The Pursuit of Manliness

Do the men where you live take off their hats for the national anthem? Do they huddle together at parties? Do they carry around huge poles wrapped with wildflowers?

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When we moved from Austin to La Grange, Texas, a town of about 5,000, I was struck very quickly by how often and how clearly a line falls between things male and female. I had become so accustomed to Austin’s androgyny that hearing the word “ladies” made me snicker – then wince, once I realized people were saying it without a drop of irony.

After we’d been in town about a month, I was standing outdoors in line at the local chicken take-out and saw a new acquaintance. As I tried to engage him in conversation, he turned away, pointing and nudging me toward a pickup, where his wife sat waiting, smiling, shaking her head. What is it about small towns? Is there something about rural life that inclines it to be more sex-segregated than city life?

My husband and I recently traveled to Austria. We visited Vienna, as well as Austria’s second largest city, Graz (both fairly androgynous).  But we’d scheduled the whole trip to see a rural-only custom. In the Lungau region of the Central Alps, two towns still celebrate the feast days of their patron saints with a stunning parade of floral towers, called prangstangen. Should have known – it was a parade of manhood, too.

The tapered armatures reach some 18 feet high and are wound with garlands of local wildflowers and greenery. It takes residents weeks to make and bind the floral decorations, all strictly patterned into geometrical designs and sacred lettering (IHS – the Latinized insignia for “Jesus”).  And of course it takes a major balancing act and serious muscle to lift them. The full size prangstangen weigh 80 kilos – 170 lbs.

The Lungau’s valleys look something like Eastern Kentucky hollers, except the mountains are steeper, with even higher, snow-patched peaks in the distance.  The rivers run fast and clear, and cold. The village of Zederhaus, one of our destinations, celebrates the feast day of St. John the Baptist June 24, and Muhr, on the other side of the mountain, honors Sts. Peter and Paul June 29. Origins of the flower tower tradition are vague. Some sources say the parades began “in the Middle Ages”; others claim the custom goes back 300 years. Let’s just say “long ago” a scourge of insects devastated all local vegetation, a horror for isolated mountain people who survived not on ski tourism but farming.  The only plants that withstood the plague were the “Sunnawendlan” – field daisies. In homage to God and as a plea for protection from future disasters, the villagers made pillars of these daisies and presented them at the church as sacred offerings. The creation and procession of floral towers has gone on, and the locusts, or whatever those historic pests were, have never returned.

Daisies, packed tight, still are the foundation for these magnificent floral tributes. Gentian, cornflowers, roses, and many other blooms twine on top of the daisy backdrop, rippling in bright cords and diamond shapes. Some of the prangstangen presented in Muhr were crowned with tiny pine trees and wooden cutouts of the monstrance. One had a carving of the Virgin Mary at the summit, standing beneath an arch.

In both towns the prangstangen are trucked in the evening prior and then ceremonially carried to the church. They’re too tall to be walked straight in and so must be carefully turned horizontally and poked through the doors. They’re then turned upright again, nearly brushing the sanctuary ceiling, and the pole bases are clamped at the ends of pews, along the aisles of the church.

Photo by Bill Bishop
Muhr’s brass band worked overtime, playing for evening services, morning Mass and three parades June 28-29. They were accompanied by several female escorts toting ceremonial refreshments: small beer barrels or, in this case, a giant horn full of schnapps. Prosit!

On the feast day itself, a special Mass is held. The prangstangen are again lowered and taken out, paraded through the streets as the village band marches ahead, and then the towers are returned to their stations along the church aisles. They’ll stand there for nearly two months, removed on August 15, the Feast of the Assumption. The towers will be paraded out once more and the dried flowers removed, stored to be used as incense during the Twelve Days of Christmas (known as here as Rauhnachten). These summer totems thus point from one solstice to the other. They bind the church calendar in these deep valleys to the sun’s own seasons, to powers that predate Christianity’s arrival in the Alps.

One of those powers is, of course, sex (in case you forgot, Freud, too, was Austrian). Especially for the non-German-speaking, non-Catholic visitor to the Lungau, the more spiritual aspect of the prangstangen tradition is elusive. It looks like a stupendous display of manhood. There’s the off chance that building and decorating a giant prong has no sexual significance – could be an androgynous part of Eyore’s Birthday in Austin. But if that prong can only be carried by “young unmarried men who owe no alimony” as is the stipulation with the prangstangen traditions? Consider too what it takes to hoist one of these things, strength indeed, and a sling that hangs like a loincloth over the hoister’s lederhosen, so that he can carry this monster right between his legs. Then we have the business of turning the pole and inserting it into the church. Need I go on?

There are certainly women involved in the prangstangen celebrations. They take part in making and winding on the floral garlands. And they too march in the parades. In Muhr, several young girls pulled a wagon with a statue of the Virgin Mary aboard. A group of elderly women, dressed smartly in black bodices and white aprons, wearing flat-topped hats and carrying pretty nosegays, drew nearly as much applause as the prangstangen-bearers themselves. Yet another young woman marched alongside the first row of musicians, and in keeping with the day’s uber-masculine theme, carried a gigantic horn, periodically unplugged to pour out a shot of schnapps.

Photo by Bill Bishop
The prangstangen of Muhr, Austria, are each topped with something different: an image of the Virgin Mary, a wooden silhouette of the monstrance or, in this case a pine tree. The pole bearers here dress in traditional costume, including lederhosen and an Alpine hat with a gamsbart (a brushy tuft of goat hair).

There’s no doubt who belongs where in these proceedings. Both in Zederhaus and in Muhr, there were several smaller prangstangen carried by younger boys, always flanked by a couple of experienced men in their late 20s. Newly married perhaps? The youngsters were being prepared for the big time, already breaking a sweat, teetering down the street before family and friends. Would anything so blatantly phallocentric be countenanced in Austin, or even Graz? It’s WWE with holy water, minus the tongues-in-cheeks.

We’re back now in La Grange, where Janet Moerbe, our mayor, has recently been elected to her second term. There is a woman pastor at the great big Lutheran church, and there are many successful and respected female business owners, doctors, teachers, and other civic leaders. But I have yet to meet one stay-at -home dad. And all of the women’s jeans sold in our town feature ornamental stitching and chips of bling.

In La Grange we have vibrant men-only clubs and the Texas Women’s League. Organizing the music weekly for our congregation’s choir, I’m part of the LLL  — “Lovely Library Ladies” (as are two daring males). We don’t have prangstangen parades but we have rodeo, where guys straddle bulls and clench ropes in their teeth. We have candidates for county fair queen selling tickets on the courthouse square and in front of Wal-Mart. There’s even a ZZ Top song named “La Grange” about the “nice girls” who worked at a renowned whorehouse at the edge of town. And to everyone’s delight, the band will be featured next month at the fair.

In this town gender lines hum like strands of electric fencing, and if you touch one, it may sting. What is it? Is rural life, for some reason, more gendered, more sex-segregated than city life? With memories of Zederhaus still fresh and the LLL gathering tomorrow, I lean back and smell Dr. Freud’s sour cigar. I say, Yes it is.

 

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