Many a Carousel Animal: The History and Symbolism of the Merry-Go-Round

Carousels, also known as merry-go-rounds, are one of the most popular and beloved attractions in amusement parks, fairs, and carnivals. These rides feature a circular platform with seats for riders, usually in the form of wooden or other animals mounted on poles. The animals move up and down as the platform rotates, creating a sense of motion and excitement. But where did carousels come from, and what do the animals on them mean? In this article, we will explore the history and symbolism of the carousel and its many animals.

The Origins of the Carousel

The word carousel comes from the Italian carosella and the Spanish carosella, which mean “little battle”. These words were used by crusaders in the 12th century to describe a combat preparation exercise and game played by Turkish and Arabian horsemen. The game involved riding in a circle and tossing balls or spears to each other, requiring great skill and horsemanship. This game was introduced to Europe by the crusaders, and became a popular form of entertainment and training for knights and noblemen.

By the 17th century, the game evolved into a more elaborate spectacle, involving a parade of riders on horseback around a courtyard, accompanied by tournaments and various equestrian demonstrations and games. The most famous carousel of this kind was held by Louis XIV in 1662, in the courtyard of the Tuileries Palace in Paris, to celebrate the birth of his son and heir. The site of the event, next to the Louvre, is still known as “the Carrousel”.

The Development of the Carousel Ride

The first carousel rides that resembled the modern ones appeared in the early 18th century, at various fairs and gatherings in central Europe and England. These rides featured wooden horses or other animals that were suspended from chains and flew out from the centrifugal force of the spinning mechanism. These rides were powered by a laborer or a horse running in a circle, or by a crank.

In the late 18th century, the platform carousel was developed, which had a circular floor that was suspended from a center pole and rotated around. The animals and chariots were fixed to the floor, and moved up and down by gears or cams. These rides were powered by steam engines or electric motors.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the carousel reached its peak of popularity and creativity, especially in America. Many carousel makers emerged, such as Gustav Dentzel, Charles Looff, Marcus Illions, and Charles Carmel, who created elaborate and ornate carousels with intricate and lifelike animals. These animals were carved from wood and painted with bright colors and details. Some carousels also featured mythical creatures, such as unicorns, griffins, and sea monsters.

The Symbolism of the Carousel Animals

The carousel animals are not only decorative, but also symbolic. They represent different aspects of human nature, culture, and spirituality. Here are some of the common meanings and symbolism of the carousel animals:

  • Horses: Horses are the most common and traditional carousel animals. They symbolize strength, power, courage, and freedom. They also represent the spirit of adventure and exploration, as well as the connection between humans and nature.
  • Lions: Lions are the king of the beasts, and symbolize majesty, authority, and dominion. They also represent courage, pride, and nobility, as well as the sun and fire.
  • Tigers: Tigers are fierce and powerful predators, and symbolize strength, ferocity, and passion. They also represent courage, confidence, and independence, as well as the moon and water.
  • Zebras: Zebras are unique and exotic animals, and symbolize individuality, diversity, and harmony. They also represent balance, beauty, and freedom, as well as the earth and air.
  • Pigs: Pigs are often considered as dirty and greedy animals, but they also symbolize abundance, prosperity, and fertility. They also represent intelligence, adaptability, and resourcefulness, as well as the earth and water.
  • Mythical Creatures: Mythical creatures, such as unicorns, griffins, and sea monsters, are products of human imagination and creativity. They symbolize fantasy, magic, and wonder. They also represent the unknown, the mysterious, and the spiritual, as well as the elements of nature.

The Conclusion

Carousels are more than just rides. They are also expressions of human history, culture, and symbolism. They reflect the evolution of human entertainment, art, and spirituality. They also offer a glimpse into the human psyche, through the various animals that adorn them. Carousels are indeed a merry-go-round of meanings and messages.