Carnival and Mardi Gras Masks
by Ian Bracegirdle

Carnival Masks and Masquerade Masks

Where did the use of Carnival masks and Masquerade masks begin?

The Venetian Carnival began over 900 years ago. It has run except for a gap ( from 1797 - 1987 ) and is replayed in its 18th century form today. Many other carnival masks and masquerade mask traditions can be traced back far into medieval times. The true roots came be traced back even further. Venice and other European masquerades are the precursors to modern Madi Gras and masquerade in the Americas. But again I ask where did the traditions of Carnival and carnival masks begin?

Take a trip back in time to the Roman times. Around mid February there used to be a Festival called Lupercalia. It is described as a circus like festival. When Roman began to accept Christianity the pagan festivals were modified to become a part of the Christian calendar. So here is a first link. Now I believe that if we go further back to the Greeks we can find examples of big festivals and the same type of open air festivities associated with Carnival. Think of Bachus and celebrations of wine etc.

The first link then is that the Christian Festivals are built upon the pre Christian ones.

The Egyptians being the forerunners of the Greeks also had their own large outdoor festivals. These must have influenced the Greek way of life. Now if we accept the links between Egypt and Africa then the initial influences probably came from tribes further South. See Grisso at his site for a view of Carnival and its origins

To take things back even further. It is generally accepted that our original ancestors came from Africa and spread gradually to take over the whole World. It is generally recognised that Africa is the home of diverse masking traditions. Whilst they may not seem to link directly to Carnival masks in style and structure the traditions behind them do link.

Strangely the answer to my question seems to go back to the pictures on the cave walls of Palaeolithic people. 25,000 years ago the roots were established. The caves in Trois Feres in France reveal the following;

A central figure stands wearing the head and antlers of a deer. He stands, shaman like, surround by animals. Animals that are important to the culture he represents. Some of the animals no longer exist in this area. Ibex, reindeer, bison, stag and horses. The shaman, for that is what he seems to be, stands, a human figure amongst the potential food. What magic he is creating or ancestors he is communicating with we do not know. Yet from our knowledge of tribal people studied in times closer to ours it is possible to understand the links. The need to hunt for food is essential to survival. The gods link all matters, stay in good standing with the gods and food will be available. Take only what can be used fairly and do not violate the natural laws. Life goes on, following the seasons. There is a balance to life and death. The link between them is maintained by the magician, shaman, wizard, witch doctor, whatever you wish to call him.

Not Carnival masks but the foundation of traditions spreading throughout the World.

I have covered a great deal in a very short space. And maybe bitten off more than I can realistically substantiate. Every time I read about the background to masking, asque and Masquerade I find that these factors stand out. The links between the traditions in all parts of the world hold common elements. If we accept our common ancestry then it makes sense.

Simply it comes down to this. When you find that there are similar elements behind the masking traditions in Africa and North America then we have to accept that there is a common influence in play. (It could of course be the interpretation of the academics who have influenced my studies with their own agendas.) These same structures of; reverie of ancestors, links with the dead, the seasons of harvest, growth and planting, fertility, good and evil all crop up time after time. In many cases they are linked further by some kind of Fool taking part in the enactment.

What really fascinates me is that these links are embedded in our modern cultures through masquerade, carnival and other traditions such as Halloween and Day of the Dead celebrations.

Amazingly these European traditions, superstitions, and links to ancient practices, have passed into other cultures in South, Central and North America plus of course the Caribbean. How has this happened?

The European conquerors took their traditions of festivals to the Americas. These festivals embodied elements of the earlier pre Christian times. The settlers changed the local festivals to embody Christian elements. So that when today we view masquerade and Carnival it is possible to recognise the Mayan or Inca festivals on which they were based. Christian celebrations introduced by the Conquistadors and other settlers are a mixture of elements. When the addition of the African influence is added to the Carnival. An interesting picture can be seen.

Carnival masks are, in my opinion, related back to the earliest of times.

For me it is a circle. A circle of belief based upom prehistoric understanding that underpin our fundamental nature as people. Our prehistoric mystical belief system from the past are now amalgamated on all continents. Probably some people who participate in these festivals understand their true nature. Our present position is to use this understanding of our common ancestry to build a forward looking route to the future. All this from looking at masks.

Your thoughts and feelings upon this would be most welcome.

© Ian Bracegirdle 2004 1 Elderberry Close East Morton BD20 5WA UK 01535 692207 http://mask-and-more-masks.com You may use this article freely on condition that you include this copyright line and URL and that people who subsequently use this article follow the same conditions. Thank you for accepting these conditions.

About the Author
Teacher, Course Leader, mask enthuisiast and collector.
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