Today´s Brazilian Carnival is a vast multi-media event, with high tech shows, motorized floats, and giant screens displaying the action to massive crowds. Satellites beam the images into living rooms around the world. But ´The World´s Biggest Party´ has its roots in the ancient origins of civilization.
The carnival of today can be traced back to the festivals surrounding the god Dionysus, the Greek god of wine. Dionysus was known for his ability to bring about epiphany—or sudden realizations—and also for his power to liberate his followers from their normal selves, whether through madness, ecstasy, or wine. His divine mission was to use music to bring an end to worry and stress. He was also able to preside over communication between the living and the dead. While male, Dionysus had the curves and soft flesh of a woman, and was sometimes called a man-woman. Those who attend the Bloco Dos Sujosin Florianopolis will see how this confusion of male and female is still very much alive in today´s carnival.
The wild rites of the Dionysians were celebrated in Greece for centuries before being reborn in Rome around 200 BC. The Romans renamed Dionysus, Bacchus. The first Bacchanalians were all women and his cult was worshipped in the Grove of Simla. Slaves were also allowed to attend. The combination of women and slaves dancing wildly in secret ceremonies struck fear into the heart of the authorities. The Cult of Bacchus was soon banned by the authorities who claimed that all kinds of conspiracies and plots to overthrow the government were being planned there. But the Romans found it nearly impossible to stamp out the secret meetings and they continued long afterwards.
Even Christianity was unable to stamp out the wild revelries of the Bacchanalians. The Roman Catholic church adopted the holiday as a lead up to Ash Wednesday and Lent, when Christians are supposed to abstain from eating meat and poultry and some historians argue that the word carnival comes from the Latin phrase, Carne Vale—or Farewell to the Flesh. The celebrations soon turned into massive, wild, and drunken parties. (This was probably not the intention of the Church officials who first sanctioned carnival.)
Over the centuries carnival celebrations adopted masques, street parades, and parties held in public places that still expressed the ancient desire to overturn norms—of good conduct, sexual prudery, and sobriety. The Dionysian spirit has proven to be eternal. The need to be naughty, to break the rules, to act impulsively is a human constant.
In Brazil, the first Carnival is dated to 1641. In that year the bourgeoisie of Rio de Janeiro copied the Parisian habit of holding balls and masquerades just before Lent. The parties became popular and mixed with African and Native American traditions and continued to evolve and transform with the passing of time. By the nineteenth century Carnaval celebrations included street parades and allowed a much-needed outlet for the pressures and tensions of the slave society that Brazil had become.
Samba, the music of the modern carnaval was invented at the beginning of the 20th century by former slaves who had relocated from Bahia to Rio de Janeiro. Samba lyrics, which often speak of great joy tinged with melancholy, perhaps still echo (at a great distance) the music of the Dionysians, whose stringed instruments could push away the listener´s everyday cares and tawdry concerns in favor of a magnificent dream of joy, ecstacy, and liberation.
Today, all of these influences and many, many more besides all combine to make up that distinctly Brazilian form of mayhem, chaos, and wild fun that we know as Carnaval.