Origins of Carnival
Posted on 18 February 2016
The origins of Brazilian Carnaval are remote and uncertain. Some say they took place 10.000 years before Christ in rural celebrations, when men, women, and children wearing masks, and having their bodies painted and dolled up got together in summer, performing ritual dances to chase away the bad harvest demons or to celebrate the returning to work. At winter, the fear of darkness and cold kept them inside their shelters all the time. Others say carnaval history started later in the celebrations for Goddess Isis and Apis, the holy bull, amongst Egyptians, Goddess Hertsa amongst the Teutons, or even in the Bacchanals, Saturnalias and Lupercalias, amongst Greek and Romans.
Roman Saturnalias decpcited above
Celebrations linked to natural time cycles have taken place since ancient times and they are linked to agriculture and graze, but as societies were getting more organized under strict laws, debauchery and profligacy were incorporated to festivals, they worked as escape valves when social conventions became more liberal. Such characteristics are evident amongst Egyptians and Hebrews and particularly more evident amongst Greeks and Romans.
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Thus, from December 16th through 18th when the return of the Sun allowed people to work the land again, Saturnalias were again celebrated in honor to god Saturn. It is said Saturn had taught the art of agriculture to Romans. During the Saturnalias, the social differences had an end, slaves were manumitted, schools and courts were closed. Everybody danced and sang on the streets making loud noise. These were three days in total anarchy.
Roman Saturnalias main characteristic was the opening parade with big cars imitating ships – the carrum navalis – presenting naked men and women dancing wildly and obscenely. It seems the real origin of carnival is Roman Saturnalias. Some say that the Italian expression “carnivale” originated from carrum navalis, and it would originate expressions in several other places (see etymology of the word below). Brazilian Researcher Osmar Frazão concludes: “this colored and uncontrolled Roman Carnival would be adopted by Christianity with no continuity solution, notwithstanding the holy teachings. There is truth in saying that carrum navalis was forbidden and there are no more obscene allegories, but Church finds difficulty in controlling the traditional sense of equality amongst people, permissive of some wildness.”
As a rule, during Middle Age, carnival happened with performances and liturgical senses, hunchback races, knights fights and urban “wars” with objects like eggs, in general; everything happened at night, under candle stubs fairy lights.
Back to carnival history, during Roman festivals, Lupercalias were celebrated after Saturnalias as a kind of purification, celebrating fertility. The festivals were organized on February 15th, worshipping God Pan, who killed the wolf which nursed Romulus and Remus, Roma founders. Lupercans, Pan’s priests, used to leave the temples wearing no clothes and soaked in goat blood, and after being milk-washed and covered with male goat-leather, they ran after people on the streets beating them with a belt. Virgin women, when touched, believed they would be fertile, and the pregnant ones, if touched believed they would have a painless labor. Bacchus-Dionysian festivals, called bacchanals, also profligate festivals, occurred in February and March, celebrating the return of the Sun and the beginning of spring. According to Greek mythology, Komo and Momus used also to participate in such festival orgies.
Regarding to these festivals, Francisco Duarte, Carnaval historian explains, “Saturn, Bacchus and Dionysius, from the first echelon of Greek-Roman Gods, used the “virtues” from these two Sub-Olympus Gods to “activate” their “priests and priestesses in said festivals, festivals that gave origin to our present and fond carnival. Komo and Momus promoted different aspects from the same festivals. Komo protected and stimulated body and flesh manifests, which have been perverted throughout times and have felt into lascivious Greek-Roman festivals, which landed in Entrudo: brutal and malevolent, at Komo’s image, full of wet, sensual and pantagruelic games. Momo was in charge of skilful and intelligent, clever, wise, and hilarious joy: The “decent” joy. From such aspect, which Momo motivated the elegant and fancy Carnival came up. It was first celebrated in 1855 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. From Komo, Carioca/Brazilian carnival inherited his libertine and sensual aspect. From Momo, it inherited the laugh from Lycurgus, the God of Laughter, who held fancy festivals from Middle Age and from the first phase of our ancestor carnivals.
The word Carnival:
The most objective definition is the one in Adolfo Coelho’s entry who wrote in Frei Domingos Vieira’s Dictionary: “Carnival – noun – from Italian “carno” and “vale”. The Milanese dialect has Carnelevale from latim carnevalen, from face, meat and levalen, act of taking out; thus, time when stop consuming meat, since carnival is the night before Ash Wednesday.
This etymology, which is given by Littré, leaves the oldest one out, according to which the word came from cane and vale, goodbye to meat, since there is no word for vale in Italian, and the Milanese carne levale has no doubts regarding to sound. Time for fun (the number of days varies according to countries) that ranges between the first day of the year and the day before Ash Wednesday”.