Abbots Bromley Horn
(Antler Dance - Ceremony of the Deermen)

Abbots Bromley, UK
Wakes Monday, the first Monday after September 4

Originally this was danced during the Yuletide on Twelfth Day (January 6) at Abbots Bromley, Staffordshire, England. Now the Abbots Bromley Horn is danced on the first Monday after September 4, the date having been moved in the 18th Century. Six male dancers hold white and brown-painted (formerly red and white) genuine reindeer antlers on wooden poles.

The antlers were obtained from reindeer that were castrated, or domesticated during the eleventh century. As reindeer are believed to have become extinct in the British Isles by then, and we know of no domesticated herds, the antlers were possibly of Scandinavian origin. In 1976, a small splinter was radiocarbon dated to around 1065. (At Star Carr in Yorkshire,

Mesolithic antler ‘frontlets’, apparently meant to be worn, have been dated to 7600 BCE.) Since 1981, the Abbots Bromley horns have been legally the property of Abbots Bromley Parish Council and for 364 days of the year, they are on display in St Nicholas Church.

The dance starts at 7 am with a service of Holy Communion in St Nicholas Church, where the horns are housed. The dance begins on the village green, then passes out of the village to Blithfield Hall, currently owned by Lady Bagot.

The dancers hold the antlers to their heads as they dance. They go round neighbouring farms before the event (a distance of about 16 kilometres, or ten miles), which is possibly left over from a more ancient fertility dance. At the end of the day, the antlers are returned to the church. The Horn Dancers comprise six ‘Deer-men’, a Fool, Hobby Horse, Bowman (Robin Hood) and Maid Marion, performing their dance to a traditional tune provided by a melodion player.

The sight of a bowman following men wearing antlers is reminiscent of scenes in the celebrated cave paintings of Lascaux, France, which date to Paleolithic times 20,000 years ago, which depict men wearing antler head-dresses being stalked by archers (pictured at left). The Kalahari Bushmen’s ritual mimicry of hunters stalking antelopes also comes to mind, as does the Apache horn dance.

The dancers return to the village in the early afternoon, and make their way around the pubs and houses. Finally, at about 8 pm, the horns are returned to the church, and the day is completed with the church service of Compline.

Reminiscent of other antler rituals

The ancient rite is held two weeks before the Vernal Equinox and no doubt has pagan origins despite its Christian associations today. Ostensibly held to commemorate the acquisition by the local people of hunting rights to the nearby Needwood Forest, the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance is similar to the Yakut dance of Russia and certain dances of Finno-Ugranian tribes, and it might have originally been a Scandinavian/Viking ritual dedicated to Frey, god of fertility and Lord of the Light Elves of Alfheim. In the Celtic world of the Iron Age, the Horned One is most commonly called Cernunnos, the Stag Lord, or the Horned God, and this custom might hark back to the pre-1st century CE times when his cult was widespread.

Source: Wilson's Almanac