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Folk-Lore/Volume 4/Miscellanea (March)

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MISCELLANEA.




Notes on Welsh Folk-Lore.

{Communicated through Mr. J. G. Frazer.)

The White Horse.—In South Wales, at a time of the early winter not very easy to determine—most people who remember it say at the end of November—young men go round from house to house with the white horse, expecting trifling presents in money. I remember it well in my young days, at Cowbridge, in Glamorganshire. The essential part of the thing was a framework in the shape of a horse's head, over which was fastened down a white drapery, which fell like a sheet over a boy's body. The white horses, I remember, had gay knots of coloured ribbon stuck on the head. The horse was led by a young man or youth, and the great purpose of it all seemed to be to run after, threaten to bite, and frighten the maids and children. Some of the horses had jaws, which the boy beneath could open and shut. I was told, in December last, that the white horse was put down by the police at Whitland, in Carmarthenshire, only about ten years ago, because there had been some servant girls frightened into fits; and another man in the neighbourhood told me that some very rough play was carried on sometimes in connection with it. The Principal of Cardiff College, Mr. Viriamu Jones, remembers the white horse in the Swansea Valley, as I do at Cowbridge. He suggested it might have to do with the invading and conquering white horse of King Arthur's legend. Is it in any way connected with the different white horses carved on chalk hills, such as the one in the Vale of White Horse, in Berkshire? Oris it connected with the pale or white horse of Death and the Erlkonig legend? Some say that the proper day for the white horse was the last day of November; others say that it came round shortly before Christmas.


Round, flat, white Loaves distributed on old New Year's Day.—In Pembrokeshire, on January 12th (old New Year's Day), people used to go round to neighbours' houses to fetch a present of a white wheaten loaf. My grandfather was a large yeoman-farmer in South Pembrokeshire; and a very intelligent man of 60, who has lived in the same part of the country all his life, and who worked as a lad on my grandfather's farm, remembers well this distribution of round white loaves. He says that there was quite a cartload of them piled up in readiness in the kitchen, and that people came sometimes distances of twenty or thirty miles, gathering up the loaves at the different houses as they went along. The younger women and girls especially made a great holiday of it, and groups of them would go about together very merrily, and clothed in their best. In those days barley bread was commonly eaten, and wheaten bread was a treat to the peasantry. But does the date correspond with any festival of Ceres, and is not the round form of the loaf an unconscious survival of the custom of making round cakes as offerings to or in honour of Ceres, Isis, and other mother goddesses? The custom has now quite died out.


The Neck Feast.—At harvest-time, in South Pembrokeshire, the last ears of corn left standing in the field were tied together, and the harvesters then tried to cut this neck by throwing their hatchets at it. What happened afterwards appears to have varied somewhat. I have been told by one old man that the one who got possession of the neck would carry it over into some neighbouring field, leave it there, and take to his heels as fast as he could; for, if caught, he had a rough time of it. The men who caught him would shut him up in a barn without food, or belabour him soundly, or perhaps shoe him, as it was called, beating the soles of his feet with rods—a very severe and much-dreaded punishment. On my grandfather's farm the man used to make for the house as fast as possible, and try to carry in the neck. The maids were on the look out for him, and did their best to drench him with water. If they succeeded, they got the present of half-a-crown, which my grandfather always gave, and which was considered a very liberal present indeed. If the man was successful in dodging the maids, and getting the neck into the house without receiving the wetting, the half-crown became his. The neck was then hung up, and kept until the following year, at any rate, like the bunches of flowers or boughs gathered at the St. Jean, in the south of France. Sometimes the necks of many successive years were to be found hanging up together. In these two ways of disposing of the neck one sees the embodiment, no doubt, of the two ways of looking at the corn spirit, as good (to be kept) or as bad (to be passed on to the neighbour). The drenching with water may point to a very early period of origin, when moisture represented the female principle in nature.

37, Fitzroy Square, W.C.
 




A Wedding Dance- Mask from Co. Mayo.—My friend the Rev. W. S. Green, H.M. Inspector of Irish Fisheries, has given me an account of a marriage-custom at Erris in Co. Mayo, which is so remarkable that it is worth a special notice.

Whenever a wedding takes place, gangs of men and boys appear on the scene, dressed up in women's dresses, and with straw masks completely covering their heads, in order to dance at the wedding. A gang consists of twelve men; the captain of the gang asks the bride to dance with him. It is thought to bring bad luck if anyone recognises the "straw-boys", as they are called. In a letter dated "Belmullet, Sept. 28, 1892", Mr. Green writes: "At a wedding our fish-curers were at the other day, several gangs of straw-boys turned up in succession. They drank very little, but the dancing went on till 6 A.M."

I immediately wrote to Mr. Green, asking whether it was possible to procure a photograph of a dance or of the men dressed up. Unfortunately this was impossible, but I do not despair of obtaining one in the future. However, Mr. Green was good enough to bring me a mask. For the present I propose to deposit it in the Pitt-Rivers Museum at Oxford.

This mask, which is entirely made of straw, is conical in shape, and surmounted by three rings of straw. It is oval in section, and the mask has a slight cant or rake. The mask is 21 inches in total height, and the extreme length in section is 11½ inches; the interior dimensions of the opening are about 10¼ X 5½ inches. Mr. Green adds, "the captain's mask or cap is adorned with colours, the others are plain."




Drinking the Moon.— Mrs. Meer Hasan Ali, in her work on the Manners and Customs of the Mussulmnans of India describes a curious practice which seems to have escaped notice by European writers on Moon-lore: "A silver basin, being filled with water, is held in such a situation that the full moon may be reflected in it. The person to be benefited by the draught is required to look steadfastly on the moon in the basin, then shut his eyes and quaff the liquid at a draught. This remedy is advised by medical professors in nervous cases, and also for palpitation of the heart." (Vol. i, 275.)