Satan Was A Dancer

Feasts of Fools, Mischief Nights and Bonfire Nights once chirped up the whole cycle of the year, wherever in the world you were. From Brazilian carnivals to ancient Festivals of Swings in parts of Asia, using see-saws to encourage crops to grow high, from Mardi Gras to Hopi festivals, serious fun has been a part of the annual round for thousands of years.

There is saying in the German Rhineland that “whoever is not foolish at Carnvial is foolish for the rest of the year.” A calendar vivid with carnivals varies the year’s course and patterns the social experience of time; all human societies have some form of off-time, of carnival or festival, for without festive rhythms, time is too sensible, too well behaved, too regular and too clockworked. The spirit of carnival is quite the reverse; time-mischievous, time-misbehaved, insensible with inebriation.

In Britain, there were once hundreds of carnivals. There are still cheese-rolling days, that eccentric English custom, occurring in many places including Brockworth in Gloucestershire. “If you can’t hurl yourself down a steep hill after a few drinks chasing cheeses, what’s the point of being British? Not even the Black Death stopped our cheese-rolling,” said one local.

Broadly speaking, carnivals have five important attributes. First, they are almost always tied to nature’s time. Second, they have an ahistoric quality, not tied to specific events in a recorded past. Third, they transform work-time to play and have a quality of reversal, turning the tables on ordinary social relations, or expected behavior. Fourth, they are characterized by an earthy vulgarity, deeply sexual in their traditions and symbols. And last, they emphasize a community of people and a locality of land.

Christianity destroyed what pagan festivals it could, trying to co-opt those it could not. When it could neither co-opt nor destroy, it tried to alter the very character of carnival. While carnival-time reverses power structures of political or priestly dominance, the church’s festivals exaggerated them. If carnival-time is nature-based, seeking common land and common time, Christianity took nature out of its liturgical proceedings and brought festival indoors, enclosing it inside the church.

If carnival-time was frankly vulgar, Christianity rejected anything associated with the erotic. The Green Man’s leaves, rightly recognized by the church as a symbol of sexual vigor, were then interpreted as signs of the writhing torment in store for the lustful. From the fourth century onwards, the church tried to ban dancing; in Christian miracle plays, Satan was a dancer, and in its missionary depredations across the world, Christianity forbade dancing.

Arguably, it is through Shakespeare that the English know their carnival past: the days of cakes and ale, the rural fabric of time in the peasants’ tradition, not dainty but earthy, the jovial, pie-eating, drunken blowout, with fools and jokers and clowns. Then came the Puritans. Shakespeare hated these urban shopkeepers who persecuted the festive spirit of his country men and women, these black-and-white businessmen who blanked the colorful freedom of the theaters in his life, and would close them after his death. Some thirty years after Shakespeare’s death, the Puritans had ballad-singers arrested and organs, lutes, viols and flutes destroyed, forbidding, whenever they could, the merry and noisy dance of carnival-time. Puritans “strongly prohibited” Christmas and declared it a day of penance.

Before the sixteenth century, in Britain, the rhythm of various communities depended on specific fairs and markets; the rhythm of the week was not so important. This gradually changed, which was particularly due to the Puritans’ censoring of the social calendar, promulgating the rhythm of the week, flattening the swinging seasonality of time and decreeing instead a mechanical routine of six days’ work followed by one day’s pray.

The history of the Sabbath-rhythm was highly political from the very outset; one of the first acts of the early Christian church was to choose Sunday as Sabbath as distinct from the Jewish Saturday-Sabbath. For the same reason, Mohammed chose Friday as the Muslim Sabbath in avoidance of both the Jewish Saturday and the Christian Sunday.

The seven-day rhythm of the week, of course, has no counterpart in nature—the Sabbath rhythm is a “man-made” construct. Taking a sweeping view of nature as “female,” it is interesting if unsurprising that the three biggest patriarchal religions, Christianity, Judaism and Islam, have all cleaved to this non-natural and non-female Sabbath rhythm.

Jay Griffiths, A Sideways Look At Time


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When I Worked

September 2010
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