A comprehensive account of the rich folk culture preserved in the rural secret societies of the British Isles
• Describes the secret rites, ceremonies, and initiation rituals of guilds and rural fraternities such as the Shoemakers, Horsemen, Toadmen, Mummers, and Bonesmen
• Explains their use of masks, black face, and other disguises to avoid persecution
• Draws not only on scholarly research but also the author’s personal contacts within these still living traditions
Centuries ago the remote, marshy plains of eastern England--the Fens--were drained to create agricultural land. The Fens remained isolated up until the nineteenth century, and it was this very isolation that helped preserve the ancient traditions of this area, traditions ruthlessly eradicated elsewhere in the British Isles. These magical folk traditions also owe their survival to secret rural societies, from craft guilds and trade unions to Morris dancers and village bands.
Exploring the folk customs and magical traditions of guilds and rural fraternities such as the Shoemakers and Horsemen and the secrets guarded by the Free Gardeners, Witches, Toadmen, and Bonesmen, Nigel Pennick shows how the common working people of the Fens belonged to secret societies based on their specific trade. He details the hidden aspects of rural life that most historians ignore--the magical current that flowed through the lives of working people--and describes the secret rites, ceremonies, oaths, and initiation rituals of the guilds and fraternities to which the folk belonged.
Drawing not only on scholarly research but also his personal contacts within these still living traditions, Pennick explains their use of masks, black face, and other disguises to avoid persecution and describes how wise woman healers and witches in rural villages were sought-after for their remedies. He shares the secrets of the toad-bone rite, which gave the Toadman control over animals and members of the opposite sex, and explores the guardian spirits thought to inhabit the Fens, including those of the Wild Hunt.
Providing insight into a world that has largely disappeared, one whose magic still echoes in lore and legend, Pennick shows that the rites, customs, and ceremonies of guilds and rural fraternities connect individuals to a wider community and, through collective action, to the power of Nature and the Cosmos.
The initiation of a man into The Society of the Horseman’s Grip and Word has been described by a number of authors who have received the information from oath breakers. First, the candidate for initiation is summoned. A horse hair in an envelope is one means. He is instructed to go to a particular place where he will be met. But nothing is what it seems. In one version the candidate was told to go to a graveyard on a particular night and look near a particular tombstone, where he would find a whip that would give him power over horses. When he arrived at the grave, he would be grabbed by men waiting for him, and taken to the barn where the initiation was to be conducted (Evans 1966, 222).
The candidate is bound and blindfolded and disoriented by being taken by crooks and straits, devious pathways called The Crooked Path, to the place where he will be initiated. This crooked path symbolizes the difficulties of life, but even though he is disorientated, he has nothing to fear because his would-be brothers are guiding him to the right place. It also symbolizes the early training of the young horse because the candidate for initiation is equally an untrained “colt.” Eventually he arrives at the destination. Here, in the barn, the bound candidate must submit to the ordeals, the harrowing experiences that will make him a member of Horsemanry.
After being manhandled around the four corners of the barn, and offered a drink of what appears to be horse urine, the candidate is brought to the center of the “horseman’s hall”; his blindfold is removed and he finds himself standing before a man personating a dangerous entity, identified variously as the Devil, Lucifer, Auld Clootie, Old Nick, Hercules (The Horseman’s Grip and Word 2009, 88). Here he is asked questions, being prompted to make the correct answers, which may begin with something like,
Officiant: “How came you hither?” Candidate: “Through darkness, dangers and difficulties.” Officiant: “What do you seek to obtain?” Candidate: “The lost Word.”
After this symbolic question-and-answer session the candidate is made to take the Horseman’s Oath. It must be taken in a position “neither sitting, walking nor swinging, lying, flying, standing clothed nor unclothed, boots on or boots off or blind” (The Horseman’s Grip and Word 2009, 89). Here is a Cambridgeshire version of the Horseman’s Oath, dating from the early twentieth century.
I of my own free will and accord do solemnly vow and swear before God that I will always hele, conceal and never reveal any art or part of this secret of horsemanry which is to be revealed to me at this time, or any other time hereafter, except to a true and faithful brother after finding him so after due trial and strict examination. Furthermore I vow and I swear I will not give it or see it given to a fool nor to a madman nor to a drunkard nor to anyone in drink nor to anyone who would abuse or badly use his own or his master’s horses.
Furthermore I vow and I swear that I will not give it nor see it given to a tradesman excepting to a blacksmith or a farrier or to a worker of horses. Furthermore I vow and I swear that I will not give it or see it given to anyone under eighteen or above forty-five years of age nor without the sum of one pound sterling or anything of the same value being placed upon the table as I do at this time before three lawful sworn brethren after trial and examination finding them to be so. Furthermore I vow and I swear that I will not give it nor see it given to anyone after the sun sets on Saturday night nor before she rises on Monday morning nor in a public house. Furthermore I vow and I swear that I will always be at a brother’s call within the bounds of three miles except I can give lawful excuse such as my wife in childbed or my mares in foaling or myself in bad health or my master’s employment. Furthermore I vow and I swear that I will not give it to my father nor mother, sister nor brother, nor to a woman at all.
And if I fail in any of these obligations that I go under at this time or at any time hereafter, I ask to my heart’s wish and desire that my throat may be cut from ear to ear with a horseman’s knife, my body torn to pieces between two wild horses and blown by the four winds of heaven to the uttermost parts of the earth. So help me God to keep this solemn obligation. (Sid Smith, personal communication; cf. variant from A. A. Dent, quoted in Evans 1966, 230–31; The Horseman’s Grip and Word 2009, 89-91).
After the oath, the sworn brother is tested. The test is a trick, and of course he fails it. Then he is arraigned as an oath breaker and sentenced to hang. He is taken to the hayloft, shown a noose attached to a roof-beam, blindfolded again, and a noose is put around his neck. Then he is pushed off the beam and falls. But the noose is not the same one he was shown. It is not attached to the beam, and he falls onto a pile of hay, which breaks his fall. Then the Devil-man takes off the blindfold and welcomes him as a true and sworn horseman. After that, he is given a lecture, which describes the mythical origin of horsemanry, the rules of horsemanry, the horseman’s Word and the signs of recognition.
An authority on ancient belief systems, traditions, runes, and geomancy, Nigel Pennick is the author of several books, including The Sacred World of the Celts, Secret Games of the Gods, and The Ancient Science of Geomancy. He lives near Cambridge, England, where he follows the oral tradition and Pagan lore of his native East Anglia.
“Nigel Pennick is a true initiate who can demonstrate to the reader how nature and cosmos correlate to each other. I regularly return to Nigel Pennick’s books . . .”
– Thomas Karlsson, Ph.D., author of Nightside of the Runes,
"This book reminds us that one need look no further than modern day secular cultural celebrations that survived because they are so sacred, they transcend religion. It is a reminder that magic and witchcraft need not be fraternal, hidden, or done in circle, although it certainly can be. It does not necessarily entail candles, incense, or even religion at all. Sometimes, it’s just the living communing with the dead by doing what they did, and remembering events past, as the Wheel of the Year turns. It’s not necessarily mysterious at all, and can be as simple as what celebrates earth, people, and nature. It can be just for fun, and fellowship, as there are times when bonding with community and family, celebrating who we are, where we have come from, and teaching the children, is the most magical practice of them all. Pennick has written not only this fascinating masterpiece, but various others. Highly recommended reading!"
– Saoirse, PaganPages.org
"Well researched and wonderfully illustrated, Pennick’s telling of local history and mythology is written in an accessible, interesting and enthralling way and kept me engrossed from beginning to end. Very highly recommended!"
– June Kent, editor of Indie Shaman magazine Issue 41
"I was honestly not prepared for how amazing Witchcraft & Secret Societies of Rural England by Nigel Pennick turned out to be. I was expecting a scholarly text, or perhaps some fantastical legends, but what I ended up with was a perfect mix of both."
– The Magical Buffet
"...a curious and enlightening book about an area of England which has boasts a deeply embedded culture of folk customs and magical traditions. As Pennick points out, ‘the magical view of the world, dismissed as superstition by the modern worldview, was a valid means of living under harsh and difficult circumstances.'"