Thursday, October 10, 2013

(The Other)world, Part 2


Early this year, I became curious about a custom that exists in my parents' homeland. On several holidays, but especially during Lent, the Feast of John the Baptist, or on the Feast of Saint James the Apostle, celebrants enjoy the appearance of a type of festival demon called a vejigante. They are so called for the vejiga, an inflated cow bladder that was used in festivals past to whack and taunt the onlookers. (This tool of mischief may sound familiar to anyone who's read up on traditional May Day customs in Britain.) Depending on the region, the face of the vejigante may be constructed of coconut shell or papier-mâché, brightly painted and sprouting horns in every direction, their accompanying costumes bat-like and medieval. Other characters in this festival include a knight who drives away the devils, a trio of old men, and a trio of madwomen, all capering about humorously. The vejigantes dance, sing, and ask children for chocolate. They are meant to frighten and tempt people towards sin, but, like the Halloween ghosts and goblins so enjoyed in the United States, the people have an abiding affection for them. They are happy creatures, after all.

Both in cultural literature and in oral teaching, I was given to understand that these characters, while devilish in appearance, were originally meant to represent Morrocans or "Moors." After living under Mauritanian rule for generations, the Moor became the ubiquitous symbol of wickedness in Spanish culture, and a constant figure in poetry, song, art and drama. This alone was easy for me to understand, but the idea that the Moor had evolved into such a monstrous being - twisted, infernal, hardly human - was upsetting to me as a child. I didn't understand how such a medieval concept continued to endure with such ferocity. People in my own family have hurled the word moro at one another with derision, for the darkness of their appearance. What a ridiculous insult, I thought.

participant in a Festival of Moors and Christians, in Lleida. [x]

The vejigante's mask is popularly thought of as an African or Native innovation (and perhaps so, in terms of its construction and aesthetic.) But the tradition itself originates in Spain. Cervantes mentions the vejigante by name in Don Quixote, and the Moor has appeared frequently in popular festivals since the reign of Isabella and Ferdinand. During and after the Reconquista, pageants known as morescas began to proliferate throughout the Iberian peninsula. The Feast of Saint James, on July 25th, was especially significant to this purpose, due to the belief that the saint miraculously appeared to aid the Spanish army against a Moorish force during the fictional Battle of Clavijo. (For this reason, the saint was known in Spain and Portugal as Santiago Matamoros, "James the Moor-slayer.") Many festivals sprang up from region to region, to commemorate their respective dates of liberation from Mauritanian rule. Today, these pageants are celebrated with opposing troops of "Christians" and "Moors," all fancifully costumed for mock battles.

Some historians believe that the Morris dances which developed in Britain, and elsewhere in Europe, may have originated from Spanish morescas. Considering the fact that blackface is customarily employed in some forms of Morris, this seems plausible. The statuette pictured at right is one of nine pieces carved by a German artist in 1480. While the rest of the Moriskentänzer are clearly European in appearance, two or three of them happen to be wearing fanciful turbans, just as revelers do in Spain today.

It seems obvious, at first, that nations with a history of subjugation by an outside force would come to author some deeply resentful narratives on the subject. Yet, the sheer frequency with which Moors occur as villains in Hispanic tradition is, frankly, a little odd. Aside from semi-historical tales about battles and political abuses, Moors seem to permeate Spanish folklore right down to the bone. Ask any question, and the answer you receive will be "Moors." Why this proverb, whence this strange carving, who laid this treasure at the bottom of the lake? Moors. The roles played in other countries by fairies or ogres are, unfailingly, played by the Moor in Spanish tales. Abductions, enchantments, lyncanthropy, and all manner of weird phenomena are thought to be their work. The very wind and rain is attributed to the machinations Moors. Although they dwell in palaces and forts - as one would expect of a any government or military official - inexplicably, these abodes are found under hills and beneath ancient oak trees. "True; but the Moors were enchanters, and it was known that they could make subterranean passages which closed behind them so as to prevent their being pursued," says one tale, where a maiden is held captive in a fabulous, enchanted realm that only an unbaptised child can enter freely. Investigating further, I uncovered beliefs about how Moors raised the standing stones, dolmens, and passage-tombs for their homes and magical doorways, and that they can be seen arising from their underground lairs at the summer solstice. As I was doing some casual research for my St. John's Night post, I came across references to "certain pagan gods" who "make themselves visible" on that magical night...

This was all starting to sound a bit familiar.

In Castille (your typical schoolroom Spanish), the word for "Moor" is Moro. In the dialects in which these fairy tales are told, such as in Portuguese or Galician, the word employed in these stories is moura, or just as often, mouras encantadas. Some linguists believe that moura in this context could in fact be a corruption of the Latin mortuus or the Portuguese morto, indicating that these beings are really spirits of the dead. Others believe that it derives from the Celtic mor, which can denote a hazardous spirit, and may be the root word of the Old Irish fomor. (For those of you unfamiliar with the Fomorians, I wrote a bit about them a while back.) Even if there's no direct relationship between mor and moura, it seems just as likely that these beings and their associated lore would come to be confused with the tangible history of occupation by a foreign culture, who just so happened to have a very similar-sounding name.

I was ready to write a post about this back in July. At the time, this seemed like all there was to this particular subject: the face of the Other, superimposed on half-forgotten heathen spirits. It wasn't until later that I came across an interesting side-note.

It can be difficult to dig up anything about the origin of the Fomorians - those primordial beings who settled in Ireland, many generations before the Tuatha Dé Danann. However, a yarn appears in Geoffrey Keating's History of Ireland, stating that they were the descendants of Noah's son, Cham:
Neimheadh won three battles on the Fomorians, namely, navigators of the race of Cham, who fared from Africa; they came fleeing to the islands of the west of Europe, and to make a settlement for themselves, and (also) fleeing the race of Sem, for fear that they might have advantage over them, in consequence of the curse which Noe had left on Cham from whom they came; inasmuch as they thought themselves to be safe from the control of the posterity of Sem by being at a distance from them: wherefore, they came to Ireland.
The Judaic traditions regarding the Sons of Noah make up an early ethnology that easily found its foothold in later Western thought: the Jewish people are the sons of Sem (or "Semites"); the Europeans are the sons of Japheth; and Africans are the sons of Cham or Ham.

If I were tempted to write this off an an anomalous idea, a leisurely browse through that famous tale of forbidden love, "The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Grainne," turned up this passage about an enchanted tree, coveted by the Tuatha Dé:
When the Tuatha Dé Danann heard that those virtues be­longed to the quicken tree, they sent from them a guard over it, that is, the Searban Lochlannach, a youth of their own people, that is, a thick-boned, large-nosed, crooked-tusked, red-eyed, swart-bodied giant of the children of wicked Cham the son of Noah; whom neither weapon wounds, nor fire burns, nor water drowns, so great is his magic. He has but one eye only in the fair middle of his black forehead, and there is a thick collar of iron round that giant’s body, and he is fated not to die until there be struck upon him three strokes of the iron club that he has.
Intriguingly, not only is he named as a son of Cham, but his "swart body" and "black forehead" are specifically referred to. His monstrous, cyclopic appearance is typical of Fomorians in other stories. (Though there are beautiful Fomorians as well.) Searban is referred to as "a youth of [the Tuatha De's] own people." He could be a fosterling, or may have a parent from both sides. Neither situation is unusual in the lore, Lugh himself being half-Fomorian.

In any case, after reading this side-story, I was starkly reminded of the trial of Alice Kyteler, commonly said to have been the first witch prosecuted in Ireland, in the 13th century. Her maid testified that Dame Kyteler regularly met with her familiar spirit at a crossroads. Thomas Wright tells us, "...there was an unholy connection between Lady Alice and the demon called Robin Artisson, who sometimes appeared to her in the form of a black cat, sometimes in that of a black shaggy dog, and at others in the form of a black man, with two tall and equally swarthy companions, each carrying an iron rod in his hand." Again, I'd hastily assumed that this was a typically medieval conflation between foreigners and devils. And it probably is. But could there be something more to it?

The passage from "Diarmuid and Grainne" takes the time to tell us that Cham was "wicked." Depending on what sorts of lessons you got in Sunday school, some of you may be familiar with the "Curse of Ham" (or the "Curse of Canaan"), which has historically served as a convenient justification for various forms political and economic exploitation, such as medieval serfdom, and black slavery. Some of those nations said to be descended from Cham (such as Egypt, Babylon, and the Hittites) happen to have been oppressive towards Semitic peoples at different periods; I think the Jews could have been using myth to express their historical resentments as well. Maybe this can account, in a parallel or roundabout way, for the similarity in the narratives regarding oppressive Fomorians, oppressive Moors, and oppressive Babylonians. The Fomorians were wicked because they raided by sea, and demanded heavy tributes. Did that inspire an identification with African empires of yore, or was there as much truth in that origin story as there are in the tales of Scythian ancestors? (There are DNA results to prove it.)

an impressive mock-battle off the coast of Alicante [x]

In one of my earlier posts on a similar theme, I talked about a history of ideas that equated human "Others" with Otherworldly beings. One detail that I was never able to suss out was where, exactly, the concept of legendary black pygmies really came from. Victorians wrote with such confidence about legends of dark elves (if you will) roaming Britain at the dawn of time, but I have yet to encounter any such story. Diminutive imps, dwarves, elves, and goblins certainly appear in English folktales, but I haven't found any black bogies yet. (I did, however, find dark-skinned fairies told of in Asturias and Cantabria; the trasgu, a type of domestic elf, and the trenti, a sylvan elf who plays innocent pranks.) I rather doubt that the English euhemerists would have accessed any of the information I've mentioned here. Were they just talking out of their asses, as they were generally wont to do? Readers, any insight you might have on this subject would be deeply appreciated.

For lack of anything else to say, I'd like to dedicate this entry to an old friend and co-religionist who is no longer with us. I regret not getting to know you better...hope you're living it up in the greenwood.


  1. Dangit, just wrote a big ol' comment and it disappeared. This time I'll challenge myself to be more concise. Really interesting post in so many ways. (Haplogroup U FTW!)

    So regarding the dark and otherworldly... It gets confusing since in English (and as I understand it, other Indo-European languages though I don't know which) descriptors like "dark" or "black" can be moral (= bad), metaphorical (= invisible, ergo hidden, unknowable), and/or physical (= skin/hair color). I always wonder with regard to e.g. Fear Dorcha what kind of "dark" they mean. But maybe it's not so much the darkness that marks a being as Otherworldly as the ambiguity of the darkness. I can't help but think of La Tene ("Celtic") art, where I have come to the conclusion that it is mostly non-representational for at least 2 reasons: (1) because it is meant to evoke things that can't be limited to a form and (2) because it is meant to emphasize the *process* of viewing and questioning the shapes.

    It would be interesting to know if African folklore/spiritualities represent the Other as pale. Although speaking of pygmies, I was told by an anthropologist who did fieldwork with the Efe (but who is an entirely untrustworthy person, so I would want another source before putting faith in it) that they are regarded as Otherworldly or magically powerful by neighboring peoples. I believe most or all of those neighbors are farmers, where the Efe are hunter-gatherers, so that may play into the Otherness, but of course so would the small size of the Efe.

    1. FTW indeed. :) Thanks for your comment - I'm glad someone else finds this stuff interesting.

      Recently I've had to rethink some of the ideas I held when I wrote this post, in regard to racial Other-ing in the Pre-Modern Europe. Apparently, a lot of the narratives we're familiar with today -- this "dark skin = evil devil guy" type stuff -- didn't really exist back then. Maybe it got a head start with the Reconquista, I don't know. But it does make some of this stuff that much harder to interpret.

      In the case of Searban, however, I do think it's safe to conclude that he is black-skinned, given the additional information identifying him with the people of Africa. Plus, plenty other figures are described as "white-bodied," and we don't have any trouble imagining what that means. But it's certainly true that both "dark" and "light" have more poetic applications too.

      In Irish literature, I've observed "darkness" as something that's applied to warriors at least a few times. But not always in a negative sense. Despite being described as fair-skinned, Cú Chulainn is also "the sad, dark man in the chariot." Scota and Scáthach's names both bear the meaning of "darkness," and the latter is a warrior. They both come from faraway lands, also. With these examples, darkness does seem relevant to the Fear Dorcha, who appears out of nowhere to drag women away to who-knows-where. Maybe "darkness" could also mean "the unknown" in a broad sense, whether it's in reference to unknown lands or unknown people. (I really like your characterization of La Tene art, by the way. I've also gotten that sense from it, of things in the process of "taking shape." Like swirling mist.)

      Conversely - in my very, very casual reading - I have seen that some African cultures think of the dead as being pale. In a previous post on this subject, I included some of Paul du Chaillu's account of his exploration in Central Africa in 1865, where his Ashango guides consistently called him "Spirit"...maybe because he was pale, or because he was so foreign, or both? The Ashangos' attitude toward the Obongos (pygmies) isn't totally clear, but they explained to him that the Obongos were "strange" because they didn't make permanent settlements, or pottery - they hunted small animals and drank water with their hands. So, hunter-gatherers, yeah. It would be nice to see some more recent research on this stuff, but alas, I am a layperson who cannot justify paying for JSTOR. Meanwhile, there is this recent film depicting ghosts as pale.

    2. Post-script/fwiw -- Europeans also tend to imagine spirits or ghosts as being pale. So, when 19th-century Brits wrote about black dwarves, it looks to me like a pretty racialized/politicized invention...I mean, I don't see much of anything in their own folklore that mentions something like that. Though I'd love to know about it if there is.