<p><br> Spring festivals in the Pyrenees feature local men playing the role of bears awakening from hibernation.</p>

FRANCE


Spring festivals in the Pyrenees feature local men playing the role of bears awakening from hibernation.

Europe’s Wild Men

They become bears, stags, and devils. They evoke death but bestow fertile life. They live in the modern era, but they summon old traditions.

A primal heart still beats in Europe. Deep beneath the gloss of cell phone sophistication lie rituals that hark back to harvests and solstices and fear of the winter dark. Monsters loom in this shadowy heart, but so does the promise of spring’s rebirth and fertile crops and women cradling newborn babes. It turns out that Europe—at least pockets of it—has not lost its connection to nature’s rhythms.

That connection is rekindled during festivals that occur across the continent from the beginning of December until Easter. The celebrations correspond to Christian holidays, but the rituals themselves often predate Christianity. The roots are difficult to trace. Men—and until recently, it has almost always been men—don costumes that hide their faces and conceal their true forms. Then they take to the streets, where their disguises allow them to cross the line between human and animal, real and spiritual, civilization and wilderness, death and rebirth. A man “assumes a dual personality,” says António Carneiro, who dresses as a devilish careto for Carnival in Podence, Portugal. “He becomes something mysterious.”

Photographer Charles Fréger set out to capture what he calls “tribal Europe” over two winters of travel through 19 countries. The forms of the costumes that he chronicled vary between regions and even between villages. In Corlata, Romania, men dress as stags reenacting a hunt with dancers. In Sardinia, Italy, goats, deer, boars, or bears may play the sacrificial role. Throughout Austria, Krampus, the beastly counterpart to St. Nicholas, frightens naughty children.

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