The core of ancient seasonal festivals, such as Carnival, is by far older than the settling for instance of the Celtic civilizations, that of the Roman Empire or that of medieval Christianity. It is indeed older than the Bronze Age, and even agriculture. It is a legacy of our animistic past. The forest and its animals are their cosmic background. These rituals presuppose a pattern of hunting, fishing, berries gathering, as well as the moon cycle that presides over. It is wilderness that provides food not the domesticated world.
Societies in Northern Europe only encountered agriculture, cities and the complex hierarchies that come along at a relatively late stage in history compared to the Middle East, and not quite with the same intensity. Their fundamental rituals are by far more ancient than the trifunctional Indoeuropean ideology that eventually prevailed. There are no casts: hence no kings, no sacerdotal order, no warriors, no labourers in service of the formers.
Shamanic tasks belonged rather to certain women instead of men. This is, alas, the very tradition churchmen and lawyers at the junction of the Middle and Modern Ages came across while they believed to have discovered ‘witches.’ The western world, after the Neolithic age, did not fully succumb to the trend that drastically subordinated women to men. Similarly, communal decision-making institutions, such as the Nordic Thing, will keep on, in spite of chiefdoms raised as kingdoms. Likewise, a form of antagonism opposes the eastern despotic world governed by god-kings to the Greek ideal of isonomy.
Asceticism facing meat and sexuality
The sacred meal characteristic of the Christian Church (and of Rabbinical Judaism since both depend on the same ritual source) is wrought around bread and wine. The Christian movement was close to a purely urban reality up to the end of the fourth century. The oriental symbolism of its sacred meal, which will be implemented all across the West, is rooted within viticulture and cereal agriculture. It is even linked to vegetarianism. Fish and cheese were part of the early Christian liturgical meal, but the Eucharist is also clearly tainted by the refusal of red meat peculiar to Late Antiquity Mediterranean asceticism, be it Hellenistic, Jewish, Christian, Gnostic… Meat relates to sexual desire and to animal sacrifices that are seen gross by the spiritualist philosophy of the time. To abstain from meat as well as sexual intercourse while fasting are typical features of Christian asceticism.
It should be noted that Christian sacred meal implies the consumption of carbohydrates and antinutrients (contained in cereal grains) inherited from the Neolithic, whereas the ancestral European banquet remains based mostly on meat and cabbage (the main traditional western vegetable). Such a diet, rich in protein and fat, matches our deep biological needs, contrarily to the later mainly carbohydrate eastern meal which is proven unhealthy …
By contrast, traditional Western festivals rely upon excess. This implies consuming rich food in abundance without worrying about the morrow, in contrast with times of natural dearth and hardship. When the ground started to hardened because of frost, then came the time to slaughter parts of livestock, chiefly from pigs’ herds. However, offal, which would quickly deteriorate otherwise, was to be eaten on the spot. Later on, near the end of winter, when the remaining meat storage was about to run out, and before it might start to rot, was the last time to eat amply. It would soon be time to switch to the scarce food resources that were still available, notably freshwater fish. Precisely, in the Celtic and Germanic world, autumn and winter festive seasons rely on the celebratory sharing of a vast amount of animal meat, notably pork, during banquets. The boar and the hog were divine figures celebrated all across Europe. Even the position in the ecosystem underlying these festivals cannot be easily reconciled with the cultural background of the Christian sacred meal. Most of carnival’s symbols are drawn from the trees and the large animals of the forest (and until the Modern age hogs were not enclosed). A carnival character of the Wild Man in the likeness of a tree is not uncommon.
Life and death interwoven
Within this context, life and death are perceived and pictured through their cyclical imbrication. The life of ones feeds on the death of others. All life depends on death. No birth or rebirth may take place without death. As for death, she is always pregnant of life, and thus associated with fertility – indeed a crucial aspect of life. This is a corner stone of animism. According to Celtic mythology, the Irish Dagda and the Gallic Sucellos, as well as – since they are based upon a similar archetype – the Welsh guide of souls Angau (the Briton Ankou) represent this interweaving of life and death. These figures reign over the perpetuation of the cycles of life: may those be daily, seasonal, parturient or funerary. Actually, according to the animistic mind-set death and the migrations of souls that come along are not to be excessively feared.
In the face of death, as well as the small and great stages of life, ancient communities build through these rituals what constituted their very self. With the help of all, it is each one’s being there to the world that is asserted through the celebrations staging the relationship of unity the community upholds with the cosmos. Everyone finds among the ritual some strength to keep on following his own cycle of life, convinced that such a cycle is itself inscribed within larger cycles.
© Matthieu Smyth
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