The carnival of tyrants

Burning of King Momo at the Cádiz carnival, in Spain (Diario de Cádiz, Feb 2018)


Ancient purification ritual, when a calamity befell a city, which signaled the wrath of the gods, the people chose a person to be their poison and their medicine

“Will we never do anything but confirm \ the incompetence of Catholic America, \ which will always need ridiculous tyrants?”
(Caetano Veloso).

Historically, argues Aristotle, tyrannies are characterized by governments in which a monarch has disproportionate powers over all people and makes his decisions without respecting any law (1995, p. 299). Tyranny arises from extreme forms of corruption in democratic or oligarchic governments (Ibidem, p. 391). Sometimes, tyrants use the demagoguery and hatred that the people have for the rich to obtain popular support (Ibidem, p. 360). Not by chance, Aristotle defines citizenship as the ability to command and be commanded (Ibidem, p. 186). In principle, a society of full citizens would not voluntarily welcome a tyrannical government that would veto any and all exercise of power.

The ancients associated tyranny with despotism. The etymology of the Greek word tyrannos is uncertain (CHANTRAINE, 1968, p. 1146). For Vidal-Naquet, this word refers to someone who becomes king by chance (1999, p. 279). The Greek term despots goes back to the Sanskrit word dampati [courtyard (boss) + then (house)] (CHANTRAINE, 1968, p. 266). In these terms, it can be said that the tyrant rules as if he were the head of the family and the master of slaves. In her analyses, Marilena Chaui maintains that, assuming a form of power specific to private space, the tyrant ends up becoming a usurper of everything that may be part of public space (1992, p. 358).

Probably the best-known tyrant in literature is Sophocles' Oedipus. In Jean-Pierre Vernant's interpretation, Oedipal tyranny has a series of similarities with the role played by the pharmakós: the scapegoat that needs to be sacrificed so that the fertility of land, herds and women can resume (1999, p. 85). Ancient purification ritual, when a calamity befell a city, which signaled the wrath of the gods, explains Jacques Derrida, the people chose a person to be, at the same time, their poison and their medicine (2005, p. 80- 4).

At the beginning of Sophocles' tragedy, the people of Thebes express their confidence that Oedipus can purify and save the city from evil. miasma, of the misfortune that plagues him (Oedipus the King, vv. 20-30). The tyrant is seen, therefore, as a doctor, and not as a poison that must be expelled. Furthermore, the people delegate to Oedipus the power to identify, pursue and expel anyone who may be contaminating the city. Furthermore, the Thebans consider Oedipus a sage with the qualities of a god and, in the tradition of pharmakós, the scapegoat is usually someone the city despises.

According to Vernant, ambiguities are part of this tragedy. The same Athenian society that annually sacrifices poor and degraded people in the ritual of pharmakós, sends people admired in the city into exile, with the practice of ostracism (1999, p. 88-93). Most of those punished were politicians or generals, but some influential artists and intellectuals, such as Dámon, Phidias and Thucydites, were also sentenced to exile. On the other hand, in the pharmakós, the person chosen by the people to be the scapegoat was treated like a king until the moment of sacrifice.

To reinforce this idea, Vernant brings the pharmakós from the Greeks to Saturnalia from the Romans, festivals in which a person, designated to be an anti-king, is expelled or sentenced to death (1999, p. 92). To the Saturnalia They were part of the Roman popular festival calendar for a long time. They were intended to honor Saturn, the god related to agriculture. In the short and prosperous reign of Saturn, known as the Golden Age, explains Frazer, slavery and private property did not exist, and people shared all things (1990, p. 583).

Some traces of Saturn's mythological reign mark the Saturnalia Romans. During the seven days of festivals, from December 17th to 23rd, the distinction between free and servile classes was temporarily abolished and slaves could share the meal table with their masters and insult them (FRAZER, 1990, p. 583) .

According to Toboso, these rites of inversion and social transgression evoke a hypothetical liberation of Saturn, who was sent into exile after losing power (2002, p. 382). In Greek mythology, the god Cronos, who corresponds to the Roman god, was imprisoned by his son in the underworld (Ibidem, p. 382). Taking the monarch's prosperous reign as a model, in Saturnalia, everyone could eat, drink and date without any restraint (Ibidem, p. 399).

One of the common practices in Saturnalia it was the exchange of gifts between free men and slaves. Within the scope of these donations, a person's sacrifice was offered to the god Saturn (TOBOSO, 2002, p. 392). During the festival, Frazer points out, a kind of theatrical republic was established, commanded by a fictional king, in charge of issuing fun and comical mandates, such as: that subjects drink, sing, dance or make speeches against themselves (1990, p. 584). In the fourth century of the Christian era, some Saturnalia they begin to associate the sacrificial ritual with the person appointed to be the fictional king. In this case, after his brief reign, the sovereign himself was beheaded at the end of the festival (Ibidem, p. 584).

Influenced by local folklores, Bakhtin highlights, the Saturnalia went through the Middle Ages (1987, p. 71). Little by little, the Catholic Church sought to replace or incorporate these popular festivals (Ibidem, p. 68). In the first centuries of Christianity, the “festival of the crazy” emerged, in which fictitious bishops and popes of laughter were appointed, thus maintaining the social inversion of Saturnalia (Ibidem, p. 70). In the Renaissance, the person appointed by the people to lead the pagan festivals presents himself as a buffoon king, mocked, beaten and reviled by the same people when his reign ends; Currently, in some European and Latin American countries, a carnival doll is degraded, torn to pieces and burned at the end of the year festivities (Ibidem, p. 172).

In addition to becoming a timeless work, Oedipus the King, or, more precisely, Oedipus tyrannos, was a protest against the laws and customs of his time. By bringing ostracism closer to pharmakós, Sophocles seems to suggest that, in both cases, it is simply a matter of finding a scapegoat. The popular choice is not, therefore, based on the qualities or lack of moral or political qualities of the person who should be expelled or sacrificed. From this same perspective, the main function of the tyrannical kings elected to command the festivities in Saturnalia and at carnivals it is to atone for the most varied guilt accumulated by citizens. Interestingly, many tyrants appointed by the people to effectively exercise power have faced similar fates.

* Paulo Fernandes Silveira Professor at the Faculty of Education at USP and researcher at the Human Rights Group at the Institute for Advanced Studies at USP.

Text originally published on the website Psychoanalysts for Democracy.


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