalia’.
The Cornish Ordinalia.
The Ordinalia is a religious drama-cycle written by an anonymous cleric at Glasney College in the fourteenth century. First written in the Cornish/Celtic language, the Ordinalia consists of three plays that together tell the stories of the bible from Genesis to Revelation.
Running through the whole and interwoven with the Scriptural narrative comes the beautiful and curious Legend of the Cross. The legend, most of which is in the dramas, is this.
“When Adam found himself dying, he sent his youngest son Seth to the Gates of Paradise to beg of the angel that guarded them the oil of mercy, that his father might live. The angel let him look into Paradise, where he saw many strange and beautiful fore-shadowings of things that should be upon the earth; and the angel gave him three seeds from the Tree of Life, and he departed. When he came to where his father was, he found that he was already dead, and he laid the three seeds in his mouth, and buried him therewith on Mount Moriah; and in process of time the three seeds grew into three small trees…………
…….. and Abraham took of the wood thereof for the sacrifice of Isaac his son; and afterwards Moses’ rod, wherewith he smote the rock, was made from one of their branches. And soon the three trees grew together into one tree, whereby was symbolised the mystery of the Trinity; and under its branches sat King David when Nathan the Prophet came to him, and there he bewailed his sin, and made the Miserere Psalm. And Solomon, when he would build the Temple on Mount Sion, cut down the tree, which was then as one of the chiefest of the cedars of Lebanon, and bid men make a beam thereof; but it would in no wise fit into its place, howsoever much they cut it to its shape. Therefore Solomon was wroth, and bid them cast it over the brook Cedron as a bridge, so that all might tread upon it that went that way. But after a while he buried it, and over where it lay there came the Pool Bethesda with its healing powers; and when our Lord came on earth the beam floated up to the surface of the pool, and the Jews found it, and made thereof the Cross whereon Christ died on Calvary”.
The significant section is the one before the row of dots and cover the significant part of the legend. It is doubtful that the ‘anonymous cleric’ referred to above, actually invented this story. Passion & Mystery plays were popular during medieval times and it is likely that the same tale appeared elsewhere and was fairly well known.
Is it not therefore possible that this image of an old man with twigs and leaves growing from his mouth, eyes and ears etc. is in fact Adam as depicted in the story?
There doesn’t need to be any major conflict between this tale and the significance of the Green Man concept of Death and Rebirth.
In the building of a medieval church however, it does seem to me that the image of Adam in whatever form is a more likely one than that of a Pagan icon.
This fantastic story was posted by COTGM member Leslie Melville
Several hundred years ago a group of monks came from France to the Cartmel Valley, in Lancashire. Their task was to build a great church. They were led by a monk whose name was Bernard.
Bernard climbed a hill, which he thought to be a suitable site, for churches are often found upon hilltops, overlooking the community who worship there.
He knelt in prayer, asking for guidance. When he looked up he saw the tall, bearded figure of a man dressed all in green. Not only was he dressed in green – he was green! Even his hair and beard seemed to made of tiny green leaves.
“This is not the place you seek”, said the man. “How do you know what I seek?” asked Bernard.
“This is a place of worship for those of the Old Religion”, replied the man in green, ignoring Bernard’s question. “You should build your church on land that lies between two rivers flowing in opposite directions – to build here will cause great offence”.
Bernard climbed to his feet and from his lofty viewpoint, surveyed the valley below. “Two rivers, flowing in opposite directions?” He had never heard such nonsense. He knew, as we all do that all rivers flow to the sea! He turned to say as much but to his surprise, found that the green man was gone, nowhere to be seen! Bernard wondered if he had imagined him. He nevertheless felt that he had to share his strange experience with his colleagues and he descended the hill to find them.
They were equally as puzzled but felt, as Bernard himself felt that the advice of the green stranger should not lightly be ignored. They knew that their God wanted them to build in this locality and so set out to find these rivers. If they existed, God would lead them to the place.
Two days later, an excited novice monk came running to Bernard. “Come”, he said, “this is amazing!” Bernard followed the young man who led him to a narrow river. “Watch this”. The young novice picked up a small stick and tossed it into the swiftly flowing stream. The stick was quickly picked up in the current and headed off down stream, towards Morecambe Bay.
“Now come and see this!” The young man began running towards another river, some half-mile further along the valley. Bernard had difficulty keeping up with the excited novice monk. “Now, watch!” he said when Bernard arrived by his side at the riverbank.
He picked up another small branch and threw it out into the centre of the river. Bernard was amazed to see the stick actually flowing in the opposite direction, away from Morecambe Bay and heading towards Lake Windermere!
Bernard fell to his knees in thankful prayer. Through the young novice monk, God had guided him to a place that he had not believed existed.
The land between the two rivers was flat and ideal for the building of a great church. His team began their work and two years later, Cartmel Priory was complete and stands to this day.
If you go to the village of Cartmel, you can see for yourself the two rivers that continue to flow in opposite directions. Throw a stick in each and watch them as they are carried along the currents, one heading for Morecambe Bay and the other speeding towards Lake Windermere.
If you care to visit the beautiful priory, you will be able to see an image of the green man, carved on a misericord in the choir stalls. You may also climb the hill where the green man dispensed his advice; there is a signpost that will direct you to Mount Bernard!
Leslie Melville www.thestorytelling-resource-centre.com
When he began carving, COTGM member Mick Waterhouse turned to churches to find what he considered the finest of the craft to study and copy. It was there that he came across the archetypal “Green Man” image that has appeared in architecture and decoration through the ages.
This Image, the combination of foliage with faces and the human form, runs through much of his work and expresses his feelings on the significance of man’s influence on and place in the organic cycle, as well as hinting at an ancient mystecism that medieval craftsmen left in their work.
Mick works in locally found timbers, especially Oak, which he finds lends itself to the “tooled” finish he prefers. You can see more of Mick’s work on our flickr site or at: http://www.sculptureatbicester.org.uk/MickWaterhousePersonalPage.html