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The pre-Lenten carnival origins in Trinidad

By Johnny Coomansingh

Only as speculation, an explanation is given here about the origin(s) of the pre-Lenten carnival as practiced in Trinidad. History suggests that in ancient times a type of pejorative expression was exhibited in public spaces during carnival celebrations. Today, on the public streets of Trinidad, the display of certain lewd, sensuous and vile behaviours during the festivities implies that such behaviours were copied and developed to suit the participants. Over time, behaviours, attitudes and costumery metamorphosed into a fusion of the sacred and the profane. Some of the more resilient icons have been retained while others have been sanitized or altogether lost.

Celebrated as a period of gustatory excess and almost uncontrolled behaviour, the term carnival from the Latin carne levare or carnelavarium means to take away fat or meat. Noisy merrymaking, riotous revelry, raucous and ribald behaviors during street processions precede Ash Wednesday. Carnival festivities signified a period of feasting and revelry that commenced on 12 night or Epiphany and ended on Shrove Tuesday, or Mardi Gras. Mardi Gras which means Fat Tuesday was supposed to leave the faithful of the church in good shape to face the self-denying ordinances of Lent.

It is also probable that the Egyptians during the twelfth dynasty were the first recorded culture that celebrated carnival. Carnival was described by some writers as the ultimate pan-African festival a type of pre-Lenten celebration having its genesis in the Nile Valley in Kemet (ancient Egypt). This carnival was celebrated near to the very dawn of human history. The only humans that were in existence at that time were the “Afrikans” and they were the ones who annually staged the Worsirian Festival or mystery play; the mother of all festivals.

During that era in Egypt, five of the 365 days of the year were set aside to recreate or restore harmony to their relationship with the deities of the cosmos. This period, in which the Egyptians would chant ribald songs, drink brew and carouse was known as a time outside of time. Along with carousing, the chanting of ribald songs and drinking fermented brew, there would be torch parades with women revellers holding aloft giant erect phalluses. This theatrical spectacle was actually a reenactment of the passion, which existed between Isis and her husband/brother Osiris who incidentally was the Egyptian’s god of rebirth. In other words, the peoples of Europe were celebrating the carnival that the Egyptians transmitted to them centuries ago. Another author also alluded to the idea that Africa was the nursery of civilization and that all races emerged from Africa.

Both the Greeks and Romans celebrated a type of carnival, but the origins in such a carnival are probably lost in the mists of time. Nevertheless, it is apparent that the Greeks had a concept of carnival in Europe by 1,100 BCE. In the literature, carnival was declared to be perhaps the most ancient of all Western pagan festivals observed today. Marking the onset of the Christian fast or Lent, is the medieval European carnival. This carnival was probably related to Roman holidays and/or festivals. Supposedly connected to carnival events were the gods of classical antiquity, Bacchanalia, Lupercalia and Saturnalia.

Bacchus and Dionysius, the gods of wine and debauchery were the gods to which both the Greeks and Romans paid homage. Over time, Lupercalia came to be associated with the festivals, and this was evidenced in the portrayals of acts of licentiousness, drunkenness and debauchery. Around the middle of February, the god Pan or the faun was feted in the festivals of Lupercalia. The Roman Saturnalia observed the god Saturn in mid-December. A satyr-like figure became the King for the Day in the festival celebrating the King of Saturnalia.

In the French village of Cournonterral during the 14th century, there was an aggressive flaunting of putrefaction during its carnival. This “celebration” signified the bridging of the gap between life and death. For the occasion, Cournonterral has a song: “We are of blood and wine, the more it rains, the thicker the mud – we are happy in our filth.” Besides the wine sediment normally used for the occasion, manure, compost heaps, blood, tripe, decomposed animal corpses and the content of stables and lavatories were at one time employed in the celebration.

During the said century, certain aspects of carnival as practised in parts of Europe involved groups of men in Southern France, smearing their entire bodies with darkening substances. Parading sometimes entirely naked, they would chase women with a long stick held like a phallus while singing, “We want to fornicate.” However, regardless of its origins, the carnival with all its flair, grandeur and decadence arrived in Trinidad with the French.

The French plantocracy came with permission from the Spanish crown. In 1783, the King of Spain published a cédula de población (population), that attracted French Roman Catholics from other Caribbean islands to settle on lands in Trinidad. As is normal, people come with their cultural freight. Without any doubt, therefore, it was the French with their fete champetres who brought the carnival to Trinidad. Before the arrival of the French and their enslaved Africans, no form of any carnival was practised on the island. Carnival was an affair associated with elaborate balls, house-to-house visitation, street promenading in carriages, masking and costuming. Included also in the carnival were playwrights and gentlemen actors.

During the two days of carnival in Trinidad, Carnival Monday (Lundi Gras) and Carnival Tuesday (Mardi Gras), carnival celebrants advance opportunities for fresh forms of confrontation and exchange, which, in one way or another, resonates with the struggles and battles between slave owners and enslaved Africans.

Since time immemorial, regardless of carnival rules and regulations sanctioned by government authorities, confrontation is still extant on the landscape at every carnival. Although Trinidad is considered to be one of the wealthier states in the Caribbean region, daubed “… the tiger in the sea of pussycats,” there are shades of poverty that convey the idea that there is serious social differentiation, much of which is noticeable on some of the landscapes adjacent to the cities. Much of the rebellion and resistance to law and order is transmitted via bacchanalian behaviours in the masquerade bands.

In the recently published book: Tourism as a Pathway to Hope and Happiness (2023) I was featured as one of the authors for the chapter: The Trinidad Carnival and the Promotion of Joie de Vivre. In the concluding remarks of the chapter, some questions were asked.

But what really is carnival? Is carnival a moment in time where celebrants turn out in their droves to go against the rules of law and order? Is it a time when people decide to misbehave in their towns and villages? Is it an occasion on which to become sensuous and sexually liberated? Is it a moment to celebrate what the status quo describes as indecency?

Is it a chance to express hidden desires and tastes, to give release to pent-up feelings harboured all year? Could carnival, with all its rebellion, be described as a latent landscape in the mind of celebrants? Does the building of a metaphysical landscape spring into joie de vivre-the exuberant enjoyment of life to become a literal, physical landscape in motion when the actual moment of celebration arrives? I am of the view that carnival, the pre-Lenten Trinidad Carnival is just that.

Even from Ash Wednesday, people will begin to plan how they will dress, how they will look, and how they will behave, how drunk they will get, how much they will wine, and on whom they will wine. Carnival occupies the minds of many Trinidadians as nothing else! According to one researcher, “…in some countries carnival is a diversion from the troubles of life; in Trinidad, it sometimes seems as if life is a diversion from carnival.



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