Humanities Information

Masking European Animism

The ancient peoples of Europe were more fond of masks and religious ritual than youwould suspect if you saw Europeans today. Mask wearing and shamanism was partand parcel of everyday life in ancient Western European tradition, say researchers.

There are stories abound about African and North American tribal shamans but not alot is known about ancient European peoples' involvement with masked ritual or thepractice of magic. That is why finding out about similarities between the ideas behindmasks from around the world and those originating from European soil, is adiscovery of intriguing and real beliefs.

The less obvious link of European societies with shamanism or religious ritual thanfor instance the North American native Indian customs or magic activity in the past isdue to the more 'sanitised' way Europe has developed because of churchinterference in people's lives. The church dominance virtually stamped out any paganritual.

It was not until after 1960, when the Americans experienced a revival of theinterest in shamanism, that much has become known about the European version ofthe practice of magic and mask wearing. There is more verifyable information aboutthe true roots of Western European civilisation than initially suspected.

"The spirit if not the exact practise of shamanism has been passed on throughEurope's generations", one authority on the subject, Leigh Ann Hussey, believes. Theearliest recordings of ceremonies involving masks were found in the caves of theTrois Freres (Three Brothers) in France where paintings of a Paleolithic scenedepicting European animism of the first order.Ian Bracegirdle, a mask expert, describes the cave: A central figure stands wearingthe head and antlers of a deer. He stands, shaman like, surrounded by animals.

Animals that are important to the culture he represents. Some of the animals nolonger exist in this area. Ibex, reindeer, bison, stag and horses. The shaman, for thatis what he seems to be, stands, a human figure amongst the potential food.It is believed that the paleolithic cave served as a place where hunters were initiated.The sorceror or shaman was symbol to sympathetic magic. He wore ears and hornsof a stag, the eyes and beak of an owl, the bearded face of an old man, the tail of awolf, the paws of a bear and the legs of a dancing shaman. He stood in front ofpainted hunting murals. The Shaman served as mediator between humans and theirvenerated animal kin.

This is pretty much the best evidence in tangible form that we have of our ancestors'animistic beliefs. It dates back 10,000 years and is accompanied by an abundance ofmyths and stories showing our ancestors had plenty of similar ideas. A close analogyexists in the stories of Kernunnos, forest god of the later Celts. The masks expressanimism to some extent.

His information is confirmed by Ms Hussey, who went on a hunt in Europeanshamanism and found when she examined ancient sources, that she did not need toborrow from other traditions. "It is clear that tribal Europe had as strong a shamanictradition as, for example, any of the American Indian tribes," she said.

Summing up the general symbolism that unites masks from around the globe,Bracegirdle says that there are many striking similarities between the ancient culturesof the Pacific West Coast of North America and the tribal traditions of Africa. Symbolsthat all these cultures share are relating to fertility, the hunted animal, ancestors,initiation into rites, circumcision, cannibalism real and symbolic, healing and crossingover into the spirit world for guidance and healing powers or to appease the gods orancestors are the accompanying ideas behind masks.

Not a lot has been passed on from generation to generation in any muchrecognisable form or shape, but among the most powerful links is the seasonalnature of many traditions we still know about. In the UK, the Green man and theHobby horse are two potent examples. "To me there is a tremendous link which isbound up with the very nature of the people we are and how we have developed. Ourformative roots live in our societies now", believes Bracegirdle.

The links to ancient beliefs can also be found in many European languages. Whenwe say in English that we are going berserk, we even directly refer to the shamanicstate of extasy. The adjective comes from the noun 'berserker', or 'berserk', the OldNorse for 'wild warriors' or 'champions'. 'Ber' referring to 'bear' and 'serkr' to 'shirt' or'coat'.

These berserkers became frenzied in battle, howling like animals, foaming atthe mouth, and biting the edges of their iron shields as if they acted in a Nikecommercial. Berserker is first recorded in English in the early 19th century, long afterthese wild warriors ceased to exist. This is illustrative of how the tradition seeminglyinterrupted, still lived on.

Similar "Bear Doctors" stories have been found among California tribes. In somecases, the Berserkr or Ulfserkr would even eat the heart of the bear or wolf to gain itspower. Another feast of hearts occurs in the seiđr trance, as described above.

Not a lot was known about Western shamanism until it hit the limelight in the 1960and the undoubted expert in the field is the late Mircea Eliade, a religion historianwho taught at the Sorborme in Paris and later at the University of Chicago.

He described Shamanism, or 'witchcraft' as it is referred to also, as not a religion butmore as a technique. Shamanism, he says, is 'not strictly medicine men/women,magicians, or healers'. This is the conclusion of extensive studies of the phenomenonaround the world in his book 'Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy'.

Hebelieves that shamans are not the same as priests; they may have coexisted withpriests or even have fulfilled priestly functions as well as shamanic ones. A shamanwas more a mystic than a priest or a minister.A shaman was not "possessed", as many people now believe, says Eliade. Neitherwas the shaman a medium or trance channeler. "Shamans control the spirit beingswith whom they work, or at least they do not surrender to them. Like a medium orchanneler, a shaman may appear unconscious when working, but upon returning, theshaman can tell where he or she has gone", he says.

The shaman is not the instrument of the spirits. Traditional shamans cure peoplethrough their trances, accompany the souls of the dead to the Otherworld, andcommunicate with the gods. "This small mystical elite not only directs thecommunity's religious life but, as it were, guards its 'soul."

Modern day processions where you can still see old masks being worn includeprocessions in which giants and witches are displayed. These and othermasquerades are among the more powerful tangible links we still have to ancientwitchcraft ritual.

In well known childrens' stories and folklore narrative, the links are also obvious.Dragons for instance are examples creatures pervading every alley you can imagineof old folklore and mythology, straight into modern times stories. Descriptions of thebeast's benevolence vary from the playful Puff (of Peter Yarrow's song) to the sinisterSmaug in J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit". Babylonian legends portray the Queen ofDarkness as a multi-headed dragon - Tiamat. Walt Disney's Sleeping Beautyfeatures a battle between Prince Phillip and the evil Maleficent about a curse thancan only be broken by three fairies. Likewise, the Germanic myth "Die Nibelungen"climaxes with the battle between Siegfried and the giant Fafnir, who has transformedhimself into a dragon in an effort to become more frightening.

Our reaction to the physical characteristics of the dragon is another element that weshare with and which connects us to our ancestors. Around the world the beasts aretypically depicted as huge lizards, larger than elephants on average. Long fangs aregenerally accepted as are twin horns of varying length. Western cultures generallyinclude large bat-like wings giving the dragon the capability of flight. But easterndragons, usually wingless, use a more magical means of flying. Eastern dragons alsotend to be more snake-like in nature, albeit with front and rear legs.

Angelique van Engelen is a freelance content writer living in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. She runs, a copywriting website. She also contributes to a blog


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