Mumming, Morris Dances and All Things Mystic
The Mummers’ Play does not attempt the detailed imitation of reality; it is an imagistic theatre whose effect lies in holding real and unreal worlds in a precarious balance – Antrobus
“Oats and Corn, oats and corn, all that dies will be reborn.
Vine and grain, vine and grain, all that falls shall rise again.”
Vinotok… Crested Butte’s harvest festival. It is a passageway to help us with the transition from summer to fall and eventually winter. It is a way to bond together as a community, to forget our grievances against ourselves and one another. We come together at Vinotok to celebrate this wild place we live in, so close to the rhythms of nature. We come together to celebrate ourselves as a community, the bounty of an incredible summer with its harvests of wildflowers and warmth as well as a harvest of food. We gather to be thankful of all that we have been given. We dance around the fire to abandon, to let go, to begin anew in the ever-cycling circle of life and the seasons.
Many aspects of Vinotok are ancient. Here we look at the roots of some of the most significant.
The Vinotok Mumming Troupe helps to set the magical mood of Vinotok by weaving throughout the restaurants and pubs on Elk Avenue. Dressed in Medieval attire, drums, flutes and tambourines accompanying them, they introduce the principle characters of the main street theatre performance: the maidens, harvest lads, Sir Hapless, the Earth Dragon, the Harvest Mother, and of course, the Green Man.
Mumming is folk theatre that dates strongly back to Medieval times, and even before. Romans used mumming to honor their god Saturn and the gathering of the crops. In Ireland, mumming was used to celebrate the seasons, in England the occasion was often Christmas. Historically, it was often done without scripts, the points of the tale being passed down through oral tradition. It typically dealt with issues of combat and resolve, out of which resurrection was paramount. It was, and in some places still is, a central part of European, and especially English, rural life.
Even though there was always an official mumming group, the entire community was expected to fulfill a role. Every person either was an actor in the play, or a participant in the activity as the mumming troupe would move through the town. There were always anticipated responses (reflected in our own cheers to “Burn the Grump.”) and the general community assisted in creating the mood of the performance.
For Vinotok, there are really two conflicts. One is the battle between the forces of nature, characterized by the Earth Dragon, and the encroachment of technology, personified by the fop character of Sir Hapless. The other conflict is that the Green Man is dying, he is losing power despite his best intentions of maiden frolick to gather his energy. In the symbology of balance, someone or something must die in the Green Man’s place, so that his return in the spring is assured. The town chooses the Grump, filled with the woes and grievances of the community. Upon his burning, everyone is given a clean slate with which to begin the new season. The Green Man is resurrected.
The energy created between the mumming troupe and the community also created a commonality of purpose. For us at Vinotok this arises in celebrating the turn of the seasons and the communal knowledge that we are each other’s support during the cold, dark months. We also have the communal purpose that the Grump must be burned so that our gripes and moans don’t stand between our relationships with each other, with nature, our community or even within ourselves.
Mummers were often disguised as strangers so that they could serve as the instigators of the drama and community building while also maintaining the theatric distance that often occurs in such occasions. Yet, mummers are still members of the community, and so mix with the general audience more freely than if in a formal theatre. The masks and costumes also allowed the mummers to draw themselves directly into the spirit of the characters they were portraying.
In trade for their services and entertainment, it has long been a standing tradition, in Europe as well as Crested Butte, that mummers receive food, drink and even in some cases money for their performance. It was thought that to not give an offering was to tempt bad fortune or at the very least display bad manners. Historically, many of the rural poor made a good month’s wages as they mummed through auspicious occasions such as Christmas.
The Morris Dance
During the main performance of the Vinotok Mummer’s Play on Elk Avenue, time is always made for the “Maiden Dance.” Step hop. Step hop. And we giggle at the simplicity of it all. The Maiden Dance’s formal name is Morris Dance and it, like the tradition of mumming, has been in existence since Medieval times. In fact, the two are often inextricably woven. The simplicity of it exists as these dances were often performed for hours on end, mesmerizing both participants and audience members. They have also been called trance dances for this reason.
The Morris dance is a formal dance performed on special occasions that served as a communal point of reverence in the community. Passed down by the elders, they were often connected with the fertility of the land, the advent of the seasons and the waking of the earth. Like our own Vinotok maidens, they wore symbolic accoutrements such as bells and used white handkerchiefs in their performances. Dancers of the Morris dance were also often mummers, as is the case here as well.
The Harvest Mother
We make a lot of hoopla about the Green Man, but the truth of the matter is, the most central point of Vinotok is the Harvest Mother. The Harvest Mother is Gaia, she is the mother of all, of the earth and all the deities. She is the symbol of fertility, and in the harvest season, of the earth’s bounty.
The importance of women in the world became apparent as early as 24,000 BCE, when the Venus of Willendorf was found, huge breasts and pregnant belly rounding out her feminine shape. Many archeologists believe that she was the symbol of the female deity. This same shape and concept is present in the earliest images in archeological finds in ancient Egypt. Women were the original rulers of Egypt, and the object of pantheons long before those built to represent the male.
Celts have Anu, Egyptians Isis. In Germany she is Holle and in Norse traditions, Frigg. Demeter comes to us from Greece and is the symbol of grain and fertility. She has the power to manipulate the seasons and is the basis of the Eleusinian Mysteries, the most important of all Greek celebrations. They celebrated the turn of the seasons.
The Green Man
The earliest known Green Man comes from Classical Rome, and examples of him exist from Turkey to Europe to India. The Green Man is a promise – that spring and vegetation will return once again. He is the masculine energy to balance the Harvest Mother, a Father Nature, if you will. As such he represents the energy and presence in every cell of plant life, the spirit in the trees, leaf and foliage that surrounds us.
Like one of his other incarnations, the Greek Pan, Green Man is virile, vivacious and lusty. He can be seen in the Green Knight, Osiris (the Egyptian god of life, death and fertility). His John Barleycorn incarnation no doubt dates to the barley god of the Neolithic farmers. He is often horned, and his face emerges from a mask of leaves.
The Earth Dragon
Some form of a dragon exists in every culture worldwide. The image is especially prolific in Europe. Because the dragon typically has an underground lair, this genderless creature is considered to represent the earth. Slavic mythology in particular points to the dragon as a manifestation of agriculture. Often in mythology, dragons don’t necessarily like humans and they are often depicted guarding a treasure. Sometimes this is water.
The Earth Dragon of Vinotok is a genderless character representing nature, deep earth, good fortune and everything wild. The dragon is powerful, unpredictable and fierce while also being very beautiful.
“People often ask me what kind of celebration Vinotok is,” says Marcie Telander, creator and godmother of Vinotok, “It is primordial. These characters are ancient. In a time of tremendous transience and technology we benefit from community dancing and feasting, from the performance and the bonfire. … Vinotok doesn’t create the energy that happens. The energy is there and it’s best that it have a focus and support of the community.”
Molly Murfee is a full-time freelance and copy writer with articles featured in Powder Magazine, Telemark Skier, Backcountry Magazine, the Mountain Gazette, Cross Country Skier Magazine, Solar Today and Patagonia-Japan as well as being the regular feature and profile writer for the Crested Butte Weekly. Her passion lies in penning creative non-fiction and poetry, which focuses on wild places with their inherent metaphor and the extraordinary commonality of the human experience. Molly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.