by Flo Whitaker
From ancient talismanic figures to sparkly Christmas decorations, snowmen have always been with us. Flo Whitaker takes us on a journey back in time
What does the word ‘snowman’ mean to you? Do you build them with your children or grandchildren? At Christmas, do you hang a snowman decoration on your tree, or place an illuminated snowman figure in your garden? Nowadays we associate snowmen with light-hearted fun but their origins lie elsewhere.
Snowmen have been a part of our culture for thousands of years. The oldest surviving art in Europe can be found in cave paintings dating back to 35,000 BC. Ancient tools and cooking vessels give us more clues about this far- away world. Carved figures of humans and animals indicate early belief systems and rituals. These tantalising fragments can be viewed in museums, but a snowman is ephemeral. It leaves nothing behind, save for a puddle and a written or spoken history trail passed along the generations.
Our ancestors were highly attuned to the seasons. Winter, with its short hours of daylight, was a particular challenge. In a landscape populated with bears and wolves, great importance was placed on talismanic objects. Snowmen were first created as guardians and were constructed around the perimeter of the homestead to protect people and livestock. Made with outstretched, defensive twiggy arms, they were positioned with their backs facing the settlement. Their grotesque faces looked outwards in order to scare away animals and bad spirits lurking in the dangerous Wildwood.
The earliest known snowman image appears in an illuminated book, (circa 1380) held in the National Library of the Netherlands. In 1494, the 19-year- old Michelangelo was commissioned by Piero de’ Medici to build a snowman in his palace courtyard in Florence. From the Middle Ages, snow figures were constructed to honour favoured monarchs and military heroes, or to create religious effigies. Unlike costly artist’s materials, snow is freely available and snow figures were also made to show dissent. Unpopular politicians, landowners and churchmen were lampooned in snow sculptures. Ordinary folk would vent their anger by kicking and punching the figures and, when gunpowder arrived on the scene, blowing them up! In Zurich, a springtime festival still occurs, whereby a snowman, (now made from fabric) is exploded to symbolise the end of winter.
Our ancient ancestors would be mystified by us, but might see something of themselves in our shared ‘worshipping’ of snow deities. So, if you receive a Christmas card depicting a jolly snowman, pause for thought. That image of an icy winter sentinel has travelled through the ages. Snowmen are mysterious and transient. Commanded by the weather, they come – and they go. They are the stuff of dangerous politics, but are also a child’s plaything. They can be pro-establishment, or anarchic; religious or profane. They are shape-shifting, inscrutable time-travellers. If only they could talk – what stories they could tell.