views updated May 23 2018


CARNIVAL . The Christian festival called Carnival takes place on Shrove Tuesday, the eve of Ash Wednesday. In its widest sense, however, the Carnival period is of much longer duration, beginning right after Christmas, the New Year, or the Feast of Epiphany, depending on the region.

The etymological roots of the name Carnival may be the Latin caro ("meat") and levara ("to remove, to take away"), which in vulgar Latin became carne levamen, and afterward carne vale. Some etymologists also link it to carnis levamen, "the pleasure of meat," the farewell to which is celebrated in the festivities that come immediately before the prohibitions of Lent. Another hypothesis links it etymologically to the carrus navalis, the horse-drawn, boat-shaped carriage that was paraded in Roman festivals in honor of Saturn, carrying men and women who, in fancy dress and wearing masks, sang obscene songs.

If it is problematic to identify the etymological roots of Carnival, it becomes even more difficult to determine the historical origins of the celebration itself. However, the Roman feasts of Saturn, the Saturnalias, are generally recognized as the ancient forerunner of Carnival festivities. They embodied the essential carnival spirit, strongly characterized by the transgression of daily conventions and excesses of behavior. In these feasts, which took place in the midst of great licentiousness, slaves banqueted together with their masters, whom they insulted and admonished. From among them was elected a King of Chaos who, for the period of Saturnalia only, enjoyed full rights to his master's concubines, and gave ridiculous orders that had to be obeyed by everyone. At the end of the festivities, however, he was unthroned and, in the earliest form of the rite, sacrificed to signal a return to order.

Although far in meaning from the Christian Carnival, these Roman rituals contained some elements that would come to define the later and more universal concept of the feast. The inversion of prevailing normsas when servants rule mastersis of particular importance; the burlesque parodies of power and order, as seen in the dramatization of the Jester King, and the element of exaggeration, both in terms of libidinous excesses and in the inordinate consumption of food and drink, have also become prominent characteristics of Carnival. This unruliness that temporarily suspends the recognized world order has the corollary of introducing a contrast to the parameters of daily life. In other words, these cyclical rituals of disorder and rebellion show themselves incapable of administering real life because they foster the confusion of roles, licentiousness, and the mockery of power; they thus serve as a reminder of the necessity for order, which is reestablished at their conclusion.

In Rabelais and His World (Cambridge, Mass., 1968) the Russian essayist Mikhail Bakhtin presents an interesting interpretation of the meaning of Carnival in the context of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. He treats Carnival as the most evident expression of a joking popular culture with its roots in the Roman Saturnalias, which reflected the playful, irreverent side of human nature and the indestructible festive element in all human civilizations. During the whole of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, this culture of laughter resisted the official, serious culture. In opposition to the mysticism and dogmatism of the ecclesiastical culture and rigidity of the prevailing political structures, the joking popular culture revealed a world in which a playful mutability was possible and provided an experience, at once symbolic and concrete, of the suspension of social barriers. By dramatizing the comic and relative side of absolute truths and supreme authorities, it highlighted the ambivalence of reality, coming to represent the power of both absolute liberty and farce.

Using these distinctions, Bakhtin contrasts the official and ecclesiastical ceremonies of ordered society with the festivities of carnivalesque culture. He characterizes the former as rituals of inequality because they reinforce the dominant order and seek justification of the present in the past. The latter he regards as rituals of equality because they parody the stratification of power and the cult of religion, as well as provide a symbolic suspension of norms and privileges, harboring a seed of social reaction in satire.

Thus, inversion is universally at the root of Carnival symbolism, and explains the presence of such customs as transvestite costume, or clothes worn inside out, the poor playing the role of the rich, and the weak that of the powerful. This interpretive perspective also makes sense of the symbolism of death, common in Carnival celebrations; here it implies revitalization. Similarly, the dethroning and burning in effigy of the Jester King marks the end of a cycle and suggests the commencement of another, and the scatological aggressions with bodily materials like urine are a symbolic component implying fertilization. From this point of view, one can also amplify the concept of "carnivalization" to include all the symbolic processes that bring about transformations in the representation of social reality.

The most notable carnivalization of late medieval European society was to be found in the Feast of Fools, also called the Feast of Innocents. Although it took place in churches between Christmas and Epiphany, this festival was both an extreme satire of the mannerisms and mores of the court and the high church and a radical mockery of ecclesiastical structure and religious doctrine. The low church and the lower orders played an important part in it, while the high church and the nobility were its principal targets.

For the festival, a King of the Fools or a Boy Bishop, chosen from among the local choir boys, was elected to act out a parody of episcopal functions, including the distribution of blessings to the crowd from a balcony. A comic version of the holy mass was enacted, in which obscene parodies such as "The Liturgy of the Drunkards," "The Liturgy of the Gamblers," and "The Will of the Ass" were substituted for the canticles and prayers. Masked and painted, wearing the garb of the high church or dressed up as women, the revelers danced freely in the cathedrals and banqueted on the altars. The burning of old shoes and excrement replaced incense. Meanwhile, riotous processions of other revelers, wearing goat and horse masks, paraded dancing and singing through the streets.

Dances in churches are not totally unheard of in the history of Christianity; so-called shrine dances, for example, were frequent in the first centuries of its development. However, with the consolidation and institutionalization of the church, these dances were gradually abolished. In any case, the Feast of Fools had an entirely different sense. Its most striking characteristic was that of grotesque buffoonery, and in it the carnivalesque inversion was carried to its ultimate extreme. Focusing on the ecclesiastical hierarchy and religious ethics, the Feast of Fools pointed out the critical relations of medieval society and demonstrated that such a society was capable of self-criticism.

The Feast of the Ass, which took place principally in France, was a variation within the same category of rituals of carnivalesque inversion. Also part of the Christmas cycle, it theoretically commemorated Mary's flight to Egypt. The central character was, however, the ass, or rather the Ass Prince, who was richly adorned and brought in procession under a luxurious canopy to the church, where a mass was celebrated in its honor, punctuated with braying noises to which the celebrants responded by also braying.

For almost a millennium, the Roman Catholic church attempted, with perceptible difficulty, to control or ban the Feast of Fools. One of the first recorded proscriptions dates from the seventh century in Toledo, Spain. That this had little success can be measured by the numerous subsequent proscriptive edicts up to the sixteenth century, like that of Dijon, France, in 1552. The Feast of Fools died out only with the advent of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. Until then, just as it had come under severe attack, it had also produced its enthusiastic apologists, such as those who wrote the circular of the Theology School of Paris in 1444. This circular maintained that just as fermenting barrels of wine sometimes need ventilation to prevent them from exploding, the wine of human madness must have an outlet at least once a year in order to transform itself into the good wine of pious devotion.

The Feast of Fools continued for a long time in France. It was still a solidly institutionalized event in Nice in the seventeenth century, when various secular laws were passed to regulate the structuring of the profane "Abbeys of the Fools" and to formalize the powers of the "Abbots of the Fools." At the same time, ecclesiastical decrees attempted to prevent the previously uncontrolled participation of the low church in the carnivalesque festivities and dances and bind them to their liturgical duties on the relevant days.

As a result of the Nice ordinance in 1539, the carnivalesque balls were subdivided into four categories, namely, those of the nobles, the merchants, the artisans, and the laborers. Each was the responsibility of one Abbot of the Fools, aided by a certain number of "monks," who policed the ball. The "abbots" were responsible for maintaining order, for making sure that only those suitably dressed, unarmed, and wearing masks, entered, and for preventing members of a different category from attending the wrong ball. The ruling of 1612 increased the number of Abbeys of the Fools to ten and gave the Abbots of the Fools the artistic function of directing the musicians as well as the right to dance at the balls.

The Abbots of the Fools also had the right to collect charavilh, a tax paid by betrothed widows upon remarriage. Charavilh itself sometimes brought about a sort of carnival, whenever the bridegroom was reluctant to pay it. In such an instance, the "abbot" would barricade the entrance to his house and orchestrate a deafening racket with trumpets and various improvised percussion instruments, such as saucepans and frying pans, until the recalcitrant newlyweds agreed to pay. Although charavilh was prohibited in Nice in 1721, it was so deeply rooted in the popular customs of the region that there are records of its occurrence until the end of the nineteenth century.

Nevertheless, by the end of the Middle Ages, the trend everywhere was to discipline Carnival, restricting the extremes of its licentiousness and violence, while encouraging its artistic aspects. To control carnivalesque rebelliousness was, however, the work of centuries. The introduction of masked balls in the sixteenth century in Italy was the first step on the festival's path to a predominantly poetic character. Parades of floats began to compete for a place in the disorderly street processions. From the combination of these two new currents flowered the fusion of carnival with art.

The rise of the Italian commedia dell'arte played an important role in the consolidation of the use of masks, lending them an artistic character and codifying human types. Previously, a wide variety of masks had already been featured in Carnival, so that they were easily assimilated into the commedia dell'arte, a theatrical genre with a close popular affinity to the festival, imbued with a similar spirit of social satire. The commedia dell'arte selected several types of masks from the carnivalesque repertory and reduced these to a certain number of character types, translating regional and psychological characteristics which, as they evolved, became more abstract and universal. It drew strongly on regional inspiration and referred to events in the day-to-day Italian life of the time, as is the nature of improvised theater. From these traditions emerged its famous characters, who, in a stylized form, dominated the three subsequent centuries of the carnivalesque scenario in Europe. The characters of the commedia dell'arte embodied various satirical social types of the Italy of that period: Pantaloon, for example, was the rich, greedy, and libidinous merchant; the Doctor represented the pedantic drunkard and charlatan; and the Captain was boastful and full of bravado, but a complete coward. Harlequin, Colombine, and Pulcinella are the most famous of these figures. With time, all modified their characteristics. Initially, Harlequin represented the ignorant rustic who thought himself intelligent and whose poverty was evident in the patches, later sophisticated into lozenges, on his clothes. Pulcinella belonged to the same category of clowns and buffoons, though he was also crafty, as did Colombine, who evolved from a simple peasant girl to a calculating and extremely cunning maidservant. From the fusion of the commedia dell'arte with the masquerades of other cultures came a number of other characters, such as Pierrot, from France, who became an eternally present and central character in Carnival.

The commedia dell'arte and the Italian Carnival had much in common, as a result of their shared spirit of buffoonery and improvisation, each making the other more colorful and fertile. In Renaissance Florence, Carnival songs made fun of the private lives of certain social groups, with themes like "the goldsmith's song," "the song of the poor who accept charity," and "the song of the young wives and the old husbands"; by means of their festive ambivalence, they revealed the ridiculousand usually censoredside of social conventions. Under the patronage of the Medici family, the Florentine Carnival was typified by the singing of these songs on flower-covered, ornamented triumphal carts, which were the models for the later Carnival floats of the Baroque and Romantic periods. In Turin, too, there were parades of flower-covered carts and floats as well as tournaments and cavalcades. In Venice, as throughout the Italian Peninsula, masks were the distinguishing feature of Carnival. Celebrated with the great solemnity afforded by the presence of the doge and Signoria and accompanied by a fireworks display, it contrasted with what happened in the streets, where there were battles between rival groups and a bull was sacrificed. Another element of Venetian Carnival was the flight of a man on ropes to the top of the campanile of Saint Mark's, since Carnival was also a time to challenge and exorcise the forces of nature.

Carnival in Rome was typified by a complex symbolism of violence, death, and resurrection. In Pope Paul II's time, in the fifteenth century, it was transferred to the Via Latta, which became the traditional setting for the carnivalesque parades called Corso. The Roman Carnival was essentially a series of masquerades and horse paradesthese abolished only in 1833culminating on Shrove Tuesday with an impressive candlelight procession, in which the participants, shouting "Death to him who has no candle," tried in whatever ways they could to put out one another's candles. In the carnivalesque revelry, the literal meaning of the threat of death was tempered, blending into the essential ambivalence of Carnival imagery. The procession ended with a Pantagruelian feast in the early morning of Ash Wednesday, during which immense quantities of meat were consumed in anticipation of the Lenten fast to follow.

As a result of the Romantic movement, the following centuries saw a growing beautification of Carnival. Flowered carriages, parades, allegorical floats that grew ever more majestic and complex, and fancy-dress balls became permanent features of the celebration, wherever it still existed. The elements of violence lessened: fighting, verbal abuse, and the various forms of mock aggressionwater jets, the hurling of oranges, plaster confettigradually gave way to battles of flowers and colored paper confetti that were the new and prominent aspect of nineteenth-century street Carnival. In this way, the masses of revelers were gradually transformed from participants to spectators, to the detriment of the heterogeneous character of the festival, which had been for everyone and everywhere, unfocused and without privileged actors. In proportion as the crowds grew more controlled, the festival became spatially more limited, subordinated to rational organization, diminishing the spirit of carnivalesque improvisation and burlesque satire. In Nice, for example, where Carnival still preserved its rich tradition, a festival committee was set up in 1873. The functions of this committee were to organize the festivities, parades, and flower battles and to award prizes for the allegorical floats, functions that still exist today.

These artistic and commercial innovations passed by the Carnival in Portugal. The typical form of Portuguese Carnival, like that of the whole Iberian Peninsula, was the Entrudo, a rowdy celebration in which flour, eggs, lupines, mud, oranges, and lemons were thrown on passersby. Dirty water, glue, and various other liquids were also poured onto the crowd, and gloves heavy with sand were dropped from windows. Repeating a common New Year custom, pots and pans and all sorts of useless kitchen utensils were also thrown out of the windows, perhaps symbolizing the discarding of the old, or perhaps heralding the Lenten fast. Fierce battles were waged with plaster eggs, wax lemons, corncobs, and beans blown fiercely through glass or cardboard straws. Blows with brooms and wooden spoons were dealt out liberally. Apart from the violence and filth, the Entrudo was also a Carnival of gluttony: in the better stocked housesfrom whose windows cakes and pastries were pitchedguests feasted sumptuously. Even in the convents cakes were widely distributed.

The apogee of the Portuguese Entrudo was in the eighteenth century. This coincided with the period of the greatest popularity and prestige of masked balls in the European courts; in 1715, the Royal Music Academy of Paris transformed its opera hall into a ballroom, in use three times a week throughout the year. Masks had been prohibited in Portugal since 1689, exactly when they were at the height of fashion in the rest of Europe. The first masked ball in Lisbon took place only in 1785, offered by the Spanish ambassador in commemoration of the marriage of Princess Carlota Joaquiná with Prince João, but further masques were prohibited again immediately afterward. So the Entrudo continued to reign largely without rivals.

In Galicia, Spain, the Carnival of flour, eggs, and water was similar. It began with a chariot attack by one neighboring village on another and ended with the burial of Señhor Antroido, for whom a eulogy was written, satirizing the most notable local people and the most notorious events of the previous year.

In nineteenth-century Portugal, there were flower battles in Oporto and Lisbon. Nevertheless, the form of Carnival introduced into the American colonies by Portugal and Spain was, in substance, the Entrudo.

In Europe, it was a weakened Carnival that greeted the contemporary age. In the scientific dogmatists of the end of the nineteenth century, Carnival inspired suspicion and contempt and was viewed as an irrational, primitive, and inexplicable rite. Lacking spontaneous popular support in Europe, Carnival has, with rare exceptions, gradually lost its force in the twentieth century, until it has become a subject of interest chiefly for academics and those who have a strong affection for the past.

In Brazil, meanwhile, Carnival assumed the proportions of a national festival. Because of Brazil's multiethnic population and nearly continental proportions, its Carnival drew on many different cultural and folkloric sources, becoming the melting pot of indigenous, African, and European influences. Instead of surviving merely as a curious anachronism, it is today a living, dynamic phenomenon, modifying itself even in conjunction with the modern resources of mass communications. The Brazilian Carnival, like those of all Hispanic America, stems from the Iberian Entrudo. Begun with the Portuguese colonization in the sixteenth century, the Entrudo lasted more than three centuries before collapsing in the first years of the Brazilian republic. Prohibitions against it, however, date from its very introduction. The first recorded one is a decree of 1604, the first of many that produced no result, despite the stipulated punishments. A decree of 1853 imposed fines and detention for free men and caning and prison sentences for slaves participating in the Entrudo; nevertheless, another with identical content had to be issued in 1857.

The Brazilian Entrudo was very close to its Portuguese source: it involved the throwing of a lot of water and various small projectiles, later substituted by wax lemons. During the Entrudo, so much water was used in Rio de Janeiro that the newspapers invariably warned about risks to the city's water supply. The Entrudo was played even in the imperial palace, and whole families with their slaves dedicated weeks on end to the fabrication of wax lemons. Daniel Kidder, an American missionary who visited Brazil in the nineteenth century, advised in his Sketches of Residence and Travel in Brazil (Philadelphia, 1845) that people leaving their houses on these days should take their umbrellas with them to protect themselves against missiles and water.

In the mid-nineteenth century, the Brazilian Carnival showed clear signs of transformation. Masked balls were held, though the use of masks had been prohibited during the whole of the colonial period, just as in Portugal. Processions of allegorical carriages made their first appearance in 1855, in a pompous parade sponsored by competing groups known collectively as the Great Carnivalesque Societies, and this contrasted so strongly with the disorder of the Entrudo that from then on the characteristics of the street Carnival began to change. Originally, among these societies there were a considerable number of intellectuals; one of the relevant features of the parade each year was the presence of a "Float of Criticism," satirizing some important recent political event, about which satirical poems were also distributed.

With the abolition of slavery at the end of the nineteenth century, massive rural contingents migrated to the larger urban centers, bringing with them a great variety of regional folkloric contributions. In the first decades of the twentieth century, the activities involved in Carnival expanded, and a multiplicity of organizations, structured to a greater or lesser extent, began to make their presence felt in the street Carnival.

The Congo, a popular festivity with African roots alluding to the coronation of the "Congolese kings," began to make its contribution at this time. It was made up of several elements, among which were processions and warlike dances. From these came the majestic Maracatus, making their appearance in the Carnival of northeastern Brazil; these are choreographed processions derived from the Congo, with king, queen, and a court of princes, ladies, ambassadors, and standard- and sunshade-bearers, along with a percussion section of rhythmic drums and triangles. There was also an increase in the number of cordões loose groupings of people with masks depicting old people, the Devil, kings, queens, clowns, Bahian women, Indians, bats, Death, and so forth, who sang and danced frenetically to the accompaniment of percussion instruments.

An innovation in the Carnival of the south of Brazil were the ranchos de reis, which were taken from devotional Christmas dramatizations performed in procession, reproducing the journey of the Three Kings to Bethlehem to visit the infant Jesus. They were, however, stripped of their religious allusions, carnivalized, and took the form of rancho carnavalesco a slow-march procession accompanied by brass and string instruments, during which costumed male and female choruses, carrying small allegorical images, narrate lyrical stories while singing and dancing.

The most complete expression of the contemporary Brazilian Carnival is the samba school. These schools, which are actually associations, present a kind of mobile popular opera, each year worked around a different theme. This theme is narrated through the music and words of the Carnival samba song (samba-enredo), and the characters are represented collectively by groups of dancers and singers in costume, with the scenery mounted on allegorical floats. A samba school is divided into three basic sections: first comes the drum section (bateria), which has between two hundred and four hundred instrumentalists, who play big bass drums (surdos), side drums, tambourines, triangles, cuícas, and bells, among other percussive instruments; second is the group (ala) of composers; and last is the main body of dancer-singers and other performers of the school. Schools compete with one another during the festival. The increasing complexity of the parade, and its internal regulation, have brought about the creation of a great number of both financial-administrative and technical-artistic posts, organzing the samba schools to meet certain commercial norms. There are more than a hundred samba schools, concentrated principally in Rio de Janeiro, where they originated, each one with between two thousand and four thousand members.

The rapid rise of the samba schools is an interesting sociological phenomenon. They sprang up in Rio de Janeiro in the 1930s, from the lowest social strata. At that time, the Carnival in Rio de Janeiro was visibly stratified: the upper classes amused themselves with costumed saloon-car processions, tossing confetti and paper ribbons; working-class districts celebrated with ranchos; while the samba schools, which were still embryonic associations, attracted the remaining peripheral elements.

At first these associations suffered great persecution. Their participants, the sambistas, sometimes had to hide themselves in the centers of Afro-Brazilian cults recognized by the police, where they held clandestine samba parties. There was still a lot of violence and disorder in the Brazilian Carnival; on the one hand, fights and shoot-outs and, on the other, strong police repression, particularly against the lowest social elements.

The samba schools came from the carnival blocks (blocos carnavalescos), which were conglomerations of barely organized masked dancers, modelled on the ranchos but with rather more limited financial resources. From the ranchos they adopted the processional form, the thematic structure, the master of ceremonies and flag-bearer, and the allegories, but the brass instruments were eliminated and the rhythm section increased to correspond to the beat of the samba.

The samba schools soon caught the attention of the governing authorities because of their populist potential, and when Carnival was made official in 1935, it became obligatory to enact national and historic themes. In the 1960s, the intellectuals and the urban middle class became involved in the samba schools, recognizing them as a genuine focus of popular national character. Their complete acceptance by the higher social classes coincided with the aspiration of the poorer element to be accepted and, as a result, the samba schools received a fresh and definitive impulse on the road of growth and social valuation.

The samba schools have now developed into extraordinarily complex institutions, in both their actual parades and their daily organization. They continue to function throughout the year as modest community clubs, always, however, with an eye to raising money for their Carnival expenses. As Carnival draws closer, they open up to allow the participation of the upper classes, until the parade at the climax festival, which is itself a rite of total social integration. Afterward, they retract again to their more modest dimensions. The themes of the parade refer to folkloric tales and events from Brazil's history, which, in the language of Carnival, are translated into an idealized vision of Brazil, depicted as a rich and generous mother country in which the contributions of the three raceswhite, black, and indigenousjoin them in harmony, and where there is always room for hope and optimism. In reality, Brazil is a country marked by deep inequalities, still struggling in its uphill battle for development.

In its historical and contemporary manifestations, the common denominator of Carnival is still the process of the inversion of reality. This inversion is of a symbolic and temporary nature, which classifies as a process of ritual transformation. As a ritual, Carnival allows a glimpse of the axiomatic values of a given culture, as well as its underlying contradictions. The language that relates these contradictions to one another is principally that of satire. But the carnivalesque inversion can equally be expressed through violence and exaggeration. In the Carnival context, violence symbolizes an attack on order, classifying the festival, in this case, as a ritual of rebellion, of which the Entrudo is the clearest example. Carnival retains a close correlation with daily life, though during its celebration the normal and quotidian are inverted and lived as a festival. In this way, carnivalesque rebellion and provocation become a parody of true rebellion and provocation. In any case, ambivalence is inherent in Carnival symbolism, since Carnival itself is on the threshold between order and disorder, hierarchy and equality, real and ideal, sacred and profane. Essentially, Carnival represents confrontation of the antistructure with the structure of society, constituting a channel through which utopian ideals of social organization find expression and suppressed forms of human behavior are released from the restrictions of daily life.

The inversion of the social order inherent in Carnival, when amplified to a larger scale, represents the inverted, profane extreme of the sacred religious festival that Carnival immediately precedes. The two are inextricably interwoven and find their opposites in each other.

See Also



One of the most complete interpretations of the meaning of contemporary Carnival in Brazil is Roberto DaMatta's Carnavais, malandros e heróis (Rio de Janeiro, 1979). The same author analyzes the costumes and gestures of Brazilian Carnival in Universo do Carnaval (Rio de Janeiro, 1981). For a knowledge of samba schools, their internal organization and ideology, see my O palácio do samba (Rio de Janeiro, 1975) and José Sávio Leopoldi's Escola de samba, ritual e sociedade (Petrópolis, 1978). For the carnivalization of a sacred rite, refer to Isidoro Maria da Silva Alves's O Carnaval devoto (Petrópolis, 1980), which deals with the profane aspects of a religious procession.

For a view of contemporary Carnival in Europe, see Annie Sidro's Le Carnaval de Nice et ses fous (Nice, 1979). The catalog edited by Samuël Glotz, Le masque dans la tradition européenne (Mons, Belgium, 1975), provides important information about the use of masks at Carnival.

A broad definition that allows a vision of Carnival as a ritual phenomenon can be found in the article by Edmund R. Leach, "Ritualization in Man in Relation to Conceptual and Social Development," in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London 251 (December 1966): 403408. For notions of structure and antistructure and for a discussion of the symbolic properties and transformation processes of ritual phenomena, essential reading is Victor Turner's The Ritual Process (Chicago, 1969).

New Sources

Béhague, Gerard. "Popular Music." In Handbook of Latin American Popular Culture, edited by Harold E. Hinds Jr. and Charles Tatum, pp. 338. Westport, Conn., 1985.

Cunha, Maria Clementina Pereira. Ecos da folia: uma história social do carnaval carioca entre 18801920 (Echos of folly: a social history of carnival between 1880 and 1920). São Paulo, 2001.

Dudley, Shannon. Carnival Music in Trinidad: Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture. Oxford, 2003.

Eisenbichler, Konrad, and Wim Hüsken, editors. Carnival and the Carnivalesque: The Fool, The Reformer, The Wildman, and Others in Early Modern Theatre. Amsterdam and Atlanta, 1999.

Eneida, Haroldo Costa. História do Carnaval Carioca (History of Carnival). Rio de Janeiro, 1987.

Harris, Max. Carnival and Other Christian Festivals: Folk Theology and Folk Performance. Austin, 2003.

Orloff, Alexander. Carnival: Myth and Cult. Wörgl, Austria, 1981.

Scher, Philip W. Carnival and the Formation of a Caribbean Transnation. Gainesville, Fla., 2003.

Maria Julia Goldwasser (1987)

Revised Bibliography


views updated May 21 2018


CARNIVAL. Celebrated widely across Europe in the early modern period during the days preceding Lent, Carnival perpetuated pre-Christian rites of farmers and herders promoting the springtime renewal of life. The occurrence of such rites in ancient Greece and Rome is formally documented; and their widespread use by various Indo-European groups has been deduced from the many analogous practices surviving into historic times throughout the continent. The name "carnival," which dates to medieval times, was probably based on the Latin carnem levare or the Italian carnelevare, 'removal of flesh', with "flesh" understood in both its alimentary and erotic meanings. It was also popularly interpreted to mean 'carne vale' or 'flesh rules'.

Carnival included a range of activities that occurred singly or in combination and that varied with local customs and conditions. The struggle between the diminished sun of the old year and the returning sun of the new year was symbolized in a battle for a prize (a castle, a wife, a football) that resulted in the death of one contender, who sometimes miraculously revived. In many locales the battles involved teams and could take the form of a dance, while in others they were replaced by contests such as races. In other traditions the old year or winter was figured as an old woman.

Winter's darkness and death, symbolized by ghostly, demonic, or deformed figures that stalked the community under the leadership of the king or queen of the dead, were frightened away by loud noise, bright colors, and fire in the form of bonfires or torches. The vitality of such activities also encouraged the return of the sun and of life-sustaining plants and animals, evoked through the Wild Man and various representations of forest and domestic animals and vegetation. A wedding or sexual activity such as dancing that was actually or symbolically promiscuous expressed the connection between human and agricultural fertility.

Renewal of human society, based on the equality of all community members, took the form of criticism of injustice and behavioral transgressions, mock trials, and rites of misrule or inversion. Low-ranking members of society assumed positions of authority and what had been excluded or despised was temporarily exalted. These rites, which often involved tension-easing comedy and the truth-telling fool, were particularly practiced in sedentary and stratified societies, such as cities and monastic communities, in which superiors and inferiors lived close together.

Masks, which may have originally mimicked the casting off of the old plant's seedhull by the germinating bud of the new plant, were utilized in rituals of release. With personal identity obscured, community members, especially women, violated taboos without fear of sanction, acting in sexually provocative ways and intruding into areas usually prohibited to them. Such freedoms also contributed to an amalgamation of the community, as did the questing or procession throughout the communal space that often accompanied masking.

Food consumption received increasing emphasis with the passage of time and the contrasting of Carnival with the fasting and abstinence of Lent, itself perhaps originating in a pagan practice fostering germination. A community feast was organized in the teeth of late-winter shortages, often through a house-to-house search for ingredients, featuring the meat, eggs, butter, and milk that would soon be prohibited. Special attention was paid to feeding the vulnerable, especially children and the poor. As the name indicates, the eating of meat, especially pork, became central to the festivities. In some locales festivities were concluded by the funeral of Carnival, conducted by the clergy or near the church.

A particularly vital period for Carnival was the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. The revival of humanistic learning and especially of classical theater, which in turn stimulated existing vernacular theater; the increase in population, which threatened the relative prosperity resulting from the great wave of plague and created a variety of social tensions; the discovery of new commercial routes and colonial territories, which benefited Atlantic states and harmed Mediterranean ones; and the revival of evangelical Christianity, which valued the poor and lowlyall contributed to an innovative use of Carnival and the carnivalesque that had begun with the rise of banking and manufacturing in Italy in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Theater, with its human presence and verbosity, offered many opportunities for lower-class characters to either criticize social authorities or to support them, as well as for them to propose inclusive social models and for upper-class characters to assert their control of the situation. The result was a flourishing theatrical scene, many of whose texts were disseminated and preserved through the new device of printing.

The celebration of Carnival was deeply affected by the religious reforms of the sixteenth century and later. With its emphasis on pageantry and the senses, Carnival slowly disappeared from Protestant areas, although it often left some vestigial food celebration. Even in Catholic areas, Carnival was chastened and Christianized in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Brought more under the purview of authorities, it tended to focus on magnificent ephemera such as elaborate floats. With the growing social openness of the eighteenth century, secular Carnival again flourished, producing some of its greatest theatrical achievements. A further development was its transplantation to the New World colonies, where, in a particularly apt turn of events, the French settlement in Louisiana was established on the eve of Mardi Gras, 2 March 1699. Many of the official European celebrations of Carnival ended with the end of the ancien régime.

Scholars have debated at length whether Carnival undermined or affirmed existing social authority. According to the first view, ritualized inversions and battles challenged social authority and proposed a new model incorporating those who had been excluded. In the second view, social authorities permitted Carnival as a safety valve that, through limited criticism, released enough tension to calm dissent and produce a return to the preexisting order. As the debate evolved, it became clear that the terms of Carnival are ambivalent and that the function of Carnival varied with social circumstances.

Particularly important was the strength of the social fabric: if it was too weak to contain dissent, a full-fledged revolt could develop. The function of Carnival also changed with time. The work of Victor Turner indicates that as the abundance of wealth produced by banking and manufacturing dismantled the agricultural cycle and the fixed social stratification upon which Carnival was based, the carnivalesque became suffused throughout society and the year and was more integrated into official values.

See also Catholicism ; Festivals ; Folk Tales and Fairy Tales ; Food and Drink ; Games and Play .


Bakhtin, M. M. (Mikhail Mikhailovich). Rabelais and His World. Translated by Hélène Iswolsky. Reprint. Bloomington, Ind., 1984. Translation of Tvorchestvo Fransua Rable i narodnaia kul'tura srednevekov'ia i Renessansa (1965). Influential study of the elements of popular culture, subversive potential, and ambivalence of Carnival.

Bristol, Michael D. Carnival and Theater: Plebeian Culture and the Structure of Authority in Renaissance England. New York, 1985. Influential study of the uses of Carnival in England.

Burke, Peter. Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe. Revised reprint. Brookfield, Vt., 1994. Influential study emphasizing ambivalence of Carnival.

Carroll, Linda L. Angelo Beolco (Il Ruzante). Boston, 1990. Study of Renaissance playwright who wrote for Carnival.

Davis, Natalie Zemon. Society and Culture in Early Modern France. Stanford, 1975. Influential group of essays on the role of Carnival and the Carnivalesque.

Humphrey, Chris. The Politics of Carnival: Festive Misrule in Medieval England. Manchester, U.K., and New York, 2001. Emphasizes multiple uses of Carnival in medieval England.

Kinser, Samuel. Rabelais's Carnival. Berkeley, 1990.

Le Roy Ladurie, Emmanuel. Carnival in Romans. Translated by Mary Feeney. New York, 1979. Translation of Le Carnaval de Romans (1979). Influential study of a bloody sixteenth-century Carnival in France.

Meyer, Robert Eugene. Festivals Europe. New York, 1954. Describes Carnival traditions in European countries.

Turner, Victor. From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play. New York, 1982. Influential group of studies analyzing the functions of Carnival and theater over time.

Linda L. Carroll


views updated May 18 2018


Carnival ("farewell to flesh") is a pre-Lenten festival celebrated throughout much of Europe and Latin America. Origins of the festival are diverse, dating back to ancient Greek Bacchanal and Roman Saturnalia feasts, as well as other pre-Christian rites that coalesced in the cities of Europe during the medieval era. Taking place in the days just prior to Ash Wednesday, Carnival became a time of revelry and excess, marked by masquerades, processions, dances, and various public games and competitions.

In the eighteenth century, Spanish, Portuguese, and French versions of Carnival were exported to the Americas, where they absorbed local festival practices and soon created distinct regional and national traditions. Due to its placement in the calendar year, marking the seasonal change from winter to spring in the Northern Hemisphere and the height of the summer growing season in the South, many manifestations of Carnival, especially in rural areas, were tied to previously existing fertility rites and agricultural celebrations.

In the cities, a rigid distinction was maintained between the practices of social elites, whose masked balls were exclusive affairs, and the far more raucous world of the street, where the poor parodied the habits of the upper class in songs, dances, and skits in a quintessential "rite of reversal," and flagrantly broke other social taboos on cross dressing, public intoxication, and fighting. Street processions with music and dancing were and remain common, usually featuring competitions between rival Carnival comparsas, or troupes.

Race played an important and contentious role in the formation of Carnival in Latin America, with indigenous persons and African slaves (and free coloreds) often masquerading as whites or members of other ethnic groups. A number of extant Carnival practices of the early twenty-first century in Latin America, such as the French quadrilles danced by indigenous residents in Tlaxcala, Mexico, and the caporales ("slave drivers") dance of Oruro, Bolivia, can trace their roots to these activities.

In the twentieth century, the popularity of street processions largely eclipsed the practice of elite balls, and the former were promoted by civic authorities in various locales as expressions of local or national identity. Previously subversive practices were institutionalized as folkloric spectacles and promoted as tourist attractions to a growing international audience, particularly in Trinidad and Brazil. Social and political commentary remained a mainstay of many Carnival traditions, however, and old rituals of competition have been retained in the formal contests that are the centerpieces of present-day official celebrations.


Though Carnival in Brazil is by far the most famous internationally, the festival is found with varying levels of participation throughout South America. One of the largest celebrations outside of Brazil takes place in Oruro, Bolivia, where diablada "devil dancers" and other masked and costumed groups depict figures drawn from local syncretic religious beliefs and other aspects of regional history. In more rural parts of the Andes, fertility rites honoring pre-Hispanic deities and ritual battles, known as tinkuy, exist alongside the processions and other practices introduced during the colonial era. In most other parts of South America, Spanish and African influences predominate, such as in the urban murgas (music and dance groups) of Uruguay and Argentina, or the Caribbean-style festivals held in the northern coastal cities of Colombia and Venezuela.

Carnival is Brazil's largest and most important popular festival, and is considered one of the major components of the country's national identity. The festival's origins lay in the urban atmosphere of the former capital, Rio de Janeiro, where two prototypical Carnival celebrations took place, one in the streets and the other in the salons. These old celebrations of Portuguese origin known as the entrudo were banned in 1853 when a visiting French architect, Grandjean de Montigny, died of pneumonia after being doused with water during Carnival. After the incident, the police and the state felt obligated to intervene and discipline perpetrators of public meetings that might "disturb the public peace."

With the abolition of slavery in 1888, settlements of former slaves formed in the hills around Rio. These Afro-Brazilians re-created their own cultural practices and went through an internal reorganization, one result of which was the resurrection of some of the Carnival celebrations banned since 1853. The bourgeois celebration of the festival, in contrast, attracted members of Rio's elite to carnivalesque encounters, first in hotels and later in exclusive clubs.

For many years the two forms of Carnival remained separate. They grew closer in the twentieth century, however, and reached a climax during the first administration of Getúlio Dornelles Vargas (1930–1945). In the 1930s Carnival in Rio became a street festival that attracted the well-to-do, and the example of the capital spread throughout Brazil. The festival was restructured around the samba schools, and from the beginning received significant attention from the press.

When Brazil's period of modernization began in the 1960s, and especially during the military dictatorship (1964–1985), the government adopted Carnival as a tool for political propaganda. Foreign capital was being courted, and the televised parades in Rio usefully depicted a happy, organized, and orderly Brazilian people, especially after 1984, when the event was moved off of the street to the Sambódromo, a 100,000-seat, open-ended stadium built for the purpose. The popularity of the Rio Carnival led to a resurgence of other regional traditions with distinct musical styles, including in Salvador in Bahia, Olinda and Recife in Pernambuco, Ouro Prêto in Minas Gerais, and Florianópolis in Santa Catarina. All remain vibrant in the early twenty-first century.


Carnival is ubiquitous in the Caribbean region, with major festivals celebrated (sometimes on alternate dates) in Haiti, Cuba, Martinique, Guadeloupe, Antigua, and especially Trinidad and Tobago. Most feature resplendent floats, large groups of costumed dancers, and constantly evolving forms of popular music. Afro-Caribbean peoples have made the festival their own in all of these places, and as a result their cultural and musical influences predominate. In Haiti, for example, the carnivalesque celebration of rara that follows on Carnival, lasting throughout the Lenten season, is closely tied to the religious beliefs and ritual practices of voodoo. Rara is also typical of the Caribbean in its tradition of biting social and political commentary, which has made the festival a frequent target for government repression or attempts at cooptation, but also a popular site of resistance to those very regimes.

Trinidad hosts the largest Carnival festival in the Caribbean. Though the island was colonized by Spain in the late fifteenth century, the event did not take root until after 1783 with the arrival of French and Creole plantation owners, who hosted fancy-dress balls and made house calls on one another while costumed as black slaves. The emancipation of slaves in 1838 led to the first public processions, in which Afro-Trinidadians adopted the festival as a symbolic rite of their own liberation, engaging in a form of stick fighting called kalenda and a midnight torchlight parade known as canboulay (from the French cannes brulées, or "burning cane").

By the twentieth century, Afro-Trinidadians were joined during Carnival by other immigrants to the island, including Chinese and East Indian indentured laborers, in large mas (from masquerade) parades through the streets of Port of Spain. Calypso song competitions, held in large tents, also emerged at this time, providing a more focused listening environment for the elaborate wordplay that came to mark the genre. Efforts by the middle and upper classes to "clean up" Carnival eventually directed all activities toward formal competitions, and these dominate the event in the early twenty-first century. In addition to the official mas competitions for best group, best costumes, and best song, the contests for best children's group ("Kiddie Mas") and best steel band or "pan" ensemble (the "Panorama" championship) are tremendously popular.


In recent decades, Carnival has spread to North American and European cities with a significant Latin American (especially Caribbean) diasporic population, where often it is held on a more seasonably appropriate date. The West Indian American Day Carnival held on Labor Day each year in Brooklyn, New York, Toronto's Caribana festival in July, and London's Notting Hill Carnival in August all feature street parades, music concerts, and masquerades that have become expressions of cultural pride for immigrant populations, as well as major tourist attractions that draw millions of spectators.

See alsoMusic: Popular Music and Dance; Race and Ethnicity; Slavery: Brazil.


Cowley, John. Carnival, Canboulay, and Calypso: Traditions in the Making. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Da Matta, Roberto. Carnivals, Rogues, and Heroes: An Interpretation of the Brazilian Dilemma. Translated by John Drury. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1992.

Dudley, Shannon. Carnival Music in Trinidad. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Harris, Max. Carnival and Other Christian Festivals, Folk Theology, and Folk Performance. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003.

Mauldin, Barbara, ed. ¡Carnaval! Santa Fe, NM: Museum of International Folk Art, 2004.

Meihy, José Carlos Sebe Bom. Carnaval, Carnavais. São Paulo, Brazil: Editora Atica, 1986.

Nunley, John, and Judith Bettelheim, eds. Caribbean Festival Arts: Each and Every Bit of Difference. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1988.

Vásquez Rodriguez, Chalena, and Abilio Vergara Figueroa. Chayraq! Carnaval Ayacuchano. Ayacucho, Peru: Centro de Desarollo Agropecuario, 1988.

                         JosÉ Carlos Sebe Bom Meihy

                                   Jonathan Ritter


views updated May 18 2018

car·ni·val / ˈkärnəvəl/ • n. 1. a period of public revelry at a regular time each year, typically during the week before Lent in Roman Catholic countries, involving processions, music, dancing, and the use of masquerade. ∎ fig. an exciting or riotous mixture of something: the whole evening was a carnival of fun.2. a traveling amusement show or circus.DERIVATIVES: car·ni·val·esque / ˌkärnəvəˈlesk/ adj.


views updated May 23 2018


CARNIVAL , festive period in the Christian calendar which precedes Lent, becoming more intense during the last three days. In the past, Rome was the most lively center of the carnival, which was regarded by many as a substitute for or continuation of the Roman Saturnalia. It had deplorable consequences for the Jewish population, which from 1466 was forced to make an exhibition of itself before the Roman populace by running foot-races before the jeering crowd and other humiliating performances. The races were abolished in 1668 and replaced by the payment of an offering of 300 scudi.

The rabbi and the leaders of the community henceforth had to appear at the Capitol on the first Saturday of the carnival to render homage and pay the money; a century later they were obliged to kneel during this ceremony. The carnival period was dreaded by the Jews of Rome because of the anti-Jewish manifestations to which it gave rise. The ceremony of homage, revived after the French Revolution, was abolished by Pope Pius ix in 1847.


A. Ademollo, Il carnevale di Roma nei secoli xvii e xviii… (1883); A. Milano, Il ghetto di Roma (1964), 313–28; Roth, Italy, index.

[Giorgio Romano]


views updated Jun 11 2018

carnival a period of public revelry at a regular time each year, as during the week before Lent in Roman Catholic countries, involving processions, music, dancing, and the use of masquerade. Recorded from the mid 16th century, the word comes via Italian from medieval Latin carnevelamen, carnelevarium ‘Shrovetide’, from Latin caro, carn- ‘flesh’ + levare ‘put away’.


views updated May 23 2018

carnival (orig.) season of revelry immediately preceding Lent. XVI. — It. carne-, carnovale, f. L. carō, carn- flesh (see CARNAL) + levāre lighten, raise; lit. ‘cessation of flesh-eating’.