from the Lair of the Wild Man
Some years ago now, I danced with a bawdy band of bough-brandishing brigands. We performed under the name General Hardware and danced Border Morris, an ancient English/Welsh men’s folk dance with sticks. There was a particular event that opened my eyes and this is that story. It comes back to me whenever men wonder about the nature of the Wild Man.
The evening was a cold one in early November and we gathered, shivering as we waited to perform at a Samhain festival in western Wisconsin. Samhain is a Gaelic celebration that marks the end of the harvest season and, the descent into darkness. Yes, it is a pagan ritual.
On this moonless evening twelve of us gather to lead the procession into the great circle where the Corn King resides. Eight of the men gathered will be dancing with bleached, antlered deer skulls. Tonight we are dancing the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance and it predates all the other dances we know. It is a trudging sort of dirge of a dance that requires pairs to ‘meet’ and click their antlers.
In accordance with the ancient tradition, the remaining four dancers don the garb of the British archetypes, the Hunter, the Fool, the Betty and the Hobby horse. Those Brits are a strange lot after all.
A wordless signal goes out and our troupe, along with a gifted, chilled fiddler begin our somber trudge to visit the King. We are followed on a winding dirt path, lit by an occasional candle, by as many as 80 guests for whom this has become an annual ritual. We have become a somber and wild spectacle of a procession.
As we weave through the woods I can hear children giggling and parents whispering. Rounding the last corner reveals the circle of the King and he is something to behold. He centers the circle of flaming torches and stands fire-lit and 16 feet tall. He is the creative genius of the man who holds these events and has taken about two months to build. I helped one year and filled the King’s wooden pallet legs with the fallen debris of the forest. Once the body of the sculpture is build and filled, dried corn stalks are stapled all around to finish the effect and spread the flames quickly. Rising from a powerful chest are the Gaelic wings for this king will burn brightly before he flies to the Norns – the old hags of mythology.
Now the forest is a buzz. I can feel the excitement, the pulse of all things. The King is enormous, and well-endowed, a reminder of the importance and the gift of fertility. More giggling. The host of this grand visage steps boldly to the front and asks three questions. First, “Are you living the life you want to live?” Silence. Furtive glances all around and many heads down, too. Second, “If not, who did you give your power to?” More silence, deeper and darker. And finally, the knife. “And, when are you going to take it back?” Words fail me. Who has ever spoken thusly?
Then, out of the crowd an old hag appears hobbling toward the King in a long black tent of a gown. She and her staff wobble, and her nose is like a craig. She cackles as she walks. Even as she struggles forward, there is a giddiness about her. Ah! She carries the flame. As she stoops to the dry stalks at her feet her face reflects the first glow and she is gone. Quickly, the small tongues of flame race around the base of the man and upward, upward! Now all the faces in the gathered crowd are golden and awestruck.
One day, years later, I was describing this evening, this wonder to a made man – a hedge fund manager. HIs jaw went slack, he stood for the twenty minutes bound by the words and images and said, “people really do this?” He came back every day for days and each day we spoke of it with reverence. I remember thinking then, as now, there is a great price paid for the comfort of a cubicle. For the regular, mind-numbing obedience to the machine of Civilization and its twin Industrialization. I cannot be, nor would I choose to be all Wild Man, but I work to integrate that energy and hold dear the Wild Moments.