The English may not be church attendees beyond the odd carol service at Christmas, but they love a good Pagan festival. The Obby Oss carnivals in Padstowe, Cornwall, and in Somerset are Celtic in origin and involve fertility rituals.
The Padstowe festival starts at midnight on May 1 with singing around the town starting at the Golden Lion Inn. By the morning, the town is dressed with greenery, flowers, flags and a maypole. Two groups of dancers progress through the town, one of each team wearing a phallic recreation of a horse. These are the “Old” and the “Blue Ribbon” ‘osses.
“Junior” ‘osses appear, operated by children. Accompanied by drums and accordions and led by acolytes known as “Teasers”, each ‘oss is adorned by a gruesome mask and black frame-hung cape under which catch fertile young maidens as they pass through the town. It’s all very ‘Wicker Man’. Here’s last night’s Wicker Man being burned. Because last night I headed for Lewes, Sussex, for another such festival, the annual burning of the Pope. Although this is associated with Protestantism, the atmosphere is strictly Pagan.
‘Remember, remember the 5th of November…’ In Lewes, the poem has a double meaning – it is not just the Guy Fawkes Gunpowder Plot being recalled. Since 1858, five Lewes bonfire societies have annually remembered an horrific martyrdom during the period 1555–1557, known as the Marian Persecutions. In the reign of Edward VI, Mary Tudor, daughter of Henry VIII, was encouraged to abandon her Catholic views, but when she came to the throne in 1553 she had 288 Protestants burned alive – 17 of these martyrs were burned in Lewes.
The martyrs refused to recant their faith because they could not understand the church service in Latin, and the biggest bonfire the nation had ever seen was constructed…
The memory of the Lewes seventeen is still celebrated with deafening (and sometimes dangerous) torchlight processions through Lewes which attract up to 80,000 people. Five bonfire societies carry 17 barrels of burning tar and 17 flaming crosses every 5 November, and popular villains are burned in effigy (this year they included Angela Merkel and Lance Armstrong). The streets glow red with flame, the societies march as American Indians (the mark the loss of the US’ indigenous population), Zulus, Victorian firemen, foxes and other groups that have meaning to the locals.
Meanwhile, we march across a dark field full of treacherous ditches to see the pope and his ministers dragged up into a wooden-framed scaffold and pelted with fireworks, while the town glows red with burning torches as giant firecrackers are hurled into the crowd.
Banners proclaim ‘No Popery’ across the street, and the mob turns unruly as the police watch on. Attendance of the bonfire societies, the best being the Cliffe, requires personal attendance in the village to purchase them from pubs, but there are still people who come from around the world.
We arrived back in London at 5:00am after a punishing night, and are now all safely back at work without much sleep….thanks to Lou, Mike and the gang for organising yet another bizarrely wonderful trip. And if you’d like to see how a professional photographer handled the same images, check out today’s Guardian here.