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‘Prince of Eid’: Between Folk Drama and Religious Rituals

A translated version of this piece is Available in: العربية (Arabic)

‘Prince of Eid’, in Yemini folklore, resembles ‘Santa Claus’; both are fictional characters who appear during the festive season, dressed in a special costume and mask. Both are a source of joy and are symbolically associated with the holiday and its joyful atmosphere. However, there are differences between the two; while Santa Claus gives gifts, Prince of Eid receives them, and while the crowd around Santa Claus is made up of children, the Prince of Eid’s crowd is made up of children and adults. And while Santa Claus is known to the whole world and has a modern presence, the Prince of Eid is confined to some areas of Yemen and is known in a folkloric context. Nevertheless, this in itself has research value, in that ‘Prince of Eid’ and the celebrations associated with him may preserve the features of an ancient religious cultural origin, especially as he has a dramatic character that seems to us closer to what is known as ritual drama, as defined by ancient human civilizations as part of their religious rituals and ceremonies, to which the roots of theater go back.

The character of the ‘Prince of Eid’ is associated with the folkloric celebrations of the Great Bairam (Eid al-Adha) in some of central Yemen’s rural governorates: Ibb, Dhamar, al-Bayda, and al-Dhalea. People used to celebrate the holiday of ‘al-Nafas’ (meaning: the breathe) in their own way, but it may also be called the ‘Prince of Eid’. It is an annual large collective traditional celebration, organized by separate villages (tribe/province), and each village must host the ‘Nafas’ for one day over the ten days of the Eid. Every day, people from all the villages (tribe/province) flock to the square of the host village where they celebrate by reciting poems, dancing ‘al-Baraa’ to the beat of drums and playing the flute in a carnival or a large festival whose audience is made up of men and children, attended by artists, poets and dancers. Yet, the most prominent character of all is the ‘Prince of Eid’; he is the central character in this festival.

The Prince of Eid is like a folk clown who appears in the celebration with a costume that distinguishes him from all people. He often wears a mask of a bull’s head, a wig made of sheep’s wool, a robe made of animal skin, and he holds in his hand a bull’s tail (from the bulls slaughtered at the feast). He appears ahead of the gathering (when he is coming from outside the village) or at the head of the recipients (when he is from the host village). During the festival, the Prince of Eid dances while the children run and laugh as he chases them, waving the bull’s tail in his hand to scare them, and sometimes he hits them with it if they violate the celebration’s proceedings; this also applies to adults, who never complain. Everyone laughs as they are being beaten by the Prince of Eid who has absolute power; he punishes the offenders and forces everyone to dance and participate.

The Prince of Eid creates an atmosphere of fun in this celebration, and gives it energy and adjusts its rhythm, whether through his dance or his comedic performance. He may also perform scenes such as, along with others, holding a mock trial to prosecute the people who did not participate in the ceremony in order to keep their prestige or elegance. The trial ends with the issuance of a verdict containing a comic punishment. For example, they are soaked in the blood of a slaughtered animal that is spilled on the ground, or in a pit filled with water mixed with raspberry syrup to make it red.

The ritual and its celebration

As far as I know, the celebrations held for the Prince of Eid were not specifically documented, and what I have mentioned relies mostly on my childhood memories of these celebrations as I witnessed them in the village of al-Joran Mikhlaf Bani Qais, al-Radma district, Ibb governorate.[1] These celebrations go back to the late 1980s and early 1990s, but disappeared after that, just as they had disappeared from other areas before; but fortunately they continue in some areas, or at least some areas were still celebrating it until recently. There is online content that confirms this, from news stories to a number of videos on YouTube and a number of posts on the ‘group of ancient Yemeni beliefs and traditions’ on Facebook, almost all of which have the main topic ‘Prince of Eid’. All of these items are of a great importance. It is true that it does not make up for field documentation and hearing the elderly, but it enables us to at least get a clear idea of the phenomenon.

It appears that the celebrations of the Prince of Eid are known, or were known, in the villages of the districts of al-Radhma, Yarim, al-Nadera, al-Shaar, Baadan, and al-Aden in Ibb governorate, and Damat and some districts of al-Dhale, and the districts of Anas and al-Hadda in Dhamar, and Sabah and Walad Rabi in Qifah in al-Bayda governorate. This demonstrates that they were common or widely known in these four governorates at least. Nevertheless, the celebrations differed from one region to another, and from time to time, but the difference lies in the details not in the major features of these celebrations that seem to be of one origin. In general, we can sum them up in several key elements or points.

Occasion: Large celebrations were held during Eid al-Adha, which falls on the tenth of Dhu al-Hijjah of each Hijri year, in which Yemenis, like all Muslims, offer cows and sheep as a sacrifice. The Prince of Eid is a part of the celebration during the ten days of Eid, although some celebrate for only five days, starting from the first, second or third day of Eid.

Scope: A group of villages joined by a tribal link (province, tribe) celebrate the Prince of Eid every day in a different village. In rare cases, it takes place in only one village, and this may be due to the transformations that the phenomenon has witnessed.

Place: It used to take place in the square of the host village, although the celebrations used to start outside it with people walking from their villages, or from their gathering point to the square where the actual ceremony would begin. However, in some celebrations, a public place in the middle of the region was visited, or the last day of Eid is concluded with a celebration in a collective and symbolic place.

Time: The time for the celebration used to vary. Sometimes it would take place from morning until noon; at other times it would take place from afternoon until sunset; and at other times from the beginning of the evening until ten in the evening.

Audience: The audience is both old and young men. Women watch from the roofs and windows of houses.

Actors: Prince of Eid is the central character in this celebration, although his name might differ (Prince of Eid, the Admirer, al-Sa’ala, al-Qashi and al-Toushi), but in general he has the same traits and roles. Some other characters might take part in the celebration next to the Prince of Eid, like a maid, a slave or an old man. Sometimes another Prince of Eid from another region shows up (and then a fight takes place between them).

Selecting actors: We do not know what the criteria for choosing the Prince of Eid is, as he is a mysterious character (but we expect him to be a person with a sense of humor and a comedian with the physical abilities to perform the role). As for the ‘maid’ character, the role is performed by a man dressed as a woman. He may be an actor, but in some areas they will.

Costume and mask

Prince of Eid: The mask is a bull’s head and the costume is made of animal skin, and he holds in his hand a bull’s tail from a sacrifice. This costume can be changed, as it appears in some of the videos, into colorful clothes; at one time it was mentioned that the Prince of Eid was wearing maintenance clothes. We also saw modern animal head masks and a rubber whip instead of a bull’s tail.

The maid: The maid is performed by a man who is dressed like a woman and wears a veil (a head covering worn by the region’s women), as well as clothes that differ according to the region’s fashion, but most of them are bride’s clothes, and various kinds of adornment are used, including roses, and eyeliner.

The slave: He wears distinguished clothes to stand out from the rest and wears black makeup.

The rituals or the celebration facts

The celebration starts by a gathering of people, led by the artists (flute players and drummers), who then move from their village to the host village, or they gather at a point outside the villages. They then walk together to the host village’s square, led by the Prince of Eid (or the Prince of Eid along with the maid and the slave) and they all dance to the rhythm of the flute and the drums. The Prince of Eid dances, organizes the dancing, acts, plays with the children and chases them. But one of his most important roles is to hunt for those who try to miss the party and force them to participate, or to have a mock trial and punish them.

The maid dances under the protection of either the prince or the slave, and she may be kidnapped, and then the prince will have to fight until he regains her. Sometimes a poetry contest is held to compose poems to flirt with the maid; whoever writes the best poem becomes her groom, and the audience (along with the Prince of Eid, the maid, the slave and the old woman) participates in some dramatic or theatrical scenes (for example, the court, or a duel) in improvised scenes. Some games may happen concurrently with the celebration. Some rituals differ from one region to another, while others are due to the changes that have affected the phenomenon.

In some areas, the Price of Eid is said to visit villages or homes, and people give him some money. Perhaps this is why the collective ritual has disappeared and only a few people continue to play this role.

ِArtwkork by Rasha Sharhan

Between folk drama and rituals

The main characteristics or elements of the Prince of Eid celebrations indicate that we have a dramatic activity or a celebration of a folkloric drama: folkloric drama is generally made up of ordinary people’s dramatic activities in popular festivities, religious rituals, and other occasions.[2] However, the dramatic features in the Prince of Eid celebrations are manifested through a character that acquires his artistry from a performance that goes beyond the ordinary to character interpretation or personification – not only in terms of the mask that is a feature of the actor/actors performance but also performing in the presence of an audience that participates in various ceremonial rituals or in dramatic scenes, such as flirting with the maid, her abduction, the fight to get her back, the trial, and the sword duel.

Nevertheless, we cannot consider the Prince of Eid as a complete drama, as the basic elements of drama are absent; elements such as dialogue, plot, conflict, a beginning and an ending. There is not so much a dialogue here as much as an improvised performance from one fixed character, which may be increased in some areas when the maid and the slave attend alongside the Prince of Eid. But all of them remain stereotypical characters who play semi-fixed roles, as there is no plot, no interconnectedness in events, no dramatic beginning or ending. We are just seeing a large festival interspersed with performances that may include some dramatic touches such as the trial, the abduction of the maid, and the fight to get her back. However, these events are repetitive and typical.

There are no boundaries between the actor and the audience as we do not have an actor-audience relationship as in the theater. Even though the Prince of Eid (as well as the maid and the slave) is completely distinct from the audience through his disguise/mask, the relationship between the actor and the audience is interactive. This interaction is played out through audience participation, either directly or indirectly, responding to the actions done by the Prince of Eid or the nature of the audience’s actions and behaviors as performers and being part of the show. This flexibility in the relationship extends to the nature of the location, which appears to be unfixed or moving, with the exception of dramatic scenes such as the trial or the duel, which are clearer through a specific ‘circle’.

The dramatic elements in the Prince of Eid phenomenon are weak compared to other forms of folk drama, such as the storyteller in Levant and Maghreb countries and the poet in Egypt. We are, in the case of the Prince of Eid, before a folk drama that is at its simplest form, closest to the earliest theater, and this in itself is of great importance. It may be a vivid example of the oldest form of drama and its roots, ritual drama, known in the civilizations of the ancient world and represented in the religious ceremonies and rituals of the Greeks and the civilizations of the East. This type of ritual drama consisted of religious scenes and hymns, and from this the drama, in its Aristotelian concept, has developed – and to it the roots of theater in general return.

This type of drama is not based on character or plot, but on the ritual as a whole, and therefore it is characterized by collectiveness; that is, audience participation in the ritual in general in order to achieve the nature of the ritual as an act of worship. Moreover, what distinguishes the general setting in this ritual theater is that it is an open setting that permits the interaction of the audience and the performers, and the audience with one another, which strengthens the importance of the location as these celebrations deepen its sanctity or its significance for the community, because it will remain an arena for playing, social gatherings and events in all their forms.

The Prince of Eid celebrations are characterized by music, dancing and masks, which are the three elements found in ritual drama, where the rhythm has its role in embodying the merging moment and transcendence over the ordinary. Therefore, it is present in many religious rituals that are accompanied by movements of the body that symbolize the union of a person with their soul and their true essence, which the music–dance duality means, and therefore truly representing this transcendence. Technically, dancing refers to the most prominent features of primitive theater and the roots of drama, where dancing includes the elements of drama in its simple form: an act that is being manifested, an actor manifesting this act, and an audience watching this manifestation.[3] This is achieved in the case of the Prince of Eid, with dancing the center of his performance. However, his association with a religious occasion indicates that point in which dancing in primitive cultures has shifted from expressing special emotions to a religious ritual. Perhaps that is why the Prince of Eid’s role goes beyond the act of dancing to forcing people to dance; that is, forcing them to be part of the religious ritual, and not participating being considered a violation that deserves punishment, just as it is the case with acts of worship.

Therefore, the main idea behind the Prince of Eid is revealed in the celebrations that people go to in order to enjoy and entertain themselves. They meet and leave behind them all differences and disputes and even drop all aspects of social hierarchy, to be taken over by the Prince of Eid who has absolute power and the supreme word that cannot be objected to. He is an unknown person and does not represent any class or tribe, clan or village; he represents everyone and no one at the same time, and this is precisely what gives him the status of a ritual actor, as the ritual actor is “not a professional actor in the literal sense, but rather an individual assigned by the group to perform sublime tasks, namely preserving the most important dramatic moments of existence”.[4]

The mask has the main role in this, as the Prince of Eid is nothing but an ordinary person who has given up social personality to acquire a new appearance through the mask and its connotation in ritual theater as it refers to the self. Once the actor puts the mask on, he drops his social body and the mask becomes a representation of his deepest and most profound state, while simultaneously it symbolically manifests an image of the ego of the group/the audience. That is why the audience will interact with the Prince of Eid, or will comply without any objection to his judgments. The mask, then, can play an important role “in organizing the social structure, as it was the link between the human and divine world, which is its living image on earth”.[5]

Does the Prince of Eid have an origin in ancient Yemen?

The Prince of Eid appears with a bull’s head mask, a robe made of the skin of the sacrificed animal, and in his hand the bull’s tail, on an occasion where sacrificing an animal is significant. This leads us to think of the ‘bull’ and its symbolism in ancient Yemeni religions, where the bull was the actual embodiment of the image of the deity (the moon) on earth and was a symbol of fertility and agriculture. Many statues and rock drawings that show this sacred animal have reached us from ancient Yemen. Some of them show a ‘human being’ with a bull’s head mask, or ibex, and he is dancing (and there are people with half-raised arms; the body and legs are on the side, sometimes carrying masks, and it seems that they are sharing in dances depicting ritual and/or cultural hunting scenes),[6] which may refer to religious rituals, especially since this practice is still present in the folkloric culture in Hadramawt, and in the Prince of Eid traditions.

There is a painting of important significance in our context, in which two human figures appear, one of which is a male who appears to be dancing and of close resemblance to the Prince of Eid, where his head is decorated on one side with two thick, short horns. He has a tube along the length of his left thigh, and it has a line that starts from the armpit that looks like a tail or a handle of a tool or a weapon. At the level of the belt, a type of long stick carried on the back appears, the ends of which extend past both sides. The human figure appears to be dressed in animal skin, which hangs from both hips. The other figure is of a female; . The face is decorated with three extra elements: two ibex horns, and a delicate, sagittal tip.[7]

The two figures are wearing masks and dancing, and so we find an ancient origin to the Prince of Eid and the maid which goes back to the ritual drama of ancient Yemen that has survived into folklore. The mask is an important element in the oldest forms of drama; the celebrations that were held for the god Dionysus, for example, and according to Aristotle, were having “masked characters that combine human features for the face with animalistic features for the rest of the body, and so they would have a human face, a horse’s tail and goat legs”.[8] Moreover, in ancient Egypt, worship rituals were represented in sacrificing the bride of the Nile during the flood season. Yemeni folklore has preserved for us an indication of the existence of such rituals in the past. In Hadramawt and within the traditions of caribou hunting, some hunters perform ritual dances after returning from hunting, waving antler horns above their heads as if that is what has remained from the ancient pagan rituals.[9] The same is seen in the rituals of visiting the tomb of the Prophet Hood, which claims is a remnant of the rituals of Hajj in ancient Yemen, which could be related to sacred marriage rituals.[10]

The ritual of visiting the tomb of Prophet Hood in Hadramout to be close to the traditions of the Prince of Eid celebrations, as the figure of the Prince of Eid with the bull’s head mask resembles the figure of ‘Sheba’, which is a statue of an old man with the head of an ibex for the rituals. This shows the significance of both the ‘ox’ and ‘ibex’ as two religious symbols in ancient Yemen. As for the maid, the bride ‘Wassila’ resembles her in the ritual of visiting the tomb of Prophet Hood. However, the groom is an unknown character, for the old man is not the groom according to Werner Daum. The old man is the symbol of the ibex that should be killed, and consequently the person who succeeds in killing the ibex/the old man is the groom. Likewise, there is nothing in the Prince of Eid that indicates that he is a groom; we can only assume that he is the one who frees the maid from being kidnapped or who flirts with the maid, as this is a theme indicating a transformed pattern that was previously more profound and related to the religious ritual.

ِArtwkork by Rasha Sharhan

The Prince of Eid and the rituals of Hajj in ancient Yemen

The Prince of Eid celebrations are exclusively related to Eid al-Adha, which is the feast of Hajj and sacrifice in Islam. Yemenis sacrifice like all Muslims, but the traditions of sacrifice they have still preserve some pagan features, such as decorating the bulls with horned poppy and basil, perfuming them with incense, walking around the village with them and trampling the blood of the sacrifice, believing that it has healing powers – as well as other beliefs about the bull to glorify it and its horns. These sacrificing traditions are part of Hajj rituals in ancient Yemen and are not present in Islam. Yemenis do not sacrifice a cow (female ox) according to a prohibition that was passed as law during the Hajj rituals in the past, and this is indicated by god’s Talab inscription, which forbade his followers to hunt pregnant and breastfeeding ibexes, and prohibited harming a pregnant  camel,[11] and we believe that this includes cows as well. On Eid al-Adha, Yemenis do not sacrifice a cow, and those who do so are defamed in a custom called al-Harawe’a in some areas of Ibb. The defamation rituals are part of the Prince of Eid tradition, as the choice of the person who will play the role of the maid is the person whose sacrifice was a cow.

The Prince of Eid celebration in Yemen continues over a period of ten days, starting often from the first day of Eid, which is close to the period during which the Hajj rituals were performed in ancient Yemen, and lasts about nine days. The similarity goes beyond that to other details, as the celebrations are interspersed with two main elements: the parade, either during the exit from the village or after gathering somewhere outside the host village or in a symbolic place in the middle of the area, and celebrating by singing poems and dancing to the rhythm of the flute and the beating of drums. This does not differ from the Hajj rituals in ancient Yemen when the people used to walk in religious processions; there are roads in ancient Yemen that “connect the temples inside and outside the cities, which can be considered as religious processions paths, such as the road between the Awwam Temple and the Bran Temple”.[12] On the whole, Hajj was considered as a celebration as it was generally accompanied by “some worship rituals that are common in religious ceremonies, such as burning incense, dancing and gathering in a circle around the idol, and recitation accompanied by the use of Sabian musical instruments, such as the lyre, the lute, and the drum”.[13]

The Hajj in ancient Yemen was known as small tribes making pilgrimages to their gods, as part of the political and social function of the Hajj in strengthening the ties between them. .[14] We assume that the opposite will happen at the dissolution of the state/union, meaning the tribes will return to make pilgrimage to their tribal gods. Perhaps this is what happened after the dissolution of the Himyarite Kingdom. It seems that the Prince of Eid is a representation of this, in that we are facing an annual tradition carried out by a group of villages (tribe/province), as a symbol of the tribal bond between them in order to strengthen the bond through this celebration. It is true that there is no deity here, and perhaps that is why we see villages make pilgrimages to one another as a manifestation that none of them is sovereign over the other. However, we find that some areas in Yemen, in their celebration of Eid al-Adha, visit a symbolic place within the region, either before they go to the host village or on the last day of Eid celebrations, indicating a sacred or a gathering place for the tribe. Indeed, this place may be a shrine for a holy man (Wali), or a square or a rock of significance.

The Hajj was an occasion to declare a new king or ruler, or renew loyalty to the existing ruler, as well as appointing a commission for Hajj, or declaring positions related to priesthood or a representative of God,[15] whose function was to organize the Hajj and its affairs and arrange the ranks of people. This is exactly what the Prince of Eid does, but he also goes beyond this as he has absolute power in this celebration that seems to be all that remains from the ceremonial, symbolic and inauguration rituals that were known of the Hajj among Yemenis in the past. And the deity had authority and sovereignty over it, embodied in his representatives.

The god of Qataban,was described as Baal Hajj, meaning the master of Hajj (the god of Hajj).[16] One of the months was called Dhuhijtan, meaning Dhu al-Hijjah, and it may have been known more widely in Yemen, but it does not seem to coincide with the month of Dhu al-Hijjah, which was known to the people of Makkah and later became the date of Eid al-Adha. What is important is that the Hajj was known in ancient Yemen, and it had its known month, and it is not unlikely that its rituals might have transformed to the history of the Islamic Hajj, preserving many of its details, and it is present in the community as folklore that has been passed down from generations and there is the possibility that the many forms of folklore, from their ancient origins, had a religious essence, and the Prince of Eid celebration appears to have been one. In addition, the map of the celebration or being centralized in Ibb and al-Dhale’e is itself in the center of the Himyarite state, the last of the ancient Yemeni kingdoms and the closest to us. We are always astonished by the folklore of this region, which is full of cultural elements, traditions and rituals that seem to retain many of their original features that were in ancient Yemen


[1] I lived in the village of Al-Joran during part of my childhood, as it is the birthplace of my father, and part of our family lives there now. There, I learned about the different shades of folklore that did not exist, or that disappeared in my hometown of Aram (Anas District, Dhamar Governorate) even though the distance between them is only about 10 km.

[2] ‘Glossary of Literary Terms’, prepared by Ibrahim Fathy, The Arab Encyclopedia of United Publishers, Sfax, Tunisia, 1988 AD, p.160.

[3] Yassin Attia, ‘The Religious ritual and Dramatic poetry in the Birth of Theatre and Its Development’, Mominoun Without Borders, see: https://www.mominoun.com/articles/

[4] Ritual Theater Techniques, p. 57

[5] Ritual Theater Techniques, p. 54, 55

[6] See Madiha Rashad, Marie-Louise Enzan, ‘The Art of Rock Painting and Settlement of Yemen in Prehistoric Times’, The French Center for Archaeology and Social Sciences, 2007 AD, p. 35 and the previous pages.

[7] See: Madiha Rashad, Marie-Louise Enzan, ‘The Art of Rock Painting and Settlement of Yemen in Prehistoric Times’, previous reference, p. 208, 209.

[8] ‘The Dictionary of Literature Terms’, dr. Magdy Wahba, Cairo 1972, p. 144, p. 499

[9] Madiha Rashad, Marie-Louise Enzan, ‘The Art of Rock Painting and Settlement of Yemen in Prehistoric Times’, previous reference, p. 117, 118.

[10] Werner Daum, ‘The Return to the Tomb of Hood … the pre-Islamic religion in Hadramout and Makkah’, translated by Muhammad Atboush (unpublished)

[11] Fathia Bint Hussein Aqab: Hajj in the religious thought of the Arabs of southern and northern Arabia from the seventh century BC to the fourth century AD, a comparative study in the light of inscriptions, deliberations of the first annual meeting: Saudi Arabia, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia through the ages, the Saudi Society for Archaeological Studies, Riyadh, 2010 AD, p.208.

[12] Fathia Bint Hussein Aqab: Hajj in the religious thought of the Arabs of southern and northern Arabia from the seventh century BC to the fourth century AD, previous reference, p. 207.

[13] Fathia Bint Hussein Aqab: Hajj in the religious thought of the Arabs of southern and northern Arabia from the seventh century B.C. to the fourth century A.D. previous reference, p. 204.

[14] Saad Abboud Samar: The Rulership of The Deity and Its Manifestation in the Performance of the Rulers of Yemen to Their Religious Rituals, Journal of the College of Education, Wasit University, Issue 38, Part One, February 2020, p. 238.

[15] See: Hussein Muhammad Al-Qidra and Ibrahim Salih Sadaqa: The Hajj Ritual in the Musnad Inscriptions, Human and Social Sciences Studies, Volume 21, Issue 1, 2004 AD.

[16] Jawad Ali: Political Thought among the Arabs before Islam, p. 401. By: Saad Abboud Samar: The Rulership of God and its Manifestation in the Performance of the Rulers of Yemen for their Religious Rites, Previous Reference, p.242.

 

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Ahmed Al-Arami

A writer and researcher, his research focuses on social and tribal structures and transformations in Yemen. Al-Arami is the author of "Yemen's Secret Religion: The Deity of Hakim Al-Falah in the Popular Tradition" published by Arwaqah House, Cairo 2019

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