The Mummer’s play is a pre-Christian fertility rite or Pagan ritual which was popular throughout England in the past. Although the play very nearly died out it has now been revived in different parts of the country. The word Mummers refers to a group of people who are Mumming, this didn’t always refer to a play and is thought to be a Greek or Old German word meaning to wear a mask. It has been speculated that the theme of the play is the continuing cycle of death and resurrection. It is the struggle of good against evil, and helps ensure that Spring follows a severe Winter.
Alderley Edge Mummers.
In the Celtic calendar, winter and the new year began on November 1st, and this was a time when the spirits of the dead were believed to make a brief return to this world. Later, this became the Christian “All Saints day”, while the following day became known as “All Souls day” when masses were said for souls in Purgatory. The Pagan practice of leaving out food for the dead lingers on in Cheshire with the children’s custom of “Souling” or “Soulcaking” on November 1st and 2nd. Groups of youngsters often in fancy dress and with blackened faces go from door to door, singing a song in exchange for a small spiced cake, however nowadays it usually takes the form of hard cash!
Souling used to be made more lively by the Hodening Horse, which was a man covered in a sheet carrying a horses head, who pranced about at the doors snapping its jaws (as you do!).
The Wild Horse was possibly derived from the animal ridden by the Norse God Odin which reappears in the Soulcaking play performed by the Antrobus Mummers at Antrobus, Comberbach, Acton Bridge and other local villages around Halloween.
The Mummers include a character called the Letter-in who starts the action by announcing: “There is going to be a dreadful fight!” The Black Prince of Paradise in his spiked helmet is killed by King George and resurrected by the Quack Doctor. Other characters include Old Mary, Little Dairy Doubt and Beelzebub with his frying pan (club). But the most revered member of the group is the Wild Horse with his Driver, which appears in no other Mummers play in the country. This is a very ancient play which may date back in one form or another to a time before Christianity so if you want to experience something different visit the Comberbach Mummers at http://soulcakers.wordpress.com/ and I believe that they meet and also perform at the Drum and Monkey Public house in Comberbach.