Bacchanalian rites and pagan sacrifices on Dartmoor, surely not? Licentious and bawdy carousing at Holne, the birthplace of Charles Kingsley, can’t be? Well, sadly it’s was probably true, I say sadly because the ‘Holne Ram Roast’ is/was no longer any of the above.
The ‘rite’ took place on May Day and originally involved all the young men of the village and neighbourhood assembling at the ‘Play Field’ before sun-up. From here they would all traipse up onto the moor in search of a ram lamb. Now trying to catch a young fit ram on open moorland was no mean feat but they knew only too well that no ram, no ram roast and so they had to catch one. When this quest was completed the poor animal was led back to the Play Field where it was tied to a menhir or standing stone which stood in the field and sacrificially slaughtered. The carcass was then spit-roasted until mid-day when all the folks of the parish would try to ensure a piece of the meat. Sometimes, well no, often this resulted in a free for all with the young lads trying to secure a slice in order to impress their girlfriends. It was always said that to get some of the lamb and eat it would ensure good fortune for the rest of the year, hence the scramble to get some. In 1853, the curate of Holne wrote a description of the day:
“At the village of Holne, situated on one of two spurs of Dartmoor, is a field of about two acres, the property of the parish and called the Ploy (Play) Field. In the centre stands a granite pillar (Menhir) six or seven feet high. On May morning, before daybreak, the young men of the village assemble there and then proceed to the Moor, where they select a ram lamb (doubtless with the consent of the owner), and after running it down, bring it in triumph to the Ploy field, fasten it to the pillar, cut its throat, and the roast it whole, skin, wool, etc. At midday a struggle takes place, at the risk of cut hands, for a slice, it being supposed to confer luck for the ensuing year on the fortunate devourer. As an act of gallantry, in high esteem among the females, the young men sometimes fight their way through the crowd to get a slice for their chosen amongst the young women, all of whom, in their best dresses, attend the “Ram Feast,” as it is called. Dancing, wrestling and other games, assisted by copious libations of cider during the afternoon, prolong the festivity till nightfall“.
It appears that the original custom died out and was replaced with a similar rite in the late 1800’s. This involved decorating a lamb with flowers, especially roses and leading it down to the ‘Plat Park’ where the beast was slaughtered, dressed and roasted. The slices of ‘lucky lamb’ were then sold off and the rest of the day was spent having fun and games. Apparently this version took place on the 6th of July as opposed to the original May Day event but there does seem to be some confusion. In later years the ceremony was again modified by obtaining a ram prior to the event once again saving the men from having to lollop all over the moor in pursuit of the ‘sacrificial ram’. It was still roasted in the Play Field and the scramble for the meat took place but afterwards the day was spent in sporting activities and general celebration. Today the event has been replaced by a village fete which is still held at the Play Field but there is no longer any sign of a sacrificial ram. Although, even if they wanted to revive the custom I think that following the BSE outbreak the EEC has decreed that the spine of any animal must be removed before human consumption. This would make it difficult to spit roast the whole ram’s carcass I would suggest.
Unfortunately this ritual goes beyond the memories of time to establish its origins but the very fact that a sacrifice at a menhir takes place on May Day is very suggestive of a pagan rite. Many think that the Ram Roast is an extension of the old Celtic celebration of Beltane which occurred around May Day and that the ram was a sacrifice to the god – Belus. This day would have marked the time of year when the livestock went out to the summer pastures and shielings, so possibly the sacrifice was to ask for a productive year. In many traditions there was also the Beltane Fire which possibly could also account for the roasting of the sacrificial ram.
Today there are many so called ‘Ram Roasts’ held across the country but these tend to be a barbeque in disguise with no local tradition behind them. In some cases you will see that they are charity events with some raising money for the church which seems a trifle hypocritical. After all, is not using a pagan ritual as a vehicle for ecclesiastical fund raising somewhat ‘supping with the Devil’?