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The origins of the Carnival.

By Dr. Stefano Del Priore.

Goliardery, jokes, masked parades, rich allegorical floats, banquets and desserts, unbridled laughter and gluttony: The Carnival, in today's imaginary, represents a festive period of enjoyment and playfulness. From what originated this anniversary and what was the path to become as we know it?

The remote origins

The term "Carnival" derives with high probability from the contraction of the medieval Latin "Carnem Levare" meaning "remove and/or eliminate the meat", indicating the banquet to be held on the last day of the Carnival, the Fat Tuesday, before of purifying abstinence that would continue until the day of Lent, for a total of 40-44 days (the same period of fasting, mortification and penance observed by Christ during his wanderings in the desert), or from the classical Latin term Carrus Navalis. Moving deeply through the origins of a festivity with particular connotations such as Carnival is not a simple feat, even more so considering the many transformations undergone by it over the centuries and, even more important, the polygene of traditions that flowed into it.

We begin by affirming that the month of February, in the ancient Roman calendar, was the month dedicated to purification and reparation of errors committed: in Latin the verb "februare" meant to purify or remedy errors made and during this period rituals were officiated in honor of the archaic Etruscan divinity Februus and his consort Febronia, whose rituals reached their peak on the 14th. Following the rise to power of Christian worship the same rituals were transferred to the cult of Santa Febronia (4th century of the Christian era), before the Roman bishop and martyr Valentino (176-273) took over the celebration, translating Febronia to the 25th of June.

The distinctive traits of the carnival period can easily be traced to famous pagan festivals such as the Roman Saturnalia (treated in the article "The Origins of Christmas") and the ᾿Ανϑεστήρια-Antesteriededicated to the God Διόνυσος (Dionysos), discussed in the article " The Origins of the New Year ": these festivals were both characterized by euphoria, subversion of metaphysical and civil rules, overturning of the divine and social order, unbridled freedom and rich banquets. Over the years, however, the Saturnalia lost much of their early meaning, becoming increasingly closely linked to licentious and orgiastic connotations, under the banner of gluttony and the revelry, distinctive traits extremely like what the Carnival became during the time.

The intrinsic meaning of all this, the most remote and archaic, is to be found in a dissolution of order in favor of Chaos, the primordial Chaos destroying and generating life at the same time, within which to convey the exhausted energies of the sun to the order to propitiate the return to life, fertility and abundance. In fact, originally, as we have analyzed in previous writings, the solar year began at the beginning of spring and the agricultural cycle, usually in March: in Babylon, between the beginning of the year and the spring equinox, in the royal court the cosmic battle, renewing life, was staged between God Marduk and the Goddess of Chaos Tiamat, the Divine Dragon. The negative forces, always working to counteract the positive, would have opposed the restoration of the Order through the death of Marduk, who would rise again after three days becoming the Savior, defeating Tiamat and lacerating the body from which he would Life: in this period of resurrection, lived with great joy and unlimited freedom, the city of Babylon was crossed by imposing marches and Royal wheeled vessels on top of which the God Moon Sin and the God Sun Bēl, headed to the great temple of the city. symbolizing the renewed pact with the Earth.

In Egypt, the celebrations of the Goddess Isis in the period corresponding to our 6th of January were marked by pig sacrifices, whose meat was considered so sacred as to become "impure", and parades of masked groups.

In the Antesterie the city was crossed by a chariot, whose charioteer represented the cosmic force of the return to life following the advent of Chaos, while in Rome the old year was iconized in the appearance of a very old man, covered with worn-out skin of goat, called Mamurio Veturio, a semi-mythical character of the Roma Regia of the origins. In this extended period that led to the beginning of the year, we must not forget other Roman festivities that have helped to form the rich corpus of traditions merged into the Carnival:

- On February 13th the Parentalia were celebrated in honor of the ancestors, lasting 9 days; the doors of the temples were closed, the celebration of marriages was forbidden, and flower crowns were offered in memory of the dead;

- February 21st was the turn of the Feralia, dedicated to the Goddess Fiera, archaic Italic manifestation of dominance over nature, and it was customary to consume bread and wine next to the graves of the ancestors: this ritual was incorporated into the Christian Eucharist, but eliminating the costumanza of the graves and translating this rite into the walls of consecrated places, in the presence of a priest;

- On February 23rd it was the turn of the Terminalia, at the sixth mile of the Via Laurentina, in honor of the peaceful God Termine, this divinity, superintending physical and spiritual limits, boundaries and borders, abhorred violent sacrifices and therefore it was customary to offer flower petals and leaves, adorning his simulacra.

The last celebration that we will analyze belonging to the Roman world is the Navigium Isidis or Ploiaphesia, signifying "The Ship/Boat of Isis", that is a ritual including masked parades borrowed from the Egyptian religion: this festivity, with extremely festive and joyful connotations, celebrated the Goddess Isis and the resurrection of her brother, as well as husband, Osiris. Narrates the myth that Osiris, following a plot hatched by his brother Seth, was killed and dismembered in 13 parts dispersed then in the lands of Egypt: the inconsolable Isis went in search of the torn body of the beloved spouse, traveling by land and seas, recomposing it and bringing it back to life through a ritual that, today, we would call at least "obscene".

The festivity of Isis, arrived to us through the written testimony of Apuleius (125-170 AD) in its Metamorphoseon books XI - Le Metaformosi, reached us in its entirety, became popular at the same time as the plenary spread of the Isiac religion in the Roman world around 150 years after Christ but, of course, dates back to much earlier times, belonging to the sphere of sacred ritual of ancient Egypt: it had been celebrated since the beginning of the first full moon after the spring equinox, de factoassimilating to the Catholic Easter celebrated on the Sunday following the spring equinox. The Emperor Gaius Iulius Caesar Augustus Germanicus (12-41 of the Christian era), nicknamed "Caligula", was a faithful devotee of the Goddess Isis and thanks to the descriptions of Apuleius we can recognize with high probability of the Isiac celebrations in the great orgiastic festivals that they held in the majestic emperor's ship-palace near the lake of Nemi.

Why, however, the name of Navigium Isidis? The answer is very interesting: The Goddess Isis was in fact also a deity to protect seafarers and the sea in general and her "boat" represented the lunar, nocturnal and psychopompa boat, on which the souls of the deceased were ferried towards the Duat, the starry underworld, in whose guard was placed the cinocephalic God Anubis. The domains of Isis as protector of sailors and Lady of the Sea were later acquired by the Virgin Mary whose son, Christ, also took possession of the spheres of influence of Horus, the Egyptian Falcon God born from the union of Osiris and Isis. In the Roman religion, the isiac boat was placed on a chariot drawn by masked men, whose features recalled chthonic beings belonging to the world of the dead and the dominion of the afterlife.

In the Egyptian world, the original characterization of these creatures was frightening and disturbing but, in the Roman world, it was enriched with a detail unknown to the original ritual: laughter, the joke, the mockery. Often there were portraits, with grotesque and clumsy features, the most prominent personalities of the period such as senators, politicians, generals and even the Emperors, in the purest conception of the sarcastic and denigratory spirit against the powerful (peculiarities that, despite the millenniums passed, still qualifies the Romans today!): to the celebrations of the Carrus Navalis was admitted anyone, from the lowest slave to the imperial family, and long processions, accompanied by music, mimes, acrobats, dancers and musicians, meandered along the streets towns.

The matrons, usually linked to very strict behavioral codes concerning public life, could allow themselves ample freedom in terms of attire and attitudes, sparing the violent criticism to which they would have been subjected in "ordinary" days, participating in libations and wearing more succinct clothes like canonical peplos. The people, likewise, used to disguise themselves and masquerade themselves gravitating around the great naval wagon which held a hermetically sealed casket, symbolizing both the cosmic protogonic egg bearing new life and death itself, unfathomable and inseparably linked to the regenerating force of the Universe.

In the Roman world the masks, as tradition, represented the spirits of the ancestors who could, by virtue of the subversion of the cosmogonic and metaphysical laws, visit the earthly world and transit for some time: recognizing themselves through the masks, they could "possess "The body of the one who wore them and speak, uttering prophecies and prophecies (during these days sorcerers, soothsayers and charlatans earned huge sums, stationed at sacred aedicule and crossings of streets and authorities, albeit reluctantly, tolerated their presence).

The primordial valence of these rituals, which today could appear to profane eyes at least absurd, is to be contextualized in the eternal cycle of birth, life, death and resurrection of cosmic times within which every form of life, so deadly as divine, it was inserted: in order that a new cycle may rise under the best auspices, it is necessary to destroy the previous overturning every constitution and social order, every metaphysical law, every material and spiritual boundary, subverting the status quo of any manifestation, providing to purify through apotropaic, auspicious and goliardic ceremonies.

Wall painting from ancient Ostia depicting the Navigium Isidis, 
discovered at the field of the Magna Mater, dating back to 211 AD.

THE CARNIVAL IN THE MIDDLE AGES

As you can well imagine, the profoundly pagan and desecrating values, intrinsically linked to the spirit of this particular holiday, made the acceptance and absorption of the Carnival by the Christian religion difficult. Even in the late Middle Ages, when it would have been logical to suppose a total dominion of the religion of Christ and the complete eradication of paganism, there were still many pockets of resistance of the ancient cults in the countryside, far from population centers and therefore from the headquarters of power episcopal, especially in the forests of the Balto-Slavic regions, where these beliefs persisted until the late sixteenth century, also knowing very harsh phenomena of "conversion" to the Christian Word that resulted in real punitive expeditions with deplorable connotations.

In the Middle Ages the Carnival became, beyond the "official" curtain of the celebration, the festivity of liberation from the oppressive and dominant bonds of the Incarnate Truth, the cancellation of the hierarchical regimes imposed by the Spiritual and Temporal governments, the Two Suns of the middle age : the Feast of the Pazzi and the Asinarie (during which a donkey had gone to church and became an object of worship) entered, albeit duly "revised", among the solemn Christian celebrations concealing, despite the severe prohibitions, meanings linked to the rebirth of the Earth and to the cycle of the seasons. As well as in antiquity, unconsciously, we untied ourselves from social dictates, from the privileges of caste, from taboos, from pyramid rules and coming into contact with other "realities", in a sort of period suspended in time without contextualisation, the world it was literally "overturned". The poorer classes such as the plebeians could imagine, and live, a world where they could dream of savoring concepts that they would never have achieved in their lives such as equality, comfort, luxury and carefree: a feature that strongly refers to the value of Roman Saturnalia, although characterized by an even deeper meaning because if in ancient Rome it was possible for a freedman, a freed slave, to become rich and wealthy, this was literally a utopia for the poor in the Middle Ages.

During the festivities, entertainments, comedy, satire, music and jugglers crowded the streets for days and, at the same time, a "King" and a "Queen" of the Carnival were elected who would have been objects of dereliction, pranks and jokes rather cruel: often these "rulers" were nothing but puppets who would be bound, burnt, beheaded or drowned during Fat Tuesday. Behind these seemingly crazy gestures are actually hidden echoes of ritual sacrifices typical of the ancient world where the king's doubles were created ad hoc for this period of renewal and sacrifice: originally, in the immemorial corners of human history, the Sacred Kings were cruelly murdered for their life and their blood were considered necessary so that Mother Earth could draw from them the necessary energies, useful for her resurrection, but in time, as we have already observed with the Babylonian rulers, these beliefs were "mitigated" first with the creation of "fake" King (usually prisoners or condemned to death) and then replaced with straw and wicker puppets. Other typical figures of medieval Carnival were preachers, jesters and Clerici Vagantes who urged the people to enjoy life, reassuring them morally and trying to divert their attention from the continuing plagues, famines and wars that afflicted them: civil rites, official ones, the tournaments and celebrations were also the object of ridicule, satire and parody.

The first testimonies worthy of a certain reliability regarding the use of the term "carnevale" (or "carnevalo") come from the giullareschi texts of Matanzone da Caligano, in the XIII century, and from Giovanni Sercambi in the XV. In the same period in the papal Rome were organized horse racing called "dei Barberi" and played the game of moccoletti, in which they tried to extinguish the flame of other competitors; in Florence the noble Medici family used to organize, with enormous pomp, great parades and parades called Triumphs, in which jugglers, jugglers, jesters and masked parades performed: the Carnascialeschi Canti composed by the hand of Lorenzo de’ Medici, between which stands out the famous Triumph of Bacchus and Ariadne, a masterpiece of the Magnificent. In conclusion, as written by the religious scholar Mircea Eliade in his masterly essay "The Myth of Eternal Return", the carnival period is nothing but the legacy of the ancestral rituals of cosmic regression, precursor to a new birth of Cosmogony through the passage dissolution of Chaos: the processions of the figures (the figure of Harlequin, masked and armed with a stick, is a figure with the obvious hollows of the North European world, his name derives from the Germanic Hölle König, the "King of Hell"), the spirits of the dead, the incarnations of the Old Year and the New are nothing but purifying rites, widespread among all the Indo-European and Semitic-Akkadian peoples, necessary for the Life, renewed and full of energy, to rise from the ashes of destruction.

The ancestors, exploiting the removal of temporal and physical barriers, had the possibility of mingling again to the mortal world returning to be alive for a limited period of time and it is certainly not by chance that the masks were called Larvae, that is "ghosts, spirits", in the medieval world; likewise the orgies, the physical and spiritual mixture of the incarnated bodies, symbolized the abolition of the customs, of the legality, of the rigid social schemes. The restoration of the Illud Tempus, the moment of the original creation where every form was radically confused and merged with the Whole, symbolized the return to the origins of the Primordial Chaos, the great Cosmic Broth from which every existing form would then arise taking shape and incarnating in the materiality: the Universal Flood, the ἐκπύρωσις or Apocalypse, the Norfolk Ragnarǫk were nothing but a drowning, a conflagration on a universal scale where the Creation with all its existence would have been deprived of the body returning to a state comparable to life in the amniotic fluid or in the Prebiotic Broth. The Everything in Nothing, the Time of the Origins where every form was Life albeit devoid of substance.

Masquerade party, Aalterio by Luttrell, XIV century.

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