Let the Good Times Roll: Mardi Gras, Ashes, and the Occult

Let the Good Times Roll: Mardi Gras, Ashes, and the Occult February 21, 2023

For as long as I can remember, I have been deeply fascinated with the celebration of Mardi Gras. So much so that I’ve even covered the topic in college presentations equipped with a homemade King Cake featuring a signature plastic baby inside, colored beads for each classmate, and a corresponding slide show presented by yours truly. Granted, this was moons ago, but to appease curiosities, I aced my assignment. 

In any case, my baking skills weren’t graded—and for that, I am most fortunate. 

Image via Adobe Stock

That aside, my fascination with the celebration is further solidified by living in close proximity to both New Orleans and Mobile, where Mardi Gras is a big deal—to put it mildly. The truth is my allegiance to this celebration has little to do with its Christian associations and everything to do with participating in some good-natured debauchery. 

It was only natural that this celebration piqued my interest. In Pagan history, debauchery is a key component of several festivities, such as Saturnalia and Lupercalia. Please note that this article does not attempt to say that these celebrations are pagan in origin. Rather, this article intends to capture some of the similarities between traditions and practices and aims to provide new insights for creating our own celebrations based on our interests and beliefs. 

I don’t know about you, but “letting the good times roll” is a sentiment I can wholeheartedly get behind.

Mardi Gras

Despite modern-day Mardi Gras being a part of various Christian traditions, some believe the origins of Mardi Gras predate Christianity and stem from pagan celebrations of spring and fertility. In ancient Rome, the celebration of Lupercalia occurred mid-February and was a festival of feasting, drinking, and —you guessed it— debauchery. It is often believed by some that in medieval Europe, Christians merged the earlier pagan traditions into what became known as the Carnival. However, this cannot be said definitively. 

Per the History article “Mardi Gras,” the term Mardi Gras is French in origin and translates to “Fat Tuesday.” Many celebrate this holiday, particularly those with strong French or Catholic traditions. In fact, it was French settlers who first introduced Mardi Gras to the New World. History’s article also states, “The first American Mardi Gras took place on March 3, 1699, when French explorers Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville and Sieur de Bienville landed near present-day New Orleans, Louisiana.” Emphasis on near because whether the festivities originated in Mobile or New Orleans can be a hot debate. 

Modern-Day Mardi Gras

Regardless, it makes sense that the modern celebration of Mardi Gras is strongly associated with New Orleans, but we can’t forget Mobile. Both cities throw a decadent bash in honor of the carnival, but New Orleans seems to have cornered the market for being the go-to destination for Mardi Gras.

In modern times, it is now celebrated with parades, parties, and other festivities. Masquerade masks are commonplace during the festivities. Not only are they beautiful, but they are useful for maintaining anonymity and lowering inhibitions. 

King Cakes are another staple as they are a signature dish of the celebration. New Orleans offers plenty of these delicious treats during Mardi Gras. These cakes are like coffee cake/cinnamon roll hybrids topped with frosting and covered in purple, green, and gold sugar. Each king cake has a singular plastic baby inside. Receiving the slice with the baby inside is thought to be a sign of good fortune. It’s no wonder New Orleans continues to attract millions of tourists every year, eager to participate in this glorious festival.

I’ve been fortunate enough to be one of those millions. The photo below was one of the few shots I captured of the city from Mardi Gras 2020. As it turns out, the amount of spirited shots I consume has an inverse correlation with the number of photo shots I take. Bare minimum, the amount I’m willing to share.

Image via Charlotte Wilde

Mardi Gras Colors

As you can see here, the colors of Mardi Gras are purple, green, and gold. Much like in Paganism, each color has its own correspondence. According to Reader’s Digest article, “Why Are the Mardi Gras Colors Purple, Gold, and Green?” the association for each color was not confirmed until 1892. This decision was made official when Rex, a New Orleans Carnival Krewe, held a parade with the theme of “Symbolism of Colors.” 

Due to this, the official Mardi Gras colors have the following associations: green represents faith, purple represents justice, and gold represents power. In my own practice, I often associate these colors with healing, spirituality, and prosperity, respectively. 

Ashes to Ashes

In Christianity, the carnival concludes on Fat Tuesday, which is then followed by Ash Wednesday. In Christian tradition, the practice of marking the forehead with ashes is a symbol of repentance and mourning. Per the Catholic News Service, ashes used on Ash Wednesday typically come from palms burned during Palm Sunday of the previous year, and this symbolizes the fleeting nature of life.

One common tale circulating the interwebs is that the origins of this practice stemmed from Norse mythology. While the evidence is scarce, some unverified sources believe ash was used in Norse pagan traditions. They maintain ashes were placed above one’s brow to ensure the protection of the Norse god, Odin. It’s also said that it took place on Wednesdays, the day named after the god. This theory is fun to consider, but ultimately, it is inconclusive. That said, ash, as in the sacred ash tree, Yggdrasil, is heavily associated with Norse traditions. 

Symbolism of Ash

Nonetheless, the use of ash—as in soot or the residue left after burning—has been used in different cultures and religions throughout time. The significance and symbolism of ashes vary depending on the context and culture. Often ashes are used to represent purification, transformation, and the cycle of life and death. For example, in Hinduism, the god Shiva is frequently depicted as covered in ash. This is interpreted in a few different ways. One thought is that it symbolizes his detachment from the material world. Another thought is that the ash symbolizes purity, and another is that it symbolizes creation and destruction.

The symbolism of ash itself is quite diverse. 

In Paganism, ashes are frequently used as a form of protection. One example is collecting smoke cleansing ash and turning it into “Witches Black Salt.” This salt is a combination of ash, salt, and (optionally) ground eggshells. It is often used in protection spells or simply scattered across the entryways of the home to ensure that the home is protected from malice. Likewise, ashes make great additions to banishing spells, but they’re also used for spellwork involving transformation and healing. 

Celebrating Mardi Gras as a Pagan

As I’m sure you’ve noticed throughout this text, I am both a pagan and a celebrator of Mardi Gras. Much like the discord surrounding pagans celebrating Christian holidays such as Christmas—I do not subscribe. I’m not one to turn down a good time any more than I am one to tell a kid they can’t be excited about Santa. 

That said, I do celebrate the festivities in my own ways. Much like I mentioned in the Mardi Gras section, I have an alternative association for the colors of Mardi Gras. Still, further, I have a different association with the spirit of the times as a whole. Rather than packing all my jollies before Lent, I celebrate the subtle shifts in the season. I am celebrating the earth’s awakening as well as its inhabitants, joyously celebrating their own traditions. It’s a beautiful time.

And if I happen to get the baby in the kingcake? Well, it’s fortuitous to me, all the same. 

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