What are Mystic Societies? Answers are at The Carnival Museum in Mobile Alabama

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They were just standing there. On a street corner. In suits, with ties and an umbrella. I looked up at the night sky and didn’t see any imminent rainfall. We notice one, then two, then three and four. All standing on corners. Minding their own business. So I sent out a tweet… Little did I know I was looking at men being initiated into secret mystic societies in Mobile Alabama. But What are mystic societies?

What Are Mystic Societies?

Intrigued by what those young men were doing on a street corner all dressed up, we later learned, they are part of a mystic society. The mystery becomes muddier. What exactly is a mystic society? Is it like a fraternity or sorority? These young men looked older than college students but there was definitely an element of ritual or initiation. We knew there was something to this, we turned to our host from Visit Mobile and she very coyly said, you’ll get an answer tomorrow when we visit the Carnival Museum of Mobile. 

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We met with the Director of the Mobile Carnival Museum and peppered him with questions. A mystic society is a Mardi Gras social organization which lead parades and/or host balls for the enjoyment of its members, guests and the public. These very elaborate parades begin as early as four weeks before Mardi Gras. It ends on Fat Tuesday – the day before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent.

Mystic Societies. Why they are popular in Mobile Alabama. @DownshiftingPRO #Alabama #MardiGras
Photo Credit: Tad Denson – Visit Mobile, Alabama

History and traditions are very important in Mobile and there is a lot of history here. Established in 1702, Mobile had spent decades as French, then British, then Spanish, then American, spanning 160 years, up to the Civil War. The very first Carnival began in 1711 when a paper-mache bull was pulled through the streets. Beouf Gras (considered another name for Mardi Gras) was the first parade in North America.

These societies can be men, women, married couples and mixed singles. Traditionally they are male dominant but are based in class, economic and racial groups. They may be very formal, risqué or outrageous. They establish a theme each year and weave it throughout their Carnival season. The invitations are intricate and interesting and are considered a prized item. They are also mostly masqued. That is the fun of a ‘secret’ society, is it not?

What are Mystic Societies in Mobile Alabama

For Carnival season, Mobile’s parading mystic societies build colourful Carnival floats and create costumes around each year’s themes. With 70 active societies, they do not parade for just one night or weekend but for the better part of a month before Mardi Gras. The 2020 Schedule of Parades has a rundown of which mystic society parades when with multiple parades proceeding both during the day and in the evening. All parades are much more family-friendly than those in New Orleans. No one is asking you to show anything to anyone

What are throws?

Parading throughout Mobile, society members toss small gifts, known as throws, to the parade spectators. The throws can take the form of trinkets, candy, cookies, peanuts, panties, artificial roses, stuffed animals, doubloons, cups, hats, can coolers, medallion necklaces, bead necklaces of every variety, and Moon Pies. They don’t just throw one or two but hundreds of items. The tradition of throwing doubloons is very interesting. Designed coins or medallions made to specifications with the mystic society’s theme, logo or emblem. Considered coveted throws to collect year after year.

What are mystic societies.? What is a mystic society? Mobile Alabama @DownshiftingPRO #MardiGras #Carnival #Museum
Infant Mystics invitation to a Bal Masque

Who attends a bal masqués?

Mystic societies in Mobile host formal masquerade balls, (bal masqués) and are almost always invitation only. Attendance at a ball requires attendees to follow a strict dress code. They usually involve full-length evening gowns and white tie with tails for invited guests, and masked costumes for society members.

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The bal masqués feature entertainment, music, dancing, food, and drinks. Bal masqués are normally based on a theme carried out through scenery, decorations, and costumes. Some balls are steeped in the old tradition of a ‘coming out ball’ for young women. Used as an event to present them to polite society. Reminiscent of a bygone era, traditions in the South are taken very seriously.

If you want to understand what are mystic societies, a visit to the Mobile Carnival Museum is a must! You want to learn the history and see the costumes, pomp and circumstance of the social highlight of the year. You can see much of the memorabilia associated with these mystic societies including elaborate trains, crowns, invitations, throws and even a large float for your Instagramable moment.

What are Mystic Societies.? Why they are popular in Mobile Alabama. @DownshiftingPRO #Alabama #MardiGras

Royalty

The culmination of the evening is the crowning of the King and Queen.  Each Mardi Gras Association crowns its royalty and adorns them with crowns and scepters.  The Kings are always either Felix III or Elexia I.  They are accompanied by their queens. Most royal courts also have ladies-in-waiting, knights, pages, heralds and equerries. All playing a role in the royal procession.

What are mystic societies?

Mystic Societies. Why they are popular in Mobile Alabama. @DownshiftingPRO #Alabama #MardiGras

The evening gowns are stunning but the capes (or trains) are the real showstoppers.  Sewn with intricate details and bejeweled they have their mystic society monograms emblazoned.  Each one is custom-made and may include symbols or references to school, the field of study, hobbies, or other pertinent interests for the monarch.  They are large and elaborate but the weight of the trains is so substantial that many have ball bearings underneath to aid with movement.

Mystic Societies. Why they are popular in Mobile Alabama. @DownshiftingPRO #Alabama #MardiGras

Interesting Mystic Societies

There is also a very playful side to mystic societies.  Not to take themselves too seriously, mystic societies you will have the Joe Caine Parade of Merry Widows and Mistresses.  The Widows are all dressed in black with a black veil covering their faces. While the Mistresses parade in red dress and were somewhat more provocative. 

Mystic Societies. Why they are popular in Mobile Alabama. @DownshiftingPRO #Alabama #MardiGras Comic Cowboy MS

The Comic Cowboys play the role of rebels. Their slogans, attire and floats tend to have a comical theme with a side of provocations thrown in for good measure.  Dressing up in drag and holding signs which poke fun at others and themselves since 1868!

What are Mystic Societies? Why they are popular in Mobile Alabama. @DownshiftingPRO #Alabama #MardiGras
Theme Concept to Float Realization

In the museum, you can wander from room to room and quickly become enchanted with Mardi Gras.  Contrary to what many people believe, Mobile was the first city in North America to celebrate Mardi Gras. It, rightfully, continues to consider itself the true home of this month-long celebration.  No doubt I’ll return to experience a few of these parades and score an invitation to a bal masque.  Won’t that be a story to tell?

Mystic Societies. Why they are popular in Mobile Alabama. @DownshiftingPRO #Alabama #MardiGras

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What are mystic societies

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Margarita Ibbott is a travel and lifestyle blogger. She blogs about travel in Canada, the United States and Europe giving practical advice through restaurant, hotel and attraction reviews. She writes for DownshiftingPRO.com and other online media outlets.