Thursday, March 1, 2012

King Kill 2012: Transvestites in Cathar Country

Lent is the 40-day period when some Christians commemorate Jesus' 40 days in the desert by giving up something:  meat, smokes, candies, alcohol.  A time of sacrifice which concludes with the ultimate sacrifice.  Carnival is thought to have originated in the feasts which preceded this period, as the goods which would not be touched were consumed to prevent them from spoiling.  Or just one last fling before the long haul.

I recently had the opportunity to attend Carnival festivities in Limoux, in the Aude.  Cathar and cassoulet country.

Drunken goudil
Carnival is mostly a Catholic tradition, and in the US folks tend to call the whole thing Mardi Gras, even though Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, is actually a specific day in the overall celebration.  They call it Pancake Day in the UK, when people consume....pancakes.  In France they eat crèpes, more or less the same thing.  To me, this would be evocative of the Last Supper and an echo of the (in some denominations) weekly rite of Communion, a syrup-covered version of the Staff of Life.

It should come as no surprise that many scholars speculate that Carnival has pre-Christian roots, most likely in the Roman Saturnalia, itself based on the Greek Dyonisia and other Near Eastern Festivals.  As with New Orlean's Mardi Gras or Rio's gigantesque spectacle, most celebrations around the world involve parades and masquerades, features which originated in Italy and then spread to the rest of Europe.
Nicolas Sarkozy, gangster clown

Under the cover of masks, Carnival was a time of great liberty and is often associated with licentiousness and sexual energy, a time when the reigning social order is turned on its head.  This was definitely an aspect of the Saturnalia, in which the servant played the master and vice versa.  Several related celebrations, featured a king for a day.  We will see this is also true in Limoux and is a clear example of one of James Frazer's central themes in The Golden Bough, traditions Frazier sees as survivals of widespread pre-Christian practices.

As for the name, some say it comes from the Latin words for the removal of meat (carne levare)
Diddled by a goudil
or farewell to meat  (carne vale).  Some scholars say it comes from "carrus navalis" the latin words for the adorned wooden boats used by masked revelers to carry an icon of Isis to the sea during the festival known as Navigium Isidis, celebrated in Italy as late as 416 CE and in Egypt into the 6th century.  This may explain we call the trailers used in parades "floats", at least indirectly.  History records that in Medieval celebrations the first floats were indeed decorated barges, hence a "float", but perhaps these barges hearkened back to earlier practices.  It is also worth noting that the word for "float" (as in a parade float) in French is "char," used in Quebec to mean "car."  It seems likely then the word also derives from the Latin "carrus."  Interesting to see that in French and English the words derive from words for or associated with adorned boats, which would be evidence of a sort for the claim that Carnival traditions derive from the Navigium Isidis.

Basically, Carnival can be found wherever Christians are.  Africa, Asia, the Americas.  Everywhere except the Muslim world, basically.  Carnival features masks, parades, music, revelry and defiance of social convention.  I would like to focus on Limoux because it's the only one I've been to recently and well, the phenomenon is too widespread to cover it as a whole.

Limoux's carnival is hailed as the longest in the world, from January to March, but it doesn't run continuously.  Each weekend, different groups, which are almost like neighborhood-based secret societies, represent their quartier.  In this it reminds me of the Palio in Siena, a famous horse race of peculiar character, in which neighborhoods are in fact, I thought this was only a Siena thing, but Palios exist all over Italy.  It's not impossible that as Carnival spread from Italy, this neighbor versus neighbor element also derives from Italian custom.  This also would support the idea that the Carnival has a Roman point of origin.

Goudil as 18th C. Lady
Carnaval in Limoux has roots in the 14th century, when millers celebrated the delivery of their tithes to the local monastery, walking about town throwing grain.  In the early 16th century this became the ritualized Carnaval celebration when revelers walked the town accompanied by bands dressed as millers, wearing a sack of grain over the shoulder.  These days the bands are led by  fécos, or masked dancers, going from cafe to cafe for a drink, throwing confetti and followed by masked citizens in outrageous garb (goudils). The goudils on this day were very sexual in nature, with large breasts, carrying penis-shaped water pistols and wearing S & M-style outfits:  vinyl skirts, fishnets, whips...

The fécos all do a stylized dance, wear the same masks, outfits and gloves, and carry a kind of whip called a carabéna.  This latter resembles the long stick often carried by the Virgin Mary, itself an echo of the accoutrements of certain Greek and Roman Goddesses.

Trouser snake
The end of the Carnival takes place on a night celebrating the blanquette de Limoux, the local sparkling wine, at which time the excesses of the Carnival period are symbolically expiated.  A kind of trial is held (in the local dialect of Occitan) and a straw effigy, personification of Carnaval, is cremated in a fire fed with the carabénas, masks and confetti.  The bands and goudils dance together around the fire, honoring one last time their "god" and crying for Sa Majesté Carnaval (His Majesty) singing "Adieu, pauvre Carnaval".

Grotesque goudil
The burning of a straw man is so widespread that one is led to wonder if this is a vestige of an almost universal (pan-European) pre-Christian religion.  In Britain this survives in the festivities of Bonfire Night and Guy Fawkes' Day.  In the US we see it has survived in the Burning Man festival, Santa Fe's burning of Zozobra (aka "Old Man Gloom" ) and in the Bohemian Grove's Cremation of Dull Care ritual.  At Burning Man the cremation marks the end of the festival, as in Carnival, whereas Zozobra and Dull Care would serve an opposite function; instead of burning away license and abandon--a concluding ritual--these latter symbolise the burning of worldly concern and seriousness--a commencement.  All of them may hearken back to a lost age when actual human sacrifice was performed for the expiation of sin and/or to placate powerful spirits.

Heady stuff and worth looking into further.  Any number of books are available on the subject.  I've made a (not very musical but literal) translation of the Limoux Carnaval song, from the French, but I include only the original Occitan version below.

Adieussiatz, amics!

Adieu paure Carnaval
  • Adieu paure Carnaval
Adieu paure, adieu paure,
Adieu paure Carnaval
Tu t'en vas e ieu demòri
Adieu paure Carnaval
Tu t'en vas e ieu demòri
Per manjar la sopa a l'alh
Per manjar la sopa a l'òli
Per manjar la sopa a l'alh
Adieu paure, adiu paure,
Adieu paure Carnaval

La joinessa fa la fèsta
Per saludar Carnaval
La Maria fa de còcas
Amb la farina de l'ostal

Lo buòu dança, l'ase canta
Lo moton ditz sa leiçon
La galina canta lo Credo
E lo gat ditz lo Pater
  • Goodbye, poor Carnaval
Goodby poor, goodbye poor 
Goodbye poor Carnaval
You're leaving and I'm staying
Goodby poor Carnaval
You're leaving and I'm staying
To eat garlic soup
To eat oil soup
To eat garlic soup
Goodby poor, goodbye poor 
Goodbye poor Carnaval
The youth party
To greet Carnaval
Marie makes breadrolls
With household flour
The ox dances, the ass sings
The sheep recites his lesson
The hen sings the Creed
And the cat says the Pater


  1. Huh, didn't realize Carival was so wide spread--esp with this type of over-the-top sexuality.

    You suggested it existed everywhere Christianity exists, and I don't doubt that, although the whole affair seems to me to be specifically Catholic rather than Christian in general. Not bringing this up to nit-pic, just mulling over the thought that this "idea" of letting loose followed by penance feels so Catholic to me--in some ways as foreign to Protestants as I assume it might be to most Islamists. On the other hand, the Saturday night/Sunday morning attitude is pretty prevalent among Southern US Protestants, so I guess I'm not sure why Carnival feels so Catholic to me? Somehow it just feels more like it's tied in with strange repressions...I dunno, probably sez more about my attitude toward/misunderstanding of Catholicism than anything else. I should also note that I'm speaking specifically of Roman Catholicism, which actually is, per your Italian-origin-theory, the origins of Carnival. I know too little about other kinds of Catholics to have any feeling (as opposed to ideas) of what they are like.

    Also, what is "Pater"? I thought it meant "father".

  2. The "Pater" here is the Pater Noster (Our Father) and the Creed is another prayer.

    I think of Carnival as a primarily Catholic thing, but it's also celebrated in a lot of Protestant countries, such as England and the Netherlands among others. Some Orthodox countries also celebrate in the same way. But I guess Protestantism is a bit more uptight when it comes to public displays of sexuality and certainly more wary of pagan influences. The Catholics don't have a completely uniform record, but they seem to hzve been a lot more willing to accept some pagan elements into their celebrations as long as the celebrants were primarily Christian. This is still a conflict in Guatemala, as far as I saw when I was there. The Church was very tolerant of indigineous practices and I witnessed people praying, mixing Christian Saints and the names of pagan divinities. The Protestants wanted expunge all of the pagan stuff, even down to the clothes. The K'iche' or what have you who were Protestants tended to abandon traditonal clothing in favor of the slacks and oxford shirt kind of thing. Anyway, I think this seems so "foreign" to us is because we were both raised with pretty staid mainline Protestant denominations. Maybe these mainliners are a bit less prickly about the matter than Evangelicals and the like, who would definitely frown upon the costumes. Even without the devils or sexual disguises, I think the more fundamentalist types are suspicious when it comes to costumed revelry....something Satanic. Also occurs to me that role play and masks are a sexual fetish; the idea that masks are literally a cover for licentiousness in any context seems to mesh with what I've heard from fundamentalists on related topics. You've seen Eyes Wide Shut? The masked orgy scene is telling, the masks were ordered from a Venetian atelier apparently.

    Anyway, I've had a few beers in me, typing is tortuous and I'm just laying down some thoughts. I'll put some photos up soon.

  3. OK, photos added 04/03. Sorry about the poor latest cell phone has a crap camera. An iphone is looking good at the moment.

  4. Oh, yeah!

    Love the photos, D!

    Trouser snake. Love that.

    Can't tell what's going on in the "Fécos" photo?

    I requested that Eco book from my library. Always appreciate reading suggestions.

    I should give you my library card number and pin so that you can "prank" me with suprise book requests.

  5. Good idea! I'd love to prank you with some books. Basically, anything by Eco is worth a look at. I've only read three novels and a book on translation but all were very enjoyable.

    The fécos are basically dancing a little jig they all do the same way, holding the long whip-like rod. The dance is pretty simple and not exactly Samba-like either in quickness or raw sexuality. The masks and identical costumes create a weird effect though, a cast of robots. I also get the impression they were all women, while the men formed the actual band. I'm not sure if it's a strict division. I could be wrong about the gender of the fécos.

    I gotta get a new camera, though!


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