Sunday 17 March 2019

May horns

Penzance is the most westerly major town in Britain. Set out along the sweep of Mount's Bay, it boasts a tangle of authentic winding streets and a charming promenade, making it one of Cornwall's premier resort towns. 

One of Penzance's most popular attractions is the tidal island of St Michael's Mount. It is the home to an imposing castle and the beautiful chapel of St Michael.

On the first Sunday in May every year, people of Penzance celebrate the Mayday, the coming of summer and the end of winter with a traditional "May Horns procession".

The event starts just before sunset, when people dressed in green and white meet near the boundary between Penzance and Newlyn. As the sun begins to drop below the horizon, they start blowing horns and whistles, and banging drums. This comes from an old belief that the noise would "drive out the devil of winter" and help bring in the warmth of summer. The noise making continues all night. At daybreak the people who take part in the May Horns procession (known as "Mayers") walk out of town into to the country.

There they cut the "May", the young branches of any tree in blossom or fresh leaf (hawthorn, blackthorn, sycamore) to decorate the Maypole. From the young branches of the sycamore-trees (called May-trees) they make whistles.

These are made by gently loosening the bark around a stick of sycamore until it can be removed. A groove is made in the wood and a hole cut in the loose bark. The bark is then slid back on to the stick, making the whistle.

With these shrill musical instruments the people walk towards Penzance town centre, joined by Old Ned: a giant crow with a huge crown on his head. 

Old Ned, the crow, will "die" three times en route, overcome by "the devil of winter". To revive him everyone must blow their horns and whistles, even louder, until he leaps back to life.

I think this is very interesting. In my post "Wran or Wren" I wondered whether wren the "king of the birds" which was ceremonially hunted and killed in Ireland every St Stephen's day was actually originally wran, raven, crow...And here we have raven, crow with a crown which dies during the winter...Hmmm

It makes me whistle this great song by Snakefinger and Residents called "Kill the great raven". 

Kill the Great Raven 
Kill the Great Raven 

His tiny eyes, they search the skies 
He looks so alone, so he must die 
"Oh, does he really have to die?" 
"Oh yes, he really has to suffer" 

Kill the Great Raven 
Kill the Great Raven 

And when he dies, 
to his surprise 
The sun will set 
and he will rise
"Where will he go?" 
"He'll become the sun of course. 
We must have one you know...

Kill the Great Raven 

Kill the Great Raven 

You can hear the song here

On the way to town the procession visits farm houses where they are welcomed with some refreshment in the shape of rum and milk, junket, or something of that sort.

The day ends with a celebration in Penzance, with food, Cornish dancing and music.

The description of the events from 1881 was published by Robert Hunt in 'Popular Romances of the West of England". The custom of blowing May Horns on May Day was banned by the local council in the old town of Penzance in 1933 following complaints about the "abominable noise". The tradition was only revived several years ago.

This custom is described as "unique to Penzance"...

Well maybe Penzance is the only place where we find May Horns in Uk. But it is definitely not the only place where we find May Horns. 

In my post "Two crosses" I talked about the division of the solar year using solar cross (solstices and equinoxes) and earth cross (quarter days). The second solar year devision is at the core of the Celtic and Serbian calendar. 

In Celtic calendar the year is divided into two main parts (white and dark part of the year) by Bealtaine - the beginning of the summer and Samhain - the beginning of the winter.

In Serbian calendar the year is divided into two main parts (white and dark part of the year) by St George's day - the beginning of the summer and St Mitar's day - the beginning of the winter.

For sheep herders in Serbia these two dates had special meaning.

The beginning of the white part of the year, St George's day, was the time of the year when lambing season was officially over. Lambs were separated from their mothers and milking season began. This was also the time when sheep were driven to the highland pastures where they would spend summer and autumn.

The end of the white part of the year, St Mitar's day, was the time when the milking season ended and the sheep were driven back down into the valleys where they would spend the winter and spring.

Serbian customs and rituals related to the St George's day are mostly remnants of the old pagan religion which was replaced by Christianity. And in the old pagan religion, St George was known as Jarilo, the bright, burning, scorching one. Interestingly the Celtic counterpart of Jarilo's day, Beltane means "the day of the bright fire"...

These rituals start on the day before St George's day. I wrote about the St George's day customs and rituals related to sheep in my post "Aries must die". 

But there are other St George's rituals which I didn't mention in that article. One of them being the May Horns. 

In Croatia and Serbia, but most of all in Bosnia, the night before St George's was the time when people blew the May Horns. The night echoed with the sounds of horns and whistles made from willow bark. These musical instruments had various names: rukaljka, duduk, bušen, ćurlik, truba...

They were made by men and boys, particularly shepherds, during several days before St George's day. On the eve of St George's day, a procession is formed consisting of at least one male member of each household. They gather at the end of the village. The person with the biggest trumpet (horn) is selected to be the leader of the procession. The leader then leads the procession. He blows his horn first, and all the members of the procession reply blowing into their horns and whistles.  

You can hear the sound of these horns in this video made by Stojan Gajić from the Serbian village of Goleši, Banja Luka, Bosnia. 

The procession is followed by small children who join in with screeching and shouting. They go through the whole village, visiting every household in turn. Once inside the yard, they are welcomed by the whole family and in response all the procession members blast their horns as loudly as possible. Then they continue on to the next house and the next until they visit all the houses in the village.

After visiting every house in the village, the procession goes back to the original gathering place. Everyone gathers around the leader holding their horns above their heads like cudgels. The leader strikes the first blow with his horn making sure it breaks in as many small bits as possible. This is a signal for all the other members of the procession to join the "fight". They smash their horn on each-other's heads and bodies, laughing and joking. They don't stop until every horn is broken into bits. Once all the horns are broken, they all go to their homes happy. 

The May Horn ritual is Pre-Christian Slavic tradition, which can be seen from the fact that it is practiced by all Slavs regardless whether they are Catholics, Orthodox Christians and Muslims. 

As I already said, in the Serbian calendar, just like in the Celtic calendar, the year is divided into two main parts (white and dark part of the year) by St George's day (Beltane)  marking the beginning of the white part of the year (summer) and St Mitar's day (Samhain) marking the the beginning of the dark part of the year (winter). 

The blowing of the St George's (Beltane, Mayday) Horns marks the end of the winter and announces the beginning of the summer and the return of the Young Sun God Jarilo from the land of the dead. 

It also "scares away the witches", probably the "Old Hag Winter"...

In my post "Irij" I talked about Jarilo (who was turned into St George) and his feast day Jarilo/Jurjevo (which was turned into St George's day)

Jarilo was a son of the supreme Slavic god of thunder, Perun, his lost, missing, tenth son, born on the last night of February, the festival of Velja Noć (Great Night), the pagan Slavic celebration of the New Year. On the same night, however, Jarilo was stolen from his father and taken to the world of the dead, where he was adopted and raised by Veles, Perun's enemy, Slavic god of the underworld and cattle. The Slavs believed the underworld to be an ever-green world of eternal spring and wet, grassy plains, where Jarilo grew up guarding the cattle of his stepfather. In the mythical geography of ancient Slavs, the land of the dead was assumed to lie across the sea, where migrating birds would fly every winter. This land of the dead was by Slavs known as Iriy, Irij or Vyriy (Russian: ирий, ирей, вырий).

And when do the migrating birds leave the land of the living? By the beginning of the winter, which is marked by Samhain (St Mitar's day). And when do migratory birds return from the land of the dead? By the beginning of summer, which is marked by Beltane (Djurdjevdan, St George's day). 

The return of the migratory birds announces the return of Jarilo, the return of the hot summer sun. I wrote more about it in my post "Leto". Is this why we have a bird which dies (goes to the land of the dead) and gets resurrected (returns from the land of the dead) in the May Horns procession in Penzance? hmmm again

Anyway, I think all of this is very very interesting. I believe that the original May Horns tradition was preserved in the Balkans. I believe that in Penzance once they also made willow horns and whistles, but eventually they replaced them with tin ones...

I am wondering now how did this tradition end up in Penzance if indeed it is the only place in British Isles where it is found??? Is this a Slavic tradition? Is this Celtic tradition preserved by the Balkan Slavs?

Does anyone know of any other place where people blow May Horns?


  1. What St. Michelle mount has to do with Penzance?
    It's in France

    1. There two :) one in Penzance and one in France. It even rhymes :)

  2. More on Taurid impacts, backing up some of your posts:

    ...One of them, the Taurid Complex, is composed of debris from an ~100-km-wide comet that arrived at least 20,000 to 30,000 years ago from the centaur system of large comets and then, further disintegrated hierarchically in a short-period, Earth-crossing orbit123,124. There is a reasonable probability of one or more encounters within the last 13,000 years with debris swarms from the Taurid Complex or other large fragmented comets, and such an encounter would be hemispheric in scope, lasting for only a few hours. The resulting debris field would be a mixture of dust and larger fragments, potentially equivalent to the impact of ~1000 to 10,000 destructive airbursts, such as occurred in Tunguska, Siberia in 1908125. If such an event occurred at the YD onset, larger objects in the debris swarm could have created craters on land, struck the world’s ice sheets, and/or impacted the world’s oceans, creating severe biotic and climatic disturbances126.

  3. I think DNA may offer some clues. Though my family came from Ireland it didn't show up in DNA tests. The majority for my test was 33% eastern European,with that having a connection to eastern Ireland. Ancient migration?

    1. There have been many migrations up and down European continent within last 10,000 years...

    2. Didn't celts came from central europe, survived the longest on the outskirts? That would make you one of the most Irish:)
      The similarities with Sanskrit and later(?) bretonic(bistro), celtic are interesting (veda/Veda, živa, brat, buden/Buddha(the awaken one, no?hehe), 1,2,3, stala/sthala(barn(floor)), jebati/yabhati, divjati, vihariti, dualiy... My grandfather showed me how to make that whistle:), Slovenija, however I would imagine it was quite a common, if not a worldly thing. Anyhow. @Serbinan irish I enjoyed reading Your post about Zlatorog, thanks! Will read more. We also have "krv/kri/krvavi" Himalaja/zimalaja hehe byebye. ps. Are you anywhere near Baltinglass, Wicklow?

    3. I am glad you liked the blog. Yes, Celts did come from Central Europe. But even before that, the beakers, the first metalworkers to reach Ireland also came from Central Europe. The linguistic similarities are present across Indo-European continuum. But it is very interesting how close Slavic and Celtic languages are... I am in Dublin.

    4. Related to "Bogovo gumno - God's threshing floor;" in Spain there is a thing called "El Roscón de Reyes," that might interest you. Don't know if it's related but I sure thought about it reading that article. Pozdrav

    5. There were people in the British Isles long before the Celts. There is a pocket of U4a haplogroup in far West Cornwall. These people moved from the western part of Siberia @ 27,000 years ago, although they could have moved much later of course.

  4. I don't know of any other places that have this May horn, though horns are really popular ceremonial instruments. The carved whistle (what is it in Serbian?) must be the source of the Irish tin whistle. I wonder if it was ever carved from a cherry branch.

    "Beltane (Djurdjevdan, St George's day)"

    That is May Day?

    The cherry blossom season is usually in April, in Sapporo Hokkaido Japan in early May. Cherry in Japanese is Sakura, in Hebrew is Duvdevan.

  5. There used to be something similar in Oxfordshire:

    1. This is great. Thank you very much for this info.