Open the white Dragon Home page
Close Window 


CROSSING THE BORDERLINES - Guising, Masking and Ritual Animal Disguises in the European Tradition

By Nigel Pennick, published by Capall Bann at £10.95. 248pp. ISBN: 186163-043-3

Regular readers of WD will have no doubt gathered by now that I am something of a fan of Pennick’s work (except when it comes packaged with Helen Field’s artwork, but that’s another matter) and will therefore be less than astounded to find another of his books cropping up here as well.

As ever with Pennick’s books, this one consists of a number of themed chapters in which he recounts and describes folk customs and traditions, current and past, which approximately fit into those themes. Thus there are chapters on mumming and hobby- and other ritual horses such as the Mari Lwyd; other ritual animal guises such as bears and wolves, including their use by warrior cults; traditions of ritual costumes in Europe including masking, blacking faces, cross-dressing and motley fools; natural disguises such as burrymen and straw men and bears; the use of noise and ritual disguise in communal law enforcement, such as Rebecca and her Daughters and the Skimmington; the ritual creation of sacred space by besom and flail; and the ritual significance of periods of permitted social chaos and the overturning of social structures. Although not actually connected with disguise of masking, Pennick also covers the use of the labyrinth in European custom and folklore and ritual dance such as the maypole for good measure.

Seasoned readers of Pennick’s work will find much material that he has covered elsewhere but there is also much that is new. If I have a criticism of the book, it is that while his recital of the "evidence" is wideranging, indeed encyclopaedic, it is also essentially anecdotal and he fails to analyse or discuss the material to the extent which it deserves. Thus we are left with a book full of accounts of what people do or did and much less understanding of why they do or did them and what the events meant to them or the purpose of them.

Nevertheless, for those who are not familiar with of European guising traditions, or who simply want an overview of the richness and variety of the phenomenon, this is an excellent introduction.