Carnival Unmasked

Stephanie Fail

Every morning when we wake we hypnotize ourselves into our regular patterns of identity. A student begins to lug his backpack, a doctor puts on his lab coat, a dog wakes up and starts barking, a baby poops in his diaper, a pigeon begins cooing, and so it goes…

In American culture, the concept of Halloween functions for many as a psychological release from the expectations of society. Just one look at how many people choose to don devil horns on that holiday says plenty about how good it feels to act “bad”. Is it that we are naughty by nature? Maybe the urge to free that inner Doctor Hyde is really an evolutionary tactic representing the epic battle within all societies of the dual columns that hold it up- tradition and transformation. Within a disguise we become free from our expectations. No fear of the judgment of others, and an excuse not to care!

Well, what about Carnival? This great festival would not be what it is without the grandeur of its costumes and disguises. As the pagan festival of spring was absorbed into Christian traditions, it became a celebration of the last day for 40 days of followers to “put away the meat”. The pagan costumes tamed down for a bit, but as Catholicism burned into the “New World”, it brought with it this festival, where it blended with a myriad of indigenous mask and feather-wearing customs, and as the slave trade festered the many traditions of Africa brought the richness of their culture too.

For many Africans and indigenous peoples, wearing a mask was not for amusement. They were spiritual tools for bringing a spirit into our dimension. The mask wearer had to be experienced or surrounded by people who were trained how to handle possessions. With or without a mask, inviting a spirit, or being invaded by one could have disastrous results. It is much like in the practice of Kundalini Yoga- an ancient practice of plugging in one’s being to the infinite power of the center of the universe- where there is a phenomenon, called “Wind Syndrome” where the practitioner has left his consciousness far from his body.

The reverse can happen with spirits as well: if they are negative beings then they might cut the person from his soul and take over his body. The mask-wearer often would be influenced by a spirit that came within a dream or meditation, and in making a mask of that spirit, the person would be able to tap into their power and intelligence.

Different forms of masks would often blend human qualities with animals. The Jaguar Warriors of the Maya were only allowed to don a jaguar skin and helmet once they had killed a certain number of enemies. They would only have permission to tap into the power of the jaguar after proving themselves. By wearing a mask with a crocodile mouth for example, one would pick up the ferocious yet defensive properties of the creature and it would be another way to represent the ferocity of that spirit doing the possessing.

The abstract shape of eyes in masks can represent many things as well. The half-open dreamy look seen in many African masks often symbolizes the transcendence of that being from another dimension. The dance is also an important part of possession, as often times the mask-wearer will allow the rhythm of music to carry them into another state of consciousness and in letting go of individual control of their mind they open the gate for the invited spirit.

So Carnival’s festive costumes that change the normal human form into grand three dimensional creations of puppets and grand headdresses and costumes in a very real way stem from the spiritual customs of the non-Catholics. On the flip side, if you look at the particular costume of the Pope, and consider the Catholic belief that he is the head representative of God on this planet, then it is not a stretch to consider that in a way, he too is possessed.

The mix of costumes, music, and dancing synonymous with Carnival still carry many traits of our ancestors with them. After all, when an entire city vibrates with joy and celebration for the pulse of life, is that not a way to possess the city as well? So this Carnival, why not gather a few of your friends, make some costumes, turn up the music, and forget who we think we are for a little while. In the wise words of the Book of Lao “Play your part in the divine comedy, but don’t confuse yourself with your role.” In that way we transcend our imagined limits, and open our minds and bodies for the limitless potential yet to come.