Unmasking the Mythology behind Carnival

Last year at this time I was living for about a month in Nice, France, during its annual Carnival (see photo). The festival’s inventive costumes, float parades, and jovial and irreverent atmosphere was not only great fun but also piqued my interest in the holiday. As it turns out, a lot of myth underlies Carnival’s rituals, and also explains why this holiday originated in southern Europe. Carnival is usually thought of as a last chance to feast and make merry before the privations of Lent, but the roots of the holiday’s rituals are deeper and older. Like the other two February holidays covered in my prior two posts, Groundhog Day and Valentine’s Day, Carnival also has to do with the seasonal transition from winter to spring.

Carnivals typically include such rituals as an irreverent parade/procession, excessive feasting and drunkenness, masks and costumes (masquerade), contests, sexual license, and role reversals in which people of lower social rank gain stature and authority and are free to speak their mind and are served by their usual masters who now must obey them. This reversal also typically includes the temporary removal of the ruler and appointment of a temporary mock ruler, who is then ousted at Carnival’s end (in some ancient cultures he actually may have been killed as a sacrifice).

Holidays having such rituals are known as festivals of dissolution (or of reversal or inversion). They normally occur during a seasonal transition from one state of being into another, whether astronomical in nature (e.g., solstice, equinox) or in terms of human activity (e.g., sowing, harvest). The biggest and most important of these festivals of transition and dissolution is the New Year’s period, but they also occur at other times of year, including the transition from winter to spring, when we witness the rebirth of nature and the increased light of the sun.

The concept behind festivals of dissolution derives from ancient creation myths. The ancients conceived of the creation process as one of instilling order and structure to the cosmos, which features pairs of opposites, multiplicity, and hierarchy. In the human sphere this meant, among other things, social distinctions and stratification, and in particular the institution of kingship, thought of as a form of order that keeps order. Before the creation existed chaos, which was eliminated as a result of the creation. Thus, for example, Genesis 1:2 depicts a formless and dark void existing before God begins the creative process. The annual progression through the seasons and astronomical alignments was thought of as a journey through distinctive stages and modes of being. The coming into being of a new stage (e.g., a new year, spring) also was viewed as a new creation, though a more modest one in terms of the particular seasonal changes that occur. But in order for such a new creation to be possible, the prior stage (e.g., the old year, winter) had to be dismantled and reduced to chaos. This recurring pattern of a reversion to primordial chaos and new creation in mythic rituals/holidays is known as “the myth of the eternal return” (Eliade). Such are festivals of dissolution.

Version 2

Carnival in Nice, France, 2015. Personal photo, by my wife Elena George.

The most fundamental holiday ritual is that of New Year’s, which in many ancient cultures was literally considered to involve the re-creation of the entire cosmos. The classic case was the New Year’s festival in ancient Babylon, celebrated near the spring equinox. Its rituals featured elements of dissolution, including the confining of the creator god Marduk in the underworld among criminals, resulting human chaos in which the populace roamed the streets looking for him, the temporary humiliation and removal of the king, the eventual battle for creation in which Marduk defeats the chaos monster Tiamat, and finally a triumphal procession and the restoration of Marduk’s and royal power (i.e., order). Other seasonal transitions constitute miniature versions of re-creation, so their festivals also feature elements of dissolution.

Carnival has its origins in the ancient Greek and Roman world. In Greece the principal festival of dissolution was the Kronia, held after the summer harvest and thus representing the transition into the post-harvest regime of life heading towards winter. It is named after the Titan Cronos, who according to myth ruled the universe during the Golden Age of mankind, where there was no hunger, death, sickness, or social distinctions or oppression. But then Zeus established the later order of the cosmos by defeating Cronos in battle. Zeus imprisoned Cronos for a while in the underworld realm of Tartarus, but eventually let him out and assigned him to rule over the Elysian Islands, a paradise of the dead where, among other things, again there was a primordial equality with no social distinctions, and other features of the Golden Age. Kronia reflects this legacy of Cronos (as well as perhaps his originally being a harvest god – he did, after all, wield a sickle). During the festival the usual order of society was suspended. Among other things, slaves banqueted and played games with their owners, who waited on their slaves, who ran riot through the streets making noise. This represented a reversion to the Golden Age of Cronus when oppression and social distinctions did not exist (Burkert, pp. 231-32). At the end of the festival, a criminal who had previously been condemned to death (a mark of chaos and disorder) was led out, given wine, and slain (Harrison, p. 110). This marked the end of dissolution and the moment of transition into the next seasonal modality of being.

The Romans identified their god Saturn with Cronus (an exile after being defeated by Zeus, landing in Italy (Virgil, 8.320-25)), who as a historical matter may have landed in Rome through Greek influence on Etruria, where he may originally have been an agricultural deity, especially of sowing. Saturn’s festival, called the Saturnalia, was traditionally December 17-23, which was both just after the winter sowing and at the winter solstice. After 153 BCE, when the civil New Year was transferred from March 1 to January 1, the Saturnalia also served as the winding down of the old year. As a result, the holiday became the classic Roman festival of dissolution. At the start of the festival in Rome, the cult statue of Saturn, who was bound by woolen fetters all year, was released, signifying a time of liberation. After a sacrifice to him and a banquet open to all people on December 17, the celebrations became a festival of reversal, which like in the Kronia was a reversion to the Golden Age. Masters waited on their slaves, who ate before their masters did. The formal toga was shunned in favor of colored Greek-style clothing (the synthesis), and both master and slave wore the conical felt cap (pilleus) which was the mark of a freedman (i.e., slaves, being not free, could not normally wear it, meaning that he was “free” for the period of the festival). Slaves were also entitled to free speech, and they could disrespect their masters. Slaves and masters played gambling games together, and there was also gambling on the streets. Women played a more prominent role than usual. People also wore masks and costumes. Overeating and drunkenness was the rule. In the imperial period (though not before), a mock “king” (actually princeps, perhaps in response to this informal title adopted by Augustus) was appointed for the duration of the festival, whose orders had to be followed.


Portrayal of Roman Saturnalia

Rome also had another old festival in late-February, the Regifugium (“flight of the king”), tied to the coming of the traditional March 1 New Year and the coming of spring. There the real king (this was the ancient time of the kingship) temporarily abdicated in favor of a mock king, who at the end of the festival fled (or originally might have been sacrificed). During the festival people held costumed celebrations and dances (Aveni, p. 74). This was also the time of year when epagomenal days were inserted after the end of the year in order to readjust the calendar, thus creating a liminal period out of normal time (York, pp. 229-42). (Originally, the Romans had no months between December and March.) This period of the Roman calendar, the same time as European Carnival, appears to be the true Roman source of the Carnival-type rituals that later appeared in the Saturnalia after January became the beginning of the civil New Year.

The European Carnival originated in Italy and harks back to these local traditions. When Christianity took hold, the Lenten season leading into Easter matched the transition into spring in timing and in spirit. Carnival became an institutionalized pre-Lenten festival of dissolution. At the practical level, it was an opportunity to eat up the last winter stores of meat which would soon be spoiling. (The word Carnival probably comes from the Italian carne levare, meaning to take away meat (OCY, p. 603)). Likewise, it was a last chance to eat cheese, milk, and eggs, which were forbidden during Lent. This was accomplished by making pancakes for the occasion, which also symbolized the spring sun.

Carnival spread form Italy into southern France (of which the Nice Carnival is a legacy) and the Iberian Peninsula. From France it spread to New Orleans (Mardi Gras) and from Iberia to Rio. On Mardi Gras, we still have a mock king who rules the French Quarter of New Orleans until midnight on Ash Wednesday. In the north of Europe, Carnival as such did not become such a typical tradition, but equivalent rituals of dissolution, including masquerades, developed on Shrove Tuesday, especially in the British Isles. The Jewish festival of Purim gained its masquerading and general dissolution tradition among Jews in 15th-century Italy, influenced by Carnival there.

So as we don our Carnival masks, it is instructive to remember that the mask entails not only our own personal temporary transformation into another archetypal being in sacred time, but also that doing so sets the stage for (and according to older mythical thinking, assists in) a more fundamental transformation of the season and stage in our normal life.

Sources and Bibliography

Aveni, Anthony. The Book of the Year. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Blackburn, Bonnie, and Holford-Strevens, Leofranc. The Oxford Companion to the Year. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999 (cited as “OCY”).

Burkert, Walter. Greek Religion. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1985.

Eliade, Mircea. The Myth of the Eternal Return: Or Cosmos and History. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1954.

Hansen, William. Ariadne’s Thread: A Guide to International Tales Found in Classical Literature. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2002.

Harrison, Jane. Prologomena to the Study of Greek Religion. Princeton: Princeton University Press, (1922) 1991.

Macrobius, Saturnalia.

Virgil, The Aeneid.

York, Michael. The Roman Festival Calendar of Numa Pompilius. New York: Peter Lang, 1986.

© Arthur George 2016

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7 Responses to Unmasking the Mythology behind Carnival

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