Sunday, January 17, 2010

Straw man

On Saturday I went into a neighbouring county to see an ancient custom that is held every winter (the custom is not entirely continuous - there was a break for about seventy years before it was revived almost exactly as it had been before).

The custom involves the creation of a man of straw (actually someone dressed up in sheaves of straw) who is paraded through the town and generally celebrated before the straw is burnt in a ritual bonfire. Traditionally a ploughboy was used as the straw man. The expression "straw man" means to create a scapegoat or proxy on which all the ills of a community are placed and then destroyed.

Above: the event has become a folk gathering of some magnitude, with twenty-eight teams of Morris dancers, Molly dancers and Sword dancers performing throughout the town (in the dismal grey weather). The pubs in the town were a focus of these dances. Here you can see some Morris dancers enjoying a drink outside the Black Bull.

Above: in the market place was a plough decorated for the Plough Day celebrations (although technically Plough Day is the Monday following the first Sunday of the year). Later this plough was taken in the procession, immediately behind the straw man. The straw used to decorate these ploughs should be the last sheaf to be harvested the previous summer.

Above: "Old Glory" Molly dancers. The men are dressed in labourer's clothes, in what seems to be an expression of traditional working class culture. The faces are blacked as a disguise (in the past these celebrations were frowned upon by the landowners, mainly because of the heavy drinking and riotous behaviour that accompanied it).

Above: the band of the Old Glory molly dancers. The band consists entirely of women, with blackened faces, wearing heavy black clothes, and wearing hats trimmed with masses of ivy. We are used to the Cecil Sharp / Percy Grainger prettified version of English folk culture - Old Glory recreates the more primeval (and slightly sinister) original tradition.

Above: the straw man leading one of the processions through the town (he has turned to look back).

Above: following on behind the straw man and the plough came the various folk dancers.

Above: more of the procession, which gives you an idea of its picturesque appearance.

Formerly these customs were widespread throughout the country (and all of Europe). Sir James Frazer writes at some length in The Golden Bough about the creation of straw representations of the corn deity (at one point identified with the "dying god" Adonis). In this case the "sacrifice" of the straw man is meant to ensure the fertility of the soil, the return of warm weather, and the prospect of a good harvest in the summer months to come.

More about Old Glory:

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