by Tracy Boyd

© 2004


Robin Hood’s Race



The marking of boundaries is a most ancient endeavor to secure the spirit of place within a given area, and to exorcise any evil from that place that might be lurking at the line of demarcation.  The delineation of that which is not to be crossed, that which proscribes the definitive limits of the bounds, and that which marks the place of beginning and ending, was most usually marked by stones.  A belief in the animistic, spirit-embodied qualities of stones, as well as their identification with specific deities, sanctified the marking out of the area that was so set apart, tabooed, or reserved for a particular use.  The inviolability of these boundary markers was absolute.

    “Injunctions and taboos against moving the stones have existed wherever they have been set up.  In the . . . Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer, there is a passage, ‘Cursed be he who moveth his neighbor’s land-mark’. . . .” (1)

In ancient Greece, it is Hermes who is the Guardian of Boundaries, and whose phallic stone herms delineate the divisions of the land.  Terminus is the Latin term for the numinous boundary-marker itself, (2) and for the “god who marks the boundaries of the tilled lands [and] receives his wonted honour . . . crowned by two owners on opposite sides.” (3)  The Babylonian boundary markers, which are among the oldest artifacts of the Near East, frequently depict the carved images of goddesses and womb symbols. (4)  And in the old Norse pagan religions, we have proof of the sanctity of the boundary in the “tradition of named stones . . . recorded in the Edda.” (5)  In Christianized England, the extremely ancient tradition survived in the marking of parish districts.  “Each boundary mark-stone was traditionally identified by a name, reflecting the positioning and personal attributes of the stone.” (6)

Boundaries, no matter how permanently identified, must be periodically renewed by means of rituals to drive away any accumulated evil that has attached itself to the place, and to pay tribute to the spirit, or numen, of that place.  Thus are we reoriented to our place in the world from which we begin again the cycle of ever-recurring new beginnings.  The marking of the bounds is a rite that is performed by the kings of the ancient Near East at the New Year’s celebrations.  The Egyptian Sed Festival, which was not only a “commemoration of the king’s accession . . . [but] a true renewal of kingly potency, a rejuvenation of rulership,” (7) was celebrated “on the first day of the first month of the “Season of Coming-Forth,” one of the seasonal New Year’s days of the land.” (8) 

As the ruler of all he surveys, “the dedication of the field is the central ceremony of the festival.” (9)

   “. . . in a series of moves and countermoves, visits to shrines, and demonstrations of loyalty before the throne are woven all the varied bonds which unite the realm and the ruler, the ruler and the gods.  While the ritual unfolds, the king moves like the shuttle in a great loom to recreate the fabric in which people, country, and nature are irrevocably comprised. . . . 

    . . . The characteristic “dance” by which a piece of land was dedicated to the gods

. . . [is shown in the tablets as] the king crossed the piece of land in its length and breadth with a kind of fast walk which, in the graceful delineations of the reliefs, acquires for us the character of a dance step.  The whole of the performance . . . implied a fourfold course according to the points of the compass.” (10)

    “[In] the concluding part of the festival, . . . his royalty is announced to the four quarters of the world. (11) . . .  The king then shoots an arrow to each of the four points of the compass; and he is, moreover, enthroned four times–each time facing in one of the four directions.” (12)

At Rome, on the Ides of February, rites of purification, renewal, and reorientation of the boundaries were performed on an annual basis at the very archaic festival of the Lupercalia.  The purification and riddance of accumulated evil influences, a requisite for clearing the way for the fertilizing powers of spring, was the foremost intent of the rites of the entire month of February, which was originally the last month of the Roman calendar.  We learn from W. Warde Fowler, the scholars’ scholar in matters of Roman Religion, that

    “the word februum, from which comes the name of our second month, meant an object with magical potency, such as water, fire, sulphur, laurel, wool, or the strips of the victim sacrificed at the Lupercalia, and the verb februare meant to get rid of certain unwhole-some or miasmatic influences by means of these objects.” (13)

In its simplest origins, “when the Palatine was a shepherd’s settlement,” (14) the purpose of the Lupercalia was “to keep wolves from the sheepfolds . . . by running round the base of the hill in a magical circle.” (15)  Presumably, the Luperci, the ‘keepers off of wolves’, (16) paid silent homage to the She-wolf who had nursed the twin founders of Rome; for the two youths were representatives of sacred colleges, one associated with Romulus, the other with Remus. (17)

    “The sanctuary which was the centre of the sacred functions of the Luperci was

known as the Lupercal; it appears to have been situated at the south-west foot of the Palatine hill.  It was traditionally said to have been a great cave at the foot of the hill, with springs of water welling up under the rocks, and overarched by a thick grove of oaks.  In that Sylvan scene the she-wolf is said to have suckled Romulus and Remus. (18)

    According to the testimony of the ancients the Lupercalia was essentially a     purificatory rite.  In particular it was a purification of the ancient city on the Palatine,

of which the boundary, as it was believed to have been fixed by Romulus, continued to be marked out by stones down to Imperial times.  At their annual festival the Luperci appear to have run the boundary of the ancient city.  Certainly they started at the Lupercal and made a circuit, in the course of which they ran up the Sacred Way and down again, . . . [a course still observed] by Christians in the time of Augustine. (19)


    The lustratio . . . was at the same time a beating of the bounds and a rite of purification and fertilization.  Just as the peeled wands of our Oxford bound-beaters on Ascension Day may perhaps have originally had a use parallel to that of the februa, so the parish boundaries correspond to the Roman pomoerium.  We have . . . examples of processional bound-beating in the rites of the Argei and the Ambarvalia; in all there is the same double object– the combination of a religious with a juristic act; but the Lupercalia stands alone in the quaintness of its ritual, and may probably be the oldest of all.” (20)

In the Celtic world, it is the turning of the year that creates the need to re-establish boundaries.  At each successive station of the sun: from the moment of absolute stillness at the Winter Solstice, to the coming light of Candlemas, the Equinox of Spring when the sun is at zero point, the absolute demarcation of Winter vs. Summer at Beltaine, the height of the Summer at the June Solstice, the coming of Autumn at the feast of Lammas, the end of Summer at Hallowmas, and the falling of the light once more into its lowest point at the Winter Solstice, the thin veil that separates the worlds is opened for a brief moment.  At such liminal times, when things are “neither this nor that,” all boundaries vanish to create a mystical, mysterious atmosphere in which all the rules are suspended as one is subsumed into sacred time and sacred space. 

Such is the feeling on May morn, when bathing with dew is believed to have a particularly beneficial effect. 

    “The efficacy of dew (washed in at dawn, when it is neither day nor night, on May morn when it is neither winter nor summer) no doubt derives from its being neither rain nor sea water, river nor well water.  It appears to come neither from above nor from below.” (21)

At such times, boundaries must be reaffirmed, and all who would cross the lines, whether they be real or imagined, visible or invisible, must be propitiated.  Shepherds are at the center of the rituals observed in the Scottish Highlands on the feast of Beltaine on the first of May.

    “On the 1st of May, the herdsman of every village hold their Bel-tein, a rural     sacrifice: they cut a square trench on the ground, leaving the turf in the middle; on that they make a fire of wood, on which they dress a large caudle of eggs, butter, oatmeal and milk; and bring, besides the ingredients of the caudle, plenty of beer and whisky; for each of the company must contribute something. 

    The rites begin with spilling some of the caudle on the ground, by way of libation: on that every one takes a cake of oatmeal, upon which are raised nine square knobs, each dedicated to some particular being, the supposed preserver of their flocks and herds, or to some particular animal, the real destroyer of them: each person then turns his face to the fire, breaks off a knob, and flinging it over his shoulders, says: This I give to thee, preserve thou my horses; this to thee, preserve thou my sheep; and so on.  After that, they use the same ceremony to the noxious animals: This I give to thee, O fox! spare thou my lambs; this to thee, O hooded Crow! this to thee, O Eagle!.

    When the ceremony is over, they dine on the caudle; and after the feast is finished, what is left is hid by two persons deputed for that purpose; but on the next Sunday they re-assemble and finish the reliques of the first entertainment.” (22)

There are many types of rituals whose purpose is to drive the evil out and away from the lines drawn so as to secure the sacred place and to protect those who reside within its bounds.  A contemporary geomancer enumerates the various permutations of this singular intention:

    “Ritually perambulated routes, integrating the manmade and the natural with the intention of harmonizing the activities of the human race with the patterns of time, were not restricted to beating the bounds.  Little studied, their routes are scarcely known, but we can determine that they took exactly the same path each time they were performed, as each variation of Morris Dance has its own steps and routes between villages, and annual fairs had their own boundaries and streets, laws and customs.  This close adherence to the fine detail of traditional ritual ensured the direct continuity of otherwise readily destroyed boundaries, positions esoterically related to both the macrocosmic order of the heavens, and to the microcosmic reenactment of its active phase in the sacred dance or procession. 

    The gyratory dances associated with geomantically sited maypoles represented the annual whirling of the heavens about the fixed earth, the axle-tree founded on the central place which remains steady and endures while all else moves.  The patterns traced upon the ground by the dancers, ever approaching the central pole as the ribbons create interlaced forms, are repeated by the gyres of unicursal labyrinths, whose fixed paths lead, between involuted boundaries, from the external world to the internal.” (23)


The Morris Dance, and its more static version, the Nine-Men’s-Morris game, which began by the marking of the turf and became immortalized around the world as a board game, is one such example of patterns traced for a cosmic purpose.  The configuration of the Nine-Men’s-Morris, or Merels, gameboard is unusual in that, unlike most other board games, it is not played on a chequered board or a grid.  Its pattern is a square within a square within a square; a design which is of great antiquity, and which clearly “pre-dates the game itself.” (24)  It is one of several “gameboards/magical sigils carved by stonemasons on the roofing-slabs of the temple at Kurna, Egypt, before their erection” (25) in 1400 B.C.E.  Although this find is considered to be among the earliest known of the “square-on-square” (26) pattern, identical symbols appear on the pre-Vedic seals excavated at Mohenjo-daro, which date to 2500 B.C.E. (27)

The same pattern is found throughout the world as both a protective sign and as gameboard.  In either case, their underlying symbology is about the delineation of boundaries not to be crossed; that thin line that separates the sacred from the profane. 

   “It exists in prehistoric rock-scribings in a cave at Malesherbes . . . , France,

. . . [and at] Warscheueck in Austria . . . at Hazar Sum in Afghanistan . . . at the [Bronze Age] burial site Cr Bri Chualann, . . . Eire, [which] may be one of the oldest games yet found, . . . [and] the remains of a board were found at Troy. (28) 

    Among surviving ancient Merels boards are two cut in the grand flight of steps at Mihintale, Sri Lanka (9-21 CE).  A fragment of a Nine Men’s Morris board was found in the Godstad Viking ship burial, dating from around 900.  A fragment of a board, incised on stone, exists in the Kolnische Stadtmuseum in Cologne, Germany . . . [as do stone carvings in] England, [in] the cloisters of several post-Conquest cathedrals and abbeys, including Canterbury, Glouchester, Norwich, Salisbury, and Westminster. . . .  Others exist in churches [across the whole of England.] . . . (29)  As a protective sigil, the pattern of the Larger Merels board is carved on tombstones at Dryburgh Abbey, Worksop, and Arbory, Isle of Man.  The chancel arch at Singleton, Sussex, also has a stone in which the pattern is incised.” (30)

The pattern is not unlike that of the Court of Tara at the center of the Plain of Fal, at the very center of Ireland, which is laid out so that “the lady who personified the realm” (31) is at the absolute center of the State, bounded at the diagonals, like the Morris board, on all four sides by each of the kings of each of the provinces of Ireland. (32)  The arrangement, which has been described rather humorously as “the quintessence of the state,” (33) has infinite parallels throughout the ancient world.  In fact, “the division of a city, a land, or the world, into four quarters with a central fifth is anything but unique.  The Rig Veda speaks of the five directions, north, south, east, west, and ‘here’. . . .” (34)

This, too, is the essential structure of the Tantric Yantra with the central focus of worship at the center surrounded by a four-square form whose “outermost periphery is protected by guardian deities who forbid negative force to enter the holy space.” (35)  These concepts apply equally to, or especially to, architectural yantras, which are schematic ritual diagrams specifically required and drawn for the efficacious disbursement of sacred energy in the building of Hindu temples.  A far grander scheme than that of the Morris plan is taken up in these diagrammatic yantras, or Vatsu-Purusha Mandala, one of which is known as the Paramasayika of 81 squares. (36) 

    “The Vatsu-Purusha Mandala is basically a square of squares. . . . The simplest arrangement consists of 64 (8 X 8) or 81 (9 X 9) squares, in which the nuclear central zone of 4 or 9 divisions is dedicated to the principal deity, Brahma. . . . When the mandala is used architecturally its central zone locates the temple’s womb character.  Around the nucleus, 12 squares are designated as seats of divinities, with specific reference to the 8 directions of space.  These are surrounded by another 32 divinities associated with celestial bodies (28 lunar and 4 that preside over solsticial and equinoctial points). (37)

    Thus the simple graph-like diagram not only represents the energies of the directions of the compass but has astronomical connotations, providing a chart of cyclic revolution, of day, month, year, etc. (38)  [In short,] this diagram is basically an imprint of the ordered cosmos . . . .” (39)

What distinguishes the Nine-Men’s-Morris pattern from all others, as we have seen in the board version, is that it is decidedly not of a chequered, or gridded configuration.  Its simple concentric squares reflect an earlier order of thinking about the universe.  This conformation is explicitly visible in the more simplified architectural yantras of matrifocal pre-Vedic South India, whose temples are “constructed to reflect a different cosmic order” (40) than that expressed in the multi-squared grids.  In this configuration:

   “three concentric squares create a hierarchy: the innermost is assigned to the Universal Being, the middle square is the sphere of the gods, the outer square the terrestial region.  Beyond the outer square are the creatures of the netherworlds.” (41)

The later Vedic fire altars of India, which began to be built c. 2000 B.C.E. (42) according to the strictest of ritual plans, were based on similar square-upon-square sacred mystical abstractions.

    “Its bricks were laid pointing towards the cardinal directions to symbolize the vast extension of the universe; its heart was the place where the ritual fires were kindled.  The altar combined the symbolic features of the deity, i.e., the fire, and the sacrificial rites, linked together by the sacred plinth.  Fire was the axis mundi that united the heavens and earth, and the altar symbolically represented the pillar that held the four regions (E W N S) together . . . .” (43)


Regardless of the exact configuration within the square boundary, and irrespective of the varying archetypal world views represented, what all of these patterns have in common is their protective function.  As is true of virtually all board games, the structure of the Morris board encapsulates “the ancient sacred view of the structure of the world, and modes of play which can be recovered by comparison with myth, legend and parallel folk traditions.” (44) 


A number of antiquarian accounts of the Nine-Men’s-Morris are summarized in a wondrous compendium of scholarship by the Reverend Thiselton Dyer in his Folk-Lore of Shakespeare, originally published in 1883.  There is much to learn of the Morris from these eyewitnesses.

    “This rustic game, which is still extant in some parts of England, was sometimes called “the nine men’s merrils, from merelles, or mereaux, an ancient French word for the jettons or counters with which it was played.  The other term morris is probably a corruption suggested by the sort of dance, which in the progress of the game the counters performed.” (45)

From the same source comes a description of a typical playing field, prior to the game’s transfer to boards, when the morris games were played out on the turf:

    “In that part of Warwickshire where Shakespeare was educated, . . . the shepherds and other boys dig up the turf with their knives to represent a sort of imperfect chessboard. [sic]  It consists of a square, sometimes only a foot diameter, sometimes three or four yards.  Within this is another square, every side of which is parallel to the external square; and these squares are joined by lines drawn from each corner of both squares, and the middle of each line. 

    One party or player has wooden pegs, the other stones, which they move in such a manner as to take up each other’s men, as they are called, and the area of the inner square is called the pound, in which the men taken up are impounded.  These figures are by the country people called nine men’s morris, or merrils; and are so called because each party has nine men.  These figures are always cut upon the green turf or leys, as they are called, or upon the grass at the end of ploughed lands, and in rainy seasons never fail to be choked up with mud.” (46)

All of the commentators on the turf morris are unanimous in their conclusion that it was this same configuration upon the land to which Shakespeare referred in his A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and they are quite consistent in reproducing the same three lines to illustrate the point: 

    The nine men’s morris is fill’d up with mud,

    And the quaint mazes in the wanton green

    For lack of tread are indistinguishable.” (47)

Happily, such a design has been re-created at Stratford-upon-Avon, where “a space for playing Nine Men’s Morris on a large scale was marked out in the gardens of the Memorial Theatre.” (48)  We must, however, sort out the confusion that arises from the inclusion of the last two lines in all of these references.  The mazes follow on the heels of the Morris because they are synonymous in Shakespeare’s mind with the celebrations of May Eve, but they are not the same.  The antiquarians have not made the distinction, but a distinction must be made between the mill and the maze.  The first is for lads lazing in the fields after harvest, or when “transferred to a board, . . . continues [as] a fire-side recreation of the agricultural labourer . . . [and] is often called by the name of ‘Mill,’ or ‘Shepherd’s Mill’.” (49)  The second, whose footprints have been obliterated by the rain in Mr. Shakespeare’s verses, is for the running of foot races. 

Such “quaint mazes,” configured as large-scale labyrinths, which were first cut into the turf during “the Bronze Age or earlier,” (50) were still common in the English countryside less than a hundred years ago.  They were known as “Shepherd’s hey, race, ring, or run . . . , a greensward circle . . . of considerable size . . . a mazy path . . . the trial of skill [of which] consists in running the maze from the outside to the small circle . . . without crossing the boundaries of the path.” (51)  The labyrinthine turf courses were known by numerous names, some having a direct bearing on the rites of May, as that of “Robin Hood’s Race.” (52)

That the Morrisers were directly linked with the Robin’s Hood mazes is evidenced in those labyrinths of a more intricate design that were elaborated with four circular runs on the diagonal “corners,” each of which was marked off with a morris sword.  In the poorly preserved remains of one such such morris maze the “marks of the morris-dancer’s knives were scarcely discernible.” (53) Due to their condition and frequent proximity to churches, these were easily, and always, misinterpreted as Christian crosses.  The swords are not mentioned as such in the records of Nottingham, but an engraving reproduced in 1797, shortly after the maze’s demise, renders them visible.  The accompanying text is informative, also, in other respects.

    “Shepherd’s, or Robin Hood’s Race, was a curious labyrinth or maze, cut in the ground, on Snenton Common, about a mile from Nottingham, and within a quarter of a mile of Robin Hood’s, or St. Ann’s Well . . . . This maze . . . though only occupying a piece of ground about eighteen yards square, is, owing to its intricate windings, five hundred and thirty-five yards in length; at the four angles were oval projections intersecting the four cardinal points.” (54)

The diagonal embellishments “intersecting the four cardinal points,” would seem to be an allusion to the cross-quarter days of the Celtic calendar: Imbolc of February, Beltaine of May, Lammas of August, and Samain of November.  Threading, or treading, the labyrinth in imitation of the meandering circuits of the sun is a tradition known throughout the world.  These labyrinthine quarter-day maze-markers attach special meaning to that ancient ritual. 

The orientation of the square within a square within a square of the Nine-Men’s-Morris game is decidedly diagonal in its thrust.  The stones or pegs are placed in the corner angles of the turf squares, or board, for the purpose of aligning three in a row to create diagonal ‘mills’, thus joining the boundaries of each of its three squares at their corners.  As a mill can only be lined up “in one of the four quarters of the board,” (55) the visual and physical thrust of their diagonality leads to the center.  The agricultural process is memorialized in the term for the player who achieves the creation of the boundary line, for when “a mill is created, . . . the miller is the winner.” (56)

The turning of the year is remembered also in the terminology of other aspects of the morris game.  There are “three fatal positions in Merels, where the opponent cannot win.  There do not appear to be English descriptions for the positions, other than a Running Jenny . . . .” (57)  In this context, one might assume that the reference is to Guinevere, the ‘White Queen’, for whose name “Jennifer” is a variant, and “Jenny” a nickname.  However, Jenny is also a generic term for the females of a number of species, including the tiny wren who is known as the Winter Wren, or Winter King. 

In the ancient world, there was a strict taboo against killing this bird who was thought to have brought fire from heaven for humankind’s use.  They say, that in her eagerness to bring back the gift, she flew too fast and all her feathers caught fire.  When she landed on the earth

    “. . . the poor wren had not a feather left–all had been burnt!  The birds gathered eagerly about her.  Each of them tore a feather from itself to make a garment for the the wren without delay . . . [except for] one rascally bird that would give nothing, and that was the screech-owl.  All the birds rushed at him for his hardness of heart, and he was forced to hide himself.” (58)

The archaic rites of winter, which mimic the movements of the sun on earth, require that the Winter King must, by necessity, be replaced by the King of Summer at the turning of the year. This too, is the poor wren’s predicament.  There was only one day of the year when the taboo on harming the wren was lifted; when it was permitted to ritually hunt the bird without fear of retributive bad luck.  That day fell on December 26th, just after the Winter Solstice, the darkest and most perilous time of the year.  The ritual sacrifice and respectful procession of the King of Birds served as a reminder that the Jenny had brought the sun’s fire, and that her assistance would be needed to assure the banishment of the dark days, and the return of the light. 

Although the rites of the Hunting of the Wren vary, in some places she is even stripped of her feathers (59) in imitation of her mishap in the bringing of fire.  On this one perilous day of the year, the Jenny Wren would be running for her life to avoid being trapped. As the wren “forages mouse-like on [the] ground,” (60) the appellation Running Jenny would be very apt for a creature in such a “fatal position.”  As time moved on, it was the Red-breasted Robin, in the form of Robin Hood as the May King, who became known as the slayer of the Winter Wren. (61)



One generally thinks that walking the labyrinth is about finding the center.  And, if we should be so fortunate as to find our way to that place of calm and repose, what we sometimes find at that “still point(62) is an otherworldly realm peacefully inhabited by “the dancers . . . all gone under the hill.(63)  In “threading” the maze, one actually enters that world of “neither here nor there.” 

    “Much has been written during the past three decades about the ritual significance of mazes, both as a protection against supernatural powers and as a path which the dead must follow on their way to the world of the spirits.  Here we will simply note that mazes are in relation to directions what betwixts-and-betweens are in relation to opposites.  In passing through a maze one is not going in any particular direction, and by so doing one reaches a destination which cannot be located by reference to the points of the compass.  According to Irish folk-belief, fairies and other supernatural beings can cause a man to lose his bearings (just as they can upset his sense of time) . . . . Conversely, in some of the ‘Voyages’ it is when the voyagers have lost their course and shipped their oars–when they are not going anywhere–that they arrive in the wondrous isles.” (64)

That the “Shepherd’s Labyrinths” were the sometime haunts of fairies is attested by English villagers familiar with the old ways.  Of the complicated spiral maze of a Yorkshire village, eyewitness testimony reports that:

   “. . . it was sunk in a hollow at the top of a hillock called “The Fairies’ Hill,” and is in a ruinous condition, being quite unknown to most of the villagers, although persons still living (in 1908) relate that they have often trodden it on a summer’s evening and knelt at the centre ‘to hear the fairies singing’.” (65) 

As for Shakespeare’s few lines bemoaning the muddied morris and the treadless mazes, allowing these lines to stand alone, and out of context, we have confirmation only that these ritual turf “games” were extant in his time.  However, these lines are but a portion of a long recitation of Titania’s, and it is from the framework of that totality that we are privileged to discover the meaning of the inclusion of the Nine-Men’s-Morris.  In a high rage, Titania, Queen of the Fairies, has “forsworn” her Fairy King Oberon’s “bed and company” (66) as punishment for his indiscretions.  The reverberations of their cosmic brawl are hinted at by Oberon’s jester, Puck:

   And now they never meet in grove, or green,

    By fountain clear, or spangled star-light sheen,

    But they do square; that all their elves, for fear

    Creep into acorn cups, and hide them there.” (67)     

The elfin queen enumerates the subsequent consequences of infertily that their “forgeries of jealousy” (68) have inflicted upon the land and the life of the people.  She speaks, forlornly, and we quote her crucially insightful recitation in its entirety.

   And never, since the middle summer’s spring,

    Met we on hill, in dale, forest, or mead,

    By paved fountain, or by rushy brook,

    Or in the beached margent of the sea,

    To dance our ringlets to the whistling wind,

    But with thy brawls thou hast disturb’d our sport.

    Therefore the winds, piping to us in vain,

    As in revenge, have suck’d up from the sea

    Contagious fogs; which, falling in the land,

    Have every pelting river made so proud

    That they have overborne their continents:

    The ox hath therefore stretch’d his yoke in vain,

    The ploughman lost his sweat, and the green corn

    Hath rotted ere his youth attain’d a beard:

    The fold stands empty in the drowned field,

    And crows are fatted with the murrion flock;

    The nine men’s morris is fill’d up with mud,

    And the quaint mazes in the wanton green

    For lack of tread are undistinguishable:

    The human mortals want their winter here:

    No night is now with hymn or carol blest:

    Therefore the moon, the governess of floods,

    Pale in her anger, washes all the air,

    That rheumatic diseases do abound:

    And thorough this distemperature we see

    The seasons alter; hoary-headed frosts

    Fall in the fresh lap of the crimson rose,

    And on old Hiems’ thin and icy crown

    An odorous chaplet of sweet summer buds

    Is, as in mockery, set.  The spring, the summer,

    The childing autumn, angry winter, change

    Their wonted liveries, and the mazed world,

    By their increase, now knows not which is which.

    And this same progeny of evil comes

    From our debate, from our dissension:

    We are their parents and original.” (69) 

From this raging battle of the king and queen of the fairy realm, we may deduce that it is they who control the various aspects of the food supply.  It is, in fact, a reflection of the beliefs once held by agricultural people throughout the world, mirrored in miniature.  The queen is Sovereignty.  She is the land, which must be fecundated by the fertile king.  It is a virile king who keeps the fertile land reproducing.  His ability to do so is a matter of life and death for the entire realm.  When he fails, he is put to death, and the “old king” is replaced by a “new king.”  This is ceremoniously played out in the game of chess, a game of the killing of the King, on whose board, the Queen’s presence was not visible until 1475; (70) and in the rituals of renewal known around the world.  It is this reality which is played out on the Eve of May by the May King and the May Queen in the Celtic celebrations of “the middle summer’s spring,” which is to say, Beltaine.  The consummation of this coupling provides the occasion for which the Morris dancers leap into the air with bells ringing and swords clashing.


    “Sword dances and morris dances are sympathetic magic to help the sun on its rounds, specially in Spring.  Dancing around an object encloses it in a magic circle, both protecting and strengthening the object. . . . Troy, or labyrinth dances were probably apotropaic as well as giving strength to the object at the centre, or, when there was a maiden at the centre as was often the case, the attainment of the object and the centre both represented a goal, either of initiation or regaining Paradise.” (71)

It has long been demonstrated by such illustrious scholars as J. G. Frazer, Lewis Farnell, F. M. Cornford, E. K. Chambers, and others, that the sword dances did not originate out of a war cult, but rather, that they arose from seasonal agrarian concerns.  Like the labyrinth dances, which share an affinity with the meandering mazes, and the Morris dances themselves, the sword dances are “. . . particular expressions of a very early and widely diffused ceremonial associated with the awakening of nature in spring, after its winter sleep, or the release of the imprisoned sun after its long captivity in the toils of the demon winter.” (72)

E. K. Chambers is adamant in his view that the sword dance was purely agri-cultural in nature.  His proof is presented from many angles:

    “Its essentially agricultural character seems to be shown by the grotesques

traditionally associated with it, the man in woman’s clothes, the skin or tail-wearing clown and the hobby-horse, all of which seem to find their natural explanation in the facts of agricultural worship.” (73)


    “As to the origin of the lusus Troiae or Pyrrhic dance which the Romans adopted from Doric Greece, I can say nothing; but the native Italian dance of the Salii or priests of Mars in March and October is clearly agricultural.  It belongs to the cult of Mars, not as war-god, but in his more primitive quality of a fertilization spirit.” (74)

    “Servius . . . says that the Salii were founded by Morrius, king of Veii.  According to Frazer, Morrius is etymologically equivalent to Mamurius–Mars.  Heeven suggests that Morris may possibly belong to the same group of words.” (75)

    “Further, I believe that the use of swords in the dance was not martial at all; their object was to suggest not a fight, but a mock or symbolical sacrifice.” (76)

There would seem to be little distinction, then, between the ancient sword dances and the Morris dances.  From the detailed descriptions of each of these dance types, one would be hard-pressed to decipher the differences.

    “Blackened faces are known in the sword-dance as well as the morris-dance; and there are other reasons which make it probable that the two are only variants of the same performance. . . .  The two dances appear at the same festivals, and they have the same grotesques; for the Tommy and Bessy of the English sword-dance, who occasionally merge in one, are obviously identical with the Maid Marian and the ‘fool’ of the morris-dance, who always nowadays similarly coalesce.  There are traces, too, of an association of the hobby-horse with the sword-dance, as well as with the morris-dance.  Most conclusive of all, however, is the fact that . . . [in some places] the morris dancers still use swords or wooden staves which obviously represent  swords, and that the performers of the elaborate Revesby sword-dance or play, . . . are called in the eighteenth-century manuscript ‘morrice dancers’.” (77) 

Of the sword dance, E. K. Chambers says, it “can boast a hoar antiquity.” (78)  He cites Tacitus’s observation of such dances among the Germanic tribes of the 1st century of the Common Era: the “young men who leapt with much agility amongst menacing spear-points and sword-blades,” (79) “performed without variation at every festive gathering.” (80)  Chambers claims these as the eventual inspiration for the minstrels, but notes that:

    “the earliest mediaeval notice of it as a popular ludus is at Nuremberg in 1350.  From that date onwards until quite recent years it crops up frequently, alike at Shrovetide, Christmas and other folk festivals, and as an element in the revels at weddings, royal entries, and the like.  It is fairly widespread throughout Germany.  It is found in Italy, where it is called the mattaccino, and in Spain (matachin), and under this name or that of the danse des bouffons it was known both in France and England at the Renaissance.  In England, the main area of the acknowledged sword-dance is in the north.” (81)

    “The name of danse des bouffons sometimes given to the sword-dance may be explained by a very constant feature of the English examples, in which the dancers generally include or are accompanied by one or more comic or grotesque personages.  The types of these grotesques are not kept very distinct in the descriptions, or, probably, in fact.  But they appear to be fundamentally two.  There is the ‘Tommy’ or ‘fool,’ who wears the skin and tail of a fox or some other animal, and there is the ‘Bessy,’ who is a man dressed in a woman’s clothes.” (82)

“ . . . a type of folk-dance far more widely spread in the south of England than the sword-dance proper, is really identical with it.  This is the morris-dance, the chief characteristic of which is that the performers wear bells which jingle at every step. . . .  Frequently, but by no means always, it is mentioned in company with the May-game.” (83) 

The association of the Morris with May Day, or Beltaine, is both primary and ubiquitous.  As the cross-quarter day fire festival of the Celtic calendar, which celebrated the end of Winter and the beginning of Summer, the purpose of the dance would have been to stimulate the dormant winter land to become fertile once more.  The vigorous stomping on the ground by its leaping steps would have achieved just such a purpose.  Some confusion arises, however, from a comment on the Morris dance by the author of Friar Bacons Prophesie of 1604, which alludes to the performance of the dance as a harvest rite for the bringing-in of the oats and rye, presumably at Lammas, or Lughnassa, in early August. 


     The Taber and the Pipe,

    The bagpipe and the Crowde,

    When oates and rye were ripe,

    Began to be alowde.

    But till the harvest all was in,

    The Moris Dance did not begin. (84)

Bemoaning the degeneration of custom over time, the author later remarks that now,

    . . . Moris dances doe begin

    Before the harvest halfe be in. (85)

Other authors of the same period describe the celebratory dances as occurring at “about the season of Easter, and before the May games: . . . ‘At Paske begun our Morrise, and ere Pentecost our May’.” (86)  Still others record that the Morris was a rite of Plough Monday.

    “Plough Monday is the Monday after Twelfth Night, when the field work begins.  A plough is dragged round the village and a quete made. . . . The plough is called the ‘Fool Plough,’ ‘Fond Plough,’ ‘Stot Plough,’ or ‘White Plough’; the latter name probably from the white shirts worn. . . .  Those who draw the plough are called ‘Plough Bullocks,’ ‘Boggons’ or ‘Stots’.  They sometimes dance a morris-or sword-dance. . . . The plough is generally accompanied by the now familiar grotesques, ‘Bessy’ and the Fool or ‘Captain Cauf-Tail’. . . . [Some have called] the rite a ‘worship of the plough’; probably it rather represents an early spring perambulation of the fields in which the divinity rode upon a plough, as elsewhere upon a ship.  A ploughing custom of putting a loaf in the furrow has also been noted.” (87)

It may be inferred, then, that over time, the dancing of the Morris was extended to markers of the agrarian calendar other than Beltaine; and later still, that the Church appropriated its festive tone of merrymaking to its celebrations of Christmas and Whitsuntide (Pentecost), thus disguising its original purpose.  It has been observed that, in time, the Morris became the be-all and end-all of every festive occasion, regardless of the time of year.


We have a record of the ancient tradition of the participants in the Morris dance in the accounts of the Elizabethan Court, where a performance of the Morris was held for a Bride-ale before the Queen.  It was “a lively morrisdauns, according too the auncient manner: six daunserz, Mawdmarion, and the fool.” (88)  The king is noticeably absent.  His Fool, or double, would appear to stand in his place.

The madness of the May festivities may account for the later additional presence of a whole band of merry-makers who accompanied the Morris dancers apparently from the time of Edward IV (1442-1483) onward. (89)

    “In a certain painted window at Betley in Staffordshire are represented six morris-dancers, together with a Maypole, a musician, a fool, a crowned man on a hobby-horse, a crowned lady with a pink in her hand, and a friar.  The last three may reasonably be regarded as Robin Hood, Maid Marian, and Friar Tuck. . . . The Betley figures only accompany the morris-dance; they do not themselves wear the bells. . . .

    The fact is that the morris-dance was a great deal older, as an element of the May-game, than Robin Hood . . . On the other hand, it is true that the actual dancers were generally accompanied by grotesque personages, and that one of these was a woman, or a man dressed in woman’s clothes, to whom literary writers at least continued to give the name of Maid Marian.  The others have nothing whatever to do with Robin Hood.  They were a clown or fool, and a hobby-horse, who, if the evidence of an Elizabethan song can be trusted, was already beginning to go out of fashion.  A rarer feature was a dragon, and it is possible that, when there was a dragon, the rider of the hobby-horse was supposed to personate St. George.” (90)

The substantive and ever-visible stock characters, then, are the Fool, who is always present, and the Mawd, who is usually, but not always present.  They are, in fact, less the accoutrements of the six Morris dancers, than that the bejangled sword-carriers are performing for their benefit.  I don’t think it would be too much to presume that the Mawd is the representative of Sovereignty who stands at the center of it all; while the Fool – the perennial wanderer on the edge, the insider as outsider, the scapegoat – circles the outer perimeter, sometimes with begging bowl in hand.  At times, only the Fool is present.

   “Few morris-dances are complete without the ‘fool’ or clown, amongst whose various names that of ‘squire’. . . and that of ‘dirty Bet’ . . . are the most interesting.  The woman is less invariable.  Her Tudor name of Maid Marian is preserved in Leicestershire alone; elsewhere she appears as a shepherdess, or Eve, or ‘the fool’s wife’; and sometimes she is merged with the ‘fool’ into a single nondescript personage.” (91)

Descriptions of those present at the Morris dance vary in time and place, but the ritual integrity of certain core features is preserved throughout the variation:

    “There is generally a fool, described in one account as wearing ‘a horrid mask.’  He is, however, generally black, and is known as ‘King Coffee’, ‘owd sooty-face,’ ‘dirty Bet,’ and ‘owd molly-coddle.’  The masked fool . . .     had as companion a shepherdess with lamb and crook.” (92)

    “In 1829 a writer describes the fool as ‘a nondescript, made up of the ancient fool and Maid Marian’.” (93)  

    “The dancers went on Twelfth-night, without bells, but with a fool, a ‘fool’s wife’ and sometimes a hobby-horse.” (94)

    “At Shrewsbury, in 1885, [at Christmas] were ten dancers, with a fool.  Five carried trowels and five short staves which they clashed.  The fool had a black face, and a bell on his coat.  No other bells are mentioned.  Staves or wooden swords are used at other places in Shropshire, and at Brosely all the faces are black.  The traditional music is a tabor and a pipe.” (95)

    “In the modern morris the black element is represented, except at Brosely, chiefly by ‘owd sooty face,’ the fool: in Leicestershire it gives rise to a distinct figure, Beelzebub.” (96)

    “The dance was on Plough Monday with paper masks, a plough, the bullocks, men in women’s dresses, one called Maid Marian, Curly the fool, and Beelzebub.” (97)

    “[In the accounts of fourteen villages in Oxfordshire] there are always six dancers.  A broad garter of bells is worn below the knee.  There are two sets of figures: in one handkerchiefs are carried, in the other short staves are swung and clashed.  Sometimes the dancers sing to the air, which is that of an old country-dance.  There is always a fool, who carries a stick with a bladder and cow’s tail, and is called in two places ‘Rodney,’ elsewhere the ‘squire.’  The music is that of a pipe and tabor (‘whittle’ and ‘dub’) played by one man; a fiddle is now often used.” (98)

The ‘kit’, or costume, worn by contemporary Border Morris teams, is replete not only with all the usual bells and whistles, but additionally “. . . consists of strips of cloth, usually called ‘tatters’ or ‘rags’, which are sewn all over the [white] shirt, jacket, and/or trousers.  The dancers often “black-up”, i.e., wear black face as a form of ritual disguise.  In this age of political correctness, however, many teams skip this.” (99)  It is most unfortunate that the meaning of the blackened faces, if ever slenderly known, has entirely disappeared from folk-memory; a remembrance which we shall later resurrect.  We can at least take comfort in the fact that, whether unbeknownst to the dancers, or perhaps in unconscious tribute, they pay homage to the Fool by donning his ragged motley tatters.  They have become the Fool.  And in so doing, they remind us of Shakespeare’s lines, O that I were a fool.  I am ambitious for a motley coat. (100)

All of the names by which the sword dance is called, whether mattaccino, matachin, or danse des bouffons, (101) mean ‘Fool’.  In the French Tarot decks, The Fool card is called “Le Mat,” meaning ‘The Madman’; in the Italian decks, “Il Matto.”  And fools and madmen are often lumped together, even by fools themselves.  We have the wonderful example of King Lear’s Fool, who, in the company of his rather mad, unravelled king, has peeked inside a hovel on the heath where he finds Edgar, disguised as a madman, and calling himself “poor Tom,” another name for Tom O’Bedlam.  At the midpoint of Lear’s insanely reasoned inquiries as to how Tom could have come to this lowly state, the Fool, exasperated by the foolish insanity, says: This cold night will turn us all to fools and madmen.” (102)  As usual, the fool is always on the mark, and we have a hint of the same thought process in “the term ‘the madman’s morris’ [which] appears as the name of the dance in The Figure of Nine”; (103) a Restoration play attributed to England’s King Charles II.

As the fool is the wearer of bells par excellence on most all and every occasion, we may presume that the bells worn on the legs of the dancers are his bells, borrowed for the occasion, where they are displayed and sounded in extremis.  The bells, which are such a greatly exaggerated feature of the Morris dance, are rarely seen on the sword dancers. (104)  Johnson’s 1775 Dictionary defines the Morris as “a dance in which bells are gingled, or swords or staves clashed.” (105)  Some of the period descriptions elaborate the accentuated feature of the fool’s borrowed tonal accoutrements:

    “The bells were usually fastened upon broad garters . . . . But they also appear as anklets or are hung on various parts of the dress. . . . [Sometimes] a morris-dancer holds a pair of bells in his hands.  Sometimes the bells were harmonized.  [One character in a play of 1589] . . . is described as ‘the fore gallant of the Morrice with the treble bells’.” (106)

    “The number of bells round each leg of the morris dancers amounted from twenty to forty.  They had various appellations, as the fore-bell, the second bell, the treble, the tenor, the base, and the double bell.  Sometimes they used trebles only; but these refinements were of later times.  The bells were occasionally jingled by the hands, or placed on the arms or wrists of the parties.” (107)

One fool (or perhaps he was a madman), the famous William Kempe, the most renowned Morris dancer of his day, danced the dance “in bell shangles” (108) on an arduous one hundred twenty seven mile route all the way from London to Norwich in nine miserably exhausting days in 1599.  The story of this formidable task is told in his own words in Nine Daies Wonder: Performed in a daunce from London to Norwich. (109)  To appreciate how popular the Morris dance remains in our own time, one has only to look at the re-enactment, under similarly miserable weather conditions, of Kempe’s grueling solo feat on the 400th anniversary of his dance, which was accomplished in the year 2000 by fifty teams of Morris dancers. (110)

A heavily veiled and rather humorous tribute to the dancers of the Morris, and by extension, to the Fool, seems to be the exoteric subject of a symbolically layered painting by Pieter Bruegel: The Beggars, of 1568. (111)  Although “the significance of this work . . . remains obscure,” (112) some have put forth the theory that the work alludes to a cross-class Resistance movement opposed to the Inquisition, whose members announced their unity in beggars’ clothes. (113)  Perhaps this is true, but what is of significance to our study is the dead-giveaway of “bell shangles” on the legs of one of the five beggars, all of whom are on crutches.  Three are amputees, two of whom wear wooden prosthetic devices that assist them in kicking the remaining portion of their legs in the air.  Four, including the “bishop,” whose back is turned to us, “wear a white smock to which foxtails are attached–the foxtail [being] an attribute of beggars . . .” (114) 

The white smock is the most universal feature of the Morris dancers’ costume; a very tattered version of which is the only vestment worn by The Fool in the earliest Sforza Tarot decks, which date to the mid 15th century. (115)  The fox’s tail is the sometime decoration on the bauble of the court fool (116) and the Morris fool alike. (117)  Additionally, the fool is depicted and described as having a ladle attached to his bauble for the gathering of money for his morrisers. (118)  In fact, there came a time in England, at least, when the festive Morris performances had degenerated into mere fundraising events for the Church.  Whether Bruegel had knowledge of any of these details remains a question, but the elements of “coincidence” are compelling.    

As to the presence of the fool’s bells on all of our Morris dancers, there is much evidence to show that the principle function of bells is to ward off evil, and to break through that thin line that exists between this world and some other.  On the fool, as on the dancer, their sounds serve a purpose similar to those of the sweeter and higher bells of faerie, whose tinklings are known to cast their spell on unsuspecting mortals, thus transporting them into another realm of reality.  In whatever sacred capacity they are employed, the sounding of bells is specific to a clearing of the way, a crossing of the boundary between profane and sacred, a transcendental progress to a higher state.  

This, too, is the intent when the church bell rings out from its high tower.  Its deep resonations are meant to drive away those spirits who might have come unbidden into the vicinity of the sacred grounds, to call the faithful to worship, and to cause them to be mindful of the fact that when they enter the portals, they will step into another world as they cross the threshold.  During the elevation and consecration of the Host and the Chalice, which is the moment at which the bread and wine are believed to transubstantiate into the body and blood of Christ, the sounding of higher pitched bells announces a crossing of yet a higher threshold, for at this most solemn moment it is believed that “the living presence of Christ” is experienced. (119)  The Christian mimesis is but the rarified culmination of eight thousand years of pagan agricultural ritual celebrating the rebirth of life. 


The purpose of the Morris dances has everything to do with the returning light of the sun awakening from its dark days of winter.  The ashen-faced Fool and his similarly blackened-faced dancers are the initiators of the rite of purification by fire, which is the centerpiece of the rituals of the turning year of the Celtic calendar.  At the May feast, on the eve of Beltaine “all household fires were doused and rekindled from the new fire.” (120)  In his masterful commentary on “folk drama” enacted in the village festivals, E. K. Chambers explains the rituals of the lighting of the new fire.

    “. . . the fire must be fresh fire.  That is to say, it must not be lit from any pre-existing fire, but must be made anew. . . .  Such fire is known as ‘need-fire’ or ‘forced fire,’ and is produced in various ways, by rubbing two pieces of wood together, by turning a drill in a solid block, or by rapidly rotating a wheel upon an axle.  Often certain precautions are observed, as that nine men must work at the job, or chaste boys; and often all the hearth-fires in the village are first extinguished, to be rekindled by the new flame.” (121)

Many scholars who have examined the rites have noted the presence of the nine in the precautions taken in the kindling, or configuration of the laying of the fire.  In the practices of the Celts, “nine is connected with the Beltane Fire rites which are attended by eighty-one men, nine at a time.” (122)  In Scotland, “the Beltane bonfires were lit on the central ninth of a ninefold square cut in the turf, the outer eight squares of which were removed.” (123)  Some scholars have similarly described the Nine-Men’s-Morris itself as having been “played on a square divided into eight sections around a central ‘pound’”; (124) the divisions being reckoned on the diagonal.  At the Highland boundary rites of Bel-tein, a nine-square grid pattern of raised knobs decorated the round oatmeal cakes (125) that were offered by the shepherds to the beneficent and malevolent forces outside the protective circle of fire.  The historic record shows also that in Scotland, “the need-fire was kindled sometimes by nine men and sometimes by nine nines of first-begotten sons. . . . [And] in Scotland, and in Wales, as in parts of Scandinavia, the [Beltaine] fire was made with nine sticks collected by nine men from nine different trees.” (126)  Perhaps our nine Morris men are these rekindlers of the flame.

As to the purpose of the lighting of fires at the turning of the seasons, at that moment in time and out of time when the world is precariously balanced in the realm of “neither here nor there,” and to that which is behind that purpose, namely, the ‘sympathetic magic’ or ‘charm’, the work of E. K. Chambers once again enlightens us:

   “To achieve sunshine, a fire must be lit, or some other representation of the appear-ance and motion of the sun devised. (127)  The ordinary heat-charm was to build, in semblance of the sun, the source of heat, a great fire. . . .  The worshippers . . . in order that they may receive the full benefits of the heat-charm, . . . must come into direct physical contact with the fire, by standing in the smoke, or even leaping through the flames, or by smearing their faces with the charred ashes.  The cattle too must be driven through the fire, in order that they may be fertile and free from pestilence throughout the summer; and a whole series of observances had for their especial object the distribution of the preserving influence over the farms. 

    The fires were built on high ground, that they might be visible far and wide.  Or they were built in a circle round the fields, or to windward, so that the smoke might blow     across the corn.  Blazing arrows were shot in the air, or blazing torches carried about.  Ashes were sprinkled over the fields, or mingled with the seed corn or the fodder in the stall.  Charred brands were buried or stuck upright in the furrows.  Further, by a simple symbolism, the shape and motion of the sun were mimicked with circular rotating bodies.  A fiery barrel or a fiery wheel was rolled down the hill on the top of which the ceremony took place.” (128)

In King Lear, Shakespeare has given us a searing glimpse of these wheels of fire and fortune in terms of the entwined relationship between the fates of Fortune and the solar king as guardian of the community to which he is bound.  Waking to the loving face of Cordelia, whom he takes for a spirit, the King protests the interruption of his liminal death-state. 

    “You do me wrong to take me out o’ the grave;

    Thou art a soul in bliss; but I am bound

    Upon a wheel of fire that mine own tears

    Do scald like molten lead.” (129)

Nothing short of the destiny of the entire realm is what is at stake in the enactment of these rites in which everything and everyone is touched directly by the purifying fires.  The purpose behind the charred faces of the Morris dancers is now brought into sharp focus.  With specific reference to the smearing of faces with the charred ashes of the need-fire, Chambers remarks in a footnote to his source, that “to this custom may possibly be traced the black-a-vised figures who are persistent in the folk ludi, and also the curious tradition which makes May-day especially the chimney-sweep’s holiday.” (130)  Most essential to our understanding of the Morris is the vital connection between the potent fertilizing agent of ashes spread over the soil, the charred faces of the participants of the rite, and the sexually virile phallic Fool and his black-faced dancers. 

Turning to the ancient past, we find in Francis M. Cornford’s studies of the origin of Attic comedy, an elucidation of Aristotle’s parenthetical, but “most important statement that ‘Comedy originated with the leaders of the Phallic Songs’.” (131)  We learn, too, from Cornford’s presentation in this context of “a kind of

performance closely related to the Phallic Songs,” (132) in which the god of fertility is invoked, and the audience lambasted with satiric abuse. (133)  The Phallophoroi, the carriers of the fertility god’s potent emblem, have a most instructive bearing and appearance.  Cornford tells us that from the middle of the orchestra, which they had entered in silence, “they ran forward and satirised persons whom they had fixed on.  They performed standing still.  The bearer of the phallus. . . was smeared with soot.” (134)  Of this procession of the fertility god’s member, he notes that “it has never been doubted that the phallic procession . . . belongs to a well-known class of rites, to be found all over Europe and in many other regions, and [is] intended to secure the fertility of the earth and of man and beast.” (135)

Continuing the thread of the discussions of such rituals as set forth in great detail by Chambers, Cornford says,

   “The main purpose of these fertility processions is well brought out by E. K. Chambers.  He remarks that ‘the customs of the village festival gave rise to two types of dance.  There was the processional dance of the band of worshippers in progress round their boundaries and from field to field, from house to house, from well to well of the village. . . . The other type of folk-dance, the ronde or “round,” is derived from the comparatively stationary dance of the group of worshippers around the more especially sacred objects of the festival, such as the tree or the fire.  The custom of dancing round the Maypole has been more or less preserved wherever the Maypole is known’.” (136)

    “‘Maypole or church’, he says elsewhere, ‘may represent a focus of the cult at some specially sacred tree or grove in the heathen village.  But the ceremony, though it centres at these, is not confined to them, for its whole purpose is to distribute the benign influence over the entire community, every field, fold, pasture, orchard close, and homestead thereof. . . .” (137)

    “Chambers’ description needs to be supplemented by taking into account precisely that other factor which Aristotle emphasises to the exclusion of the positive element of fertility magic.  Besides the distribution of benign influence, of which Chambers speaks, these processions have also the converse magical intent of defeating and driving away bad influences of every kind.  The phallus itself is no less a negative charm against evil spirits than a positive agent of fertilisation.  But the simplest of all methods of expelling such malign influences of any kind is to abuse them with the most violent language.  No distinction is drawn between this and the custom of abusing, and even beating, the persons or things which are to be rid of . . . .” (138)

All of the necessary requisites here enumerated for the promotion of fertility and the simultaneous ridding of evil influences are fulfilled in the person of the Fool.  Thus the enduring presence among the Morris dancers of “owd sooty-face,” who as the virile king’s tanist, or second, stands for all things of a phallic nature.  It is the fool’s job to get the point across by skating on the edge of propriety and overstepping the bounds at every opportunity.  The Phallophoroi, who do just that, are also called “fools.”  Cornford tells us also of a similar guild, or group, the “club of Fools (‘The Sixty’) who met in the precinct of Heracles at Kynosarges” (139) in fifth century Athens.  He compares this guild to those of “the compagnies des fous, confreries des sots, societes joyeuses, etc., of fifteenth-century France [which] were formed to carry on the popular Feast of Fools.” (140)  The notorious abuses of the French fools were really beyond the pale.


In the numerous theories proposed for the name of Morris, both as game and as dance, we come upon the visage of none other than “owd sooty-face” who, in his role as the stand-in for the king, has provided us with a clue as to the choice of name, but in so doing has created a curious etymological confusion with regard to the derivation of the term itself.

   “[In France, the dance appeared]. . . about 1588 under the name of morisque . . . the earlier English writers call it the morisce, morisk, or morisco.  This seems to imply a derivation of the name at least from the Spanish morisco, a Moor.  The dance itself has consequently been held to be of Moorish origin, and the habit of blackening the face has been considered as a proof of this.  Such a theory seems to invert the order of facts.  The dance is too closely bound up with English village custom to be lightly regarded as a foreign importation; and I would suggest that the faces were not blackened, because the dancers represented Moors, but rather the dancers were thought to represent Moors, because their faces were blackened.  The blackened face is common enough in the village festival.  Hence, as we have seen, May-day became proper to the chimney-sweeps, and we have found a conjectural reason for the disguise in the primitive custom of smearing the face with the beneficent ashes of the festival fire.” (141)

    “The derivation of Morris from Morisco quasi Moor is very doubtful, but no better etymology has yet been proposed.” (142)

A more definitive, albeit somewhat obscure, etymology that directly connects the May Day Morris with its Celtic roots, is found in the few remaining recorded words of the extinct Galatian language.  Among the personal names of this Gaulish warrior-tribe which migrated into Anatolia through Thrace in the 3rd century B.C.E., we most usually find the name-endings of marus and mari as equivalents to the Gaulish maros, the Old Irish mor, and the Welsh mawr, which in all instances, mean ‘great’.  Numerous examples of names ending in riks also occur among the Galli.  This same word is commonly found in other Celtic languages, as for example in the Gaulish rix or reix, and in the Old Irish ri.  Its equivalent in Latin is rex, meaning ‘king’. (143)  From such roots, it would not be much of a linguistic reach to arrive at morris with the meaning of ‘great king’.

We have numerous examples of the prefix mor in many of the family names of the greatest of all Celtic kings, Arthur of Britain, who is the penultimate King of the May.  The early 13th century bard, Wolfram von Eschenbach tells us that:

    Arthur is the man of May, and whatever has been told about him took place at Pentecost or in the flowering time of May.  What fragrance, they say, is in the air around him!” (144)

His Queen of the May is Guinivere, the ‘White Queen’ who is Sovereign, both as Lady and as Land.  It is She who stands at the center of the kingdom.  By contrast, we have the most important of Arthur’s sisters, Morgan le Fay, the ‘Great Fairy Woman’, who is also called Morgain, or Morgana, ‘Great Woman’.  She is proudly “descended from the Celtic deities Morrigan, Macha, and Modron,” (145) known collectively as the Morrigan. (146)

Morrigan, whose name means ‘Great Queen’, is both the personal and generic title of the powerful triad of Irish Goddesses of War and Death.  They shape-shift into dreaded ravens or crows on the field of battle where they hop on one foot, with one eye open, to menace the enemy with curses, and to inspire the warriors under their protection.  As is common in deities of war, their heightened sexuality and fertility are accentuated.  The combined attributes of blackness, fertility, and in this case, at least, war, are to be noted here with respect to the similar features of the ashen-faced Morris dancers who leap in the fields with swords held high. 

The Morrigan’s hopping on one foot, an attitude typical of the behavior of ravens and crows, and an essential component in the carrying out of the most famous and powerful of Celtic curses, sheds some light on a curious connection that has been made between hopping and the name Morris.  With reference to the appellation as both dance and game, Nigel Pennick tells us that:

    “The word Merels from which the Morris in Nine Men’s Morris is derived, has a connection with ‘hopping’, which is part of the game of Nine Holes, for the French name for Hopscotch is Merelle.  The origin of the dancing known as Morris may well be part of this tradition.” (147) 

The ornithological trappings of Arthurian literature are visible also in the name of the King’s magician, the Druid Merlin.  While the name Merlin has no direct connection to the dance, or to the game of Morris itself, its resemblance to many of the game’s other names is most striking.  Excluding names derived from linguistic variants on the word for mill (148) which seem to bear no resemblance, numerous other names, most of which are thought to derive “from the Low Latin merellus, meaning a token, counter, or coin,” (149) bear a direct relation to our inquiry with regard to Merlin.  The geographically diverse variations of the name of the game, as for example, Merrils, Marells, Marrel, and Marlin, are all variants on the name Merels. (150)

Merlin, like so many other figures in Arthur’s court, has an avian name that can be identified. (151)  He is the small dark hawk of the Falcon family, the Falcon columbarius, or ‘Pigeon Hawk’.  Forms of the name ‘Merlin’ with specific reference to the bird are first recorded in about 1325, first as ‘merlyon’, and its variations, such as ‘Murleons’, until ‘merlyn’ became the most widespread, and then changed its spelling to ‘merlin’, which it has ever since been called. (152)  In France, however, the falcon is still called ‘Fauncon emerillon’. (153  This is an earlier form of “the Anglo-Norman merillon, . . . from Old French emerillon, [and the] older esmerillon, a derivative of esmeril, a word taken up from Franconian German smeril.” (154)


As the Druid of The King of May, we should not be surprised to find Merlin abiding, like his King, in an amorphous state between worlds.  While Arthur floated into the land of mists that some call Avalon, Merlin, in “a renunciation of worldly power,” (155) consciously succumbed to the love-spell of his beloved Vivien, or Niniane, and withdrew from the humdrum world to his “l’esplumoir Merlin(156) “to study the heavens and the mysteries of creation.” (157)  Thus “Merlin retires from all society and withdraws into eternal silence.” (158)  He is suspended in time and space: neither here nor there, this nor that, not-dead. (159)  He lives in the boundaries between worlds.




1. Nigel Pennick, The Ancient Science of Geomancy: Man in Harmony with the Earth. (London: Thames & Hudson, 1979), p. 61.

2. Oxford Classical Dictionary. N. G. L. Hammond and H. H. Scullard, Eds. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977, 2nd ed.), “Terminus”, p. 1045.

3. Ovid, Fasti. Sir James George Frazer, Translation and Commentary. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, Loeb Classical Library, 1931-1976), II, VII. Kal. 23rd, pp. 104-05.

4. A. A. Barb, “Diva Matrix” in Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institute, Vol. 16, 1953.

5. Nigel Pennick, The Ancient Science of Geomancy: Man in Harmony with the Earth, op. cit., p. 61.

6. Ibid.

7. Henri Frankfort, Kingship and the Gods: A Study of the Ancient Near Eastern Religion as the Integration of Society and Nature. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1978), p. 79.

8. Ibid., p. 82; and p. 103 passim.

9. Ibid., p. 86.

10. Ibid., pp. 84-85.

11. Ibid., p. 87.

12. Ibid., p. 88.

13. W. Warde Fowler, The Religious Experience of the Roman People: From the Earliest Times to the Age of Augustus. The Gifford Lectures for 1909-10. (London: Macmillan and Co., Ltd., 1933), p. 210.

14. Ibid., Appendix II: Prof. Deubner’s Theory of the Lupercalia, p. 478.

15. Ibid.

16. Ibid.

17. Ovid, Fasti, op. cit., James Frazer’s Commentary in the Appendix on “Lupercalia” ii, 267, p. 393.

18. Ibid., p. 389.

19. Ibid., p. 390. St. Augustine’s dates: 354-430 C.E.  According to W. W. Fowler, the Lupercalia “continued to exist down to the year 494 A.D. when the Pope, Gelasius I, changed the day (Feb. 15) to that of the Purification of the Virgin Mary.” (W. Warde Fowler, The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic: An Introduction to the Study of the Religion of the Romans. (London: Macmillan and Co., Limited, 1933), p. 321).

20. W. Warde Fowler, The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic: An Introduction to the Study of the Religion of the Romans, op. cit., p. 319.

21. Alwyn Rees and Brinley Rees, Celtic Heritage: Ancient Tradition in Ireland and Wales. (London: Thames and Hudson,1961), p. 345.

22. Bonnie Blackburn & Leofranc Holford-Strevens, The Oxford Companion to the Year: An Exploration of Calendar Customs and Time-reckoning. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), “1 May: Beltane”, p. 190, quot. Thomas Pennant, Scotland, 1769, 90-1.

23. Nigel Pennick, The Ancient Science of Geomancy: Man in Harmony with the Earth, op. cit., p. 63.

24. Nigel Pennick, Games of the Gods: The Origin of Board Games in Magic and Divination. (York Beach, ME: Samuel Weiser, Inc., 1989), p. 162.

25. Ibid., p. 223.

26. Madhu Khanna, Yantra: The Tantric Symbol of Cosmic Unity. (London: Thames and Hudson, 1981), p. 10.

27. Ibid.

28. Nigel Pennick, Games of the Gods: The Origin of Board Games in Magic and Divination, op. cit., p. 162.

29. Ibid., p. 169.

30. Ibid., p. 171.

31. Alwyn Rees and Brinley Rees, Celtic Heritage: Ancient Tradition in Ireland and Wales, op. cit., p. 146.

32. See: Ibid., pp. 146-149.

33. Ibid., p. 147.

34. Ibid., p. 148.

35. Madhu Khanna, Yantra: The Tantric Symbol of Cosmic Unity, op. cit., p. 20.

36. See: Nigel Pennick, Earth Harmony: Siting and Protecting Your Home – A Practical and Spiritual Guide. (London: Century Hutchinson, Ltd., 1987), pp. 91-95; illus. 16, p. 92; illus. 17e., p. 94.

37. Madhu Khanna, Yantra: The Tantric Symbol of Cosmic Unity, op. cit., 1979, p. 144.

38. Ibid., p. 144.

39. Ibid., p. 143.

40. Ibid., p. 144.

41. Ibid., p. 144.

42. Ibid., p. 10.

43. Ibid., p. 142.

44. Nigel Pennick, Games of the Gods: The Origin of Board Games in Magic and Divination, op. cit., p. 162.

45. Rev. T. F. Thiselton Dyer, Folk-Lore of Shakespeare. (Mineola: Dover Publications, Inc., 1966 unabridged and unaltered  republication of 1883 ed.), p. 386, quot. Francis Douce, Illustrations of Shakespeare, 1807, p. 144.

46. Rev. T. F. Thiselton Dyer, Folk-Lore of Shakespeare, op. cit., p. 387, quot. Frederick James, Variorum Shakespeare.

47. William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, II.i.98-100.

48. Nigel Pennick, Games of the Gods: The Origin of Board Games in Magic and Divination, op. cit., p. 171.

49. Rev. T. F. Thiselton Dyer, Folk-Lore of Shakespeare, op. cit., p. 388.

50. Nigel Pennick, The Ancient Science of Geomancy: Man in Harmony with the Earth, op. cit., p. 63.

51. W. Carew Hazlitt, “Nine Men’s Morris” in Faiths and Folklore of the British Isles. Two Volumes. (New York: Benjamin Blom, 1965 Reprint of 1905 Edition), Vol. II, pp. 439-40, quot. Miss Baker, Northamptonshire Glossary, 1854.

52. On the subject of ancient turf mazes and labyrinths, see: W. H. Matthews, Mazes and Labyrinths: Their History and Development. (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1970 unabridged and unaltered Republication of 1922 Edition), pp. 71-99; and Nigel Pennick, Mazes and Labyrinths. (London: Robert Hale, 1994), pp. 57-102.

53. W. Carew Hazlitt, “Nine Men’s Morris” in Faiths and Folklore of the British Isles, op. cit., Vol. II, p. 440.

54. Nigel Pennick, Mazes and Labyrinths, op. cit., p. 94; pp. 91-97 passim.

55. Nigel Pennick, Games of the Gods: The Origin of Board Games in Magic and Divination, op. cit., p. 174.

56. Ibid., p. 164.

57. Ibid., p. 188.

58. Sir James George Frazer, Myths of the Origin of Fire: An Essay. (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1996), pp. 190-91.

59. Christina Hole, A Dictionary of British Folklore Customs. (Oxford: Helicon Publishing Ltd., 1995), p. 165; pp. 163-168 passim.

60. Roger Tory Peterson, Guy Mountfort, P. A. D. Hollom, Birds of Britain and Europe. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 5th ed., 1993), “Wren: Troglodytes troglodytes”, p. 171.

61. See: Robert Graves, The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth. (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1974; 7th printing of Amended and Enlarged Edition of 1966), p. 397.

62. T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets, “Burnt Norton” II, 62.

63. T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets, “East Coker”  II, 100.

64. Alwyn Rees and Brinley Rees, Celtic Heritage: Ancient Tradition in Ireland and Wales, op. cit., p. 346.

65. W. H. Matthews, Mazes and Labyrinths, op. cit., p. 77, quot. Mr. A. H. Allcroft, Earthwork of England, 1908.

66. William Shakespeare, A Midsummer-Night’s Dream, II.i.62.

67. Ibid., II.i.28-31.

68. Ibid., II.i.81.

69. Ibid., II.i.82-117.

70. Nigel Pennick, Games of the Gods: The Origin of Board Games in Magic and Divination, op. cit., p. 191.

71. J. C. Cooper, “Dance/Dancing” in An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols. (London: Thames and Hudson, 1978), p. 49.

72. W. H. Matthews, Mazes and Labyrinths, op. cit., p. 160.

73. E. K. Chambers, The Mediaeval Stage. (Mineola: Dover Publications, 1966, Two Volumes as One unabridged republication of the 1903 Edition), Vol. I, p. 202.

74. Ibid., Vol. I, p. 203

75. Ibid., Vol. I, p. 203, Note 2., quot. ad Aen. viii. 285.

76. Ibid., Vol. I, p. 203.

77. Ibid., Vol. I, pp. 199-200.

78. Ibid., Vol. I, pp. 190.

79. Ibid., Vol. I, pp. 190-91, citing Tacitus, Germania 24.

80. Tacitus, The Agricola and The Germania. H. Mattingly, Trans., S. A. Handford, Revised Translation. (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books Ltd., 1970), The Germania 24, p. 121.

81. E. K. Chambers, The Mediaeval Stage, op. cit., Vol. I, pp. 191-92.

82. Ibid., Vol. I, p. 192.

83. Ibid., Vol. I, p. 195.

84. W. Carew Hazlitt, “Morris Dance” in Faiths and Folklore of the British Isles, op. cit., Vol. II, p. 423.

85. Ibid.

86. Francis Douce, Illustrations of Shakespeare and of Ancient Manners with Dissertations On the Clown and Fools of Shakespeare; On the Collections of Popular Tales Entitled Gesta Romanorum; and On the English Morris Dance. (New York: Burt Franklin, 1968. Originally published London, 1839), p. 584, quot. Warner, Albion’s England of 1625, v. 25, p. 121.

87. E. K. Chambers, The Mediaeval Stage, op. cit., Vol. I, pp. 208-09, Note 4.

88. Ibid., Vol. I, p. 195, Note 4.

89. See: Ibid. Vol. I, p. 195, note 5.; and pp. 195-98 passim.

90. Ibid., Vol. I, pp. 195-97.

91. Ibid., Vol. I, p. 198.

92. Ibid., Vol. I, p. 197, Note 2.

93. Ibid.

94. Ibid., Vol. I, p. 197, Note 3.

95. Ibid., Vol. I, p. 197, Note 4.

96. Ibid., Vol. I, p. 199, Note 3.

97. Ibid., Vol. I, pp. 197-98, Note 5.

98. Ibid., Vol. I, p. 198, Note 1.

99. <>

100. William Shakespeare, As You Like It. II.vii.42-43.

101. E. K. Chambers, The Mediaeval Stage, op. cit., Vol. I, p. 191.

102. William Shakespeare, King Lear, III.iv.77-78.

103. E. K. Chambers, The Mediaeval Stage, op. cit., Vol. I, p. 200, Note 1., temp. Charles II.

104. Ibid., Vol. I, p. 201.

105. Ibid., Vol. I, p. 200, Note 3.

106. Ibid., Vol. I, p. 201, Note 1.

107. Francis Douce, Illustrations of Shakespeare and of Ancient Manners with Dissertations On the Clown and Fools of Shakespeare; On the Collections of Popular Tales Entitled Gesta Romanorum; and On the English Morris Dance, op. cit., pp. 602-03.

108. E. K. Chambers, The Mediaeval Stage, op. cit., Vol. I, p. 201, Note 5.

109. <> with a critical commentary by Donato Colucci, “Nine Days’ Wonder”, 1997, and the reprint of Kempe’s entire text.

110. <>

111. Collection of the Louvre Museum. Can be viewed at <>

112. Ibid.

113. Robert L. Delevoy, Bruegel. Stuart Gilbert, Trans. (New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 1990), pp. 88-89.

114. Ibid., p. 89.

115. See: Stuart R. Kaplan, Visconti Sforza Tarocchi Deck. (New York: U.S. Games Systems, Inc., 1984).

116. The Columbia Encyclopedia. Second Edition. William Bridgewater and Elizabeth J. Sherwood, Eds. (Morningside Heights, NY: Columbia University Press, 1956), “fool”, p. 696.

117. E. K. Chambers, The Mediaeval Stage, op. cit., Vol. I,  p. 142, Note 3; p. 192.

118. Ibid., Vol. I, pp. 194-95, Note 2.

119. See C. G. Jung, “Transformation Symbolism in the Mass” in Psychology and Religion: West and East. Collected Works Volume 11. Sir Herbert Read, Michael Fordham, Gerard Adler, William McGuire, Editors; R. F. C. Hull, Translator. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, Bollingen Series XX, 2nd Ed., 1969), CW Vol. 11, para. 322, p. 214.

120. John and Caitlin Matthews, “Beltaine” in The Aquarian Guide To British and Irish Mythology. (Wellingborough, Northamptonshire: The Aquarian Press, 1988, p. 32.

121. E. K. Chambers, The Mediaeval Stage, op. cit., Vol. I, p. 127.

122. J. C. Cooper, “Numbers” in An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols, op. cit., p. 118.

123. Nigel Pennick, Games of the Gods: The Origin of Board Games in Magic and Divination, op. cit., p. 132.

124. Alwyn Rees and Brinley Rees, Celtic Heritage: Ancient Tradition in Ireland and Wales, op. cit., pp. 193-94.

125. Nigel Pennick, Games of the Gods: The Origin of Board Games in Magic and Divination, op. cit., p. 132.

126. Alwyn Rees and Brinley Rees, Celtic Heritage: Ancient Tradition in Ireland and Wales, op. cit., pp. 193-94.

127. E. K. Chambers, The Mediaeval Stage, op. cit., Vol. I, p. 121.

128. Ibid., Vol. I, pp. 124-25.

129. William Shakespeare, King Lear, IV.vii.45-48.

130. E. K. Chambers, The Mediaeval Stage, op. cit., Vol. I, p. 125, note 2.

131. Francis Macdonald Cornford, The Origin of Attic Comedy. Theodore H. Gaster, Editor, Forward, Notes. (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books/Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1961), p. 102.

132. Ibid., p. 107.

133. Ibid., p. 106.

134. Ibid., p. 107.

135. Ibid., p. 111.

136. Ibid., p. 111., quot. E. K. Chambers, The Mediaeval Stage, i. 164.

137. Ibid., pp. 111-12., quot. E. K. Chambers, The Mediaeval Stage, i. 118.

138. Francis Macdonald Cornford, The Origin of Attic Comedy, op. cit., p. 112.

139. Ibid., p. 108.

140. Ibid., p. 109.

141. E. K. Chambers, The Mediaeval Stage, op. cit., Vol. I, p. 199.

142. W. Carew Hazlitt, “Morris Dance” in Faiths and Folklore of the British Isles, op. cit., Vol. II, p. 422.

143. See: “Celtic languages: Galatian” at <>

144. Wolfram von Eschenbach, Parzival: A Romance of the Middle Ages. Helen M. Mustard and Charles E. Passage, Translation and Introduction. (New York: Vintage Books, A Division of Random House, 1961), Book VI, 281, p. 153.

145. Raymond H. Thompson, “Morgan Le Fay” in The Arthurian Encyclopedia. Norris J. Lacy, Editor. (New York: Peter Bedrick Books, 1986), p. 395.

146. Alwyn Rees and Brinley Rees, Celtic Heritage: Ancient Tradition in Ireland and Wales, op. cit. The Rees brothers inform us that the customarily used Morrigan is not the correct spelling in Ireland, where “The plural morrigna is used for the trio.”, p. 36.

147. Nigel Pennick, Games of the Gods: The Origin of Board Games in Magic and Divination, op. cit., p. 165.

148. Ibid., pp. 166-67.

149. Ibid., p. 162.

150. Ibid., p. 167.

151. See: Tracy Boyd, “The Birds in Arthur’s Court” a work in progress which will appear at <> in the future.

152. W. B. Lockwood, The Oxford Dictionary of British Bird Names. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), “Merlin”, p. 103.

153. Roger Tory Peterson, et. al., Birds of Britain and Europe, op. cit., “Merlin”, p. 82.

154. W. B. Lockwood, The Oxford Dictionary of British Bird Names, op. cit., “Merlin”, p. 103.

155. Emma Jung and Marie-Louise von Franz, The Grail Legend. Andrea Dykes, Trans. (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons for the C. G. Jung Foundation for Analytical Psychology, 1972), p. 390., quot. Heinrich Zimmer, “Merlin”, in Corona, IX, 2, 1939.

156. Pierre de Gentil, “The Work of Robert de Boron and the Didot Perceval”, in Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages: A Collaborative History. Robert Sherman Loomis, Editor. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1959), p. 259.

157. John Matthews, “Merlin’s Esplumoir”, in Merlin Through the Ages: A Chronological Anthology and Source Book. R. J. Stewart and John Matthews, Editors. (London: Blandford, 1995), p. 270.

158. Emma Jung and Marie-Louise von Franz, The Grail Legend, op. cit., p. 364.

159. For a thoroughly enjoyable discussion of these states of “betwixts-and-betweens”, see: Alwyn Rees and Brinley Rees, Celtic Heritage: Ancient Tradition in Ireland and Wales, op. cit., pp. 345-46.