The Debauchionary







Featured Entry:



B Is For “Bacchanal”   – Commonly, any gathering centered around generous consumption of alcohol. Derived from Bacchus, the Roman god of wine, the phrase is frequently associated with Carnival, especially in the English-speaking Caribbean.


The gods and goddesses of ancient Greece can be considered  part of the traditional religion of Rome. For the most part, the Romans used different names, but the stories and attributes of their gods and heroes mirrored those of Mount Olympus. Among these was the wine god Dionysos, known in Rome as Bacchus.



It should come as no surprise that the god of the grape has long been identified with the Carnival spirit. In the late 1960s a group of newly rich businessmen found themselves excluded from the Mardi Gras associations dominated by New Orleans’ established elites. They responded by forming the Krewe of Bacchus, now renowned for an extravagance unrivalled even in the crescent city. When the Trinidadian singer Kerwin DuBois recorded an anthem for the 2012 Carnival season, he called the tune “Bacchanalist”.


The figure of Dionysos/Bacchus has exerted a powerful influence on the western imagination through the centuries. He was popular subject for Bellini, Caravaggio, and other Renaissance artists.  Contrasted with Apollo, the deity served as one cornerstone of Friedrich Nietzsche’s aesthetic theory. In Walt Disney’s Fantasia a pie-eyed, clownish god sloshes around to the strains of Beethoven’s 6th symphony.


Such latter-day representations may be transcendent or amusing in turn. But what did Dionysos mean to those who truly believed?


It is difficult to overstate the importance of wine in the ancient world. The rites associated with the harvesting of grapes echo agricultural celebrations seen throughout history and around the globe. To revere Dionysos was to revere the sun, the earth, and the eternal cycle of the seasons.  The art of European drama emerged from festivals held in honor of the god.  The theater of Dionysos in Athens held some 17,000 spectators; its ruins can still be seen today. Beginning in the 5th century BC playwrights such as Euripides, Aristophanes, and Sophocles vied for prizes awarded annually.


Even within the almost psychedelic realm of Greco-Roman myth, Dionysos — often depicted as riding a leopard — was viewed as a strange and unpredictable deity. He was conceived when Zeus seduced Semele, a mortal woman. Hera, Zeus’ jealous queen, arranged for her rival to see the king of Olympus in his full blaze of his divinity. Semele was incinerated, but Zeus rescued the unborn Dionysos and sent the child to Asia, where he learned the secret of making wine. Fully grown, he returned to Greece, adored by throngs of Bacchae – women who abandoned their homes and husbands to engage in woodland ecstasies. When Pentheus, the king of Thebes, attempted to suppress the ritual and restore patriarchal order, his own mother is said to have ripped him to pieces.



Dionysian devotion was marked in various ways, depending on the specific local customs and the time of year. Ancient chronicles often allude to the eating of raw meat, sometimes torn from the body of a still-living goat or other sacrifice. Public processions celebrated the pressing of grapes. One account from 275 BC involves an enormous wagon, where worshipers dressed as satyrs stomped the fruit. Juice ran in the street, accompanied by flute music, singing, and evocations of the sacred name.



After Rome supplanted Greece as the dominant Mediterranean culture, cultivation of the vine remained crucial to both the religious and economic spheres. Even as they acknowledged that Bacchus was owed respect, his cult made many Romans uncomfortable. In 186 BC, a mysterious “Bacchanalian incident” scandalized the republic. Details remain obscure, but it is a matter of historical record that the (all male) Roman senate ordered the destruction of Bacchic shrines throughout the city. Special courts were set up, and thousands are said to have been imprisoned or executed before worship of Bacchus was once again permitted.




The advent of Christianity did not, of course, mean the end of winemaking. There is some evidence that the pagan overtones of the process survived as late as 691 AD. In that year, the Council of Constantinople declared that cries of “Dionysos!” would be forbidden when treading grapes; the Christian exclamation “Kyrie Eleison” was to be uttered in its place.  Carib lager, hurricanes, and caipirinhas, may have replaced wine at many modern bacchanals. Yet one would have to be as foolish as Pentheus to believe Dionysos could ever truly be banished from Carnival.



Complete Glossary:

AFOXÉ  — A Carnaval grouping inspired by the Candomble religion
ASH WEDNESDAY — In the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar, the day that marks the beginning of Lent. Believers go to church and have their heads daubed with ashes; traditionally, the end of Carnival.
AXÉ — The Yoruba word axé can be translated as “energy” or “life force”. In Bahia, the term has come to refer to various styles of popular music
BACCHANAL — Commonly, any gathering centered around generous consumption of alcohol. Derived from Bacchus, the Roman god of wine, the phrase is frequently associated with Carnival, especially in the English-speaking Caribbean.Cornelis_de_Vos_-_El_triunfo_de_Baco
BAKHTIN, MIKHAIL — Soviet philosopher and literary theorist (1895-1975). In Rabelais and His World, Bakhtin examined the carnivalesque culture of late medieval France through the lens of class struggle. 
BATERIA — The percussion section of a samba school. In the largest parades, the bateria may consist of up to 300 individuals
BAUTA — A plain white mask, traditionally held in place by a three-cornered hat. The iconic image of Venice’s Carnivale and masquerades in general.
BLOCO   –  A grouping of revelers in a Carnaval procession, generally smaller and less formal than an Escola de Samba
BONECOS GIGANTES — “Gigantic dolls”, often depicting famous footballers or politicians, which may be as large as 6 meters. Crafted from fiberglass, wood or aluminum, they are carried through the Brazilian city of Olinda during Carnival celebrations.
BUTTENREDE — A form of humorous, rhyming speech, heard during Carnival in Cologne. “Butte” means a beer barrel, used as a lectern by the orators
CALINDA — Stick-fighting competition, a feature of Carnival in rural Trinidad during the colonial era. Stick_Licking1
CALYPSO — A genre of popular song originating in Trinidad, frequently centered on sexual themes or political satire. Top calypsonians distinguish themselves through clever wordplay and double entendre.
CHANTOUELLES– Creole singers who led call-and-response songs at Calinda bouts, extolling the prowess of their champions and mocking the opposition. Anglicized as “chantwells”, they are seen as forbears of calypsonians.
CHIENLITS — Literally “shit-a-beds”, derisive name for working class revelers in pre-revolutionary France.


CIRCUITO — Any one of the routes used for official Carnaval street parades. In Salvador da Bahia, the main circuitos are Dodo, Osmar, and Batatinha.
COMMEDIA DELL’ ARTE — Genre of comedy originating in medieval Italy. The plays were performed by troupes of traveling actors, and the stock characters have inspired  Carnival costumes and masks
COURIR — A type of Carnival procession involving horses or pickup trucks in parts of rural Louisiana.
CROP OVER A Carnivalesque celebration in Barbados, originally marking the end of the annual sugar cane harvest
CULECO — Large tanker trucks filled with water and fitted out with hoses. Used to spray crowds of carnival celebrants in Panama.
DIABLOS SUCIOS — “Dirty devils”, folkloric characters in Panama’s Azuero peninsula, seen throughout the country during Los Carnevales.
DIMANCHE GRAS – Literally, “Fat Sunday”, when prizes are awarded for the best costumes and the Calypso Monarch title is bestowed.
ENREDO — The unifying theme of samba school’s procession, reflected in the music and design
ENTIERRO DE LA SARDINA — “Burial of The Sardine”, mock funeral rite marking the end of Carnival in parts of Spain. 433px-GOYA_-_Entierro_de_la_Sardina_(Real_Academia_de_Bellas_Artes_de_San_Fernando,_1812-14)
ESCOLA DE SAMBA — “Samba School”, a social and artistic organization famed for staging elaborate parades in Rio de Janeiro and other cities
FASCHING — Also Fastnacht, name for pre-lenten celebrations in Bavaria and other parts of southern Germany; in the Rhineland, the more Latinate phrase Karneval is used
FÉCOS — Local name for the annual festival held during Carnival season in the Occitanie region of southwest France.
FIESTA DE LOS INDIANOS — Carnival Monday celebration on the Canary island of La Palma, famed for a ritual fight with talcum powder. The “Indians” in question are locals who migrated to the Spanish Caribbean, a/k/a the Indies.
FREVO — Form of music originated by brass bands in the state of Pernambuco. Syncopated and sinuous, it is now popular throughout Brazil.
GNOCCHI — Small dumplings of potato and flour, served like pasta. The traditional Carnevale dish of Verona.
GUMBO — A type of stew including combinations of meats, seafood, vegetables and rice. Preparation of gumbo is a centerpiece of Mardi Gras festivities in Cajun country  image
HARLEQUIN — French name for Arlecchino, a popular character from the Commedia del’ Arte tradition.476px-Marks,_J.L._-_theatrical_portrait_-_Mr_Ellar_as_Harlequin_-_Google_Art_Project
INVERSION — To invert anything is to turn it upside down. Inversion of the usual social norms has been a hallmark of Carnival throughout history and around the world.
JAB MOLASSIE — A horned and vaguely menacing presence during Carnival in Trinidad & Tobago. Though the name is derived from the French for “molasses devil”, they typically take to the streets covered in grease or paint — and very little else.
JOE CAIN DAY– The final Sunday before Lent, occasion for a rough-hewn “People’s Parade” in Mobile.


JOUVERT — “Day Break” an informal parade that marks the official start of Carnival, although in reality festivities start weeks earlier.
JUMBIES — Collective name for a variety of malevolent spirits, part of the folk religion of Trinidad & Tobago. Jumbies have often served to inspire Carnival songs and costumes.
JUNKANOO — A festival celebrated in the Bahamas, with parallels to Mardi Gras and the ancient Roman Saturnalia   bahamas
KAISO — Term for early, traditional style of calypso music. The word is said to be derived from the Hausa language of West Africa.
KING CAKE — Pastry into which a coin or some other token has been baked. In France it was traditionally shared on the feast of Epiphany. In Louisiana, it is Mardi Gras fare.
KREWE — Social organization dedicated to parades and balls during Mardi Gras season.
LECHONES — “Suckling pigs”, rival bands of costumed revelers in the Dominican city of Santiago de Los Caballeros
LENT — In most Christian denominations, a period leading up to Easter. The faithful are urged to abstain from indulgences and vices. Carnival ends when Lent begins.
MARACATU — Carnaval ritual of northeastern Brazil. Various “nations” pay homage to their kings and queens. Processions are marked by call-and-response vocals and stately rhythms pounded out on drums, shakers, and bells.
MARDI GRAS – “Fat Tuesday”, the last day of Carnival. Often used to indicate the season as a whole.
MAS — Short for masquerade. To “play mas” means to don a costume and take part in a parade.
MASCHIERI — The mask-makers’ guild, organized in 15th century Venice
MASLENITSA — Week-long celebration leading up to “Great Lent” in Russia and some neighboring lands
MATA-ROCS — “Donkey Killers” nickname for residents of the town of Solsona in Catalonia. Legend attributes the name to the accidental lynching of a quadruped; the incident is commemorated during carnival with the hoisting of a papier-mache effigy.
MYSTIC ORDER — Mobile, Alabama’s equivalent of a Mardi Gras Krewe.
PANCAKE TUESDAY — The last day before Lent in the Great Britain. One of the few Carnival traditions to survive the Reformation.
PANORAMA — An organized series of competitions between steel ensembles, culminating on the final Saturday before Lent.
PIPOCA — Portuguese word for “popcorn” used to differentiate parade spectators from those in a bloco or watching from a paid viewing location. In other words, the majority.
ROAD MARCH — The song that serves as the “anthem’ of a given Carnival, determined by how often it is played on mobile sound systems as they pass designated points.
ROBA LA GALLINA — Dominican men dressed as voluptuous, parasol toting matrons. Translated as “Steal-the-hen”, the conceit is that an ample bosom and prodigious rump are ideal for concealing purloined poultry.
SATURNALIA — An ancient Roman festival dedicated to the god Saturn and held around the time of winter solstice; some see Saturnalia as a precursor of modern carnival.
SAVANNAH — Formally, Queen’s Park Savannah. A large public space in Port of Spain, the epicenter of many Carnival activities.
SHROVETIDE — The final three days before Lent, when the faithful traditionally receive the sacrament of Penance. Concurrent with, yet separate from, the indulgences of Carnival.
SOCA — Fast, syncopated style of dance music considered to be an offshoot of calypso.
STEEL PAN — A type of percussion instrument fashioned from an oil drum. “Pan” is used to refer to the instrument itself and the entire genre of music performed by steel orchestras.
THROW  — Any one of various objects distributed as souvenirs by members of a krewe during Mardi Gras parades.
TRIO ELECTRICO – Motorized stages on wheels, with sound systems and lights. A fixture of Carnaval parades in Salvador da Bahia.
VEJIGA – The inflated bladder of a hog or bull, dangling from a strap and carried by costumed Diablos during Carnival processions in the Dominican Republic. Revelers who get too close risk a sharp blow across the buttocks.
VOIL  JEANETTEN — Men in dresses and women wearing beards during Carnival in Aalst, Belgium. Genders are bent and egos bruised as these “Dirty Janes” engage in the good-natured abuse of onlookers.
WIEBERFASTNACHT Women’s Carnival in Cologne, held on the last Thursday before Lent. Local Damen are free to kiss all the Herren they desire.
ZOUK – Fast paced “jump-up” style of music, originating in the French Antilles.  A feature of Carnival on Martinique and Guadeloupe.
     Header photo and gumbo illustration (c) Jubilation Research International. All other images in public domain.
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