The ancient North had its mysteries, like the more famous mysteries in the Middle East. Farwerck has collected many details based on which he sketches the possible rites. An element of the “Männerbünde” is the dressing in animal skin. Names such as Berserkr (‘bear skin wearers’) and Ulfhednar (‘wolf skin wearers’) say as much. Or what about deer skin? There is a famous drawing from the 1920’ies by Henri Breuil. A sketch he made of a rock carving from 13.000 BCE that he found in Arièges, France. The drawing is not undisputed. Some people say that the antlers sprang from the man’s imagination. Did the toes and fingers too? The image is called “the sorcerer” by some, which suggests that this is actually a man in disguise. Farwerck was of the same opinion and used this drawing as proof of early animal skin wearing. (Other investigators see the image as an animal spirit by the way).
From the North we don’t hear about groups dressing up in deer skin. There are quite a few rock carvings from Sweden that show or suggest that they portray people in the skins of other animals, but the deer skin example is interesting, because from later sources we know that this actually did happen in Northern Europe too.
As you probably know there have been many edicts from the Church to forbid heathen practices. Apparently the Christians still hadn’t rooted them out. We know of such edicts from Caesarius of Arles (470-542) who, in one of his 250 sermons, for example forbids women to invoke Jupiter while weaving. The late 8th century Old Saxon Baptismal vow lets people swear to denounce “thunaer ende uoden ende saxnote” (Thor, Wodan and Saxnot). Another Dutch text from the eight century is longer and more specific. It for example speaks about meals for the dead, “banquets in February”, offerings to Mercury and Jove, incantations, a “heathen run” (running event “with rags and shoes”), the carrying of statues through the fields and wooden hands and feet ‘to the heathen rite’.
Burckhard of Worms (950-1025) found it necessary to forbid women to make the table with three knives for “the three sisters”.
To come back to the deer hides. On page 95 of his book ‘Noord-Europese Mysteriën In De Oudheid’ (1953) (‘Northern European Mysteries in Antiquity’) Farwerck quotes a sixth century edict of “the Anglo Saxon church”. I have not been able to find the text, Farwerck is not always too informative about his sources.
If anybody during the calends of January cloths himself in deer or calf skin, i.e. dress up like a wild animal and disguises himself with skins of animals and puts on animals’ heads, who turns himself into an animal, he shall do penance for three days because this is demonic.
A few pages ahead in the same book (p. 97) Farwerck mentions a secular prohibition in Nürnberg, Germany, from the 15th century against the dressing up as deer.
As late as 1726 there was an annual procession from the Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London in which people put antlers on their heads and in which antlers were carried around on sticks.
1726? London? We’re already well within the period and region of early Freemasonry. If indeed such things are elements from men-bonds that survived in folklore, or perhaps also guilds, do we have a trace between Freemasonry and Northern European mysteries?
Things get even more tantalising when we also look at elements that apparently survived in guilds.
Chaumont in France has a John the Baptist Basilica, but as early as the 16th/17th century there were some sort of mystery plays in the town that took place “every five or six years” (Farwerck) in which John the Baptist was accompanied by “devils”. Interesting about these “devils” is that they have many elements of men- or youth-bonds that can be found all over the world and which appear to have retained elements of mystery bonds. They go around at night with a lot of noise, have the right to steal, sometimes to reprimand. In our example they were dressed up (of course otherwise they wouldn’t look like “devils”). Farwerck doesn’t mention antlers, but masks (masks or black faces is another such elements of these sorts of groups). John the Baptist…
Animal disguises sometimes include tails. Bronze age Swedish rock carvings sometimes portray people with what looks like a tail. The butchers’ guild in Zürich, Germany, used to use a cow’s tail when an apprentice became a fellow. When the physical tale was no longer used, the fellows kept the name of “cow tails”. (Farwerck ‘Noord-Europa, een der bronnen van de Maçonnieke Symboliek’ (1955 ‘Northern Europe, one of the sources of Masonic Symbolism’) p. 31)
The cow tale could also be found among the coopers. As late as 1761 the Braunschweig (Germany) police demanded that the coopers explain their wearing of cow tales (op cit. p. 31). What is also interesting is that these coopers were also known as “Ziegenschurz”, ‘goat skin apron’, after the apron that they wore. Again, in 1761 we are well within ‘Masonic times’, especially in Germany were Steinmetzen en Bauhütten had existed since the 13th century.
So besides the strange ways of dressing, what else would have survived until these days and could this possibly have influenced the forming of Freemasonry? Did Freemasonry ‘just’ come from stone mason guilds, or did it take inspiration from other guilds (too)? If the first is the case, we may need to see what sort of line can be found to those guilds until the time of early Freemasonry.