Book Extract #3 – Carnival in the Pyrenees

Carnival sees various costumes, processions and indulgences being acted out across Europe, and the Pyrenees is no exception. Various rites and rituals that celebrate Spring are woven into the more usual parades, many of which recall potentially pre-Christian celebrations and invocations of fertility and the emerging season of new growth. These often involve dances, and sometimes centre on players dressing up as livestock (although this is discouraged by the Church), and (historically) the slaying of animals. At Ax-les-Thermes (Ariège) during the early-20th century a folkloric tale emerged of a man wearing a calfskin for the Carnival dances, and this was such an impious gesture that the hide stuck to him, and only prayers would remove it.[1] Numerous bestial examples occur within Carnival in the traditions of Catalonia and the Pyrénées-Orientales, such as the Bou Rouch (‘Red Bull’) in Vallespir, a hobby horse-type figure made from a frame over which a scarlet cloth is draped. At the end of the Carnival celebrations he is led around the streets pursuing a female figure known as Trésine,[2] frequently charging into shops and terrorising the towns-folk, before being ritually killed by men dressed as bull fighters.[3] Balls or dances mark the advent of Spring in Catalonia, such as the Ball de la Primera in Valls,[4] which is also accompanied by that most typically Catalan formation, the Castells, a human tower forming up to six or even seven levels. These towers are formidable to witness, in which the heavier members form a base and successively lighter and agile members climb on their colleagues backs to form higher levels, and are frequently accompanied by grallers i timbaler (pipers and a drummer).[5]

One of the most impressive Carnival celebrations is that of the Basque Maskarada, found within the Soule region of the Northern Basque Country (Pyrénées-Atlantiques), and its extensive cast of characters warrants a full description.[6] Two primary groups of players form the troupe; Les Beaux and Les Noirs. The former arrives first, headed by Tcherrero who wears a red tunic, bejewelled spats, sheep-bells and a horse-tail, used to brush the ground in front of the hobby-horse. Following him we have the Gathuzain, wearing a jewelled shirt and carrying an extendable tong-like implement which is used to snatch hats from the crowd. Alford describes this character as ‘the Cat Man’, and suggests that the tongs originate from an ancient symbolic representation of lightening, similar to the instrument carried by Carnival players in Biscay which are called ‘Witches’ Scissors’.[7] Then comes the Zamalzain, the rider of the Hobby Horse, who also wears a jewelled shirt as well as bells on his legs and a crown fashioned from flowers, ribbons, mirrors and feathers, and who sways the horse to and fro with each forward step. Behind him walks the Kantiniersa, a man dressed in a short skirt and apron who pirouettes, which replaced the older figure of a gypsy who would feed the horse and make ribald jokes with the crowd.[8] Finally there comes the flag-bearing Enseñaria, the smiths and the Kulkulleros who carry ribbon-tied rods that the strike together. The second group, Les Noirs, are led by the Gentleman, the Lady and the Peasant, and are dominated by figures which are dressed to demonstrate that they are not local, as well as speaking Béarnais rather than Basque. The company consists of Kauterak (‘tinkers’) with lambs’ tails, Tchorochak (‘knife-grinders’), Buhame Jaunak (‘gypsies’) and Kherestuak (‘gelders’). Obstacles are placed by the townsfolk across the road and both parties attempt to negotiate these in various humorous ways, eventually ending up in the main square where a series of traditional dances are performed, including one in which the horse and its rider balance themselves upon a (presumably sturdy) wine glass. Each character type has its role to play in a series of ritualised actions, including the gelding of the horse and its being hoisted upon the shoulders of the dancers, and it has been suggested that the figures of both the horse and his rider (representing a knight) and Les Noirs (representing serfs) can be traced back to the 15th– and 16th-century Sociétés Joyeuses.[9] [10] Further north, in the Labourd commune (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) a similar carnival dance is played out, with additional characters such as the Basa Andreak ‘Wild Ladies) with veiled faces and long black hair, and the Sapurak, men wearing huge sheep skins and aprons, carrying axes.[11]

Huesca too hosts carnival celebrations that seem to carry a strong whiff of the archaic, particularly in Bielsa, which in combination with the costumes and traditions suggests it is strongly tied to the emergence of Spring rather than pre-Lent celebrations. The main characters in this celebration is the Trangas, single men with goat horns and a hide mounted atop their soot or oil blackened faces,[12] carrying large bells on their belt who chase the Madamas (single women) and dance with them. The ubiquitous bears are also in attendance, represented by men wearing hides over straw-stuffed sacks and led by their ‘handlers’, and on the first night a large well-endowed doll is created from old clothes stuffed with straw, and hung from the window of the town hall. At the end of the carnival he is taken down, ‘judged’ for various misdeeds, beaten and burnt. It has been suggested by scholars that Bielsa’s carnival is in reality a seasonal fertility rite, as exemplified by the immolation of Cornelio, it being potentially a sacrifice that sustains the cattle, crops and society for yet another year.[13]

Other examples can be found in the Navarre, with the bear-like Hartza[14] featuring in the Carnival of Arizkun, in which he stops a wedding procession, is led around the town by his ‘handler’ or shepherd (the Hartzazain) and is clad in sheepskins. In Pamplona, too, one finds the Zezengorri (‘Red Bull’) in attendance at Carnival, and whilst this tradition seems fairly recent (the carnival here being founded in 1977), the figure of Zezengorri is an ancient one, being a feature of Basque mythology that dwells in caves and who can throw fire from his mouth and nostrils. In the carnival of Alsasua (Navarre) the Momotxorroak can be seen; half-man, half-bull characters armed with huge horns, wooden pitchforks and bloodstained clothes. These fearsome creatures chase townsfolk, attempt to enter houses, and it has been suggested that they may have a link to the sacrifice of animals at this time of year. In the evening of Shrove Tuesday hundreds of them process down the streets, accompanied by Juantramposos (humanoid characters with great oversized sackcloth costumes stuffed with straw) and Mascaritas (female figures in red hooded shawls with lace veils).[15]

Across the border in the Haute-Garonne, Shrove Tuesday also saw a unique event in the village of Poubeau. A locally revered boulder named Cailhaeo d’Arriba-Pardin would be approached by a procession of young men from the village, who would then light a fire on the rock accompanied by ludicrous and obscene gestures. The fire lit, they would then dance joyfully around the rock, singing lustily. This was known as the Fête des Gagnolis, and still occurs despite numerous attempts by local clergy to discourage the practise.[16] Further to the southwest, at Arles-sur-Tech (Pyrénées-Orientales), a figure known sometimes as Gregoire (an effigy representing the spirit of Carnival) was paraded around the streets in an ox cart loaded with fresh greenery – that night, men dressed in their wives’ chemises with bundles of paper attached to the hem like a tail, would make their way with torches down lanes into the town’s main square, during which time they would attempt to set alight the paper ‘tail’ of the man in front! Gregoire was then ‘tried’ in villages up and down the valleys, before being burnt in a main square, during which the townsfolk would sing:

Al Carnabal es mort                           Carnival is dead,

Tire ballanes, tire ballanes;                Throw nuts, throw nuts;

Al Carnabal es mort,                          Carnival is dead,

Tire ballanes din dal clot.                   Throw nuts in his grave.[17]

Ash Wednesday marks the end of the Carnival season, a time of excess and pageantry and start of Lent, a far more sombre (and lean) affair. One custom that marks this transition is the burial of the sardine (Entiero de la Sardine), a tradition found across Spain and the Catalan Pyrenees (and Andorra) is no exception. This tradition is said to originate in Madrid in the 18th century, and features a large mock funeral procession climaxing in the burial of a sardine (either real or replica) in a coffin, or its burning. The burning of the sardine has been suggested) to represent the purifying and purging of vices and chaos indulged in during the Carnival, restoring order for the start of penitence during Lent, and the burial of the sardine symbolises the start of a period of reflection.[18] There are claims that this festival has its origins in pagan custom, however if it does indeed originate to the 18th century then this seems unlikely, even if it continues a now lost folkloric motif, possibly relating to the advent of Spring with the sardine representing the last of the Winter stores being given in thanks.[19] [20]

This day was a particularly entertaining one in Andorra, during which the stuffed effigies of Carnestoltes (the spirit of Carnival) were taken down from where they hung, and, in some parishes, they were publically burnt. Men would then go into their houses to ‘seize a woman there, lift her skirts and throw a handful of flour or ashes between her legs’, and others would daube their faces with flour or ash a parade through the village with knives in their hand, as if they were shaving.[21] Carnival in Catalonia was also associated heavily with the slaughter of pigs, and in Urgell a song entitled El Funerals del Porc is sung during this period.[22]

Another remarkable custom that occurred at the start of Lent in Catalan villages was the hanging up of a paper doll with seven legs, or a salted cod from which seven dried herring hang. None of these are local species, all having been caught further to the north. The doll was typically hung from the tympanum of a chimney or the kitchen door, and every Sunday when returning from Mass the household would cut one leg from the doll, thus marking the passing of each week of Lent. The paper from which the doll was made would either be from the diary of the previous year, or in some cases Amades claims that it could be fashioned from a papal bull saved from the previous Lent. In some parishes, the doll would be framed by sardines, onions and garlic, as if it were an icon in a chapel. The custom was still being practised in Barcelona and Tarragona during the 1950s,[23] however it is possible that this tradition survives in the more rural parts of Catalonia and the Pyrenees. The hanging salted cod is another method of counting down the weeks of Lent. The cod would be hung from the ceiling in the centre of the household’s or village’s store, with seven dried herring hanging from its tail. Each Saturday evening one of the herring would be cut down from the cod, marking another week of Lent. In the district of Sant Marti de Provencals in Barcelona, this still occurred in some establishments up to the late 1950s.[24]

In Ripoll (Catalonia) the recently revived Ball dels Cornuts sees an extraordinary and seemingly archaic dance take place in the town square, in which young men don horns and various animal hides, charging at each other and feigning to gore their opponent, and a lone figure dressed in a mule mask with a halter and covered in bells pursues the girls of the town who are watching in the square.[25] Within the Aude region a similar expression can be found in the Bail dals Cornuts, which traditionally sees only married men dancing, led by the most freshly wed man in the village wearing rams horns.


[1] Alford, Violet, Pyrenean Festivals: Calendar Customs, Magic & Music, Drama & Dance (London: Catto & Windus, 1937), p. 26. It should be clarified here that this book is a treasure-trove for celebrations within the Pyrenean year, albeit divided into a rather binary Summer/Winter construct, however Alford has produced an incredible compendium especially in relation to dances and fêtes that were still enacted in the early-20th century.

[2] This is much like the figure of Rosetta in the various ‘bear dances’; see Chapter Three for details.

[3] Alford, 1937, p. 26.

[4] Amades, Joan, Guia de Festes Tradicionals de Catalunya (Barcelona: Editorial Aedos, 1958), p. 20.

[5] The tradition of these towers is said to originate in Valencia, first being mentioned in 1712, and frequently appear in all manner of Catalan street celebrations throughout the year.

[6] See Alford’s 1937 description of the Maskarada, pp. 142 – 149.

[7] Alford, 1937, p. 142.

[8] It has been suggested that the increasingly coarse nature of the jokes led to the figure’s replacement by the Kantiniersa in the late-19th century.

[9] The Sociétés Joyeuses were a Medieval French phenomenon consisting of various troupes who would perform satirical and farcical plays and performances, and which flourished under the reign of King Louis XII (1498 – 1515). For more information see: Janik, Vicki (ed.), Fools and Jesters in Literature, Art and History: A Bio-bibliographical Sourcebook (Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1998).

[10] Badé, Jean ‘Le Carnaval chez les Basques de la Soule’, in Le Théâtre Comique, Georges Hérelle (ed.) (Paris: Librairie Ancienne Honoré Champion, 1925), p. 46.

[11] Alford, 1937, p. 150.

[12] In this respect, they are very similar to the bear characters discussed in Chapter Three.

[13] Harris, Max, Carnival and Other Christian Festivals: Folk Theology and Folk Performance (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2003), p. 247.

[14] See Chapter Three for details.

[15] Fréger, Charles, Wilder Mann: The Image of the Savage (Stockport: Demi Lewis Publishing, 2012), p. 266.

[16] Alford, 1937, p. 91

[17] Alford, 1937, p. 37.

[18]Barreto Vargas, Carmen, El Carnaval de Santa Cruz de Tenerife: Un Estudio Antropológico.  Servicio de Publicaciones de la Universidad de La Laguna, 1993. pp. 254–261. Doctoral Thesis. Available here:

[19] It should be emphasized here that this is purely conjecture.

[20] It possibly fulfils a similar function to the Lenten herring tradition in the north of Europe.

[21] Hadden, Alan, ‘Lent, Holy Week and Easter’ in Andorra: Festivals, Traditions and Folklore. (Escaldes: Andorra Writers Circle, 1998), pp. 39 – 43.

[22] Amades, 1958, p. 33.

[23] As recorded by Amades.

[24] Amades, 1958, p. 35.

[25] Alford, 1937, p. 26.

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