In my last two blog posts I have tried to describe the connection between the folk customs of Shrovetide or Carnival and European fairy tales and saga.
Some of the very earliest historical references to dancing concern Shrovetide processions, where the dancers are described as wearing clothing “torn to bits”. (See Remnants of Ancient Dance Found in Fairy Tales).
It is possible that this phrase was not pejorative in its original usage, but only a simple observation: the dancers wore torn clothing. Their garments might have become ripped as a result of their wild gesticulations or they may have purposely put on tattered clothing to give themselves a wild appearance, especially if the performers were taking on the role of wild man or wild woman (See Dark Nights of the Fairy Tale: the Wild Man and Wild Woman). In European tales and saga the phrase “torn to bits” has survived, and is primarily used in conjunction with all manner of fairy tale dancers. In the versions of the tales we now have, the dancing has become something quite unnatural. (See The Farmers of Kolbeck Dance on Christmas Eve).
There are other references to ancient carnival traditions in fairy tales, but when taken out of their cultural context, they are difficult to recognize. The wild man and wild woman, who first appeared at the end of November or beginning of December as wintry demons, are now ritually killed during the carnival celebration. This rite coincides with the first inklings of spring. But the first signs of springtime are usually observed on different days each year with broad regional variations. That is probably why the carnival tradition of killing the wild man could happen any time between February and April in the different areas of Europe. The first budding of a certain tree or the arrival of a migratory bird might have been the original trigger of the celebration. In the 18th century in parts of Italy, France and Austria, a death certificate was even issued. Descriptions of these demonic beings abound in Grimm’s Saga,, but other references are also of interest. According to Grimm, these creatures are primarily characterized by their keen sense of smell enabling the wild man to sense the approach of human flesh. These forest beings often cry “I smell the blood of man approaching!” or “The scent of human flesh is in the air!” We find this supernatural sense of smell in fairy tales as disparate as the German Hansel and Gretel (the witch, Grimm), the English Jack in the Beanstalk (the giant) and the French Petit Poucet (the ogre, Perrault).
Another popular carnival character is the harlequin. Said to be a black-faced emissary of the devil, and a frequent character in French passion plays, the harlequin was said to chase damned souls through the forest. The harlequin is usually an athletic dancer and scholars have tied him to Woton (or Odin), also known as the Wild Huntsman. He is a popular character in many Grimm’s sagas, one example being The Wee Mossy Wife (Grimm’s Saga No. 47). There is also a harlequin-like Woton character in The Pied Piper of Hamelin (Grimm’s Saga 245) June 29, 2008, who wears the traditional parti-colored coat. The Pied Piper's Wotoness has been explored on this website in Reading the Pied Piper.
Further Links of Interest:
Killing the Straw Bear or Wild Man:
Killing Winter in Romania: