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: http://bit.ly/2nBmA5a

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?

Sources
(1) Etymological Dictionary Online – Clown

http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=clown

(2) Etymological Dictionary Online – Coulrophobia

http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=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

http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/comm/hd_comm.htm

(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)

Eight Sarcastic But Serious Tips For Necromancy

Bored with the same old candle spells and rhyming couplets? Why not dabble in a spot of necromancy for the kind of life change that only the dead can bring! Practiced for generations and common to pretty much every culture on earth, necromancy is the new way to find out shit you wouldn’t otherwise know.

The Dead > Siri

We all have things we want to know about: lost items we want to find, things we want to know about other people, what the winning lottery numbers are…. and well, as we all know Siri can be a right royal bitch! But who the fuck is she to be a bitch? Sure, the dead can be bitches too (see point #2 ), but they arguably have some sentience (depending on your worldview). It’s like the difference between getting attitude from a fucking Furby, and you know, an actual person. Yes, Siri, you’re just some flashy Furby pimped up with spy tech! You are NOT the boss of me.

Fuck you, Siri!

Fuck you, Siri!

(FYI, the Dead also beat Alexa. The gods don’t go to any old schmucks for information!)

But the point is, the dead can help with lots of questions. From modern iterations on the traditional treasure-hunting theme (“Where are my keys?”), to questions designed to find out hidden knowledge (“How many people has my aunt ____ banged? How many does it take before people start to call you a ‘bike’?”), the dead have you covered.

Your Dead Entourage

For the truly self-centered and destructive among you, necromancy also gives you the squadgoalsoption of compelling the dead to go and fuck up someone you hate! Yes, for the small cost of completely shitting on any chances of being a decent human being and the potential consequences of getting caught robbing graves, you too can have your own dead army. Marvelous!

Of course, there’s a lot of argument about whether it’s *really* bad to do that to the bones of traditional targets (like hanged criminals and shit), but I’m going with the moral absolutism here. It’s way easier to be sarcastic about absolutes than shades of grey.

The Underworld’s The Limit!

Did you know that there are a fuck load of dead people buried in the earth, and that lots of people have died since the beginning of humanity? This means that there are literally millions of dead people to choose from with your necromancy. The Underworld is the limit, people!

See? LOADS of dead people. (Thanks for the snapshot, Orpheus!)

See? LOADS of dead people. (Thanks for the snapshot, Orpheus!)

So, what key tips would I give to the would-be necromancer? I’m glad you asked that, because I have some right here!

1. Pick The Easy Ones

This isn't really Kratos, but this guy? Yeah, you're not aiming to raise guys like him.

This isn’t really Kratos, but this guy? Yeah, you’re not aiming to raise guys like him.

This is something of a no-brainer, but you generally want to go for either the somewhat debilitated or you know, people who actually liked you in life. The reason for this is that if you have a Code:Draugr situation, the weaker ones won’t be able to fight you as well, and people who liked you won’t automatically try to fuck you up when you drag them kicking and screaming from their miserable afterlife existences. Don’t go for the cool-sounding warrior or king, because that hardly ever goes well. The same goes for criminals or people who have died in really bad ways. That kind of anger sticks around (also: see point #2)

Generally the best advice is to go for your grandma who used to feed you cakes every time you went round to her house. Only this time, she’ll be feeding you information instead of diabetes.

2. An Asshole In Life Is Still An Asshole In Death
So, once upon a time there was a douchebag called ‘Hrapp’ who lived in Iceland way back when. Now everyone thought he was a grade A prick even in life, so it should have been a no-brainer to not bury him IN A FUCKING DOORWAY! Except they did, and it was terrible, because doorways are weird, liminal places, and Hrappy-boy stayed right where he was. Yes, they had a Code:Draugr situation, and it sucked. Because if they thought he was a prick in life, he didn’t exactly improve on death. No, he got worse, and even worse, he had draugr-powers.

To be fair, his wife probably just dealt with his demand to be buried in the doorway with the same level of give a shit or existential terror as she may have done to his demands for horse ass for dinner. Whatever, the moral of this story is clear: death doesn’t erase douchebaggery, so don’t raise douches. (That’s a moral for more than just necromancy, right there!)

3. Be Respectful
So, you’ve got your dead all nice and necromanced, how do you talk to them?
Well, if your answer was something along the lines of “Well, like Zak Bagans!”, do the world a favor and slap yourself. Actually, slap the shit out of yourself and put down the necromancy, no more necromancies for you!

No, the best way to deal with the dead in necromancy is to reign in all your inherent douchebaggery and pretend you’re a respectful fuck who isn’t just really trying to find out who his/her aunt banged for the lolz.

4. It’s OK To Be Scared
In fact, if you’re not scared, you probably have no internal capacity for risk assessment. If you cannot do that, then put down the necromancy. Fear isn’t a bad thing, it’s natural when raising the restless or rested. If anything, that preternatural cold kind of inspires it. It’s like a visceral warning that what you’re doing is not just a little bit against the natural order of things, and that’s the kind of instinct that keeps you from either joining them, or winding up in a straitjacket.

You just have to learn to handle the fear, not rid yourself of it.

5. Fuck-Ups Happen, So Have Backup Plans
Another thing you have to handle is the potential for fuck-ups. Or even ways in which you vastly underestimated the situation (same diff). This is incredibly common, and despite the new and improved character sheets the dead now come with which allow you to compare their stats with your own to see who has the most dots in whatever, fuck-ups are pretty much a part of the necromancer’s life.

Once upon a time, there was this dude called Benvenuto Cellini. Now Cellini got in with a necromancer back in the day and kinda let him know that he was up for learning about it. Kind of like a bucket list kind of deal really. So Cellini, his new necromancer buddy, and a couple of other mates he invited along, went off to the Coliseum to go and bother the dead. The first time they went, it was all a bit “oooh” and “ahhhh”, and “when will I see my dead girlfriend again?” (FYI, not a good question to ask.)

The second time though, there were more spirits than you could shake a stick at of various kinds. I mean, this was a situation seriously going downhill. But did the necromancer turn into Zak Bagans? Nope, he stayed respectful. His assistants were terrified, Cellini was terrified, the little virgin boy psychic they’d brought along was terrified. Seriously, they were so close to being completely up shit creek because the Coliseum was crawling with the dead and everything else.

Thankfully, the necromancer had a good plan to disperse the dead, and this is where we get into back-up plans.

6.Fart-o-cism
Yes, you read that right.
Cellini’s necromancer had a big pile of stinky ole asafetida. Because the dead apparently

"No more ghosts here, boss!"

“No more ghosts here, boss!”

don’t like stinky stuff. (Nor do the elves btw, a euphemism in Icelandic for ‘to take a shit’ allegedly literally translates as ‘drive out elves’). However, they didn’t really need to crack out that fetid weed, because….

Cellini’s bud Agnolo cut cheese like you wouldn’t believe. No really, from the description it sounds like that fart would have left a mark. But it worked, and the dead started to get the hell out as soon as they could.
So you know, if you’re really in trouble, try shitting yourself.

7. Put Them Back When You’re Done
Remember when you were a kid and you finished playing with some toys, left them out, and got bollocked by your mum for not tidying up after yourself? Well it’s the same principle here. If there’s one theme that keeps coming up again and again in the different accounts of necromancy, it’s that the dead mostly don’t like being raised, so the least you can do after finding out where your car keys are, is put them back. Necromancy that focuses on just calling them up is half a job done. Don’t be one of those guys.

8. Purification, motherfuckers!
Lastly, when you’re done with your necromancing for the day, don’t forego your purification rites in favor of climbing into bed and getting a few more minutes of sleep. You already messed up your night’s sleep with going out and fannying about at the local cemetery/burial mound/crossroads, you may as well just suck it up and make sure you end the night right.

The dead are kept from the living for reasons, mostly that they’re not too good for us. So, it’s a good idea to make sure that you leave the fun of the graveyard, in the graveyard. Popular options include a good old-fashioned scourging, suffumigation, and ritual bathing, so there’s bound to be a method to suit every necromancer!

If all of this sounds good to you, and you’re the kind of person who enjoys the kind of pant-staining terrifying fun with the dead that only necromancy can bring, why not actually give necromancy a go?

Necromancy: Because Siri Is Shit