Origins of Mardi Gras

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Figures during the Lupercalia. A naked young man beats a young woman with a goatskin belt with an altar burning in the background.

Mardi Gras: French, literally, ‘fat Tuesday’ [1]

It all began with the pagans in the Arcadian Hills of Greece for those that survived the winter. Over five thousand years ago, every spring a celebration was held to honor the god of vegetation. The blood of a sacrificial goat was sprinkled upon the fields in thanks for surviving the winter. Then, the Priest would chase the sinners and flog with whips made of sacrificial animals which purged their sins. After the cleansing, they feasted on a sacrificial goat.

As authors Tassin and Stall explain, “Human nature in that age was not much different from what it is today. The more people had they wanted … As they wanted more and more, they increased the value of the sacrifice from goats to young virgins. Along with better crops they wanted more fertile women and more fertile animals.” [2]

When the Greeks were conquered by the Roman army in 146 B.C., the Romans named this newly found Greek celebration Lupercalia. Deviant sexual behavior and the ritual sacrifice of an ox began to become associated with the religious group Gailia. A crown of gold leaves, flowers, and ribbons were placed upon the head of the animal before it was sacrificed and afterwards its warm blood on their body purified their sins.

During this time, the birth of Christianity was appearing in this region but the stronghold of the pagan rituals proved difficult for the Christians to change the old ways of the pagan communities. When Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in 337 A.D., he denounced paganism and destruction began of pagan temple sites. As priest began to travel the countryside to convert the people, pagan worship sites would be destroyed by the priest in an attempt to end the rituals, but they were rebuilt by the pagan worshippers. This ancient pagan festival of Rome continued to grow in popularity.

Lupercalia eventually began to last thirty days with March 25 being known as “Festival of Joy.” Eventually, the Roman people abandoned most laws on this day and most vices were freely indulged. Some women in society positions disguised themselves in wigs and costumes and engaged in sexual activity with strangers in the streets. There were political leaders of the senate that engaged in sexual behavior dressed in female attire, of course this would have been deemed unacceptable behavior. Rape, robbery, riot and even the murder of enemies became commonplace during this festival.

Finally, fate intervened and Christianity grew and the religious disputes between scholar Arius and theologian Athanasius led to the Nicene Creed being settled in First Council of Constantinople in 381. This creed unified Christians; and is the only authoritative ecumenical statement of the Christian faith accepted by the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Anglican, and the major Protestant denominations.
The Nicene Creed designated Easter as being held the first Sunday and the beginning Ash Wednesday which is six and a half week of Lent.

New Orleans Mardi Gras Carnival has its roots as does many carnivals all over the world back the ancient days of Greece and Rome.

*Lupercalia information is from the book Mardi Gras and Bacchus : Something Old, Something New by authors Tassin and Stall. 



[1] Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, s.v. “Mardi Gras,” accessed April 25, 2021.

[2] Tassin, Myron, and Gaspar. Stall. Mardi Gras and Bacchus : Something Old, Something New.  Gretna, La: Pelican, 1984.

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First Council of Nicene in 381 A.D.

Origins of Mardi Gras