In Europe, the earliest masks that have come to us from a distant past and from isolated valleys represent mostly (male and sometimes female) savage giants – the woodwoses –, or animals, such as bears, horses or stags, close to the figure of the Wild Man. They break into the midst of the village from the forest, wreaking havoc. These masks were often coupled with symbols either of the new moon or of the full moon. In a few places, the bequeathing of the vital spirit, as well as aquatic and birdlike spirits, were also represented.
The Cold Season
Spring and summer carnivals do take place here and there. However, the majority of carnival celebrations that survived centuries of Christianity, before surviving centuries of Modernity, are associated with the cold season: they mark the beginnings of the wintry time, the very first signs of the springtime renaissance and the period which spreads in between. In other words, the cycles of festivals that run from the full moon that occurs halfway between autumn equinox and winter solstice to the full moon halfway between winter solstice and spring equinox.
These festivals are known to us under their Celtic names: Samhain and Imbolc. In Europe, it is during winter that the cycle of life displays its most dramatic manifestations, while human life faces a lack of food and warmth. Wildlife seems to disappear under the earth before resurrecting from the depth when the days get longer at last. Often, a large effigy of winter’s rigor or that of food’s abundance is put to death figuratively at the end of winter, personifying thus the change of season. In other words, he stands for a dying and rising tutelary spirits. The Church, when it celebrates All Saints, Martin, Hubert, Nicolas, Christmas, John the Evangelist, Holy Innocents, Sylvester, Epiphany, Candelmas, Antony, Brigit, Blaise, Valentine, Shrove Thursday, to name a few of these feast days, made room for the old animistic liturgy within the Christian one.
The Great Tumult
The symbols which underlay the masked parade and its tintamare represent first the great tumult of the forest’s spirits invading the neat and tidy world of the livings. Thus, the breath of life, notably fertility, is allowed to fulfil its task while it finds a way through our world. The nuptial Skimmington Ride represents a memory of this myth. In this respect, we could mention the various horse processions that take place around Europe in springtime (such as the Cornish ‘Obby ‘Oss — or the French Tarasque parade which stages in fact a dragon). All these rituals are also reflected through the medieval belief in the Wild Hunt which one could spot four times a year in a sudden tempest during each season.
The play, laughter, banquet, masquerade and transgression unleashed by seasonal festivals defy the threat hanged at times by the forces of nature over human communities. The simple but intense joys of the feast also contribute bringing down the boundaries between our world and that of the spirits, just as much as the staging of the procession. Here, the profane and the sacred do not split the worlds in two separate entities. Surely, the hidden world of the spirits and ours, which is visible, are not the same, but there is no transcendence to lay them out within a strict hierarchical relationship. On the contrary, they are superposed and imbricated. Full of laughter, racket and movement, seasonal festivals do not make much room for the silence and reverence that would be inspired elsewhere by the helpless fear felt in front of an unworldly radical otherness.
©Matthieu Smyth - Professeur Anthropologie Université Strasbourg
Illustration : ©Tanit Agency