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Fasching: Tracing the roots of south Germany's 'dark carnival'

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Fasching: Tracing the roots of south Germany's 'dark carnival'
A witch at a Fasching carnival procession in Würzburg in February 2018. Photo: DPA
15:57 CET+01:00
Celebrated at the beginning of March, southern Germany's Fasching Carnival is known for having a dark side that dates back to its medieval founding.

Spend a while in southern Germany and you might come to think the locals, wherever you are, a forward-thinking people who highly prize technology and innovation. You might even label them as the very picture of modernity.  

Don't let that fool you. Beneath the well-presented, minimalist facade lies a primal soul, a soul still fearful of the wild places of the earth.

No more is this evident than at Fasching - also known as Fastnacht and Fastnet depending where you are. 

Whereas the traditional pre-Lenten ‘Karneval' takes on a sillier, more irreverent tone up north, down in Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria, ‘Fasching' embodies a much darker feeling.

A Fasching procession in Stuttgart in February 2018. Photo: DPA

In 2019, Fasching festivities will start around the beginning of March (depending where you are), with parades in towns and cities across the country. Each parade features groups of people dressed as a particular kind of figure - demons, forest spirits, witches, wolves and many, many more.

Each group plays a particular role as they walk past the crowds. Young women are ‘kidnapped' and made to ride logs, or hop into cauldrons. Children are ‘beaten' with brooms. ‘Wolves' and ‘bears' dart into the crowd to scare the unwary.

Watching the proceedings, you would be forgiven for thinking that this is the continuation of a festival that carries back thousands of years, to the Celts or earlier.  

You might be surprised, then, to learn that Fasching as celebrated today in southern Germany, is a largely medieval invention. Folklorists and historians trace it back to the same pre-Lenten rites, that are observed in northern Germany. It was a festival conceived and encouraged by the Church.

The presence of forest spirits, witches and wild creatures represent the last expression of the forces of darkness before Christ figuratively redeems humanity at Easter.

The presence of these figures tells us something else about the southern Germans - their ancestors were terrified of the wild, especially the dark forests that covered considerable parts of the land.

These people were not only afraid of wild animals savaging them, but they also feared the very woods themselves, as places of dark magic and curses. This was because it was very easy to get lost in the undergrowth and find one's self at the mercy of the elements.

A 'Hexe', or witch, at a Fasching procession in Frankfurt in February 2018. Photo: DPA

The Brothers Grimm didn't need to make much up when they recorded the folktales of the region - tales of dark, ancient evils out in the wild could be heard in every village!

While the mask-wearing whip-crackers of places like Rottweil seem to be a quaint tradition to us now, for generations they really were seen to be chasing ‘evil spirits' away with their noise - spirits that spread pestilence, or caused accidents. To them, it was an absolutely essential practice.

For an experience of Fasching, there's nothing like actually being at one of the many parades across the country, but if you can't make it, I highly recommend one of two museums dedicated to the festival.

Weil der Stadt, near Stuttgart, has a ‘Narrenmuseum' or ‘Fool's Museum' dedicated to the festival in one of the old city towers, featuring preserved costumes from across the ages.

In Rottweil, the Stadtmuseum has a large collection of the carved masks that can be found in most parades, along with an explanation of what they're about.

So, the next time you find yourself among Germans, admiring their confidence and progressive thinking, remember Fasching, and remember that they weren't always this way. Once upon a time, they were a very fearful folk indeed. 

Celebrated at the beginning of March, southern Germany's Carnival is known for having a dark side that dates back to its Medieval founding.

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