Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Wellington the Mascot?

What is the origin of CWU's mascot "Wellington"?
At the Museum's staff meeting this afternoon, we had an intriguing conversation about "Wellington," Central Washington University's beloved mascot, evidently modeled on a cougar and closely associated with the school teams, The Wildcats. We're curious about how Wellington came to be the university mascot, and how he (or she?) has evolved over the years.
Mascots, as it happens, are a topic of great interest to anthropologists and folklorists. The term "mascot" is derived, anthropologist Ellen Schattschneider has noted, from the medieval Provencal, in which it meant a magical person or object destined to bring good luck. (The word has etymological associations with "mask".)  The term was popularized in Edmond Audran's 1880 light opera, La Mascotte, in which the title term referred to a peasant girl who had magical powers to bring good fortune to whomever possessed her, so long as she remained remained virginal.  The opera was a worldwide hit, and played in Paris, London, Tokyo and New York; the term then entered into global usage, with some interesting local twists. In Japan, mascots (masokotto) became dolls or inanimate objects.  Schattschneider writes in her paper "The Bloodstained Doll: Violence and the Gift in Wartime Japan" (Journal of Japanese Studies 31:2, 2005)  these mascot dolls were deployed as protective talismen by Japanese soldiers early during the Asia Pacific War (1931-45), and then later in the war were  used by kamikaze pilots on their final missions of no return, as ritual companions amidst the terrible loneliness of certain death.  In the US, the term "mascot" was adopted for live animals (such as the Yale bulldog) used to rally sports enthusiasts. Later, as if returning to the earlier "mask" associations of the term, mascots came to be linked to masked embodiments of school spirit,  usually in the form of animals or Native American figures.  
The modern popularity of mascots seems to exemplify the curious persistence of "totemic" thought in modern, ostensibly secular societies: as in small scale  or clan-based societies, social groupings express their solidarity through reference to an animal species or a masked being.   In recent years, as is well known, there has been considerable controversy over the use of Native American figures as mascots. What precisely is at stake in the appropriation of natural species or indigenous peoples in these contemporary semiotic forms, and why are they especially associated in the modern US with athletics?   (Hint: Perhaps Levi-Strauss' famous discussions of Totemism and of the modern significance of sports/games might cast some light on these enigmas?)
Masks are themselves fascinating cultural phenomena. In ancient or small scale societies, masked beings are supreme social personages, and in a sense an individual human being only becomes a fully realized social person when or she is authorized to wear a mask, thus embodying the mask's transcendent spirit. (Indeed our modern term "person" is derived from the ancient Latin term for mask, persona.)  What precisely does it mean, on a modern football field or basketball court, for someone to "be" the mascot, to embody the spirit of the team or the school as he or she wears the quasi sacralized mask? As in many human societies, these masked figures at times take on the personae of a trickster, and are authorized to behave in ways that violate, often humorously,  conventional codes of conduct.  It is as if modern persons secretly long that at the heart of seemingly bureaucratic, impersonal and alienating institutions there lurks an unruly, irrepressible spirit of unpredictable energy, which reaches out to each and every one of us. Perhaps the dancing, frolicking mascot serves as a ritual switch-point  through we may experience the transformative power of"collective effervescence" long ago described by Emile Durkheim in The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life?
So where does Wellington come from, and what are some special stories associated with this quasi magical being?  Speculatively, does the name Wellington have any associations with the Duke of Wellington, the victor at Waterloo, and thus connote the spirit of Victory, as as well as starting with the same letter of Wildcats?  Please post some comments or suggestions as we begin to explore this fascinating puzzle of campus cultural history!

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