Beauty in the Beast
Let my aching shoulders be the evidence: the huge beasts that represented the Catalan bestiari tradition at this year’s Folklife Festival were no easy feat to carry.
Leading up to the Festival, we collaborated with the Association of Festive and Popular Bestiari of Catalonia, an organization that unites the various beast puppeteering groups across Catalonia. Three beasts made the long journey from Catalonia to Washington, D.C. to excite an American public:
- El Drac de l’Agrupació (dragon)
- L’Arpella del Barri Gòtic (eagle)
- La Fura de la Vegueria Penedès (ferret)
But these were not the only beasts to tread on the National Mall. Sculptor Miquel Grima worked tirelessly on another creature made especially for the Folklife Festival. After nine long days, his mulassa (mule) emerged from several layers of sawdust, ready to dance in the last parades. All but La Fura took part in the correfoc (“fire-run”) with the Diables d’Igualada, spewing fireworks into the night under the glow of the Washington Monument.
So what inspired Catalans to dance with heavy, fire-breathing beasts on their backs? What is the significance of this tradition to Catalonia and its people? And why a ferret?
“For me, the bestiari is the best part of popular Catalan culture,” Catalan participant Adrià Esteve said. “There’s a lot of variety of beasts in Catalonia, I think that’s what makes it different from the other parts of culture.”
Although the origins of the tradition are murky, the first beasts were likely meant to represent creatures that appeared in the Bible. The more traditional bestiari animals have been documented since the Corpus Christi celebrations of the Middle Ages, where they performed during religious festivals acting as agents of reverence (the eagle), evil (the dragon), and playful chaos (the mule). For example, there has been an eagle dominating the festivals in Barcelona since the 1300s, and the legendary Guita Grossa of Berga, a fire-breathing mule-dragon figure with a very long neck, has chased after villagers and guests since 1621. Today, each beast has a different symbolic reputation to uphold during festivals.
L’Arpella – The Eagle
The eagle, traditionally, is the most respected member of a town’s given bestiari due to its historic role. During Corpus Christi processions in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, eagles were the only aspect of the festival allowed into the church, where it performed its iconic dance alone, the people captivated by its solitary movements. Eagles also symbolize political power. If the eagle is crowned, it represents municipal power for the town that owns the eagle. Festivals today, though less religiously oriented, still see the eagle treated with the utmost reverence and respect.
Some, like Mullor Tenas, are left awestruck after witnessing the eagle. “I’ve watched it dance for thirty years, and it was love at first sight,” he said.
Although it was not crowned, the eagle at the Folklife Festival commanded the same respect, both with the public and the participants. Participant Emerita Velasco hugged the eagle tenderly and referred to it as “our eagle.” I was very proud to have been able to dance with it and take part in this element of Catalan culture.
El Drac – The Dragon
Dragons play an important role in Catalan folklore. In the legend of Sant Jordi (St. George), he saves the princess from an evil dragon. Historically, dragons in the bestiari represented the evil that was eventually defeated during Corpus Christi processions. They were also the earliest beasts that were able to breathe fire. Dragons are not hated figures, though—quite the contrary! They are probably the most represented figure in the Catalan bestiari, and many towns associate a part of their identity with dragons.
El Drac de Vilafranca del Penedès—known as the oldest beast in Catalonia, existing in various forms dating back to the twelfth or thirteenth centuries—is emblematic of the whole town. As its fame grew, the town created miniature versions of the dragon for visitors and tourists to take as souvenirs.
Today, there are two kinds of dragons represented in the bestiari: the classic, more simplified style (like Vilafranca’s dragon) and the modern dragon, often elaborately decorated and equipped with greater pyrotechnic capabilities. Many towns also have smaller versions of dragons for children to wear during the festivities.
La Mulassa – The Mule
Traditionally, mules have two very different associations in Catalonia. On one hand, they are excellent working animals and made rigorous mountain travel much easier, so they share an association with the working classes that other beasts, especially the regal eagle, do not. On the other hand, they are unpredictable and potentially dangerous—a risk many took to survive on a farm in Catalonia.
So the mules in the bestiari play very curious roles. They provide crucial, entertaining elements to the festival, and yet they are also chaotic, capable of unraveling the whole thing. Many are built with firework attachments to make them even more erratic.
The mulassa built at the Folklife Festival, affectionately named Smithy, has not yet had enough time to wreak havoc on American festivals, but with time it will surely have its chance to devastate the public arena.
La Fura – The Ferret
(and Other Nontraditional Beasts)
The modern bestiari in Catalonia is filled with nontraditional beasts inspired by mythologies, local legends, demonology, history, popular culture, wildlife, and even plant life. The possibilities are endless. La Fura from La Vegueria Penedès that came to our Festival is an example of a nontraditional beast. Built in 2002 as part of a set of forest creatures, it represents the local wildlife of its hometown. In this way, despite not being a traditional creation, the ferret is a representation of this town’s local identity.
The Mamut Venux (mammoth) from Sant Vicenç dels Horts was built for the town bestiari after mammoth remains were discovered close to the town. Included in the mythological menagerie is Bretolàs, inspired by Cerberus, the three-headed dog guardian of the underworld in Greek mythology. When he’s at home in the Barcelona, Esteve carries Bretolàs, who he had watched for years and inspired his love for the bestiari.
Inside the Beasts
Without a doubt, the beast figures are fascinating in their own right. But they can’t move themselves, or attach fireworks to their own tongues and tails. So who are the people responsible for carrying these beasts through the streets and plazas of Catalonia?
The tradition is practiced across the whole region, open to men, women, and children, although children start with smaller, lighter beasts. Beast-carriers usually start with other festive groups, such as devils, and can eventually take up the beast if they know its dance. Most towns and city neighborhoods have one or two beasts that the community calls its own, as well as their own bestiari group to carry the beasts—that adds up to about 2,000 beasts in Catalonia, according to Jordi Mullor Tenas, vice president of the bestiari association. However, this is not to say that beasts and bestiari traditions across Catalonia are the same, despite their similarities.
“Every city and town has its roots, and, although we share a lot of things, we all make an effort to get to know these distinct cultural elements since every beast is different,” explained participant Ivan Garriga, who has been involved with bestiari performance since 1995.
“From what I’ve seen in my neighborhood, the people end up making it theirs and considering it as part of their lives—making it something like a pet,” Esteve said. When their beasts wind through the crowded streets, spinning and spitting fire, the people feel a great sense of pride in their neighborhood.
Some 6,000 miles away from their neighborhoods, participants were equally proud to carry their beasts on the National Mall this summer. In Mullor Tenas’ words, it gave them a chance to “show off some of the most interesting traditions from my country.” Smithy even took the same iconic role within our Folklife Festival community.
Miquel Grima spent hours laboring over the beast, using all his skills as a sculptor and carpenter. Eventually, other Catalan participants wanted to help: members of the Diables d’Igualada and Geganters d’Oliana assisted with the carpentry, while the dance troupe Esbart Ciutat Comtal and designer Pau Fernández contributed to its aesthetic design. Finally, Smithy appeared, dancing like a maniac in the correfoc with some of her creators, joining the other beasts on the Mall. (Read more about the mulassa’s creation.)
Seeing the beast in action was a fitting end to the Festival. She encapsulated the spirit of a community in action, a community that helps each other. Convivencia (“living together”) is an important element engrained in Catalan society, and for ten days, visitors to the National Mall were given a sample of what it’s like to be a Catalan. A new community was born, one that blended Catalonia with the Smithsonian. As a parting gift, Grima donated Smithy to the Smithsonian so that we can be reminded of her birth at the Festival and the people who made her possible.
From the humblest ferret to the mightiest eagle, beasts are integral figures in Catalan festivals. Apart from their physical beauty, each beast tells a different story; each is rich with symbolic association; each represents the community that it comes from—whether it’s a neighborhood in bustling Barcelona or a grassy piece of the National Mall.
Teo Rogers interned with the Catalonia program at the 2018 Folklife Festival and was last seen earning his master’s degree in folklore studies at George Mason University, but his current whereabouts are unknown. He has probably run away to join the bestiari.