Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Masopust in Horice Na Sumave

Masopust (the Czech version of Carnival) is celebrated at this time of year in certain parts of Moravia and Southern Bohemia. Fortunately for me it is still going strong here in Horice Na Sumave. It happened on Saturday. Unfortunately it was the worst possible weather for it. Instead of the usual Czech winter of one day of snow followed by bright sunshine, we have had almost continuous snow for days. The roads leading to our village have become slicker and slicker and were particularly bad on Saturday – in fact I watched as the wheels on the tractor pulling the snow plough spun on the ice outside our house. What was I saying in my post of a week or so ago about how the Czechs are not as good at dealing with snow as we Brits are led to believe?

For Masopust a group of Masopusters wander from house to house and village to village. Outside each house a group of tancmeisitri (dance masters) in black suits wearing tall hats covered with tissue flowers (to symbolise Christ's wounds apparently) and carrying fake guns or pikes (often with a piece of bacon and bread on it) dance in a circle. In addition there is the Masopust character – a young man elected for the post – who wears a coat of brightly coloured rag strips and carries a flail for thrashing wheat. Then there are a number of other comic characters – one looked as though he might have been a bear. Having danced and thus blessed the house with prosperity the householder gives them shots of slivovice or some other fiercely alcoholic beverage. I gather that the occasion is also used as a means to raise money, for say the local volunteer fire brigade, and that the householder may be “arrested” until a fine is paid.

On Saturday I looked for their arrival from my window, thinking I would see the procession come along one of the two roads into the village. But I missed them, perhaps because in the terrible weather they came by car. Instead I simply heard some music and there they were dancing outside my neighbours' house (a very short dance it was too). I grabbed my camera, put on my coat and boots and went outside. They were nowhere to be seen. I walked the short distance to the cross and still there was nothing to be seen. However in the few minutes it took me to walk there, I realised why the dance had been so short – the ice was lethal and I nearly lost my footing several times and I hadn't had several shots of slivovice! I abandoned my idea of walking to Horice na Sumave to see the end of Masopust. So I am sorry, but as I do not have any photos, you will have to make do with this one from last year's photos on the town's website.

Carnival is of course linked with the Catholic Church traditions in Southern and Central Europe, but I couldn't help thinking that Masopust comes from a much older tradition, which it betrays in several ways. Firstly the festival is clearly one which brings good fortune and fertility – hence the flail, the bacon and bread and the blessing on the house. Secondly there is the role of Masopust himself. In Horice the final act of Masopust happens in the local hall of culture in the evening. Here everyone gets well and truly ratted and dance into the early hours, but not before Masopust is ceremonially executed and a mock funeral takes place. Here if ever there was one is an example of a legacy of the pagan Celtic sacrifice of a god-king to secure the fertility of the land for the next season.

Which all brings me to my final observation. One thing that strikes me strongly about Masopust is its similarities to British Morris dancing and mumming. The coat of rags is identical to those of the border morris sides as is the habit of blacking up. Of course there is also the fertility ritual element in both. I gather from a recent exhibition at The Museum of South Bohemia in Ceske Budejovice that an element of Masopust, which took place in the then German-speaking towns of this part of South Bohemia, was a form of sword dancing. The book of the exhibition suggests that this was a peasant imitation of lordly sword dances, but that may be wrong. Sword-dancing (or rather dancing with long pieces of metal) is part of the Morris tradition. These are usually eventually woven into a star or sun configuration and the dance ends with this being held aloft. However I remember very clearly in my childhood seeing another version of this in which the configuration was around one dancer's neck, the swords were then withdrawn and the dancer fell down.

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