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)

Of ‘Gatekeeper’ Spirits and the Western Esotericism

Liminal Gatekeeper Spirits

I have a thing for liminal gods and spirits. Not in some weird ‘sexy times’ kind of way, but gatekeeper spirits - hermanubis statuethere’s definitely a draw there for me. The same goes for places too. I love those liminal in-between places in which the Other almost feels close enough to reach out and touch. The kind of places where you wouldn’t be all that surprised if it reached out and gave you a quick grope either.

So as you might imagine, the concept of ‘gatekeepers’ (or beings connected to boundaries in general) holds a high level of fascination; after all, you don’t get much more liminal than a gatekeeper.

But whenever we talk of gatekeepers, especially within the context of Indo-European Paganisms, there is this sense that they’re a borrowing from outside and don’t belong.

It all started with a book review…

Recently though, I came across a blog post that discusses the role of the gatekeeper spirit within the Western Occult Tradition and its possible uses and origins. Well ok, the post wasn’t *really* about that, it was a book review of Jake Stratton-Kent’s Encyclopedia Goetica. The post is a very concise and well-done review of a series of five books examining the origins of the magical tech and spirits of the Grimoires, and even though the combined cost of all the books together would be around $140, I have a mighty need to buy them like you wouldn’t believe.

I’m a big believer in figuring out the origins and meanings of things, in deconstructing things like old charms in order to figure out the underlying mechanisms. I’m not a fan of simply copying and taking the (arguably) easier route of having a tradition handed to me. I like to do the work, and then take that work and try it out ‘in the field’ so to speak. So it goes without saying that I find all of this work being done within the occult community to dig for the meanings and underlying mechanisms very, very exciting.

Of Pagan Origins and Christian Veneers

From what I understand from the review, Mr Stratton-Kent’s general argument is that the grimoires represent a survival of ancient Pagan religious and occult practices. But you know, with this covering of Christian and Qabalistic stuffs. The main of Stratton-Kent’s work in his Encyclopedia then, is in stripping away that covering, and revealing those ancient practices as much as possible. At the root of it all, Stratton-Kent argues, are the Greek goetes, those wandering magicians of the pre-classical period from whom we derive the word goetia. Which, if Stratton-Kent is right, has massive implications for not only Western esotericism, but for any magically inclined Pagans in general. (Again, I haven’t read these books yet so I’m being cautious with my language here. Like I said, I have a mighty need.)

Scrying and Survivals

Gatekeeper Spirits - Lady scrying with bowl of waterIn the first book of the Encyclopedia, The True Grimoire, Stratton-Kent examines the use of a gatekeeper spirit as intermediary between the other spirits and us. More specifically he focuses on the ‘Armadel’ method, a method of scrying in which spirits are called into the surface of the water. It is this method of scrying that Stratton-Kent argues (at least as I understand it from reading the review), is our tie back to the scrying methodology of the Greek Magical Papyri and the Pagan world. For Stratton-Kent, the ‘Armadel’ method reflected in the Greek Magical Papyri of calling a spirit into the surface of whatever you’re scrying with, is a piece of magical tech reflective of the decline of the Pagan period. It was a particularly clever work-around for the problem of how to interact with the old gods without all of the traditional Pagan religious apparatus. The magician or seer would call an intermediary spirit into the surface of the scrying medium. This intermediary spirit is then tasked with setting up a ritual scene in preparation for the arrival of the bigger spirits. The reviewer Kadmus, points out that often the request is focused on setting up the right number of chairs for a kind of banquet for the spirits. This is reminiscent of some of the earliest methods of religious ritual among the Indo-Europeans. After this feast, the magician or seer is then at liberty to ask for a boon; do ut des and all that. By shifting the celebration of a Pagan rite to the Other that lies beyond water, the practitioner can fulfill the exigencies of ritual in a far more discreet and less dangerous manner than if he or she were to set up such a ritual scene in the physical world.

Papyri and Lines

When dealing with the Greek Magical Papyri (or PGM), there is always the question of Gatekeeper spirits - PGMwhat comes from which tradition. The PGM date from between 200 B.C.E and 500 C.E, and are the product of intense cross-cultural interaction and blending in the Mediterranean. Kadmus sums this up best when he writes in his review that the PGM are “just as much Egyptian Magical Papyri as Greek ones”.

This is where things become complicated and where we must not only ask ourselves which part of that PGM heritage the use of a spirit intermediary or gatekeeper draws from, but also where we draw the line when it comes to consideration of which sources are ‘ours’.  If Stratton-Kent is correct in his assertion that the grimoire tradition has its roots in these origins and that there is a high degree of conservation when you scrape away that Judeo-Christian veneer, then the level of complication is compounded. Perhaps more so for groups who have an expressed IE focus like ADF, for then there is the added task of teasing out the IE influences from non IE – and as we have seen with the Armadel method, that is not always so clear (especially when it comes to magic, Greece, and Egypt).

Continuities and Threads

We all tend to gather in our respective boxes and behind our respective labels, we like to think of cultural traditions as being handed down relatively unchanged for millennia –  after all, the world is easier to think of that way. But even without the benefit of reading the Encylopedia, I think that if there’s one thing the grimoires teach us, it’s that the world was Gatekeeper Spirits - Norwegian Cyprianusnever so simple. Cultures interacted, people traveled, aspects of the ‘not us’ found their way in to the ‘us’, and the world marched ever on. Traditions grew, metamorphosed, and sometimes even died. The Armadel method was transmitted, spirit lists persisted (reportedly showing a high degree of conservation), and a newly controversial saint from Antioch found his way into Scandinavian grimoires where he was cited as the author of numerous black books of magic. Going back to those gatekeepers, maybe they *don’t* belong in the strictest sense of the word, but their usefulness can hardly be denied within these settings.

In many ways, magic is like those fleeting shadow figures that disappear when you focus upon them – those liminal figures that are often spied out of the corner of your eyes. This butterfly seems to defy attempts to systematize and classify it, but it makes little sense to ignore what we do have because some parts of it may look a little ‘moth-like’. Because as has been demonstrated time and time again, you can often learn a lot about the bits of something you do like, by looking at those you don’t.

Gatekeeper Spirits -Gynandromorph Butterfly