Europe’s midwinter ‘wild man’ traditions

The Christmas period in Europe is marked by some fairly bizarre and decidedly un-Christian traditions, although given that this has been a festive period long before christianity hit the scene these are perhaps unsurprising. Although sometimes savage and alien, they give an insight into the world of spiritual empiricism which formed ancient indigenous cultural and religious philosophies and practices. The fact that many of these traditions enjoy a plasticity and interchangeability of date and can run anywhere from Hallowe’en (31st October) through to Epiphany (6th January) demonstrates perhaps that they are first and foremost midwinter festivals, with roots seated deeply in the ancient pagan world and its beliefs about ancestors, cyclicity and divine manifestation.

The traditions generally involve people dressing up in wild, frightening or outlandish costumes and performing processions and plays in honour of the festive season and of mythologies connected with it. Here are a few examples:

Swarte Piet and Sinterklaas:

Saturn and his Satyr? Swarte Piet and Sint Niklas...

Saturn and his Satyr? Swarte Piet and Sint Niklas…

The ‘Christian Santa’ is based upon St Nicholas of Myra – an early Christian saint from what is now modern Turkey. His festival is attached to the 6th December on the Gregorian calendar, yet by the Julian calendar it lies on the winter solstice. That he became a popular saint all over Europe is indicative of the ability of his traditions to supplant pagan ones, and in the Low Countries he became known as ‘Sintiklaas’, from which we get the name ‘Santa Claus’, and he had an elfen helper – Swarte Piet or Black Peter, who became a character accompanying St Nicholas in the religious festival processions typifying the festival in the Netherlands. The character is immediately identifiable as he has his face blackened. Those following my blog or knowledgeable in ancient Greek history and mythology will recall that the male satyroi celebrants of the midwinter Dionysia in Greece during the 1st millennium BC would blacken their faces with wine lees at the procession of the god’s epiphany, and this appears to be a continuation of such a practice. Like the Dionysian satyrs the purpose is entertainment and the bestowal of gifts. Piet and his boss generally arrive in their processions from a far off land, by boat – another link to Saturn and Poseidon, as well as to Dionysus.

Political extremists have recently made attempts to have Piet banned, claiming that he is an ethnic parody and denigrating the importance of the ancient tradition. The medieval conception of the man with a blackened face as a ‘blackamoor’ or ‘saracen’ always associates him with luck, and no negative ethnic connotations – a phenomenon recognised from across Europe where similar traditions occur. Perhaps the older origins of the face-blackening (the Dionysia of the ancient Greco-Roman world) have been overlooked, but in the very least the character is a positive celebration rather than having any negative connotations. The same might be said of our next winter character-performance:

Krampus:

December 5th (St Nick’s eve) and the first two weeks in December are associated with St Nicholas in Bavaria and Austria, and as in the Netherlands  the saint is accompanied in his processions by an outlandish sidekick, who is either his ‘helper’ or antithesis: Krampus.

A 'Krampus' character - devilish indeed! Half man, half beast - like the Greek satyrs

A ‘Krampus’ character – devilish indeed! Half man, half beast – like the Greek satyrs

Krampus or Perchtemn?

Krampus or Perchten?

Tradition holds that Krampus comes to punish the wicked (naughty children, in particular) and St Nicholas brings gifts for the good. It is a spectacle where children and the public in general get fun from a ‘scare’ from Krampus who brandishes chains, whips and bells and lears through his demonic and entirely terrifying mask. His northern German equivalent is Knecht Ruprecht – who plays a similar role but is of a much less terrifying persona, more human than beast, yet still with hints of ‘Robin Goodfellow’ in both name and deed. Krampus seems almost identical to the related:

Perchten:

Perchtenlauf processions are held just after Christmas in the period up to and including Epiphany (6th January or ‘Twelfth Night’). They occur in Southern Germany, Austria and Slovenia (where Mother Perchta is known as Pehta Baba). Like the Krampus traditions of early December, they involve the dressing up as masked characters, generally divided by their appearance and behaviour into the Schönperchten (“beautiful Perchten”) who wear mild-faced masks topped with floral or decorative crowns, and the (arguably much more popular)Schiachperchten (“ugly Perchten”) who correspond in appearance and behaviour to Krampus and delight in causing a good ‘scare’.

The mask of a Percht - typically worn at epiphany festivities.

The mask of a Percht – typically worn at epiphany festivities.

Badalisk and Bosinada:

Hailing from the Val Camonica region of the Italian Alps is an ‘Epiphany’ tradition corresponding to those of the Perchten further north and east. It involves a person dressing up as a wild creature called the ‘Badalisc’ or ‘Badlisk’ (i.e. – Basilisk) who is ceremonially ‘captured’ out in the countryside by a band of masked characters who parade it in the village of Andrista where it is ‘made’ to recount a rhyme containing humorous gossip and predictions for the coming year etc in return for its ‘release’ back into the wild. The event is marked by popular celebration and feasting and is an annual crowd-pleaser. It may be a remnant part of a wider regional (e.g. – Milanese) tradition of public performance or publication of satirical or excoriating rhyming poetry known as Bosinada, which offered a kind of pre-Epiphany ‘purgation’ of community woes – what might be called a ‘roast’ by contemporary American comics. Upon examination, it becomes apparent that such midwinter satire traditions appear in the ancient cultures all over Europe, and ultimately relate to the Rural Dionysia of ancient Greek culture!

The 'Badalisc' of Andrista, Val Cammonica, north of Milan.

The ‘Badalisc’ of Andrista, Val Camonica, north of Milan.

The ‘Basilisk’ of Greek legend was, by its name, the ‘King of Snakes’ and represented the figurative primal serpent often encountered in ancient European mythology. The Camonica valley was a Celtic region up until it Latinised in the 1stC CE with Rome’s northward expansion.

Wren Hunts:

The tradition of capturing a wren at midwinter and parading it tied to a pole is peculiar to Atlantic Europe and has been recorded in Spain, France (at Carcassone – former stronghold of Catharism) and (in particular) in Ireland, Wales and the Isle of Man. The reason for this distribution is unclear, although it seemingly corresponds to historic sea-routes by which ancient cultural traits have been proven by archaeologists to have spread in this region.

'Wren Boys' procession at Dingle, Co. Kerry, Ireland.

‘Wren Boys’ procession at Dingle, Co. Kerry, Ireland.

The Irish ‘Wrenboys’ who lead the procession of the bird wear outlandish straw suits and masks, primitively evocative of the shaggy Perchten of Austria, although not quite so fearsome. In the Isle of Man, such costumes were not recorded, although outlandish garb of some sort was known – boys would wear black coats in the early 20th century.

Black, bestial satyrs were the retinue of Dionysus in the DIonysia festival of ancient Greece. Image from an Attic vase 6th/5thC BCE.

Black, bestial satyrs were the retinue of Dionysus in the Dionysia festival of ancient Greece. Image from an Attic vase 6th/5thC BCE.

 

 

 

The meaning of Samhain

Samhain is the quarter-day festival that starts the Celtic year, marking the start of Winter and the end of harvests. It commences at nightfall on October 31st (new style Gregorian calendar) or the 11th November (old-style Julian Calendar) and goes by a number of different English names including Hollantide, All-Hallows Eve, Hallowe’en and All Saint’s Eve. In Scots and Manx Gaelic the name is the same, although written differently: Samhuinn and Sauin, respectively. The pronunciation is ‘Sow-in’ (rhymes with ‘cow-in’). There are a number of other more archaic names, which I will go on to discuss in due course.

It is a festival that symbolizes death – the transitional phase of the seasons when Atlantic Europe’s foliage dies back, and animal life dwindles. The evenings darken rapidly and the first frosts begin to touch the land. Crows and flocks of migratory wading birds throng the skies in great clouds cawing, whistling and chattering. The constellation of Orion begins to dominate the night skies… The spirit which enlivened nature in the summer months has gone from visible reality to the state of an intangible but certain potential for the coming year. In an ancient religious system that viewed life as a continuous oscillation between the tangible living state and a spiritual state awaiting rebirth in the next cycle, Samhain was therefore also the Festival of the Dead. 

It was Julius Caesar who first noted (in Commentarii de Bello Gallico) that the Gauls held that days started with nightfall, and celebrated the commencement of their important days with the falling of night. The same is true of the other Atlantic peoples, and in Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man in particular this continued down to modern times. The festival of Samhain was therefore called Oidhche Samhna – ‘Night of Samhain’ – in Irish, and Oie Hauiney or Houney in Manx. Both would be pronounced pronounced something close to ‘Ee ouna’ allowing for the usual lenitions and aspirations of spoken Gaelic.

The Manx had another name yet for the festival – ‘Hop tu naa‘ (pronounced ‘hop the nay’ or as the more modern ‘hop tyoo nay’) – which is of uncertain meaning and sounds curiously close to the Scots name for New Year: Hogmanay. In fact, Samhain was the Celtic New Year – just as days started with a nightfall, so the years started with the dark part also. It is uncertain when the Scots started to use ‘Hogmanay’ as the term for the 31st of December New Year, or for that matter if the term was ever used for Samhain. It seems that folk traditions of the Atlantic European world show quite a degree of transferability across the period between Samhain and the January New Year – customs including guising, playing pranks, gifting and house-visiting were just as likely at Christmas and New Year as they were around the 1st of November. Whether this represents a natural tendency to transfer celebrations that brighten the dull winter months or a concerted religious effort to dissipate or transform wholly pagan festivities remains unclear, but a combination of factors is likely.

There has always been a strong association of the festival with a ‘witch’ or ‘witches’ that has continued right down to the Halloween celebrations of modern times. The Celtic peoples never really had much time for the idea of ‘witches’ in the 16th/17thC judicial and religious sense of a person who worships the Christian Satan and does magic to harm their neighbours. The ‘witch’ referred to in Celtic areas is generally best interpreted as a Christian opinion of the old Goddess herself, rather than a human individual at the margins of society. She seems to be represented by the folklore character referred to as the Cailleach – a monstrous ancient female supposed to have created the landscape and unloosed the rivers, and supposed in some traditions to be responsible for winter. 

To the Celtic peoples of Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man ‘The Witch‘ was a figurative legendary character representing Christian opinion of the ancient Goddess, rather than a clear and present social threat posed by ‘a witch’. For this reason, there were hardly any executions of suspected ‘witches’ in Celtic cultural zones.

'Jinny the Witch jumped over the house to fetch a stick to lather the mouse'  (Old Anglo-Manx Samhain song)

‘Jinny the Witch jumped over the house to fetch a stick to hit the mouse’ (line from an old Anglo-Manx Samhain guising-song) – the constellation of Orion presides over the winter skies between Samhain and Imbolc (1st February).

Irish legends and medieval manuscripts contain a number of references to Samhain, and one in particular to a ‘witch’ associated with the festival. The ‘witch’ was Mongfionn/Mongfind – ‘White Hair’ or ‘Fair Hair’ – supposed at least (euhemerisation agains!) to have been sister of Crimthann mac Fidaig, a king of Munster, and mother of Ailill, Brión and Fiachra, the traditional ancestors of the medieval Connachta, by a High King called Eochaid Mugmedon. The Connachta were the opponents of the Ulaid (Ulstermen) in the Tain. She is supposed by to have been a sorceress responsible for poisoning her brother in order to allow her children to succeed the kingship, but who died after tasting her own poison while trying to convince her brother’s children it was safe. It is the old ‘evil fostermother’ tale from folklore, also related in the story of the ‘Children of Lir’. This murder and her death happened at Samhain and the Book of Ballymote (folio 144, b.1) claims that Mongfind was thereafter worshipped at Samhain by the peasantry who called it the ‘Festival of Mongfind’ – Feil Moing! There is a hill called Ard na Ríoghraidhe (Height of the Kingfolk?) or ‘Cnoc Samhna’ (Hill of Samhain) in Co. Limerick that is associated with her. The details of the kingship-oriented stories involving Mongfind are probably an obfuscation of the facts, and the ‘White Haired One’ is likely to have been the aged Cailleach who represented winter and rebirth in the coming year. Perhaps the Milky Way was her hair? The path to renewal…

Cnoc Tlachtga (now also called ‘The Hill of Ward’) near Athboy, Co. Meath was also a place legendarily or historically associated with Irish Samhain festivities, including the lighting of a bonfire. This Hill was supposedly eponymously named from a magical female of the same name, the daughter of a magician-druid called Mug Roith/Mog Ruith who was suppose to have given birth to triplets on the hill before dying. Another site associated with paganism, death and Samhain was, of course, Magh Slécht (Mag Senaig) in Co. Cavan, supposed to have been the site where ‘Tigernmas’, an ahistorical pagan High King of Ireland died along with many of his followers while worshipping an idol called Crom Cruaich at Samhain. This idol was supposed to have later been broken by Patrick. There are many other traditions besides, including the tale of the Ulster Cycle called Serglige Con Culainn (The Wasting Sickness of Cúchulainn) were the Ulster hero is attacked and seduced by the Queen of the Otherworld – Fand, wife of Manannan – during the course of Samhain celebrations of the Ulaid.

Irish legend also place the start of the Second Battle of Maigh Turead at Samhain, and it commences after a sexual coupling of the Dagda with the Morrigan. Likewise, the cattle raid of the Tain Bo Culainge commences at Samhain, and the tales of this also feature the Morrigan, who I have earlier identified with the Cailleach. The medieval tale The Boyhood Deeds of Fionn claimed that the Fairy Hills (Sid) were open at Samhain. You can tell from ancient Irish literature that Samhain had a particular association with death and the otherworld, and with potent magical female characters!

The themes of conflict and death at Samhain follow on from the Harvest, and then the very visible Atlantic autumn die-back of nature – replete with withering, decay, storms and darkness. These processes are set in motion from the festival of Lunasa (Lughnasadh) onwards. The die-back to pagans was simply a part of the renewal-cycle and therefore did not have the confused connotations of ‘evil’ or ‘uncleanliness’ that was imported with the somewhat ectopic Judaic religions during the 1st millennium.