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New York Folklore Vol. 11. Nos. 1-4, 1985
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NY Folklore, Vol. 11


Vol. 11, Nos. 1-4, 1985
40th Anniversary Issue

by Venetia Newall

It is difficult to generalize about masks: their function varies so much from one culture to another. They can be worn for purposes of healing, worship, authority, disguise and pure recreation (M. Leach 1950:II, 684). In non-European cultures the intention has often been religious, which is why the missionaries destroyed them with such zeal (Newall1977). In Europe they no longer have the same function, and are simply used as a method of disguise.

Andreas Lommel, in his full-length study of the subject (1972), convincingly states his belief that the animal mask is the oldest form. Dressing to represent an animal was an ancient tradition condemned as pagan by various early Christian writers. In Britain it has been recorded since the 14th century, when a man carried a frame, constructed in tourney style, representing the horse and rider in a pageant. Christopher Cawte, the leading authority on ritual animal disguise, says various references to these hobby horses are preserved in early court, church and city records (1978:208). The tourney horse seems to have been a form of entertainment popular in the late 14th century, which was adapted for civic pageants in the 16th. Some churches in the Middle Ages used them to collect money for buying candles before the Reformation and subsequently for church repairs.

Cawte observes that animal disguise occurs in small, well-defined areas (1978:222). The Hooden Horse of Kent, for example, is found in a crescent-shaped distribution pattern along the northern and eastern coasts of Kent and south through Canterbury. The villages associated with the custom are all located near the coast or the River Stour (Cawte 1978:90). He sees a link between this distribution and the type of soil, but is unable to suggest why the custom did not spread further afield. Numerous settlers landed in Sandwich Bay during the first millenium, so distribution of the custom could conceivably be linked to a particular group of immigrants. Thirty-three examples are recorded in the county (p. 87)....

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