The historical European carnival is a collective celebration, which traditionally involves the parading of effigies, masks and giant puppets, and which sometimes ends with the characters being put to a symbolic death. Related to ancient cults, such carnivals often take place in the early spring or more rarely at winter solstice or other times in the calendar. They sometimes involve cross-dressing and disguise and allow the masked participant to temporarily assume a new identity.

In antiquity, the carnival could provide a break in regular behaviour and authorized an otherwise prohibited intimacy in relations between people. A popular belief links the European carnivals with the Roman feast of spring, at least in the Latin countries. Every year on March 14, the old March was driven from Rome with sticks and its image thrown into the Tiber. On March 15, the image of Anna Perenna, an Etruscan goddess of the moon, which had no place in the Roman pantheon, was also drowned. Ovid described the procession towards the Tiber as a disorderly march of drunken women. Some researchers raise other possible links between the carnival and Saturnalia. In any case, it was certainly a celebration linked to agricultural rituals, to the resurgence of nature and to rituals of purification of which the crucial moment was lighting fires in the fields.

Diversion of Meaning and the Reversal of Roles

The origin of the word carnival is controversial. Some relate it to carrus navalis, indicating a cart in the shape of a ship used in purification rites. Others believe that it is an alteration of carnem levare (remove the meat), an expression that suggests abstinence, while the term “carnival” has come to mean the contrary – the festival of gluttony. In France, the term has replaced that of carême-prenant, which designated the three days preceding Lent as a time when one was allowed to eat meat. Additionally, the carnival was popularized mainly in Catholic countries where the figures and puppets can be viewed as distorted statues of the saints carried during the processions of religious holidays. In Protestant countries, the celebration was more modest and took place without puppets, as in the Netherlands. Generally, the carnival was a feast of excesses of all kinds. The food was rich and plentiful, wine flowed freely, and frivolity had free reign.

These qualities were visible in the appearance of effigies with exaggerated ugliness and big, gluttonous bellies. Enormous puppets represented this opulence in some countries. The carnival puppet thus maintained certain traits related to notions of fertility and abundance. This disdain for the norm is reflected in the expression of emotions. The crowd laughs obnoxiously at the appearance of the puppet and cries at its death with the same vulgarity. Meanwhile, those who accompany or manipulate the puppet wear grotesque masks and blacken their bodies with soot.

The Central Figure and the Procession

The enormous carnival figure has a variety of names. It may simply be called Carnival as it is in the Latin world or Chuchelo (straw man) and Sudarynya Maslenitsa (Lady Shrovetide) in Russia. It is always both funny and ugly to make people laugh, but at the same time it retains frightening aspects. Usually, its dimension is greater than that of other puppets. In France, these figures resembled huge “phantoms”. In the Basque country, giant puppets paraded at the head of the processions, as well as in the rest of Spain where they were equally large and fat. In France, the puppet with a great paunch called Carnival, but also Pansard and Carapazi, embodied the days of Shrovetide. The Slavs of southern Europe poured wine into the open mouth of a giant puppet, whereas in Russia, in the Kaluga region, “Lady Shrovetide” brandished a bottle of vodka and cake.

There have been, however, a wide variety of anthropomorphic figures. The basic element was not yet a puppet but a coarsely made effigy. In Ukraine, for example, they used a bundle of straw, tied together at one end, which was held up towards the sun and thrown into the fire to signify a sacrifice. In the Moscow region, a step was taken towards a real puppet with the making of a sheaf of straw covered by a woman’s dress. Later, a bag stuffed with straw was produced that transformed into a kind of man or dummy, a form found, for example, in Siberia or in Abruzzo, Italy. Its popularity can be explained by its simplicity. The puppet’s straw-stuffed appearance clearly conveying the meaning ascribed – a creature filled with food. We can find other effigies similarly made with simple sheaves of straw tied with rags in Silesia, Switzerland and Russia.

The facial features of these puppets were also coarse and primitive with soot used to suggest a face. However, in the most developed carnivals, the puppet wore an expressive mask. For example, in Viareggio, Italy, which began holding carnivals at the beginning of the 20th century, the giant has a huge nose and red painted teeth. It is a monster of mythological proportions. The “phantoms” of the major carnivals of Italy and Spain were grotesque creatures and at the same time genuine works of art. In Russia, the puppets were mostly of wood, but were sometimes made of tow, hemp and rags. The appearance of the puppet evoked images of death, the poor and the scapegoat, and, indeed, the puppet was usually dressed in old clothes or rags, symbolizing the end of the season. In England, Jack-a-Lent was also dressed in rags, as was the Czech puppet called Morena (Death). In Campania, Italy, there is a game called Death in Sorrento which is played by two puppets – one red and round with a big belly called Carnival, and the other, a thin woman dressed in black called Lent. Personified puppets, such as Don Juan in Spain, were rare and are therefore of particular interest. The character of Don Juan took its place in the carnival owing to its popularity, as well as its suggestion of adultery, common in the carnival precisely because it was so condemned by the norm.

The Shrovetide puppet was a passive one. That is, it was not mechanized, or only crudely so, although two exceptions are the Yugoslav puppets that drink and the Garanka character that smokes a pipe. The Shrovetide puppet obeyed the crowd that guided it, lifted it up and destroyed it. Its power was especially emphasized by its attributes. An immobile and inactive puppet could be invested with an active power. Thus, in Abruzzo the “King” would harangue and criticize the sinful crowd.

Historically, once it was ready, the carnival puppet was carried through the town or village, sometimes down the only main street, with the means at hand, usually on large wagons, which sometimes in the most elaborate carnivals were fashioned in the shape of a boat. Such vehicles could be seen in Russia during the reign of Peter the Great, and later the puppets were brought into the villages on sleighs in the snow. In some areas of Germany, including Pfalz, puppets were carried by men, whereas in Baden they were placed in coffins. Usually during Carnival, a group of participants would dress up a puppet and parade it around. In terms of presentation, the attitude towards the puppet fluctuated from excessive joy to demonstrations of exaggerated grief. Its masked, and often cross-dressed, companions sometimes covered their faces in soot. In Spain, they followed the puppet in carts or wagons, dressed as famous historical figures or as fish, mermaids or lobsters. Sometimes their behaviour went beyond the socially acceptable, taking a turn toward conduct that outside of the carnival would be unthinkable. In the Arkangelsk region of northern Russia the participants exposed parts of their bodies that had been painted red.

The Culmination: The Destruction of the Puppet

In Western Europe, the carnival culminated in a trial of the puppet, as in Murcia in Spain or in Italy where a court of justice was imitated to its last detail. In England, the puppet was exposed to the sight and stones of the mob. In France, the poorest man of the village, or an unfaithful husband who had been caught red-handed in the act of adultery, was “tried” in place of the puppet. In Yugoslavia, the trial of “Lent” involved a judge, a defense lawyer, a doctor, and the parents of the accused. The accusations were always more or less the same: greed, excessive drinking, adultery and other sins and faults with evidence collected from the whole community. In Russia, the puppet was removed without a trial and “executed” in the public square. This outcome was seen as something natural, requiring no explanation or justification, and joy turned into sadness. The methods of execution varied. The puppet could be drowned, burned, torn to pieces or buried. In France, the puppet was usually hung. In Yugoslavia, it was shredded, and the straw scattered or fed to livestock. In Italy the puppets were sometimes drowned in the rivers, and in northern Russia they would be thrown into holes cut in the ice. In Pfalz, the puppet was thrown in a landfill. In Mazuria in Poland, it was stripped naked before being burned. In fact, a burning pyre was the most commonly used means of execution. Putting the puppet to death was accompanied by ritual grieving. There might even be mock church rituals. In one village near Saratov in the Volga region the funeral service was read by a woman dressed as a priest. During the 16th century in France the service was delivered in the church on Ash Wednesday in the presence of an enormous “ghost” until the custom was abolished.  

Some traditional carnivals have survived, such as the ones in Basel in Switzerland, Dunkirk in France, and Binche in Belgium. But the carnivals of today in Nice, Venice (which dates back to 1094) or Rio de Janeiro have little in common with the old forms. The masks and costumes now primarily serve as an artistic display of opulence, and while they have retained their festive character, they have lost much of their original significance.

(See also Giant Figures, Giant Puppets, and for an African carnival, Sierra Leone.)


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