Carnival Reflections, Or, Mardi Gras In New Orleans Is The Last Bastion Of Civilization On Earth And Not Just A Bunch Of Chicks Flashing Their Breasts For Beads (Not That There’s Anything Wrong With That)

The New Orleans Carnival is descended from ancient religious rites of the Greek and Latin World. Ovid described the Greek shepherds of Arcadia who, five thousand years ago, celebrated a spring festival in hopes of better pastures and the remission of sins.
Henri Schindler, Mardi Gras in New Orleans, 1997.

I was reading the Times Picayune recap of the annual Caliphs of Cairo bal masque (Caliphs does not parade). I had assumed this was an affair having nothing to do with the paranoia of Glenn Beck over Egypt’s revolution being the first step in establishing a Muslim/Communist one-world government, what he called a “Caliphate.” But after I read this description of Caliphs, I’m thinking I could be wrong. I doubt that Beck is a student of Carnival customs, but if he was serious about rooting out Caliphate cells within U.S. borders, he might want to start in New Orleans, where there is a Caliphate whose members only meet hidden behind masks and the identity of its leaders kept completely secret:

Caliphs of Cairo

The title assumed by former sultans proclaimed investiture with absolute authority in all matters of state. The Caliphs governed in the capital of Egypt for centuries and their descendants in the valley of the Nile ceremoniously observe the traditions of ancient Cairo.

The Caliphs of Cairo, successor of Mohammed, made their appearance in the Carnival world in 1937, where they have introduced a series of realistic spectacles and scenic triumphs, with glamorous courts of beauteous maidens.
Arthur Burton La Cour, New Orleans Masquerade. La Cour’s 1952 book is the definitive guide to the early history of our carnival krewes.

Beck paranoia aside—I think he’d get thrown off track by the “realistic spectacles and scenic triumphs” not to mention “courts of beauteous maidens”—Caliphs is a serious organization that has been around for almost 75 years now. (For more on Caliph’s, see Ryan’s posts here and here.) Although the krewe chooses a king and queen, maids, princesses and pages, as do parading krewes, Caliph’s entire carnival activity is limited to a ball. As with many of the old-line krewes, all the members mask, the king’s identity is kept secret and the ball is a specialized production known as a bal masque; a masquerade where the participants ceremoniously enact scenes based on a particular tableau, or theme.

Caliphs’ first tableau back in 1937 was “Joloco, the Rainbow God” (you can try to Google it, but I can’t find anything on Joloco). The Times Picayune described this year’s theme:

The Caliphs of Cairo staged the organization’s annual bal masque Saturday in the Royal Tent at the New Orleans Country Club, presenting a tableau depicting the Battle of Vienna in 1683, when King Jan III Sobieski, king of Poland-Lithuania, rescued Vienna from the invading Ottoman Turks. The sultan’s grand Vizier, Merzifonlu Kara Mustafa Pasha, had marched 150,000 Janissaries into Austria. The sultan had threatened death to Holy Roman Emperor Leopold, who fled to Passan with his court. Fortuitously for Leopold and the Viennese, several months earlier, King Jan had signed the Treaty of Warsaw, agreeing that he would come to Leopold’s aid if he were attacked by the Turks. Beseeched by Pope Innocent XI, King Jan Marched on Vienna with 80,000 men, Hearing the thundering charge of his winged husaria down the mountainside, the Turks retreated in panic and were defeated.
–Times-Picayune, February 6, 2011.

It goes on to explain some notable pastries were created to commemorate this battle: the croissant (symbolizing the defeated Turks’ crescent moon flag) and bagel (representing a stirrup, the symbol of King Jan’s cavalry).

Seeing this reminded me, to paraphrase Dorothy, that, on so many different levels, we’re not in Kansas. We never were in Kansas, or any where near Kansas.

In which diverse local habits, some of ancient origins, are enumerated, leading to the suggestion that everything in New Orleans may not be changing after all.
S. Frederick Starr, introduction to Chapter 3: Habits. New Orleans Unmasqued. 1985.

So I say New Orleans’ Mardi Gras is the last bastion of civilization. Where else would groups of everyday people (alright, some may well be filthy rich. But I know several members of krewes like Caliphs who, although college graduates, some with professional degrees, are basically working stiffs at this point in their careers) put aside time and money to plan a good old-fashioned bal masque?

Imagine the committee meeting.  “Let’s see. We’ve done Joloco. We’ve done Cindarella, the marriage feast of Alexander the Great, the reception of the Marquis de Vaudreil at New Orleans, the Three Muskateers, the return of Marco Polo to Venice, the Bard of Avon and even Fiesta, South of the Border [all actual tableau from Caliph’s early years]. What to do, what to do? Wait—y’all remember the Battle Vienna in 1683, you know, with the Vizier and the Polish winged cavalry that ensured the place of Christianity in the western world and gave us pastries? Let’s re-enact that next year!”

Starr’s quote really puts my whole thesis in a nutshell. We take the time and make the effort to maintain our local habits, that are ancient in origin, to make sure New Orleans’ core really won’t change, despite all the forces at work on its exterior—Katrina destruction/reconstruction, the new hospital’s re-working of Mid City and even recent observations regarding the creeping influx of European-inspired (but thoroughly mid-American in origin) “nouvelle” cuisine on the city’s restaurant scene.

Starr goes further and explores the role of allegory in Carnival, noting even suburban krewes might have such distinguished themes as “Tales of Gilgamesh,” “The World’s Worships” or “Tales of Josephus.” He notes that one year, Comus (when it still paraded) had a theme of “Ophidian Lore.”

To save a trip to the Encyclopedia Britannica [note lack of Google in 1985], this refers to the suborder ophidia, which comprises all snakes. Hence, Comus produced floats on “Eden,” “Aesculapius,” “Dumbala,” “Abraxas” and “Python”…

Now imagine hundreds of potbellied rednecks from Mississippi, North Florida or Manhattan lining up to watch some New Orleans businessmen represent this all allegorically. Picture businessmen anywhere dressing in outlandish costumes in order to present samples of Ophidian Lore to the masses, and paying every penny of the costs to do so. It staggers the imagination.

Which is precisely what Mardi Gras is all about. Beneath the superficial vulgarity, it is a poetic festival steeped in the exquisite high art of allegory.

Now, Starr is spot-on in his observations, and the thought of rednecks from Manhattan seems novel. But sometimes, the outsider over-thinks things. I prefer Bunny Matthews‘ take on allegory and Carnival themes, as channeled through Nat’ly Broussard, who in one devastating cartoon skewers all sides. Nat’ly, who you have to imagine, is simply talking on the phone:

Vic? Nuh uh. He’s at a Krewe meetin’…yeah…nuh uh…dey decidin’ on da theme fo’ da truckfloat—eithuh “Greek Gods” or “Salute to Soaps”—so I guess I’m gonna be Aphrodite or Susan Lucci—one of dem! Rite—talk to ya later…

How do you plan on celebrating our little spring festival? I’m taking inspiration from Henri Schindler’s ancient Greeks and continue my quest for greener pastures and the remission of sins.

Addendum—Looka’ dis-Bunny Matthews takes you on a guided tour of A Carnival Ball In Municipal Auditorium.


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2 Responses to Carnival Reflections, Or, Mardi Gras In New Orleans Is The Last Bastion Of Civilization On Earth And Not Just A Bunch Of Chicks Flashing Their Breasts For Beads (Not That There’s Anything Wrong With That)

  1. YatPundit on February 17, 2011 at 7:49 pm

    I wanna be there when His Beckness shows up at Maison de Waldron to bust @seersuckernsazs and @farblefumble for bringing the Caliphate to our shores…

    and I enjoy the Starr book!

  2. Blathering on February 19, 2011 at 12:13 am

    My maternal grandfather was a Caliphs of Cairo founder. I used to play office with old invitations/cards. I loved the embossing…perfect to color over.

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