Shaman and mummers

Let me be clear up front – this is not a scholarly blog post, the evidence is curious but uncertain, and does not constitute any kind of reference, or proof in and of itself.

Mumming plays are a kind of traditional theatre. Some people consider them to be ancient Pagan survivals, others reckon them to be a more recent invention and until now, I feel wholeheartedly into the second category.

There is a scene that crops up in many plays I’ve seen, where a dodgy doctor and his assistant cure a dead man. It is normal in mumming plays for someone to be killed and brought back, this is often the basis of arguments for Pagan survival. The doctor affecting the cure seems to be a quack. He usually talks utter bollocks and his cures are unlikely. He may have a magic potion, he may require a virgin to kiss the afflicted person. I was once summoned from an audience to be the virgin, and my cries of ‘but I’m actually pregnant right now’ made no odds. Often, when the healing is working, the doctor pulls a bloody great tooth out of the patient and claims this was their problem. We all know he had the tooth all along, and we all saw the victim struck down by their opponent. Clearly the doctor is not to be trusted even if his cure does always work.

I’ve run into the idea that some shamans use sleight of hand to show clients a physical object that has been taken from their body during the spiritual healing process. It could be said that this is chicanery in the style of our mumming doctor. It can also be said that people find it easier to invest in the healing process when they can see something happening, and our minds are key healing tools. The placebo effect gets things done! We are more likely to heal if we believe in the healing.

So, could the doctor in the mumming play hold some memory of this process? Could there be a touch of ancient British shamanism in the mix after all? Or a satirising of a remembered practice that had lost favour? Which is still when you get down to it, a folk memory of something Pagan.

An unsubstantiated theory, but one I thought it worth sharing all the same.


About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, wife to the most amazing artist -Tom Brown. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

7 responses to “Shaman and mummers

  • Robin

    It would to my mind make sense if some of that old paganism had survived in a muddled way since before monotheism and for most of human history we have only had paganism, surely it would linger on and take on different outward guises? monotheism just built over very old foundations where a mad doctor lived with his retinue of weirdness

  • Robin Wildheart/WildheartSpeaks

    I think your dead on. Everything has some inspirations​ and I’m sure that mummers are no exception. I would not be at all surprised to learn that these plays are some muddled survival from ancient British shamanic practices. Great post. Thoroughly enjoyed it.

  • Scott Tizzard

    In Newfoundland Canada, Mummering is alive and well. I think it originated in medieval times as a form of morality play in its theatrical sense. But, can it hold deeper elements of older pagan culture? I think so but not in an intentional manner. Cultural traits can sometimes be carried on from Folk culture much like currents in a river. In Newfoundland people wore guises and went House to house seeking a bit of fun and mischief. There was music, dancing, drinks and food and the home owner had to guess who the mummers were. There used to be a mummers parade in St John’s Newfoundland but it was banned by law for being too rowdy. Lately the parade has been revived. People dress their clothes inside out. People have animal costumes/masks. In general, people openly act and dress in purposefully non-normal ways. In it way it is a bit like Samhain but at a different time of year.

  • Fny

    What an interesting idea! I am not sure what I believe to be true, but it certainly could make sense.

  • Christopher Blackwell

    I have no opinion on the subject. However it was an interesting read. Often in this day, and age, that alone is worth a great deal.

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