Becoming more of our exquisite self is one of the most important quests in our human existence, however on that road there are times when we merge our path with “another” to make the journey more splendid. Our interweaving with other beings teaches us more about ourselves. It’s rather like looking into a multitude of mirrors to be able to glimpse the entirety of our Self. Loving a partner is certainly one such merger. We learn much about our strengths and our foibles in relationship!
Consciously taking on a persona for the purpose of reverence or even revelry may be another way to learn. There is something liberating and somewhat unnerving about assuming another face for a time. Often in donning a mask, we reveal something inside of us that was hidden not only from others, but from ourselves.
Many of us celebrate Halloween with a masquerade. This familiar custom has its origins hundreds, even thousands of years ago. The roots of our Autumnal spooky fun date back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain Night, or “Oiche Samhain,” a celebration of the dead as well as harvest and renewal.
To honor the spirits and keep the light “alive” during this time, the Celtic priests or Druids built huge sacred bonfires, where the people gathered to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to their deities. During this celebration, the Celts wore costumes, typically consisting of animal heads and skins, and attempted to tell each other’s fortunes.
According to the Online Etymological Dictionary, (www.etymonline.com) the word “mask” has several possible origins. When the more recent Middle Ages language layers are pealed away, the oldest reference is to the earlier pre Indo-European language roots which refer to the action “to darken” or the word for “witch.” We can certainly see a correlation to the Halloween time, but the wearing of masks is not a tradition limited to this time of year.
For many centuries, people have donned masks as a part of working with the spirit world. It is thought that the earliest use of masks was in connection with hunting. Apparently, disguise masks were used in the early Stone Age in stalking prey. However, unlike a contemporary hunter’s camouflage clothing, which simulates the environment, the Stone Age hunter sought to blend in by looking like what he was pursuing. This would entail not only assuming the animal disguise, but behaving like the animal as well. This action of becoming the prey coupled with the spirit already in the animal mask would, in shamanic terms, empower the disguise. In effect, it would make the mask “alive.” The mask would then not simply represent the animal, but become it and transfer that “becoming” to its wearer.
Indeed, there are different reasons for wearing a shamanic mask. Firstly, masks affect a transformation into another being. The power of this is two fold. Not only are the observers being signaled that someone or something else has made their presence known, the wearer him or herself is assisted into the transformative trance by the “living” object. In essence, the shaman becomes possessed by the spirit that the mask both represents and embodies. While entranced, the shaman can bring hidden wisdom from the spirit world into ordinary reality.
This idea of blurring the worlds and merging of two or more beings is also a typical theme of both shamanism and the early mythic traditions of European tribes. When characterized by a transmogrification of humans to animals and/or animals to humans it is referred to as zoomorphism. Finding traces of its existence strengthens the evidence that early Indo-European tribes practiced shamanism, however these practices must certainly go even further into prehistory.
The shaman figure Paleolithic people painted on the walls of the cave at Trois Freres is depicted as being caught somewhere in the middle of a transformation—neither completely one being or another. I believe this zoomorphic representation is meant to convey the fact that something profoundly powerful is occurring. That is, the transformation of a human into another being/spirit. These images catch the shaman “in the act.”
Celtic deities such as Herne/Cerunnos have their origins in that earlier image, but with a difference. By the time of the Iron Age, the Indo-European influence that brought “gods” to Europe, shifted spirit transformation out of the hands of human beings and solely into the domain of the divine. With gods came priests and the potency of the sacred energy was harder to access for the “common” person. One had to go through an intermediary person in the form of druid/priest or high person to speak with the “gods.” This distancing from the divine became the societal norm.
This image from the Gudesrup cauldron is an excellent example of a Cernunnos figure.
There were, however other times when one could access the wisdom directly. These rituals were proported to be terrible and dangerous. I suspect that the idea that a “mere mortal” could be threatened or even annihilated by such an act was probably encouraged by those that strove to keep the power and its control for themselves. Origins of those tales of humans being taken away by fierce spirits, never to be seen or heard from again, undoubtedly arise at the same time for a similar purpose.
But the older way of perceiving the world, nature and the spirits seems to always leak through. Even when overlaid with later Christian demonization, the power of the people/shaman’s relationship with the ancient spirits of nature tries to reveal itself.
In her book, Shaman: the Wounded Healer, Joan Halifax writes: “To the heavens, to the well at the end of the world, to the depths of the Underworld, to the bottoms of spirit-filled lakes and seas, around the earth, to the moon and sun, to distant stars and back again does the shaman-bird travel. All the cosmos is accessible when the art of transformation has been mastered.” Using this context, let’s look at the phenomenon of the Wild Hunt as related in Mediaeval folklore. The tale is of a group of fierce beings flying through the sky. These characters are in search of something. Sometimes the tales say they swarm across the sky to gather the spirits of the dead and take them to the other world. Other times it is said the Wild Hunt threatens the living.
While some traditions suggest that the one leading the hunt is a male figure, the people in alpine Germany believed that the Wild Hunt was lead by the goddess, Perchta or Berchta. Her name means “The Shining One.” (The words peraht, berht and brecht mean bright, light and/or white.) She is "The Lady of the Beasts" and was a guardian of the animals and nature in ancient Germanic hunting cultures. She is like her counterpart, Frau Holda the supernatural matron of spinning, childbirth and domestic animals, who is associated with the dark time of the year, witches and the Wild Hunt. Her name is related to Scandinavian beings known as the Huldra—faerie women with an animal tail who lives in the forests of Scandinavia. Here again, we see the overlayment of the shaman’s zoomorphic transformations. It is Huldra who gives her name to the great female shaman/völva Huld of the Icelandic Sagas. She is said to be the god Odin’s mistress, which is a rather overt way of saying she consorted with the numinous power of Spirit!
Pertcha rituals took place into the 16th century. The people who donned masks to become Pertcha were the Perchten. This name is also given to the animal masks worn in parades and festivals in the mountainous regions of Austria. The Perchten took two forms: the Schönperchten or beautiful Perchten who are beautiful and bright who “bring luck and wealth to the people.” The other form is the Schiachperchten (ugly Perchten) who have fangs, tusks and horsetails, which are used to drive out demons and ghosts. Men dressed as the ugly Perchten went from house to house driving out bad spirits.
This duality reflects this time of year so well. On the one hand, it is the time of the greatest bounty. All of the crops are in, the root cellars are full, the cheese is ripening and the wine is safely resting in casks. On the other hand, the daylight is waning, the cold begins to penetrate the land and the nature of life becomes more difficult. As the darkness creeps in we feel the chill of our mortality. We wonder in the midst of all the bounty, will there be enough to sustain us until Spring? So we distract ourselves, for a little while, playing out the dances of light and dark, of saint and boogieman. We don fearsome masks to both honor what terrifies us and to disempower the dark’s hold on our hearts!
This Halloween, when the little goblins come up your porch steps, remember their shamanic origins. When you open the door, take a deep breath of the chill air redolent with the smell of wood smoke and leaves. Then let their childish delight in dressing up drive away the darkness!
© 2008 Evelyn C. Rysdyk. A more extensive version of this article may be found in the October issue of Spirit Living, The Ecospiritual E-Magazine in the “Footprints of the Ancestors” section. www.spiritliving.org. Photos courtesy of www.dreamstime.com.
Evelyn C. Rysdyk, author of the book, Modern Shamanic Living, is a nationally recognized teacher of shamanism, healer & artist in joint practice with C. Allie Knowlton, LCSW, DCSW as Spirit Passages. Featured in the book, Traveling Between the Worlds, interviews with 24 of the world’s most influential writers and teachers of shamanism, she is also Executive Editor of the E-magazine for Ecospirituality, Spirit Living (www.spiritliving.org).
Since 1991, they have offered workshops across the USA and Canada. In addition, they have worked with hundreds of people in their private shamanic healing practice at True North in Falmouth, ME where they collaborate with physicians, nurses, a psychiatrist and other integrative health care practitioners.
Evelyn and her partner may be contacted though their web site: www.spiritpassges.com.