Populations have always felt the need to relax, to let off steam, so as to forget an often difficult existence.  Stemming from a liberty of acts and of words, which sometimes became frenetic, diverse carnavals were born throughout History.

From 17 to 23 December, the Romans celebrated Saturn, the god of the Golden Age, “the happy time, when men did not yet know hierarchies of rank, nor the yoke of servitude and misery”.

Originally, the Saturnalia lasted only one day.  Augustus authorised them for three days.  Caligula added a fourth.  Later, their length was extended to one week.

So, for one whole week, the slave dressed like a free man, and played the role of the master, while the master dressed in his valet’s clothes, and even received blows in his place.

It was a sort of compensation for the violence, the injustice which may have been committed by the stronger to the detriment of the weaker.  A symbolic image of the equality of all human creatures.  A precept often forgotten in the intoxication of fortune and power.

During these days of unlimited liberty, the people respect nothing.  They impose no restraint on their instincts, and revel in their excesses.

During these days, the great hear hard truths from mouths closed for too long, and that fear of punishment had prevented from speaking.  This December liberty is one of those popular prerogatives which no man, however powerful, would even think of trying to abolish.

Apart from the god Saturn, the Romans also celebrated the god Bacchus, for his fertile strength, his victories over the Titans, his mythological expeditions to India.

The Bacchanalia went from Egypt to Greece, then later, to Rome.  Originally, they were religious mysteries.  Initially, only men were able to take part.

Some Bacchants (priests) disguise themselves as Pan, Silenus, or Satyr, then women appear, and that is the beginning of legendary orgies.

The women, dressed in short outfits of tiger and panther skins, crowned with ivy, carrying thyrses (batons entwined with grape bearing vine branches), run everywhere calling out the Carnaval cry of Antiquity:  “Evohe!  Evohe!  Bacche!”

After a noisy parade through the town, both male and female Bacchants arrive at the place of sacrifice, and there, still in honour of the god Bacchus, incite each other to enter into orgy.  The men open up wine sacks.  The women scream, exciting themselves to delirium, and generally give themselves up to outrageously uncontrolled actions.

These strange amusements, rooted in ancient cults, last into the heart of the Christian era, with almost no alteration, then pass from being religious activities, into public and private life.

Second part tomorrow.

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