On the night before Holi, the festival of colors, the bonfire called Holika Dahan still occurs in rural areas. This custom is reconnected to the Puranic myth that tells of Prahlada and the king Hiranyakashipu, who is presented as a demon who opposes the worship of Vishnu.
The myth has it that, the demon asks his sister Holika to go through the fire with a fire retardant coat, but to let Prahlada burn by deception. When the plan is implemented, Vishnu intervenes to save his devotee and burn in its place the demoness, whose bonfire is represented by that of Holi. In traditional pyre, in fact, it is burnt a puppet of a woman who holds a child.
This archaic festival in prehistory celebrated the end of the winter and the beginning of spring, the season of fecundity and fertility. With the rites of the burning of an old lady, a symbol of past, people celebrated an ancient propitiatory rite. The tradition of burning a human form puppet or a grotesque scarecrow at the end of winter has very deep and remote roots that take us to prehistoric times. According to scholars, this ceremony was a magical ritual to drive away the bad weather and invoke the arrival of spring.
It was a rite of fertility and fecundity, practiced as early as the Paleolithic and Neolithic, who offered to the gods of nature real sacrifices, even human, replaced later by puppets. This cult has found its timing at the beginning of the year when in the Mediterranean climatic regions the summer season comes immediately after the first winter frost.
The Romans also had an idol shaped like a woman, Anna Perenna, a statue that was carried in procession, and then thrown into the Tiber as propitiatory good wishes for the population, for a good start and conclude happily the year. The old woman represented the misery of the past season, hunger, disease, injustice, rejection of a negative past, the hope of a promising future for the country and for life.
It was probably in the Middle Ages that the ancient pagan puppet lost its growing significance and became the victim of the popular outlet for fasting and abstinence, as Christianity syncretized the pagan customs and popularized the period of Lent. Re-reading, in fact, the Puranic story with an anthropological eye, there is a clear representation of the new cult, who triumphs over the old one represented by local deities relegated as demons and the new deities are celebrated, however, still in the archaic ritual of Holi.
Carnival is based on the concept of death and rebirth, the attempt to find the rain and the commemoration of Dionysus, god of vegetation and ecstasy, which annually dies and is reborn in the natural cycle of the eternal return. The capture and death of Dionysus are represented through the capture and death of a substitute victim. This victim is generally presented in the form of goat, bull, deer, wild boar, all hypostases of Dionysus which was manifested in these respects. Traditional carnivals represent all this ritual. They differ from one country to another because each has retained a different time of this representation.
We are therefore in front of ancient agrarian rites. They are the last legacy of a Dionysian cult survived the unconscious level, traces of which are still evident, however. Worship that was once present in many countries of the Mediterranean and in Sardinia, as trivialized and relegated to the carnival, was able to survive because it was linked to agricultural years and the specter of drought, it was necessary to exorcise repeating the ritual of Maimone.
Wanting to find a parallel in other archaic myths of the world, that can help us understand the nature and role of these ancient gods, outlining another recurring theme, namely that of the Triad, the Godfather and the one who passes through death and the revival, were at the base of different cults that have developed their theory of rebirth or resurrection often in parallel with the representation of the grain that is reborn with the new crop.
In Holi, it is clear, in fact, even the peasant cult of the grain, so that in the rural areas on the evening of Holi there is a village festival with the sacrifice of the new harvest. Despite the tradition of Lent, the burning of the old puppet has always been alive through the centuries, especially in the countryside. The custom is also documented in the period of Austro-Hungarian domination, even if it survives as a simple campfire, without the process that could give voice to popular discontent and patriotic claims.
After World War II the tradition of burning the old woman lost its importance because the burlesque process was not very pleasing to the authorities but the custom has been preserved thanks to the suburban taverns, which kept alive the event to break the monotony of winter and induced people to leave their homes.
The origin of this festival is lost in several legends of mythology similar to Tammuz, the Mesopotamian Dumuzi deity, whose cult spread throughout the eastern Mediterranean, including Greece, where it took the name of Adonis, of Astarte, goddess of fertility, whose death and resurrection represented the periodic regeneration of vegetation in the spring.
In the Vedic period, in fact, as the newer local deities like Shiva, Vishnu and Krishna were given prominence, they absorbed many of the qualities of Madan or Kamadeva, who incorporated aspects of ancient fertility cults, so much so that in some places the same Kamadeva was started to be burned in the bonfire. The bonfire thus proclaimed the victory of the devas over the Asuras or demons.
To understand how it has gone to consider it a celebration of color, you have to re-watch the bonfire ritual in which traditionally were collected the ashes to be spread as a propitiatory fertilizer on the fields and, therefore, even on the children's body for invigorating them, probably in memory of treatments and use of healing herbs in powder form, or even the sprinkling of sacrificial blood and invigorating of children in primitive rites.
Just this use of ashes, powders, and ointments has probably led more recently to the party we know today, in which the color that brings life and joy is the master. The next morning, when the embers are cold, sacred ashes are venerated and on people are scattered powder and colored water.
The tradition was also syncretized by Christianity through Ash Wednesday, the day after Shrove Tuesday, the end of Carnival and the beginning of Lent. As usually happens with the major religious celebrations, Ash Wednesday can boast a number of curiosities, habits and special customs. A level of more or less, folk customs and traditions must be reported for the transgressive Ash Wednesday, where such day is not seen as the first day of Lent but as the closing of the carnival.
In Europe, the carnivals setting up a funeral procession that touches all the taverns of the city and ends only at night with the masks riding donkeys or leading leash pigs, sheep and chickens and a grotesque puppet with a big belly made of rags and cork and papier-mâché face, with the face blackened by soot of burnt cork powder, who meet on the street and, at sunset, throw the puppet on fire on a slope on the outskirts of villages.
Participants in the party are found in the main streets with painted face of coal produced from cork burn. It is dragged in procession a puppet is set on fire in the evening. In some locations, it is still celebrated an ancient tradition of pagan origin defined the old Sega. There is also the funeral of the carnival and the widow who is hung in the streets of the city.
The women dress in traditional clothes of women like Muncadore and Brusa and recite a chant. In fact, the tone is typical of traditional funeral laments, directed towards the puppet, but they are often ironic and sarcastic songs, the verses that conceal fun phrases to address of men and women who meet on the street or to the inhabitants. The phrases tease and make fun of anyone who comes within range.
Wine offered by the people and that the mourning group is consumed at will. At the end of three days of dancing and parades in the streets, it is offered to present a dish of beans with lard and pork, accompanied by the excellent and renowned local wines.
The carnival of the Slovenian city of Ptuj is a mix between Western celebrations and ancient Slav paganism and is celebrated with its traditional parades of buffoons with demonic masks. The peculiarity of these popular festivals consists of a fusion between the carnival of Western Europe, especially the Venetian and the Austrian, and the local folklore, imbued by the pagan Slavic mythology. It begins with the Kurenti, which scares the winter, followed by a parade of costumes invoking spring and fertility, to end with the passage of grotesque figures to amuse the spectators.
This event begins in January and ends on Ash Wednesday, where Pust is buried, during this time the celebrations are continuous, do not cease the various activities that enliven the great and small. During the first days the villagers come to Ptuj hiding their faces with masks of the most curious, forest animals, like bears, cows, and chickens but there is one that is unique in this country, Kurent, represents a god, some say that Bacchus or Dionysus, because of his reputation, clothing in a sheepskin with cowbells, feathers, and fabrics decorating the horns. A common Kurenti is dressed in sheep's clothing, carries bull horns, bells on the waist, a demonic mask, woolen stockings and heavy shoes, and wields in his left hand a flail or whip of arms, used in the Middle Ages.
After the Kurds comes an apparent calm and begin to parade their inhabitants in floral and fun attire and finally concludes with grotesque, ugly people, who make the public laugh at such ridiculous puppets. Another of the most famous Carnival in the country is the Cerknica, from the top of the mountains come all the witches that inhabit them, so the city is plagued by these characters accompanied by their devil acolytes. The majority of its population participates in the Parade and fulfill the tradition incarnating a great monster that emerges from Jezero Lake, as well as the Great Ursula witch.
Of course in Ljubljana, these festivals are also celebrated, but with a more informal touch, as thousands of children and parents disguise themselves, and go to the Town Hall Square, while many disguise themselves as the mythical Green Dragon, the emblem of the city. And suddenly you will notice the smell of the tasty Slovenian sausages, grilled meats and other Slovenian delicacies that will take you to the central market, where the market is normally located outdoors. The musical groups liven up the party. Then the younger ones disperse to the pubs and places of drinks to continue the celebration.
Also in Dreznica takes place a famous Carnival, where the still unmarried young people are covered with wooden masks, that they themselves are in charge of carving and are transmitted from parents to children. The inhabitants are divided between the so-called Guapos and the Ugly, the first adorn the houses, distributing sweets and cheering the spectators.
In Croatia, local peasants called Zvoncari disguise themselves for centuries as fantastic horrifying beings with the aim of scaring off the winter. After this parade, the procession continues with the characters who invoke spring, love, fertility, exuberance, and fullness, so the costumes consist of green leaves, floral ornaments, men dragging a plow and that sow seeds or represent other tillage activities.
The ludic acts conclude with the passage of grotesque figures, cheerful gypsies who predict the future and overdressed beggars who go out into the street. With these antics at the end of the procession, people try to evoke, whether the year is good or bad, the season is fertile or barren, and always take life with humor and grace.
Carnival, throughout history, has been associated with both pagan and religious celebrations. But, from one perspective or another, it is a permissive party that meant a few days of euphoria and relaxation of the prohibitions in society. Nowadays it is a joyful and colorful party, of disguises, music, and dance, centered in the fun of children and adults.
The Carnival is a festival of pagan origin that goes back to the times of the ancient Greece and Rome. First, the Greek Dionysiac feasts were celebrated and later the Roman ones. The Carnival in Christian rural societies marked some exceptional days, opposed to sexual repression and the severe fast of Lent that followed. Imagine, for example, that in the time of Charlemagne, the violation of eating pork during Lent was punished by death.
However, as for so many other things, this choice is no more than an attempt to bring the ember to its sardine. The truth is that today we agree that Carnival comes from Carna, the Celtic goddess of beans and bacon, and long before, from the Indo-European homages to Karna, who in the Mahabhárata appears as the son of unmarried Kuntí, and was the elder brother of the Pandavas.
That is, it makes a lot of sense, on the one hand, that the Church does not accept it as a religious feast or lack thereof, which contrasts with the pretension of its etymological proposal, and on the other, its paganism perfectly fits today with playful character that this festival has in every corner of the world where it is settled.
The origin of its celebration seems likely to be in pagan festivals, such as those performed in honor of Bacchus, the Roman god of wine, Saturnal and Roman Lupercales, or those performed in honor of the Apis bull in Egypt. According to some historians, the origins of this festivity would go back to the ancient Sumer and Egypt, more than 5000 years ago, with very similar celebrations in the time of the Roman Empire, from where the custom expanded to Europe, being taken to America by the Spanish and Portuguese sailors from the end of the fifteenth century.
The ethnologists found the elements surviving in the carnival of ancient festivals and cultures, as the Feast of Winter (Saturnalia), Greek Dionysian celebrations and Roman (Bacchanalia), and the ones of Hispanic Andean and African American cultures.
The origins of the festival are still religious. In Abyssinia, the Egyptians used to offer oxen as a sacrifice to the god of the Nile, Chebs, who was accompanied to the river in festive processions, after being decked to the nines, with horns covered with gold fabrics.
In honor of Dionysus was celebrated in great joy and euphoria the vineyard parties. Dionysus with his entourage of satyrs and fauns became Bacchus within the fat divinity crowned with vine leaves and grapes, always surrounded by the Bacchae, half-naked adolescents intoxicated by copious libations and desirous of finding in an outburst of sense gratification of their unbridled excitement.
The celebrations degenerated into orgies during which the worshipers of the pagan god, for a certain masochistic pleasure, cling to their half-naked bodies giving them clearly the pleasure of thrill. Fauns and satyrs enjoyed unbridled freedom in the period of the festivities, which could be compared to our Carnival period. The dances of the wild disheveled and furious Bacchae had completed only when they fell exhausted, won by the men's impetuousness. Also, it existed in Greece the use of these orgies, but in a time of year a little later, in March that was called Elaphebolion.
The Bacchanalia took place on the streets of Rome already with masks that represented in the embryo that became commonly used. During the feast of Ceres and Proserpine night saw the people on the streets to vent all the joy in wine and in the senses, the whole city became a brothel, as young and old people, without distinction of class and maturity joined freely under the eyes.
Other festivals were the Lupercalia, in memory of the she-wolf Romulus and Remus, considered a party of fertility. On this occasion, the Luperci priests roamed the streets naked striking matrons with goatskin strips, the so called married women of the noble family who were made to go to the sacred grove in hopes of getting the desired fertility. The Lupercalia ended with the night race of the torches. Carnival festivities ended the last day in February, called Brumalia. After Brumalia, around the Kalends of March, took place the Saturnalia of Matrons, also called Matronalia, which consisted of gift offers.
After the advent of Christianity the holidays, with the passage of the centuries, more and more lost their profane. Carnival with its disguises, if only with the mask or with dominoes, offered all possible and imaginable opportunity.
The carnival of Mazatlán is currently one of the most important in Mexico. The Ciudad del Carmen and Veracruz Carnival are full-color parades that flood its streets with a musical and festive atmosphere, the first event of the carnival is the burning of "Bad Spirit", and on the ninth day is the burning of Juan Carnaval.
A novelty of this celebration is the so-called burning of the "Bad Spirit" where tradition indicates burning a paper character (Monigote). In Michoacán, carnival is celebrated with the appearance of the dance of the Ch'anatzcua (Fiesta) in several indigenous communities and in Morelia, Charo, Queréndaro, Indaparapeo, Copándaro de Galeana, with music of trumpet and chirimías with a dance of masked Indians who run a counterfeit bull, dancing to the sound of a tamboril.
The comparsa is composed by the bull, the caporal, responsible for guiding the bull and at the conclusion of the dance, the maringuia, or wife of the caporal, which in many places is represented by a woman and the horse or son of the caporal is responsible for killing the bull.
One of the oldest carnivals in Belgium is celebrated in the town of Binche. The celebration has multicolored hues, in which characters called Gilles dressed in traditional costumes throw red oranges at the crowd. The processions of giants also highlight the representation of Bayard, the legendary horse of Charlemagne. On the last day of the Carnival of Aalst, the Sphinx of the carnival is burned.
In Argentina in the northwest Andean region, carnival celebrations point to the subsistence of ancient indigenous traditions belonging to the pre-Hispanic Andean civilization. The most important milestones in the carnival ceremonies are the devil's burning carnival. The Carnavalito is a centennial style folkloric tradition, developed specifically for the celebrations.