Masking European Animism
Masking European Animism

The ancient peoples of Europe were more fond of masks and religious ritual than you

would suspect if you saw Europeans today. Mask wearing and shamanism was part

and parcel of everyday life in ancient Western European tradition, say researchers.

There are stories abound about African and North American tribal shamans but not a

lot is known about ancient European peoples’ involvement with masked ritual or the

practice of magic. That is why finding out about similarities between the ideas behind

masks from around the world and those originating from European soil, is a

discovery of intriguing and real beliefs.

The less obvious link of European societies with shamanism or religious ritual than

for instance the North American native Indian customs or magic activity in the past is

due to the more ‘sanitised’ way Europe has developed because of church

interference in people’s lives. The church dominance virtually stamped out any pagan

ritual.

It was not until after 1960, when the Americans experienced a revival of the

interest in shamanism, that much has become known about the European version of

the practice of magic and mask wearing. There is more verifyable information about

the true roots of Western European civilisation than initially suspected.

“The spirit if not the exact practise of shamanism has been passed on through

Europe’s generations”, one authority on the subject, Leigh Ann Hussey, believes. The

earliest recordings of ceremonies involving masks were found in the caves of the

Trois Freres (Three Brothers) in France where paintings of a Paleolithic scene

depicting European animism of the first order.

Ian Bracegirdle, a mask expert, describes the cave: A central figure stands wearing

the 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 no

longer exist in this area. Ibex, reindeer, bison, stag and horses. The shaman, for that

is 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 sorcerer or shaman was symbol to sympathetic magic. He wore ears and horns

of a stag, the eyes and beak of an owl, the bearded face of an old man, the tail of a

wolf, the paws of a bear and the legs of a dancing shaman. He stood in front of

painted hunting murals. The Shaman served as mediator between humans and their

venerated 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 of

myths and stories showing our ancestors had plenty of similar ideas. A close analogy

exists in the stories of Kernunnos, forest god of the later Celts. The masks express

animism to some extent.

His information is confirmed by Ms Hussey, who went on a hunt in European

shamanism and found when she examined ancient sources, that she did not need to

borrow from other traditions. “It is clear that tribal Europe had as strong a shamanic

tradition 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 cultures

of the Pacific West Coast of North America and the tribal traditions of Africa. Symbols

that all these cultures share are relating to fertility, the hunted animal, ancestors,

initiation into rites, circumcision, cannibalism real and symbolic, healing and crossing

over into the spirit world for guidance and healing powers or to appease the gods or

ancestors are the accompanying ideas behind masks.

Not a lot has been passed on from generation to generation in any much

recognisable form or shape, but among the most powerful links is the seasonal

nature of many traditions we still know about. In the UK, the Green man and the

Hobby horse are two potent examples. “To me there is a tremendous link which is

bound up with the very nature of the people we are and how we have developed. Our

formative roots live in our societies now”, believes Bracegirdle.

The links to ancient beliefs can also be found in many European languages. When

we say in English that we are going berserk, we even directly refer to the shamanic

state of extasy. The adjective comes from the noun ‘berserker’, or ‘berserk’, the Old

Norse 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 at

the mouth, and biting the edges of their iron shields as if they acted in a Nike

commercial. Berserker is first recorded in English in the early 19th century, long after

these wild warriors ceased to exist. This is illustrative of how the tradition seemingly

interrupted, still lived on.

Similar “Bear Doctors” stories have been found among California tribes. In some

cases, the Berserkr or Ulfserkr would even eat the heart of the bear or wolf to gain its

power. Another feast of hearts occurs in the seiðr trance, as described above.

Not a lot was known about Western shamanism until it hit the limelight in the 1960

and the undoubted expert in the field is the late Mircea Eliade, a religion historian

who 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 but

more as a technique. Shamanism, he says, is ‘not strictly medicine men/women,

magicians, or healers’. This is the conclusion of extensive studies of the phenomenon

around the world in his book ‘Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy’.

He

believes that shamans are not the same as priests; they may have coexisted with

priests or even have fulfilled priestly functions as well as shamanic ones. A shaman

was more a mystic than a priest or a minister.

A shaman was not “possessed”, as many people now believe, says Eliade. Neither

was the shaman a medium or trance channeler. “Shamans control the spirit beings

with whom they work, or at least they do not surrender to them. Like a medium or

channeler, a shaman may appear unconscious when working, but upon returning, the

shaman can tell where he or she has gone”, he says.

The shaman is not the instrument of the spirits. Traditional shamans cure people

through their trances, accompany the souls of the dead to the Otherworld, and

communicate with the gods. “This small mystical elite not only directs the

community’s religious life but, as it were, guards its ‘soul.”

Modern day processions where you can still see old masks being worn include

processions in which giants and witches are displayed. These and other

masquerades are among the more powerful tangible links we still have to ancient

witchcraft 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 imagine

of old folklore and mythology, straight into modern times stories. Descriptions of the

beast’s benevolence vary from the playful Puff (of Peter Yarrow’s song) to the sinister

Smaug in J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit”. Babylonian legends portray the Queen of

Darkness as a multi-headed dragon – Tiamat. Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty

features a battle between Prince Phillip and the evil Maleficent about a curse than

can only be broken by three fairies. Likewise, the Germanic myth “Die Nibelungen”

climaxes with the battle between Siegfried and the giant Fafnir, who has transformed

himself into a dragon in an effort to become more frightening.

Our reaction to the physical characteristics of the dragon is another element that we

share with and which connects us to our ancestors. Around the world the beasts are

typically depicted as huge lizards, larger than elephants on average. Long fangs are

generally accepted as are twin horns of varying length. Western cultures generally

include large bat-like wings giving the dragon the capability of flight. But eastern

dragons, usually wingless, use a more magical means of flying. Eastern dragons also

tend to be more snake-like in nature, albeit with front and rear legs.

The ancient peoples of Europe were more fond of masks and religious ritual than you

would suspect if you saw Europeans today. Mask wearing and shamanism was part

and parcel of everyday life in ancient Western European tradition, say researchers.

There are stories abound about African and North American tribal shamans but not a

lot is known about ancient European peoples’ involvement with masked ritual or the

practice of magic. That is why finding out about similarities between the ideas behind

masks from around the world and those originating from European soil, is a

discovery of intriguing and real beliefs.

The less obvious link of European societies with shamanism or religious ritual than

for instance the North American native Indian customs or magic activity in the past is

due to the more ‘sanitised’ way Europe has developed because of church

interference in people’s lives. The church dominance virtually stamped out any pagan

ritual.

It was not until after 1960, when the Americans experienced a revival of the

interest in shamanism, that much has become known about the European version of

the practice of magic and mask wearing. There is more verifyable information about

the true roots of Western European civilisation than initially suspected.

“The spirit if not the exact practise of shamanism has been passed on through

Europe’s generations”, one authority on the subject, Leigh Ann Hussey, believes. The

earliest recordings of ceremonies involving masks were found in the caves of the

Trois Freres (Three Brothers) in France where paintings of a Paleolithic scene

depicting European animism of the first order.

Ian Bracegirdle, a mask expert, describes the cave: A central figure stands wearing

the 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 no

longer exist in this area. Ibex, reindeer, bison, stag and horses. The shaman, for that

is 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 sorcerer or shaman was symbol to sympathetic magic. He wore ears and horns

of a stag, the eyes and beak of an owl, the bearded face of an old man, the tail of a

wolf, the paws of a bear and the legs of a dancing shaman. He stood in front of

painted hunting murals. The Shaman served as mediator between humans and their

venerated 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 of

myths and stories showing our ancestors had plenty of similar ideas. A close analogy

exists in the stories of Kernunnos, forest god of the later Celts. The masks express

animism to some extent.

His information is confirmed by Ms Hussey, who went on a hunt in European

shamanism and found when she examined ancient sources, that she did not need to

borrow from other traditions. “It is clear that tribal Europe had as strong a shamanic

tradition 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 cultures

of the Pacific West Coast of North America and the tribal traditions of Africa. Symbols

that all these cultures share are relating to fertility, the hunted animal, ancestors,

initiation into rites, circumcision, cannibalism real and symbolic, healing and crossing

over into the spirit world for guidance and healing powers or to appease the gods or

ancestors are the accompanying ideas behind masks.

Not a lot has been passed on from generation to generation in any much

recognisable form or shape, but among the most powerful links is the seasonal

nature of many traditions we still know about. In the UK, the Green man and the

Hobby horse are two potent examples. “To me there is a tremendous link which is

bound up with the very nature of the people we are and how we have developed. Our

formative roots live in our societies now”, believes Bracegirdle.

The links to ancient beliefs can also be found in many European languages. When

we say in English that we are going berserk, we even directly refer to the shamanic

state of extasy. The adjective comes from the noun ‘berserker’, or ‘berserk’, the Old

Norse 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 at

the mouth, and biting the edges of their iron shields as if they acted in a Nike

commercial. Berserker is first recorded in English in the early 19th century, long after

these wild warriors ceased to exist. This is illustrative of how the tradition seemingly

interrupted, still lived on.

Similar “Bear Doctors” stories have been found among California tribes. In some

cases, the Berserkr or Ulfserkr would even eat the heart of the bear or wolf to gain its

power. Another feast of hearts occurs in the seiðr trance, as described above.

Not a lot was known about Western shamanism until it hit the limelight in the 1960

and the undoubted expert in the field is the late Mircea Eliade, a religion historian

who 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 but

more as a technique. Shamanism, he says, is ‘not strictly medicine men/women,

magicians, or healers’. This is the conclusion of extensive studies of the phenomenon

around the world in his book ‘Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy’.

He

believes that shamans are not the same as priests; they may have coexisted with

priests or even have fulfilled priestly functions as well as shamanic ones. A shaman

was more a mystic than a priest or a minister.

A shaman was not “possessed”, as many people now believe, says Eliade. Neither

was the shaman a medium or trance channeler. “Shamans control the spirit beings

with whom they work, or at least they do not surrender to them. Like a medium or

channeler, a shaman may appear unconscious when working, but upon returning, the

shaman can tell where he or she has gone”, he says.

The shaman is not the instrument of the spirits. Traditional shamans cure people

through their trances, accompany the souls of the dead to the Otherworld, and

communicate with the gods. “This small mystical elite not only directs the

community’s religious life but, as it were, guards its ‘soul.”

Modern day processions where you can still see old masks being worn include

processions in which giants and witches are displayed. These and other

masquerades are among the more powerful tangible links we still have to ancient

witchcraft 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 imagine

of old folklore and mythology, straight into modern times stories. Descriptions of the

beast’s benevolence vary from the playful Puff (of Peter Yarrow’s song) to the sinister

Smaug in J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit”. Babylonian legends portray the Queen of

Darkness as a multi-headed dragon – Tiamat. Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty

features a battle between Prince Phillip and the evil Maleficent about a curse than

can only be broken by three fairies. Likewise, the Germanic myth “Die Nibelungen”

climaxes with the battle between Siegfried and the giant Fafnir, who has transformed

himself into a dragon in an effort to become more frightening.

Our reaction to the physical characteristics of the dragon is another element that we

share with and which connects us to our ancestors. Around the world the beasts are

typically depicted as huge lizards, larger than elephants on average. Long fangs are

generally accepted as are twin horns of varying length. Western cultures generally

include large bat-like wings giving the dragon the capability of flight. But eastern

dragons, usually wingless, use a more magical means of flying. Eastern dragons also

tend to be more snake-like in nature, albeit with front and rear legs.

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