France Mardi Gras Traditions: Pagan Party To Crazy Carnival

Here’s a look at how Carnival and Mardi Gras in France are celebrated. We’ll also 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 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 about 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? Mardi gras is the very last day of the Carnival season. It always falls on a Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday which is the first day of the lent season which lasts for 46 days until Easter Sunday. 

Timeline: From Carnival and Mardi Gras through lent and Easter Sunday

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 pagan celebrations.

Nice France carnival float

Carnival is celebrated differently in each country.

Although Carnival is now celebrated in over 50 countries worldwide, no two are alike. They 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 at Carnival and Mardi Gras 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).
  • The term Carnival in France and Europe is used more often to refer to the actual celebrations instead of the word “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”). Children wear costumes and line up to hit a wooden barrel filled with candy (much like a pinata) which is decorated with the image of a cat plastered on the side. 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 carnival 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, a new Carnival King and his Carnival Procession (Corso Carnavalesque), which begins 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 in France 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 floats such as this float of U.S. President Trump and Korean Kim Jong-Un in the 2018 Carnival de Nice. The theme of that particular Carnival was Space. If you remember Trump used to call Kim Jong-un, the rocketman. 

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 which are grown locally. 

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

You might be interested in reading about Popular flowers in France: Their French flower names & meanings.

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 declaration 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.

On the last day of the Carnival in Nice, this tradition continues when the Carnival king (the float) comes out one last time and is lit on fire with fire trucks 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 following year. 

What does Carnival mean?

No one knows for sure the exact origins of the word Carnival, 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,” is French for Tuesday which is the last day during the Carnival season before fasting for lent. Mardi Gras aka Fat Tuesday is always on a Tuesday. 
  2. The word “Gras,” which means Fat, reflects the type of foods that people binged on before lent. The following day after mardi gras is Ash Wednesday, the first day of lent when people give up fatty foods and fast for 40 days (excluding Sundays). 

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?

PHOTO of mardi gras disguised in mardi gras costume

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, where did this notoriously famous party of excess, costumes, masks, music, and floats come from?

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

Unfortunately, there’s no easy way to pinpoint the exact origins.

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

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 and 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. S rove 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 in France celebrated (and around the world)?

FIRST DAY OF CARNIVAL SEASON: January 6th.

3 kings holding little king cakes with words jan 6 epiphany day background

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

Why does Carnival season begin on January 6th?

According to Christian theology, January 6th, 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. You might know this celebration as 3 kings day. 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 officially the last day of the Carnival season and is always on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. 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. But the one constant is that mardi gras is always on a Tuesday 47 days before Easter Sunday. 

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: 45 days before Easter

The day after Mardi Gras is Ash Wednesday, which is also the beginning of Lent. Lent is celebrated over 46 days and includes 40 days of fasting, 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. It’s a complicated date to calculate so I won’t get into how it’s calculated. 

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

Timeline of Mardi Gras, Ash Wednesday, Lent through Easter

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

dressed up for the Carnival parade at school

Mardi Gras in France 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. This is 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.

Traditional French Carnival Food in France:

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

It’s tradition to eat fatty foods during the Carnival season in France, such as les beignets, but the King of the carnival season food has got to be King cake and les beignets. 

You might be interested in reading: Most popular mardi gras foods in France: both sweet and savoury.

Since the 14th-century, people in France have kicked off the carnival season and celebrated 3 Kings Day ( feast of Epiphany) by eating King cake on January 6th. 

However, in France and many other Francophone countries, Epiphany is not a public holiday, so it’s usually observed 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.

In reality, people begin eating King cake in France as early as mid-December through the end of January. Every French boulangerie, pâtisserie, and supermarket in France is filled with King cakes accompanied with free golden paper crowns. 

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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. 

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. T is 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. I  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.

You might be interested in reading: 330 rare, popular and chic French female names.

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.  

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.
  •  U.S.: 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, who 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, 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 Egyptian 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. T rough cultural osmosis, the Greek cult infiltrated with an existing and similar Roman cult devoted to Liber, popular with plebeians or plebs (commoners). L ber 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 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. 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 in France, 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). P gans 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. The king cake became the Portuguese Bola-Rei (King ball), the Bulgarian banitsa, the Mexican Rosca de Reyes (King’s wreath), and France’s galette des rois.

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 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 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 festivities 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 runners ran 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 have to 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 is attached to a wooden stick and people shout: “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 and 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

8) Le Père Fouettard is Saint Nick’s Christmas helper who whips naughty kids in France.

Pere Fouetttard, French Santa's sinister little helper holding a whip and leading two donkeys along a path

In parts of France, Saint Nicholas is accompanied by a helper who carries a whip to whip naughty children. 

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 the Greeks and Romans, with cult-like festivities and parties. Some of the activities 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. 

Photo of Annie André: www.AnnieAndre.com

Annie André

About the author 

I'm Annie André, a bilingual North American with Thai and French Canadian roots. I've lived in France since 2011. When I'm not eating cheese, drinking wine or hanging out with my husband and children, I write articles on my personal blog annieandre.com for intellectually curious people interested in all things France: Life in France, travel to France, French culture, French language, travel and more.

 

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  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

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