Designing from Bones – Festival of Humanity

Welcome to my weekly series, Designing from Bones, where we use archaeology, mythology and the artifacts of human history to find and design stories. Join me today as we take a look at the ever evolving Festival of Humanity.

The portal keeper is away this week enjoying Saturnalia with his kin and so I thought that I would take the opportunity to share the history of the human festival with all of you. My gift at the close of a long and wonderful year.

Satyr Play at Dionysia

Dionysia, Bacchanalia & Saturnalia

Originating in Eleutherae, Attica, the Dionysia is generally considered a celebration of the cultivation of vines. While not originally attached to Dionysus, the god of wine, he was a natural fit for the festivities as the pantheon of ancient Greece established itself. The celebration was held each year in December with the days differing between communities thus allowing performers and spectators to travel between towns to intermingle and enjoy the variety of attractions.

The ceremonies started with a pompe (parade) featuring groups of children and patrons carrying baskets and bread, water and wine. The pompe was followed by dithyramb choruses (wild and enthusiastic poetry) and contests involving dancing and singing. This was a festival of the creative side of humanity with wine added, of course.

Dionysia evolved over time to include tragic drama’s pitting the best playwrights of ancient Greece against each other for fame and prizes beginning in 534 BCE at the Theater of Dionysia. More on this can be found in my post, Theatrical Roots, so I’ll not belabor this subject.

Saturnalia Festival

As Greece came under Roman control, Dionysia evolved into Bacchanalia and Saturnalia. Bacchanalia originally was a secretive gathering of women (no men allowed) on Aventine Hill on March 16th and 17th. Over time this changed and men were allowed, the celebration of Bacchanalia turning into a raucous and wild event of drinking and debauchery. Leave it to men to ensure things descend into chaos.

Saturnalia, on the other hand, was held between December 17th and 23rd and featured a public feast and a one week suspension of social norms. During this carnival to celebrate the end of the Roman year, slaves and master were equal, social laws were suspended to allow gambling and the party never stopped. Private gift-giving was a major part of the Saturnalia festival with items and tokens of endearment exchanged between friends and lovers. Another common gift was for a lord or master to serve those that had faithfully served them throughout the previous year. This festival seems a likely influence on the modern festival of Christmas due to these factors.

Carnival & Casks

Two lovers meet at Carnival

Nothing remains static in the human world and the festival is no exception. Saturnalia, Bacchanalia and a host of other minor festivals eventually merged into what is known as Carnival (sometimes with an ‘e’ added to the end). The Catholic tradition of Lent allowed no parties and asked the pious to abstain from pleasurable things, so naturally, to prepare for this, Carnival evolved bringing a “party till we literally can’t party any more” attitude to the days leading up to Lent.

Carnival then, much as now, features masquerade balls, the wearing of jester-like clothing, drinking, singing and dancing activities, eating fat and living large, free from the normal constraints of social and religious moors.  A carnival of humanity centered around the things that we love.

Fortunato & Montresor descend into the wine cellar

Carnival and celebrations in general make excellent settings for story. An example, which uses Carnival is Edgar Allen Poe’s “Cask of Amontillado”. In Poe’s story, Fortunato, the murderous hero convinces his inebriated antagonist Montresor that he has managed the purchase of a large quantity of rare Amontillado wine. Normally, these two men would be at odds, however, as Carnival is in session, social norms are relaxed and Montresor is baited into the drafty lower regions of Fortunato’s wine cellar. Fortunato is able to take his revenge on Montresor for his many slights against the Fortunato family name with impunity as a result.

Due to the mingling of peoples any story could occur during Carnival, from romance to mystery to tales of fancy and murder. The quality of the human festival is timeless and is sure to travel with our species should we travel into space so the door is open for science fiction as well. The bar scene in Star Wars carried a certain Carnival-ambiance, did it not?


For fun, as my final gift to all of you, I give you Festivus. Originally created by writer Dan O’Keefe and celebrated on December 23rd, Festivus is a secular holiday that features contests of strengths, the airing of differences and uses a bare aluminum pole attached to a plain wooden base to represent a Christmas tree.

Daniel O’Keefe, Dan’s son, introduced Festivus to popular culture through his position as a writer for the Seinfeld show. Airing as “The Strike” on December 18th, 1997, this episode positions the character of George as having grown up in a family that celebrated Festivus due to his father’s issues with the commercialism of Christmas. The clip below shows the highlights of the episode focusing around the Festivus story thread. Very fun if you have a couple of minutes for some holiday cheer.

I wish you all a happy holiday season, be that Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or “a Festivus for the rest of us”. This will be my final post for 2011 while I take the remainder of the year to assess 2012 goals, do some adjustment to the site and spend time with family. The portal keeper and I will return on January 4, 2012 (January 2 for all my ROW80 companions) and look forward to an excellent coming year with all of you.

Peaceful Journeys!

About Gene Lempp

Gene Lempp is a writer blending elements of alternate history, the paranormal, fantasy, science fiction and horror for dark and delicious fun. He unearths stories by digging into history, archeology, myth and fable in his Designing from Bones blog series. “Only the moment is eternal and in a moment, everything will change,” sums the heart of his philosophy. You can find Gene at his Blog, Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, WANATribe, Google+, Pinterest and StumbleUpon.
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14 Responses to Designing from Bones – Festival of Humanity

  1. Pingback: ROWdate 12-21 « Gene Lempp's Blog

  2. I love festivus! Thanks for telling us the date, let the parties begin!

  3. Great post as always! The Cask of Amontillado is one of my favorite Poe tales. (Is it any surprised I’m a Poe fan?) Have a fabulous Christmas! 🙂

  4. ralfast says:

    What a coincidence that my current WiP is set in a fantasy version of Venice (I like to call it a Renaissance Fantasy) and Carnival plays an important role in the story.

    May your holidays be merry and bright! 😀

  5. Catie Rhodes says:

    Thanks so much for the history of Carnivale. I had no idea how all this tied together. Completely fascinating.

    Love festivus! Seinfeld is one of my favorite shows. It’s odd because I usually don’t enjoy sitcoms. I’ve thought often of creating a tradition of escaping the Hellidaze. I’d like to travel somewhere remote and sit on a warm beach drinking chocolate sodas and iced coffee. I could call it Escape. 😀

  6. kerrymeacham says:

    Great post, ROWbro, and Happy Festivus!!! ~clink~

  7. lynnkelleyauthor says:

    Perfect post to wrap up the end of 2011. Interesting and wonderful, as usual. I haven’t seen that episode of Seinfeld and hadn’t heard of Festivus before! Loved to video clip. Merry Christmas to you and your family, Gene. Enjoy your time off. See you next year, my friend!

    • Gene Lempp says:

      Mary Jo: Yep, December 23rd is right around the corner. Break out the aluminum pole and lets have a party 🙂

      Shea: Cask of Amontillado is the first Poe story I ever read and still my favorite. Happy holidays 🙂

      Ral: Too awesome! Write on brave soldier and may your holidays be bright 🙂

      Catie: I’ve found through studying history that much of what we consider to be modern inventions are in reality deeply rooted in the past. Love the term Hellidaze, seems quite fitting, especially if one visits a Wal-Mart on any given day right now. Escape sounds like the perfect holiday wish, all the best in finding your peace, friend 🙂

      Kerry: Happy Festivus ~clink~

      Lynn: Glad you enjoyed the clip. The Seinfeld Festivus is one of my all time fav’s (fan of the show). See you in 2012 🙂

  8. Marcia says:

    It sounds like the research twisted and turned and was difficult since things changed and morphed over those years. Fascinating to know how it all comes together.
    I have always loved Seinfeld and Festivus is one of my favorite episodes!
    So Happy Festivus, Gene! Have fun ringing in the New Year!

  9. J Holmes says:

    Hi Gene. Your articles always provide good food for creativity.

    Merry Christmas/Chanukah/Kwanza/snow festival/Festivus etc. Peace to all of good will.

  10. Pingback: Happy Holidays! « Alicia Street Roy Street

  11. Pingback: Mind Sieve 12/26/11 « Gloria Oliver

  12. Jenny Hansen says:

    I just love this series! I was missing you and hope you’re having a great holiday. Happy New Year!

  13. Joe Iriarte says:

    Hi Gene–I came over here by way of Janice Hardy’s blog.

    What a fantastic blog concept–I definitely found my creativity sparked by reading about Carnival! You ought to check out M.K.Hutchins’s blog, linked to on the same thread at Janice’s blog–she does this thing every week where she reviews one game and one book. I’m not sure why your blog reminds me of hers, when that series is about reading and playing and this post is about writing, except that it’s also one of the more unique writer blogs I’ve stumbled across recently, and it also combines two topics that seem disparate on the surface.

    Anyway, have a good new year!

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