"... the children thinking that it was the man who was being burned.” Erbsbären or Straw Bears in Central Europe

18 February – Straw bears and Erbsbären haunt villages across Central Europe as part of local Shrovetide customs.


"In the district of Aachen on Ash Wednesday, a man used to be encased in peas-straw and taken to an appointed place. Here he slipped quietly out of his straw casing, which was then burned, the children thinking that it was the man who was being burned.” (Sir James Frazer, “The Golden Bough“)
 
A Straw Bear in Bohemia (mid 18th century)


It might be a memory that is truly ages old, dating back to the days, when different groups of hominids lived side by side, like homo sapiens and homo neanderthalensis, that gave birth to the myth of the wild man, the other human being living in the woods. The mythological figure can be found in many cultures across Eurasia and the far more probable explanation for their existence is the cultural gap existing during the transition period from the Mesolithic to the Neolithic and the Chalcolithic when hunter and gatherer cultures were superseded by the first crop and stock farmers forming an “other”. Wild Men appear already in the earliest testimonia of human literature, like the Epic of Gilgamesh, dating back to 2,100 BCE and the story of Jacob and Esau from the Old Testament reads like an echo of the triumph of civilisation over the primitive savage. They were never seen as non- or half-corporeal forest of mountain spirits or demons, but regarded as something of the flesh, like humans themselves. However, by the time of the Middle Ages, they had become something outside of the plan of salvation up to being a manifestation of the devil and medieval literature used them as counterdrafts to the acts of chivalrous heroes, who overcame the savageness of the Wild Men, of course, either by feats of arms or their virtues as parts of their hero quests. And like the Fool, Wild Men became an integral part of mystery plays and on the continent a feature of carnival celebration.



“Straw Bears”, probably from Thuringia and caught on camera 
by the French photographer Charles Fréger (1975 -) 
for his excellent and quite picturesque series “Wilder Mann” (wild man) 
showing various wonderful costumes from all across Europe*



Often, the wild ones were presented in carnival pageants as straw men and 19th and early 20th revival and invention of folk customs saw them as figures symbolising an old Germanic tradition of “driving out the winter”, like other fantastic incarnations appearing especially in the Swabian-Alemannic Fastnacht, the southwestern carnival, as well as in Austria, Central Eastern Europe, in Poland or Bohemia. The costumes were relatively easy and inexpensively made from straw, but in some regions, bear-like masks were added and the wild men became straw bears, or Erbsbären, pea bears, if peastraw was used and they went from home to home in their native village either on Shrove Tuesday or Ash Wednesday, begging for food and especially spirituous beverages and got pissed together afterwards while the sweat-soaked straw was customarily burnt. Modern harvesting methods and chemicals used after the war made straw of suitable length for a costume almost unavailable and straw and pea bears had almost died out, but were revived during the last twenty years by folklore enthusiasts from the Rhineland to Poland and the droll figures became a not uncommon sight during Shrovetide again.





Strawbears in Southern Germany




Even though their half-forgotten Wild Man pedigree was only remotely connected with fertility and driving out the winter, straw bears might have been an embodiment of what Frazer called the “Corn Spirit” in his “Golden Bough” as well, at least in some areas. They appeared on the British Isles during “Plough Monday” in January at the traditional start of the agricultural year, while some of the customs especially in Eastern Europe that end up in a ritual hunting down and slaughter of the straw bears and besprinkling the village and the villagers with their fake blood are reminiscent of various other ritual sacrifices to ensure a good harvest indeed. Most of the straw bears roaming the villages in Hesse and Thuringia on Ash Wednesday today are, by and large, left in peace, even though cases of getting them drunk are not unheard of.




* The picture of the Thuringian Straw Bears were found on 

http://www.charlesfreger.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/charles_freger_wilder_mann_2010-2011_0105_strobaren.jpg


and the whole highly recommended series, taken between 2010 – 2011 can be watched in awe on:

http://www.charlesfreger.com/portfolio/wilder-mann/

and more about straw bears on:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Straw_bear