The African, and Spiritual, Origins of Carnival

Taken from,

It has become the received teaching in all the countries of the New World where Carnival has become an institution — notably in Rio de Janeiro, New Orleans, and Port of Spain — to ascribe its origins to white planters and costumed balls, rather than to its palpably African roots [1]. I want in this article to ground the Carnival firmly in Mother Africa, where it rightfully belongs.

The first point I would make in this regard is simply to note that everywhere in the New World where there is Carnival, you find the creative presence of an African genius. In Rio, you have African and Portuguese, in New Orleans you have African and French, and in Port of Spain you have African and again, French. It is also present throughout Hispanophone America, where African energy is again present, expressed now through an Hispanic voice. The one constant in all of these variations of carnival is an African presence.

But really, we shouldn’t end there. In the Bahamas, Carnival is known by another name … Junkanoo. There, the British never participated to any significant extent, and therefore there was no attempt at European expropriation; so that historically there has never been any doubt as to the African root of this festival. Junkanoo is known also in Bermuda, where again it is an undisputed African engine that propels this form of cultural expression … Jamaica also, where it is now a faded if not entirely lost cultural expression, now being resuscitated by the import of Trinidad-style carnival. Even in North America, few people are aware that Junkanoo was celebrated in North Carolina and other parts of the American South at one time. There, for a time, it even crossed cultures and was adopted by Anglos, only subsequently to die out.[2] One can speculate as to why Junkanoo died out in North Carolina and other parts of the American South; my speculation would be that it died of racial disdain — it is from the word Junkanoo that we get the derogatory terms “kooner” and “coon”, as in “acting like a …”, a folk etymology which reveals the disdain in which this African form of cultural expression was held. Even African-descended folk, I’m sure, many of them, especially “church-folk”, would have been persuaded to look down upon the Junkanoo. So that even where there is a large African population in the New World, namely the United States other than New Orleans, where it would appear to be an unknown, or at least alien, cultural expression, we find that it once existed. I therefore assert that everywhere in the New World where Africa is found, we also find carnival, or carnival by some other name such as junkanoo, or “crop-over” (its Barbadian form), except of course where it died a victim of racial disdain and/or racial self-hatred.

In making this assertion, a clear corollary is that the African carnival has nothing at bottom to do with Lent, Christmas, or the Christian calendar. For those who don’t know, the carnivals of Port of Spain, Rio de Janeiro, and New Orleans, also a host of others throughout the Caribbean, Latin America and Europe, are celebrated on the Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, and so are linked with the Christian church calendar. (Truth be told, the Christian calendar is littered with pagan retentions, most notably Christmas and Easter. Christianity was always alien to Europe and has never really been tried by the Europeans, but it certainly was used by them as an arm of conquest. But I digress.) Likewise, the Junkanoo celebrations of the Bahamas, Bermuda, Jamaica, and North Carolina, are associated with the Christmas season. But there is no organic connection. The African-inspired carnivals have an origin and substance of their own, but at least in this aspect of outward form, they assume a European cloak. But it is assuredly a cloak of convenience. As in the carnival itself, separation must be drawn between the mask and the masquerader. No, the African carnival took on a European mask because the structures of European domination permitted it no other choice.

It is on this outward appearance that the repeated lie is based that carnival is a European creation. I do not deny that French, Portuguese, and Spanish colonialists, whether in Port of Spain, New Orleans, Rio de Janeiro, or wherever else in Latin America, celebrated their own form of carnival in the costumed balls and parties that they had in the days and weeks prior to Lent. Nor do I deny that the British colonialists of the Bahamas, Bermuda, Jamaica, North Carolina and elsewhere gave themselves over to merriment and debauchery in the “holiday season” of Christmas and New Year. No doubt that is true. Junkanoo merely took the occasion for merry-making afforded by the enslaver’s calendar to re-create a palpably African tradition right here in the New World. And the carnivals of the Catholic enslavers provided yet another opportunistic avenue of expression for what always was, and remains today, a fundamentally African form of cultural expression in all the Lent-related carnivals.

So what’s the difference, you might ask. To get a sense of the European cultural expression in carnival, one of course looks to Europe. And likewise, to get a sense of the African cultural expression, one looks to Africa. It is of course the case that every society, however inhibited or repressed, finds occasion for celebration, feasts, festivals, merry-making, and the like: it is an aspect of humanity in which we all share. Most societies also have the idea of the masquerade or the costume in one or another form, whether in the theater of social or religious ritual, the theater of the stage or drama, or the theater of the street or parade. The lines dividing these various forms of masquerade/theater are not that sharp, and the reader may no doubt be able to think of yet other categories. Carnival is a form of theater, obviously, since masquerade is involved. If we remained stuck on the outward form — the name — we would think that carnival is defined by its name, but we would be mistaken if we thought that that was the end of it.

The word carnival is derived from Latin words meaning, as some have put it, “a farewell to flesh”, referring to that season of merry-making just prior to Lent, the Christian season of fasting and fleshly denial. But one can have a season of merry-making without necessarily saying farewell to flesh, which is the case, for example, with Christmas merry-making (and Junkanoo). Therefore, to understand carnival, at least in its New World African expression, we need first of all to think of it in broader, more abstract terms than its European name would imply. We also need to focus on the differences between the European and African cultural expressions that the Europeans call carnival, that the Africans call something else, which from a New World African perspective appears to be lost, but which, in the abstract, is a form of theater of the street … to play mas’ being literally to lose oneself in the character one is supposed to be portraying as part of the masquerade.

Where Africa and Europe appear to diverge in this respect is in the aspect of costumed bands. The writings on the historical origins of the New World carnivals all speak of French, Portuguese, or Spanish colonialists having costumed balls. Individuals wore individual costumes, and the merry-making was largely indoors, though spill-over onto the streets could be expected. It is the same today still with the European carnivals of Quebec, and Venice, etc. Individuals wear costumes to indoor balls, but spill over onto the streets. This European style of merry-making is present also in the North American Halloween. By contrast, the African style of street theater called for costumed bands, and for the merry-making focus to be outdoors, rather than indoors. Which is what we see with today’s New World carnivals. It is also what we see when we look at the African (Yoruba) Egungun festival. In the Egungun festival, during which every extended family honors its collective ancestors, all the members of an extended family lineage wear the same colors, thus constituting a “band,” [3] which is the defining feature of the carnivals of New Orleans, Rio de Janeiro, Port of Spain, and others like it, and conversely absent from the European tradition that we still see today in Venice, Quebec City, etc.

From the Egungun celebration also comes a feature that we find prominent in various of the Caribbean carnivals: throwing talcum powder on fellow masqueraders, from which comes the (Trinidad) expression — “you can’t play mas’ and ‘fraid powder!”. The Egungun festival is at bottom a religious festival, at which ancestral possession is invited; celebrants who become possessed are powdered down, for reasons which probably have to do with putting on a mask, that is to show outwardly that the celebrant is no longer himself, his or her bodily vehicle having been possessed by an ancestral spirit. So… although at some level the New World carnivals appear linked to European cultural expressions — Lent and Christmas notably — at a deeper level we find that the present form of these festivals really owe more to Mother Africa than to Europe, its wayward son.

But there is more! When we trace the origins even of the European carnivals, we find that it is again to Africa we must go. This time to the Nile Valley, and to ancient Egypt — Kamit. Herodotus’ “The Histories” [4] is replete with references to the borrowings that Greece owes to Kamit: “It was the Egyptians who originated, and taught the Greeks to use ceremonial meetings, processions, and processional offerings: a fact which can be inferred from the obvious antiquity of such ceremonies in Egypt, compared with Greece, where they have been only recently introduced.” (Book II, para. 58). Later, Herodotus goes on to describe one of the ceremonial processions, at the festival of “Artemis” at “Bubastis,” as follows: “… they come in barges, men and women together, a great number in each boat; on the way, some of the women keep up a continual clatter with castanets and some of the men play flutes, while the rest, both men and women, sing and clap their hands. Whenever they pass a town on the river-bank, they bring the barge close in-shore, some of the women continuing to act as I have said, while others shout abuse at the women of the place, or start dancing, or stand up and pull up their skirts. When they reach Bubastis, they celebrate the festival with elaborate sacrifices, and more wine is consumed than during all the rest of the year. The numbers that meet there are, according to native report, as many as seven hundred thousand men and women…” (same source, para. 60). That seems to describe what today we would call a carnival.

Just so there is no doubt, Herodotus also tells us that the ancient Egyptians — the Kamau — were a black people with woolly hair. Herodotus tells us this very plainly in many places in his “The Histories”, for example, in para. 55 of Book Two, he says “as to the bird being black, they merely signify by this that the woman was an Egyptian”, in explaining the Egyptian origin of the oracle of Dodona in Greece. Elsewhere, in para. 102, as another example, in explaining his belief that the Colchians, a people found near the Black Sea in what is now Russia, were a people of Egyptian descent, the remnant of an Egyptian army left behind, he says: “my own idea on the subject was based first on the fact that they have black skins and woolly hair.” And if all else fails — because Eurocentrist historians have found all sorts of reasons to discount Herodotus and other contemporaneous European writers who say that the ancient Egyptians were a Black African people, as did, by the way, the ancient Egyptians themselvs — it helps to look at the features of the Sphinx, which are clearly Black African in phenotype.

I had to laugh when I first read the part about women pulling up their skirts. Thousands of years later, they do the same thing, completely unaware that what they do with orgiastic abandon today, possibly even with some sense of Judeo-Christian-Islamic guilt or sin, would have been considered part of an approved social and religious ritual. The Kamitic deity corresponding most to Artemis, by the way, would be Heru. Although Artemis is female, and Heru male, we see from the Greek mythology that Artemis and Apollo were brother/sister twins, and Apollo clearly corresponds to Heru. In the Kamitic tradition, there is a close relationship between Heru and Het-Heru, evident even in the name. Het-Heru literally means “house of Heru.” This relationship exists at many levels. At one level, Heru represents the will, and correspondingly Het-Heru represents the imagination. That which is willed must first be brought into and entertained in the imagination. So the relation between Heru, and Het-Heru is here apt. At another level, Heru represents testosterone, for the presence of testosterone is critical to the aggressiveness needed to exert one’s will. Correspondingly, Het-Heru represents the gonads, the sex organs within which testosterone is produced. So a Kamitic festival in honor of Heru, in its female aspect, would be likely also to honor both testosterone and its means of production. For those who are familiar with the Yoruba deities, Shango would correspond to Heru. And Shango is known, among his many qualities, for being the “ladies’ man”, the embodiment of “testosterone city”, etc. So this festival that Herodotus characterized in terms of the Greek equivalent god Artemis, is likely to have been a festival in honor of one or both of Heru and Het-Heru, or in the Yoruba correspondence, of Shango and Oshun. The latter, in particular, governs joy, the imagination, sensuality, and, yes, the sex organs, [5] which might explain Herodotus’ reference to women pulling up their skirts in the festival in honor of the deity he characterized as corresponding to the Greek deity, Artemis. Anybody who has only looked on at a carnival, knows in his gut that carnival is a dance of sex hormones, male and female in symbiotic embrace.

Nor should we assume that there is anything spiritually or morally backward about celebrating the principles for which Het-Heru, and Oshun stand as spiritual exemplars, namely the principles of joy, the imagination and sensuality; rather the reverse, for it is the spiritual role of joyfulness to propel us forward on our spiritual path. Take that away, and you have piety perhaps, but piety by itself never caused a spirit to soar; or you have hypocrisy, which is corrosive of the spirit. By the same token, I hasten to add, joyfulness taken to extreme quickly propels one onto a downward trajectory of destruction, however much the short-term pleasures for example of drinking and feteing every night. The ancient Egyptians and the traditional African seem to have understood these principles very well, and in particular the need for balance. By contrast, the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition is riddled with contradictions on this score, which is why the enjoyment of sex and sensuality are considered somehow inherently sinful or dirty in these religions, the Song of Solomon apparently to the contrary notwithstanding. The traditional African religion, ancient Egyptian included, had no confusion on that score, all activities — 24 hours a day, seven days of the week — having a legitimate spiritual place and function within the religion. It is in this framework that a carnival, with all the lewd, sexually charged carryings-on, could be considered also religious, as Herodotus tells us it was in the case of the ancient Egyptian. We should credit that ancient wisdom, and seek to relearn it in a conscious way. I say in a conscious way, because the folk wisdom is such that all the Judeo-Christian-Islamic piety and proselytizing over two thousand years and more did not succeed in stamping out the practice; it only forced some of us to compartmentalize our existence in a way which cannot really be spiritually healthy, but is better than completely falling for the pious know-nothings who seek control above all, and so are afraid of anything that bespeaks liberation, carnival included.

Islam of course long ago stamped out such “pagan” rituals in Egypt. Christendom never quite succeeded in stamping out the pagan rituals of the past, but rather co-opted many of them, to the point now where the church calendar is littered with one and another pagan festival dressed up as Christian, the most important being Christmas, and Easter. [6] There clearly is no theological sanction for carnival either, but it too is tied resolutely to the Christian Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. So, based on Herodotus, I would speculate that Greece borrowed aspects of the carnival — festival of “Artemis” for one — from ancient Egypt, and that these practices, termed “pagan” in the Christian era, and accordingly derogated, survived in Europe in various forms up until Europe again culturally encountered Africa in the New World. Meanwhile, the ancient Egyptian practice was merely part and parcel of Mother Africa — of which Egypt remains a part, we need to be reminded — which gave it sustenance, and to which it gave back both culturally and genetically. [7] As Diop has informed us, the Yoruba, the Wolof, and other West African peoples also trace their heritage to the Nile Valley. [8] Hence, when Europe and Africa again met in the New World, the cultural transmission of ancient Egypt was embodied in both, in ways that neither knew. The cultural expression known as carnival was one of those transmissions. By the normal processes of cultural mutation, the European form differed from the African one when the two again encountered each other. But there was enough in common that in so many places of the New World, carnival could bring enslaver and enslaved together, however briefly when it happens, in joyous abandon.

Be that as it may, it is time to correct the record when it comes to carnival, and to the question to whom is owed the credit. Carnival is an African expression through and through, whether directly out of West Africa via the slave trade, or indirectly out of Africa (ancient Egypt) via Greece, Rome, and Western Europe. If that is not convincing enough, go to any one of the modern carnivals, whether Port of Spain, Rio de Janeiro, New Orleans, or Brooklyn on Labor Day. The sounds you hear, and the vibrations you feel, clearly, are “out of Africa.” So, please, let us hear no more of those “histories” of Carnival that look no further back than slavery or emancipation, that see the African implicitly as a blank sheet on which it is the European who writes, and see in the New World carnivals Africa imitating Europe, or newly freed slaves imitating erstwhile enslavers, when it is Herodotus, the European, who would tell us exactly the opposite.


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