Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Dionysian Mysteries & Origins of the Mardi Gras

I’ve always thought it to be an ironic coincidence that both the festival of Marti Gras and the International Woman’s Day Festival are both held around the same time of year (their connection will become surely apparent in a moment). 

The historical origins of Marti Gras are quite interesting.  The terms "Mardi Gras" refer to events of the Carnival celebrations, beginning on or after Epiphany and culminating on the day before Ash Wednesday. Mardi Gras is French for "Fat Tuesday" (in ethnic English tradition, Shrove Tuesday), referring to the practice of the last night of eating richer, fatty foods before the ritual fasting of the Lenten season, which begins on Ash Wednesday (this type of psychological mindset, which tends to be carried over to the rest of the year, is one of the main reasons, studies have shown, that people generally sabotage healthy eating habits, but I digress). Related popular practices are associated with celebrations before the fasting and religious obligations associated with the penitential season of Lent.  Popular practices include wearing masks and costumes, overturning social conventions, dancing, sports competitions, parades, etc. Similar expressions to Mardi Gras appear in other European languages sharing the Christian tradition.

But the foundations of Marti Gras go much deeper into annals of history than many casually assume.  At the height of the Greek empire, the first example of democracy may have been predicated on the peoples’ desire to get drunk (which, if you think about it, is pretty much the main focus of Marti Gras for most people attending the festivities as celebrations today are more likely to take place in a bar then at home, in a church or at a mosque). The Greeks, feeling that they could no longer control the masses that celebrated bacchanals, or drunken festivals in homage to Dionysus (the god of wine and madness who was also known as Bacchus across the Aegean Sea in Lydia), the government included the festivals in the official calendar.

Dionysus was often seen as the god of everything uncivilized, of the innate wildness of humanity that the Athenians had tried to control.  Pisistrates, who ruled Athens from 546-527BC, recognized that the best way to control a popular movement was to make it official.  If the Dionysian’s were going to dress up and dance in the streets, let them be organized into a popular spectacle.” The Dionysian Mysteries  were an intrinsic part of such festivals of ancient Greece and Rome.  Participants are rumored to have ingested intoxicants and utilized rhythm and movement to induce a state of transcendental flow - a mental state where a person becomes fully immersed in a feel of energized focus, where time and sense of self dissolve into the fluid moment.  Such practices can be seen as inherited from the Paleolithic and served the same function in ancient Greece and Rome - to assist one in their return to their natural state, essentially by removing ones social constraints and attachment to ego (at least momentarily).  The concept of flow for the ancient Greeks, was nothing short of a direct communication with God.

Centuries later, as Christianity began to take a stronger foothold throughout Europe, Christian officials inevitably followed suit.  Rather than combating every pagan ritual, some Dionysian festivals were incorporated into the Christian calendar while other symbolic gestures were shared. To the Dionysian’s, drinking wine was the way to directly ingest their god – to have his spirit calm their souls and release their inhibitions (to this day, Sangiovese is still referred to as “the blood of Jupiter” it Italy – we should know as we drank a lot of it over there).

This is very similar to the ritual of drinking wine as a symbol of the blood of their God in Christian mythology, and was found to have importance for both.  But the ritual didn’t begin there either.  Christians actually inherited this ancient concept from the Greeks, which was even further inherited from Paleolithic cultures. The roots of the ritual began when the human brain inevitably evolved the cognitive complexity to be able to ask questions of the universe and understand the meaning of death.  With this understanding came an existential guilt for having to essentially kill in order to survive, disrupting the holistic fabric of nature, which they saw themselves intrinsically part of.  These early cultures developed rituals that effectively “gave” their collective/existential guilt to an animal, typically a goat (hence the term “scapegoat”) and performed the ritualistic sacrifice of the chosen animal on the last day of the year.  The animal was then consumed as part of a community feast to celebrate the coming of a new year.  This way, much like a primitive Eucharist, the guilt that was felt for the taking of an animal’s sacred life was shared (in public, by the entire tribe), and the animals “spirit” was absorbed back into the lives of the members of the community (a symbolic sacrifice of “the one for the many”).  This effectively washed away the misdeeds of the entire tribe from previous year, giving each member a psychological clean slate to move forward.

It’s interesting side note is that both Greek and Roman societies were mostly matriarchal (as most, if not all Paleolithic/Earth Goddess cultures were) prior to the introduction of alphabetic literacy which came widespread to most European societies with the introduction of the Christian Bible several hundred years after the death of Christ.  Patriarchy inevitably began to dominate in Green and Roman societies coinciding with the adoption of this abstract, left-brained form of knowing (i.e.: the written word).  Dionysian festivals were inevitably rumored (likely by fearful men) to be held deep in the woods by female “sorceress” who were thought to become possessed by their “insane” God by drinking wine, the blood of their God (Dionysus was the epitome of Freud’s concept of “id” by the way, which was thought to be a “feminine” trait).  The Cult of Dionysus began to encompass these rumors - that any hapless male who entered their festival, would literally be devoured by devotees tearing him apart and eating his flesh.  Pretty macabre stuff.  Needless to say, the festival of Dionysus inevitably lost favor among men, as the incorporation of Mardi Gras is another example of a Dionysian ritual entering into the Christian world. 

It’s interesting to note, that Dionysus is thought to be the mythological remnants of a much earlier Earth Goddess who eventually took over her former qualities (although, also interesting is how “insanity” was another quality which was supposedly part of the young God’s personality, a subtle reminder to patriarchal men that all women are inherently insane, but I digress).

The most recent version of Mardi Gras celebrated today by millions, is somewhat based on the ancient pagan festival of Lupercalia, which traditionally took place in February on what is now recognized as St. Valentine’s Day. Under Christian governance, the “carnival” celebration of Lupercalia was decreed to end the day before the beginning of the Lenten period (a bash before the fast, so to speak). In contrast to the sober and reflective season of Lent, the carnival, with its root word shared with carnal, was a pure celebration of the body. As it did in the ancient festivals of Dionysus, wine played an integral role in the early bacchanalian carnivals of Mardi Gras.

Today, these roots of Mardi Gras and the Dionysian festival are somewhat forgotten. What remains, however, is the central idea of a feast and celebration of the people, an inexorable force of human beings gathering to completely let their hair down and get drunk with laughter, friendship and the ecstasy brought about by the complete collapse of social status and etiquette.   Notice people wear masks in order to hide behind as they participate in outward debauchery. What would Mardi Gras be without the parade masks and costume balls, both of which date to ancient Dionysian festivals?

Another interesting note, is that it has been suggested (by several renowned anthropologists) that the festivals of Dionysus and Marti Gras, as well as the veneration of Mary that began to assert itself after the Dark Ages, are humanities attempt to reassert the holistic right-brain experiencing of the Paleolithic era back into the fabric of human consciousness.  The right-hemisphere of the brain tends to maintain an intuitive, holistic, sacred, subjective focus on images and the whole experience of being (verses left brained thinking which tends to maintain a logical, sequential, rational, analytical, objective focus on the parts and is used primarily for reading and writing).  In a very left-brained, abstract, logical, linear dominated world of the black and white, written word that has dominated humanity since literacy has taken hold, humanity seeks it’s roots of the Paleolithic earth Goddesses (note that the first three commandments of the Bible specifically assert a MALE God and prohibits images.  Inevitably women are excluded from participation in theocracy and burned at the stake for “being witches” and have generally suffered in terms of civil rights ever since, but I digress).

Personally, I don’t celebrate either Marti Gras or Fat Tuesday.  I have nothing against Marti Gras, per se, as I tend to be a hedonist myself.  As I have personally given up Catholicism (for Lent) and chosen “the middle path,” Marti Gras/Fat Tuesday, etc is not a holiday that I personally feel holds much meaning in my life.  Personally, I find more meaning in celebrating the concept of “ichigo ichie” (a Soto Zen term particularly associated with Chado (the Japanese tea ceremony), incorporating the Zen concepts of transience - that each moment of life is unique and a cause for celebration entailing ones full attention and focus/mindfulness - which I guess tends to be more aligned with “primitive” Paleolithic/Earth Goddess cultures of prehistory, but I digress yet again).

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