French Mardi Gras Traditions: From Pagan Party To Crazy Carnival

carnival roi of Nice France

min read 

Here’s a look at how Carnival and Mardi Gras are celebrated in France, plus we’ll explore the origins: how Christianity and several ancient Pagan celebrations most likely influenced today’s party like Carnival traditions.

Mardi Gras and Carnival: who, what, when and why! 

Carnival, as we know it today is older than you think. It’s an ancient celebration that’s been widely celebrated throughout Europe for over a thousand years. To put that into perspective, the Rio de Janeiro Carnival in Brazil is around 380 years old, while the Louisiana Mardi Gras celebrations are around 325 years old.

What is the difference between Mardi Gras and Carnival?

Mardi Gras and Carnival are often used interchangeably, especially in the US however they are actually two parts of the same celebration. 

  1. What is Carnival? It’s more like a season and lasts a few weeks, ending on the day before lent. Currently celebrated in over 50 countries with: parades, merrymaking, feasting, masquerading, festivals and entertainment. 
  2. What Is Mardi Gras? It’s one single day during the Carnival season (the last day of the Carnival season) before the Catholic Season of Lent when fasting begins. 

Carnival and Mardi Gras timeline

But what exactly are the origins of this global street party, and why do we celebrate it? Is it a Christian creation, Pagan creation, French creation, or something else?  

Before we dig into the origins of this wild street celebration, it’s essential to understand a few basic facts about modern traditions so you can connect the dots to their ancient roots.

1) Basic Carnival Facts: A refresher so you can connect the dots to their original celebrations.

Nice France carnival float

Carnival is celebrated differently in each country.

Although Carnival is now a global sensation celebrated in over 50 countries around the world, no two are alike and can differ not only from country to country but also from village to village within the same region based on local customs and cultures that intermingled with European Carnival traditions. 

For instance, if you’re familiar with the stereotypical New Orleans Carnival, here’s what you won’t find in France.

  • NO green, purple and gold beads or women flashing their boobs in the streets (thank god)
  • NO one ever says, “Laissez les bons temps rouler” (Let the good times roll ).
  • No New Orleans style king cake. French King cakes look very different. (which I’ll talk about momentarily).
  • In France and Europe, the term Carnival is used more often to refer to the actual celebrations instead of the term “Mardi Gras.”

Ivrea Italy Carnaval Battle of the oranges

Unique Carnival traditions around the world:

  • During Carnival in Ivrea, Italy, a battle of the oranges turns into one of the world’s largest food fights.
  • At Fastelavn, often referred to as the Scandinavian Mardi Gras, Children in Denmark and Norway dress in costumes and collect candy, much like kids do for Halloween.  They also play slåkatten af tønden (“hit the cat out of the barrel”). Wearing their costumes, children line up to hit a wooden barrel decorated with the image of a cat filled with candy (much like a pinata). The person who breaks open the barrel is “Queen of the Cats.”
  • At the Carnival in Tolox, Spain, people throw talcum powder at each other until everyone is completely covered.
  • In Trinidad, Tobago, and many areas where Caribbean people have immigrated, J’ouvert is a large street party held annually as part of Carnival. Participants wear old clothes and smear themselves with paint, mud, oil and even chocolate. 

NICE Carnival in France

Carnival de Nice King

The most famous Carnival in France is “Le Carnaval De Nice” (the Nice Carnival). Not only is it the largest celebration in France, but it’s also one of the oldest Carnival celebrations in the world, dating back to the 1200s. 

 

Description of Nice Carnival festivities:

Each year there is a new theme for Carnival, which begins with the Carnival King and his Corso Carnavalesque (Carnival Procession) at Place Massena. Past themes have included, King of gastronomy, King of fashion, King of cinema, King of animals, King of space etc. 

The Nice carnival features six parades, around 17 floats and more than 1,000 dancers and musicians from all over the world.

In the evening, carnival floats light up to the rhythm of music and visual entertainment. 

Political satire is a traditional cornerstone of annual parades consisting of silly depictions, mocking and occasionally obscene such as this float of U.S. President Trump and Korean Kim Jong-Un (Rocketman) in the 2018 Carnival de Nice. The theme of that particular carnival was Space. 

Nice Carnival 2018 theme Space, Trump and Kim Jong-un

Bataille des fleurs

Unique to the Nice Carnival parades is the “battle of the flowers” (Bataille des fleurs). Every year, men and women wear costumes atop flower-covered floats and throw flowers to the public, especially yellow mimosa flowers. Nearly all of which are grown locally. 

Battle of the flowers parade at Carnival de Nice France-of-the-flowers-nice-france-carnival

Le Roi est mort ! Vive le Roi

The king is dead, long live the king!” (Le roi est mort, vive le roi!) is a traditional proclamation made following the accession of a new monarch in various countries. It simultaneously announces the death of the king or monarch who has just died while “Long live The King!” refers to the heir who immediately succeeds to the throne upon the death of the preceding monarch. 

It was first declared upon the accession to the French throne of Charles VII after the death of his father Charles VI in 1422.

This tradition is carried on, on the last day of the carnival in Nice when the Carnival king (the float) comes out one last time and is lit on fire with firetrucks standing by. It’s a sad end to the carnival King which allows the new king to ascend the carnival festivities the following year. 

Burning of the King of Carnival in Nice France, an annual tradition

Afterwards, a fireworks show ends the carnival season until the next year. 

What does Carnival mean?

The exact origins of the word Carnival are not certain, but it may have transformed through one of two different paths of folk etymology into the English word Carnival, Carnaval in French, Carnevale in Italian, etc. 

Folk etymology is where a word or phrase (often foreign) is replaced with a more familiar one. For example “denim” as in denim jeans comes from the French phrase “de Nimes” which means “from Nimes” the French city where denim fabric was originally produced.  Salary comes from the Latin salarium, meaning salt money”.

Here are two possibilities that historians have used to explain retroactively where the word carnival comes from.

1) Carne levare levamen: Latin for “remove the flesh” or “farewell meat.”

This ties in nicely to the Catholic religion of feasting and indulging one last time before giving up meat for the Lenten season. Carne can also refer to giving up the desires of the flesh and abstaining from sex. 

2) Carrus Navalis: Latin for  “naval car / chariot” i.e. float 

The name of the wooden boat carried during the Navigium Isidis feast, an ancient Egyptian celebration. Some historians believe this was the origin of modern parade floats.

 Navigium-Isidis-The Procession Of The Bull Apis Frederick Arthur Bridgman 1879

Why is it called Mardi Gras / Fat Tuesday?

  1. The word “Mardi,” or Tuesday in English, reflects the last day during the Carnival season before fasting for lent.
  2. The word “Gras,” which means Fat, reflects the type of foods that people binged on before lent.

Eating fatty food before lent is a holdover from ancient times when Christian merrymakers and revellers emptied their cupboards and binged on rich fatty foods before fasting for lent: milk, butter, lard, eggs, sugar, meat, and cheese. All forbidden foods during lent until Easter in the spring.

Pancakes and fried dough such as donuts (les beignets) were commonly eaten to use up these ingredients.

What’s the difference between Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras, Shrove Tuesday and Pancake Day?

These are all the same day and go by different names depending on where the celebration occurs.

  • Mardi Gras: French for “Fat Tuesday.”
  • Pancake Day: In the United Kingdom, Ireland and parts of the Commonwealth, it’s called pancake day because it’s customary to eat pancakes for Mardi Gras.
  • Shrove Tuesday: From the old English word shrive, which means to confess all sins or “shriven” (absolved).  Catholics were encouraged to go to confession before Ash Wednesday in preparation for Lent.
  • In German-speaking countries it can go by Fastnachtsdienstag, Faschingsdienstag, Karnevalsdienstag or Veilchendienstag:
  • In Italy: Martedà Grasso (Fat Tuesday).
  • In Denmark and Norway: Fetetirsdag: (fat Tuesday)
  • Iceland: Sprengidagur (Bursting Day because you eat till you burst): 
  • Jewish Mardi Gras?: Just as Easter has elements of Passover, Purim has been described as the Jewish Mardi Gras. It’s one of the only days of the year when Jews are encouraged to party like there’s no tomorrow doing things typically forbidden: Masquerading in costumes, drinking alcohol, making noise, men dress up as women, the meek are encouraged to be rowdy, and adults act like kids. 

Did Mardi Gras or Carnival originate in France?

No one would blame you for thinking Mardi Gras, a French word that means “Fat Tuesday,” was invented by the French.

After all, French explorers did introduce this unruly street party to North America, which gave birth to the world-famous New Orleans Mardi Gras.

If not the French, then where did this notoriously famous party of excess, costumes, masks, music, and floats come from?

PHOTO of mardi gras disguised in mardi gras costume

The answer is complicated, and it’s a topic that’s still hotly debated.

Most historians and scholars agree the Origins of Mardi gras and Carnival can trace their roots back in time to ancient Pagan religions. 

Unfortunately, there’s no easy way to pinpoint the exact origins because modern traditions are a combination or a melting pot of ancient Greek, Roman and Egyptian pagan rituals, some dating back nearly 5000 years. The older the ancient ritual, the harder it is to know exactly how those traditions tie into today’s festivities. 

The best historians can do is take their best-educated guess based on written historical records and artwork left behind that often depict what daily life was like back then.  

When was the first Carnival Festival?

1094: Carnevale di Venezia “Venice Carnival

Although this is the oldest recorded written mention using the word “Carnival,” winter / Spring Carnavalesque celebrations existed long before it was officially recorded as Carnival.

1294: Carnaval de Nice France

The oldest, biggest, and most famous carnival located in France is on le promenade des Anglais in the South of France on the French Riviera. The Count of Provence, Charles D’anjou, modelled this French Carnival after the Venetian Carnival.

1582: Rome Italy

Pope Gregory XIII officially added Carnival to the Gregorian calendar as the period before lent when Christians could overindulge, go a little crazy and let off steam before getting absolved (shriven) and confessing their sins before beginning the hardships of fasting for Lent. Shrove Tuesday is the last day of Carnival before lent (aka Mardi Gras). 

My book of church's years (Lent)

When is Mardi Gras and Carnival celebrated in France (and around the world)?

FIRST DAY OF CARNIVAL SEASON: January 6th.

Carnival always begins on the Christian holiday of Epiphany, aka 3 Kings Day, which is fixed to January 6th, with is also the 12th day after Christmas.

Why does Carnival season begin on January 6th?

According to Christian theology, the 12th day after Christmas marks the amount of time it took the magi or three wise men to travel to Bethlehem after the birth of Jesus. Christians celebrate this day as Epiphany. It’s also the official day when revellers can finally eat King cake, known as “galette des rois” in France. There are actually a few types of King cake in France, but we’ll cover this topic in a few minutes. 

LAST DAY OF CARNIVAL: 

Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) is always on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, exactly 47 days before Easter. Because Easter’s date is moveable, the date of mardi gras also changes from year to year and can fall on any Tuesday between February 3rd and March 9th. Mardi Gras is officially the last day of the Carnival season. 

In France, the last 7 days of the carnival season used to be known as “The week of 7 days of fat” (Semaine des sept jours gras), also called “carnal days” (jours channels.)

ASH WEDNESDAY / FIRST DAY OF LENT: 46 days before Easter

The day after Mardi Gras is Ash Wednesday, as well as the beginning of Lent. Lent is celebrated over 46 days. It includes 40 days of fasting and six Sundays when fasting is not practiced and ends on Easter Sunday.

END OF LENT: The day before Easter Sunday.

EASTER SUNDAY:

Easter Sunday always falls on the first Spring Sunday after the new moon on or after the March equinox when the sun crosses the celestial equator, moving from south to north. This can occur on March 19th, 20th or 21st.

EASTER MONDAY:  The day after Easter Sunday (always a holiday in France).

Timeline of Mardi Gras, Ash Wednesday, Lent through Easter

You should read this
A Complete List Of French Holidays In France Explained + Timeline

Every country has its fair share of bank holidays and France is no different. Here is a complete list explanation, and timeline of all the holidays in France including French school holidays, plus a few notable celebrations and festivals.

Read More Learn More

King Cake (les Galettes des rois) in France

To kick the carnival season off is King cake, typically eaten on January 6th, the Christian feast of Epiphany also called Three King’s Day. Every French boulangerie, pâtisserie, and super marché in France is filled with King cakes accompanied by little paper crowns. 

Eat king cake in France for the new year: les gallettes des rois

However, in France and many other Francophone countries, King cake is typically eaten on the first Sunday after January 1st instead of exactly on January 6th. This rule was first introduced to France in 1802 by pope Pie VII to reduce the number of holidays.

Each King cake contains a hidden feve (literally bean), which can be made of plastic or porcelain and come in all shapes and sizes. Die-hard collectors of these little fèves are called “les fabophiles” (Faba: Latin for bean as in Fava been). The person that gets the slice with the figurine inside is King / Queen for the day. 

There are several  types of King cakes sold in France, but the two most popular are: 

) Galette des Rois: A puff pastry (pâte feuilleté) pie filled with a sweet frangipane (almond cream filling.) It’s also known as a galettes Parisienne, but I personally don’t know anyone who uses this term.
Epiphany day and King cake in France. How 3 kings day is celebrated

2) Galette is a French cuisine term that confuses some people who don’t speak French because it can be used in cooking directions to describe a flat round shape and to describe any flat round pastry or cake. 

Free Instant Download
DIY Printable Paper Crown Template:

Free printable paper crown template to colour, decorate and make your own. Perfect for Mardi Gras, Carnival or a Paris themed birthday party.

Download Now Learn More

Mardi Gras in France is like Halloween for kids without trick or treating for candy.

dressed up for the Carnival parade at school

In France, Mardi Gras isn’t just for adults. 

Every year, Primary schools across France celebrate Carnival by hosting a mini carnival party where parents can watch their children parade around in their Mardi Gras costumes. Similar to how North American kids might go to school dressed up for Halloween, except Mardi Gras costumes are traditionally not scary. 

If the schools have the budget and time, they might even serve some Mardi Gras food and treats. 

This is quite a big deal for kids, and you can count on almost 100 percent of all children to get dressed up. 

Here are a few of my daughter’s costumes over the last few years. 

carnival at daughters school in France. She's half mermaid, half princess

Dad walking daughter to school on the day of carnival. Kids all dress up for the carnival festivities.

carnaval 2018 Montpellier france

Daddy walking daughter to school on the day of the school carnival. She was super excited.

Fatty French Carnival Food in France:

It’s tradition to eat fatty foods during the Carnival season in France, which include:

1) King Cake: Les galettes de rois. 

2) Crepes: In France, crepes are eaten all year round, especially during carnival and on Chandeleur

Eating some form of crepe/pancake in February has very ancient roots, and it seems that every country has its own version. From Fluffy pancakes in the US, Canada and the UK to the Spongy Ethiopian flatbread made with sour fermented teff flour. 

Did you know that pancakes/crepes are a direct descendant of the early Neolithic flatbreads baked on hot stones? Researchers found pancakes in the stomach of Otzi the Iceman,  dating back 5,300 years.

In ancient Greece, Romans ate “Alita Dolcia,” a flatbread type of pancake made from wheat flour, olive oil, sprinkled with sesame and honey.

Romans also ate “Ova Sfongia Ex Lacte,” spongy eggs with milk, which looks a lot like a crepe without flour. 

You might be interested in reading: Fascinating Facts About French Crepes You Didn’t Know But Wish You Did

3) Waffles (Les Gaufres) are another popular Carnival / Mardi Gras treat in France. 

Although most might give the Belgians credit for creating this tasty treat, the waffle actually started in Greece as the obelios”, a round flat crispy wafer similar to a crunchy ice cream cone. It was made using a double-sided iron with a long handle. A technique the Romans adopted and spread throughout their empire. 

Around the year 1200, the Greek obelios became the French “oublie,” which then spread throughout northwestern continental Europe and could come in many patterns from family crests to biblical scenes.French moule à oublie / moule à gaufre, Musée Lorrain

Around the 16th and 17th centuries, Groote Wafelen from the Belgian Een Antwerps kookboek published the first recipe using leavening (beer yeast), which gave birth to over 16 varieties of fluffy Belgian waffles that the world has grown to love. 

4) Les Beignet de Mardi Gras (mardi gras donuts.)

A popular treat to eat in France during carnival are Les beignets (pronounced Ben-YAY), fritters in English, which are essentially deep-fried dough sprinkled with sugar.

A classic American donut would be considered a beignets and is often referred to as “les beignets américains” in France.

Although now considered a French pastry, the beignet (and the donut) are thought to have connections to an ancient Roman pastry called “Scriblita.”

In the 2nd Century BC, Cato the Elder, a Roman soldier, senator and historian, described “scriblita” (Latin for tart or cake) as lumps of moist leavened dough fried in boiling animal fat into random shapes.

Bugnes Beignet from Lyon Region: Carnival donut

From ancient Rome, the Scriblita recipe travelled to France, where French pastry chefs turned the dough into a choux pastry (pâte à choux). Choux pastry contains butter, water, flour, and eggs and instead of yeast, it relies on moisture in the dough to create steam during cooking to puff the pastry. The name changed from Scriblita to Bigne, which means Bump or lump and then Beigne/beignet in the middle ages. 

French settlers brought the newly-named French beignets with them when they migrated to Canada’s eastern coast in the 17th century to a region called Acadia. Les Beignets eventually made its way down to Louisiana and are extremely popular in the French quarter, especially during Mardi Gras.

Did you know the beignet became the official state doughnut of Louisina in the 1980’s?

mardi-gras-beignet-donuts-france

 Each region of France has its own version of fritters “Beignets,” which come in many shapes and sizes. 

  • “Les Beugnons”: in Le Berry
  • “Les “Bugnes”: from Lyon region
  • “Les Merveilles”: Twisted pastry, usually fried in duck fat popular in Gascony, Bordelais, Charentes, Périgord. and known in New Orleans also. They’re similar to Bugnes and oreillettes
  • “Les Oreillettes”:  Provençal (below is a photo of my daughter eating une oreillettes at her school carnival celebration).

Mardi Gras beignets: fried dough

  • “Les guenilles”: 

  • “Les Rissoles”: in Savoy (often filled with confiture or pear compote (similar to apple sauce but made with pears). 

  • “Les Fritelles”: in Corse

  • “Les Rondiaux”:  in Orléans

  • “Les Tourtisseaux”:  in Poitou

  • “Les Chichi fregi”:  Provence in Nice and Marseille often sold as Churros (below is a food truck in Montreal selling chichis aka churros. 

Salty beignets (fritters) are also a popular food to eat during Mardi Gra and carnival. 

  • Acras de morue: A type of cod fritter
  • Beignets des aubergines: Eggplant fritter
  • Beignets au fromage: cheese fritter
  • Beignets de crevette: Shrimp fritter.
  • Beignets aux courgettes: Zucchini fritter.
  •  Beignets de fleurs de courgette: Fried Zucchini Flowers
  • Beignets de morue: Cod fritters.
  • Beignets de calamars. Calamari rings
  • Beignets des huitres: Oyster fritters
  • Beignets de pilons: Fried chicken drumsticks

2) Mardi Gras Origins: From Ritualistic Pagan festival to Christian Celebration

Before Christianity, the ancient Roman calendar was filled with Pagan festivals, which were both a period of religious worshipping and public holidays centred around the seasons.

These highly anticipated Roman festival blowouts were famous for being wild with profuse amounts of alcohol, revelry, sexual nudity, violence, animal sacrifices and other purification and fertility rites that would be frowned upon today.

Chrisitinazing Pagan Spring Equinox traditions

When Christianity arrived in Rome, the Catholic church tried to ban and outlaw all Pagan celebrations because they went against Christian beliefs.

There were several pagan celebrations in particular that increased to a fever right before spring. This period would later be known as Carnival by the church. 

Most ancient romans were reluctant to give up their Pagan celebrations, even after converting to Christianity, because they were ingrained in their culture. It would be like giving up wearing the colour red because your new religion said it went against their moral code. 

Unable simply to abolish native Pagan festivals and cultural activities, the Roman Catholic church tried to tame pagan celebrations by interlacing and replacing them with Catholic-sounding traditions. A process known as religious Syncretism. 

Many ancient Roman Pagan gods and celebrations are similar or identical to Greek and Egyptian ones because each time the Romans conquered a nation they borrowed and blended the religious belief system of those conquered nations into their own to create a new one. This process is known as Religious Syncretism. The Roman Catholic church would later use religious syncretism to Christinize pagan culture and celebrations. 

These whitewashed “Christianized” pagan holidays were then added into the Christian calendar and overlayed with Christian sounding names and church saints.

The most famous proof of this is in 597 AD in a letter from Pope Gregory I to Mellitus, who was sent from Rome to England to convert the Anglo-Saxons from their native paganism to Christianity.

In Pope Gregory’s letter, he suggests that it would be easier to convert Pagans to Christianity if they were allowed to keep outward forms of their pagan traditions while claiming that the traditions were in honour of the Christian God.” 

Assimilation and blending of ancient religions and beliefs are one of the reasons why there are so many similarities across different religions and why many of our traditions today can be traced back to ancient traditions. But don’t say that to a devout Christian; they may call you a heathen. 

In 1582, over 1500 years after the birth of Christ, Pope Gregory the XIII officially added Carnival as the pre lenten celebration to the newly reformed Gregorian calendar. As a result, most people today have no idea where the traditions of Carnival originate. 

As Christianity spread throughout the world, Carnival followed.

Pope-Gregory-XIII

From Rome, Carnival travelled to Venice to become Carnevale de Venice; then it migrated throughout Europe to become Fasching or Fastnacht in Germany and Carnaval in France, Portugal and Spain. 

Portugues, Spanish and French explorers brought these traditions to the new world to places like:

  • Brasil: Carnival Rio de Janeiro.
  • Canada: Carnaval of Quebec.
  •  US: Mardi Gras New Orleans.
  • Mexico: Carnaval 
  • Caribbean: Trinidad and Tobago Carnival?
  • Goa India Carnival, where the Portuguese ruled for 500 years. 

And the rest is history.

Pagan Celebrations That May Have Influenced Carnival: 

As I mentioned before, there’s no easy way to pinpoint Carnival and Mardi Gras traditions’ exact origins because the similarities between modern traditions are co-mingled with multiple Pagan celebrations that date back thousands of years. 

Here are the most likely candidates that influenced modern-day Carnival traditions. 

1) Bacchanalia Festival: Sex, alcohol and music with a side of orgy

Occurred for 3 days at the beginning of March. 

To usher out winter and celebrate the beginning of spring, Romans celebrated Bacchanalia, a secretive Greco/Roman cult that can best be described as an uninhibited drunken orgy in honnor of Bacchus, god of wine, fertility, and wild parties: The original party animal. 

Bacchanal by Jan-Brueghel the Elder and Hendrik van Balen I

Today Bacchus is known as the Roman Carnival god. 

Bacchus has been depicted in many ways, from an old man to an effeminate man but always with his signature crown of ivy leaves, grapes and sometimes holding a glass of wine. 

If you’re familiar with Bacchus, the New Orleans mardi gras Krewe, famous for its celebrity riders such as Will Ferrel and William Shatner, then you’ve probably seen their crest, which features their version of Bacchus. New Orelans Carnival super Krewe of Bacchus crest

Romans appropriated Bachanali from the Greeks, who copied the Egyptians.

Bacchus is almost identical to the Greek god Dionysus, which is traditionally linked to Osiris, the Egyptian god of fertility, death and resurrection in the afterlife. 

  • The Greeks adopted the Dionysian mysteries from the Ancient Egyptians, who were infamous for their lavish feasts of food, drink, music and dance.   
    • Egyptian Tekh Festival: The Feast of Drunkenness:
    • The Beautiful Feast of the Valley (Heb-Sed Festival):  a joyous Egypitan procession featuring acrobats, musicians, and dancers. Participants ate and drank a lot of wine until they entered an altered state (including intoxication) that made them feel closer to their departed loved ones.
  • Around 200 BC, Greek colonies in Southern Italy brought their cult of the Dionysian mystery to the Romans. Through cultural osmosis, the Greek cult infiltrated with an existing and similar Roman cult devoted to Liber, popular with plebeians or plebs (commoners). Liber was also a god of wine, fertility and prophecy.

You might be interested in reading about the modern-day Greek Carnival, Apokriés.

Description of Bacchanalia: The Orgy Festival

pottery Erotic scene. Rim of an Attic red-figure kylix 510 BC (part of the collections of the Louvre (Department of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities)

What little we know about Bacchanalia is through the countless statues, paintings, plays and literature of both Greek and Roman origin.

Greeks and Romans didn’t have the same concept of “obscenity” that exists today, so their daily lives, even sexual activity was often depicted in erotic art or images of sexual anatomy. 

We also know about the Bacchanalia cult through the writing of one Roman historian named Titus Livius, known as Livy in English.

Livy claimed that cult members of Bacchanalia gathered for two or three nights in March in secret fields outside of Rome to convince Bacchus to give a good grape harvest by performing holy rituals. 

He claimed members of the cult drank excessive amounts of wine and did trance-inducing activities such as dancing wildly to music, cymbals and drums to remove inhibitions, break down artificial social constraints and abandon themselves into an altered state of ecstasy. There may have been sexual orgies and other ritualistic sacrifices committed. 

ORGY ORIGINS:

The word orgy, Latin “Orgia” is what the Romans called the religious rites carried out during the Bacchanal festival. Dictionary.com lists the synonyms of Bachanalia as carnival, debauch, feast, orgy, party, frolic, and reveler.

The belief was that once a person reached a state of ecstasy through festival joy, they became filled with the divine—a kind of psychic release for anyone constrained by rigidly defined rules of society. 

Bacchanalia became quite popular with Romans, but it was considered a threat to civilized society so, in 186 B.C.E, the Roman senate passed an edict banning cult activities by forcing members to reform. Those who continued were persecuted and arrested, but many were also executed.

2) Roman Saturnalia Festival

Celebrated at the end of December.

Many modern Mardi Gras traditions such as Role reversal, King cake, and electing a King of chaos originate from the Roman Saturnalia festival, orriginally celebrated by the ancient Greeks as Kronia, the festival of Cronus. 

Saturnalia: Roman festival that gave birth to Christams and Mardi gras customs

Saturnalia was an annual event held at the end of December dedicated to Saturn, the Roman God of Harvest and the most anticipated and joyous festival of the year where everyone, even slaves, could cause a raucous. 

Like Carnival, Role reversal and reversal rituals were at the heart of Saturnalia.

Everyone revelled at the opportunity to run wild, dress up, drink large amounts of alcohol, and speak without restraint.

  • Social roles were reversed. 
  • Things normally prohibited, like gambling openly were allowed without fear of punishment.
  • Slaves were released from their duties and participated in the festivities alongside the slave owners.
  • Social rules of etiquette were temporarily forgotten.

Like Carnival, there was a King of Chaos.

As part of Saturnalia’s role reversal, wealthy Roman families elected one of their slaves as the “Prince of Saturnalia or disorder” (Saturnalia princepsâ), similar to the tradition of King of Chaos or Lord of Misrule in Britain.

Like Carnival, Romans ate a cake with a hidden bean inside. 

The prince was elected by hiding a fava bean in a flat cake galette (the predecessor to the King cake). Pagans believed fava beans had magical powers, and the dead spirits of their ancestors lived on in the broad beans. 

The person that got the piece of cake with the hidden bean was King and got to insult and order their masters around and even dine with them without consequence.

It wasn’t until the Middle Ages that this Roman King cake ceremony began to be associated with the festival of Epiphany, specifically the Twelfth Night.

The King cake tradition eventually spread to other countries. It became the Portuguese Bola-Rei (King ball), the Bulgarian banitsa, the Mexican Rosca de Reyes (King’s wreath) and the galette des rois in France.

Recipes for King cake now vary from country to country and between cultures, and the fava bean is now replaced by a small plastic toy or porcelain-like figurine.

Epiphany day and King cake in France. How 3 kings day is celebrated
Photo / © AnnieAndre.com

3) Lupercalia (Roman Wolf Festival):

Celebrated in February

In Ancient Rome, Spring purification rituals took place each year in February, “Februarius Mensis,” literally “month of purification.” It’s where we get the name for the month of February.

  Ancient pagans believed whips were a magical object of purification and a magical blow from a whip could do a myriad of things from preventing disease to increasing fertility for a woman and the harvests.  The ritualistic flogging that occurred during the Roman Lupercalia festival is a good example of this tradition that still exists today on or around shrove tuesday as part of some modern day carnival festivies or winter/spring celebrations. 

Lupercalia whipping and purification activities

The Lupercalia celebration (also known as Februa) stuck around for almost 500 years after the birth of Christ. It was one of the most longest-lasting ancient Roman festivals whose origins are uncertain, but some scholars think it borrowed from the greek wolf festival called Arcadian Lykaia.

This bizarre spring fertility and purification festival honoured Lupercus, a mischievous god who was half-man, half-goat who was a god of fertility, flocks and shepherds but was also associated with sexuality. 

Lupercus is identical to the Celtic god Dusios, the god Faunus and the Greek god Pan “panikos” who is often depicted playing the pan flute.

Pan invoked fear, frolicked in the woodlands, chasing after nymphs. His erotic nature was shown by his lower half goat-like legs, suggesting that he acted solely on primitve instincts. Incidently, we have the word panic and Pandemonium thanks to the god of Pan. 

Reclining Pan Statue, 1535

The Lupercalia festivitivies start in a cave where goats are sacrificed for fertility to the god of Faunus Lupercus (half man half goat god), and a dog is sacrificed for purification. 

According to legend, the Lupercus cave is where the founders of Rome, two orphaned twins named Romulus and Remus were brought up by a she-wolf. 

After the sacrifice, two sets of strong young Roman nobles, who probably represent Romulus and Remus, begin an unusual foot race wearing nothing but a bloody loincloth made out of the sacrificed goat hide. As they run a course through the city of Rome, they randomly whipped people along the way with cut-up strips of bloody goat hides called thongs or februa.

Lupercalia, funny card about runnig through steets and shipping women with bloody goat skin

Women deliberately stood in the way of the runners hoping to get flogged with the bloody goat strips because they believed a strike from the bloody whip would ensure a baby or cure sterility. (Lupercalia Festival Source) Whips were thought to be a magical object which could also increase the fertility of the harvests and fields.

After the Lupercalia foot race, Romans danced and partied in the streets, wore wolf masks, drank heavily, and feasted on the sacrificed goats. After the carnivalesque like festivities, there was a period of fasting before the Spring equinox. This may have been the predecessor to the modern Lenten period. 

Examples of ritualistic whipping (flogging) as a form of spiritual purification during Carnival or Winter / Spring festivities

Flagellations (whipping and flogging) is an ancient Pagan tradition of purification still practiced today in some countries in one form or another.

1) Courir de Mardi Gras (the Fat Tuesday run) is a traditional Mardi Gras event held in many Cajun and Creole communities of French Louisiana, brought there by French explorers. Some Courir de Mardi Gras celebrations use whips to help maintain order among the travellers. The whippings are not violent in any way. Many scholars believe the whipping is a throwback to the pre-Christian Roman festival of Lupercalia.

2) Fastelavn (Scandinavia’s equivalent to Mardi Gras) is a Carnival tradition in Northern Europe (Denmark, Norway, Iceland and the Faroe Islands.) One tradition which varies by country and region involves Children ritualistically whipping (flogging) parents with homemade whips. The ones being whipped must provide the children with sweet pastry buns filled with cream and jam. 

    • In Denmark, the children use a Fastelavnsris whip, leafless birch twigs often decorated colourfully with feathers and receive a sweet roll covered with icing sugar and filled with whipped cream Fastelavnsbolle.
    • In Iceland, a homemade whip made of paper decoration attached to a wooden stick and shouts: “Bolla, Bolla, Bolla.” This day is called Flengingardagur (Spanking Day or Whipping day), aka Bolludagur (Bun Day).

3) At The Carnival parade in Einsiedeln, Switzerland, people wear demon masks, carry whips and pitchforks to banish evil spirits. Kind of a purification ritual.

 

4) Boys whip girls symbolically with something called an Easter whip and pour water on them in an ancient Easter fertility celebration in Ukraine, Russia, Czechia, Slovakia and nearby countries. Like Lupercalia, whipping whips away infertility.

Boys whip girls symbolically with something called an Easter whip and pour water on them in an ancient Easter fertility celebration in Ukraine, Russia, Czechia, Slovakia and nearby countries. Like Lupercalia, whipping whips away infertility.

5) Whip cracking is also a tradition in parts of Mexico and Brazil as part of Easter festivities.

6) From the Bavarian Alpine foothills and in the Salzburg region, men perform whipcracking at the end of January and early February. It’s believed that this whip-cracking originated from early pagan rituals to drive away the snow and winter.

7) Whipping is also part of some Caribbean carnival celebrations, called  mas a fwèt” (mask with whip). Children wear masks or costumes in parades and carry whips which they crack on the ground to the rhythm of the drums to drive away evil, another form of purification. 

whipping-away-winter-Bavaria-Salzburgh

4) Navigium Isidis (Egyptian Navigation of Isis)

Celebrated in March.

In the 1930’s Hungarian historian Andreas Alföldi argued that the floats in modern-day carnival festivals are descended from the wooden boat (carrus navalisâ) carried during the Navigium Isidis parade. 

Navigium Isidis: An Egyptian Procession by Frederick-Arthur-Bridgman

Navigium Isidis or Isidis Navigium (Navigation of Isis) was an ancient Roman religious festival held in March in honour of the ancient Egyptian goddess Isis.

Despite being an Egyptian goddess, this celebration became popular with both the Greeks and Romans, with cult-like festivity and parties which included a parade, masks to hide the identity of the participants, orgies, drunkenness, mutilation of genitals, and large wooden floats “carrus navalisâ” in the shape of ships, that took over the city streets. 

Summary

There’s no denying remnants of ancient pagan traditions still exist today in modern Carnival and mardi gras festivities: -wearing masks, disguises, overturning social conventions, dancing, drunken revelry, feasting, whipping, and crowning a king. 

Although most of us no longer remember the spiritual ties to nature, Carnival and Mardi Gras are cyclical reminders of thousands of years of traditions that bond the past and the present and the dualism between happiness and melancholy and order and chaos. 

Save this for later on Pinterest

Pin Mardi gras in France explained

Boring Disclaimer: This post may contain affiliate links. If you use them to buy something, I may earn a small commission at no additional cost to you which helps me buy more croissants. Merci for your support.


  1. This post was incredibly more insightful and researched than its title suggest. It was very interesting to read. And I enjoyed the combination of art, literature, and history with accompanying photos.

    Thank you for taking time to pull this together and write it up.

    1. I’m glad you liked it. And you are right, It did take quite a bit of research. It was a labour of

Comments are closed.

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}

We Should Be Friends