Masks and Mummers in the Nordic Countries.

A Synchronic, Diachronic and Comparative Investigation in Folklore and Related Disciplines


Terry Gunnell




I: The Project:


The final aim of this project is to produce a book (and related data-base) containing the first overall survey of Scandinavian disguise, or mumming, traditions that has ever been carried out. We believe that this work will provide a necessary theoretical and practical basis for all future research into this much neglected field, not only in Scandinavia, but also the rest of the world. Simultaneously, the work will almost certainly prove to be of great value to theorists, practitioners and historians of drama who in recent years have been investigating the roots of drama as a psychological, social and anthropological phenomenon. We believe that this study will demonstrate for once and for all exactly how wide-ranging and socially important the dramatic impulse is, and has always been for the people of the Scandinavian countries, and underline the fact that when we are looking for the origins of drama in Scandinavia, and indeed northern Europe as a whole, we should not always look outside our own national boundaries.


II: Definitions:


1.       When referring to drama, it should be stressed that we are not using the commonly misunderstood idea of a play performed in costume on a stage (an idea that tends to come from literary scholars), but the idea of drama understood by performers, directors, folklorists and anthropologists of a performer being “engaged in the momentary creation of an alternative world (or a section of it) within this one, to the extent that what he/she is acting is not him-/herself but someone or something else that ‘belongs’ to a different time and/or place. This ‘illusion’ of double reality creates its own costume and setting in the minds of both the performer and beholder. It is in these features, the imposition of ‘make-believe’, the creation of the living double reality, and in the ‘act’ itself that the essence of drama is to be found” (Gunnell 1995, 12).


2.       By disguising, or “mumming[1] traditions, also often referred to as “house visiting traditions”, we mean the range of seasonal traditions that have taken place all over Scandinavia over many centuries, whereby people disguise themselves in one way or another, and visit homes (or other places where people are gathered), singly or in groups. They often disguise their voices, as well as their appearances, and request entrance, whereupon they proceed to behave in a particular way (sing, dance, perform a small play), and then often receive some form of gift before departing (often in a formally decided fashion). In Scandinavia, we are therefore referring to traditions like those related to the julebukk/ julegeit, Lucia, Lusse, Knut or Nuutti, stjärnespel, and Staffan at Christmas, and at other times, figures like those related to St Martin’s and St Catherine's Mass (Estonia), Lent (Fastlavn, Shrove Tuesday, and Ash Wednesday), Easter (the Swedish Easter witch tradition), Valborgsspringandet (from Western Finland for instance), and more recently Halloween (which is spreading fast all over Scandinavia). Closely related to these are the mock-wedding traditions (many of which are now dying out), such as the Maj- or Pingstbrud and those related to the jonsokbryllup in western Norway, and the earlier Maigreve and gadebasse traditions of Denmark and southern Sweden, as well as the now extinct Icelandic vikivaki dance games). Less well-known or investigated, but of equal importance for an overall study of this subject are the disguised bear dance ceremonies of the Finno-Ugrian peoples (which have very ancient roots), and the much more recent traditions related to initiation and graduation from schools in Scandinavia. (In Reykjavík, Iceland, students planning to graduate in the coming exams disguise themselves and visit classes - and shops - as well as putting on a performance for the whole school. The parallels to the Christmas mumming traditions are clear, yet intriguing because they appear to be wholly coincidental.)

 The relationship to the dramatic phenomenon is not only seen in the element of costume and performance, but also the creation of an acting space, and the temporary introduction into the room of a certain atmosphere of “play” (in the Huizinga sense) or “sacred time” (in the Eliade sense), whereby the visitors are treated with a certain “respect” and daily rules are altered. Close parallels can be seen here to van Gennep’s ideas of temporary dynamism granted to figures in the transitional, liminal state associated with human or seasonal rites of passage.

The traditions in question are essentially social, rather than individual, and are closely related to particular social festivals, and times of festivity. For this reason, many of them tend to have longevity, especially when related to the earlier farming society. They should not easily be dismissed lightly as fashionable “fads” easily adopted from abroad. At the same time, however, people move, times change, and new models of behaviour arise. New performers add new emphases. It can never be taken for granted that all traditions have deep roots in the past. In short, all of the various factors need consideration, ranging from historical records, to statistics, human records, international distribution, outside influences, and examination of social circumstances, and resources. Such an overall study has never yet been carried out into these traditions.



III: Scholarship in the Past


As has been stated above, there has never yet been any form of overall study of Scandinavian disguise traditions, something that has helped foster the idea (especially among English-speaking academics) that ‘drama’ and dramatic traditions must have been imported to Scandinavia from Germany, France or England, through the church, foreign traders, and the Latin schools. While this certainly applies to some traditions, there are obvious weaknesses in this Darwinistic approach, which is indirectly based on the inherently mistaken idea that culture follows the development of historical written records; the idea that since there are more, or earlier records of a tradition in one country, then the tradition in question must have begun there.

This is an idea reflected in most of the early investigations of Scandinavian disguise traditions around the turn of the last century, which tend to follow on from the ideas of the Grimm brothers, Mannhardt and Frazer, all of whom were essentially interested in finding ancient Germanic (or Classical) roots to present day traditions, thereby aiming to reconstruct ancient religious rituals related to the fertility of the soil. The same ideas, of course are seen in the work of the Cambridge anthropologists like Jane Harrison, Gilbert Murray, and Francis Cornford who were examining the origins of Greek drama. Influences from these quarters are clearly apparent in the discussions of costumed traditions carried out by scholars in the first two decades of the twentieth century, like Nilsson, Celander, Troels-Lund and H.F. Feilberg who (at least initially) dealt with local dramatic customs as part of wider ranging studies of Christmas traditions in Sweden and Denmark, and then Magnus Olsen, Henrik Schück, Axel Olrik and Bertha Phillpotts who took these traditions up as part of their investigations into the background of Old Nordic religion and literature. All of the above are primarily concerned with examining roots, and linking most traditions to ancient rituals. An exception is the slightly more objective publication of Swedish primary material concerning Christmas traditions by Nils Keyland in Julbröd, julbockar och Staffanssäng in 1919.

          In the following years, following these impulses, there was a great increase in the collection of material concerning native costumed traditions, and related to this a growth in the output of individual studies. Some followed on from the ideas of the scholars mentioned above, while others increasingly adopted the more purely functional ideas of von Sydow. Key studies from this period are the early studies carried out by Nils Lid (Jolesveinar og vegetasjonsguddom and Jolesveinar og grøderiksdomsguder), and then Hilding Celander’s Stjärnegossar, deres visor och julspel and Lily Weiser-Aall’s Julenissen och julegeita i Norge, both published in the nineteen fifties. Each of these works, while strongly influenced by the theoretical fashions surrounding their origin, contains a wealth of material that had previously never seen the light of day.

The problem was that owing to the earlier associations with the outmoded myth/ritual theories of Mannhardt, Frazer and the Cambridge Anthropologists (and of course the uncomfortable suggestions of pan- Germanic traditions) that seemed to permeate studies of Scandinavian disguise traditions, the question of examining this subject seems to have fallen out of favour since the war. While a number of key works on folk drama in England, Ireland and Newfoundland have been published (by Helm, Brody, Alford, Cawte, Gailey, Halpert and Story), the Scandinavian output has been limited to a few often very valuable studies of individual traditions in the various different countries of Scandinavia (most of which have taken the form of journal articles).

One can mention here in particular Carsten Bregenhöj’s Helligtrekongerløb på Agersø (1974), which raised the study of Scandinavian disguised traditions to a new plane by placing them in an essentially social context, concentrating on their nature and function, while retaining awareness of the age of their origins, and their relationship to other similar traditions throughout Scandinavia. Carsten has since gone on to carefully document on film and via interview a range of other related traditions all over Scandinavia, and with work experience in both Denmark and Finland, and contacts in Norway, Sweden and Estonia, probably has the greatest knowledge of the nature of living Scandinavian traditions.

Two other important studies involving careful examinations of all available archive material from the viewpoints of origin, function and social importance are Christine Eike’s “Oskoreia og ekstaseriter” (1980), which examines the possible relationship between the oskoeria (wild ride) traditions in Norway, and those related to Staffan and the julebukke, and their possible associations with an early system of unofficial social punishment and reward by local male groups; and John Granlund’s extensive article on “Pingstbrud och lekröllop i Sverige” (1970). Recently other small studies have been carried out into Halloween traditions in various countries, and school leaving traditions (see for example Wyller, Lilja, and Saarikoski), but no overall, up-to-date study of Scandinavian traditions has ever been carried out. The scholars involved in these works have never met to discuss their ideas. A mountain of archive material is lying untouched in all the various countries, and other new traditions are going undocumented and unanalysed.


IV: The Development of the Present Project


The idea for the present project has its roots in Terry Gunnell’s doctoral thesis, published in 1995 as The Origins of Drama in Scandinavia. This work centred around a reevaluation of the ideas of Bertha Phillpotts and others about the question of whether any form of drama existed in Scandinavia prior to the advent of medieval liturgical drama, and whether such traditions might help to explain the obviously dramatic nature of some of the Eddic poems (proved by marginal markings in the manuscripts, and their demands they make on any oral performer). As part of its investigation, the book involved a detailed and objective overview of all the material available on disguise traditions in Scandinavia, emphasis being placed on the traditions of the julebukk, Halm-Staffan, Lusse, and the jonsokbryllup, all of which are seen as being (in essense) old and deeply rooted in Scandinavian tradition, not least because they are also found in the north Atlantic Islands, in records in some cases going back as far as the thirteenth century (related to the Icelandic, Færoese and Shetland Grýla tradition). The book thus contained the first ever general overview in English of Scandinavian costumed traditions from Reykjavík to Estonia, with a detailed accompanying bibliography, and has received a great deal of positive attention.

          The main points of The Origins of Drama in Scandinavia, however, was not to give a complete review of the traditions, but rather provide a background for the discussion of the Eddic poems. It was obvious from the work on the book that there was a great deal left to do, and exactly how much was lacking. What was needed first of all was some pulling together of resources, and meetings of the experts in the subject. Therefore, when Terry Gunnell took over from Prof. Jón Hnefill Aðalsteinsson as head of Folkloristics in Iceland, he contacted Carsten Bregenhöj (now archivist of the East Bothian Archive in Vaasa), and raised the question of cooperation on towards the assembly of a joint project whereby all the available material on Scandinavian disguise traditions would be assembled in one place, and a book published on the results. An application was made for a NOS-H Grant for Preparatory Work for a Project in February 1999. The grant was then awarded in June 1999. The first meeting took place in Helsinki and Tartu, Estonia in November 1999. A further meeting will take place in March 2000, and Terry Gunnell will be visiting the Shetland Islands to meet archivists there and carry out related research in June 2000.

          Alongside the preparatory meetings held in Helsinki between Terry and Carsten, other meetings took place with the Professors Satu Apo and Lauri Harvilahti in Folkloristics at the University of Helsinki, with Urpo Vento of the Finnish Literature Society (who expressed great interest in representing the Finnish side of the project), with Professor Annikki Kaivola-Bregenhöj of the University of Turku, and with researcher Susanne Österlund and archivists Anne Bergman and Carola Ekrem of the Swedish Literature Society. Terry and Carsten then travelled to Tartu where contacts were made with Prof. Mare Koiva (and later researcher Ülo Tedre in Tallinn) both from the Estonian Literature Society, alongside practical fieldwork, which demonstrated effectively that everybody was thinking along the same lines. Other meetings also took place during the summer and autumn of 1999. Terry discussed the project with Prof. Reimund Kvideland in Bergen (currently working on the julebukke songs); with Prof. Seamus O’Cathain in Dublin (presently working on the Irish Strawboy traditions), and Bengt af Klintberg from Stockholm, who has a wealth of material on Swedish traditions that he is ready to make available to us for our project. Carsten spoke with Ulrika Wolf-Knuts, Professor of Folkloristics at Åbo Akamedi, and Curator Inge Adriansen, Epiphany mumming specialist at the Museum of Sönderborg Castle. All of the above showed particular interest in the project, stressing its use and importance, as well as expressing willingness to help as well as take part in any eventual conference.

          Contacts were then made with all the other potential members of the project, and at Christmas, Carsten assembled a new questionairre on present day traditions which has already been sent out to a number of newspapers in Norway and Sweden (see Appendix A). Our plan is that the same questionairre will be sent out by the national folkloristic archives of all of the involved countries (including Estonia, the Faroes and Shetland), thus allowing direct comparison, and a data-base compilation of material from all over Scandinavia (available to all on the internet) and the creation of valid distribution maps. The Icelandic Ethnological Archive, and the Norsk Etnologisk Gransking (NEG) have already agreed to carry this out. Discussions are taking place with the other archives.

          One of the most exciting (and innovative) aspects of this project is related to the numerous different viewpoints that the various participants will be bringing to bear on the material. All have been involved with folk traditions, but each will have a different national experience that they have personal association with, and different backgrounds of study. To give particular examples, Carsten Bregenhöj studied in Denmark, and has concentrated on the social functions and behaviour in these traditions; Terry Gunnell initially studied Drama and Theatre Arts (and later Icelandic Studies), and is particularly interested in the element of the oral performance itself (and the roles of performer and audience); Christine Eike studied in Vienna, and with Lily Weiser-Aall, and has a background in the Austrian theoretical approach; Susanne Österlund has recently been carrying out research into English mumming, and has experience of recent approaches there; and Hanne Pico Larsen will be working directly with the people who introduced the sociological approach to mumming activities in St. John’s, Newfoundland.

          In short, the contacts have now been made from Estonia to Copenhagen to Reykjavík, and the interest is clearly there. The next step is to actually bring the project to fruition.


V: The Units of the Project


It is evident that the first thing that needs to be done is create a coordinated and standardised factual survey of the history, nature and distribution of the various disguise traditions in each of the Scandinavian countries (and Estonia), past and present, including lists of the names used in each area, the various datings when the traditions take place, complete bibliographies of all relevant available material (written and on film) and details concerning costumes and masks in museums etc. Standardised, up to date questionairres concerning present day traditions will also be sent out in all of the countries involved, enabling us to put together standardised distribution maps, and compile an accessible database of material which can be put on the web.

          At the same time, it is necessary, and useful for students and scholars of folkloristics and other disciplines to see examples of how such traditions can be analysed on the basis of modern theoretical approaches (many of which have never been applied to this material previously). One can mention not only the social and functional approach demonstrated by Carsten’s book mentioned above and that of Halpert and Story’s Christmas Mumming in Newfoundland, but also the ideas of Richard Schechner on space and performer in ritual and performance (e.g. Performance Theory 1977), Eugenio Barba on the semiotics of performance (e.g. The Secret Art of the Performer, 1991), Victor Turner’s anthropological approach (e.g. From Ritual to Theatre, 1982), and of course Mikhail Bakhtin’s ideas concerning the Carnival spirit (Rabelais and his World, 1984).

          The project has been set up in such a way that each country has a key representative who has previously been involved in research into costumed traditions. Unless otherwise stated, these scholars, most of whom are working with folkloristic institutions at the present time, will arrange, and oversee the work of compiling material for the national surveys (which will be carried out by research students interested in the field who are either engaged in MA studies, or have completed them). As the application shows, we have applied for work grants for each of these research students, Hanne Pico Larsen (3 months), Ane Ohrvik (6 months), Eva Knuts (6 months), Susanne Österlund (6 months) and Maris Müürsep (12 months) to enable them to spend time working solely on compiling the survey (or, as in the case of Ane Ohrvik from Norway, to work on a particular project relating to the "stjernegutt" tradition in Grimstad). In addition to overseeing this work, the main representatives will be working on individual projects related to particular traditions. Terry Gunnell will be working on the Icelandic disguise traditions concerning initiation and graduation from the menntaskólar (gymnas) - as well as compiling a survey of North Atlantic traditions; Carsten Bregenhöj will approach the questions of host-group repartee in the masking tradition on Agersö, Denmark, the changing elements in the Ostrobothnian Christmas mumming, and the links between early mumming and Old Norse rulings on brewing; Christine Eike (in addition to working on an Norwegian overall survey) will examine Norwegian "russe" traditions as modern forms of rites of passage; Lise Høyrup (the Danish representative, working with Carsten, for who we have applied for a three month grant to concentrate on the project) will be doing a modern analysis of Danish Fastlavn traditions; and Fredrik Skott (while overseeing the review of Sweden traditions) will be dealing with the relatively untouched area of the Swedish "Easter witches" (påskkäringen/ påskgubben); Urpo Vento and Ülo Tedre, both highly respected experts in the fields of Finnish and Estonian mumming will continue their work on both general surveys as well as collecting new information on present day traditions. (With regard to the work Ülo Tedre, for which we are applying for a special grant, it cannot be stressed enough that in the cultural maelstrom of the last 1000 years, Estonia has been under more conflicting influences than any of its Scandinavian neighbours. The many layers that can be detected in modern Estonian popular rituals may well reflect this. It is therefore a both new and challenging endeavour for us to go out of our way to include an Estonian collegue and his assistant into this project.) Finally, the postgraduate student Susanne Österlund, in addition to working with Carsten Bregenhöj and Urpo Vento on the surveys of Swedish-Finnish traditions will also be working in her own time on a private project to do with traditional mumming in modern day Åland. 

It  should also be noted that Kristín Einarsdóttir, a mature prospective MA student in Folkloristics at the University of Iceland aims to be working on her MA thesis dealing with the Icelandic Ash Wednesday disguise tradition under the supervision of Terry Gunnell during 2001 and 2002. We have not classed Kristín as a full time member of the project, and not applied for general financing for her because she will hopefully be financed by the Icelandic state, and because she will not be working with the overall North Atlantic survey. However, she will be kept informed of goes on at the meetings, will have contact with the various members, and we would very much like her to present a paper on her findings at the final seminar. We have therefore applied for a travel grant to Turku for her along with the other guest speakers.


VI: The Plan


The plan is to hold three meetings (each of which will be assocaited with field work of some kind) and then a conference in Finland in 2002.

The first meeting (just the main representatives from each country, although it is evident that Ülo Tedre will also need an interpreter) will take place in Agersö, Denmark between 5th and 7th January 2001 (at the time of the Helligtrekongerløb).

The second (for all representatives) will take place in Lofthus, Hardanger, in Norway between 23nd and 25th June 2001 (the time of the jonsokbryllup there).

Both of these meetings will primarily involve reports on the work being carried out, and discussion of standardisation of results, map construction and so on.

The third meeting (for all project participants) will then take place on Åland, in January 2001 at the time of the tjugondag traditions that take place there. This meeting will be primarily directed towards preparation of the conference.

The final confererence/ seminar where results will be announced and discussed, along with the reading of various papers by partipants will then take place in Åbo/Turku, Finland in August 2002. As will be seen in the budget, we have also applied for travel grants for Reimund Kvideland (Norway), Bengt af Klintberg (Sweden), Agnete Lilja (Sweden), Seamus O’Cathain, Mare Koiva (Estonia) and one folklorist from Newfoundland (hopefully one of the authors of the ground-breaking Christmas Mumming in Newfoundland: for present professors Gerald Thomas, Paul Smith or Martin Lovelace) who will be able to inform us about traditions in northern Canada (especially valid as comparative material to that found in Iceland, which must also have been taken across the sea). It is obvious that these respected scholars (who unfortunately cannot take part in the project itself for one reason or another) will add valuable extra dimensions to the conference, and bring a wealth of additional knowledge and experience to bear on the subject. As has been mentioned above, a further travel grant has been applied for (for the final meeting) for an Icelandic MA student, Kristín Einarsdóttir, who will hopefully be writing an MA thesis at the University of Iceland on Icelandic “Ash Wednesday” mumming traditions under Terry Gunnell’s supervision during the period in question.

The material from the conference will then be assembled for a book edited by Terry Gunnell and introduced by Carsten Bregenhöj, containing national surveys, particular articles, maps, tables and photographs, which we aim to have completed and ready for publication by the summer of 2003.




VII: The Value of the Project


As we have stressed, no overall Scandinavian survey has ever been made of all the existing material available on disguise traditions, and no overall investigation has been carried out into the international distribution of these traditions across Scandinavia, their historical and cultural backgrounds, their social value or their comparative characteristics.[2] No scientific survey of this kind has ever been carried out anywhere in the world to date. Furthermore, the lack of a comprehensive study of Scandinavian traditions has led many European scholars to the false conclusion that the carnivals and

masquerades of the Catholic countries must be the point of departure for all traditional mumming. It is clear that the material assembled here will be a highly important contibution to not only folkloristic and anthropological studies, but also studies of culture and especially drama (where early natural ritualistic and folkloristic elements have been starting to form a central feature of many recent dramatic works, like for example Vincent Woods’ At the Black Pig’s Dyke (Straw Boys) and Tom Murphy’s Bailegangaire (oral storyteller) in Ireland, Sveinn Einarsson’s Bandamannasaga and Amlóða saga (vikivaki games) in Iceland and Peter Brook’s Mahabharata (ancient Indian oral literature) in France.

          As pointed out at the start, we believe that the results of our work (if we are permitted to carry it out) will not only awaken interest in the subject, and demonstrate how deeply rooted these traditions are in Scandinavian culture, but also form a necessary basis for any future study of the subject. Without question it will set the direction for scholars to come. 



 Ath.:  Þéttleika punkta, mál (12) og leturgerð (2) þarf að breyta handvirkt.







About the Project 





last updated: 8 February 2003


[1] The use of the word “mumming” in this wider sense stems from its use for disguised house-visiting in the key work edited by Halpert and Story, Christmas mumming in Newfoundland (1969). We are not suggesting any direct link to the English “mummers”.

[2] Apart from a few exhibition catalogues (notably Samuël Glotz (Ed.): Le masque dans la tradition européenne. Musée international de Carnaval et du Masque. Binche, 1975) and a popular-scientific anthology (d'Ayala, P.G. and Boiteux, M. (Ed.s): Carnavala et mascarades, Bordas, Paris, 1988. dismissing the Nordic countries on two pages)]