- Basque Pelota: A Ritual, An Aesthetic by Abrisketa, Olatz
Social and visual anthropologist Olatz González Abrisketa, a professor at the University of the Basque Country, has produced an ethnographic and philosophical account of the highly ritualized Basque ball game, pelota, in which she argues that the traditional contest reveals important insights into the “Basque cultural imaginary.” Abrisketa conducted fieldwork (1998-2002) in the Basque country of northern Spain, where she interviewed numerous pelota athletes—generally always men—and observed their games on the public courts (frontons) centrally located in the plaza of any Basque village.
The author ultimately portrays pelota as a public ritual designed to strengthen bonds among Basque men, unite the distinct spaces of interiority and exteriority of rural village, and most importantly, to “manage” the Basque “force” of potentially violent social energy known as indarra in Euskara, the Basque language. Along the way, however, the reader is provided with an exceptionally detailed description and analysis of the structure of the game, which assumes a variety of forms, from a hand pelota contest between two men on a three-walled court to the more Westernized Jai-Alai, played with a hand-held basket. Scoring systems, scheduling and tournament protocols, and the selection of equipment and players are all illustrated in great detail and in historical perspective. But Abrisketa’s main interest is interpretive, to highlight the textual and symbolic dimensions of pelota in order to convey the ways in which this game is a dramatic representation of Basque identity, and her approach intentionally adopts a Geertzian framework and, to a lesser, extent, a Durkheimian model, wherein public rituals are seen to unite collectivities. [End Page 499]
The passions and commitments of pelota spectators occupy much of the analysis, for it is their involvement in the supporting of particular players and in placing bets (a central feature of pelota) that bring to life the meaning of pelota ritual. More than anything else, pelota fans discuss, critique, and analyze the players, and their support of particular athletes frequently turns on regional and local affiliations, and sometimes even household tradition. Reminiscent of Balinese cockfights, “When fan communities meet in a village . . . to see a game, they make comments related to the locality of where rival fans come from or the player they support—a pelotari with whom they normally share the same birthplace and maybe even the same age-group” (p. 102). Other times, one household will support the opponent of whomever the next household roots for, which the author considers “an antagonism in its purest state,” designed merely to assert a family’s independence. In fact, Abrisketa considers a tendency to challenge the “other,” to assert one’s personality and indeed independence simply to demarcate one as different from the other is a core element of the Basque ethos, staged daily on the pelota fronton.
The intricacies of the tactics the pelota players enact on the court, and the intensity with which fans analyze these approaches and assess the personalities of the contestants, seeking evidence of cunning or bravery is critical. Elevating the significance of the pelotari (athlete) personalities reflects the belief that each successful contestant will embody perhaps a particular Basque “proto-agonistic” archetype, such as a lion or a fox (p. 100). The pace of a pelota season, with its turns and twists, becomes a series of performances in which athlete, household, and community manage, hopefully, to both ritually celebrate but also keep under control the indarra, the indigenous, masculine Basque force that straddles a fine line between creativity and destruction.
The village plaza, with its pelota fronton, marked by the pelotari and the ever symbolically significant game ball—moved skillfully about with the equally important symbol of the hand—is considered the embodiment of Basque society. Abrisketa privileges this sort of Geertzian largess in analyzing pelota symbolism, and much of her ethnography is interpretively rich, allowing the reader to come away with a deeper understanding of why this game has been so popular. But while ample attention is given to detailing some...