Clowns, Masks and Ritual

A Time of Madness, Masks, and Clowns

On the 20th of August 2016, some clowns allegedly tried to lure a kid into the woods near masks - wasco clownhis apartment complex in Greenville, South Carolina. Over the course of the next week, a further five sightings were reported to the local police department. Those of us who didn’t live in Greenville, especially those of us raised on Stephen King’s IT, were relieved to not be there. Over the course of the coming weeks, the number of sightings grew – as did the number of locations. People speculated that it was all some kind of publicity stunt for the upcoming IT remake, but the movie’s producer denied all. A kind of paranoia and hysteria grew around the clowns, and as the reports grew, so did the debate around just what the clowns were and why they had started to become so prominent. masks- evil clownSome people pointed out the Fortean aspects of these crazes (which happen periodically), whereas others just stuck to more mundane explanations of creepy attention-seekers in bought or rented suits and masks. In a kind of collective madness, exacerbated by the fever of the late election cycle, we hurtled towards Halloween and rumors of a ‘clown purge’. With the exception of one Halloween night attack on a family by a gang of clowns that thankfully left them with comparatively minor injuries, there was no purge. Then as quickly as it began, it was all over and the clowns disappeared from the news.

But regardless of whether some of the clowns were supernatural as some claimed, or simply fucked up people in scary masks, there is a curious history to clowns and the act of masking that deserves some examination. Because sometimes, as the saying goes, you have to dress for the job you want.

A Dichotomy of Clowns

Believe it or not, but as creepy as clowns are, the original clown (at least in the Anglosphere) was supposed to be a kind of harmless rustic fool. According to the Etymological Dictionary Online, the word ‘clown’ (as ‘cloyne’ or ‘clowne’) is theoretically derived from various Scandinavian language words for ‘clumsy’, and was first used in the 1560s to denote a ‘rustic boor, peasant’. (1) However, the word is not the thing, and the history of the ‘rustic fool’ figure in entertainment settings goes back to the Ancient Greek sklêro-paiktês, a word which comes from the verb paizein ‘to play like a child’. (2) This is not the only word for this kind of performer in Greek theater, but I do not need to include them here to further make the point that this figure of a ‘rustic fool’ that we call ‘clown’ is quite ancient.

Ancient Greek theater was inextricably tied up in acts of ritual, Aristotle even cited the cult of Dionysius as being the origins of drama.(3) While this is a claim that is still debated, it does illustrate that theater was not merely a form of entertainment for the Greeks (although it was undoubtedly that too).

The clowns, or rather ‘clown-like’ performers of today arguably have their origin in the Zanni of the 16th century Italian Commedia dell’Arte. There were essentially two types of Zanni: the stupid and boorish ( in other words, those we would recognize as being clowns today); and the intelligent trickster types. Strangely, it is the more threatening Zanni, the member of the Zanni known as Arlecchino – despite his somewhat darker theorized origins – who is considered to be among the stupid. To quote Jennifer Meagher from the Metropolitan Museum of Art:

” The zanni (servants) were in many ways the most important—and certainly the most masks - harlequinsubversive—characters of the commedia, as their antics and intrigues decided the fate of frustrated lovers, disagreeable vecchi, and each other. Perhaps best known of these is Arlecchino, or Harlequin (1974.356.525), a character whose origin is contested. It is likely that he derived either from Alichino, a demon from Dante’s Inferno (XXI-XXIII), or from Hellequin, a character from French Passion plays, also a demon charged with driving damned souls into Hell. Arlecchino is characterized as a poor man, often from Bergamo, whose diamond-patterned costume suggests that he is wearing patchwork, a sign of his poverty. His mask is either speckled with warts or shaped like the face of a monkey, cat, or pig, and he often carries a batacchio, or slapstick.”(4) (Emphasis is my own.)

Also worthy of note here, is the fact that “All characters except Pedrolino and the innamorati wore masks, a tradition deriving from ancient Roman comedies, Atellanae Fabulae, that featured character types similar to those of the commedia.” (5) The Commedia has its roots in old old custom.

To return to that first quote though, and Arlecchino’s connection with hell in both of his origins stories, there is a far richer history to be found here that makes this hellish connection, and especially with the dead especially apt.

Harlequin and Herela Cyng

Harlequins are curious things, both in terms of their dress as the black-masked performer in checkered material carrying a club, and the history suggested by the etymology of their name. The most complete exposition of the history of both the name and character comes from Flasdieck in his 1937 article entitled “Harlekin. Germanischer Mythos in romanischer Wandlung”. In it, the origins of the word ‘Harlequin’ are traced back to the OE *Her(e)la cyng, or ‘King Harilo’, which is itself a by-name of Wodan – a god connected with leading the dead in the form of the Wild Hunt. (6) In turn, Flasdieck traces ‘Her(e)la’ back to *Xarilan – a word deriving from *Xaria, or ‘army’. This is synonymous with Herjann, and leads us to the Germanic tribal name, the Harii. (It’s all a lot more complex than that, I’m trying to condense about seven pages of etymology into less than a paragraph. Seriously, get Kershaw’s book if you can.)

Remember the black mask of the Harlequin? Maybe it’s no coincidence – per Tacitus in Germania 43 (emphasis is my own):

“As for the Harii, quite apart from their strength, which exceeds that of the other tribes I have just listed, they pander to their innate savagery by skill and timing: with black shields and painted bodies, they choose dark nights to fight, and by means of terror and shadow of a ghostly army they cause panic, since no enemy can bear a sight so unexpected and hellish; in every battle the eyes are the first to be conquered.”

Masks and Ritual

masks - Roman death

Image from here:

Returning to the ancient classical world though, and this time the funerals of Rome, we see the act of masking in impersonation of the dead. One of the living would wear a death mask and clothes of the newly deceased, and impersonate them as much as they could. To clarify a little here, by ‘death mask’, I mean masks molded from the actual face of the deceased usually after death. Other mourners would similarly impersonate the ancestors of the deceased with their own respective masks. (7) Viewed from this perspective, the funeral then becomes a drama in which the decedent is escorted to the grave by the dead themselves.

To quote Kershaw in her ‘The One Eyed God: Odin and the (Indo) Germanic Männerbünde’, “It is the nature of the dead that they are not seen”, and yet there were times during the ritual year when the dead very much needed to be present. So how to solve a problem like that? How to give form to the unseen?(8)

Again from Kershaw (emphasis is my own): “The means by which they become the dead are Masks. By mask we do not necessarily mean something which covers the face. The most primitive form of masking is simply painting the face (and body). And while we have, from Scandinavia, representations of cultic dancers wearing very realistic wolfs’ heads and fur garments reaching to the knees, as in the helmet plate from Torslunda described in 1.4.3 above, other masks consist of (or are made to look like ?) parts of an animal’s head, or the whole head with the jaws agape and the masker’s face showing, as in the pictures of Herakles in his lion skin or Hades in his κυνη….The mask shows that the wearer is a dæmonic, or more-than-natural, being. He is no longer himself: he is an Ancestor.” (9)

Though Kershaw was writing about the embodiment of ancestors by living warriors by means of donning masks, this same principle applies equally to the impersonation of the deceased at the Roman funeral – the belief in possession by ghosts or the ‘more-than-natural’ is quite ancient.

Exapanding the ‘More-Than-Natural’

Earlier on in this post, I made the joke that sometimes you have to dress for the job you masks - werewolfwant, hopefully that joke is becoming somewhat clearer now. But I do not believe that this principle applies solely to the dead, and that we can see a form of this kind of embodiment of the ‘more-than-natural’ in some of the sources on shapeshifting too. For example, Sigmund and Sinfjötli of the Volsunga Saga become wolves through the donning of skins, and this theme survived into the 17th century when Thiess the self-described werewolf of Livonia testified that he and his fellow werewolves [on their journey to hell to retrieve seeds stolen by a sorcerer called Skeistan] had to strip off and don skins. (10)

Conversely, a person might return to the human state by either shucking the mask or skin, and/or dressing once more in the clothes of man. We see this at play in Petronius’s Satyricon in which a soldier protects his clothes by magically turning them into stone before turning into a werewolf. To protect one’s clothes is to protect one’s ability to return to the human state. This theme is also present in Marie de France’s 12th century lay Bisclavret (a Breton word meaning ‘werewolf’) in which a werewolf’s clothes are stolen him from returning to his human form.(11) This is not so different from the protective powers of cultivated land when being pursued by the Other in the wilds, the clothes acting as a civilizing influence in much the same way as working the land does a field.

Of Masks and Clowns

The 2016 spate of clown sightings were noteworthy in numerous ways, not in the least because every single clown described was of the ‘horror’ variety. They were embodying the Pennywise, the sick, murderous clown that goes out of its way to terrify children and adults alike, and all during a time of high passion and acrimonious national discourse. Given the historical use of masking within ritual contexts, and the meaning of that act of masking, a whole new dimension is added to the question of just what possessed those people to don those masks and go out behaving in ways they perhaps wouldn’t normally. Now obviously, I’m not suggesting that all of those clowns were possessed by some spirits stirred up by the then-zeitgeist, but it is an interesting thought, isn’t it?

(1) Etymological Dictionary Online – Clown

(2) Etymological Dictionary Online – Coulrophobia

(3) The Origins of Theater in Ancient Greece and Beyond: From Ritual to Drama – Eric Csapo, Margaret C. Miller P
(4)+(5) Commedia dell’Arte – Jennifer Meagher

(6) The One Eyed God: Odin and the (Indo) Germanic Männerbünde – Kris Kershaw (Pp 11, 15-19, 38-40)
(7) Impersonating the Dead: Mimes at Roman Funerals – Geoffrey S. Sumi
(8) The One Eyed God: Odin and the (Indo) Germanic Männerbünde – Kris Kershaw (p26)
(9) Ibid.
(10) Witches, Werewolves, and Fairies: Shapeshifters and Astral Doubles in the Middle Ages – Claude LeCouteux (Pp 118-121)
(11) Witches, Werewolves, and Fairies: Shapeshifters and Astral Doubles in the Middle Ages – Claude LeCouteux (Pp113-116)

A Witch That Cannot Hex Cannot Heal Pt 1

The Perils of Hyperbole and Hex

It would seem that my last post confused a few people with regards to my position on hexing. Apparently satire is not so easy to spot in the age of fake news, regardless of how many hyperbolic statements are included, and I apologize for that. Judging by the comments, some people were so angry they didn’t even make it to the end of the post before exiting, and so didn’t see my final word on the matter.

But maybe that’s to be expected. This is one of those subjects that gets people’s backs up no matter what ‘side’ of the debate they fall on, and it’s been that way for as long as I can remember.

There are a lot of reasons for this depth of ire, and a lot of layers here to dissect. From what I’ve seen on the anti-hexing side of things, you have the influence of Wicca and the threefold law on the wider community, coupled with what I believe is a genuine desire to be ‘good’ in many people… and perhaps no small amount of identity politics. There are of course other reasons both philosophical and theological to take into account, but they all essentially boil down to this idea that if you hex, then you will have some kind of negative return on it as a kind of punishment.

As someone who is not so much pro-hexing as just views it as yet another tool in my magical toolbox, I have a disdain for others acting as though their ethics and their way of seeing things is the one true way™, and that anyone who doesn’t agree isn’t a ‘real witch’ ™.

Listen, if you are someone who believes it’s wrong to hex, then all power to you. That’s fine for you, but when you start trying to tell others ‘how things are’, well then you really have to ask yourself what the difference is between yourself and the Christians who are convinced that we all worship devils. Because if you’re really going to get into that one true way mindset, then eventually you’re also going to have to address the matter of who is ultimately right.

The Problem of Morality in Witchcraft

Witchcraft is a path of moral relativism, for there is no morality inherent in Witchcraft other than that of the Witch him/her/them self/selves. Even when people claim to take their morality from their interactions with the Other or the Earth, there is still relativism there because it’s one thing to have an interaction with the other, but we all perceive and process our interactions differently. Sure, we all usually get the basics down the same, such as “I was walking down the street and bumped into Gavin and Sue”, “we were stood outside the supermarket and chatted”, and “Gavin had to leave after a while”. But when we get into the finer details, that’s when we see the differences in interpretation. Sue may say that Gavin seemed like he was being a bit short with everyone but the narrator may think Gavin was just being his usual self.

These differences are further compounded when we move into the less tangible realms of trance and Otherworldly experience, and while a common ‘gist’ may come through to multiple people. Those multiple people may process and interpret that gist very differently.  And that’s even before we get into the matter of just what the Other you’re dealing with considers to be moral vs you as a human continuing to live lawfully in human society. It’s hyperbole, but taking morality tips from a bunch of redcaps (should you survive the experience) is likely to land you in jail for murder. See what I mean?

The Other Side of Hex

For me, it is in this consideration of the Other where the whole concept of a cosmic force that punishes baneful magics really falls down. After all, how often do you see stories of fae folk in which the ‘threefold law’ or karma, or whatever name you want to apply to that force fucks them up for cursing humans? I’m yet to find any.

And before anyone says “that’s different”, from a historical perspective it’s really not. In fact, the symptoms of a curse by human witch or fairy were so similar that in Irish culture the source had to be diagnosed by a kind of specialist (1). It is a theme in both Irish and Germanic cultures that witches derive their powers from the Other – including the power to curse (2). In the Germanic iteration of this theme, witches received the elfshot (curses) that they shoot or fire at other people from the elves (3).

So for me, I don’t see how a threefold law (or similar) can exist within any worldview that includes the Other Crowd in any kind of a meaningful way. Because if cosmic law be cosmic, then surely it applies to every being within the cosmos? This includes the Good Folk, and you can hardly separate the Gentry from the Witches.

Layers of Action, Layers of Magic

Another reason why this view of negative magics coming back to get you because of (insert term for force here), is because of how magic works within a Germanic context (which as my internet name suggests, is where I take most of my magical cues from). Because of the Germanic view of time, there are essentially two different kinds of magic within Germanic culture: temporary and permanent. To avoid getting into terminology, what we do in the now sets down layers in our past, and those layers accumulate over time into themes or patterns that keep repeating through our lives as we go along (4). What we put down now, affects what we’ll have to work with in the future. Makes sense, right?

This ‘mechanism’ is something you see at play in the descriptions of magic in the sources. Some forms of magic, like the spun magic that raises a storm or ensnares a mind, only last for as long as they’re being performed (5). As long as that action isn’t calling up a storm that sinks a ship and results in the deaths of people you hate, then these don’t have to be deadly. Sometimes, if you find the right place to ‘tweak’ with a single action, you can still cause some long-lasting woe for your enemy, but it’s usually not too difficult for them to fix should they discover that point of manipulation.

However, we also see the use implements such as the tablet weaving tablet (which I discuss more fully here) imbued with the intent of passing off the creator’s bad luck to a hated person. With every turn of that tablet, and every row woven, that would be a little layer being put down, a little more worked, a pattern created in the victim’s life (which would also potentially compound itself further as more and more bad things happen to the victim setting down their own layers). That would eventually grow and become something that lasts, and any attempts to change it would take a lot of effort and time. It may not even be possible for the victim to get out from under that.

The ‘Blowback’

With any of these magics though, you have to keep in mind that not only is the working of whatever you’re doing changing what is laid down for them, but also conceivably for you too – unless you find a way to set something up to work continuously in the background (also a popular option). But the woman with the tablet weaving tablet would have had as much time as she spent working that curse set down as layers for herself just as much as they were for her victim (albeit from the opposite side of things). What that could have meant for her is less clear than what it could have meant for her victim, but it didn’t have anything to do with a cosmic boogeyman.

It was the long-term accumulated consequences of her own actions, and in that way, baneful magics (or any other type of magics) are no different from anything else we do in life. No matter what we do, whatever action we take, we will always have to eventually face those long-term accumulated consequences. This can be as mundane as drinking too much alcohol or making bad financial decision after bad financial decision (especially if you’re not on the luckier end of the scale – but we’ll get to that another time).

Another theory that I see batted around about cursing is that in working with those more negative energies, you can’t help but get them on yourself like some kind of sticky turd. However, in my experience that isn’t nearly as much of an issue when you practice purification rites after doing your workings.

A Nuanced Tool

Ultimately though, this is just how I see things and the reasons for why I see them as I do. As I said earlier in this piece, cracking out the nasties is just one tool in my magical toolbox, and it’s a tool that is extremely nuanced in its use. Because of this nuance, you have to learn how to curse just as you have to learn how to heal – because if there is one thing that is truly dangerous about cursing to the practitioner, it’s screwing up your working. However healing is not without its risk either, but I’ll save that for the next blog.

Either way, none of us are ever going to change each other’s minds, but if there is one thing that we should all fight to preserve, it’s that there is no one true way in Witchcraft. Because even with the best of intentions, a person who believes they have the ultimate handle on the truth can do some truly evil things.

1. Morgan Daimler – The Witch, The Bean Feasa, And The Fairy Doctor In Irish Culture
2. Ibid
3. Alaric Hall – Elves in Anglo-Saxon England
4. Paul Bauschatz – The Well and the Tree
5. Eldar Heide – Spun Seidr