wired.com Liz Stinson Design 08.27.13
The Bizarre, Eye-Popping Costumes of Europe’s Wild Men
Schnappviecher, Tramin, Italy. This costume, which Fréger says is around 40 pounds, is meant to be as scary as it looks. It's the job of the butchers and drivers of the village to protect the public from the beasts. Photo: Charles Fréger
Strohbär, Germany. The Straw Bear costume is inspired by Germany's rural past. Photo: Charles Fréger
Babugeri and Chaushi, Bulgaria. The bizarre-looking costumes are made from goat skin. Traditionally, they carried a red-painted rod on their belt to represent a phallic object and would brush up against women to make them fertile. Now they just carry a stick. Photo: Charles Fréger
Zezengorri, Basque Country, Spain. The Zezengorri is the guardian of caves and chasms who comes out every second weekend of February for the region's carnival. Photo: Charles Fréger
BurryMan, Scotland. Because the BurryMan's costume is extremely limiting in its movements, two undisguised aids must guide him throughout the streets as he goes door to door frightening away evil spirits. If you give him whiskey and money, it will bring you good luck. Photo: Charles Fréger
Macinula, Poland. In Poland, these rag-covered creatures are meant to play the role of the village clown. Photo: Charles Fréger
Wilder, Austria. The Wild Man costume is made of a hood, jacket and trousers. Men also wear a wooden mask and lean on a big stick. Photo: Charles Fréger
Boes, Sardinia, Italy. This animal-like creature promotes fertility in the land, cattle and women. Photo: Charles Fréger
MeChkari, Poland. The costume is made from the skins of goats and sheep slaughtered during the year and worn by butchers during the three days of carnival at the beginning of Lent. Photo: Charles Fréger
Every winter, something strange happens in the snowy mountain communities across Europe. Between December and Easter, tiny villages spanning all the way from Romania to Portugal become overrun with humans who shed their human form completely. Dressed like bears, goats, stags and monsters, the people of the village jump, shout and reenact wild hunts as part of the annual festivals that celebrate the winter solstice and beginning of spring.
Over the course of two winters, France-based photographer Charles Fréger visited 19 countries and more than 50 villages to document these strangely dressed animals. His resulting book, Wilder Mann, is an in-depth look at the rituals and costumes worn during these annual festivals.
The Wild Man is represented differently in almost every country.
Watching humans undergo the transformation from person to bizarre beast is an interesting sight, but it’s even more fascinating once you realize how intricately gorgeous each of the costumes are. Most of the get-ups look menacing, with their sharp teeth, wild fur and weapon-like accessories, but the festivals are actually a way for humans to usher in spring and celebrate life. “The animals bring fertility—freshness,” Fréger explains. “They shake death away.” In many of Fréger’s photographs, you’ll see people dressed as bears, which he explains was believed to be the pagan god before Christianity came into the picture. But the Wild Man, and its various names, is represented differently in almost every country he visited.
In Germany, the Reisigbar is a bear dressed in twigs and a wooden mask. In Poland, the Macinula is a clown-like figure covered in strips of multi-colored rags and paper. And in Spain’s Basque Country, people dress as the Zezengorri, a bare-skulled beast who carries around a pitchfork. In Bulgaria, professionals have cornered the market on crafting the masks made of skin and horns, and depending on what country you’re in, the traditional bells that are worn around the waist can cost anywhere from 50 to 500 euros.
Though the costumes Fréger photographs are oftentimes beautifully complex, he says most people’s outfits are quite simple and are made just days before the celebration. “It’s a farming tradition, so they build it with anything they can find,” he says.
The festivals and costumes are surprisingly similar in Japan.
Fréger organizes his visits months in advance in order to find translators and ensure he has photography subjects lined up. He typically spends just one day shooting his subjects, preferably before or after the actual festivities so he can control the landscape (he likes shooting in the snow) and frame the shot just right. Fréger says the photos are far from journalism—”they’re much more anthropologic,” he says—but they certainly highlight a tradition not often seen by people outside the rural carnival culture.
Fréger has since moved on to photographing the Wild Man in Japan, where he says the festivals and costumes are surprisingly similar to what you’d find in Europe. “This project was to show that Europe is also very tribal,” he says. “These rituals are really connected to the same type of traditions in Africa and Asia or anywhere in the world. It’s just to say we didn’t really lose our pagan rituals and we have this in common with a lot of civilizations.”