The Other_Subculture_Wilder Mann_Charles Freger_Tribal Europe_00 GATHERINGS&WORSHIPLOCALS / May 2014

“WILDER MANN”, TRIBAL EUROPE’S MASQUERADES

Photography by Charles Fréger
Text by Sophie Pinchetti

Pulsing through the veins of the Earth, there are myths as old as time. Some fade into oblivion. But some survive. Part man, part beast, the Wild Man is the quintessential “Other” – this stranger and rebel outsider – our primal counterpart.

Persisting against the odds of today’s digital age, masquerades around the world continue to pay homage to this figure haunting our consciousness since our ancestors first formed nomad tribes or settled into agricultural communities. It’s nothing you can tune into using a Wi-Fi connection: this is a tale speaking of roots and forces beyond the control of man. Dressed as a goat, a devil, a bear or a monster with jaws of steel, the wild man belongs to a realm populated of dreams and myths.

It’s a journey that French photographer Charles Fréger invites us on. The story begins in Salzburg in Austria, where Fréger encountered his first wild man: the Krampus. A demonic-looking creature, native to countries such as Austria, Hungary and Slovenia, the legend goes that the Krampus would terrorise badly behaved children while Santa would reward the better behaved. Entranced by this first meeting with this authentic Germanic “Wilder Mann”, Fréger decided to go on the hunt to document what he calls a “tribal Europe”.

Crossing through 19 countries over the course of two winters, Fréger’s portraits chronicle contemporary reinterpretations of the wild man. His search took him to meet rural communities, from Spain to Finland, for whom the art of masquerade is still an integral part of their culture. Part performance, part ritual, masquerade communicates in a singular language of its own. “I’m interested in communities that have particular clothes or costumes, but also a form of ritual”, says Fréger, whose portraiture work has chronicled the uniforms and clothes of communities as varied as wrestlers, water polo players, legionnaires, Sikhs in India, and performers of the Chinese opera. With a decidedly anthropological eye, Fréger’s work follows on in the footsteps of documentary photography forefathers such as August Sander, whose work created a sociological chronicle of street types and trades of the late 19th century.

 

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Krampus, Bad Mitterndorf, Austria on St. Nicholas’s Eve.

 

ANCIENT ORIGINS

 

Ancient, mysterious and archaic, the figures captured by Fréger’s camera seem to emerge from a fairy tale book. Disguised as demons, tree creatures and stags, the dramatic beings come adorned in animal skins, vegetable matter and straw, encircled with bells and bones, often crowned with horns and antlers. These hybrid monsters originate in our ancestors’ shamanic and pagan traditions, dating as far back to the Neolithic.

The recurrence is that they are masquerades which touch upon agriculture”, says Fréger, “Originally men would mask themselves with the remains of animal slaughter”. Emerging from the depths of winter to summon nature’s rebirth, the masquerades typically begin around Christmas running to around Easter. The Wild Man tells of a cyclical conception of time, continuously shifting between life and death. “Participating in these masquerades is about conjuring light and the return of Spring. We can’t be sure of how men thought 5,000 years ago but this is the idea we have of it”, says Fréger. “We don’t think that differently from the way men thought then.”

 

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Schnappviecher (snapping beast), Tramin, Italy on Shrove Tuesday.

 

The rural communities Fréger chronicles have not lost a sense of communion and balance with their natural environment. In an increasingly mechanised and industrialised world, their world appears as a fragile, near-lost world.

Dressed ambiguously part nature part culture, Fréger’s camera captures the wild man as a stylish maverick. Raw, animalistic, and rustic, today’s wild man sometimes also flaunts a pair of hiking boots from beneath his costume. In the alpine region of France, the wild man is known as L’Homme Sauvage, costumed as a bear and mimicking the animal’s reappearance after months of hibernation.

The further north you go, the more ferocious and alien-looking the figures become. Unsettling silhouettes parade in the snow of the Czech Republic: these are the devils of the village of Nedašov, locally known as Certi. In Poland, the wild man takes on a more clownish form as the Macinula, covered in lichen and multi-colored rags and ribbons.

 

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Ours (Bear) at Arles-sur-Tech, Pyrenees, France.

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Macinula, Cisiec, Poland on New Year’s Day.

 

Traditionally, these folk traditions are also a male initiatory rite. Fast forward to the 21st century, and some things have clearly not changed: these masquerades remain exclusively male. The people in Fréger’s photographs are men and sometimes even teenage boys: “The average age of the Krampus in Austria is 20 years old”, says Fréger, “Lots of young people participate. These are very virile, very masculine traditions”. Wearing bells weighing up to 40 kilos, the wild man exhibits his physical strength. The wild man is also an erotic symbol of animal sexuality – and traditionally, these masked characters often sprinkle water onto the women of the village, in order to ensure their fertility as well as that of the earth.

 

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Krampus, Perchten, Werfen, Austria on St Nicolas Day in December

 

BETWEEN WORLDS

 

Solitary and unapproachable, the masked one also speaks of the mysteries of existence. Once upon a time, these creatures were believed to ward off evil spirits, release the soul of the dead, and ensure protection of cattle and men. While the spiritual beliefs associated with the masquerade tradition are no longer as widespread, Fréger notes that it is still underlying: “It depends on the men who are practicing the masquerade. Some believe, some don’t. Some do it just as a form of celebration. In any case, people do it because it’s something completely fundamental to them. People who are part of these groups do it because it’s a form of engagement.

To mask oneself is to welcome Otherness - to initiate an act of transformation, to bid an alternate reality. In Bulgaria, the wild man’s signature is the surreal looking Babugeri, wearing a full body goatskin suit with a tapered hood. In this animalistic couture, all semblance of human features vanish. Neither beast nor man, these beings seemingly bridge worlds, without belonging to one or the other. They disrupt conventions, identities, and norms. As Fréger says, “For a few nights you can behave like a goat, drink and forget about being civilised. You can be a wild animal for three days and then you go back to controlling your wildness”.

 

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The Babugeri, Bansko, Bulgaria, on January 1. Both groups wear similar goat skin costumes with a tapered hood (‘surati’) also made of skin.

 

THE EVOLUTION OF MASQUERADES

 

As times have shifted, so have the masquerades. It’s survival 101. “The real protection of a tradition is the fact that people practice the tradition and appropriate it for themselves, and in this way they make it evolve”, says Fréger. While most European masquerades are now played out for entertainment, occasionally harbouring a strong touristic aspect, the wild man’s presence remains intertwined with the social, cultural and political values of these rural communities. “It’s not because a tradition is classified in the UNESCO World Heritage that it will be protected”, observes Fréger.

The original wild man’s resurgence into our visual culture could not be timelier. Around the world, the off-grid and grassroots movements are taking back to the land amidst a flourishing anti-capitalist and anti-globalist sentiment. A new spirituality is also blossoming, with a myriad of countercultural movements, from psy-trance to neo-druidism, reappropriating elements from diverse pagan, shamanic and tribal traditions. Our need for storytelling and myths seems to be vital. And thanks to the Internet, these new archaisms know no boundaries.

Modern civilisation may have dramatically changed the face of our planet – but somehow, all around the world, from the depths of the Equatorial rainforest to the mountains of Siberia, masquerades continue to exist, resist and evolve.

Here at The Other, we love the wild of heart. And every once and a while, it’s empowering to affirm that part of us that hasn’t been tamed!

 

➜ http://www.charlesfreger.com

Wilder Mann: The Image of the Savage by Charles Fréger is published by Dewi Lewis Publishing.

 

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Ursul (Bear), Palanca, Romania

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Certi (Devils) Třebič, Czech Republic.

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Tras de cuerdas, Zarramacadas of Mecerreyes, Spain

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Cerbul (Stag), Corlata, Romania

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Maschingannas, Ul. Tirso, Sardinia, Italy.

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Sourvakari, the biggest masquerade of the region of Pernik is is held on January 13 in Gabrov dol, Bulgaria. The masks of the Sourvakari of Gabrov dol, also known as ‘likove’ are characterised by their caps decorated with wings of bird, skins, feathers, stuffed animals, and small mirrors.

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Sauvages, Le Noirmont, Switzerland. This masquerade is held at Carnival on the Last full moon before Shrovetide.

One Response to ““WILDER MANN”, TRIBAL EUROPE’S MASQUERADES”

  1. Martti Ahtisaari says:

    Finland has Santa Claus and Sweden has burkhas

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