The article was adapted, with permission, from article by Lennox Honychurch

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Lennox Honychurch
Historian, anthropologist and author

The statement that Carnival emerged in Dominica after 1838 needs some qualification, for as we shall discover the whole festival branches out far back into hundreds of years of our Afro-European cultural background.

In fact we have to go back over two thousand years to the primitive European tribes living before the rise of the Roman Empire to find the earliest roots of the festival. It was linked to the pagan feasts for the coming of spring, a time to celebrate the end of the harsh starving period of winter and the beginning of the fruitful spring and summer months. The Romans adopted and developed the whole thing as one of the imperial cults, which was part of an elaborate calendar of beliefs officially published in 304 BC. It became the Lupercalia Lupercalia was a celebration of purity and fertility. It honoured Lupa, the legendary she-wolf that suckled Romulus and Remus who, in Roman mythology, were the founders of Rome. festival administered by the Luperci and celebrated on 15th February each year.

Four hundred years later, the followers of Jesus of Nazareth spread out through Asia Minor and along the Mediterranean coast preaching their Gospel and persuading a wide variety of [people] with differing beliefs to join their faith. There then began a natural mixture of beliefs and customs. Soon their simple message of brotherhood became entangled with a whole range of confusing dogma and doctrine picked up and adapted from the traditional sects and cults found throughout Asia Minor, Greece and Rome. After years of Christian persecution by successive Roman emperors, Constantine agreed to tolerate all religions and finally Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire by Edict of Theodosius I in the year 380. It was obvious that as a state religion much of the traditional Roman beliefs entwined with the increasingly complex Christian teachings…
Bacchus, Greek god of wine. Oil on canvas by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.

As a result, the observance of most of the important dates of the Christian calendar (a Roman influence in itself) has far flung roots. In the case of Carnival we get the Roman Lupercalia feast linked to the Christian observance of Lent. The word itself originates from the Latin phrase "carnem levare" meaning "to put away meat". It also stems from the Italian word "carnevale" which was the original name for Shrove TuesdayShrove is the past tense of the English verb "shrive", which means "to obtain absolution for one's sins by confessing and doing penance". Shrove Tuesday gets its name from the shriving (confessing) that English Christians were expected to do prior to receiving absolution immediately before Lent began. Shrove Tuesday is the last day of "shrovetide", the English equivalent to the Carnival. Shrove Tuesday is kin to the Roman Catholic Mardi Gras.
. [Carne] relates to "carnis" the Latin for "flesh" which implies not just the meat of animals but the sensual sexual ways of the flesh as well. This too was part of the Bacchanalia or Festival of Bacchus In Greek mythology Bacchus, also called Dionysis, was the son of Zeus, king of the gods and the mortal Semele. He was said to wander the world, spreading the knowledge of grape-growing and wine-making., the Greek god of wine.

The strict observance of Lent comes to us from the Dark Ages, after the fall of Rome, when Christianity went through what was perhaps its most horrific phase. Fear, self-debasement, penance through torture and self-mortification were seen as being the demands of salvation. Processions in iron chains and pilgrimages for miles on shuffling bended knees were part of the forty days of sacrifice. It was no wonder therefore that those early Europeans went wild for two days before Ash Wednesday.

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