The Roots of Carnival

by Jacob Devaney

The Latin root of the word “carnis” means “flesh”, or “meat”; Carnival translates as “putting away meat”. Similar to festival (end of feasting), Carnival is the season leading up to modern Lent fasting (Mardi Gras being the day before Ash Wednesday) and purifying before Easter. Like most ancient rituals, the roots of Carnival dig deep into antiquity and was usurped by the medieval church, like many ancient rituals. Most masking traditions (Chinese New Year, Feast of Fools, Day of The Dead, Mummers, Halloween, Carnival/Mardi Gras) occur in the mid-place between equinoxes and solstices, and coincide with revelry that brings in the new year or season.

In ancient times the whiteface was worn by a shaman, was made of ashes, and represented a ghost (the Holy Ghost?) ancestral spirits or the Dead. So it is interesting to note that Ash Wednesday (the name Wednesday derives from the Old EnglishWōdnesdæg, or Wodens Day, in reference to the Germanic god, Woden), continues the ancient Pagan tradition through the Catholic Church.

The same way that nature masks herself in the fall with colorful leaves, in the winter with snow, and the spring with flowers, we humans participate in the dance of seasons through these celebrations. Masking is a delightful experience in that it frees each of us from our day-to-day social conventions. It’s a time to turn the social norms upside-down. Historically, masked slave-owners danced with slaves, preachers dressed as prostitutes, peasants dressed as kings, and all the usual rules and laws were forgotten for a short time. Carnival also has deep roots in social rebellion and revolution. On many occasions, a bunch of angry, masked citizens stormed the castle demanding an end to oppressive rulers. Carnival hasn’t always been peaceful, and there are symbolic reenactments of past uprisings that can be seen in parade floats, and in costumes.

Carnival and Mardi Gras Day is the last day to “make peace” and “settle debts” because at midnight all is forgiven, and the revelry must end. Ash Wednesday is a stark contrast to Carnival, a time for reflection and cleansing in preparation for the coming of spring.

New Orleans has the richest Carnival Culture in America, and a 10,000-page book could not convey the depth and beauty of this city during Carnival season. My favorite element of NOLA Marti Gras culture is the Black Indians, or Mardi Gras Indians, who are descendents of African slaves that inter-married with local Indian tribes and rebelled against colonialism. For these people, a very ancient and spiritual way of life is preserved through a modern urban celebration. The most elaborate, hand-beaded “suits” with giant head-dresses, sequins, feathers, and rhinestones are created each year by many different Chiefs across the city. Hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars go into the creation of these suits to only be worn for one day. The beadwork is more than beautiful; it tells stories important to the people and the culture, past struggles, future dreams.

My favorite clowns, Giggly Sprout and Gumbo Wobbly, learned how to make intricate beaded costumes from the late great Chief Tootie Montana. There is a wonderful video called “Neptune Unleashed” (see below). The video shows the costume, beadwork, fabric-dying process and ways that wearable art can keep aspects of oral tradition alive and make dreams come alive.

So, whether it is Mardi Gras, Day of The Dead, New Years, Halloween, Carnival, join in the celebration by dawning your mask and making a costume that sets you free of your day-to-day self. It is refreshing to participate in the dance of seasons along with Mother Nature, and can be personally profound to experience your self and your community through the lens of masked pageantry.

Jacob Devaney is co-founder of Living Folklore, Inc., founder and director of Culture Collective.

13 years as a clown, stilt-walker, vaudevillian, pianist, puppet-maker, costume designer, and most recently working on books, print-media and films including an interactive children’s DVD for developing minds called Funny Bone Logic. Jacob has spent many years performing at music festivals, pow-wows, and been intimately involved with New Orleans Carnival Culture, having worked with Big Chief Tootie Montana. Jacob also co-founded The White Buffalo Children’s Foundation and leads culture exchange programs with youth from New Orleans, introducing them to Hopi, Navajo, and southwest tribes. In 1997, Tucson, Arizona was declared “America’s First Living Folklore City” by Mayor George Miller, commemorating the event with a tree-planting at Armory Park.

Learn more about this exciting work, and join in the celebration by visiting:

Gumbo Wobbly and Giggly Sprout among the Marti Gras Indians

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