It’s a bit difficult to grasp in a country whose idea of hunting starts with guns blazing, what might take shape in terms of custom and memory if the act of seeking sustenance in the wild woods, involved in memory more of a tangle of endurance, skill, patience, luck, risk, hunger and blood. For descendants of a pioneer family such as my own, we have the image of the Mountain Man, rugged separatist who preferred the wilderness to the city, who preferred to learn the tongues of the native inhabitants to the slick tongues of the European immigrant flood. They were described as possessing scarce knowledge, speaking the language of the land, and in what wild wisdom they had earned by sacrificing all comfort made them into symbols of a more pure form of justice, one that was more essential, more in line with the laws of man and beast, of life, than the spearpoint of economics that most think of when squinting eyes and peering backwards at the idea of frontier justice. So goes the story anyway.
So it was told around the fireside in my family, these men who lived off their (s)kills experienced something like the tradeoff of senses, the heightened hearing in the blind, or existential insight of the hunchback who lives in the cathedral attic. They reverted in some way, retrogressed and so became civilized, solidified in another. Their clothing might be entirely composed of the skins and furs of the animals they had killed, laces, shoes and bedding. But these men were also told to be rogue scholars of a sort, not a few in possession of at the least the Works of Shakespeare which served as the everyman’s library of the day, or the Compleat Angler which was truly the English speaking world’s first Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I can remember making a beaded necklace complete with plastic bear-claws in a youth group, and being mystified by the legend of the meeting place where civilization receded into the woods, and the wild animal came to live alongside re-wild man. I could feel, by slipping the costume claws over my neck, something of the effort and mystery involved in them. You had to earn them. You had to face death to wear them.
All of this introduction serves to relate as best I can to a form of talisman that is at once so ordinary it needs no introduction, and so vitally spiritual, in the most minimal sense of that word, that it could be called timeless. Charivari is a word with uncertain etymology, it appears in several languages, in France it means roughly ‘a large group shouting’ or occasionally a wedding, but with completely unknown origins. In Germans speaking countries, it refers specifically to the hunting amulet, or a chain of them that is draped in front of one’s crotch when wearing their leather hunting gear, or the folklore costume version of them. I’ve encountered references to these talismans having the expected magical uses, but also as displays of wealth in that purely tribal fashion, thick silver chains and strung coins, along with mythological references such as tribal symbols, saint medallions and vanitas skulls. Tales are painted of young hunters being initiated and receiving them as graduation gifts, pointing to a form of ornament that blended personal taste, belief and trophy. More than a few charivari chains terminate in a nice long bit of antler or a penis bone strung right over where the manhood dangles, suggesting no shortage of humor in these low-hung man jewels.
Women have their own charivaris as well, usually worn as an apron tie or bodice closure. Tribal finds throughout the ages show a widespread habit of stringing amulets along the belt in clusters or tucked into little pouches, for both men and women, surviving into the late middle ages and beyond as chatelains, buckles, watch fobs, and keychains, even today lingering in the rainbow colors of a lucky rabbit’s foot. In modern terms, so cleaned of their practicality, it is difficult to picture the raw objective feeling beneath these traditional ornaments.
What I find most interesting is that for the most part charivaris seem to have a kind of humility to them, they are usually small tokens just the tips of horns, a single tooth, or a seed, or the jaws of a small hunter like a weasel. At home or in the lodge one might mount heads or racks of horns, but when one goes out to the woods to engage in death and life, wearing their leather clothes, the talismans are subtle. Bits of fang and horn, the pincers of stag beetles, the beaks of birds, little reminders of sharp and contentious things. In a private, liminal way they can be held in the hand to become one of the animals, a small button to press and enter on even footing into the chaotic court of the wilderness. Small tokens, humble in their recognition, unsparing in their reminders at the modesty of the greatest hunter in the face of being snowblind, or scented by ravenous wolves, or breaking an ankle on a particularly long trek in search of food, or failing to find food too frequently. Beak and talon, tooth and fang, small reminders of the hunter’s true scale in the face of survival, the woods, and the world beyond.