In terms of the actual celebration, we find these same two schools, the pre-Christian and Christian origins schools, expounding their arguments. For this blog, it is the pre-Christian argument that we will pursue. Since the word carnival is European, we naturally look to the origin of the celebration in Europe. While medieval pageants and festivals such as Corpus Christi were church-sanctioned celebrations, carnival appears to have been a manifestation of medieval folk culture. Many local carnival customs are based on local pre-Christian rituals. Apparently these rituals go back to when Rome ruled ancient Europe. The ancient Roman festivals of Saturnalia and Bacchanalia may possibly be there sources. The Saturnalia, in turn, may be based on the Greek Dionysian festival. The Greek Dionysian festival is the oldest celebration of this kind we can trace to the West. So what we have is the festivals of Saturnalia, Bacchanalia, and Dionysia, apparently influencing the European pagan tradition and specifically carnivals in Italy. It is clearly from Italy that many of the traditions associated with carnival are derived. Some of the best-known traditions, including parades and masquerading, were first recorded in medieval Italy. The carnival of Venice was for a long time the most famous carnival. From Italy, carnival traditions spread to the Catholic nations of Spain, Portugal, and France.
But the Romans also had another pre-Christian tradition that powerfully influenced ancient Europe. While nascent Christianity existed in Europe, and was headquartered in Rome, the Romans continued to celebrate the Navigium Isidis (ship of Isis). The annual Navigium Isidis or Isidis Navigium was held on March 5. Like later Italian carnival celebrations, the Isidis Navigium consisted of a parade of masks following an adorned wooden boat, reminiscent of the floats of modern carnivals. The festival outlived Christian persecution by Theodosius and was still celebrated in Italy at late as the year 416. In Roman Egypt, it was suppressed by Christian authorities in the 6th century.
The importance of the Isidis Navigium cannot be overlooked. Its celebration was an extension of the most popular cult in the Roman empire, and the cult that most directly evolved into Christianity--the cult of the Madonna and child. This cult was actually the veneration of Auset (Isis) and Heru (Horus) of Kemet/Egypt, and had originally been a trinity that included Ausar (Osiris), but in Ptolemaic Egypt, his attributes merged with the hybrid deity, Serapis, and he in turn, with Pluto, the god of death. Slowly, Ausar was associated with death and became a negative force, the antithesis of his wife Auset. As a result the Romans dropped him from the triad. Soon the cult of Isis began to rival the cults of Jupiter and Mithras. The Romans revered Isis most in her role as mother and in Roman iconography, she and Heru are portrayed as black skinned.
Shrines to these Black icons at one time could be found all over Europe. Diop believes Parisii, a city in Kemet, meaning “Temple of Isis,” is where the name Paris comes from indicating that city was dedicated to her. Moreover, according to Budge many qualities of Auset were bestowed upon the Virgin Mary. He explains that in her character of the loving and protecting mother she appealed strongly to the imagination of all Eastern peoples among whom her cult came, and that the pictures and sculptures wherein she is represented in the act of sucking her child Horus [Heru] formed the foundation for the Christian figures and paintings of the Madonna and Child. Several incidents of the wanderings of the Virgin and Child in Egypt as recorded in the Apocryphal Gospels reflect scenes in the life of Isis [Auset] as described in the texts found on the Metternich Stele, and many attributes of Isis, the Godmother, the mother of Horus . . . are identical with those of Mary the Mother of Christ.
Again as in the case of many “pagan” traditions and celebrations, the Catholic church would co-opt the Isidis Navigium, and I would argue that it is this tribute to Auset or the Black Madonna that actually gave birth to the European carnival tradition and not any other festivals. What did the church used to co-opt this festival--the Corpus Christi festival, which was very popular in the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal). And just like the holidays Christmas and Easter were bastardized and co-opted from Kemetic celebrations, Corpus Christi would be used to co-opt the Isidis Navigium, and it in turn would give rise to the European carnival tradition. In medieval times this festival included many elements we now associate with carnival, and in many parts of Europe it included the performance of mystery plays.
But we would be guilty of historical shortsightedness, if we did not trace the origins of carnival back further in history to the herew renpet celebration in Kemet, since it is the oldest carnival-like celebration in history (history does not mean the first or even the oldest, it simply means that is recorded, written). The Kemetic calendar consisted of 360 days, with an additional five days upon the year,” called the herew renpet, together giving us a 365- day year. Every year during the herew renpet, the Ausarian Drama came to life. The festival was a re-enactment of the struggle between Set and Heru. It began with the death of Ausar and the resulting disorder. These abnormal times or primordial days corresponded to humanity during its cannibalistic or uncivilized state, i.e., before the arrival of culture. (In Kemetic history any period of disorder was seen as analogous to primordial times.) Behavior at these festivals was identical to that of similar rituals in other Afrika societies (especially interregnums). The laws of culture did not apply as this was not cultural time. Unconventional behavior marked these five days. There were mock battles (using sticks), dancing and singing. Women sang praise songs to Ausar and carried about phallic symbols. The festival ended with the enthronement of Heru and the restoration of cultural time. But we would be remissed or at least derelict in our historical duty again, if we did not go further back in time to the Molimo festival of the Mbuti.
The Molimo festival serves as a sacrificial ritual that breaks down society, in order to renew it. At the heart of the festival and key to its therapeutic ability to breakdown and rejuvenate society. Before the start of the Molimo festival, a new campsite is selected that will be emblematic of the impending renewal. Once the elders establish the date of the festival and until it begins, women can openly vent their sorrows, even to the point of self-afflictions, gashing themselves. They fill this pre-Molimo period with hunting, dancing and singing. The dances act out hunts or dramatize myths, while they fill their singing with reproductive metaphors. Youth will engage in mock battles and even destroyed the homes of troublemakers. The entire Mbuti social structure is turned upside down—it is sacrifice, with the understanding that with death comes renewal.
Although it is commonly believed that Carnival was brought to Afrikan people by their Catholic enslavers, this not true. To begin with carnival itself the European inherited from Afrikan cultures, particularly Kemet/Egypt, but moreover, the enslaved Afrikan already had rituals and celebrations that approximated carnival. What did Afrikan did is introduced their cultural expression into the carnival, especially since Catholicism retained more of its Afrikanism, in terms of structure and practice, than Protestantism. Catholicism has a tradition of worshiping the saints, offering sacraments, which the former allowed Afrikan to incorporated the deities, and the latter, would mirror Afrikan rites of passage. Thus, like in the case of Haiti where saints could become vodusi, carnival come become Afrikan new years festivals, royal installation celebrations, or any rituals that could express the offering of the entire society as a sacrificial victim. This is the true origins of carnival: the ancient Afrikan source, and the recent Afrikan sources.