Ritual Costumes: The creatures within you, the creatures that are you…
Halloween has come and gone, but that doesn’t mean we’re not wearing costumes anymore. Business suits and work uniforms are charged with history, symbolic meaning, and even power. In the urban jungle, a tie can instantly transform a man from casual to ready to take care of business. A cardigan vs. a hoodie can superficially initiate a person from perceived youth to maturity, from one social class to another. It’s important to remember the costumes we wear today and where our customs came from because these things tell us about how people behave (with all our prejudices, fears, superstitions, hopes, and primal instincts) and how society operates and evolves. For the sociologist or anthropologist? Scholarly fodder. For the writer? Worthy stomping grounds for both subject matter and delving into the recesses of the human psyche.
When you hear the words ritual costume, you probably think of something more like this:
The above is an example of costumes worn during Kukeri, Bulgarian rituals performed to scare away evil spirits and promote well-being and good harvests for villages. The custom is similar to others in the area and is thought to have its roots tied to Dionysian Cults. Pagan ties to modern (and even Judeo-Christian) rituals is nothing new of course. The costumes we wear during Halloween are modern incarnations of the disguises people wore during Samhain (a Gaelic festival marking the end of Harvest) to either hide from or pay homage to spirits and fairies. And the Halloween candy we give children is an analog to the offerings given to spirits and fairies, appeasing them to ensure an easy winter. In North America, what comes to mind is the Kachina dancers of Southwestern tribes, personifications of the spirits of Pueblo cosmology that govern every aspect of life.
Charles Freger, a photographer, in what we deem a remarkable project, has taken it upon himself to capture what he calls “tribal Europe.” In particular, he focuses on the concept of the Wilder Mann, ritual costumes that illuminate the relationship between humans and nature, a reminder that humans were once at the mercy of their hands and the wilderness. Similar to other costumed rituals around the world, these ceremonies are tied to the liminal, the spaces between, often celebrating harvests, praying for plenty, and paying homage to ancestors and the land. It’s no surprise that ceremonies like these around the world are also used to initiate boys into men, symbolically tying puberty to the shifting of seasons, to the divide between man and the power of the spirit and natural world. Like the Kachina Dancers of the Southwest, boys who become stags or bears, who become the hunters of old, are able to commune symbolically with the traditions of the community.
While many people may not rely on these festivals to bring a good harvest anymore, these rituals and costumes are still an important part of the fabric of many regions in terms of cultural identity. But we really have not traveled far from those times when costume and dance meant life or death. And I’m certainly a firm believer that folklore and ritual are some of the best tools a writer can place in their toolkit because understanding ritual is understanding time, place, and people. Take a look at the work of Freger not only for their sheer awesomeness or because you think the costumes are weird and creepy but also because these creatures inhabit the minds and hearts of people. Perhaps you’ll see something of yourself in these photos.