Modern European “Primitives”

At the imaginary margins of “secular-rationalist” Europe there be monsters. In fact, there are so many folk-monsters roaming the countryside that French photographer Charles Freger spent a few years shooting them. They now appear, in all their pagan ritual glory, in the recently published Wilder Mann: The Image of the Savage (2012). The blurb reads:

The rituals are centuries old and celebrate the seasonal cycle, fertility, life, and death. People literally put themselves into the skin of the “savage,” in masquerades that stretch back centuries. By becoming a bear, a goat, a stag, a wild boar, a man of straw, a devil, or a monster with jaws of steel, these people celebrate the cycle of life and seasons. The costumes amaze with their extraordinary diversity and prodigious beauty. Work on this project took leading French photographer Charles Fréger to eighteen European countries in search of the mythological figure of the Wild Man.

Freger’s photos are generating some minor buzz about the “still practiced pagan rituals of Europe.” Over at the Times, James Estrin begins his piece with a progressive paragraph that could have been lifted from any number of cultural evolutionist books from the late 19th century:

Charles Fréger was fascinated by what the human race lost over the millenniums when it evolved from hunter-gather to farmer and, eventually, urban dweller. After learning that there were Europeans who continued ancient pagan rites of celebrating the winter solstice and the beginning of spring, he set out to examine what traditions faded as people became more civilized.

This is a standard modernist trope; the dominant doxa is that we Western moderns have become rational, civilized, and perhaps even scientific. In the primitive and “wild” past things were supposedly much different. This seems doubtful – modes of production and technologies can advance or “progress” without major changes in prevailing modes of thought or worldviews. For most people alive today, including “moderns” in the West, advanced technologies and “primitive” worldviews can (and do) peacefully co-exist. Dominant modes of thought really haven’t changed all that much since we supposedly emerged from the mythopoeic or “primitive” past.

Regardless, Freger’s photographs are arresting and remind me of the European alp demons I covered in this post. Along those same lines, Freger brings us these tree and bough spirits:



It seems only appropriate to append these images with some spruce words from Chapter 10 (“Relics of Tree Worship in Modern Europe”) of James George Frazer’s Golden Bough:

We have now to show that the tree-spirit is often conceived and represented as detached from the tree and clothed in human form, and even as embodied in living men or women. The evidence for this anthropomorphic representation of the tree-spirit is largely to be found in the popular customs of European peasantry.

There is an instructive class of cases in which the tree-spirit is represented simultaneously in vegetable form and in human form, which are set side by side as if for the express purpose of explaining each other. In these cases the human representative of the tree-spirit is sometimes a doll or puppet, sometimes a living person, but whether a puppet or a person, it is placed beside a tree or bough; so that together the person or puppet, and the tree or bough, form a sort of bilingual inscription, the one being, so to speak, a translation of the other. Here, therefore, there is no room left for doubt that the spirit of the tree is actually represented in human form.

Humans are so wonderfully and primitively weird.

Did you like this? Share it:

3 thoughts on “Modern European “Primitives”

  1. jayarava

    My first thought was that the photos look contrived. Surely they must exist in a context to have ritual significance, and yet the context is scrupulously excised. Is there independent corroboration of these costumes and practices?

    However, I’m reminded of Robert Bly’s reading of the Wild Man myth in Iron John. Not so much returning to a primitive state, even if only temporarily, but making friends with primitive urges in our psyche in order that they do not rule us through fear.

    Tree spirits are common throughout India as well.

  2. Cris Post author

    I don’t have Freger’s book (because it’s an expensive coffee table type book) but it looks like there is at least some narrative context. But when I look at the pictures (many more can be seen on Google Images), it brings Frazer powerfully to mind and that’s why I excerpted him. Put Frazer together with Freger and I think we have a ritual significance and contextual winner. Also in my post I linked to the alp demon book, which was done along similar lines. I lived and studied in Austria for a year, so I can confirm at least some of this myself.

  3. Juggernaut Nihilism

    “This seems doubtful – modes of production and technologies can advance or “progress” without major changes in prevailing modes of thought or worldviews.”

    I guess it depends on what you consider “major” changes. But is it safe to say that you don’t have much use for Marshall McLuhan, et al…?

    I’m not sure I can agree with the statement though. I mean, certainly we can have “pagans” – Wiccans, whatever – in advanced urban societies, but though I have met several who claim the label, I have never met a serious one. That is, all of them were simply Western materialists playing at being pagan. Imagine a Native American tribe trying to revive their old way of life, including the un-self-conscious alteration of the old worldview, on a reservation. Even with no physical or external obstacles to the project, the idea is ridiculous and would never work.

    I think cultures confronting it tend to agree with me that their worldviews and ways of life are incompatible with the materialist cosmology and the changes in social structure required by industrial technology and means of production. Certainly they often seem to sense danger and retreat or lash out. Subcultures like the Amish fear it. Indeed, the introduction of missionaries and new means of production has been an eroding force every bit as powerful as smallpox or conquering armies.

    Then again, it may be worthwhile to take into account the old modernist stages of civilization when making comparisons between worldviews. It is probably pointless to wonder whether the Greeks viewed the world basically the same way we do, only without rockets and pickup trucks. It might be more accurate to say that we share essentially the same worldview as the skeptical, materialist, post-Socratic Greeks and then Romans, but that perhaps we have very little in common with the Greeks of Homer. Of course that’s not a new proposition, but it is one that has been banished from serious thought since at least the 1960s.

    It always struck me as odd, though, when reading the old cyclical, grand narrative historians, that when considering “primitive” cultures (to the extent that they were considered at all), they were always treated as if in stasis, immune to the life cycle these historians attributed to larger social organisms. What is a “decadent” hunter-gatherer society?

    Then again, even as I ask the question, I can almost hear Spengler or Toynbee answering that the reason higher civilizations have life cycles is because they are artificial constructions that, failing to evolve in time with the conditions on the ground, eventually lose their force and collapse, while savage societies, held together not through artificial constructs but primarily by kinship systems, which are natural and need no justification, and therefore are not subject to decay.

    You can stop laughing now. What can I say, I was born 100 years too late.

Leave a Reply