Frontline Folklore

This blog post is written by guest author, Ben Edge. Bed Edge is an artist who is predominately a figurative painter interested in folklore and storytelling. His paintings depict the extraordinary lives of ordinary people. He believes his interests originate from his childhood, where he grew up around colourful and eccentric family members who would tell him remarkable stories. Here, Ben explains his current project on folklore and takes us on a journey of folkloric customs accompanied by his paintings depicting the rituals.

Just over four years ago I was walking across Tower Hill and accidentally stumbled across a strange scene of people in white hooded cloaks taking part in some kind of bizarre ritual, in which they blessed the land and spoke of the upcoming Harvest. I was completely mesmerised and intrigued by the fact that something like this was taking place in modern day London and that people were taking the time to reconnect with nature and honour the seasons, despite the urban environment in which they stood.

After some further research, I discovered that they were part of ‘the Druid order’, to which the artist and poet William Blake himself once belonged. Furthermore, after reading extensively into the subject of British Folklore, I was amazed to discover that there are strange seasonal folk customs taking place all over the UK today, some said to be harking back to pagan times. Although not entirely conscience of it at the time, this accidental discovery was to inspire an obsession within me.

Since then I have been compelled to visit the far corners of the UK, visiting towns and villages alone. Not being able to drive, some were very difficult to reach and I had to walk 5 miles down unpaved country back alleys with, what felt like, only a whisker between myself and the lorries and cars as they passed. In response to my research, I am working on a series of paintings and a documentary film focusing on 20 of the most remarkable Folk customs, rituals and traditions that I have visited. I am also in the process of finding a suitable gallery, museum or exhibition space to house the exhibition in 2021.

Now, let’s uncover five of the seasonal customs that I have visited alongside the paintings I have created depicting the events…

1) Castleton Garland Day

1) Castleton Garland Day

The Garland King, 2017, Oil on Canvas 75cm X 65cm

Up until the year 1859 on the 29th of May, there was once an English public holiday known as Oak Apple Day that commemorated the restoration of the English Monarchy in 1660. During the celebrations people were expected to wear oak apples or leaves as a reference to the Battle of Worcester in 1651, where Charles II hid in an oak tree escaping from the Roundhead rebel army. Anyone caught without a sprig of oak was egged, pinched or whipped with nettles.

In the town of Castleton, Derbyshire a celebration still exists to this day. The Garland King on horseback leads a procession through the town dressed from head to waist with a large Garland reminiscent of the May Day tradition of Jack in the green. It has been suggested that it could have been merged with Oak Apple Day from a more ancient May Day celebration that had been banned during the Interregnum period when Britain’s Monarchy fell and all May Day festivals were outlawed due to their non-christian connections.

2) The Burryman’s Parade

2)The Burryman's Parade

The Burryman, 2018, Oil on canvas 80cm X 70 cm

Every year in the Town of South Queensferry, Scotland on the second Friday of August, the ancient folk custom of the ‘Burry Man’ takes place. The ‘Burry Man’ must endure a 7 mile walk, stopping at houses, pubs and local sites covered from head to toe in sticky burrs that scratch and irritate the skin.

There is much speculation surrounding the legend of the ‘Burry Man’ whose origins have been lost over time. Some believe it was originally a ritual to ward off evil spirits,  with other theories including that the ‘Burry Man’ was once a sacrificial victim, a scapegoat and a symbol of fertility and rebirth. In the past the ‘Burry Man’ was a tradition that took place in various fishing communities across Scotland with the added purpose to ‘raise the herring’ when the fishing was poor. Today only this one survives. It is believed that by giving the ‘Burry Man’ a whiskey in exchange for one of his Burrs that good luck will come to you for the year.

3) The Autumn Equinox

3)The Autumn Equinox

The Autumn Equinox, 2018, Oil on canvas 110cm x 82.5cm

The Autumn Equinox is the day when the sun crosses the plane of the earth’s equator, making night and day of equal length. After the Equinox the days become shorter and the nights become longer, until the process is reversed, a day marked by the winter solstice.

Every year on Primrose Hill, the Druid Order meet and perform a ritual in honour of the occasion. This painting was created based on the 2017 ceremony, that was also a historic year, as it marked the 300th anniversary of the founding of the summit of Primrose hill as the ‘Mothers Grove’, and of the group itself. The poet William Blake was credited as one of the founding members of the Druid Order and once wrote ‘I have conversed with the spiritual sun. I saw him on Primrose Hill’.

4) Abbots Bromley Horn dance

4) Abbots Bromley Horn Dance

Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, 2018, Oil on canvas 65cm X 50cm

Every year on the Monday after the 4th of September the ancient ritual of the Abbots Bromley Horn dance is performed. The origins of the horn dance itself are a great mystery and believed by many to have taken place since pre-Christian times, originally as a fertility rite, or a hunting ritual where hunters mimicked the movements of deer to confuse them and to ensure a successful hunt.

The dance is performed by the six Antler Men, a Hobby Horse, a Fool, Maid Marion, an Archer and the accompanying musicians. The horns themselves which are reindeer antlers, have now been carbon dated to the year 1065, making them not far off 1,000 years old. As reindeer were long extinct in Britain in the 11th century they may have been brought over by the Vikings from Scandinavia.

5) The Straw Bear festival

5) The Straw Bear

The Straw Bear, 2019, Oil on canvas

The tradition of the Straw Bear, that is also found in parts of Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic and Poland, is believed to have originated from the medieval carnival figure of the Wild Man or as a ritualistic expulsion of winter connected to fertility rites and bountiful harvest traditions.

The Straw Bear of Whittlesea is said by locals to have been originally started by farmers on the Tuesday following Plough Monday, they would go from door to door to entertain spectators in return for beer, tobacco and beef to help them through the tough months of winter. If they failed to oblige their front lawns would fall victim to the ploughs of the plough boys that accompanied the straw bears. It is also speculated to have origins going back to the real dancing bears that used to be paraded through the streets and taverns in medieval times much like the Straw Bear is today. 2019 was a special year as it was 40 years since the Straw Bear custom was revived in Whittlesey. Prior to its revival the tradition was stopped in 1908 due to drunk and disorderly behaviour.

To find out more about Bed Edge’s folklore project, please click here. Read Ben Edge’s Q&A on Art Law & More to find out how he is responding to the COVID-19 pandemic here.

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