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Hester What's a Mummers Play? (82* d) RE: BS: What's a Mummers Play? 14 Nov 02


Enjoyed the Peter Millington article, but I found it a bit odd that he mentioned the prominence of the Beelzebub character among the supernumeraries without also mentioning that this one aspect of the Mummer's Play at least does seem to have a pagan origin that even hard-core sceptics like Ronald Hutton acknowledge:

>>>For the present writer, the most remarkable of the former remains 'Beelzebub', with his club and pan. As Chambers noted, medieval stage devils carried pitchforks, not these accoutrements. In 1929 the archaeologist Stuart Piggott suggested that he was so like the celebrated prehistoric hill-carving of the Cerne Abbas Giant that he was surely a personification of an ancient deity, a remark which inevitably found an enthusiastic reception in the Folk-Lore Society of the time. The particular comparison no longer works, because there is now considerable doubt as to whether the Giant itself is older than the late seventeenth century. Piggott's instinct was, however, a sound one, because Beelzebub does look amazingly like the ancient Celtic god-form venerated in Gaul under the name of Sucellus and in Ireland as the Daghda, a male figure carrying a club and a pot or cauldron. This sort of deity does not, however, seem to have been popular in ancient Britain, and how this image manages to leap-frog over a thousand years to turn up in eighteenth-century England is a real puzzle; unless, of course, the date of the 1685 Cork play is correct and he really is the Daghda, given a devil's name and trans- planted from Irish folklore to English folk-drama via Munster. All told, the collapse of the theory of pagan origins has created more problems that it has solved in the quest for the origins of the Mummers' Play.<<< (_Stations of the Sun_ pp. 78-79)

Also, I think it was Ian who asked what present-day performers of the plays believe them to mean. Hutton addressed this question to one of the Waterly Bottom Mummers:

"I asked one of them if he thought that his play was pagan. He replied that, whether it was ancient or not, it was certainly pagan in spirit, for nothing could be less Christian than the resurrec- tion from death of a braggart, performed by a quack armed with a medicine bottle. I asked him if he regarded it as a ritual. He answered that anything becomes a ritual if you have to do it ten times in a single night. It seemed to me then that the romantic Edwardian picture of the natural wisdom of the countryman, so often rightly derided as a cultural artefact, might not at times be so far from the truth." (Ibid, p. 80)

Indeed, the plays do not need to be dated back to the pre-Christian era to have pagan meaning and connotations. Certain pagan sensibilities remained and became enmeshed with Christian belief and custom during the Middle Ages and persisted into modern times.

That said, it also seems that the plays likely pre-date any written records of them. The nonsensical tone and language of the earliest texts suggest a degradation through long-standing oral transmission. That we have no "evidence" of such plays before the chapbooks versions is not surprising, however, as plebeian folk customs would not have been recorded UNLESS they happened to come to the attention and interest of the "scribbling" classes of the time.

And although I'm a structuralist, not a Jungian, I'm looking forward to reading the Jungian analysis to which Ian posted a link.

And Pavane, is this the play from Wales that you took part in:

Crwmpyn John

If so, can you provide any additional information about its specific history and origins?

Cheers, Hester


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