Animal Magic

I was invited to play at Ludlow Medieval Fair this weekend, always a good gig and a chance to catch up with friends and musical sparring partners from back in the day. This time we shared the stage with a group of energetic lads from Ireland: the Armagh Rhymers.

I'd not heard of them before, but what's so striking about their show is that they perform much of it wearing beautifully crafted wicker masks.

Minstrels in animal heads make an arresting image and I was reminded of those medieval pictures of mummers, maskers and guisers.

I was also reminded of the animal masks in The Wicker Man - obviously nabbed from the local party shop but chilling nonetheless.

There's an old, not-quite-dead tradition of mask making in Ireland, and the Rhymers were lucky enough to get some of theirs from a master of the art before he retired. He's in his nineties now and never found anyone to train as an apprentice, though others are trying to revive the skill.

The masks are light and strong, sit perfectly on the shoulders and are, yes, rather scary: exactly as they ought to be.

The use of masks and of ritual theriomorphy - transformation into animals - is no longer a central part of English folk customs (Mari Lwyds and the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance notwithstanding, though with the latter it's doubtful that theriomorphy was ever the goal). 

That's a pity because both invoke an odd, almost indescribable atavistic feeling. It seems to me extremely important that we all should know that feeling first hand, that we should experience it at key moments in our lives and in the yearly round of winter, spring, summer, fall. For whatever else the feeling is, it's the sense of being brought up sharply against something Other, and you never know, that might just save us from ourselves.


  1. My friend John Tose reminded me of the Mari Lwyds - knew I'd forgotten something! I've edited the post accordingly.

  2. Nice news, sorry to miss it, first time for years. But on the Sunday I heard a great review of the Armagh Rhymers from a young lad who had seen them on Saturday and been asked to play the drum for them. Then, as well as the Mari Lwyd, there is also the similar tradition of the horse which appears at the end of the soul caking plays in Cheshire. When we bring him (Young Ball) in, the effect on the audience is striking, it seems so other, yet you feel it is simultaneously comfortable as part of a tradition.

  3. Stunning - and creepy - masks.
    Thanks for yet another fascinating post.

  4. Great stuff! Time to resurrect my mask-making, I think... (Although, pedantically, I thought the Mari Lwyd was a Welsh thing, not English...)

    1. Point taken Tom. I meant the term as a shorthand for Obby Osses in general, though Mari Lwyds are now common enough west of the Severn to include them as part of English folk custom. And yes, you should!

    2. Or even *East* of the Severn. I give up.



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