(Art & History) The Mistick Krewe of Comus

19th century sea creature costume

The Mistick Krewe of Comus, founded in 1856, is a New Orleans Carnival krewe. It is the oldest continuous organization of New Orleans Mardi Gras festivities.

Comus is the Greek god of revelry, merrymaking and festivity. He was the son and cup-bearer of the god Dionysus. The inspiration for the name came from John Milton’s Lord of Misrule in his masque Comus. Part of the inspiration for the parade was a Mobile, Alabama, Carnival mystic society, with annual parades, called the Cowbellion de Rakin Society (from 1830).

Prior to the advent of Comus, Carnival celebrations in New Orleans were mostly confined to the Roman Catholic Creole community, and parades were irregular and often very informally organized. Comus was organized by (largely Protestant) Anglo-Americans. Hence, there is some association with the ugly history of racism.

Membership in Comus was historically tied with membership in the private Pickwick Club, and for a time the two organizations were one. In 1884, the Club and the Krewe of Comus severed all official ties. In the 20th and early 21st centuries, their membership is not identical; but it is believed that there are members common to both groups.

Comus has jealously guarded the identities of its membership and the privacy of its activities (other than its parade), perhaps even more than the other Carnival organizations subscribing to the traditional code of secrecy.

Legend has it that admittance to the Mistick Krewe’s ball was so highly sought-after that uninvited persons have tried to beg, buy, or steal invitations to the ball. Even after the Mystic Krewe of Comus ball is over, its invitations are prized by collectors. They are both rare and uncommonly beautiful.

In 1991, the New Orleans City Council, led by Democrat Dorothy Mae Taylor, passed an ordinance that required social organizations, including Mardi Gras Krewes, to certify publicly that they did not discriminate on the basis of race, religion, gender, disability, or sexual orientation, in order to obtain parade permits and other public licensure. In effect the ordinance required these, and other private social groups, to abandon their traditional code of secrecy and identify their members for the city’s Human Relations Commission. The Comus organization (along with Momus and Proteus, other 19th-century Krewes) withdrew from parading, rather than identify its membership.

Two Federal courts later decided that the ordinance was an unconstitutional infringement on First Amendment rights of free association. Despite this, the Krewe of Comus has not returned to the streets to parade. (The Krewe of Proteus later returned.)

The Mistick Krewe of Comus still holds an annual ball on Mardi Gras night.

The 1873 Mystick Krewe of Comus “Missing Links” parade was an important event in Mardi Gras history, becoming one of the first major parades to use satire and political commentary. That year, there were no floats, but the members paraded in costumes made of papier-mache, based on the drawings in this collection. A Swedish lithographer, Charles Briton, made the designs.

Many of the images depict figures related to the Civil War and Reconstruction, such as Ulysses S. Grant, Benjamin Butler, and Louisiana Governor Henry Warmoth. Also depicted are notable figures such as Charles Darwin and Algernon Badger, head of the Metropolitan Police.