At the heart of symbolism

Carnival, an upside down world

(Detailed page)


Reverse practices

Carnival represents in many ways a diversion period in the sense that it diverts, distracts the individual from his daily worries as well as his regulated life. The time of carnival is a very special moment in the social life when, in the old times, rules were smashed into pieces to be literally lived “the other way round”.

The time of carnival was not a social disorder period or a return to the non differentiated state of the original chaos, but rather a new social order, a “reverse” order where “what is up is like what is down” and conversely. During this period of time, the role of the King or Bishop was given to an idiot or a criminal who ruled over the kingdom or the church at odds with common laws. When carnival was over, the idiot went back to his village and the criminal returned to prison or to the gallows if he was not pardoned. In order to prevent excess, the clergy himself took part in these grotesque pranks inside the church. So, on the occasion of the medieval Donkey festival, the clerics decked the animal out sacerdotal garments and introduced him all the way to the altar. The beast was the object of smutty jokes as well as tokens of respect usually reserved to the ecclesiastic authorities. At times, during the Mad festivals, in the Middle Age, the population practiced a reversal of function, age, sex or social code (wearing cloths inside-out, sitting on animals back to front, profaning the sacred, mocking the authorities, inversion of masculine and feminine roles 1 etc.) which turned the world completely upside down in a limited space and time period.

All these codified practices were aimed at funnelling inferior tendencies of the being, operating an effective catharsis and liberating repressed passions. Without any authority setting limits, a real disorder could have happened with the risk of the situation degenerating into an explosion of impulses, which could have ended in murder. All the more so since the population was wearing disguises and masks allowing them, in principle, to remain anonymous. In fact, the masquerades contributed to the reverse practices. Each person chose indeed, subconsciously, a disguise and a mask which best reflected his or her inferior tendencies. Far from hiding one's face, the mask let appear, on the contrary, the true face of the individual. The person thereby showed a real facet of himself or herself hidden under the different masks in accordance with social norms. The mask (from the Latin “persona”) in fact dissimulated the various appearances of the social character and revealed the real personality of the individual.

These festivals, which had a parodical and blasphemous feature, were not only accepted, but officially recognized. The Church nevertheless condemned on several occasions the scandals and the festival length was shortened in the course of centuries. By the end of the Middle Ages, it no longer had the former spontaneity it once had. Curiously, an explosion of witchcraft manifestations rose then, out of proportion with the preceding periods. The carnival festivals had a strange tie with the witch “Sabbath” where everything was also undertaken upside down. These manifestations were from that moment considered as satanic by the Holy Office and sounded the death knell to the tolerance of practices of a reversal world accepted since antic time.

Carnival origins and foundations

To understand the reasons behind such a reversal world, we have to go back to the origins of these festivals. The celebration of carnival was already operating at the time of the Roman Saturnalia during which masters and slaves exchanged their role for a while.

Just as the Mad festivals, these feasts took place during the12 day period separating, nowadays, Christmas from Twelfth Night. A period covering the end of the former year and the beginning of the new year and reproducing, in condensed form, the 12 month annual cycle. These festivals corresponded to the Winter solstice celebration associated with the end of the sun descent in the sky and the start of a new ascent. A real inversion in the cosmic order tendency which found, in a way, an echo in the restricted social order. A strange echo by the way. Instead of corresponding to an ascent following a descent, it rather reflected a descent towards the inferior states after a possible ascension. In this sense, the echo in the social order was more similar to the summer than winter solstice. Indeed, the former one is related to the end of the sun ascent in the sky followed by a descent towards earth and its human or inferior states. Here too, it is a complete inversion of the social world practices in comparison with the cosmic world tendency around Winter solstice. Now, harmony consists precisely in an adequacy of the individual or microcosm with the cosmic world or macrocosm. In these circumstances, what was the goal of a society practising a systematic inversion in the nature of things?

The ordinary life properly punctuated by work and social constraints, regulated by a principle of order, saving and self-control was opposed to the manifestation of a joyous heedless, transgression of some prohibitions as well as immoderate spending and consumption. However, transgression and disturbances spread within codified forms to prevent disorder. In fact, the detour through the feast, which was opposed in every way to the ordinary and regulated life, appeared to the authorities as the best way of restoring order and maintaining it inside the community.


  • René Guénon:
  • “Symbols of Sacred Science”; Sophia Perennis Publisher 2004;
  • More specifically, chapters 21 on the meaning of the “carnival” festivals.
  • Jean-Marie Pelt:
  • “Flowers, feasts and seasons”; Fayard Publisher, 1988;
  • In particular, the chapter on Sylvester Day.

1 back The inversion of masculine and feminine roles are still current these days in the Guadalupe, Alsatian, German or Dutch carnival manifestations. During dances, only (disguised and masked) women can invite men for instance.