The horse is one of the most virile creatures on earth. The stallion, for example, is an animal of such immense potency that manuals quote a 'recommended figure' of 50 mares to one stallion - a huge level of service, by anyone's standards. While this insight into a male horse's fecundity was news to me, to the people of Padstow it is almost as well known as the story of the Virgin Birth. For centuries this Cornish town has held a special May Day festival in honour of the horse which, even today, some of its inhabitants still regard as being more important than Christmas.
But, like all myths, the Padstow 'Obby 'Oss, reputed to be the oldest dance festival in Europe, is shrouded in mystery. No-one is sure why a horse, or a man dressed in a horsy outfit, should be Lord of the Dance and lead thousands of devotees on an annual tour of the town.
May Day festivals were once held in villages all over Britain to mark the arrival of summer, with many a reveller making offerings to propitiate his or her favoured fertility god. At many of these feasts a hobby-horse would have pranced around inducing fertility in both nature and man. But few examples have survived and those that have are very much watered down. 'It should be noted,' remarks Alan Harlow, in an article on the Padstow festival, 'that this hobby is not the semi-comical hobby-horse of the Morris dance which, of late, it has become confused with, but a wild horse, a black demon-cum- vegetation spirit and the symbol of male fertility.
There are two 'Osses (a Cornish derivative for hobby-horses) at Padstow: the original Red 'Oss and a Blue 'Peace' 'Oss, which dates from the early 1900s. Since both outfits - a black canvas skirt and a witch doctor's mask - weigh in at 100lb, the wearing of it is shared out between groups of about 60 people. This 'honour' is bestowed solely on those with their roots in Padstow and has been passed down from generation to generation. The two 'Osses, each taking separate routes, are lead out by a Teaser carrying a club. The idea of the Teaser, it seems, is to dance in front of the 'Oss, and goad him, while the crowd follows carrying spring flowers and singing the May song. Don't panic if you are among the uninitiated; you'll probably pick the words up sooner or later. They sing the same song all day long ('We will all unite in the merry morning of May' etc).
One of the customs associated with 'Ossing is that a woman who is 'caught' by the 'Oss will become lucky or pregnant. In former years this involved trapping the maiden under the 'Oss's skirt and covering her with soot. The faith in this rather unflattering magic ceremony was once held so strongly that some of the older generations recall seeing unmarried women running the length of whole streets to escape its clutches rather than be caught. 'Nowadays, they sort of surge forward to women they know,' explains Jean Haigh, a member of the Old Cornwall Society. 'They certainly don't throw soot.'
To the outside world, this bizarre pagan ritual puts a big question mark over the sanity of the people of Padstow. But mockery has made little impact. Many of those who have moved out of the area return in droves to be part of it. Given the choice, however, the townspeople would close the gates. That 4,000 outsiders do sneak in each year is of little interest to Jean Haigh. 'As far we are concerned, if people think we are mad we couldn't care less. It's a very ancient tradition which we want to keep.'
Padstow Blue 'Oss sets off at 10am, outside the Institute; the Red 'Oss sets off at 11am outside The Golden Lion Pub on May 1, Padstow (info: 0841 533 449)
In yesterday's article ('A two-horse town') we stated incorrectly that the Padstow festival takes place on Sunday 1 May. The date is in fact Monday 2 May. We apologize for any confusion caused by this error.
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