Carnivals of Ituren & Zubieta 2011

Ituren, 31st January 2011

After a mug of hot broth, (caldo), traditionally made from boiled pork and chickens feet, we climbed the steps to the attic rooms above the town hall and plunged into a frenzy of bells and ropes, of sheep’s skins and brightly-coloured swaddling ribbons. No, don’t be misled by the pretty pinks and baby blues, the lace petticoats and the empty bottles of Patxaran – carnival time in Ituren is NOT a frivolous affair.   

10 litre bells pulled tight on the Joaldunak's back

10 litre bells pulled tight on the Joaldunak’s back

The atmosphere is serious and the faces of the Joaldunak are tense and pale under their thick Basque eyebrows as they wait for a heavy boot to be wedged in the base of their spine.  Thick ropes are heaved tightly around their girth as a pair of 10 litre copper bells are secured tightly to the small of their broad Basque backs. Years ago the Joaldunak would have lived and slept in their bells during the whole carnival period and, with the ropes so tightly knotted around their midriffs, chicken broth would have been the staple for days on end. ( I can only imagine that Patxaran  – the local sloe and aniseed liqueur – would have found its way through parted lips as well.)

Today is the first day of the Ituren-Zubieta carnivals, the Monday after the last Sunday in January and it is Ituren’s day to host the carnivals and welcome the Joaldunak from Zubieta into our own village square.

Ituren. The Joaldunak follow in the footsteps of their ancestors 1000's of years ago.

Ituren. The Joaldunak follow in the footsteps of their ancestors 1000’s of years ago.

This is by far the most important day in the year for our village and the opportunity to ‘wear the bells’ (the word ‘Joaldunak’ literally means ‘the bell-wearers’ in Basque) is a great honour and tremendous responsibility handed on from generation to generation since documents began. Pello ( a local historian) told me last week that there was even mention of a Joaldunak-like character in these parts during Roman times!)

During the rein of Franco, Basque traditions were outlawed completely, as was the Basque language. ( This was such the case that there is now a missing generation of Basques whose parents refused to teach them Euskera for fear of their children being detained in the streets).  However, even during these difficult times, the Basque villagers from Ituren and Zubieta clung tenaciously to their carnival traditions, aided and abetted by the tortuous mountain roads that lead to our villages and the opaque winter mists that shroud our valley floors.

Around 2pm the Joaldunak from Ituren congregate in the plaza, and the leader of the troupe (the enigmatic, Lazaro,) starts off the procession with a call on his horn and a back flick of solid hips releasing a heavy clonk from the Joariak on his back. The rest of the troupe fall into step;  a complicated rhythmic step where the total synchronisation of movement and sound between the troupe members is of vital importance as well as a source of immense individual and village pride.  The men are so acutely concentrated on their movements that they enter into a meditative, trance–like state and their solemn faces contrast markedly with the wild celebrations and obscenities of the beasts and demons, monsters and witches that scatter in their wake.

The chained bear (hartza) and the Joaldunak

The chained bear (hartza) and the Joaldunak

The Joaldunak, together with a chained bear (harza) with rams horns, said be symbolic of the devil,  then make the rounds of the village, blessing the village with flicks of horse-hair whips and the ringing of their bells. In times past there may have been real wolves and bears to frighten away from their herds of sheep and cattle, as well as the more intangible forces of evil, disease and infertility. The rituals and dress of the Joaldunak seemed to have changed relatively little over the ages although I believe that there are more youths ‘wearing the bells’ today that ever before – not only because fewer families could afford these immense bells but also because of a growing interest from the youths of the village to continue the tradition.  While the Joaldunak march around the village, the rest of the villagers from Ituren and Zubieta dress up as mozorroak; masked, unruly, anarchic figures and symbols of evil, taunting the Joaldunak who scatter them in their wake. In the past the locals would have traditionally dressed as witches, demons and monsters however their costumes today bare evident signs of modernisation, and the masked figure of an ugly diseased man with a stick years ago may now be a semi-naked Basque youth with a chainsaw. The donkey pulling the cart of animal excrement today could quite possibly be a tractor in disguise! (Much better for the animals I am sure.)

Here is a video of the Ituren carnivals in 1970 made by Basque writer and historian, Pio Baroja. And here is a more recent video of the Ituren carnivals.

I could go on about the symbolism and meaning behind these ancient carnivals and its visceral impact on everyone who plays a part,  or runs for cover under the porticos of the village hall.  It is a very moving, unnerving affair and for some strange reason as I come to understand my neighbours and friends behind the facades and share in their everyday lives, the carnival means more to me year by  year.  My lasting impression this year was the total contrast between the eternal solemnity of the Joaldunak and the crazed grimaces and cries of the mozorak. Are they from two separate worlds? Or are they just two different facets of the same one?

Read here Max Walker´s article in the Guardian about the Joaldunak: http://www.guardian.co.uk/travel/2010/apr/17/spain-basque-navarre-culture-walking

Come and meet the Joaldunak on our Walking, Basque Culture and Gastronomy weeks run here in the village of Ituren.

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Posted in Basque Culture and Tradition, Basque Food, Life in the Basque Pyrenees
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2 comments on “Carnivals of Ituren & Zubieta 2011
  1. Veronica says:

    Hi Georgina

    Very interesting article! We felt so privileged to be able to experience this ancient tradition last week. I’m still curious as to the significance of the petticoats and ribbons though :)

    PS I posted some more of my photos here.

    • So glad you were there to see it as it is so difficult to capture in words. The lace petticoats are a symbol of femininity to constrast with the cocks tail feathers on the hat and the workmen’s trousers etc. The combination of masculinity and femininity in the costume is seem to symbolise fertility. The ribbons, while also being symbolic of femininity, are traditionally said to have been the ribbons and laces used to tie up a baby’s first swadling clothes .. once again representing fertility. These, however, are just interpretations that I have heard from the locals — Amatxi having been a good source.

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