RITUALS' ROOTS
The long, strange tirp from the wild man to CEO of HoHoHo
(2003)


Neighbours and family will bring sparkling lights and magic to the night on December 22, for the annual Winter Solstice Lantern Procession, which will take place along the south side of the False Creek seawall. Winter solstice marks the return of the sun and the end of the longest, darkest night of the year. The celebration begins with the lighting of lanterns, as participants forms a glowing and growing procession of light, along the seawall and through local neighbourhoods.

Some regard ritual as something for children, obsessive compulsives, bliss-ninnies and anyone anaesthetized by the opiate of religion. Or as meaningless fun at best, with the social and individual benefits deriving from the imagination of the participants. This applies whether its boomers and their kids walking along with lanterns, Hindus washing themselves in the Mother Ganges, or Christians walking the stations of Calvary, in identification with Christ’s suffering. Rituals, skeptics insist, are like sugar pills doctors give out as placebos.

There’s no denying that the imagination is central in ritual, but the skeptical take partly hinges on the confusion between nonrational and irrational modes of thought - which may be roughly described as the difference between imagining castles in the sky and actually living in them. In any case, it’s undeniable that communal rituals play an important role in all cultures; in bringing together members of society and helping them find coherence in a shared identity. (And not incidentally, rituals are often fun.)

One astounding example of the power of ritual to unite and ignite occurs at the end of October, when a few city blocks in East Vancouver are transformed into a Parade of Lost Souls. Reviving and reworking traditional All Saints Day celebrations, residents of the area have created something wholly unique: Halloween that isn’t just for kids.

Public Dreams Society, a nonprofit organization that orchestrates the Parade of Lost Souls, Illuminares and other mythic events in Vancouver, is part of a wave of changing consciousness in North America. Adults are reclaiming ritual and myth as communal property. From solstice celebrations to walking labyrinths in church grounds to the Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert, there is a wave of interest among urban-dwellers in reviving and reworking annual traditions. This interest isn’t limited to New Agers and it fills a vacuum created by the growing rejection of "the counterfeits of community:" market-driven non-events bled of any mythic authenticity.

The late Terrance Mckenna saw this phenomenon as part of the archaic revival. For postmodernist philosopher Morris Berman, the ritual acknowledgement of ages-old archetypes and their foundation in the body/mind, is the re-enchantment of the world.

The pagan rituals that preceded Halloween focused on spectres from the past, but the collective anxieties of the modern mind are more future-oriented. If the Parade of Lost Souls is any indication, ritually-enacted humour helps defuse the primordial terrors of the day-to-day. "Make way, make way," cries a black-robed, scythe-wielding ghoul at this year’s Parade of Lost Souls, "We’ve got an apocalypse going on." Behind him traipses a fellow in a George Bush mask, galloping along on his horse-on-a-stick, Man o’ War. A girl in a red dress skips behind, with UN weapons inspector emblazoned on her back.

Filtered through secular sensibilities and several layers of bullet-proof irony, the mythic core behind Halloween still burns, if dimly: to honour the dead, wake the living and chase bad spirits away - even if the latter are very much alive and very much in power.

The humour at the Parade of Lost Souls has a definite edge, however, and the scene probably isn’t recommended for very young children. A guy in a skeleton suit weaves through the crowd on a monster/bicycle, modified with a Leviathan-like mouth worked by cables. Microphone in hand, he growls out "you!" and points at a boy in the crowd. The kid yelps and tears across the park like a shot.

There are ghouls and goblins galore in the streets near Grandview Park; black-winged angels, stiltwalkers, trolls and a Frankenstein in character, doing a heavy-footed, putting-out-a-campfire dance. Some houses along the parade route are made up as well, their windows decorated as glowing eyes, reminiscent of Tibetan stupas.

With pumpkin heads held aloft on poles, the leaders of the parade take the crowd past the Seven Deadly Sins: performers dressed their part and acting out their obsessions. A tarted-up Lust calls out imploringly; a nattily-attired Pride leans against a tree, looking down his nose at the crowd; and Sloth is camped out in a lawn chair, surrounded by beer bottles.

Nearby, a small park has been decorated with papier-mache gravestones, with a preservation hall-style band playing funeral dirges. The gravestones are labeled "fear and misery," "war," "confusion" and "ignorance."

Thousands of people attended this year’s event on the East Side, yet police were nowhere to be seen and there were no troublemakers in view. The nominal condition of the urban dweller, a low-level unease with strangers in the streets, evaporated in a spirit of creative celebration.

Yet most of us are too much the rationalists to see this sort of thing as anything more than recreational goofing off. But for our ancestors, events acknowledging the dead were in deadly earnest. They put great stock in rituals for shooing the spirits of newly-deceased relatives, away from the household. Said spooks could get up to any kind of mischief on the domestic front, the living feared, including possession.

Halloween’s precursors in pre-Christian rituals are echoed in the Wiccan ritual of Samhain, a pagan sabbat that falls on the last day of October at roughly the mid-point between the beginning and end of the fall season. The Sabbat, according to Wiccans, commemorates the passage into the darkest and coldest part of the year. According to the Vancouver pagans web page, "It is the time when we remember friends and family who have passed away, when we remember our ancestors and search for the meaning and purpose of death in the great cycle of life."

For the rest of us in North American society, the evening of October 31 functions as a nod to beliefs buried since the Enlighten-ment, but resurrected momentarily for the kids. Yet as anyone who’s ever been a kid knows, the delights of shape shifting and transformation, achieved through masks and costumes, still resonate when you’re new to the world.

Ritual’s roots may go past the individual subconscious into what Carl Jung called the "psychotic" realm, between the individual and the species, and mind and matter. British biologist Rupert Sheldrake attempted to formalize this concept with his theory of morphic fields. "Nature is habit-forming," the soft-spoken scientist likes to say, and he believes this applies as much to the human psyche as to the planet we live on. Morphic fields, Sheldrake posits, are a sort of memory trace left in a higher dimensional space by patterns created by physical, biological, mental and even social systems. The biologist sees no reason to assume rituals aren’t without morphic fields of their own.

In Sheldrake’s view, every time a ritual is acted out, it draws power from the other times it has been performed (Perhaps the military and the church have some awareness of this phenomenon).

Sheldrake’s ideas are by no means accepted by his colleagues; indeed, they are decidedly on the fringe of mainstream science. Yet even if we discount the idea of morphic fields, we can concede the mundane fact that communal rituals allow people to gather for something more memorable than a moment alone with the paper at a local Starbucks.

Of all the annual rituals, Christmas retains the most mythic resonance in Judeo-Christian society. Its archetypal power is experienced by children waking up on Christmas day, seeing stars and angels and presents. Like Halloween, the magic of Christmas, its ritual power, works for the young. Of course, it’s a children’s festival because it celebrates the birth of the sacred child. This is the archetype that resonates in all of us, and it maintains the pulse of the archaic revival, however dimly, in secular minds that have otherwise rejected premodern concepts.

Like Halloween, Christmas is also built on pagan sources - if only in its calendrical placing. In pre-Christian times, December 21 and January 6 marked the celebration of winter solstice rites. The church was determined to confront these pagan rituals head-on, by putting the Nativity in between the two.
This brings us to the original wild man, Santa Claus.

Not surprisingly, Santa draws from sources that predate the Christian era. His precursors are dimly visible in the Green Man, a nature spirit with a green, leafy beard, found carved into ancient European structures.

Scholars trace the jolly old elf back to the beast-man in Anglo Saxon stories, who dashed through Germanic streets during carnival, scaring children. The nature-centered aspects of the rituals associated with this ambiguous wild man persisted until the 19th century. In North America, Britain and Germany, troupes of gift-givers appeared at year-end celebrations. The leader had a posse; assorted merrymakers dressed in goat or bear skins and accompanied by a "bessy" - a man dressed as a woman. (The latter may be an echo of the peculiar ancient tradition of shamanic cross-dressing).

Needless to say, North America’s man of Christmas wasn’t called Santa at the time; that moniker didn’t appear until the mid-1800s. The merry-making home-invader started off as Pelznichol, or Nicholas in Furs; in Nova Scotia he was the Janney; in Trinidad he was Papa Bois; in England he was Yule until Ben Jonson, author of The Faeire Queene, christened him Father Christmas. The variation in his names matched the ambiguity of his nature; Santa’s gig at the time was to either mock-terrorize or bless communities and sometimes both.

Writing in that British anthology of weirdness, The Fortean Times, author Phyllis Siefker suggests the merry/terror-making wild man and his posse seemed to stride both Halloween and Christmas:

"The Wild Man’s motley crew went door-to-door, demanding entry. After the raucous group was welcomed, they acted out an odd play - the leader, who dressed in goat or bear skins, argued with another character or with the woman figure. He was killed, the woman lamented and the doctor comically resuscitated him, or he spontaneously revived, declaring he wasn’t dead after all. Before the troupe left to visit the next house, they demanded gifts. This might sound somewhat familiar; today’s Halloween trick-or-treaters carry on a juvenile version of the original visit - going house to house, demanding gifts and treats. In the bygone adult festival, the troupe gave its blessing and shared fruits of the land with the inhabitants, or wreaked havoc and cursed the homes if they weren’t well received."

The death and resurrection of the bearded one is telling; although it is meant to be comic, it hearkens back to more serious death, writes Siefker: "the death of the Wild Man, the beast-god who was responsible for life on earth."

In his book Wild Men in the Middle Ages, Richard Bernheimer pieced together the basic Indo-European fertility rite that is the foundation for this set piece. In it, the young men of the town march off to hunt down the wild man, obligingly played by one of them out in the forest, wearing animal skins. To demonstrate his power, the wild man has torn up a tree or a few bushes. Returned with the captured wild man, these apparently become the precursors of the Yule Log.

Siefker picks up the story: "Chains dangling from his body, the Wild Man and his companions made a mad dash into town, frightening and beating bystanders; one of the devices he used to beat villagers was a giant phallus, his symbol as a fertility god. In the village square, he mated with a village wench (or wild woman, if one was available), then was killed by an archer. He revived or was replaced by a son. The mood was bedlam; the humour as course as it comes and everyone was both excited and terrified."

There was only one problem with these stories; Folklorists of the 19th century had cobbled them together from oral traditions and other primary sources; but there were no surviving communities that still acted out these mooted rituals. Yet folklorists found verification of sorts when explorer R. M. Dawkins happened upon a fairly pristine version of the wild man ritual in the Balkans in 1906.

The death and resurrection of a male god is one of the central themes in Indo-European mythology. The body of the Egyptian god Osiris was revived by his sister Isis, Christ’s body was resurrected by Jehovah, and in Greek mythology the young goat-god Dionysus has his throat slashed by Titans while he is gazing at himself in a mirror and is cut into pieces. He is resurrected by Zeus, and returns as an ambiguous deity representing vegetation, revelry and the forces of death. A wild man.

Dionysus seems the most likely ancestor for the wild man of later stories, but the evolution of myth is hardly a simple affair. Cultural diffusion isn’t a straightforward matter of one group of people picking up on a good story in its travels, like gossip. Stories wax and wane and trade elements over thousands of years. It’s called "syncreticism," a narrative process driven by the interactions of distinct cultures, crossbreeding both their genes and their memes. Unfortunately, the further back scholars go, the darker the mists of time and the more uncertain the paths taken by folklore.

There are also wild man elements from the myths of Arctic cultures and Southeast Asia, that were possibly absorbed into the pancultural mix that gave rise to the 19th century Saint Nicholas. Louder echoes of Santa’s primordial state are heard in cultures outside North America. Urnasch, in Switzerland, Narren in Black Forest villages and the King of the Puck Fair in Killorglin, Ireland, are all variations on this wild man theme.

"But we find these (wild man) rituals in the Arctic Circle among people neither the Romans nor the Catholics found worth their time to conquer or even visit in those days." Writes Siefker. "There, among the Lapps, the Vogul, and the Gilyaks, some of the purist, most ancient rituals continued. We also find the ceremonies among the enigmatic Ainu, the Aboriginal Japanese."

What lies behind the global mock-killing of the wild man? Siefker speculates that all the narrative elements in the many versions of the hunted wild man - the arrow, the death and rebirth - are reflected in ancient altars to bears discovered in caves across Europe. These bear cults date back 50,000 years, predating the emergence of modern Homo sapiens.

The possibility remains that the original wild man of myth is the archetypal reworking of the hunted bear. A more haunting (if entirely speculative) possibility is that the bear figure was reworked in the tales of later Cro-Magnon peoples and the hunted wild man of their stories was the Neanderthal himself - a species of human that disappeared into extinction in a geological blink of the eye, some 40,000 years ago.

It goes without saying that the pagan rituals involving the wild man were unacceptable in Christianized Europe. In an effort to retain the archetype, villagers tamed and transformed it. There is an arc from the wild man to the fool - the trickster-like character who is allowed licence to comically tell the truth - and the jolly gift-giver who conducts B and Es one evening annually.

Much of this, needless to say, remains academic speculation. Siefker, perhaps working her mythic decoder ring a little too vigorously, even finds fossil remnants of the wild man and his posse in Yuletide etymology:

"Germany’s carnival elements also live on in the well-known Christmas poem A Visit From Saint Nicholas, which begins: "‘Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house..." There we see the old troupe preserved as reindeer: Dasher, Dancer and Prancer are the raucous, high-stepping, hair-clad dancers that signaled the start of carnival; Vixen is the wild woman; Cupid is the archer who ended the god’s life; Comet the sleigh of one of the wild man’s versions - the wild hunter; Donder and Blitzen (thunder and lightning) are the hallmarks of the wild man’s dominion over nature."

In the final irony of the wild man’s historic softening into white-bread goodness, Santa’s current look - the red suit, buckles and white trim - is courtesy a soft-drink company. An early twentieth century Coca Cola campaign introduced the world to the laughing, red-cheeked figure we all visualize as Santa Claus. It’s been a long strange trip; from the wild man to the CEO of HoHoHo.

So what’s the state of annual rituals today? The Parade of Lost Souls reclaims Halloween from its pagan past; can we can also update rites involving the wild man, that ambiguous archetype who strides the Christian calendar, across of All Saints’ Day and Christmas? Alas, it may be too late (or perhaps too early) for the wild man. In these gender-neutral, sex-sensitive times, any regularly-scheduled wildness invoking the male principle probably has as much chance as a hemophiliac at a razor factory.

Still, this doesn’t mean we just have to limit ourselves to dressing up our kids as ghosts and ghouls once a year, or observe the birth of the sacred child in a fit of seasonal shopping. The Parade of Lost Souls indicates annual acknowledgements of ancient myth aren’t just playthings for children, or cultural fossils for the amusement of balding academics. The dreamwork of body/mind that animates these events is very real, simmering away below the surface of everyday consciousness. We can revive the archetypal source and ignite its power at will. Watered by the imagination, ritual’s roots can flower into great creativity and invention.

Geoff Olson