On one of the most beautiful and oldest parabolic dunes in Juodkrantė, Lithuania, the forest is alive with a vast array of fairy-tale creatures, witches, demons, kings, princesses, fisherman and devils. Known as the Hill of Witches (Raganų kalnas), this public trail through the woods takes visitors on a trip through the most well-known legends and stories in Lithuanian folk history.
Work began in 1979 on the sculpture park, and it now features over 80 different wooden carvings from local artists. Each beautifully hand-crafted sculpture depicts a popular character from folk and pagan traditions of Lithuania. The public park got its name long before the sculptures were placed along the wooded trails, and is in fact a reference to the pagan celebrations that take place on the hill during the Midsummer’s Eve Festival.
Each year on June 24th, people across Lithuania dance, sing and bring in the midsummer with the older folk traditions of the country. After Christianity came to Lithuania, the celebration was renamed Saint Jonas’ Festival, but many of the practices still have pagan roots, as echoed by the fantastic Hill of Witches sculptures.
These are not your average Halloween costumes. For two years, French photographer Charles Fréger has been traveling throughout European countries, trying to capture the spirit of what he calls “tribal Europe” in his Wilder Mann series. What he found was a huge array of pagan rituals, mainly related to the winter solstice and spring renewal, focusing on the common myth of the “wild man.”
It appears that the tradition of men dressing up as wild animals and monsters, which dates back to neolithic times and shamanism, is still very alive. The mythological figure of a “wild man” represents the complicated relationship humans have with nature and life and death cycles. His series explores the different interpretations of such figures – while some cultures depict him as covered in flowers or straws, others possess the features of bears, goats, or horned and hairy beasts.
In Oberstdorf, an old village in Southern Bavaria, a unique ancient pagan tradition is still alive – the dance of the wild men (Wilde-Mändle-Tanz), which is held only in this small town, once in five years.
Wilde-Mändle-Tanz is dedicated to the Germanic god Thor, and involves 13 men, all of whom belong to old local families who have been living in that region for centuries. The men’s costumes are made of moss, which grows only in the Allgäu Alps.
They dance to rhythmic drum music, building a pyramid, and at the end they drink mead from their wooden mugs, singing a ritual song.
A selection of incredible portraits from photographer Charles Fréger’s collection and book Wilder Mann, documenting the ancient pagan rites still being practiced throughout Europe today.
From the New York Times Lens blog:
About 10,000 years ago, humans began domesticating wild animals for both food and companionship. Over the course of centuries, animal species were bred for traits that made them docile and more useful to their masters. But as humans changed and fenced in animals, they were also domesticating themselves. The skills needed to survive in the wild were different than those needed to succeed in more complex social arrangements.
Mr Fréger was intrigued by the transformations of human being to beast that he witnessed in 18 European countries. They were, he said, celebrations of fertility, life and death and symbolized the complicated relationship between mankind and nature.