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By the end of the twelfth century, the subdeacons’ dance had degenerated into a real festum stuttorum (fools’ feast).A report from the year I1g8 says that at the Feast of the Circumcision in Notre Dame, Paris, “so many abominations and shameful deeds” were committed that the holy place was desecrated “not only by smutty jokes, but even by the shedding of blood.” In vain did Pope Innocent III inveigh against the “jests and madness that make the clergy a mockery,” and the “shameless frenzy of their play-acting.” Two hundred and fifty years later (March 12, 1444), a letter from the Theological Faculty of Paris to all the French bishops was still fulminating against these festivals, at which “even the priests and clerics elected an archbishop OT a bishop or pope, and named him the Fools’ Pope” (fatuorum papam).These mythological features extend even to the highest regions of man’s spiritual development.If we consider, for example, the daemonic features exhibited by Yahweh in the Old Testament, we shall find in them not a few reminders of the unpredictable behaviour of the trickster, of his senseless orgies of destruction and his self· imposed sufferings, together with the same gradual development into a saviour and his simultaneous humanization.Something of this contradictoriness also inheres in the medieval description of the devil as simia dei (the ape of God), and in his characterization in folklore as the “simpleton” who is “fooled” or “cheated.” A curious combination of typical trickster motifs can be found in the alchemical figure of Mercurius; for instance, his fondness for sly jokes and malicious pranks, his powers as a shape-shifter, his dual nature, half animal, half divine, his exposure to all kinds of tortures, and—last but not least—his approximation to the figure of a saviour.These qualities make Mercurius seem like a daemonic being resurrected from primitive times, older even than the Greek Hermes.The dances were the originally harmless tripudia of the priests, lower clergy, children, and subdeacons and took place in church.An episcopus puerorum (children’s bishop) was elected on Innocents’ Day and dressed in pontifical robes.
In other places the ass was decked with a golden canopy whose corners were held “by distinguished canons”; the others present had to “don suitably festive garments, as at Christmas.” Since there were certain tendencies to bring the ass into symbolic relationship with Christ, and since, from ancient times, the god of the Jews was vulgarly conceived to be an ass-a prejudice which extended to Christ himself,7 as is shown by the mock crucifixion scratched on the wall of the Imperial Cadet School on the Palatine 8-the danger of theriomorphism lay uncomfortably close.
Even the bishops could do nothing to stamp out this custom, until finally it had to be suppressed by the “auctoritas supremi Senatus.” The suspicion of blasphemy becomes quite open in Nietzsche’s “Ass Festival,” which is a deliberately blasphemous parody of the mass.9These medieval customs demonstrate the role of the trickster to perfection, and, when they vanished from the precincts of the Church, they appeared again on the profane level of Italian theatricals, as those comic types who, often adorned with enormous ithyphallic emblems, entertained the far from prudish public with ribaldries in true Rabelaisian style.
Callot’s engravings have preserved these classical figures for posterity—the Pulcinellas, Cucorognas, Chico Sgarras, and the like.
In picaresque tales, in carnivals and revels, in magic rites of healing, in man’s religious fears and exaltations, this phantom of the trickster haunts the mythology of all ages, sometimes in quite unmistakable form, sometimes in strangely modulated guise.n He is obviously a “psychologem,” an archetypal psychic structure of extreme antiquity.
In his clearest manifestations he is a faithful reflection of an absolutely undifferentiated human consciousness, corresponding to a psyche that has hardly left the animal level.