Monday, February 20, 2012

Nature Spirits in the Roots of Carnival

Clarifying something I said in my last post, to the effect that the Mardi Gras carnival celebrations lack the otherworldly connections of Halloween (Samhain), I meant that they have fewer vestiges of their pagan roots as they are currently practiced in the U.S.  However, the case can be made that European carnival traditions grew out of springtime rituals of rebirth that awakened nature spirits, along with the god Dionysius—who represented the spirit of green life and fructifying moisture.  The personality of Dionysius has been expressed in many forms, and his cult has had many permutations, but a major part of his story came from Thrace, (the Balkans), where he was often pictured as a young man in a mother-son relationship with the goddess Zemele (aka Mater Zemyna, “The Moist Mother Earth”), that paralleled the Demeter-Persephone mother-daughter relationship.

Similar to the Persephone legend, there are variants of the Dionysius myth where he dies and is reborn, and in other legends, he is a son of Demeter or husband of Persephone.  As the principle of green nature and life-giving moisture, Dionysius is associated not just with drink, but with ivy and other greenery, fruit trees, and trees in general.  (The forests are described as his flocks.)  Another legend credits him with the gift of honey.  His association with grapes and wine came later, as these were not cultivated in the more northerly regions where he originated, and are also products of later civilization.  Note that the idea of Dionysius as moisture principle ties in with what I said previously about spring meltwater moving through the landscape, as well as the sap rising in the trees.  Relate Dionysius as a force in nature to the lines from the Dylan Thomas poem, “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower …”

Masked processions constituted a very significant part of the Dionysian worship.  As in art, the god was always accompanied by a throng of nature spirits, so in the cult worship, his followers dressed up as nature spirits.  In part, his followers did this so they could feel closer to their god, but the Dionysian mysteries were also aimed at enabling his followers to enjoy a form of immortality by being reincarnated as nature spirits in the company of their god of nature.  So, there we have a Spirit-World connection with the modern Mardi Gras seasonal processions, even though the mystical origins have been forgotten.

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