Tuesday, October 02, 2007

On the Nature of Frodi's "Wars" in Saxo

What Kind of "War" is King Frodi Fighting?
an examination of the nature of Frodi's Men and their battles

Are Frodi's Men actual militarist armies engaged in some kind of imperialist conquest? In order to answer such questions, misconceptions that can arise from a superficial reading of Saxo's account, we need to consult scholars on Indo-European societies of dancers and mummers who organize themselves in a quasi-military fashion. We begin with Carlo Ginzburg's comparison of two such groups, the Romanian calusari and the Italian-Friulian benandanti. "...[A]mong the calusari ... a comparison with the male benandanti brings to the surface a series of partial but clear correspondences ... The society (ritual and mythical, respectively) of which they become part is in both cases an association of an initiatory kind organized in military fashion and led by a chief, replete with flags, musical instruments, vegetable weapons -- garlic and absinthe for the calusari, fennel bundles for the bendandanti. The animal disguises of the calusari (i.e., 'little horses') feature equine manes or a stick adorned with a horse's head ; long before this they were accompanied by a dancer masked as a stag or wolf. The extraordinary leaps that punctuate their dances imitate both the flight of the rusalii [fairies ; elves] and the jumping of horses ...The presence of an initiative dimension probably explains ... the behavior of groups of youth in disparate societies, who are sometimes associated in forms of ritual violence, at other times bound together in warring organizations. The oldest testimony on a ritual such as the charivari, intended to control the customs (especially sexual) of a village, identified the tumultuous squad of masked youths ... led by mythical beings like Hellequin. In the eyes of actors and spectators, the excesses of the youthful 'consortia' must have long preserved these symbolic connotations." (Carlo Ginzburg, Ecstasies : Deciphering the Witches' Sabbath, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1989, pp. 190 - 191 ; on page 196 he explains that these are "ritual battles aimed at procuring fertility".) It must be remembered that the benandanti fought ritually to secure harvests, making sure that the malefic forces either never got their hands on them, or ensuring that they took them back from them. (We will return to this "taking back" concept later when we consider jubilee.)

Gail Kligman discusses the relationship of the calusarii and Morris Men, demonstrating that both are part of a larger Indo-European context of ritual dancers and fertility rites. "Probably the most familiar sword and stick dances are the English Morris dance and the English and Irish mummers. The Morris dances take place at Whitsuntide, whereas the mummers' plays and sword dances occur throughout the Christmas and New Year season. Variants of these can be found in Spain ("Morisca"), Portugal, Italy, Majorca, and as distant as the Yugoslav islands and Bulgaria. C. Sachs claims that the English Morris and Romanian Calus share the most common elements." (Gail Kligman, Calus : Symbolic Transformation in Romanian Ritual, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1977/1981, p. 60.) "The bells worn around the waist are common to many rituals ... They are most frequently associated with the Christmas masked characters ... The crossed straps are also worn ritually ... They are similarly found in England among the Morris men." (Ibid, p. 167.) "The common feature of the Morris, mummers, Calusari, Kukeri, Zvoncari -- encompassing both winter and spring customs -- is the death-resurrection play. This is accomplished by means of ritual drama for whose enactment one or more characters are masked or transformed into transvestite figures." (Ibid, p. 61 ; note that the "Sons of Fro" are Morris-like dancers on a stage with bells and effeminate movements, that Frodi feigns his death and come out from the tomb, and that Frodi cross-dresses. All of this fits the trans-national European folk-features Kligman is pinpointing here.) "Many of the older Calusari whom we interviewed pointed out that training entailed discipline similar to that of "military instruction..."" (Ibid, p. 14 ; the dances could be strenuous and difficult. Note the "military" connotations of these ritual groups.)

Kligman identifies the Calusarii as engaged in ritual dances to ensure fertility and to ward off spirits of harm, accompanied by a fool-figure with a large wooden phallus, the dancers wearing crossed straps and bells, travelling through the village to different houses and places to perform the ritual, organized in a quasi- or pseudo- military fashion, accompanied by masks, transvestite figures, death-and-resurrection themes, and even carrying an almost Maypole-like flag.

It must be remembered that scholars have uncovered Saxo's military training as a soldier, explaining his love of military prowess. Saxo had the tendency to view myth through the eyes of a soldier. This was, of course, reinforced by the fact that much of his mythic material did in fact glorify the warrior, but it made it difficult for Saxo to interpret the Frodi material he uncovered from several different sources, making him read ritual groups that were quasi-military in organization as entirely military formations. With the picture that Kligman and Ginzburg give us, we are in a better position to reconstruct what Saxo has presented to us. Frodi's Men were ritual groups of dancers and mummers (as Saxo tells us of the "Sons of Fro" in Book Six), organized into quasi-military guilds, whose combative dances and pantomimes were intended to win back fertility and health from forces of ill. In this context, Frodi's cross-dressing and his risings from a seeming death (not to mention the ithyphallic characteristics of Freyr-Fricco as we have them from Adam of Bremen) fit into this ritual pattern. Moreover, the fact that the entire goal of Frodi's "wars" was to secure peace and prosperity, against enemies of a mythical, jotunn nature (under thinly interpolated later geographic names) would caution us against taking this material, mythic as most of Saxo's first nine books are, literally. As a significant example, to miss the carnivalesque burlesque involved when Frodi defeats the immanitate, the "frightful, huge monsters" (also identified as Hune, a Germanic word for "giants") by starving them of food is to miss Frodi's rulership over fruitfulness, fertility, and food, and the great humor of the giants' enormous appetite being starved out by a receding fertility. Such a scene is more befitting a Rabelaisian context than a martial one.

Moreover, once we have grasped the ritual and mythic nature of Frodi's Men, as well as their relation to the winning of prosperity and peace, we can situate the tales outside of Saxo's attempt to reconstruct a military history of his forefathers, and more within the kinds of models provided by Nonnos' Dionysiaca as well as Euripedes' The Bacchae, which illustrate an Indo-European parallel figure to Frodi engaged in ritual combat with tyrants and giants, through an army of mythical satyrs, nymphs, and maenads, in which the "battles" involve the triumph of vegetative forces of fertility (and this is quite explicit in Nonnos' account) over uncivilized, brigandish forces of rapine and conquest. This Osirian-Dionysian pattern is frequently acknowledged in other sources from antiquity as symbolizing the progress of the peaceful arts of agriculture.

Thus, while a superficial glance at Saxo's description of Frodi's "Wars" might give the impression of imperialist, militarist wars aimed at creating a kind of Augustine peace, a closer examination of Saxo's various sources of the tale, which bring in significant folkloric elements, amplified by the parallel material Kligman and Ginzburg give us, reveals that in fact we are dealing with the Germanic equivalent of the Dionysiaca, a ritual-mythic costumed series of battles involving the forces of vegetation over martial, tyrannical forces.

The fact that Freyr is a harvest-god ruling over peace might alert us from the get-go that his campaigns for peace might be conducted under a different archetypal light than that of Tyr's more martial approach. We are dealing with a god whose terrain is vegetation, and therefore we would be predisposed and inclined to view Saxo's presentation within a vegetative lens even preliminarily, if our minds were alert to the archetypal energies being invoked ; this preliminary predisposition is confirmed when we consider the evidence more closely. Frodi's Wars against the Giants might be visualized as ritual charivaris, loud, masked Halloween brigades roaming about to chase off the spirits of ill that the land might be cleansed for fertility. Since this activity in the mythic time led to a literally Golden Age, it could be viewed as a kind of insurrectional prototype that could be invoked during times of distress ; indeed, historians have noted that carnival, festival, and Saturnalia can actually at times inspire literal revolts. It is not beyond conception that these mythic-ritual tales may already have inspired militant insurrection by Saxo's time, and thus may have been remembered in the light of those struggles. On that insurrectional level, our Golden Age Frodi may be compared to a kind of messianic king whose brilliant military strategy brings the tyrants under his control and allows him to establish a universal peace. But underneath this we should not forget that Frodi is all along establishing festival customs, which Saxo interprets as the literal laws of a literal king, rather than as the King of Carnival's Customs, a lens which better captures the richness of the material. Like the Calusari or Benandanti, carnival is often characterized by roaming bands or troops of youth, bound by the laws of festival. Festivals invoke a mythic time when festival laws were general laws, and with our material, this is the great time of Frodi's Frith. During this mythic time, as during festival time, doors are to be kept unlocked, guests are to be invited in, borrowing and sharing is to be encouraged, meals are to be shared, love is to be encouraged, but this more expansive hospitality and mirth is only guaranteed through the suppression of the forces of brigandage, rapine, violation, and tyranny. Moreover, those who (either ritually or literally) have helped secure this state of festivity, through their hard shamanic discipline, should be more amply rewarded by the people as "soldiers" of Frodi's "army" ; on an everyday festival level, this guarantees the rewarding of the travelling mumming troops as they come to households for hospitality, meal, and mead. During festival time, as during the Saturnalia, class hierarchies are overturned ; Saxo says that for those who participated in Frodi's struggles, "a slave became a freedmen, a peasant a nobleman."

We are dealing, therefore, with carnivalesque, ritually shamanic "armies" fighting with mirth and mask against forces of ill, invoking at festival times the Golden Age of peace, class mobility and levelization, free hospitality, and even a kind of clan-communism of the sharing of goods.


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