From Mummer's Play to Pantomime, via School Nativity

Wednesday 12 December 2012

The Chrismologist's Advent Calendar - Day 12

For an old school friend of mine, it's panto season once again. And yesterday I got to enjoy my daughter's school nativity play.

One of the things you can read about in What is Myrrh Anyway? is how the traditional mummers' plays helped influence the development of the popular pantomime, not to mention the classic school nativity.

The words ‘mummer’ and ‘mumming’ either come from the German mumme, meaning a ‘mask’ or ‘masker’, or the Greek momme, meaning specifically ‘a frightening mask’. To hide their true identities (disguise being an important part of the mummers' ritual performance) many mummers wore masks made to look like different animal heads. One of these was the stag.

Just such a 'classic' Medieval mummer mask appears in an fourteenth century illuminated manuscript in the Bodleian Library of Oxford University. A marginal panel in the lower right corner of the verso of Plate 21 shows a stag masked mummer leading four other dancers (two women and two masked men) to a musical tune provided by a man playing the lute.

The stag mask itself is particularly ancient, dating to the stone age in Europe. A painting on the wall of a cave named Le Trois Freres in France clearly shows a shaman wearing a stag mask and costume. The style of the paintings in the cave place the image at the end of the Ice Age, around 15,000 to 10,000 BC!

Modern Wiccan believers see the stag as representing the powerful male spirit of the animal world, 'the source of masculine energy; he is the raw force, wisdom and law'. Some Medieval writers also identified the stag as a force for good, determined to stamp out evil, as in the natural world the animal will trample any snakes it comes upon.


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