My first direct experience of the fool in masking was watching Morris Dancing here at home in Yorkshire, England. The Morris dancers were dressed up in their usual dancing shoes with bells and baggy pants. To be absolutely honest I have always found Morris men a bit funny! Perhaps I should explain about Cecil Sharp, no I’ll leave that to a footnote.
The Boars Head Morris Men were dancing in a pub car park. ( Pub short for Public House a place for drinking beer etc. in the UK.) They were doing the usual dances that are related to fertility, good crops and harvests etc. But of course they really don’t quite have the pagan beliefs off pat. Mind you when you see them drink ale in the quantities that they did then you would realise that they had perhaps fully understood the pagan ways of having a good time. ( Not to say all people who follow the pagan ways drink lots of ale, just a convenient concept )
What you are probably asking by this juncture is this to do with fools?
Well the Boars Head Morris Men had a masked fool. He was complete with boars mask pantaloons and boars headed stick. He also carried a bucket for collecting cash donations for charity, or maybe beer money. He followed the dancers mimicked them and cajoled the watchers for change to fill his bucket.
Interestingly I knew the fool quite well and in real life, with out the mask, he would never do what he did with the mask. Being English he was just far too polite!
The Boars Head stick became a threatened cudgel, never used, just pointed and waved. The mask was a place to hide behind, for a normal everyday person. As you will find by looking further on this site the mask allows people to change personalities. He bullied and pranced and enjoyed his dual mission to collect money and to protect the dancers from the crowd. Sometimes the children get too close. That is not allowed. Sometimes the dancers space is threatened by cars entering the parking space. Wow! That is not a good idea!
But suddenly the fool sets off in pursuit of three attractive women. He rattles his bucket and rounds them up as a sheep dog would. They are pressed into donating generously. He just leaves his dancers unprotected to fend for themselves. The next ten minutes is exchanged in good natured banter. ( The wife of the fool is present! )
The above is from memory, probably about 20 years ago. In terms of mask traditions that is very recent. For mask traditions can be traced back at least 25,000 years. I am certain they go back to the time of the first questioning peoples; 50,000……………..or more years?
What then is this reference to fools and masking traditions. Well as you dig through this site you will find that the fool crops up in several other traditions.
In Masquerade the fool is an essential figure. On the surface he, occasionally she, is the one who keeps order. He controls the children, he stops their prying eyes invading the dressing room. His stick maintains the performance area. He cracks jokes, entertains, juggles pulls faces and GETS VIOLENT. He chases the children with a whip and hits them mercilessly if he gets the chance. He tries to seduce women, and does if he can!
Suddenly he becomes bored and goes away to sit and talk philosophically with a group of friends from his unmasked time. As the conversation progresses he introduces new ideas. He begins to ridicule the accepted norm. He questions the accepted reality. He attempts to turns arguments on their heads
The Ubiquitous Fool
The fool is a ubiquitous. The fool occurs in the masking traditions of North and South America, Africa, Europe, Asia, China, …………………… if you know some more please fill in my blank.
Universally the fool treads the line between normality and the incongruities that the world. The fool is both sensible and totally none-sensible. Not that he does not use his senses he just uses then in a different way. He questions and cajoles. He jokes and makes fun of others. Yet when someone over steps the arbitrary boundary, (who decided ) he changes. Suddenly he becomes the quiet hearth cat, the sleeping feline, domesticated, sleek and silky. And as you stroke and pleasure the cat she begins to become claws and teeth and worse growls. He becomes the raging tiger, claws and teeth.
What is the role of the fool?
The fool traditionally questions. S/He challenges the norm. S/He goes beyond the routine and everyday. S/He crosses the boundary between the physical and the spiritual. The fool knows both sides but sadly does not understand either. The fool is beyond judgement but is incapable of judging. The fool is a go-between, a hinderer, a creator and destroyer. He sets things up only to break them down.
To be honest I love the fool, because I feel I am one, at times. The fool embodies the contradictions of the world. He accepts our human frailties and simultaneously challenges them. For those of you who know the symbols on the tarot cards consider the fool, for those of you who do not make some time to find out.
Some Examples of Fools in Masquerade Italy In Masks the Art of expression Cesare Poppi describes the Carnival at Moena in the Italian Dolomites. Two Arlechign, a local version of Harlequin, lead the masked group. They are dressed in chequered costumes, with a tall pointed cap below which is a loose veil giving them a featureless appearance. They carry horse whips. Around them the crowd of cheering young boys follows their moves. Suddenly the dash into the youths slashing fiercely with the horse whips, striking vicious blows to the confused youngsters. Panic ensues. A pleasing village scene has suddenly been turned upon its head.
China In China, or your local China Town, when the New Year is celebrated the Lion Dance is performed. This often acrobatic masked dance is performed by, usually two dancers accompanied by two Happy Face dancers wearing their papier mache masks complete with large grins painted on them. As the dance progresses through the streets the dragon collects lettuces and money to help bring luck in to the New Year. Around the dragon the two fools pester the crowd for money and simultaneously keep the crowd, especially the children, at a safe distance.
Pacific West Coast
During Kwakwaka’wakw Potlatch ceremonies in the West Coast Areas of Canada another fool prowled around. He is Noohlmahl. A filthy creature with a long nose from which snot streams he is up for a laugh but should the watchers mention his state, especially his nose, a violent reaction can be expected.
Iriquois False Face Society
The Iriquois False Face Society also have a fool mask to support the processes of healing that they undertake. These corn husk mask are relatively simple and disposable. As with other traditions the fool plays his amusing and organising role.
Playfulness has a major place in many masquerades.
In our lives we all play the fool, despise the fool in others and love the fool who entertains. Sadly the fool who entertains can also be torn apart by internal mental divisions.
The masked fool is the one who maintains order and at the same time questions it and sometimes on a whim destroys it. Traditionally the fool treads a fine line between the known and the unknown, the acceptable and the unacceptable. Even without the mask I am sure you recognise the fool in your life.
The fool is a universal being. Today (15/12/04) I lost my fool, she was our cat. If you wish to know she died of old age. She had the soft luxury of a purring fur to stroke and in a moment she transformed into a fanged biter. She had the gourmet taste of a French chef yet licked her own arse. She refused to go outside when the wind blew, because it was cold, yet sat happily on the wet grass when it was raining and blowing a gale. Tango, the cat, was my fool, just as I was hers when playing hide and seek. I loved her affection and was saddened by her rejection of the food I gave her. All in all Tango, our family cat, was all contradiction and beautifully herself. She is a very missed little being.
Cecil Sharp collected folk sings in the British Isles. Amongst folk enthusiasts he is something of a hero as he preserved may folk songs and traditions. He was instumental in helping preserve the hundreds of different Morris dances. Yet as with the song lyrics he collected they were purged for naughty bits. Anything that went against his strict Victorian morality was censored. The whole of British folk tradition was made “nice”.
Inspired by Masks the Art of Expression ed. John Mack ISBN 0-7141-2530-X and other sources that I have read and internalised long ago.
© Ian Bracegirdle 2004 1 Elderberry Close East Morton BD20 5WA UK 01535 692207
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