Theodish Thoughts

Musings on Theodism, religion, mythology, history, and contemporary Heathenry

Category: dance

Mummer’s Plays and Morris Dancing!

Well this was a wonderful surprise in my YouTube subscriptions today. Just in from Gering Heall, home of the King of the Gearings and founder of Theodism, Garman Lord, we have this wonderful Robin Goodfellow Mummer’s Play, with two pieces of Morris Dancing as entr’acte, from earlier this month.

Going through the content briefly, having the explanation not only of Mumming in general, but the specific themes present in this particular play, was perfect. Didn’t weigh down the audience with a lot of facts, but gave just enough to perceive the significance of what was being presented.

The interspersed Morris Dancing was also really nice, giving a quick break for the actors in the play to get ready for the next act, as well as giving the audience a diversion-within-a-diversion.

I personally find these sorts of activities wonderful additions to Heathen ritual events. Not necessarily as part of the ritual itself (although sacral dramas could certainly qualify), but as light-yet-significant entertainments (significant because of the hidden mysteries in the symbolism and dialogue of the plays themselves) to keep the assembled folk centered on the day, rather than on their phones. Plus it beats the monotony of yet another round of axe-tossing or kubb, while at the same time imparting wisdom for those who would seek it.

I’ve been banging this particular drum for years, of course, and have had some small success in bringing such things to my local community. I would love to see these sorts of traditions get much wider traction, and become a staple in gatherings both large and small.

As a caveat, it’s worth noting that there is nothing to indicate that Morris Dancing or Mummer’s Plays as we know them today date from the pre-Christian period. While there are some tantalizing possibilities, the threads are just too thin to hold up to casual pulling. But the pedigree of plays, guising, and dance as a general thing in Germanic Heathenry is undoubted, and when one is uncertain of the historical form, there’s no reason not to pull in something with deep roots in English custom.

EDIT 5/30/19 (and beyond): I replaced the original video with a longer version that was posted today on the same channel. It has the same Mummer’s Play and Morris dancing, but opens with a “Beating the bounds” ritual to hallow the area, shows a brief sumbl in honor of the King, and ends with a fire dance and a 19th century English garland dance.

Ritual analysis I: Samfundet forn Sed Sverige

As my regular readers will doubtless remember, I’m keen on ritual. I love seeing how different people do their rituals, and I love to see what works and what does not. I’d like to take some time to analyze in depth the way different groups do things, and I’d like to start with the following Vårblot (spring sacrifice) as performed by the Samfundet forn Sed Sverige (a Swedish Heathen group) in 2014. It’s in Swedish, but I don’t think you need subtitles to figure out what’s going on.

0:00 – First some general things about the start. I love the procession to the actual site of the ritual, and I love the ubiquitous music used throughout the ritual (I’ll be harping about the music throughout this analysis). 
1:03 – I note that the folk gather in a circle for the ritual itself, which seems to be just the standard default setting for any large ritual (and I daresay seems to be an import from Wicca or ceremonial magick), although I can’t say I know of anything specifically in the lore that mentions it. On a practical level, it does give everyone a good view of what’s going on, but it’s not something that is particularly historical.
1:09 – See that tarp in the foreground? That’s actually an integral part of the ritual, and one which I absolutely love. More on it, and what’s under it, later. The music continues, setting the mood as one of celebration and joy.
1:27 – I love the Freyr god-post on the left. Now THAT’s a priapic Freyr! I note that a few other people (dispersed equally around the circle?) also have similar representations of gods and goddesses.
2:31 – Sounding of the horn to call the group to attention. And it doesn’t sound like a moose stuck in quicksand. Nice.
3:15 – Note that the priest is cross-dressed, which indicates he is dedicated to Freyja. Also note the starting of the nyd-fire for the ritual. I would not be a bit surprised if there were nine types of wood used for that fire. 
3:27 – This is where we start to really take off. Rather than just let everyone stand around while the nydfire is lit, the priest starts a chant that is taken up by the assembled folk, giving them something to do rather than stand around awkwardly. It also adds a bit of religious significance to this part of the ritual. It’s a simple chant with a simple melody, so after a couple of repetitions, anyone in attendance could join in. Really nice.
4:20 – The drums have joined in, folks are clapping, and now the assembled folk are being blessed with the mead (?) by sprinkling them with a sprig of evergreen. I can’t say how much I love this. Compared to just standing around waiting while each person gets a personal blessing, this is wonderful. It’s joyous, and it’s fun, and it keeps everyone occupied until its their turn.
5:30  – I do believe this is one of the few times the altar is actually used, when she puts the cup of mead (?) on it after everyone has been blessed. The people are the focus of the ritual, not the altar. Interesting, but see also 22:25.
5:45 – He says something funny, and folks are laughing. It’s not all grim and serious. Now begins what I think is an explanation of the purpose for the rite. 
7:03 – Neat “singing bowl” technique. I think that’s Tibetan. Certainly has a haunting tone. I do like the fact that he’s singing, rather than just reciting. 
10:06 – And then the bells kick in and it keeps things interesting while he’s speaking. Again, sound to keep people from being bored. 
12:40 – Get everyone involved, this time with clapping, and then the call-and-response. Just because someone is speaking doesn’t mean everyone else needs to stand their silent and stock-still. 
15:18 – I love this bit. This is when “Spring”, who has been under the tarp in the foreground all along, wakes up. I’d characterize this bit as a sacral drama, as the assembled folk attempt to wake up Spring, who, like a teenager on the first day of school, doesn’t want to get up. And to accomplish this we have another very simple chant that anyone can join in with, supported by the drums. Beautiful.
18:30 – Spring gets flirty. We’re a sex-positive religion, after all.
22:25 – Music is in full swing while people offer grain to the god-images on the altar. Again, not just a silent and grim affair.
23:40 – Here is perhaps my only problem with the ritual – the unnecessary combination of the blot and sumble. Drinking toasts in ritual is the province of the sumble rite; they’ve already made their offerings, and it seems unnecessary.
27:00 – The horn sounds the end of the ritual, neatly bookending the same thing at 2:31.
27:35 – And a joyous “Yahoo”. Laughter, enthusiasm, and fun. And then they end up with a sort of circle dance. 
All in all, there’s a lot to love about the way this ritual was done. The music, the fun atmosphere, the dancing, the element of drama with Spring being awoken, the chants and songs giving the folk some involvement while things were being done that did not immediately affect them; there’s a lot of great ritual-craft here. 

Performance in Ritual

“Furthermore, the incantations customarily chanted in the ritual of a sacrifice of this kind are manifold and unseemly; therefore, it is better to keep silence about them.” – History of the Bishops of Hamburg-Bremen, bk. IV

No Christian on the feast of Saint John  or the solemnity of any other saint performs solestitia or dancing or leaping or diabolical chants. … Diabolical games and dancing or chants of the gentiles will be forbidden. No Christian will do them because he thus makes himself pagan. Nor is it right that diabolical canticles should proceed from a Christian mouth.” – Life of St. Elegius

That our ancestors filled their celebrations and sacrifices with dancing and song is well-attested in the written sources. There is also strong evidence to support the notion that ritual dramas were also enacted, and even that some of the Eddaic poems are scripts or models for just such dramas.

But, for some reason, modern Asatru hasn’t embraced this aspect of our ancestors’ practice, for the most part. Our rituals tend to be staid, pretty dull affairs in and of themselves, even if an occasional game of kubb might break out at a weekend gathering to liven things up.

I’m a big believer in using music and dance and drama in ritual, and using drama as ritual, and have been for years. In the (now-defunct) Arfstoll Theod, we did a big May Day celebration a few years ago that included a Maypole dance (with live music) and a sacral drama called the Return of Odin (part of a three-part cycle of ritual dramas dealing with Odin being deposed as king of Asgard, Ullr taking over temporarily during the Yuletide, and then Odin’s return to power in the spring):

And, more recently, at this year’s Yule celebration, the Skylands Asatru Fellowship started our Yuleblót with traditional animal guising, punctuated by a Wild Hunt, which picked off the various animals, saving the Yulebok (Yule Goat) for last, who offered himself as a sacrifice to the Gods. After the offering was completed, we danced around the fire-pit to the Thirty Year Jig.

Animal guising

Dancing ’round the fire

But I am very pleased to say that I’m not the only person out there who sees the value of this sort of “joyous” or “performance-based” ritual.

The Chase Hill Folk, a Heathen community in southern Vermont, enthusiastically embraces the use of music and song in their rituals. Lynn and Will Rowan gave an absolutely terrific workshop on the subject at last year’s Trothmoot, and they have released two songbooks (“Hail, the Turning Year!” and “Yule Songs” – a song from which I used in my own Mother Night celebration this past Yule) as well as a CD (“Sing the Sun’s Return: Wassails and Carols for Yuletide“, which accompanies the aforementioned “Yule Songs” book). Music apparently plays a central part in their rituals, and I long for the day when I can be present at one. Their energy, talent, and enthusiasm at the Trothmoot workshop was amazing.

Eirik Westcoat has written a ritual drama around the theft of Idun’s apples. I don’t know if it’s ever been performed, but it seems like a perfect thing to do for a fall celebration. UPDATE: Several of Eirik’s ritual dramas have been performed by the Hearth of Yggdrasil, near Pittsburgh, PA, including that one. Pics of one event with such a performance can be found here. Another work of his was done as a dramatic reading (rather than a staged performance) at Winternights in the Poconos 2012. A print edition of his three ritual dramas is in the works – when it is released, I’ll be sure to announce it.

Ron Boardman of Othala Acres Farm in New Hampshire has also been known to incorporate Morris Dancing in a Heathen context. I’m not sure if he still does it, but if so, I’d like to know about it! This is him at a non-Heathen event in 2011:

I know that AFA Winternights and East Coast Thing usually have a couple of music groups performing, but not as part of ritual; more like a separate part of the event. Which is fine, but not quite what I’m looking for.

There are a ton of Heathen musicians out there; it would be impossible to list them all. But with all that music out there, I’m hard pressed to think of any examples in my experience where the music was integrated into the ritual experience itself (other than some drumming, occasionally).

So I put out the call – anyone know any other examples of song, or dance, or ritual drama being used as part of ritual in a Heathen context? If so, let us know in the comments. This is a long-underserved area of Heathen ritual, and one I’m eager to see get more exposure.

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