Thursday, December 22, 2005

Merry Xmas from the Fortean Times - "The Last Wild Man"


As the Christmas season engulfs us, Santa Claus, Father Christmas, and their international counterparts beam at us from every medium, hawking earthly treasures to delight our loved ones.

As we watch this portly figure entice us with baubles, we are witnessing the last remnant of the oldest sacred figure that exists, for Santa's past is full of ancient mysteries, with a depth few imagined. In the Middle Ages he was a Wild Man, a beast-man who jousted with knights in Merrie Olde England and dashed through Germanic streets during Carnival, frightening children and adults alike. In the Sixth Century, he was a beast-god so powerful that Pope Gregory the Great chose him to be Christianity's poster child for evil – the cloven-hoofed, goatish devil figure that persists even today. For millennia before that, he was worshiped as a god whose annual death was a necessity for life on earth itself.

Tracking the elusive Jolly Old Elf's history involved a labyrinthine journey that would make Daedalus proud. The search began with 19th century gift givers in America, Britain, and Germany. These gift givers appeared at end-of-year celebrations, but didn't travel alone; they were accompanied by a predictable entourage, no matter what country they trod. Santa's companions invariably included a Bessy – a man dressed as a woman – and assorted merrymakers dressed in goat or bear skins or wearing goat or bear masks. The other characters varied; usually there was a comic doctor and often an archer. Of course, America's Christmas Man wasn't called Santa at the time; he gained that name in the mid-1800s. First, he was Pelznichol, or Nicholas in Furs; in Nova Scotia he was the Janney; in Trinidad he was Papa Bois; in Great Britain he was Yule until Ben Johnson christened him Father Christmas in his 1616 Christmas Masque. His names were as varied as the communities he both terrorized and blessed.

The Wild Man's motley crew went door-to-door, demanding entry. After the raucous group was welcomed, they acted out an odd play – the leader, who dressed in goat or bear skins, argued with another character or with the woman figure. He was killed, the woman lamented, and the doctor comically resuscitated him, or he spontaneously revived, declaring he wasn't dead after all. Before the troupe left to visit the next house, they demanded gifts. This might sound somewhat familiar; today's Halloween trick-or-treaters carry on a juvenile version of the original visit – going house to house, demanding gifts and treats. In the bygone adult festival, the troupe gave its blessing and shared fruits of the land with the inhabitants, or wreaked havoc and cursed the homes if they weren't well received.

This invasion didn't take place at only at Yuletide; in Germany, Carnival signaled the Wild Man's wild rush into town in the Schembartlauf (run of bearded men). In other countries, the wild run usually ended winter's reign, but no matter what the time of year or what country, there were arresting similarities. In the 18th century, an emerging breed of "folklorists" noted these similarities and began to record these festivals and theorize about their origins. Jacob Grimm made a herculean effort to record Germany's folk customs before they disappeared, and scholars in Great Britain managed to accumulate some of the most extensive collection of local rituals. These rituals encompass a wide range of mumming activities with the ever-present Fool, an offspring of the Wild Man and precursor of Father Christmas.

Those who study and categorize Britain's mumming rituals sort them into three main types – the wooing ceremony, which includes Plough Monday peregrinations, the sword play, and the Saint George Play. All have a death and resurrection; of course this death and resurrection in historical festivals is a comic one, but these activities are remnants of a more serious death – the death of the Wild Man, the beast-god who was responsible for life on earth.

Richard Bernheimer pieced together the basic fertility ritual from which these plays derive in his book Wild Men in the Middle Ages. In that ritual, a town's young unmarried men went to the woods to hunt the Wild Man or stir him from his cave. The largest and strongest of the men dressed in animal skins and horns to play the role of the Wild Man. He was captured, chained, and dragged back to the village. Since he was, after all, a Wild Man, he had torn up a tree or two to drag with him, showing his power; in the village these trees became the May Pole and the Yule Log. Because he was a god of the elements of nature – thunder and lightning – the villagers fired guns and beat drums to herald his arrival.

Chains dangling from his body, the Wild Man and his companions made a mad dash into town, frightening and beating bystanders; one of the devices he used to beat villagers was a giant phallus, his symbol as a fertility god. In the village square, he mated with a village wench (or wild woman, if one was available), then was killed by an archer. He revived or was replaced by a son. The mood was bedlam; the humor as course as it comes; and everyone was both excited and terrified.

Folklorists who debated the origins of these holiday activities were delighted when world traveler and Renaissance man R. M. Dawkins happened upon a fairly untouched version of this ritual in the Balkans in 1906. In this festival, large, blackened, humpbacked goat-men shambled through the village with bells around their waists and ankles. The leader carried a huge phallus; another carried a crossbow. An old woman carried a doll in a basket. As they went from house to house, the phallic goat-man pounded the phallus on the door and demanded money. In the course of the parade, the baby grew to manhood quite suddenly and demanded a bride. When she was supplied, the pair copulated, the archer shot the newly satisfied groom, the bride grieved, and the goat man revived. After receiving a gift from the homes where they performed, the paraders dragged a plough through the village.

This discovery was Nirvana for folklorists – they found all the elements of the mumming plays; the Fool was in his original beast form; the death and execution were enacted amorally. In later plays, the Fool or beast-man is often killed by a young groom because he "makes a pass at" the Woman, and narrators explain the behavior with a comic script. In the Balkan version, the inhabitants didn't need a verbal explanation; the ritual had been part of their lives for centuries. Only in more recent times did the master of ceremonies or narrator emerge.

This Balkan festival was the finest modern discovery yet of the ancient rite of the god's birth, sacred marriage, death, and sacrifice for his people. Better yet, it was found in Greece. Scholars concluded that the hundreds of versions peppering Europe could be traced to the great goat-god Dionysus. After all, the Dionysian rites gave birth to modern theater; even the word tragedy means goat song. Under this diffusionist scenario, Dionysus and his counterparts Adonis and Bacchus spread throughout Europe with spread of the Roman Empire.

This conclusion reflected a myopic flaw in many prehistorians' thinking–that everything emanated from the Mediterranean, the "cradle of civilization." But we find these rituals in the Arctic Circle among people neither the Romans nor the Catholics found worth their time to conquer or even visit in those days. There, among the Lapps, the Vogul, and the Gilyaks some of the purist, most ancient rituals continued. We also find the ceremonies among the enigmatic Ainu, the aboriginal Japanese.

Among these Arctic peoples and the Ainu we discover the original "storyline" of the ritual that found its way to ancient Japan, Russia, Western and Northern Europe, and the Mediterranean. In these ceremonies, the Master of the Mountain sends his gods to his people as a bear to keep them from starving. In the ceremony, the people rouse the hibernating beast in its cave, and the best marksman ritually executes it with an arrow. They prepare and mount the skin and skull in a certain manner, then share the god's bounty in a feast.

In a ceremony of gratitude and honor the hunters re-enact a tale of the bear's life – how it found a mate and bore an offspring, then was killed by an archer. The people thank the bear for its gift of life and send the emissary's spirit back to the gods, until it returns next year. Here we find the arrow, the mating, the sacrifice and rebirth, and the other accouterments we find in today's mumming plays – even the ivy-crowned head.

How old is this ritual of bear and goat worship that found its way to areas as widespread as the Mediterranean and the Arctic Circle? There is evidence this bear sacrifice was carried out more than 50,000 years ago; early 20th-century German excavatons of the Wild Man's Cave and other caves in the High Alps discovered altars to the bear with bearskins and skulls ritually treated exactly as the Arctic peoples treated them.

Anthropologist Josepn Campbell and invesfigating anthropologists made the connection between these ancient finds and the arctic rituals and dated them to about 70,000 BC.

Of course. Homo sapiens sapiens - modern humans - weren’t around then; Neanderthals performed these ancient rituals. Later archaeological excavations reveal Neanderthas sacrificed in the same manner as the bears. The question inevitably arises whether the original Wild Man was a Neanderthal, perhaps performing a bear ritual.

The history of the death and resurrection of the beast-god that sired Santa is older than Greece, even older than modern humans. It was a ceremony of death and resurrection, of life and fertility, carried on by an ancient aboriginal people - called elves or fairies by later settlers - and adopted by these settlers, who replaced them and continued the sacred rituals throughout Europe.

Of course, burgeoning Christianity vigorously fought to suppress this widespread "pagan" ritual, but it persisted. In response, the church used the Wild Man’s form to depict its Satan. Under pressure from Christianity, villagers, holding to their old festivals while adopting the new Christian religion, managed to keep the old Wild Man alive by transforming him. In village festivals he became the Fool; in this role he strode at the front of his old troupe as master of ceremonies, the outspoken comic who introduced the troupe and made fun of local citizens and mores. In this role he evolved into the symbol of Christmas in America, Great Britain, Sweden, Norway, and Germany. This fur-clad fool and social commentator took yet another direction in Italy, where, as Harlequin, he evolved from Medieval Devil to a primary figure in the commedia dell’arte and became a standard character in French and British Christmases. In all, the Wild Man adapted in almost infinite ways under pressures from Church, State, and the varying influences of civilisation.

In many areas, the beast-man changed little, and today the ancient festivals persist in places the great past tides of civilisation barely lapped. The hair-covered Chlaus yodel in Urnasch, Switzerland; the beast-masked Narren leap through Black Forest villages; the King of the Puck Fair is hoisted in Killorglin, Ireland; the blackened, goat-bearded berika romp in Georgia; the Perchta runners re-enact a death and resurrection ritual on the fields of Austria. The Ainu ritually enact their sacred ritual for tourists. The Paper Boys romp in Marshfield, Gloucestershire, and Crookham, and, in Grenoside, the sword dancing team ritually "executes" their captain.

Germany’s carnival elements also live on in the well-known Christmas poem A Visit from Saint Nicholas, which begins: "‘Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house..." There we see the old troupe preserved as reindeer: Dasher, Dancer, and Prancer are the raucous, high-stepping, hair-clad dancers that signalled the start of Carnival; Vixen is the Wild Woman; Cupid is the archer who ended the god’s life; Comet the sleigh of one of the Wild Man’s versions - the Wild Hunter; Donder and Blitzen (thunder and lightning) are the hallmarks of the Wild Man’s dominion over nature.

In some instances the Wild Man survives as a famous folk figure - in fact, some of our best known folk characters trace their origin to this original mystery. In Britain, he became Robin Goodfellow or Puck, celebrated by Shakespeare; Goodfellow’s cousin Robin Hood began life as Wood, a name for the Wild Man. In the Black Forest, the Pied Piper of Hamelin re-enacts poet Robert Browning’s version of the ancient mystery.

And, of course, there’s Santa Claus. As the ancient beast-god of old, he continues to bring bounty and promise to us each year, despite seemingly insurmountable odds. Gods, religions, nations and even hominid species have risen and fallen while he somehow persists. No wonder he winks as he sips his Coca-Cola.

1 comment:

Kathleen Callon said...

Interesting. I like your posts.