According to Mikhail Bakhtin, Carnival blurs the boundaries between life and death, old and new, master and subject, and order and disorder. In the world of Carnival, opposites can occupy the same space because there are no absolutes and everything is in a constant state of flux. He states that the world is, "eternally unfinished: a world dying and being born at the same time, possessing as it were two bodies…the transfer from the old to the new, from death to life. Such an image crowns and uncrowns at the same moment" (Rivkin and Ryan 690).
Bakhtin contrasts the Carnivalesque with the world of the established ruling classes, where boundaries are maintained and a strict hierarchal order dictates a specific place for everything. This world is sometimes turned on its head, however, during certain seasonal festivities, such as Saturnalia in the winter– later called the Feast of Fools in the Middle Ages—and Beltane in the spring. The Feast of Fools took place during the Christmas festivities and was presided over by a Lord of Misrule, who was a courtier or peasant, appointed to serve as mock king for the night. The Lord of Misrule carries a mock scepter and wears a three pointed cap that resembles a crown.
Bakhtin explains that although the Feast of Fools was at first sanctioned by the Church, it was outlawed by the late Middle Ages and that, "Nearly all the rituals of the feast of fools are a grotesque degradation of various church rituals and symbols and their transfer to the material bodily level: gluttony and orgies on the altar table, indecent gestures, disrobing" (Bakhtin 74-75). This subversive holiday turned everything upside down by allowing people to imitate and mock their king and clergy and by allowing them to engage in every "sin" imaginable.
It is important to note that the Feast of Fools coincided with the winter solstice, which was celebrated by the Romans –more specifically the cult of Mithras-- as a time of renewal when the light overcomes the darkness and when the cold winter season gives way to spring renewal and rebirth. Bakhtin states that Carnival is a time when there is a descent into the "reproductive lower stratum" where one simultaneously digs a grave and merges into its lowest depths to die, conceive and reproduce (Rivkin and Ryan 688).
The solstice and equinox holidays were a time of transition between the old and the new where death and rebirth occurred simultaneously. The gods of the solstice and equinox were the dying and rising gods of the pantheon, such as Attis, Adonis, and Mithras. They were gods of transition who died each year and were reborn, blurring the boundaries between matter and spirit, embodying both time and eternity as they became flesh for a night. The Beltane festival, which takes place during the spring equinox, is also an example of the Carnivalesque. For a single night everyone is allowed to give in to the demands of the flesh in honor of the lengthening of days. It is no surprise, therefore, that the ruling classes banned these subversive activities that threatened the existing power structure.
Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.
Shklovsky, Viktor. "Art as Technique." Literary Theory: An Anthology. Eds. Rivkin, Julie and Ryan, Michael. New York: Blackwell Publishing, 2004. 15-21.