The Athletic Mascot is one of the most common modern expression of human assumption of animal identity. This series of posts will examine the roots of this phenomenon in history.
After the jump is Part One, the history of the word “mascot” itself.
MASCOT HISTORY Part 1
The dictionary defines mascot two ways:
1) An animal, person, or object thought to bring good luck,
2) Something that represents a team or group.
Notice the distinction between luck and identity. This will prove crucial, and we’ll return to it in a later post.
The word mascot had a long history prior to its introduction into English via French composer Edmond Audran’s comic opera “La Mascotte.” The earliest root is the Medieval Latin word masca, meaning witch. This passed into the Occitan dialects of southern France as masco, where the derivative mascoto also developed, literally “little witch.” This word came to be applied both to spells and objects considered good luck charms. It was the latter understanding which came to be preserved in the modern French mascotte, “a good luck charm.”
Audrian’s opera, which premiered in Paris in 1880, tells of the mascot Bettina, a lovely young servant girl who loves looking after turkeys, and who brings luck to any household she inhabits. The story concerns the rise and comical fall of the fortunes of those surrounding her as she moves from place to place.
The opera’s first song “Legend of the Mascots,” explains their origin unequivocally: mascots are God’s attempts to combat Satan’s minions., though this may say more about prevailing religious beliefs at the time than it does about this idea’s origin. Among the powers attributed to mascots are healing of diseases, accumulation of fortune, and the removal of nagging wives.
In the English translation of the song, mascots are alternately referred to as ‘hearth-sprites,’ literally, ‘spirits of the home,’ so there’s a sense in which domesticity is a defining characteristic of a mascot. Though the mascot in this story is female, it’s unclear whether this is also a requirement for mascot-dom.
What is clear, however, is that nowhere do we find hints of these same powers being conferred on animals or objects, much less any notion of the identity or representation included in the dictionary definition above. (Unless you count the song in which Bettina and the shepherd boy Pippo compare their nascent love to the deep affection they feel toward turkeys and sheep, respectively… and from whom they derive their identity? I don’t.)
The opera’s first US performance (as “The Mascot”) would occur a mere nine weeks after its debut, in New York City – no small feat considering the libretto likely had to be translated. The opera proved so popular in fact, that the word was adopted into common usage, within five years it had been performed over a thousand times, and in 1935 was immortalized in film.
Crossing the Atlantic proved to be no obstacle for the mascot idea, but more interesting for our purposes is the following questions: How and for what reason did this mascot idea expand to include the notion of identity, and how did it migrate to the world of sports?
The answer happens to be inextricably linked.
To see how it is linked, we must examine the world’s first athletic mascot, who was active in his role at least twenty years before the word actually reached American shores. Part two in this series will introduce his story.
(Banner image from La Mascotte, public domain sheet music accessed at http://imslp.org/wiki/La_mascotte_(Audran,_Edmond))