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TDR: The Drama Review 44.3 (2000) 154-170

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Carnival in Galicia:
Scattered Ants, Whipped Backs, and Hammered Plowshares

Max Harris


IMAGE LINK= All but the most careless of those who packed the dirt square had closed the top buttons of their shirts. Many guarded their necks with knotted bandannas. Most had covered their heads. Several were in costume. One young man wore twin pony tails and painted freckles, and a group of women were dressed as watermelons. Another figure, eight feet tall, draped with animal skins and crowned with a wild goat's head, silently walked through the crowd (plate 1). The diabolical cast of his curled horns and cloven hoofs was softened by his glass eyes and benign smile. A group of boys ran into the square, scattering handfuls of earth, but proved to be a false alarm. A quartet of bagpipers and drummers came and went. Anticipation mounted as the shadows lengthened and the evening air grew chill. A young couple shared wine with me, including me in their circle of friends as they passed the bottle round.

Then, at last, there was chaos. Women clutching plastic shopping bags poured into the square, strewing a mixture of dry earth and ants. People pressed against the margins of the square, slapping themselves to quell the mordant insects. A cloaked figure on a donkey was led into the midst of the confusion. Men, including several who wore only bras, panties, and close-cut, brazen hair, struck the crowd with prickly furze branches and monstrous kale stalks. Another, bent double and cloaked in sackcloth, his face concealed behind an antique wooden cow mask, gored frightened women. A machine on a creaking wooden cart trundled into the fray, spraying flour from a hose in the rear while men on board flung fistfuls of flour in all directions. It was all over in 15 minutes. The crowd stilled, a rock band struck up, and couples began to dance. I was in Galicia for Carnival.

Galicia, the southernmost of the Celtic lands, reaches over Portugal to touch the Atlantic in the northwest corner of Spain. Over the course of a week in February 1998, by careful observation of local schedules and many miles of driving, I was able to see parts of five different Carnivals in the southern Gallego province of Ourense. I'll make brief reference to earlier events in the Carnival season, give short descriptions of four Carnivals that I saw, and then focus in more detail on the fifth, generally regarded as the oldest and [End Page 154] purest of the rural Gallego Carnivals, in the village of Laza. It was there that the ants were scattered.

From New Year to Carnival

Galicia's Carnival season extends from the first chime of the New Year until Ash Wednesday. At midnight on 1 January, in Laza and Verín, the men who play the communities' most characteristic masked figures, known respectively as peliqueiros and cigarrones, don their belts of bells and run through the streets, ringing in the new year. Thereafter, "Carnival begins to course through the veins of lovers of Laza and to be a topic of conversation for all its residents" (Ayuntamiento de Laza n.d.:2; see also Taboada Chivite 1972:57). In many villages, young men make noise by blowing animal horns and boys drum with sticks on gas cans hung around their necks. Practical jokes are played (Risco 1948:164).

Carnival begins in earnest on Domingo Fareleiro (Bran Sunday), known more formally as Septuagesima, or the third Sunday before Lent. Young men carry bags of bran (farelos), flour, or ashes, throwing the contents at young women or, if they dare, stuffing fistfuls in their victims' mouths or down their clothes. The young women retaliate in kind, "often emerging victorious" (Risco 1948:165). Domingo Fareleiro was banned in Verín some years ago, when revelers exceeded urban license by shoveling huge quantities of bran from the backs of trucks (Cocho [1990] 1992:79).

The following Thursday is Xoves de Compadres (Godfathers' Thursday), named for its traditional...


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