19th-century Folklorists Have a Lot to Answer For: 1

OK, so.


Halloween is coming up, and that means I’m going to talk about 19th-century folklorists and their influence on how we think of the spooky and the marginal in European history. You may want to cover your ears.

Let me start with this cool photograph of a “wild man” from some European folk festival or other. Doesn’t he look awesome? He’s by far not the awesomest, either, and I recommend that you go over to the site of photographer Charles Fréger, click on the menu and select “Wilder Mann,” then spend some time enjoying some great monstrous costumes.


What I don’t recommend you do is pay attention to any of that guff you’ll read on the various sites that have reblogged these images about how these are an interesting survival of paganism or whatever. There are a whole series of mistakes being made here, and I’m not going to go into them all, but just … let me …

let me take a high-level perspective here. In England, just for example, Anglo-Saxon paganism was pretty much done for as a national religion by oh, say, 800 AD or so. 900, tops. It had only been the religion of the country for a few hundred years — the country has been Christian, historically speaking, much, much longer than it ever was pagan in the Anglo-Saxon sense. There may have been a few Romano-British pagans kicking around in the 5th century (although paganism was illegal throughout the Roman Empire by that time, so there won’t have been that many of them), but mainly it was predominantly Christian.

So, if we’re talking about survivals of paganism, we’re talking about something that has thrived, in secret, for more than a thousand years — that’s 2.5 times as long as it was ever a successful public religion, bear in mind — without anybody noticing until some folklorists came along and went “yup, paganism.”

Now, I’m not saying that there aren’t any aspects of culture that have some influences from pagan culture. I’m just saying that what we actually have here is a misapplication of the term “pagan.” (As a side note, the OE word “heathen” has a wide variety of different applications, ranging from “pagan” to just “not Christian,” ie secular, but that’s another story.) I’m just saying that the evidence, to most people who have studied the subject in the modern day, seems to point in a different direction. And that direction is that Victorian folklorists were a bunch of Romantic dumbheads (ah, Romanticism, is there anything that isn’t your fault?).

Let me give you an example that I’ve had someone use personally to me (well, on the internet, but close enough). It is also something that is discussed (a bit) in Ronald Hutton’s excellent Stations of the Sun, such that when I read it I went “I knew it!” That example is the Hooden Horse.


That’s the Hooden Horse, a horse puppet that is paraded through the streets of towns in East Kent collecting donations. It used to be that the donations went to agricultural labourers during the lean part of the year, although these days all the money goes to charity in a more official form. Here is a bitchin’ one from 1909, from this wonderful set of photos:

Hail, mighty Odin, apparently.

Now, if you have read a little bit about English begging customs (which is all I have), you will not be surprised to learn that the Hooden Horse is accompanied by a crew of zanies playing various traditional characters, a man dressed as a woman, etc., etc. And it will further not surprise you to learn that at least one modern one is operated by a Morris dance side. You can read a little more about the history on their site.

And it will further further not surprise you to learn that some dingbat has proposed that this is, yes, an ancient Anglo-Saxon pagan custom. Because why? Because, you see, the horse is the symbol of Kent (true), and the legendary founders of Kent are Hengest and Horsa (also true), whose names both mean “horse” (true again), and “Hooden” sounds a little bit like “Odin,” which is a Scandinavian name for the Anglo-Saxon god Odin, sooooo …

Here’s where you lose me. Look at the horse. Look. At. It. There is a dude in there covered by a hood. Could this perhaps be the origin of the term “hooden”? Alternatively, it may be a corruption of “wooden horse,” but whatever. (It is pronounced, apparently, “‘ooden”.)

Let’s look at the numbers here. The first recorded Hooden Horse dates from the early 19th century. It’s a good time for horse puppets, the early 19th century. There’s a probably late 18th-century one in Padstow, and you get them in Somerset as well, although the famous ones there are on May Day, not around Christmas like the Kent example. They’re also not called “hooden.”

So the theory is that this custom, brought to Kent with the very first Anglo-Saxon invaders as a tribute to their god Odin, survived for like 1300 years, passing unscathed (well, OK, scathed, but not destroyed) through the conversion of the English (which began in Kent), the Norman Conquest, the, uh, I dunno, the Reformation, whatever, and despite the invention of the printing press and all that, no one had ever heard of it until like 1807, at lost not written it down.

Or, and I know this is pretty radical, it first appears around 1800 because that’s when it started. I mean, it’s clearly not totally original — puppets and dummies of various kinds are part of lots of begging customs, and people in outrageous costumes likewise, so it’s within an extant tradition, it’s just the horse and whatever that are new.

But it is a tenet of 19th-century folklorists, basically, that working-class people can never be creative. They’re like a ball rolling downhill — something starts them off, and then they trundle along, adapting to circumstances, but no one ever goes “why don’t we…”. From a Romantic airhead perspective, of course, this is a good thing. They’re so much more … volkisch … than us! We have so much to learn from them. Without asking them about what they’re doing, of course. Ha ha did I accidentally say volkisch?

You know what it reminds me of? Ancient astronauts. Now, the whole ancient astronaut thing is fun and all, but it is also (and this is not an observation original to me) totally racist. No one think aliens built Chartres cathedral, although it’s much more complicated than the Pyramids. No one thinks aliens built the Tower of London. But plenty of people think aliens built various things that were built by brown people, even though there is perfectly good evidence for who built them. There’s just an underlying assumption that when whitey builds big complex buildings that’s perfectly normal, but when shifty foreigners do it there has to be some explanation. I don’t think it’s intentional, necessarily — European authors just gravitated toward places that seemed far away and exotic to them — but I do think it’s sort of accidentally telling.

Did you know that the horse as the symbol of Kent dates back to like 1600? Which would have been around the time that people were getting back into studying Old English. I wonder if the horse is the symbol of Kent because “Horsa” means horse, rather than the other way around? I have done no research on this point and would welcome anyone who knows more helping me out.

19th-century Folklorists Have a Lot to Answer For: 1

2 thoughts on “19th-century Folklorists Have a Lot to Answer For: 1

  1. You started with a Krampus like beastie! YAY!

    Krampus is a tradition I love, the parades and dancing and food and fun of it all 🙂 (Not to mention the presents!)

    Good point on the ancient astronauts thing too – annoys the hell out of me in part because *people believe it*

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