Grandi Yama: The Burning of King Momo

March 4, 2014

Words by Natalie Weinerโ€”

Yes โ€” the above photo is of an enormous human figure wearing a crown (and sunglasses), that has been set on fire. Though it looks dramatic and maybe a little dangerous, it’s actually just one of the many annual traditions of the carnivals held in the Caribbean’s Papiamento-speaking ABC islands (Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao) – and it’s happening tonight in all three, after the final Carnival parades take place. (St. Maarten participates in a similar ritual during their Carnival, in the springtime.)

At the start of each Carnival, a larger-than-life figure made of straw, wood, plaster and fireworks is introduced to carnival-goers as Rei Momo. Momo represents excess, decadence, satire, irony… essentially, he’s the spirit of Carnival. He’s present at all Carnival events, and his brief “reign” gives islanders permission to let loose, and go a little wild. The burning of Rei Momo (or King Momo) at midnight after the Marcha di Despedida (Farewell Parade)ย signifies the end of the carnival season on these islands, a way to literally burn up all the crazy fun and excess of Carnival in preparation for the discipline of Lent.

So who is this King Momo character? Well, Momo is a modified name for the Greek god Momus. Momus was the god of satire and mockery โ€” in other words, a troublemaker. No coincidence, then, that he was also the god of writers… According to Greek mythology, Momus talked so much smack to the other gods, he actually got kicked off Olympus, and it was then that he began to participate in the fantastically hedonistic parties hosted by the mortals.

Momus became symbolic of profanity and debauchery โ€” during Roman holidays like Saturnalia, one handsome (if maybe a little portly) man would be chosen to be King Momus, reigning over the festivities while being encouraged to drink, eat, smoke, and seduce as much as he pleased. At the end of the holiday, he would beย sacrificed to the gods. And we thought we partied hard…

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