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Societies > Feasts > Carnival
Published by EF041008 on 2010/1/25

The origins of Carnival date to ancient Egypt’s celebrations of Osiris, the god of death and the underworld. But it is also traced to Greece, where the ancients celebrated Dionysus, the God of wine. He was known as Bacchus by the Romans, which gives us the term “bacchanalia” .
Carnival, which comes from the word “carnevale” (meaning “without meat”) officially ends on the day known as Mardi Gras, the eve of the beginning of Lent.
This feast sread all over the world in Brazil, Trinidad, Venise, Nice, Binche,

The origins of Carnival date to ancient Egypt’s celebrations of Osiris, the god of death and the underworld. But it is also traced to Greece, where the ancients celebrated Dionysus, the God of wine. He was known as Bacchus by the Romans, which gives us the term “bacchanalia” (see the Wine Road).

This festival was appropriated by the Catholic Church which scheduled it at the beginning of the Epiphany to take place over the month before the beginning of Lent, the 40-day period of fasting and abstinence that precedes Easter.

Carnival, which comes from the word “carnevale” (meaning “without meat”) officially ends on the day known as Mardi Gras, the eve of the beginning of Lent. On the day of Mardi Gras, the faithful were supposed to exhaust reserves of oil, butter, eggs and other foods that would be forbidden for 40 days. 


This is the origin of the crêpes which allowed people to use up their supplies.
As if in a final thumb to the nose of the abstinence they would next endure, men indulged in gluttony, debauchery adorned in sequins, music and amusement. People wore disguises and masks. They danced and sang and defied interdictions with everyone’s approval.
It was a world upside down! Poor people were transformed into wealthy people, and the rich wore rags. Men were women and women were men, children changed into adults, etc.
In a great parade of cultures, Carnival allowed political powers to sidestep rebellion: panem and circenses (bread and circuses)…during Carnival people are happy and are not consumed with thoughts of injustice.

Carnival spread more or less everywhere, but its success was at first strongest in Italy in Venise. The first Doge to authorize Carnival was Vitale Falier in 1094. Carnival began with a ball and the festivities continued with small local celebrations in the fields: theatre, concerts and games took place. The games in fashion were archery, wrestling on bridges, human pyramids and tight-rope walking.

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The Venetians wore the disguises of the Commedia dell’arte, including fools, devils, and foreign costumes (like Moors and Turks). Behind the masks, people gave into all types of licentious behavior, libertine and amorous escapades and play. Even priests often gave in wholeheartedly to their desires.
Young people, disguised as clowns in Mattacino costumes, threw eggs filled with rosewater at the beautiful women passing by. As for females considered less attractive, they were targeted with rotten eggs!

In 1268, a decree was passed forbidding masked men from practicing such diversions. In the end, women’s paths were outfitted with protective nets.
Other sadistic games appeared that brutalized live animals, including cats and geese hung up alive. They were put out of their misery by being crushed to death. There were also bull fights and dog fights.

There was debauchery of all sorts, including rapes.
Carnival reached its peak and the summit of debauchery in the 18th century. Under Napoleonic rule, it was outlawed in 1797. The Austrians revived the taste for carnival, but it would no longer enjoy the same popular success.



At the same time, the French began to spread their influence throughout new territories, and on America’s shores in particular. The Antilles were conquered and settled by the French. Slavery too was introduced.
The French celebrated the first Carnival in Trinidad in 1785.
Neither slaves nor natives were admitted, but these groups celebrated their own festival nevertheless in the back courtyards. They wore masks, but these were linked back to African rituals in celebration of the dead. They also took advantage of the opportunity to make fun of their masters and imitated them in grotesque fashion. When slavery was abolished, local populations of African descent could celebrate Carnival in an official way.

The French also landed in North America (cf Pionneers New England), and it was an explorer named Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville who introduced the concept of Carnival to New Orleans in 1699 by christening a piece of land “Point of Mardi Gras” before settling in 1702 in Fort Louis de la Louisiane (known today as Mobile), where the first Mardi Gras festivals were celebrated.


Le Moyne de Bienville created a secret organization called “the Mask of Mobile”, and then another called the “Fat Beef Society”. Then, he founded New Orleans in 1718 where the first Mardi Gras was celebrated in 1740. This provided the Marquis de Vaudreuil with the opportunity to host extremely elegant masked balls.
Floats were built in the city and were no longer brought over from France.
It was decided that a King of the Carnival should be elected. This festival became an official celebration when Louisiana Governor Warmoth decided to pass the Mardi Gras Act of 1875.
Floats and special parades made their debut. 

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For example, there was the ZULU Parade which was created at the beginning of the last century by an association called the Benevolent Aid Society. It featured a King Story and a quartet leading the float, with four Dukes behind. The floats were decorated with palm fronds and coconuts were thrown on them.

The Mardi Gras Indians were also a way for the African-American population to pay tribute to the Indians for the aid given them when they won their freedom. A competition is held centered around the costumes of the great Indian chiefs. This ceremony hasn’t always been particularly calm, but it is today a way of supporting the Indians on reservations.
Other floats are presented in New Orleans, like the King’s float, the Bacchanalian float and Endymion’s float. Today it is an occasion to celebrate jazz with musicians traveling from all over to attend the festivities.


In Brazil, the origins of Carnival are found in a festival which took place before Lent and which was called “entrudo”. It was a festival where people had mud, water and food fights which often degenerated into riots. In 1840 the first carnivals with floats appeared in Rio de Janeiro.
The Samba, a mix of Angolan Samba, European Polka, African Batuques and Cuban music, first appeared in 1917.

It certainly originated among the black populations of Bahia in Brazil (which was the longtime administrative capital as well as the center of sugar and slavery in Brazil). Samba became well known among the dwellers of the favelas and it took off in popularity at the time of the abolition of slavery in Brazil in 1888.

By 1928, Samba Schools appeared, and for each neighborhood there were specific costumes. Connected with these schools, there were often behind-the-scenes charity organizations that helped the poor. Samba was therefore, in addition to a musical style, a form of release. It was the expression of solidarity with suffering people.

The Côte d’Azur, which was experiencing tremendous economic and political growth, witnessed the spread of Carnival virtually all over the world and decided to launch its own celebration in Nice. A Committee of Festivals was created in 1874 that included Alexis Mossa and his son Gustave-Adolf Mossa.

They organized float parades and designed the Heroes of the Carnival (some of these designs were also used in the Carnival of New Orleans).


The Symbolist influence of Gustave-Adolf Mossa gave the Côte d’Azur Carnival a particular touch of refinement. In 1871, Andriot Saetone organized the first Battle of Flowers, a tradition which continues today.

It honors the work of local flower producers.
But Carnival is not only a tradition of the South. Northern countries also have their tradition, like in Heidelberg, Germany or Binche, Belgium where Maria of Hungary decided to honor her brother Charles the 5th and her son Philip the 2nd of Spain.

In Dunquerque (France), the fishermen were given an extra payday by the shipping companies, and a party was thrown for them before they were sent off for 6 months at sea for the cod fishing season. This was the beginning of the Wisherbende.

Whoever you are, and no matter which continent you come from, enjoy the rhythms of the samba, jazz and hip hop. Enjoy the perfume of the flowers. Dress up in your most beautiful costume and let go and party!

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