White Horses

For as long as I can remember, when we were out and about, even when driving along in the car, if we passed a field with a white horse in it my mother would say “Bow to the white horse” and we all did. (Strictly speaking there is no such thing as a white horse as technically they are all greys.) This is a tradition I have always continued and today even when out cycling if we see a ‘white’ horse my husband is also primed to say it – “Bow to the white horse.” I never knew why my mother said this, I don’t think I ever asked, it was just something she said and we did. I don’t even know if she knew why or whether it was just something her mother said, and her mother before that and so on.

Lady Godiva Statue, Coventy

Lady Godiva Statue, Coventry. (Wiki)

When I was at secondary school we studied ‘Classical Mythology’ i.e. the myths and legends of the Greeks and Romans. It was only as I got older that I realised that here in the lands of the north we had our own mythologies – Norse, Anglo-Saxon and Celtic and I often wondered why we never learnt about those at school; myths that were surely more relevant to our own heritage. I know my father was interested, he had copies of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles and the Heimskringla (Norse Sagas) but never passed on his knowledge to me, although I do now own his books and have taken an interest in these stories of our own tradition as I have grown older.

It was quite some years later that the ‘penny finally dropped’ as they say. References to white horses are everywhere in our lives and in our stories. Witness the number of pubs called ‘The White Horse’, our heroes are ‘knights in shining armour’ riding a white horse such as St. George, King Arthur and even the wizard ‘Gandalf in Lord of the Rings’. Lady Godiva rode a white horse through the streets of Coventry as recorded in the nursery rhyme “Ride-a-cock horse to Banbury Cross to see a fine lady ride on a white horse…”.

White Horse of Uffingham

White Horse of Uffingham (Wiki)

There is also Rhiannon of Welsh legend and we cannot forget the ‘White Horse of Uffingham’ an ancient chalk carving in the Vale of the White Horse, Oxfordshire. I could go on, the list is endless.

The White Horse is of course a reference to Epona, the Celtic goddess of horses and maybe also a fertility goddess, who often appeared as a white horse or is depicted as riding a white horse. Interestingly she is probably the only Celtic goddess who was retained by the Romans when they ruled the British Isles. Usually they either discarded the local gods and goddesses, absorbed them into their own equivalents or adopted them by giving them a Roman name. Bowing to the white horse is obviously a nod to the worship of this ancient goddess. My mother may well have known this or maybe not, but long may the tradition continue in my family.

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Waes Hael

Wassail Bowl

Picture courtesy of Google Images

‘Waes Hael’ is an Anglo-Saxon phrase meaning ‘good health’. In modern English this has come down to us as ‘Wassail’. Since ancient times groups of people have gone out ‘Wassailing’ on either New Years Eve or Twelfth Night.

By custom wassailing can be divided into two distinct groups. One custom was to go from door to door bringing good wishes to the household and the other custom was to go wassailing in the fields and, especially in the cider producing counties of the West Country, into orchards to bless the trees to ensure a good crop for the coming year.

The wassail itself was originally a drink made from mulled ale, wine or cider blended with spices, honey and perhaps an egg or two. It could contain roasted apples and this gave it the alternative name ‘Lambs Wool’ because the pulp of the apples looked a bit like fleece floating on the drink. Many recipes for wassail, both traditional and more modern, can be found on the internet. The drink was served in a large bowl or goblet made from wood, or sometimes pewter or silver, passed from one person to the next. (Jesus College at Oxford University has a wassail bowl which is covered with silver and can hold 10 gallons!)

At each stop the ‘Wassailers’ would sing special wassail songs or carols and it is from this tradition that we now have carol singers doing the rounds singing Christmas Carols in the days leading up to Christmas. Each area of the country had its own particular wassail carols, several of which have come down to us today. In some areas the tradition only ceased as recently as the 1960’s and this is perhaps why at least two of these songs have become well-known and I learnt them both as a child.

One of these is known as The Gloucestershire Wassail. Here is the first verse:

Wassail, wassail all over the town.
Our bread it is white and our ale it is brown.
Our bowl it is made of the good maple tree;
with the wassailing bowl we drink unto thee.

There are several different versions to this song but the version I am most familiar with continues with verses wishing good health to various livestock owned by the householder, such as ‘So here is to Cherry and to his right cheek,’ and ‘Here’s health to the ox and to his right eye,’: – you get the gist.

More familiar, and perhaps more suitable for New Years Eve is simply known as The Wassail Song, or ‘Here we come a-wassailing’. For those who are interested the words and music for both of these Wassail Carols are free to download from ChristmasCarolMusic.org. Here you will also find lists of recordings of these songs – including versions from bands such as Blur and Steeleye Span.

Here now is the full version of The Wassail Song as I learnt it, again there are others:

Here we come a-wassailing among the leaves so green,
Here we come a-wandering so fair to be seen.
Love and joy come to you
and to you your wassail too.
May God bless you and send you a Happy New Year,
may God send you a Happy New Year.

We are not daily beggars who beg from door to door,
but we are neighbours’ children whom you have seen before.
Love and joy come to you
and to you your wassail too.
May God bless you and send you a Happy New Year,
may God send you a Happy New Year.

God bless the master of this house, likewise his mistress too,
and all the little children that around the table go.
Love and joy come to you
and to you your wassail too.
May God bless you and send you a Happy New Year,
may God send you a Happy New Year.

Waes Hael to one and all!

Site content copyright of Elizabeth Leaper (Libby).

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