Scotland, Rome, Basilicata, Slovenia, Torino. That’s been the last few months. Travel is a wonderful distraction, especially when you finally make it to places that have been on your wishlist for years.
For me, those would be the carnival events of Basilicata, an isolated and mostly neglected province at the bottom of Italy, and Slovenia, a small country at the edge of Eastern Europe. Although I am not certain of the precise origins of either carnival, they are both definitely pagan. These are the events onto which Christian meaning and rites were imposed, giving us Mardi Gras. In mostly rural areas over the centuries, locals have kept the original versions somewhat alive and they can still be found from the Baltic to Portugal during the months of January and February.
The basic formula is this: a midnight bonfire is set to initiate the festivities. Local men dress in animal skins, paint their faces black or cover them with a headdress, wrapping big cowbells around their waists. Thus transformed into beings somewhere between animal, human and spirit, they go door to door around the village in small groups jumping up and down to make a clattering din with the bells, ‘frightening” the children, until they are sent off with sausage or some other token, taking the evil winter spirits of the house with them and thus allowing the spirits of spring to safely arrive.
It may sound cute, but in fact, the stakes were quite high in the original versions. The barren winter was bleak and difficult to endure. Spring allowed planting and the hope of a good harvest crucial to avoid famine. New lambs, calfs and piglets added to the larder. At this point, fertility could extend to people, with marriages and births. Fires brought heat, energy, life.
The gods needed to be appeased. I imagine sacrifices at times went beyond giving up candy for Lent and girls had to be locked up.
The Sardinian and Bulgarian pagan-origin carnivals are perhaps the most widely known and visited. My objective was to find smaller, more intimate, events. I did, and they were thrilling. One of the benefits of modern times is that these festivities are now family affairs open to men and women, adults and children, with a parade, fried foods, free-flowing wine and cotton candy and no threat whatsoever. As always, they serve the purpose of tying communities together, if not physically then culturally. My goal for early 2024 is to be right back there for a faded glimpse of an ancestral world.