Late February to mid-March used to be the period when ancient Greeks celebrated the Anthesteria (or the Flower Festival for some). Amongst others, it was a celebration of the beginning of spring and the revival of nature. It was held in honour of Dionysus, god of wine, fertility and ecstasy. Great consumption of wine, disguise, goat-like masks, and boisterous dances represent the way ancient Greeks celebrated.
Moving forward to the Roman period, a festival that resembled the Anthesteria and ran in mid-February in Rome was Lupercalia. Again, it was a festive ceremony dedicated to a god of fertility and nature, Lupercus.
Though these kinds of festivals were at some point forgotten or even abolished, some of their rituals and practices are still alive through cultural customs, with variations from one place to another. Nowadays, at this time of the year people all over the world dress up, have fun, drink a lot and take part in carnival parades, some of them really majestic and grandiose. The word carnival encapsulates the spirit of old and ancient traditions and stands as the long-standing link to our past.
But what does carnival mean and where does it come from? Well, the word has come down to us as an occasion or period of merrymaking, masquerading, dancing, singing, and drinking before Lent, the Christian season of fasting. There are several theories about its origin, but not all of them are sound. For example, some link carnival with Apollo Carneus and Carneia; a great celebration held in Sparta in honour of the god. Others express the opinion that it means the wild dancing of Satyrs, the half-men, half-goat woodland creatures and male companions of Dionysus: (karnos) goat and (valo) jump up and down. However, the theory that contextualises the word carnival with modern traditions may be of more relevance to its true origin. Made of the Latin words carnem (meat) and levare (elevate, remove), the word is in use since the 13th centuryA.D. as “carnelevare” and “carlevar”. Through time it took the form of “carnevale” and reached many countries worldwide. Literally, it means “farewell to meat” as carnival is the ceremony that leads us to Christian Lent; the days when we abstain from meat. And this is also the meaning of the Greek word Apokries; the abstention from meat before Easter.
Whether carnival is an ancient word or comes to us from the Middle Ages, one thing is for sure: Losing inhibitions, drawing the dark spirits away, welcoming spring, praising nature, and the new cycle in life is what used to define this celebration. Maybe this is why it survived through the centuries and finally crystallised into what we know today.
Researched & written by Labrini Tsitsou, Archaeologist/Cultural Manager
picture: William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) – The Youth of Bacchus (1884)