clowning in another culture

This is an old piece I wrote from around 10 years ago.  Kind of naive, but honest in the same way.  I still maintain the views that a good clown is more akin to wisemen and shamans than a buffoon.  Clowns are the mirror we should hold up to society to reflect the day to day idiocy of life!

It was not until recent times that pure, open laughter was considered acceptable in western, particularly Anglo-Saxon, society. It was considered inappropriate and extremely rude for people, especially women, to enjoy a moment of humor. During the Victorian Age, laughter was frowned upon. Only young women were “allowed” to laugh – mainly due to embarrassment or in deference to a man. Thankfully, things have changed.

However, many other cultures were not so oppressive. Indian, Polynesian and Native American cultures allowed laughter and even promoted it through their religions. One Native American tribe, the Hopi, figured God-like figures in their religion whose role was quite simple: the Clown. As the Hopi live in the desert land of the American Southwest (in Northern Arizona, east of the Grand Canyon), their religion is based upon the need for rain. To bring rain to their land to feed their crops, mainly corn, the Hopi called upon the grace of their gods, called Kachinas. Over three hundred Kachinas are known to exist in some form and they represent just about everything in Hopi life; corn, cactus, rain, sun, animals, even neighboring tribes. Out of the hundreds of Kachinas, the Sacred Clown is central to all of the tribes.

Every December at the beginning of the rainy period, the Kachinas come down to the Hopi villages to live among their followers. To view a Kachina’s true form impossible for a human being, so depictions are carved as dolls and given to children. Kachina dolls are not thought of as toys, but as prized possessions to guard for life. The Kachinas are said to possess certain men of the tribe for specific dances so they could better understand the plight of the Hopi. A select group of wise men were once chosen by the Clowns. In the past men who were to become clowns once belonged to a group where they were trained and lived with other Clowns, this tradition has sadly passed.

The five different types of Clown have different looks but all have set roles: to keep the people entertained between ceremonies, to keep humor alive in the tribes, to keep the children entertained during the ceremonies (through stories, games and songs) and to act as the voices of the Kachinas. These Clowns are viewed as being a jester, a priest, a wise man and the father of all Kachinas (as the Clowns always appear first during the ceremonies). The Clowns are always playful and poke fun at just about everything. Hopi humor is quite earthy and can seem to be quite offensive to non-Hopi; every aspect of life, even sex, is ammunition for the Clowns. Through their antics, there is never a lull in their ceremonies.

These ceremonies date back over one thousand years, five hundred years before European contact. It is interesting to note how these generally quiet and humble people rely on humor to deal with the hardships of their lives. Hopi life, even today, is simple; agriculture, particularly the growth of corn, is the basis of life and they continue to avoid the trappings of modern existence. The Hopi are very spiritual people who have forced the modern word to adapt to their ways.

Through my university education, I had the pleasure of meeting and working with the Hopi. It was rewarding to experience this different culture and also learn about a part of society and entertainment which is common in both cultures. It is interesting how the Hopi view Clowns as being wise and the voices of their gods, whereas our culture views Clowns as buffoons. Perhaps they know something we do not.

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