Despite celebrating Mardi Gras as the most important holiday for most of my life, I knew very little about the origin of New Orleans Carnival. Krewe filled in a lot of blanks, while still leaving some open, and creating even more. One big surprise for me is that the founders of New Orleans Carnival were mostly people who had relocated to New Orleans from the Northeast.
Krewe: The Early New Orleans Carnival, Comus to Zulu, by Errol Laborde, serves well as a history of the first two Krewes, The Mistick Krewe of Comus, the oldest Carnival association in New Orleans that has run mostly continuously since its founding, and Rex, the King of Carnival. Comus originated in casual discussions in late 1856 at Pope’s Pharmacy, that led to a meeting on January 10, 1857 at Gem Cafe on Royal Street to form a secret club. The first Comus parade was held February 24, 1857. Rex was formed in 1872 to be the public face of Carnival, though it has been overtaken in prominence in recent decades by suprekrewes like Endymion, Orpheus and Bacchus, which focus more on celebrities.
The other old-line Krewes Momus and Proteus receive much lighter coverage. The last chapter delves into the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club, the first primarily African-American Krewe, founded in 1909.
As for the origin of the name Comus, Krewe just says that one of the founders knew a lot about Greek and Roman mythology. That’s it. Not even the simple explanation that Comus was the Greek god of “festivity, revels and nocturnal dalliances” and a son of Bacchus, or so says Wikipedia.
The Cowbellions Society in Mobile (started in 1830 by a man from Pennsylvania) was a major influence on Comus, but only a few founders of Comus had even lived in Mobile, and most were transplanted Yankees. Although the first official Mummer’s Parade was first held in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, not until 1901, the tradition is based on mummers’ plays going back to the 17th century in Northern Europe. The performers in mummer’s plays are often in disguise and sometimes performed in house-to-house visits, not too unlike the Courir de Mardi Gras events held in rural Cajun Louisiana.
Another fun insight related to the colors of Mardi Gras, green, gold and purple, that originated with Rex. I’ve heard many explanations, but none as compelling as the heraldry explanation. The fields in heraldic device are metals (silver/white or gold) and colors (red, blue, purple, green and black). Since red, white and blue already appear in many flags, including that of the US, the remaining choices were green, gold, purple and black. And the Rex founder was interested in flag design and heraldry.