Tomorrow is the final day of Carnival, culminating in Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday. For us it will mean fancy dress at school on condition that there are no guns, swords or any other instruments of violence. The two beefy school security guards will be frisking the under-fives and confiscating any offensive weapons at the gate.
Rome is where Carnevale first started, although the practice of a day of debauchery certainly pre-dates recorded history as a celebration of the rising sap of spring. Ancient Greece held a spring festival in honour of Dionysus, the god of wine. And just as the Romans copied many things from the Greeks (statues, philosophy, architecture), they adopted this festival and renamed it Bacchanalia in honour of the Roman god of wine, Bacchus. It seems that at their origin, the festivals were secret, women-only rituals, held three times a year near the Aventine Hill, not fifty metres from where I’m sitting. By 350 BCE, men had been allowed to join and the party went public, overflowing into the streets with revellers dressed as fawns, satyrs and nymphs, and phalli in abundance. The debauchery got completely out of hand over the years, with reports of anyone who tried to spoil the fun being murdered. The Senate banned the festival in 186 BCE, fearing political intrigue and plotting amid the orgies.
According to many sources, another possible origin of Carnival is the festival of Saturnalia, held in honour of Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture. For up to a week, the social order would be relaxed (casual dress rather than togas at dinner, playing dice in public, for example) and slaves could dress in their masters’ clothes and be waited on at table (by whom?). However, given that Saturnalia was celebrated around the winter solstice (just before December 25), it seems more plausible that it was the inspiration for the date of Jesus’ birth, a celebration which began only in the 4th century CE.
So although modern Carnival resembles these festivals in a spirit of indulgence and merry-making, they do not match the calendar. The date was determined by the Catholic Church and corresponds to 40 days before Easter, the oldest Christian festival. Forty is of course one of the two magic numbers in the Bible (the other being seven) and this period, Lent, is traditionally a period of reflection and abstinence, beginning with Ash Wednesday. Mardi Gras then is the last day to get ur freak on Ã la Bacchanalia, and use up all the butter before it goes off – hence beignets and pancakes.
Folk etymology attributes the origin of the word carnival to Medieval Latin, carne vale, meaning “flesh, farewell”, but more probably it is derived from older regional Italian forms such as Milanese or Old Pisan. These non-attested words *carnelevale and *carnelevare both have the idea of removing meat, i.e. scraping the bones clean and using up the last precious meat before the period of fasting in Lent.
So there you have it, pagan debauchery mixed with sound home economics. Rome City Council proposes a first-ever Carnival parade in via Margutta, with the aim of reintroducing the spirit of “the real Roman Carnival”, thoughtfully adding, “within the limits of civil society and security, obviously”.
Obviously you can leave your phallus at home, and don’t kill the party poopers.