Behind the Mask

On Guising

Behind the Mask

On Guising

Dawn R. Jackson

Once veiled, however, in the midst of this extraordinary whirl of color, shape, pattern and movement, we are beset with forgetfulness. So profoundly forgetful do we become that we often conclude of others (and ourselves as well) that they are nothing more than the veils that mask them.

— D.L. Thomas

Why do people wear masks? What is the appeal? The obvious connotation is they allow us to step outside the boundaries (or as Nigel Pennick terms it, Crossing the Borderlines) of our own personalities and sense of self, to change dramatically our mundane routines, to take on the persona and identity of someone else, be it a fictional character, literary figure, mythological entity or even a God or Goddess — masking allows us to expand our very idea of who we are and ultimately grow spiritually as human individuals as a result of our efforts.

Guising, both literally as well as figuratively has been important to many varied cultures and a multitude of time periods. Not only have masks been worn in such endeavors as formal ritual and rites, they have also been used during times of war with a plentitude of disguises being adopted from necessity (consider Zorro as an example). Whether you are a Mad Cap revolutionary or a May Day reveler we seem to have a great need and desire in becoming another and using an alternate, hidden, fragmented identity to reveal things about ourselves and those around us that our traditional face seems not to allow us to.

Mask making or guising (a derivative of disguising) has been around for many centuries with very strong magical uses as well as the more mundane ones for simple entertainment — from the first Shaman who dressed in animal skins and horned antlers who worked up forms of sympathetic magic to coax the Gods into helping early ancestors have a successful hunt, to the child donning a costume of a beloved character from a favorite cartoon or cherished book and crying trick or treat - mask making and mask wearing has an integral place in all types of Craft workings and can be deeply enjoyed by people of all ages and all walks of life, not just those of Old Craft persuasion.

Masking is a most transformative art and your mask may be as simple or as elaborate as you desire. You may utilize the essence of Dame Nature herself in your creation using leaves, branches, flowers etc. as well as using the more industrial components with equal ease, depending upon the character you choose to portray and bring to life. You set up the parameters and the guidelines as to how much effort you invest into your creation and you alone reap those benefits from the investment of those energies and efforts.

Traditional Guising in the British Isles took many forms with most endeavors being seasonal festivities that centered around the acting out of a sacred play. These plays (often known as Mumming plays) had as a central theme the rejuvenation and revival of the Sovereignty of the Land (know to us in the form of various Royal characters) who after being ritually killed and brought back to life symbolically restored the very lifeblood into the earth assuring the continued fecundity of the land and much more.

This sacred theme is quite organic and apt to change. Today these masked rites and dances have taken a more protean approach and while some dances and rites continue unblemished by the march of time (consider the rites at Abbott’s Bromley for example) many have evolved as we have evolved. Some groups such as the Clan of Tubal Cain have adopted 13 particular birds and animals that emphasize the Sacred via a historical and cultural collective that spans Celtic, Germanic and Scandinavian sources.

Below you will find a paraphrased, shortened explanation of these birds and animals and the dedicated reader is encouraged to purchase the book Sacred Mask, Sacred Dance by the late Evan John Jones and Chas S. Clifton, Crossing the Borderlines by Nigel Pennick as well as Nigel Jackson’s Masks of Misrule for further perusal. Also recommended for your viewing pleasure is the Robin Hardy film from the seventies, The Wicker Man. Despite some minor flaws in the storyline in regards to the relating of traditional lore and the fact that one should not forget it is considered a horror film after all and is not quite a staid and true reflection of the Old Craft practice there are some marvelous scenes of traditional guising masks and costumes to be found for the viewer who has a good eye for detail.

STAG - Reminiscent of the Divine King who pays the seven year tiend to the land with his life and the oldest of the Masqued characters, the Stag is the leader of the Maze Dance carrying his horned wand or staff (the stang or the thyrsus would be appropriate here as well). Dually embracing early shamanistic concepts of both Lord of the Hunt and Lord of the Field and Fen we have the Stag who also appears with Odinistic features of sacrifice to gain wisdom. Evolving eventually into the current representations of Pan the Stag continues to offer symbolism that refers to the cycle of the challenge to supremacy until eventually he reigns as King — Recall the words from MZB’s Mists of Avalon - “What of the King Stag when the Young Stag is Grown?“… The Stag blends together esoteric concepts of an actual living and natural animal and the mystic knowledge he represents.

RAVEN - Connected to Death, the Underworld, and Elphame, the Raven is the presager of that journey back to whence we came. With connections to the Morrigan, battle and heroic death the Raven is our guide back to the cauldron of rebirth. With more than just the personification of a dark and vengeful aspect the Raven fulfills the role of a psychopomp or guide to the dead. Raven is usually the first to be passed the wand or staff from Stag and leads the dancing by treading the Mill into the spiral of rebirth. Encouraged by an internal intuition, the Raven knows when to give the signal that the dancers should shift into the beginnings of the spiraling dance that will lead to disorientation of the mind. thereby freeing the spirit to cross those inner boundaries and will lead to internal revelations and other deeply spiritual expressions.

SQUIRREL - To dance the part of the Squirrel requires that one be able to go into a trance state at will and be able to roam freely upon Yggdrasil, the Great Ash or Tree of Life. With a connection to the Nordic Vanir, the Squirrel represents that shamanistic part of ourselves that is freely able to commune with the upper and lower realms of the Tree. Usually naturally gifted with the powers of prophecy and divination, the Squirrel is the awakener of dormant powers within all of us becoming at times extensions of the Godhead while still retaining the ability to return to this realm and share with us the wonders of the otherworlds above and below.

BOAR - The Boar too has associations with the UnderWorld and its denizens. With strong affiliations to shapeshifting and Celtic as well as British-Romano cultures, the Boar is the indicator of renewal and of the ritual Hunt. Embracing concepts as diverse as ferocity and courage, the Boar is indicative of such ideas as the constantly renewing source of divine food in the source of the myths of Sechrimvar (sacred boar) and the Norse Valhalla. With a wealth of magico and religico signifigance throughout early European history the Boar offers the dancer an opportunity to be another strand of the initiatory UnderWorld web environment thus establishing enlightenment and knowledge through the transformative pseudo-death enacted.

FOX - With the element of craftiness well founded in previous centuries, the Fox dancer is reminiscent of such values as cunning as well as deceit and trickery. Leaning toward a Lokian or Gwydion model there are many examples of particular gifts or arts being passed on to mankind after being subjected to the sly and wily ways of the Fox. With occasional rampant destructive acts shown in the slaughter of innocents (the old Fox in the Henhouse analogy) the person who dances the role of the Fox must be prepared to be both cruel and kind in a paradoxical sense. Although through our own knowledge growth we now no longer attribute such things as livestock deaths, crop blights and failures to Divine Punishment - these things were once held under the sway of such trickster’s as the Fox.

GOOSE - As an aspect of The Pale Faced Goddess whose breath is borne upon the chill winds of the North - the Goose is also a harbinger of the Under or Other World by being another character that bore away the souls of the dead. With the coming and going flights of flocks of Geese heralding such events as the coming of Spring or Winter the Goose is symbolic of the change of the seasons as well as being living breathing symbols of the Faith. To dance the Goose means to hearken back to the Old World style and dynamic imagery of one facet of the Goddess known as Dame Hulda or Holda with whom we affiliate such things as death, the soul and eventual rebirth.

OWL - With Athenian attributions relating to Wisdom and Knowledge (which are not one and the same), the Owl is a creature of the Night and carries many ill omened associations including those of the Christian Concept of Lilith and the Underworld again. A bird that is sacred to the Goddess in her many guises, the wise old Owl is custodian to such concepts as the passing on of the learning and lore and as a sower of seeds of wisdom that will bear fruit at a later time. The Owl is one figure to which all comers would seek advice and teachings from. The Owl dancer needs to be prepared to establish techniques to the group and explain the workings of the more subtle aspect of Guising or Masked/Masqued Dancing as a whole.

CAT - Paradoxically with being accorded near-divine status, the Cat has always been regarded as a household pet and friend. With correlations to Freya, Bastis, and even the Devil himself the association of cats and humans has been a long and fruitful one. Known as being the traditional Witches’ familiar the Cat dancer will need to be agile and quick on their feet. With such historical references as the Cat being a potential helper and aid to rid the cities of vermin that carried the plague and other illness, the Cat was well respected and known to be a beneficent helper to mankind despite the marriage to the idea of Cats and Satan being one and the same by the Church.

RAM - The strong and virile symbolism of the Ram brings to mind the Divine or Sacrificial King again. Often intertwined by the myth of the Roebuck in the Thicket the Ram is another sign or symbol of the ineffable Mystery that dwells within us all. With indications of both Kingship and Priesthood recognized as attributes that are within the Ram’s horns the Ram dancer must be a strong leader and courageous character. The Ram ranks up there in status and importance just as the Stag does implying that there is a subtle tie to the health and virility of the very land itself within the sacred mythos of the Ram.

HARE - From the tales of Scottish Witches shapeshifting into Hares to the more modern expressions of Mad March Hares, the Hare has had an illustrious association with Witches and Witchcraft. An obvious sign of fertility and abundance the Hare dancer must be one who is quite sensitive to those sorts of energies - one who is gifted with the faculty to derive information and meaning seemingly out of thin air. The Hare dancer will be in tune to the more delicate lunar rhythms of the land, sea and sky and will not hesitate to suddenly take over the Dance leading all the dancers into their spectacular and peculiar magical ways.

MARE - The guise of the Mare has many meanings from the source of the term Nightmare (the Steed ridden by the Horned God during the Wild Hunt). Fear, dread and shady oneiric landscapes are the realm of the Mare. With wild eyes and foam flecked mouth, the Mare is a frenzied dancer - grim and merciless. The person who dances the part of the Mare must be one without any pity, one who will understand and recognize the balancing acts of retribution and vengeance and one who will not hesitate to punish those who may have harmed their kith and kin - friends, lovers or covenmates. To Dance the Mare is to get fully swept up and away by the power of the Wild Hunt itself.

HOUND - The Hound continues the NightMare mythos in that the concept of judgment and action is again accounted for. From the Hellhounds of ancient myths of yore to the more current Guard or Watch dogs, the Hound dancer must be swift and agile. As a representative of the Old Faith and a custodian of the spirit of the local community, the Hound will literally Hound to Death one who goes against the Gods or the local community in their deeds and actions. The Hound dancer must dance a forceful and yet paradoxically protective dance around the others. The Hound will have had experience in binding or hindering malcontentive actions.

SWAN - Figuring prominently in Celtic myth, the Swan may not be traditionally thought of as magical icon but it has a dedicated place within the Guising Rites. Symbolizing such features as change both internally and externally, the Swan dancer will be the epitome of Grace and be able to lead the other dancers through a variety of stages that show how the abuse of magical power can be harmful to others and will lead to certain retribution. The Swan is a sign of sure sign of knowledge won through experiential levels of interaction and a sense of understanding that the prime aim of all the Dances is/was to lead one back into the grace of the Goddess.

Other figures not detailed are those such as The Hobby Horse, Puff Dragon, the Cross Dressed Man, Punch, Green Man, Death, and the Harlequin.

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