Carnival and Mardi Gras Masks
by Ian Bracegirdle
Carnival Masks and Masquerade Masks
Where did the use of Carnival masks and Masquerade masks
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
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
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About the Author
Teacher, Course Leader, mask enthuisiast and collector.