No one is sure where the carnival tradition comes from. The name is possibly derived from the Latin “carne vale” meaning “meat, farewell,” as the celebration is a final fling of fun before the 40 days of fasting for Lent. Giving credence to this theory is the German name for carnival, Fastnacht, which means “fast night,” referring to the night before fasting begins on Ash Wednesday.
Some claim the festivities are rooted in the ancient Greek celebrations for their god of wine, Dionysus, while others trace them to pagan customs of driving out the evil spirits of winter. In many places, these rituals evolved into a series of street parties and balls with masked revellers who, some say, developed costumes so all classes could celebrate together and poke fun at authority figures without revealing their identities.
With a large cape and hood, resembling a monk’s vestments, the costume came “en mode” during the 19th century as an ironic response of the people of Cavtat towards the strong Church prohibitions intended to prevent carnival.
Ever since then, on the last Thursday before Ash Wednesday, Dominali take over the streets of Cavtat. Hidden behind the wide dark robes with hoods, gloves, and masks on their faces they go from house to house laughing, making jokes and leaving an aura of mystery, wit and innocent deception in the air.
Adding to the mystery, these masked groups then proceed to the cave Šipun on the Cavtat coastline. According to legend, in this cave nested the dragon Vojaz whom St. Hilarion (Ilar) managed to expel and slay. The legend can be linked to the penetration of Christianity in the former Greek settlement Epidaurus where the cult of Aesculapius (the symbol of the dragon) was replaced by the cult of St. Hilarion. It is also said that the dragon motif influenced the creation of the Domino mask.
Upon return, the party continues in the town’s hall, with a traditional carnival dinner of “šporki makaruli” – a special kind of pasta with meat sauce.
Besides Dominali, a children’s carnival procession and various other parties culminating on Ultime (the night before Ash Wednesday), carnival season was and remains among the most festive times to be in Cavtat. It was the famous Croatian painter, Vlaho Bukovac, who immortalized this tradition by painting “The Cavtat Carnival” at the turn of the 20th century.
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