Get ready for a pilgrimage.
SBS’s new series, Shadow Trackers follows two intrepid investigators as they seek local storytellers and Aboriginal elders to uncover the truth and traditions behind some of our most interesting and terrifying Indigenous myths and legends.
In that spirit, let’s have a look at some of the more fascinating festivals and celebrations around the world paying tribute- or penance- to ancient myths, gods and deities.
BISWA IJTEMA, BANGLADESH
Most of us will never get the chance to see the Hajj- or pilgrimage- to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, since non-Muslims are not permitted. For Bangladeshi Muslims the problem isn’t religion, it’s cost. Biswa Ijtema is an alternative which takes place on the River Turag on the outskirts of the capital, Dhaka.
Each year an estimated 5 million pilgrims travel each year to congregate, bathe and pray in celebration of Allah.
HORN DANCING, ENGLAND
Horn Dancing is an ancient fertility celebration in Abbots Bromley, England, the date of which is somewhat complicated: it’s always celebrated the Monday after the first Sunday after the 4th of September. Got that? Its origins are intwined with pagan hunting of elk and deer and whilst disputed- some believe it began as a tribute to the hunting gods to ensure a plentiful kill in the coming year and others believe it was a festival to celebrate the wealth and generosity of the landowners and to ensure that peasants would be held in good stead.
In either way, the origins stretch back thousands of years with Brits dancing around with elk horns on their head since Saxon times.
GREAT MONLAM FESTIVAL, TIBET
Nothing much has changed for almost 500 years in Labrang in the autonomous region of Eastern Tibet where ancient Buddhist traditions continue to this day.
One of the richest local celebrations is the Great Monlam Festival which rings in the start of the Tibetan New Year and sees the entire Tibetan monkhood gather in reverence before the living Buddha as he reads out hundreds of spiritual messages. The reading often takes hours while the monks must squat still on the ground in sub-zero temperatures as a test of their faith and endurance.
ALPHORN FESTIVAL, GERMANY
The Alphorn festival is an annual event in Bavaria where every player in the world gathers to perform in the Alphorn ensemble. Yes, it is a thing. It’s a strange thing, and it probably won’t be in concert at the Opera House anytime soon, but it’s a thing. The alphorn dates back 2000 years, it’s unique design, sound and range making it possible to send signals across alpine valleys. It’s not to celebrate a god or a deity, it’s just something fun- and practical- and seemed worth including for comic value!
The Jewish festival of Purim celebrates the miracle of Jewish survival and takes place around the world, usually in March. In the Old Testament, Esther is a heroine of the Jewish people, who foiled plans by the King of Persia to eliminate the Jewish population and in doing so, became the Persian Queen. The name Esther means “hidden”, so in Israel- during the carnival atmosphere of Purim- children dress up, or “hide” behind elaborate masks.
LA SARTIGLIA FESTIVAL, SARDINIA, ITALY
Sardinia is a place where Paganism and Catholicism have existed side by side in relative harmony, something that is celebrated every February, when the best horseman in the region is made “Componidori”, an androgynous masked god-horseman for the La Sartiglia Festival.
This man must battle others on horseback for pride and glory. If he falls from his horse at any point during the day, danger will befall the entire region for the coming twelve months. So, in other words, no pressure mate.
Beginning in the ancient Persian city of Persepolis, Mehregan was both a day of harvest where all communities would come together to feast and celebrate… and a day of collecting taxes. It was practical: combining business with pleasure.
Mehregan is one of the most ancient Persian festivals and is still celebrated by Iranians worldwide as friends and families gather together in October to celebrate friendship and togetherness. The “tax” part no longer seems to be part of the equation. It was a buzzkill, anyway.
MID AUTUMN FESTIVAL, CHINA
This major September festival goes by a bunch of other names as well: the Moon Festival, the Reunion Festival and the Mooncake Festival. The festival- funnily enough- is near the time of the harvest moon and revolves largely around folklore and worship of the moon. People make offerings to lunar gods and deities as the full moon is believed to be good for fertility and romance.
And werewolves, obviously.
The festival of Yalda is an ancient Zoroastrian festival held on the longest night of the year (ie, the Winter Solstice). Traditionally friends and family gather together to stay up and eat and drink and read poetry, a tradition which was initially created as a means of staying awake, should an evil spirit befall you on such a long dark night.
The next morning- if you survived- there’d be a celebration with fruit and nuts. Pomegranates and watermelons were especially valued as the red colours in the fruits were thought to symbolize dawn and new life. Although the religious connotations of the long night have disappeared, the old traditions of gathering with friends and staying up late are still part of Iranian culture today.
ST LUCIA’S DAY: SCANDINAVIA
Another winter solstice celebration, St Lucia’s Day is a festival of lights, originally to honour St Lucia, a Christian martyr but now incorporates other Norse traditions like lighting fires to ward off evil spirits. Girls dress up in traditional white gowns with red sashes and wear wreaths of candles on their heads to commemorate the Saint who wore a crown of candles so that she might carry more food for the poor in her hands. The day involves feasting, candlelight and songs.
Explore Australia's own myths and legends in the new documentary series Shadow Trackers, which airs Thursday nights on NITV at 8:30pm. Missed the first episode? Watch it on SBS On Demand: