Brazilian Carnival, with its massive parades and thundering music, is known as the greatest party on earth. With millions of people attending the festivities in Rio de Janeiro alone, and millions more taking to the streets in Northeastern cities like Salvador and Recife and the country's capital Sao Paolo, the entire country revels during the week leading up to Ash Wednesday. The origins of Brazilian Carnival reach way back into ancient history but many of its features were born from the social circumstances of Brazil's history.

The European Roots of Brazilian Carnival

Carnival is actually a European celebration that is as old, if not older, than recorded history itself. Celebrations marking the renewal of life and nature in the spring were common in tribal Europe and later became the largest festivals of the ancient Greek civilizations, where they were known as the Rituals of Dionysus. They consisted of massive public wine drinking, 24-hour revelry and the production of theatrical works, both comedic and tragic. These festivals became known as the Bacchic Orgies under Roman rule, where they were actively suppressed. This springtime celebration was officially adopted by the church in Christian Europe, where it came to be called Carnival and featured feasting and wild parties on the days before Lent.

Carnival Comes to the Americas

Carnival was widespread in Portugal, as it was in most of Catholic Europe, when it began colonizing Brazil. Early Portuguese colonists celebrated Carnival in Brazil in their new cities and villages, but those celebrations were profoundly different from the ones that rock the country today. It was the influence of the African slaves the Portuguese began importing to work the giant sugar plantations who really created the essential features of the modern Brazilian Carnival.

Africa in the New World

Portugal was the biggest importer of slaves of any colonial power and the last nation to ban the slave trade. For hundreds of years there was a steady stream of African culture pouring into the New Word, a culture full of rhythmic drum music and spiritual traditions. Although blacks always took part in some of the Carnival celebrations with their masters during slavery, it wasn't until slavery was banned that they began forming their own bands of musicians. Gathering together in the poor sections of cities like Rio and Salvador, they created the musical styles that carnival is famous for today: samba and frevo. They soon began marching in their own Carnival parades, which were characterized by dancing and drumming, and also often included elements of Candomble -- a Brazilian religion based on West African spirituality.

The Birth of a Brazilian Phenonema

Although the African-style Carnival parades and festivities were actively oppressed in Brazil at first -- they were even banned for 10 years -- they soon became the defining element of Carnival and Brazilian culture itself. By the 1930s, the samba was made the official music of Brazil, and the giant Carnival parades driven by this Afro-Brazilian music were given state support as well. Rio became filled with samba schools, in both white and black areas, which trained all year long to perform in the fast growing annual Carnival celebration.