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Carnival Gothic: A Look at the Ominous Figures of Europe’s Winter Masquerades by Carlos Perona Calvete

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Carnival Gothic: A Look at the Ominous Figures of Europe’s Winter Masquerades

Photo: Facebook page of Harramachos de Navalacruz.

“Why do they have horns, grandma?” 

“We all have horns, child. Only most of us wear them on the inside.”

“Inside? Isn’t that painful?”

“O yes. Every thought pinched between two horns. Barely any room to think.”

Grandma’s eyes turn from the window, through which a parade of wild figures drenched in paint makes its way. The venerable matriarch now fixes on her grandson. She leans close, yet her words seem to him as though they hearken to something far-away, full of mystery. Indeed, the creatures outside—with their hides and masks and bull’s horns—have become less frightening with every year that leads the boy into adolescence, but where menace has receded, mystery has gained ground.

“One horn pricks us with desire, the other with fear. One would have us feast ourselves to death, the other would starve us dead.” This stays with him, like only words we don’t fully understand can.

That night, he dreams that a beast is chasing him, and wakes up in a cold sweat. In the morning, recounting the dream, he wonders out loud whether everything we ever do, every step we take, is not actually an attempt to flee from that monster—one we only fully see in nightmares.

Grandma smiles and takes the young man (for she will never again call him a child) to the Cofradia, the local fraternity where he will begin preparing next year’s procession. And when a year has passed, he will don the horns for the first time. 

The young man might be from any number of rural enclaves dotting Germany, France, Spain, Italy, and beyond, with similar celebrations. Carnival is not just an extravaganza of color. In many places, its protagonist is a folkloric figure, often chimeric, whose beastly aspect bestows some boon of good fortune on those it meets. In Spain, the Harramachos of Navalacruz, north of Madrid, for example, are said to protect children and livestock, and the Vaquillon of Robledillois said to grant fertility to the young women it pokes with its horn. The Diablos of Luzón are likewise connected to fertility—they parade about the fields and come to chase the women of the village. Yet refuge from the Diablos may be sought with the mascaritas, masked female guardians who provide balance to the wild spectacle. 

Photo: Alejandrollesta, CC BY-SA 4.0.

The wearing of cow bells or some object of general ruckus is sometimes interpreted as an exorcistic chasing away of winter. In Hungary, the Busójárás celebration features masked, furry, horn-wielders who are said to have once chased off occupying Turkish forces from the town of Mohács. But these aren’t just useful disguises with which to frighten an enemy, or friendly nature sprites allied to the human family. There is more to them. 

As carnival was traditionally celebrated by peoples who were acutely aware of liturgical rhythms, we may turn to the Christian calendar. The church refers to the period of carnival as “ordinary time.” It includes no official feast or fast, yet its significance should not be overlooked. In many countries, carnival season begins with the feast of Epiphany, and often ends with the burning in effigy of the “carnival king,” such as in Nice, where French celebrants say he will return phoenix-like the next year. The season runs from the commemoration of the three wise kings and their adoration of the divine monarch, and ends with the anticipation of the monarch’s death, like “the lamb for a burnt offering” (Genesis 22:7). The connection of Epiphany with the closing of carnival is highlighted by the traditional baking of “king cake” in Louisiana on Mardi Gras, whereas elsewhere this desert is reserved for Epiphany.

In Eastern Orthodox, Epiphany also commemorates the wedding at Cana, during which Christ turned water into wine. We thus find that carnival is initiated by the remembrance of events that prefigure a full, spiritual flourishing: The visitation of the magi anticipates a future harmony in which the many recognize the one, and all kings enter the heavenly city, whereas the transformation of water into wine anticipates the eucharist and apocalyptic wedding of Christ with Church. February’s carnival is therefore a celebratory prefiguring of that which will come as the fruit of the asceticism and self-offering that is to follow in March and April: Lent’s forty-day fast, and Good Friday’s sacrifice. It anticipates what will come after a period of mortification and death, namely the resurrection on Easter. In terms of nature’s cycles, winter witnesses the rebirth of the sun, the lengthening of days, and anticipates the bloom of spring. 

In fact, carnival’s relationship to kingship—from Epiphany to the effigy—helps explain the presence of animal features, notably horns, in the folkloric personages that populate it. This relates directly to a widespread cultural identification between monarchs and sacrificial animals, in which the ability to rule seems to have derived from a willingness to undergo ritual death and so to subdue the “beastly” portion of the soul. Kings and queens often wear animal skins, as in the case of Bronze Age Minoan culture, in which such raiment was reserved for religious ceremonies, or in that of the Egyptian Pharaoh, who would similarly don a ceremonial bull’s tail. The horned carnival creature is an image of the king, that is, the one who overcomes the animal self and is now able to wear those horns like a trophy, no longer “on the inside,” per grandma’s instructive image. The lamb is made meek and, going willingly to the slaughter, is exalted. 

The sacrificial element is explicit in the Sardinian carnival of Is’Arestes e s’Urtzu (“the savages and their unruly bear”), in which a group of people, wearing furs and horns, lead a likewise-horned “bear” figure along the streets. The bear disguise also appears in other Italian carnivals, such as that of Putignano in the Apulian region, as well as elsewhere, representing the end of nature’s winter hibernation. Because the Sardinian bear has horns, it is suggestive that its name, Urtzu, shares a root with the ancient “aurochs” bull whose slaying is thought to have represented an initiatory ordeal in prehistory, and whose most morphologically similar descendant is Spain’s Bravo bull, who is still reserved for something of a ritual purpose (the running of the bulls and the bullfight). The bull, Ovid’s “greater victim,” is the animal through which nature is renewed according to Virgil’s Georgics and, as the bull of Genesis 49:6, which was identified with Christ by St. Zeno of Verona, Hippolytus, and other early Christians. This may help explain some of the animal and sacrificial imagery of carnival.

There are also carnivalesque figures who rear their beastly heads before February, such as the German Krampus or the Japanese Namahage, who come out on Christmas and New Year’s respectively, inhabiting the same gothic, wintery aesthetic, and threatening children with a gruesome end should they misbehave over the year. 

As an inversion ritual in which normalcy is suspended, we may understand carnival’s demonic-looking figures as a deliberate challenge, forcing onlookers, especially young ones, to overcome their fear. Halloween can serve a similar function. As for the revelry with which carnival interrupts ordinary propriety, we can interpret this as a dissolution of social norms that have calcified over the year, in order that they may be restored. Indeed, an excessively stifling sense of decorum will threaten that which decorum is meant to vouchsafe. It is by keeping a certain distance from etiquette that we may use it as the instrument that it is (for “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath”). 

In this regard, we may consider the 13th century French Roman de Silence (“Romance of Silence”). In this tale, the wizard Merlin appears to interrupt normality through mockery, but in this way, he precisely reveals the truth of things and so restores order: He laughs at a grieving father standing by a priest at his son’s funeral, eventually revealing that, in fact, the priest is the departed lad’s biological father; or at a humble nun who has been invited to court, revealing this is in fact the queen’s lover in disguise, and so on. Too rigid an adherence to the solemnity of funerals and courtly proceedings would have allowed a far deeper subversion of the social order to carry on, and the truth would never be known. As an outsider, a liminal figure, Merlin is able to make certain disclosures without risking his position in the community, for he is not of it. The same goes for the fantastical personae we see on parade. Carnival can be a force for restoring the world.

It is also a reminder of why ordinary social structures exist at all. A game without rules makes us desirous of rules, just as the many masks of carnival make us want to find the mask—the social persona—most proper to us. Just so, in Lent, a figurative period in the wilderness, outside the city walls yields the wisdom upon which the city must be organized, just as it is from silence that the poet receives fresh inspiration. In a sense, carnival mirrors the forty-day fast, which is also a suspension of normality, but of the opposite kind. We must have both the feast and the fast, like the two horns of a carnival ghoul. 

In “Beyond Good and Evil,” Nietzsche observes “how frequently the nineteenth century has changed its preferred masquerading styles,” and “how it has despaired occasionally when ‘nothing looks good on us’,” adding,

we are the first affected epoch when it comes to ‘costumes,’ by which I mean morals, articles of belief, aesthetic tastes, and religions; we are ready as no other age has been for carnival in the grand style. 

But perhaps today we are not ready for carnival, precisely because we live in one all the time. Modernity, especially with the Reformation and onward, was built against the carnival, and so has ironically ended up becoming one continuous carnival, a constant inversion of norms, including periodic political and cultural revolutions whose carnivalesque feel quickly devolves into hyper-serious puritanical political correctness and state control. 

From the emancipatory rhetoric of the French and Russian revolutions to the 1960s sexual revolution, the result has been to reduce the self-organizing capacity of social institutions in favor of bureaucracy and biopolitical control—just as today, talk of a fully protean cyberspace in which to express ourselves is quite clearly the antechamber to a dystopian surveillance-state. If revolution is a parody of carnival, the totalitarian control that follows is a parody of Lent. They are the political dialectic between an atomized individual and total state; the horns worn on the inside which we cannot take off; the Sabbath for which we are made, instead of it being made for us.

Like Nietzsche, we may see this period of chaos as a dangerous but potentially galvanizing trial, only its proper end is the rediscovery of essential truths, rather than an un-premised exercise of the will. We cannot but intuit that—from the many costumes we are today encouraged to wear, making every aspect of our atomized individuality into a consumable good (including gender)—there is emerging a new will to order, a rediscovery of the kingly archetype that is so ubiquitous in carnival. But we should beware. If this opportunity is not seized upon, yesterday’s promises of unlimited self-determination will continue leading us into tyranny, just as surely as Ash Wednesday follows Mardi Gras.

Carlos Perona Calvete is a writer for The European Conservative. He has a background in International Relations and Organizational Behavior, has worked in the field of European project management, and is currently awaiting publication of a book in which he explores the metaphysics of political representation.

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