Monday, May 01, 2017

The Horsingdon Transmissions No.121: Jack-in-the-Dark

Situated atop Harlowe Hill, St. Anselm's Church (whose spire is puctured above) is not only the highest building in the Horsingdon region, but oversees the May Day celebrations in the parish of Harlowe - which include a choir service following the ringing of the Church's famous silver bells at sunrise on May 1st.

Somewhat less known is the variant Jack-in-the-Green procession - known locally as Jack-in-the-Dark - which Harlowe also hosts, occuring around dusk on May Day. This follows a route through the woods on Harlowe Hill - said to be the path worn by Harlowe's witches as, in centuries past, they would find their way to the sacred hillside grove at which they would their enact their fearful rites in honour of Those Who Wait. This grove supposedly stood at the site now occupied by the (heavily  overgrown) burying ground attached to St. Anselm's Church. Here the procession culminates with the mock sacrifice of the Jack (who, unlike the Jacks typically found in many other, similar local British festivals, is adorned in a long black hooded cloak and featureless mask to match), followed by raucous, alcohol-fueled celebrations (during which the Jack's cloak and mask are burnt upon a bonfire) which last until midnight.

Whilst the May Day sacrifice of the Jack (which is integral to many folk-observances throughout the UK) has been treated by anthropologists and folkorists as the means of reaffirming social continuity through a ritual in which death is shown to lead to the regeneration of life (symbolised via the Jack's death marking the completion of Spring and the full flowering of Summer), the Harlowe Jack-in-the-Dark tradition seems to be less about welcoming in the Summer than a kind of cosmic social-strain gauge; therein the Jack supposedly represents a harbinger of Those Who Wait known as 'The Strange, Dark One'. The sacrifice of the Jack does not, therefore, signify a recognition of seasonal change, but encodes the desireability maintaining the cosmological status quo - insofar as the death of this curious figure negates the possibility of the apocalyptic return of Those Who Wait. The subsequent revelries are, then, less celebrations which welcome the Summer than expressions of relief: that, for one more year, those who would call forth 'The Black Sun' (which will supposedly precipitate the birth Those Who Wait once more into our world) have yet again failed in their endeavour.

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