Breaking with tradition, this year I ventured away from Navarra to explore other pre-Christian traditions in the Guadalajara province of Castilla y La Mancha and the Burgos province of Castilla y Leon. As with many of these pre-Christian early to late winter traditions found throughout the peninsula, their origins yield an ancient pagan interest in survival – survival through harsh winters and the need to expel the evil spirits that could inhibit the village’s fertility of both the land and its people. These traditions persisted for centuries in Spain passed on largely through strong oral traditions until the Franco dictatorship from 1939 to 1975 when all outward signs of non-Catholic rites were prohibited. After the dictatorship, in the 1980s throughout Spain many of these traditions began to recover albeit rather slowly as many of the village inhabitants had migrated to the larger Spanish cities. Continuing into the present day, it is only during festivals, long weekends, and the summer months that the younger “villagers” return to their roots and it is they who maintain these astonishing traditions.
In Guadalajara province, I visited the small village of Luzón where the fascinating tradition of the Diablos (devils) and Mascaritas (masked ones) is still practiced during the Saturday before Ash Wednesday. The first written account of this tradition is from the 14thCentury. The ritual consists of 16-18 individuals dressed in long black tunics with their exposed arms, faces, and necks covered in a mixture of olive oil and black ash. On their heads they wear a black pillow topped with a pair of bulls horns, which are tied to their arms to stabilize the weight. Tied around their waists are very large cencerros (cow bells). In their mouths they place a cut potato that simulates a set of fearsome teeth. These dark, frightening characters are the Diablos. They are accompanied by the Mascaritas who wear white fabric masks and long colorful dresses, headscarves, dark shawls, and straw hats. The contrast of white and black represents the traditional dichotomy of good and evil. I was told by one of the participants that before the dictatorship they used to march through the village “chained together by the ankles!” Today the menacing Diablos march into the village from a nearby house on the outskirts of town and leave everyone in their path marked with sticky black ash, including this writer (profusely in fact!) The Mascaritas, immune to this “abuse,” do not speak and represent a silent serenity in contrast to the loud, aggressive, boisterous Diablos. Everyone eventually converges on the town square where traditional music is played and the Diablos and Mascaritas dance and interact with the public each in their unique contrasting way. Not willing to leave a stone unturned (or black stained), both the Diablos and the Mascaritas march through the entire village frightening and staining all who have not been “touched.” The photos above are of the people and places mentioned in this post.
In Burgos province on the Sunday before Carnaval, I arrived in the beautiful remote village of Mecerreyes to immediately see spectacularly and bizarrely dressed carnival characters in the town chasing and frightening adults and children. Carnaval in Mecerreyes is a carnival in 3 acts (with many subplots!). Before the 2pm break for lunch are the masked and costumed carnival revelers. This part of the festival is called the Carnavaladas y Zarramacadas. The characters of this part have their origins in the Mecerreyes’ oral tradition that has been passed down through the generations. Many characters hold a special significance to the village’s history. Some of them change yearly but remain true to the tradition of using locally found natural materials such as using bones from the animal bone yard located in hills outside the village. After a very hearty lunch of delicious meats, dark red wine, and a dash of green salad around 5pm starts the Corrida de Gallo or “Rooster Run.” Salvador Alonso de Martin in his comprehensive article La Corrida del Gallo en Mecerreyes in the journal, Revista de Folclore, 1993 (in Spanish), explains the significance of the Rooster in ancient times among many old world cultures as a symbol of fecundity. In this part of the festival there are many characters: the shepherds (those who guide the procession through the village streets), the king (the young presenter of the rooster dressed in white), the Zarramacos (the protectors of the rooster dressed in furs and with black painted faces), the king’s dancers and musicians, the public, and most importantly the rooster (a fake rooster is used for the running).
At the start of this portion of the festival, the king is accompanied by his entourage and the public who form two opposing lines making a running corridor with the king holding the rooster in the middle. The music starts and the kings’ dancers and musicians begin reveling when a courageous person from the crowd attempts to run and grab the rooster from the king’s hands and run around the block and return it to the king. Now what may appear to be a mere task of jogging involves evading the track shoe wearing, large stick wielding Zarramacos who attempt to chase down and “beat” the courageous one before they can round the block. I considered attempting the run, but my portion of “delicious meats, dark red…etc.” checked my courageousness! The procession moves through the village and repeats the procedure with some lucky and some beaten, i.e. literally. Finally, the rooster, soon to be auctioned off for the cooking pot, is buried up to its neck and is “killed” (the fake one) by the king. The entire festival ends with the auctioning of the rooster (a very frightened but healthy and unharmed real one). After the auction the entire village takes part in eating the traditional Mecerreyes carnival sweets: Oreja de Haba (a deep fried thin sweet bread), Guirlache (pan fried caramelized sugar), and orange wedges. This was a truly delectable ending to a wonderful carnival season with some truly unforgettable traditions and people.
I would like to sincerely thank Salvador Alonso de Martín, a talented local historian, engineer, and native son of Mecerreyes for his time in sharing his insight and profound knowledge on his village’s ethnohistory. The photos above are of the people and places mentioned in this post.
Recording of the lively Corrida de Gallo event and the traditional Carnaval song from Mecerreyes
Recording of the Subasta (Auction) de Gallo. I was a frightening 10 euros away from taking home a rooster!