Book Review: Masks and Mumming

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Book cover of 'Masks and Mumming in the Nordic Area' edited by Terry Gunnell
Book Review: 'Masks and Mumming in the Nordic Area'
edited by Terry Gunnell.
Acta Academiae Regiae Gustavi Adolphi 98.
Uppsala: Swedish Science Press, 2007, 840pp.

This book covers its subject comprehensively and is full of folklore gems, but let us be clear from the start, at 840 densely-packed pages this academic tome is not a light read, although copious illustrations do help lighten the load. In fact, it is really two books in one a systematic survey of masks and mumming customs in Nordic and neighbouring countries, and papers from the Masks and Mumming conference held in Turku, Finland in 2002. Given its size and the variety of contributions, the editor, Terry Gunnell, is to be congratulated on such a professionally-produced outcome.


Some definitions are called for. The Introduction and many of the individual contributors acknowledge the mould-breaking influence of Halpert & Story's Christmas Mumming in Newfoundland, and Carsten Bregenhøj's Helligtrekongersløb på Agersø (whose extended English abstract also influenced English folk drama studies), as well as Terry Gunnell's Origins of Drama in Scandinavia. These provide a typology of 'mumming' that ranges from full-blooded folk drama to simple house-visiting in disguise, where householders try to guess the identity of the guisers. The inclusion of masks is uncontentious, but Gunnell's definition of 'drama' is so broad that it covers almost any form of performance and dressing up, including "Lord of the Rings"-based live action role playing (LARPing). This may seem too broad for some readers.

Geographically, the surveys cover: Norway, Sweden, Denmark, the North Atlantic (Iceland, the Faroes, Shetlands & Orkneys), Finland & Karelia, and Estonia. Greenland is also present due to its Danish links, but seems somewhat incongruous, because this chapter mainly covers the distinctive traditions of its Inuit population albeit with Danish influences. The conference section covers the same regions, with the addition of "neighbouring countries" Scotland, Ireland and Newfoundland.

Importantly, the book is written in English. True, there are numerous examples and quotations in the relevant native languages, but these are all provided with English translations. These do not just help English speakers. Danish, Norwegian, Swedish and to a lesser extent Icelandic are mutually intelligible, at least in written form, as are Finnish and Estonian, but there is little cross-over between the two language groups. The shared lingua franca of English therefore also benefits local Scandinavian readers.

The National Surveys

The survey chapters comprise about 60% of the volume, and were prepared under the auspices of the "Masks and Mumming" project funded by the Nordic Culture Fund. They roughly all follow the same format, with a scene-setting map; a section on the geographical, historical and ethnic context; an outline of available material, including the earliest known accounts of masking and mumming; and general features of the local traditions, followed by a more detailed overview linked to the annual cycle of festive days. The guising customs of some non-calendrical events, such as weddings, are also covered.

The surveys are primarily descriptive, with pictures of most of the traditions, and quotations from primary sources. Except for Denmark and Greenland, there are lots of interesting distribution maps. Different mapping methods have been used for each country, which sometimes could do with explanation. There are problems with Swedish maps because seas and lakes are printed in black, making it difficult to distinguish the black dots of the distribution. I suspect that the originals may have been in colour.

The national breakdown is natural and useful, but the shared Nordic cultural heritage inevitably creates a feeling of repetition. Even so, there are a few subtle omissions. Sami (Lapp) traditions barely get a mention, nor do the ethnic Swedes of Estonia; and the Finnish survey generally focuses on the Finnish speaking majority at the expense of the minority Swedish speaking community. These omissions might reflect the language difficulties alluded earlier, but might also reflect ethnocentric factors. Incidentally, although they fall outside the scope of this book, it would also be interesting to see how these traditions have fared among Nordic émigrés in North America.

So what are the main Nordic masking and mumming traditions? Three stand out. The first is the Christmas or New Year Goat the Julebukk variously spelt. This is a goat's head, or a representation of a goat's head, on a stick held by someone bent over and covered with a hide or sheet. This is taken from house to house, where they may present songs or even a play. This custom is similar to British mast horse traditions such as Hoodening in Kent, and Mari Lwyd in Wales. However, the closest similarity is with the Derby Tup plays of the Sheffield area.

The second common Nordic tradition is Helligtrekongers - New Year to Twelfth Night when guisers and Star Boys go round. The Star Boys (Stjernegutter, Norway, Stjärngossar, Sweden, Stjernedrenge, Denmark, Tiernapojat, Finland) are named after the large illuminated star they carry, accompanied by the Three Wise Men, and maybe other characters. Star Boys sing songs, and may enact a play based on the Christmas story.

Saint Knut's Day, which often marks the end of the Christmas period, is the focus for the third common tradition except that for reasons I do not fully understand, there are two alternative dates for Saint Knut's Day January 7th or 13th the latter being called Tjugondagknut in Swedish, literally "twentieth day Knut". This is a day of visiting in disguise, but may also include Julebukk and Star Boy elements.

There are, however, many other traditions listed of a more localised nature, for instance: mock weddings (roughly equivalent to May Queens) and mummers visiting wedding parties in Norway, Easter witches in Sweden, Shrovetide disguise in Denmark, Grýlar, Gruliks and Skeklars in the Faroes and Shetland, Ash Wednesday mumming in Iceland, and St.Martin's and St.Catherine's Day mummers in Estonia. An emerging Nordic tradition and rite of passage is themed dressing up by school students around the time of their final exams.

As indicated above, there are similarities with certain British and Irish customs. We also share the complaint that US-inspired Halloween Trick-or-Treating and its associated merchandise are displacing or invading local traditions. There are however, some interesting differences. Face masks feature strongly in Scandinavia, whereas in Britain and Ireland, if anything, we prefer to use facial colouring, or to hide behind streamer fringes or straw helmets. This may reflect the fact that non-play mumming and the guessing of disguised identities is more prominent in Nordic countries.

The Conference Papers

The second section of the book consists of eighteen papers given at the 2002 Turku conference. These are more varied than the foregoing surveys, describing certain traditions in more detail, exploring social interactions betweeen the mummers and their audiences, and discussing changes and trends. The articles are arranged under five headings: "Themes in masks and mumming", "Local case studies", "Related traditions in the Nordic area", "New traditions in masks and mumming", and "Comparable traditions in neighbouring countries". The latter heading is of direct relevance to this website, because its three papers cover Scottish Galoshins' plays, Irish Christmas Mummers' plays, and Newfoundland Mummers.

Emily Lyle's Scottish article is essentially descriptive, and is in some ways an abbreviated version of Brian Hayward's Galoshins book. Séamas Ó Catháin's Irish paper is similarly descriptive, but also discusses an interesting account of Irish mumming noted by Josias Bodley in 1602. This was mumming of the kind found among European aristocracy up to the Reformation, complete with dice playing. However their ivy-covered costumes are redolent of the ribbon costumes and straw outfits of modern English and Ulster folk play actors.

Paul Smith's paper continues his work on Newfoundland Mummering, which has enjoyed a revival in recent decades, and is celebrated as something that distinguishes the province from the rest of Canada. This time, Smith looks at what we might call the merchandising of Mummers, showing with fascinating examples how they have infiltrated everyday culture from craftwork and branded beer to mumming imagery in the mass media and advertising.

Stjernegutter, Grimstad, Norway, c.1951
Stjernegutter, Grimstad, Norway, c.1951

Because of their quantity and the risk of repetition, it is difficult to deal with all the other contributions here individually. There is a full list of contents elsewhere on this website. Therefore I will focus on a couple of representative examples.

May the Star come in by Ane Ohrvik discusses the history of the Twelfth Night Stjernespill in Grimstad on Norway's southern coast. This is a folk play, much of which is sung, centred on the Three Magi of the Christmas story, as is appropriate to Epiphany. The teams of boys, about ten years old, do not disguise themselves, but wear white shirts and conical hats (crowns) that are reminiscent of the costumes worn by Plough Monday mummers in England. Indeed, I suggest that there is the possibility that they might even be related.

The Grimstad custom is encouraged by local people of influence journalists, teachers and local historians who train the new boys and maintain standards. However, they also prevent innovation. The play is billed as going back to the Middle Ages, which may or may not be true for Grimstad specifically (there is no evidence prior to the 1880s), but probably is true for the custom generally. There is a recorded history that starts with mediaeval ecclesiastical drama, passes through secular mystery plays and performance by cathedral schoolboys, and eventually passes to the general populace. They have been in decline since the late 19th century. In England, the continuity of folk drama cannot be demonstrated further back than the 18th century the Reformation and Civil Wars having fractured any possible lines of descent. This probably explains why British folk drama is resolutely secular, albeit mostly taking place on Christian festival days, whereas in the rest of Europe, religious folk plays are the norm.

The Killing of the Goat by Reimund Kvideland gives more detail about the Julebukkvise (Christmas Goat songs) in Norway, and includes a sample text from Bergen. The similarities with English Derby Tup plays are remarkable. In both, the central goat/sheep figures are similarly constructed with a head on a stick with the player covered by a sheet or hide. In both, the plays are mostly sung, with short dramatic interludes. In both, once the animal has been killed, the songs go on to talk about the fate of its various body parts. While the two traditions share a common motif, this does not imply any historical connection, and in the Scandinavian context, Kvideland argues against there being any pre-Christian origins.

In conclusion; this is an excellent book that is worthy of a place alongside the works of Halpert & Story, and Bregenhøj. Its comprehensive coverage of Nordic masking and mumming traditions makes it a must for anyone interested in comparitive European folklore, as we all should be. A useful follow-up would be a slimmer digested overview of the subject that eliminates the apparent repetition and also looks at the trans-national influences. As a reference work, this book certainly has all the necessary source material, although it would be good to have more example texts for the folk plays and songs.

Peter Millington


C.Bregenhøj (1974) Helligtrekongersløb på Agersø: Socialt, statistik og strukturelt
København: Dansk Folkemindesamling, Skrifter 3, 1974

T.Gunnell (1995) The Origins of Drama in Scandinavia
Woodbridge : D.S. Brewer, 1994

H.Halpert & G.M.Story [eds.] (1969) Christmas Mumming in Newfoundland. Essays in Anthopology, Folklore and History
Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1969

B.Hayward (1992) Galoshins: The Scottish Folk Play
Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1992, ISBN 07486-0338-7

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© 2008, Peter Millington ( Last updated: 06-Apr-2008