Ritual Animal Disguise and Asger Jorn’s Materialistic Cult of Life

December 7, 2013

Ritual Animal Disguise

I could always rely on E C Cawte’s book, Ritual Animal Disguise (1978) for the odd unnerving picture, particularly this one of hobby horses and masked-up Christmas Mummers performing at Winster Hall, in Derbyshire, around about 1870. Now, a colourful new vein of imagery to bewilder and disconcert has appeared from 21st-century Europe.

Cerbul, Romania

Cerbul (Stag) from Corlata, Romania. It is resurrected by dancers after being ritually slain (from here).

The pictures are part of the Wilder Mann series of photographs by Charles Fréger, who visited nineteen countries to encounter elements of what he calls ‘tribal Europe’, from Scotland to Poland, Italy to the Czech Republic. The disguises are connected with Midwinter, Spring and Harvest festivals, themes of renewal and fertility, and the relationship between humans and animals.


Asger Jorn, in his essay ‘The human animal’,  mused over this complicated relationship in terms familiar from his validation of an earthy, Dionysian folk culture opposed to the Apollonian high culture of the aristocratic elite:

The human animal is the key problem of European culture. What is the real reason that Darwin’s unbiased description of human descent can still give offence today? Why is so much weight placed upon convincing that animal of the ape species who calls himself Man that he is not an animal in spite of the fact that even a child can see this, which in itself is quite natural and obvious. Why should we, who as embryos go through all the animal stages, deny our own nature? Why and how were the old gods, half-animal, half-human, of Egypt, India, Persia, America and even Europe transformed to devilish representatives of evil through the Middle Ages until recently? Why is the dragon still the holy sign of China and the Orient whilst the dragon-slayer has become the West’s most cherished symbol, the symbol of the fight against “evil”?

A bishop strikes the head of a serpent with his crozier. 11th-century font in Avebury church.

A bishop strikes the head of a serpent with his crozier. 11th-century font in Avebury church.

How often has one read Apuleius’s The Golden Ass without finding out what it really was he wanted to relate in this homage to Isis? He said everything and yet said nothing because he had hidden the key and because we saw the transformation from Pinocchio’s viewpoint, from a terror of the bestial… and I understood that the initiation into the mystery occurred through that transformation into a golden ass, that monotheism is a delusion, discovered to satisfy formal logic, and then gradually meaning came into all those fairytales from the Middle Ages where the dragon is transformed into a prince because a princess loves and kisses the loathsome beast. Kafka has never described this transformation, the humanization of the animal through love, which I find so full of meaning. It is a secret that the higher European philosophy has sought to hide from us for centuries and which has been handed down to us through the common people.

Wilder Mann 035

… we are sparks that must burn as bright as possible… the strength of the light is conditioned by the depth of the darkness, which is why what is put out is just as correct as what is lit. This is the divine law of unity, that nothing is eternal that is not earthly and nothing is earthly without being a part of eternity.


E. C. Cawte 1978 Ritual Animal Disguise, Ipswich: D. S. Brewer, and Totowa, N. J.: Rowman and Littlefield

Asger Jorn 1988 ‘The human animal’, in A Bibliography of Asger Jorn’s Writings, compiled by Per Hofman Hansen (trans. Peter Shield). Silkeborg Kunstmuseum.

Looking for a Mediæval manuscript picture of animal-headed mummers to round this post off, I’ve found that someone else has blogged about animal disguise in the last week or so, here http://andy-letcher.blogspot.co.uk/2013/11/animal-magic.html


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