Wednesday, 22 July 2009

The Origin of Carnival (circus priests 2)

This is a wonderful book.

Ehrenreich argues that the Christian church created carnival in the late middle ages by kicking ecstatic and wild dancing, singing, games and feasting out of Church. Where were they to go, then, but to the streets?
"In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Catholic leaders finally purged the churches of unruly and ecstatic behaviour. ... In its battle with the ecstatic strain within Christianity, the Church, no doubt inadvertently, created carnival." p77-8

She says that prior to the arrival of Christianity, ecstatic ritual involving entire communities was more common. The first third of the book is a fascinating delve into the histories of this across ancient Greece, Rome and Northern Europe.

For about the first 400 years of Christianity, planted as it was on a bed formerly home to pagan folk religions, the Church encorporated pagan dancing, singing and ecstatic rituals into it's own rituals.

As Christianity formalised as a religion, that became problematic. It was disruptive for a start: "when Church authorities in Wells, in England, banned dances and games from their Cathedral in 1338, they cited the damage to church property..." (p84)

But it was deeper than that. 

"The Church was determined to maintain its monopoly over human access to the divine. If religious dancing became ecstatic dancing - and the stories of dancers being "possessed" by the devil suggested that it sometimes may have - then ordinary people might get the idea that they could approach the deity on their own (as did, for example, the ancient worshippers of Dionysus) without the mediation of Catholic officialdom. Certainly the Church has a long history of suppressing enthusiasm, in the ancient Greek sense of being filled with, or possessed by, the deity. " (p84)

"The gradual expulsion of dancing, sports, drama and comedy from the churches created a world of regularly scheduled festivity that is almost beyond our imagining today."

But this was perhaps the beginning of our culture's separation of spirituality from our entertainment.

"The result of the Church's distancing itself from the festivities that marked its own holidays was a certain "secularization" of communal pleasure."

"Inevitably, something was lost in the transition from ecstatic ritual to secularized festivities - something we might call meaning or transcendent insight. In ancient Dionysian forms of workshop the moment of maximum "madness" and revelry was also the sacred climax of the rite, at which the individual achieved communion with the divinity... Medieval Christianity, in contrast, offered "communion" in the form of a morsel of bread and sip of wine soberly consumed at the altar - and usually saw only devilry in the festivities that followed.

"...this relative secularisation may help account for the uglier side of European carnival tradition. Without a built-in religious climax to the celebrations - the achievement, for example, of a trance-like state of union with the divinity - they readily spilled over into brawling and insensate drunkenness." p93

In the middle of the fourth century, Basileios, the bishop of Caesarea, is reported to have said this:
"Casting aside the yoke of service under Christ and the veil of virtue from their heads, despising God and His Angles, they [the women] shamelessly attract the attention of every man. With unkempt hair, clothed in bodices and hopping about, they dance with lustful eyes and loud laughter; as if seized by a kind of frenzy they excite the lust of the youths. They execute ring dances in the churches of the Martyrs and at their graves ... With harlots' songs they pollute the air and sully the degraded earth with their feet in shameful postures." (quoted on p73)

Around the same time, Gregory of Nazianzus pleaded:

"Let us sing hymns instead of striking drums, have psalms instead of frivolous music and song ... modesty instead of laughter, wise contemplation instead of intoxication, seriousness instead of delirium. But even if you wish to dance in devotion at this happy cermony and festival, then dance, but not the shameless dance of the daughter of Herod." (quoted on p74)

For it is the Devil who plays - and resembles none more than Dionysus, "who, like his manifestation as Pan, was sometimes portrayed with horns and tail, and his companion satyrs."

"Like the Satyr, the Devil is a rakishly handsome man with at least one cloven hoof, a long tail, horns or goat's ears. Both are master musicians - the satyr plays the lyre or pipes, the Devil the violin. Both scamper in dance-like movements of the goat, performing caprioles... The Devil... performed wild antics, pantomimes and dances akin to those enacted by the chorus in the Greek satyr play. The dramatic effect was one and the same." - Steven Lonsdale quoted on p81.

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