Kenny Klein: Tales Of The Rambling Wren.
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Pagans And Mardi Gras
Anyone who reads my general blog, Kenny Klein Explains It All, knows that at this time of year I blog manically about Mardi Gras here in New Orleans. But on a day when there are no parades, parties or street orgies, like today, I thought I'd take a moment to talk about Mardi Gras and its Pagan history.
The Paganism behind Mardi Gras is evident in the names of the krewes, which are the societies that put on our parades: The Krewe Of Oshun; The Krewe Of Cleopatra; The Krewe Of Sparta; The Mystic Knights Of Adonis; The Krewe Of Thor; The Krewe Of Atlas; The Mystic Krewe Of Druids; The Mystic Krewe Of Nix; The Krewe Of Muses; The Knights Of Hermes; The Krewe Of Isis; The Krewe Of Zeus; The Krewe Of Hera; and of course The Krewe Of Bacchus. It is no coincidence that most of the nearly seventy parades of Mardi Gras are named for Pagan deities and cultures.
The World tree in last year's Mystic Krewe Of Druids
To begin with, Mardi Gras is our version of Carnival, a Catholic tradition with major Pagan roots. Carnival is the time between Twelfth Night and Lent, which is roughly a four week period. Our celebration of Carnival climaxes on Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras), the day before Ash Wednesday when Lent begins. By most scholarship, Carnival (Carnivale) means "meat festival," the time before Lent when one eats meat before giving up such rich foods. The same meaning is held in Mardi Gras, the day of eating rich (fat) foods. (There is one theory, however, that Carnivale comes from sailing ship, and that this is the ancient feast of Isis blessing the year's first voyages).
In ancient Rome, Carnival replaced many Pagan celebrations, especially Saturnalia and Bacchanalia, both feasts of orgiastic eating and sexuality. Those elements remained part of Carnival for very good reasons: at Carnival, one was expected to sin so that one can atone at Lent. For early Catholics, converted from Roman Paganism, there was no better sin than reverting to Roman Paganism for four weeks, appeasing Bacchus and other orgiastic Gods!
One of the Muses riding a swan.
Masking was also a major part of ancient Pagan ritual. In the Germanic Carnival tradition of Fastnacht, masking is a major element of the celebration; this was probably true of the Bacchanalia, where revelers put aside their daily identity to enjoy a time of sacred lust and mirth, returning to mundane life in the morning. In fact masking for these feasts probably dates back to Pagan hunting rites, when hunters would don the heads and antlers of prey animals such as deer; this is seen in neolithic cave paintings such as those in Lascaux and Caverne De Trois Freres. Impersonating the hunted animal was meant to connect the spirit of hunter and prey; this connection of spirit with the Underworld through masking continued, in practice, through the Bacchanalia and Saturnalia feasts and into Mardi Gras and Carnival.
Above, a likeness of a masked hunter painted by neolithic artists at Caverne De Trois Freres. Below, maskers as horned animals last year on Frenchmen Street.
Masks and costumes take on both a sacred quality and a complex, ornate quality at Mardi Gras. Many parades feature elaborately masked riders, equated with mystic knights, such as the Templars, and with ceremonial magic. Krewes who portray these knights often identify themselves as "mystics," such as the Mystic Krewes Of Nix, Babylon, and Chaos. While a scary presence, these "knights" are also mystifying and commanding.
One of the Mardi Gras traditions I love most is that of the Mardi Gras Indians. This is an African American tradition, and is the oldest parade we have (beginning in the late Nineteenth Century, just after Emancipation; all of our other parades date back only to the sixties and seventies in their current form, except for Rex, which dates to the turn of the century, still fifty years later than Emancipation!). Mardi Gras Indians celebrate the Native tribes that helped escaped slaves hide from white slave hunters, by dressing in elaborate costumes (called "masks") that depict Indian battles through complex bead work. The costumes take a year of work to create, and each year the costumes are destroyed, and new ones created! While the Mardi Gras Indians do parade on Mardi Gras day, there was a time they were forbidden to do so under Jim Crow laws; so their grand parade is a month after Mardi Gras, on Saint Joseph day. Many African tribal elements, and Voodoo elements, are seen in the songs and chants of the Mardi Gras Indians.
Mardi Gras Indians, Saint Joseph Day, 2012.
One of the most Pagan Mardi Gras elements is the presence of the Gods. In every parade we see Bacchus, Neptune and Diana depicted. It is well understood in this Catholic culture that our festivities appease the Pagan Gods, Queens and Kings that once presided over the Bacchanalia.
Two depictions of Cleopatra from last week's parade.
For a moment-by-moment look at Mardi Gras, watch my general blog. And think about joining us for Mardi Gras. You'll thank me for that!
All photos are by Kenny Klein (me) except for the cave painting, which I totally stole from the Internet.
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