Many of us have felt it. In our increasingly isolating world of technology and secularized urban living, something deep within seems to yearn for the rural, the natural, even the ceremonial. Scratch beneath the surface, and something primal is aching to get out. It’s an urge with which French photographer Charles Fréger is well acquainted.
“I consider my way of taking portraits like bringing back a scalp; I go out hunting, and when I return home, I look at the trophy and see that my work is complete,” Fréger told arts blog Cargo Collective. It seems, then, that Fréger is perhaps more keen to tap into humanity’s primal past than most people.
Indeed, this vivid sense of identification with our ancestors’ myths and rituals is mainlined into his work. These images, from Fréger’s 2012 book Wilder Mann: The Image Of The Savage, document the photographer’s quest to record the ceremonial practices of rural communities across Europe. These are practices that hold strong pagan overtones and that, to some extent, survive into the present day.
The word “pagan” derives from the Latin “paganus,” a term used by the Romans to delineate rural-dwelling people. Nowadays, however, it is commonly taken to encompass a whole range of beliefs observed by our ancestors – beliefs that deify nature and its powers of growth and healing.
In Europe, these beliefs were largely pushed to the margins by the spread of Christianity. However, in parts of Eastern Europe and the Baltic states – particularly in modern-day Poland and Lithuania – pagan kingdoms survived well into the middle ages. This was, though, largely put to an end by a series of crusades led by the Order of Teutonic Knights between the 12th and 16th centuries. In fact, rulers such as Charlemagne conquered pagan lands and forced Christianity on the local populace, often killing those who refused to convert.
And so, in an official sense, paganism in Europe was defeated. However, it could be argued that vestiges of these traditional beliefs and customs were passed down to the present day. For instance, in agrarian communities, where an accordance with nature is paramount for survival, these fragments of the old ways are resolutely embedded in the soil.
These, essentially, are the fragments that Fréger set out to reconnect with when he embarked upon the Wilder Mann project. As someone who grew up in a farming community, he found that the traditions he encountered – and the beliefs underlying them – weren’t so far from his own experience after all. He told the New York Times, “I learned to be a farmer before I went to art school. I was not so different from the people I photographed.”
The catalyst for the project was a visit to an acquaintance’s show in Lyon, France. There, Fréger had his first encounter with a costumed “Wild Man.” After that, he traveled to Salzburg, Austria, where he came face-to-face with the folkloric Krampus, a hideous beast that frightens unruly children at Christmastime. Then, of course, he was hooked.
“I found myself in front of something very radical, no face… it was more of a character with a mask and a focus where the body is more important than the face itself,” Fréger told Slate. So, with the goal of photographing the ritual costumes of rural communities throughout Europe, Fréger initially planned to visit 12 nations for the project.
However, the call of the wild proved to be strong indeed, with Fréger eventually traveling to no less than 19 different countries in search of Europe’s surreal pagan traditions. And what he encountered was marked as much by its disparities as its commonalities.
In the small farming communities that he visited, Fréger found traditional rituals and festivals that were closely tied to the changing of the seasons from midwinter to the arrival of summer – marking nature’s cycle of death and regeneration. These traditions often lined up with Christian festivals, such as Christmas and Easter, but their ritualistic symbolism derived from much older belief systems.
The variety of costumes used in these ceremonies, meanwhile, was dizzying. Animal symbolism abounded, with Sardinian men dressing up as goats and boars, and Romanian men dressing up as deer. However, the most common figure seemed to be the wild man himself.
He goes by many names. In France, l’Homme Sauvage presides over the traditional festivals, while the Polish wild man is a carnivalesque figure called Macidula. Fréger’s book, however, gets its name from the German moniker for this archetype: Wilder Mann.
Dressed in lichen, animal skins or straw, and often wearing virility-signifying bells, these strange figures look like they have stepped out of a primeval dream: nightmares from the collective unconscious. In fact, it’s a combination of strangeness and familiarity that Fréger is keenly aware of, telling Interview Magazine, “It’s like they are representing everything which is from outside of reality.”
Another prominent figure in Fréger’s collection is the bear. Like paganism, they too were hunted almost to extinction by Charlemagne, who attacked their population through a series of culls. In some mythologies, the bear is the wild man’s father, and its hibernation cycle is closely aligned with the natural cycle of death and rebirth.
For Fréger, the bear is a powerful symbol of man’s innate need to cut loose from the strictures of conventional society and live out primitive, perhaps transgressive urges. He told the National Geographic, “Becoming a bear is a way to express the beast and a way to control the beast.” It’s an urge that he himself feels strongly, having confessed to the New York Times, “When I saw the costumes and spent time with these people, I realized that I have always felt like a bear.”
Meanwhile, paganism itself – or rather, a modern, reconstructed version of it – seems to be on the rise in Europe. In fact, in 2014 it was believed to be the fastest-growing religion in the United Kingdom.
Yet some commentators, such as The Spectator’s Andrew Brown, have argued that the “real” paganism, as opposed to today’s nature-worshipping hippies, is something much closer to home. “Real folk religions just seem like part of life. They aren’t about what people believe, but about what they know, and still more what they do,” contended Brown in the magazine.
For Brown, paganism is a religion of practicality, stemming from the facts of life that affect people directly. In his view, for people whose lives depend on harvesting crops it might seem perfectly rational to worship and supplicate the sun, rather than rely on the blind faith of religions such as Christianity and Islam.
Pragmatic or not, for Fréger, the fact that some small elements of these beliefs are still present in modern society is something to be celebrated. Indeed, he believes some sort of engagement with these archaic practices is still vital for us in the modern world. He told the New York Times, “For a few nights you can behave like a goat, drink a lot and forget about being civilized. You can be a wild animal for three days and then you go back to controlling your wildness.”
More recently, Fréger has been working on another collection of folkloric and ritual costume. Yokainoshima, compiled between 2013 and 2015 and published in June 2016, might be regarded as the Japanese counterpart to Wilder Mann, and documents the animalistic ritual garb of the Far Eastern nation. Through Fréger’s work, perhaps the whole world can get a little closer to our inner beast.