A procession of people donning masks or bodypainting is one of the most common human rituals. This phenomenon is known in Europe mostly through carnivals. Local communities stage their perception of the primal cosmic forces, notably those dwelling within the earth during winter. The procession symbolizes the intrusion of vivifying chaos – beneficial or dangerous – into our world. Thus, the world of spirits, including of course the spirits of the dead, breaks into the community.
An ancient pattern
The most ancient forms of carnival give us a better understanding of one of the underlying pattern that sustained community life in early Europe, sometimes until very recently, at least within remote areas. As we reflect upon what constitutes the power of carnival rituals we may ask ourselves if it is still possible to enter into fruitful dialogue with our ritual heritage, in such a time of rampant dislocation characterized by the growing absence of traditional rituals and of genuine human communities themselves.
With the help of all, each one experienced his own being there to the world which was then asserted. The unity between the community and the cosmos was staged during the festival. The bond between each one was celebrated and fostered. Through the ritual, the human community found the strength to carry on the cycle of life within larger cycles.
The World of the Spirits and the Bear-God
Because under our climate the year is rhythmed by four seasons, Europe knows of four carnivals: at the end of winter, of spring, of summer and of autumn, when the cold season starts. The cold season, is both a little dangerous because of the frost and the hardship that occur and also rather quiet because hard labour comes during the warm season. Winter is the time to feast on the food storage, and on the selected animals from the livestock. It is safe to slaughter when the cold weather comes. Thus, the carnivals of the cold season were weighty in the eyes of those who celebrate it. Theses animistic seasonal festivals survived a bit better, also, to centuries of Modernity.
Such is the case of the festival opening the cold season, notably in Ireland, known as Halloween, since it was Christianised. This is the time of the year when the borders between the world of the spirits and ours fall down. Our world is open to the vivifying chaos of the other world (known as the Sidh in Celtic mythology). However, two forms of the such festivities remain nowadays in Europe. In continental Europe, here and there, but notably in the Jura, people celebrate with a large banquet the time of the year when it is suitable to start slaughtering pigs. The feast of Saint Martin, on the 11th of November, is the signal for this festival. As a matter of fact, Martin, here, appears as a successor of the European Bear-God (whom he meets according a legend). The Bear-God disappears inside the Earth, where the spirits dwell, during winter time, before coming back to the world of the living at the end of it.
Our distant collective selves
The roots of these rituals plunge us in our various distant collective selves and in our ancient cultural backgrounds. Although westerners tend to see themselves above the need to know ‘who one is’, overlooking such a need leads both the community and the individual on a hazardous path. The fate of many aboriginal peoples shows this all too well. Benefiting from ancient ritual processions and their mythical characters might be difficult, but the experience that lies at the heart of ancient rituals is not elusive, nor what had begotten these. Their wisdom, or at least some of its aspects, may therefore still be passed on to us. Through their study, we may experience ritual elements missing in our society at least as a need which is nowadays hardly met: notably the strong social bond that ancient rituals fostered and the peaceful relationship with nature that they reflected, even when the latter was perceived as potentially threatening. We may be able to build, from there, at least upon a new awareness of what was once lost.
© Matthieu Smyth
Collaboration : Tanit Agency