Goat-Centered Traditions Around the World
A Snapshot of Goat-Based Festivals
Reading Time: 6 minutes
Goats are an important aspect of many cultures around the world. Because they were so integral to daily life, traditions and even myths concerning goats sprang up in various areas. Many traditions are centered on religious events such as Christmas or a particular festival. While the traditions of other cultures may seem odd because they are different, it is important to remember that they are meaningful to those people. Here we explore some goat traditions that are dear to the people who uphold them.
With deep Scandinavian origins, the Yule goat is still seen today in cultural traditions. You will often see the straw Yule goat as a Christmas decoration, on or under the Christmas tree. In some places, it was a tradition to hide a straw Yule goat in the house of a friend without being caught. Perhaps, fortunately, most no longer celebrate Christmas with a man dressed as a goat delivering the presents.
Beginning as a tourist attraction roughly 50 years ago, the giant straw Yule goat in the town of Gävle is quite often burned to the ground before the end of the Advent season. The opening ceremony brings people from all over the world and helps the local shopping district to gain more customers. During its first year, it burned to the ground, and ever since people seem to have a fascination with trying to burn the goat down. Many security measures have been put into place, some more successful than others.
Another Scandinavian tradition in line with the Yule goat, it is similar to Christmas caroling, but done between Christmas and the New Year. People wear masks and costumes, usually including one dressed as the Yule goat, and they sing songs at neighbor’s houses. The neighbors try to guess who the people are, give treats, and sometimes join to go to the next house. This tradition is common in other European countries, often called mumming or mummering. In Latvia, it is thought to bring blessings and fertility as well as drive away evil spirits.
Thor’s Chariot-Pulling Goats
The Norse god Thor had two goats named Tanngrisnir and Tanngjostr that pulled his chariot. Thor would often butcher and eat his goats, resurrecting them from the bones and skins the next morning using his hammer. However, one day as he shared his meal with a peasant family, the peasant’s son broke a leg bone to suck the marrow out. When the goats were resurrected the next day, one goat was lame. Thor then abandoned the goats and took the son along with his sister as servants in repayment.
Goat Dancer’s Festival
On the Greek Island of Skyros, the start of Lent is marked by the Goat Dancer’s Festival. A man, known as the yeros, dresses in the black hides of goats with a mask made from the skin of a kid. With goat bells tied to his waist, he dances through the streets raising a cacophonous noise from the many bells. He is followed by the korela, usually a man dressed in a woman’s traditional blouse and skirt. The korela is the “wife” of the yeros and waves a handkerchief. There is also a frangos, called the fool or the foreigner. He is dressed in ridiculous clothes. They parade through the streets at night during the festival, but daytime has other parades. The local people dress in costumes; sometimes making political statements, sometimes simply dressing up similar to Halloween. On the third day, they wear their traditional costumes. Many of these clothes have been lovingly preserved for more than a century. They dance well into the evening.
It is said that this festival originated when a bad storm killed a goatherd’s entire herd of goats. Devastated, he skinned the goats, donning their pelts, and tied their bells around his waist. Mourning, he went through the town. The next year, the townspeople reenacted his parade, and it became tradition.
In early January, the Greek village of Kali Vrisi holds its annual Babougera festival. It is said that during the time of the Ottoman Empire, the mythical Babougera was so feared that the tax collectors would stay away from this village. Apparently, even Alexander the Great used the men dressed in animal skins with goat-like masks to scare the elephants used by Persian armies. With the large “horns” atop fearsome masks and cowbells ringing out, the Babougera is a formidable sight. It is believed that this celebration began in honor of Dionysus, the god of wine. It is also a fertility celebration in which the noise of the cowbells is meant to wake up the Earth from its winter slumber. This three-day festival of fertility, food, and wine culminates in a re-enacted “Dionysian Wedding” typically performed with an all-male cast.
In the small town of Killorglin, in Country Kerry of Ireland, the annual Puck Fair draws crowds from all over the country. Held each year on August 10th, 11th, and 12th, it was first recognized by King James I in 1613, but no one truly knows how long it had been going on before then. Different legends explain how it may have come about, perhaps evolving from a pagan festival, Lughnasa. Another legend explains that a goat broke away from its herd, running back to town and subsequently warning the town of the invasion of Oliver Cromwell and his army. There was already evidence of a festival before this time period, but it was called the “August Fair” and was perhaps renamed to honor the goat. When the people of Killorglin celebrate, they catch a wild male goat from the surrounding hills, crown him and hold him in a cage in town for the three days. He is well-fed and celebrated before being returned to the wild at the end of the festival. With parades, horse and cattle shows, craft fairs, and live music there is much to enjoy in Ireland’s oldest festival.
The Roofing of the Goats
In Sister Bay, Wisconsin, an annual spring festival gets goats up on the roof of a local restaurant. When Al Johnson put a traditional Scandinavian sod roof on his restaurant, his friend Wink decided to play a prank by placing a billy goat on the sod. That little prank 40 years ago became a tradition when every summer Al brings a few of his goats each day to graze the roof. This is commenced with the “Roofing of the Goats” festival in June with owners around the county bringing their goats to town to parade around often in costume. With kids’ games and a Swedish pancake-eating contest, it is a celebration for the books.
Some of our “goaty” traditions seem to center around certain areas of the world. While goats have been important to civilization throughout most of the world, some regions incorporated them into traditions while others did not. It is also quite possible that the research readily available is geared more toward European history and simply misses many other regions of our beautiful world. We are certain that some world traditions involving goats have been missed in this article, so please tell us the ones that you know!
Originally published in the November/December 2020 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.