History of Carnival

History of Carnival

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The Origins of Carnival

Carnival has to be the oldest known public festival in the whole world, with some scholars suggesting it emerged as early as 10,000 BC, from the seasonal farming rituals of ancient peoples, annually greeting the return of the Spring Solstice, with rituals involving lots of singing and dancing.

The ancient civilizations of the Nile Delta were celebrating spring with fertility rituals in honor of the first harvests, in 6,000 BC. Later on, around 4,000 BC, the annual festivals held in honor of the goddess Isis and the bull-god Apis (Egypt), Ishtar (Babylon), Astarte (Syria) already exhibited evidence of carnival behavior, and the same can be said in relation to the festivities for the goddess Herta (Erce, Erta, Berta:- Germanic, Erde; Latin, Terra (Earth), the Teutonic equivalent of the female deities above. Herta was celebrated in the Winter Solstice, an aspect of the goddess comparable to the Roman Saturn/Greek Cronos, also celebrated at that time of the year, and also in the Spring Equinox: Hretmonath, the month of March, was Herta’s sacred month.

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In Ancient Rome, Saturnalia, a festival taking place around the Winter Solstice (December 17), held by the first time around 497 BCE, was one of the recognizable precursors for what we know today as Carnival. The festival was expanded and reorganized in 217 BCE, and held between December 17 to 23. During this time, Romans exchanges gifts of copper, silver and gold coins, candles, and sweets: “All men shall be equal, slave and free, rich and poor, one with another (…). Anger, resentments and threats are contrary to the law”.

During the opening days of the festival, cars reminding the shape of boats (carrum navalis) cruised the streets of Rome, carrying naked men and women. The carrum navalis are considered one of the possibilities for the origins of the word carnavalis/carnival.During the opening days of the festival, cars reminding the shape of boats (carrum navalis) cruised the streets of Rome, carrying naked men and women. The carrum navalis are considered one of the possibilities for the origins of the word carnavalis/carnival.

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Restrictions were relaxed during the holyday and the social order inverted. Even gambling was allowed in public. A Lord of Misrule was chosen, slaves were treated as equals, excused from work for the duration of the celebrations, allowed to use dice, even permitted to wear their master’s clothing (is this the birth of Carnival costumes?), and waited on at meal time, a reminiscence of the long gone Saturn Golden Age: “during My week the serious is barred and no business allowed. Drinking, noise, games and dice, appointing of kings and feasting of slaves, singing naked, clapping of frenzied hands, an occasional ducking of corked faces in icy water – such are the functions over which I preside” (Lucian, Saturnalia). The God Saturn was identified with the Greek Cronos, receiving sacrifices according to Greek rituals, his head uncovered. Following the sacrificial offers, there was a public banquet, with celebrants constantly shouting “Yo, Saturnalia!”

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In 273 C.E., Roman Emperor Aurelianus, who had become an ardent worshiper of the Syrian sun god Baal, decreed that December 25th should be observed as Natalis Solis Invicti, “the birthday of the unconquerable sun”. Later on, in the 4th Century C.E., Pope Julius I came about with a brilliant idea to obfuscate the so important pagan festivals held in December: he decreed that Jesus Christ was born in December 25, a date that, from now on, should be celebrated by all Christians. By superimposing the Birth of Christ with the Roman festivals of Saturnalia and Natalis Solis Invicti, the Church intended to empty the pagan celebrations, an objective eventually achieved in the centuries ahead.

The Bacchanalia festivals, held annually in Rome and other cities of the Roman Empire, were a celebration honoring Bacchus, the god of wine and intoxication (Dionysius, in Greece). The Bacchanalia were introduced in Rome around 200 BCE, consisting of orgies where everything was allowed. In its original format, the Bacchanalia were held in secret, strictly a women’s celebration taking place on three days in the year, around March 16 and 17, but with the passing of time men were also allowed to participate in these rites. The infamous festival, with its well known sexual and criminal character (all sorts of crimes and political conspiracies were supposed to be planned during the festivities) got so out of hand, that it was forbidden by the Roman Senate in 186 BCE.

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In spite of the severe punishment related to the realization of the Bacchanalia, the festival continued to take place yearly, in the south of Italy, for a long time after it was forbidden. Currently we know that both, Saturnalia and Bacchanalia, its principal elements and intentions, served as early models for the carnival festivities held all over the world today.

From the Italian Peninsula, the Bacchanalia managed to survive by traveling abroad, installing itself in other parts of Europe who became part of the Roman Empire, mixing and matching with local spring fertility festivals, persisting well in to Christian times, reaching their peaks in the 14th and 15th Centuries. Deeply rooted in pagan customs and traditions, it was virtually impossible for the Catholic Church to successfully forbid the festivities, so as it was common policy of the Church, the papacy decided to join in, as a way to control its most offensive manifestations (like the medieval Feast of Fools: this festival included blasphemous impersonations of church officials and a mockery of the Mass).

The Catholic Church managed to dominate most of the carnival activities, in Europe, who eventually became tied to Lent. Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, always takes place after Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday, Shrove Tuesday, the last day of the carnival season), a reminder to all Catholics of the need to repent of the “sins of the flesh” committed during CARNE-VALE (from carnem levare, Latin for “farewell to meat”, meat here alluding also to the abuses of the human flesh and not only to the consumption of red meat), by observing the period of Lent, in which, during the forty days preceding Easter, no red meat, pork, chicken or eggs should be consumed. Having said that, this is the second possible origin for the word Carnival.

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Today Carnival is celebrated all over Europe, particularly in Latin Europe: Italy (Venice, Foiano, Putignano, Sciacca, Verona, Viareggio), France (Bailleul-Mont-des-Cats, Dunquerque, Granville, Nice, Pau), Portugal (Funchal, Loulé, Torres Vedras, Estoril, Cascais, Batalha, Nazaré, Ovar, Figueira da Foz, Estarreja, Canas de Senhorim, Bragança, Island of Madeira) and Spain (Barcelona, Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Madrid, Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Santhiago de Compostela, Sitges, Villanova í La Geltrú).

Elsewhere in the European continent, carnival can be found annually in Switzerland (Basel), Belgium (Binche), Germany (Bremen, Mainz, Munich, Cologne), Austria (Sillian, Ebensee am Traunsee, Bad Schoenau, Villach, Tirol), Croatia (Rijeka), Hungary (Mohács), Bulgaria (Sofia, Pernick and United Kindgdom (called Pancake Day, a festival held annually in several cities).

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The Use of Masks in Carnival

The earliest accounts of the use of masks in European culture can be found during the Dyonisius festival, in Ancient Greece. Masks were an important element in Greek Theatre, introduced to represent pre-historic archetypes of the collective unconscious: through the mask, these archetypes are allowed to take form and shape, emerging to human consciousness.

Historically, masks were used in public festivities all over Italy but particularly in Venice, though nobody knows exactly when its presence became a routine. What is known is that, in 1268, an ordinance was passed in Venice, regulating the use of masks, evidence alone of its widespread use. Elsewhere in Europe, the use of masks during the carnival festivities was common, since many of the participants, particularly noblemen and women, didn’t want to be recognized as participants, for obvious reasons! Masks were skillfully made of papier- maché, and its use became so widespread that masks makers reached artisans status as early as the 15th Century.

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During the Middle Ages, popular street Carnival had become part of European folk culture. Carnival festivals were held in different times of the year, not only before Lent, and were a time when disguised street bands would emerge, hitting the streets using elaborate masks, where one could perform, sing politically incorrect songs, perform plays and participate in open air drama.

Some historians claim that Carnival flourished like nowhere else in France, where it was aggressively used as an escape valve against the harsh realities of a difficult life, permeated by wars, feudal oppression and plagues. The French took Carnival to the next level when, in February 1580 the festival was used to masquerade a peasant revolt in a French town called Romans, turning in to a violent massive protest against the tax system and the high cost of food. The rebels were masked but that didn’t keep them from being killed by the disguised merchants, who discovered the plot shortly before it hit the streets. The festivities ended in bloody chaos, mixed with widespread panic, all at the sound of music!…

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Carnival was brought to the Americas by colonizers, and can be found in virtually all countries of the New World, from Canada (Quebec, Montreal), to the United States (Boston, San Diego, Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Tampa, New Orleans), Central America and the Caribbean (virtually all countries observe Carnival), to South America, particularly Brazil, where we can find the most famous carnivals in the world.

The first Carnival ever to take place in Brazil was organized, in 1641, by Governor Salvador Benevides, of Rio de Janeiro, in honor of King D. João IV, restorer of the Portuguese throne. The festivities were held for a whole week, from Easter Sunday on: there were street parades, combats, blocks of “sujos” and masquerades. Another important Carnival took place in 1786, coinciding with the festivities in commemoration of the royal wedding of D. João and Princess Carlota Joaquina.

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As a popular manifestation, Carnival is known to have arrived in Brazil in the 17th Century, brought by Portuguese colonizers from the Azores and Madeira Islands. It was then called Entrudo (from the Latin introitus = the beginning, the opening, in this case, the opening of the Lent period of mortification), a very violent and unsettling version of Carnival: during these festivities, it was common practice among the poor people, the majority of participants at the time, to throw garbage, fruits, eggs, dirty water etc., in whomever adventured to walk in the streets. Some of these attacks had undesirable consequences, even with the death of participants. By the 18th Century, the Entrudo took place in the majority of Brazilian cities, but its violence was the reason of an Imperial order, forbidding its realization, in 1853.

The beginning of the 19th Century saw the Portuguese Crown being forced to transfer to Rio de Janeiro, due to the threat of the Napoleonic Wars: Napoleon announced the annexation of Portugal to the French Empire, so the Portuguese King, D. João VI, decided to move as fast as he could, bringing his court and royal protocol to Brazil, avoiding the humiliation of power transferring to the invader. En vogue among all royal houses of Europe was the French etiquette and customs, so it wouldn’t be long before masquerade balls were organized by the local elites.

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The first masquerade ball was held in Hotel Itália (Rio de Janeiro), in January 22, 1840. Tickets were sold for 2,000 réis and included complete dinner. After that, the organization of mask balls became a routine, the only possible option for the middle and upper classes who wanted to participate in the Carnival. The poor people continued participating in the Entrudos, in spite of its prohibition (never firmly enforced). In any case, the Entrudos became much more civilized, less violent, a real opportunity for the poor, the slaves and disenfranchised to have fun.

In 1846, the use of drums were introduced in the entrudos by a Portuguese known as Zé Pereira (José Paredes), a common custom in Portugal. After that, the use of musical instruments became a norm during these streets festivities, the current samba schools being the historic consequence of this brilliant idea of an obscure Portuguese immigrant. These first samba schools embryos, later called “cordões”, (cords) were formed by groups of blacks and poor whites, who also ended up incorporating the European use of costumes and masks during Carnival.

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Another group organized by poor people eager to participate in the Carnival annual festivities, was the “rancho” (ranch). Both, cords and ranch, disappeared during the 1920’s, with the advent of the samba schools, trade mark of Rio de Janeiro’s Carnival. With the inauguration of color tv in Brazil, in 1970, the samba schools gain tremendous exposure, becoming evident, for the local government, that they should be used to attract tourism to the city. Today, not only the samba schools are tv broadcasted during Carnival, but also the huge carnivals of Salvador, Recife and Olinda.

Carnival and the Gay Movement

During Carnival, in most states capitals, gays have their own events, though they are never exclusive since in Brazil gays usually mingle with the rest of society. It is a strange country: according to Brazilian gay activists, Brazil is the country registering most violence against gays in the whole world, yet it is also the only country in the planet where a transvestite became a national male sexual symbol! It happened in the early 80’s. His/her name was Roberta Close, and the Playboy edition where he/she posed nude sold out in less than two days!

Anthropologist and gay activist Luiz Mott, founder of the most militant gay group in the country, the Grupo Gay da Bahia, witnessed twice in favor of Brazilian gays applying for political asylum in the US (both cases were decided in favor of the petitioners). According to Mott “Brazil is, unfortunately, the world champion in assassinations of gays, lesbians and transvestites. Every three days the news reveals the murdering of a homosexual, victim of homophobia, victim of a violent crime. Brazil is a very contradictory country, for at the same time it exports transvestites to Europe, applauds the intense gay presence during Carnival festivities, on a daily bases it discriminates, humiliates and kills gays.” Mott succeeded in convincing the Federal Council of Medicine to remove homosexualism from the list of recognized diseases, in 1985.

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Still, Carnival is a privileged time for homosexuals, a time where they can exhibit their talents and artistic tendencies (the most famous Carnival costume designers, and also most participants of costume contests are gays). In the past few years, it is unquestionable that the very homosexual presence in the country’s everyday life was made more evident, and this happened in part due to Carnival and its process of creation, a field of work where gays play a very important part.

In the last few years, more and more gay Carnival events are inaugurated, particularly in the states capitals. Florianópolis has the Concurso Pop Gay, Brasília launched, in 2004, the Bloco Galera do Arara, Bahia launched Bloco Amuleto, and Filhos da Candinha, a samba school from Porto Alegre announced that this year’s theme is homosexualism, in an attempt to help the struggle against gay discrimination. Olinda also has plans, a “beijaço”, a public intervention where gays will kiss their partners, after manifesting against the indifference of the authorities when it comes to violence against gays.

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In the last few years, more and more gay Carnival events are inaugurated, particularly in the states capitals. Florianópolis has the Concurso Pop Gay, Brasília launched, in 2004, the Bloco Galera do Arara, Bahia launched Bloco Amuleto, and Filhos da Candinha, a samba school from Porto Alegre announced that this year’s theme is homosexualism, in an attempt to help the struggle against gay discrimination. Olinda also has plans, a “beijaço”, a public intervention where gays will kiss their partners, after manifesting against the indifference of the authorities when it comes to violence against gays.

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There is no doubt that Carnival can be a very important vehicle, when used by the still incipient gay movement in Brazil, in the quest for the country’s recognition of their rights to a normal existence, without the daily threat against their lives. Taken for granted in many countries in the world, this revendication is still a very distant dream in the Brazil of today.

cc gaybrazil.com 2014

Carnival in Gay Brazil Photo 17The History of Carnival is something that we here at Gay Brazil love. We have shared in many wonderful carnival celebrations with friends from around the globe.  We thank everyone from Houseboy, Bareback and Boytoy for the wonderful parties and celebration at Carnival for many years!

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