"In Comes I" : The Mummer's Play
First, The Movie
I hope you find this clip interesting, and then I explain more about these wonderful ancient traditions, still enjoyed by many during this season, with the article below ……
This clip is an excerpt from a wonderful documentary movie, "Augha Killy Maude, Men Of Straw" who are based at the Aughakillymaude below the Knockninny "fairy" Mountain, beside Lough Erne in Co. Fermanagh, Northern Ireland. Most of our Celtic Ways tours include at least a visit or even a session at their wonderful centre ....
From A Universe Long, Long Ago ….
Those of you who have toured with Celtic Ways tours will know that our tours are not merely a sight-seeing and ancient site-seeing tours but also explore the traditions and rituals that connect and entwine us with nature and its seasons.
The “Celtic Year”, as we now call it, has 8 points of observance, 4 sun alignment days and 4 fire festival days.
The festive days are Samhain, Imbolc, Beltaine and Lughnasa (or Lammas)
The alignment days are vernal and fall equinoxes along with midsummer and midwinter solstices.
At this time our thoughts are with Christmas, 3 days after midwinter solstice, and this solstice was once known as Yule.
On the festive days there were always rituals of letting go of something of the past to commence something new for the future and the festivities would last three days up until the midpoint alignment that marked the end of the festivities. Samhain, around November 5th, was always the most important and regarded as the full new year.
Equinox times seemed to have been just for observance by “wise men” and may not have had a three day celebration, yet it is interesting to note that our modern Easter and Harvest festivals are celebrated near equinox with 3 days observance between the crucifixion of Christ and the Resurrection
At solstice time there was the “magic” of the movement of the sun that druids convinced their “flocks” that they were masters of, especially at Winter Solstice. At this time the sun stays still in its alignment from the northern hemisphere from usually around December 21st or 22nd for 3 days. To know the sun was returning to us must have inspired celebration, even though it was not an “official” connection to the earth.
I could extend this article much further to feature the alchemy of ourselves and the universe and how we can process this alchemy through labyrinth rituals, but I will leave that until around Imbolc.
What I am trying to provide imagery of here is the tradition of regeneration, the symbolic shedding of old skins to reveal the new, the passing from death to rebirth, the passage from old to new. Since sacred sites were built, these rituals were shared, or we could say that since we shared these rituals we have been building sacred sites.
Through the invasion of cultures from the early Christian monastic culture, Roman culture, Saxon culture, Norman culture, Reformation culture, Victorian culture, Industrial culture, Digital culture and Star Wars culture this ritual has remained with us but covered with an array of costumes and masks to keep this tradition alive and “menacing”
Origins Of Mumming
The word Mummer seems to have arrived into England and on into Ireland with Saxons who came to these shores to learn and expand their understanding of the Christian scriptures. However, rather than preach the scriptures the incorporated them into the ancient ritual plays.
There a German word, 'Mummerspiel', meaning 'Masked Play'. Before the Saxon “mummers” arrived these rituals were probably performed with straw costumes but the Saxons introduced physical masks not only as disguise but to convert the players into identifiable characters of good and “evil”.
Like any tradition, nothing was written down. These ritual plays were always passed through generations through memory but with characters and situations in some of the lines altered to what was current of the times. I recently saw a Mummer's play that successfully sneaked in Eric Idle’s “Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life” during the resurrection of the “evil” one.
Disguise has been the key feature of Mummers players, but when this became part of the ritual is unknown. The Scots have probably never used the world Mummer’s, but used the word “Guisers”. The wonderful thing about the Scots is that they have always kept this ritual close to Samhain, close the the most important festival through time. The tradition of “trick or treat” with disguises in the USA, now spreading the world, must have been a watered down version of the “Guiser” tradition that was taken to the Americas by the Scots.
One beautiful tradition of the Scottish Guisers, that seems to have almost vanished now, is that as they called door to door they collected pastries for their sack. The bakers of these cakes would pray into them as they were made. The Guisers were then said to place these cakes in a fire, after the collection, and the prayers were then transported to the ancestors in the “otherworld”.
When the Saxons altered the tradition in England and Ireland it was moved to midwinter to merge Yule with Christmas. It may be that the first Mummer’s Plays featured a Christian Monk as as the good spirit and a Druid as the dark spirit but after the battle the two merged to be one good spirit, which is what the plot of a Mummer’s play is about.
Back in the lands from where the Saxon and Gaul culture came from they also had a range of fertility and good over evil based folk drama ritual plays that are still very much part of the traditions today, especially around the Black and Baltic seas.
Again, I have no ideas when this part of the tradition commenced, but for at least 1300 years, the Mummers plays and their ritual play predecessors provided disguise for the players as it was regarded as bad luck for the year ahead if any of the audience recognized any of the players.
Transformations of Mumming
The Mummer’s tradition probably evolved from its connection to sacred sites and ritual to folk drama performed in village and town squares, taverns and travelling door to door around homes during the time of the Crusades. They may well have been used as a kind of fundraiser for the Crusades around Christmas time by changing the characters of the Mummer’s play to tell the story of the Crusades. The good hero would be St. George or even Richard The Lionheart and quoting the names of dark heros would, in these days, need the same discretion as what we name a cuddly toy. I must hasten to point out that both warriors were regarded as equal heros and ended up very close to each other at the end of the play, at the end of the ritual.
It is not understood how the Mummer’s tradition survived after the Crusades as the Normans did not like it much, the Reformists even less, though it was regarded as great entertainment by the Tudors, perhaps great for those who could not get to Shakespeare. The Puritans almost beheaded or sent Mummer’s players off to the Ducking Stool, but stopped short of that when they discovered Mummer’s players were all men.
Meanwhile, the Mummer’s tradition was surfacing as a puppet play. Punch and Judy.
How To Be A Producer Of Plays, Only A Penny.
During the late 18th century when printing presses were first invented and went into production they tried all kind of things to create printed products that people would pay money for. One of the surprising early publishing successes was the printing and selling of old Mummer’s Plays scripts. These were sold on the streets for 1p a sheet.
It did not take long for villages, and some town troupes, to revive, rekindle, and refresh the folk drama Mummer’s Play tradition. Surprisingly, they did not align the scripts to modern characters and events but sustained the characters and stories of legends such as King Richard and “nameless”, Robin Hood and the Sheriff or Guy Gisborne, King Arthur and Merlin etc.
The plot of the Mummer’s Play was suddenly used to tell the tale of any legend, but what is this tale?
Very simple really, and still the basis of many Hollywood blockbusters. In fact, the initial Star Wars trilogy, is no more than a Mummer’s Play with a load of other distracting characters thrown in, but Luke, Darth Vader, and Obi-Wan Kenobi are essential characters of a Mummer’s Play and they performed the same story. Even the two robots, and Yoda are characters like those who appeared as extra characters that came into Mummer’s Plays. Then Princess Leah and Han Solo were like extra characters from the next drama tradition that took Mummer’s Plays from the cottage turf onto the big stage like Riverside did for Irish Dancing.
The Christmas Panto?
Mention Pantomime to most USA visitors and reactions are quite interesting, but the Christmas Pantomime play is a huge UK and Anglo Irish tradition. Said to be Christmas entertainment for the children but in Scotland its so big that kinds have to have weekend matinees because the “grown ups” fill the seats in the evening.
In some ways, Pantomime has followed the Mummer’s Play tradition more than the Mummer’s Plays. Pantomime first takes its characters and some of its lines from children’s “fairy tales”, puts them together into almost a Mummer’s Play script and then throws in characters, lines and jokes around local characters and current news. However, not all Pantomimes are now based on children’s fairy tales. I once saw a Christmas Panto called “Carry On Star Wars”
What About The Plot?
If you can watch the video above you’ll have a basic idea of what this ritual folk drama is about.
The good hero enters and struts around spewing a monologue to the audience about how great he is. Then in comes his enemy, a dark and evil type of figure, who also brags his abilities and then challenges the good hero. They fight with swords and the good hero slays the his enemy.
In comes the doctor, obviously a healer in the play’s earliest days, who brags about his potions, his abilities and what he can cure. Up to this point it will be noticed that all of the characters speak their scripts in rhyme, a bit like Dr Seus, but the doctors breaks out of that and speaks absolute nonsense.
The fallen dark hero is not only cured of his wounds but is cured of his darkness too, and then rises again to demonstrate and prove that there is no such thing as dark and light, beginning and end and that life continues in cycles.
……. much the same as we can imagine the most ancient of rituals must have been, at sacred sites beside the fires.
Once the fallen hero is restored and totally united as one, think of the scene of Luke, Darth Vader and Obi-Wan together after Luke has slayed Darth Vader, you’ll get the idea, then everyone enters into festivities of circle dances, feasting, songs, music, more dancing, more songs and closing quiet time, remembrances, prayers and personal meditation.
Though performed by men I am sure this was originally a woman’s role. She would appear with a broom and then sweep away people to clear a space, and then she would mark a circle and announce the play is about to begin.
With most Mummer’s Plays I have performed she is the “Hag” or the “Cailleach” but in other plays is “Biddy” or the “Dame” as in Pantomimes. However, it is often a man who take this role under the name of “Room” or “Captain”
If a Mummer’s troupe is small then the “Fool” or “Beelzebub” takes on this role. With an extremely small troupe the “Doctor” will open the play. In Irish plays its sometimes “Cromwell” in a straw costume with a big straw nose.
“In Comes I” is always the first three words of every player.
The Good Hero
For at least 150 years this has usually been St. George, in English Mummer’s Plays, St. Andrew in Scottish Guiser plays and St. Patrick in Irish plays. In Welsh Mummer’s plays its often the Wren, and that opens up a whole new tradition that also spread into Ireland and is the subject of another blog article.
He has also been Richard The Lionheart, Robin Hood, Alfred The Great, Columcille (St. Columba), Strongbow, and many other legendary heros of the past, though I have yet to see a play with Brian Boru as the good hero, and then we must include Luke Skywalker too.
The Dark Hero
Most will say, “Evil Hero” but I like to refrain from the “evil” word here, Obviously this will be the character who opposed the “good guys” in the legends such as “one who cannot be named, and in modern versions is twisted to sound like a French name”, Sheriff Of Nottingham, Guthrum The Dane, Demon Of The Mist, Rory O’Connor (though the roles with Strongbow can reverse in Irish mummers) and, of course, Darth Vader.
In Irish plays, where St. Patrick is the good hero, the dark hero is either St. George or Cromwell, for obvious reasons.
The comical quack who brags he can cure all, but I’m sure this character was one of the role of a medicine man, a healer, a shaman. His role is to heal the Dark Hero both physically and in spirit.
A common Doctor type script line is
“I can cure the itch, the scritch, the palsy and the gout. If a man has six devils, I can cast seven out!”
After the show someone has to pass around the hat, but it was actually a sack, just like with Trick Or Treat. Anything could go into the sack, food, money, precious stones maybe, something made with steel as an extreme. The person collecting the money is, again, traditionally a woman.
It may be the same woman as the “Ring Master” but where possible another women with similar names such as “Biddy” or “Hag”.
Sometimes called “Fool”, a comical but aggressive character if need be who’s job it is to ensure the people pay the “Beggar”. He carries a club and a frying pan.
From the masked plays onwards Beelzebub also wore ill fitting clothes and almost teased the people into recognizing who he is. It is also interesting that storyteller legends of Dagda also developed into describing him as wearing ill fitting clothes and carrying a club as well as his harp, and nobody would know what he would use when he confronted them.
In a small troupe there there is no hag to collect into the bag, Beelzebub does this too. Surprisingly, the Beelzebub role is sometimes played by the “Green Man” or “Herne”.
Other folks are brought in, but when they are this is evolving the Mummers Play from being a ritual play into being more of an entertainment play.
The Time Of Mummers
By ancient tradition their most important time to appear is at Samhain. This is still the main time in Scotland. In parts of Scotland and through North West Ireland these people are dressed entirely in straw costumes with straw helmets without masks and theatrical costumes and props. This is also still true of some South West England Mummers too. The straw costumes must go way back to the original sacred site rituals.
In Co. Sligo, Co. Leitrim and Co. Mayo in Ireland, Straw Boy troupes exist to either lead couples into their first dance at weddings and even lead them from the dance to their honeymoon threshold. This is a ritual of fertility and so connected with the Mumming rituals and fire dances.
In Scotland, there is still a ritual of local folks spending all night outside a wedding couple’s first night together and making a mischievous noise. I suspect this tradition started with Straw Boys staying all night outside for the couple’s first night reciting some kind of fertility chant.
However, I am writing this for you now, because, generally, the time of Mummer’s Plays have now become strongest during the time of Yule, the time of Winter Solstice. Thinking of what the origin rituals behind the Mummer’s Plays it really does not make sense, yet it does seem to provide more value and more of a spirit of celebration of this time, especially compared to lining up on Christmas Eve for last minute store sales.
Mummer’s players have extended their ritual, though, to now include Plough Monday, in early January, Imbolc, Easter, May Day (Beltaine), Midsummer, Lammas, Harvest Home, and then back to Samhain. They do not seem to bother with Equinox, which is a relief, except maybe the “Pace Egg Players”, more commonly known as the “Jolly Boys”
'Pace' comes from an old English word 'pasch' meaning 'Easter'. They carried decorated “Pace Eggs” as a symbol of fertility. Eggs and Easter were derived from the Saxon spring goddess Eostre, whose feast was at the vernal equinox, presumably moved there from Imbolc at some point
Pace Egg Players dress differently from Mummers. The wear animal skins and blacken their faces. Some of the character names of Pace Egg Players are Old Betsy Brownbags, Jolly Jack Tar, and Old Tosspot.
The Wassail Cup
The one introduction to the Mummer’s ritual play I love, is the Wassail Cup as it is truly a peace treaty between two cultures to become one, just like the plot of the Mummer’s Play.
When the Saxon’s brought over their tradition of Mummer’s Plays and merged them with the ancient tradition of fire rituals in Ireland they also brought a mulled wine drink with them that they had learned from the people west of the Black Sea. It was a drink of wine and herbs that warmed inside and made everyone feel good. Not only did the Saxons get excited about this drink but so did the Greeks and Romans.
The Saxons called it “Was Hal”, meaning “At One”, translated really as a “Good Health Toast”. In fact the word “toast” came about before wishing “Was Hal”. The Wassail cup was actually a bowl and the liquid was too sacred to separate into cups. Hot bread toast would then be dipped into the mulled wine bowl to soak up some of the drink. Then before eating the soggy toast, blessings would be said starting with “Was Hal to ….” and since then that has been regarded as a “toast”.
Also, I suspect that the ritual of Christian communion was originally taken from this tradition.
The way two cultures came together, with the Wassail Cup, was when the Irish and Welsh, who regarded crab apples as being a fruit of protection, also cut up stored apples and added them to this mulled wine drink of the Saxons. That then became the accepted Wassail Cup of Yule.
There’s so much more I can add to this as Mumming was my way of life for many years, and from 2008 will become part of our lives again and a lot of fun opportunities for the travellers on our tours.
Ritual folk drama is a wonderful merging of so many traditions that extends well beyond ritual expressed in fun through home and street theatre into labyrinth rituals, fireside ceili rituals, dances ranging from circle, partner and broom dances, special sacred foods and feasts, lovely drinks, songs, tunes, stories, and wonderful ritual crafts with straw, reeds, herbs and flowers.
Before now and the end of this calendar year I hope to be able to share more articles with you on the origin of carols, ancient music of this time, more on the straw boys, the wren rituals, wren boys,
……. and why these are now rituals for women as much as they are for men now.
I hope that you will find ways to contact or even be visited by mummers, guisers, wassailers, wren boys, straw boys, ribbon girls, and even carolers at your door is a blessing ritual that is far, far older than Christ.
Also, I hope you will join our tours through the year to share in these and other rejuvinating and blessing earth spirit rituals.