I first came across guisers when I was a child and read ‘Off With His head’ a murder mystery by Ngaio Marsh, published in 1957. It was subsequently published by the Companions Book Club, a postal book club from Odhams Press, in 1958, and as my mum was a member of the book club, it arrived at our house, delivered by the postman. I’m not sure I read it then, but i was a precocious reader and certainly read it when I was very young.
Ngaio Marsh was born in new Zealand and her most famous novels are what we now call police procedurals with her hero Roderick ‘Rory’ Alleyn. ‘Off with His Head’ is set in a small very rural village and the action happens when a German folklorist arrives to watch the very old annual Morris Dance, The Dance of the Five Sons, performed by the local smith and his five sons. The Morris in the novel is no doubt completely fictitious but the characters within it, the Hobby Horse, the Betty, and the Guiser.
The guiser is a person in disguise, (which sounds as if that’s where the word comes from) and he doesn’t only appear with the Morris, guisers also arrives, knocking on doors with to entertain and perform traditional plays, especially at Christmas time – the guisers, other wise known as mummers. The word ‘guise’ is extremely old, and doesn’t just mean to conceal identity; the original root may have meant to assume an identity, to be like, or to actually become something – not just to ‘disguise’. This word has its roots in old Frankish, and Proto-Germanic languages, and maybe even go back as far back as Proto-Indo-European.
I was interested when I was watching videos, and reading about Up Helly Aa in the Shetlands which took place last Tuesday; it is an event which takes place each year on the last Tuesday of January, a tradition which has been practised since the 1880’s. The festivities are led by the Guizer Jarl who is the chief guizer, and he leads his Jarl Squad who are the Vikings for Up Helly Aa.