The bear nervously surveys the scene ahead. The onlookers gather to the left of the bear, and they gather to his right. Even straight
ahead, some people wait, daring to stand in the path of the beast. Those who wait and watch the bear take care to keep their distance.
The animal, confronted by such a swarm of onlookers, is cautious but undaunted. Here is a bear who wants to take the path he wants, not one defined by others. So with measured paces the bear slowly advances along the main street of Bielsa. He stops, he growls and looks hither and thither, evidently registering each movement in the surrounding crowd. Appreciating that he is the centre of attention, the bear rears up on his hind legs and asserts his power. He displays his fierce teeth, and then drops down on his haunches. It looks as if the animal just wants to pause for thought — a chance, perhaps, to consider his options.
Suddenly there is unexpected action. A young woman darts out from the crowd, boldly running in front of the bear. This foolish attempt to cross the street taunts the beast. It springs forward, a streak of fur and muscular bristle, and runs towards the unwitting prey.
Two strides away from its goal and closing fast on the young woman, the animal is suddenly stopped by a powerful yank. The bear turns around, only to be reminded of the cruel reality of his situation. The bear is chained to a man holding the shackles with his left hand whilst brandishing a thick stick with his right. The domador tugs on the chain, reminding the animal who holds the reins in this duet.
Now the bear is tired of being staged. He has worn weary of the parade. He rears one last time, moving towards the one who claims control. The domador responds, stepping forward assertively towards the bear. He brandishes a wooden club, which he uses to lash the animal’s back. Then, with all the might that he can muster, the domador jumps on the bear, pushing the confused animal to the ground.
The bear falls badly. Part-stunned, his dark eyes look beyond the Bielsa roofscape to the snow-capped ridges beyond. In the cold Pyrenean air, the bear takes the only option left unto him. He relaxes and he watches. His public humiliation is complete.
“Get up, onso” calls the domador. He walks towards the bear, as if ready to give the animal another swipe with the stick. “Come on: up, up, up!”
“I donʼt want to get up,” replies the bear, prompting bouts of laughter from the surrounding crowd.
The domador grabs a wineskin and passes it to the bear. The onso grabs and drinks profusely. Revived by the coarse red wine, he even casts a smile towards the domador. The evening promises to be long. The carnival of Bielsa is now in full swing.
It is a Saturday afternoon in February in the small village of Bielsa. Despite its remote location, tucked away deep in the Aragonese Pyrenees in northern Spain, tourists flock here throughout the year. This is beautiful territory, and Bielsa is the jumping-off point for excursions into the dramatic landscapes of the Balcón de Pineta. According to the season, there are skiers and rock climbers aplenty, and thousands more who come merely to gaze at these celebrated Pyrenean mountains.
But on the weekend before Ash Wednesday, the 500-strong population of Bielsa welcomes a flood of visitors who come to watch in awe as the villagers mark the most unusual event in their annual calendar. This is a weekend in the borderlands between fact and fiction, as a pre-Lent carnival in the mountains gives licence to the unexpected. Bears that talk are just the start in a village that becomes, for a spell, a place for ritual and transgression.
Folk in Bielsa will tell you that this festival of frolics has its roots in the pre-Christian period, and that it draws on classic myths of rebirth and renewal. It is not clear that the onso (or carnival bear) slurping wine on the main street necessarily shares that high-minded anthropological inter- pretation of events. But the Bielsa carnival certain- ly captures very powerfully one leitmotif of Bielsa life: man’s dominion over nature.
Bielsa is a place where people have been called upon to do the impossible. The village and its spectacular mountain hinterland are shrouded in drama. Scenes from this theatre of history are recalled on illustrated panels at the town hall. Bielsa played a key role in the Spanish Civil War. The Bolsa de Bielsa (Bielsa Pocket) was where, after the fall of the Aragón front, an isolated division of the Republican army took up positions in the valley and was surrounded and attacked by Nationalist troops during the spring of 1938. The bombings caused widespread destruction in Bielsa and nearby villages, yet despite the flight of the civilian population and the heavily outnumbered militia to France in July 1938, the resistance of the division provided a moral boost for the Republicans.
The carnival of Bielsa recalls this resistance, which was so steadfast that neither the Civil War nor the ensuing decades of dictatorship could suppress it. Bielsa defied the prohibition of carnivals by Franco, and today — as heavily charged with symbolism and tradition as ever — the pre-Lent carnival in Bielsa represents the ancestral Pyrenean rituals in which it claims to have its roots.
But what has made the carnival of Bielsa so popular is its characters — and it is the onso of Bielsa who stands centre stage. Bielsa is nothing without its bear. The rituals can be both beautiful and terrifying, humans liminally slipping into animals and back again. There is violence and dancing, each element of the fiesta drawing on myriad mountain myths.
Chained, hit and humiliated by the tamer, the onso is the essential carnival figure. Despite the fact that it is over a century since the last bear was hunted down in this valley, the animal still features strongly in local beliefs. Legend says that if the bear emerges from his winter cave in February and sees a full moon, then he will return to his winter den, thus delaying the onset of spring for another forty days. A pitch black night, on the other hand, will encourage the bear out of its winter hibernation, so ushering in an early spring.
The man who this year plays the role of a bear is still enjoying that well-deserved rest, drinking some wine before resuming the party procession with other fellow carnival characters. The onso lies on his back, padded with dry grass to protect him from the tamer’s blows and his face is painted black like most Bielsa carnival characters. The colour black carries more positive associations in Pyrenean culture than in many other areas of western Europe. This peculiar regional construction of cosmology impels carnival characters to smear their faces with soot. It reminds onlookers (and the performers) that the winter’s worst rigours are past and life is returning to this valley on the southern slopes of the Pyrenees. Tourists photograph the onso as he gets up with the assistance of the tamer, and the pair duly progress with their performance.
Close to where the onso suffered but an hour or so earlier, the localyouths are now gathering. Among the dramatis personae of the Bielsa carnival, it may be the bear that stands centre stage but it is the trangas who create the greatest mayhem. Over thirty bachelors have gathered in a small building, all looking upbeat and surprisingly pristine, despite reports of the men having enjoyed (or endured) a resoundingly rebellious and drunken night. The boysʼ fathers, relatives and friends are also present, not merely to witness their transformation, but to become fully involved in the process.
One by one, the older folk help the young men, each of whom is wearing a skirt and chequered shirt. With the quiet authority of one who has witnessed this ritual dozens of times, an older man helps his grandson put on a goatskin on his back and a large buckhorn on his head. All around, similar gestures of support and familial solidarity are taking place as the bachelors of Bielsa are dressed and primed for sexual bedlam. Goatskins are padded, horns are adjusted and then the young men file to a corner of the building where one of the fathers applies a mixture of soot and oil on their pale mountain faces. The man, visibly proud to see his own son taking part in the local festivity, is keen to tell the inside story of being a tranga.
“The horns have to be placed with care, otherwise the sheer weight can easily cause problems to the neck. Many of the boysʼ foreheads will become raw or blistered due to the constant rubbing.” He then points to the other end of the building, where four or five men are padding up the onso with more wads of dry grass. “But they have it worse, forced to adopt that bear stance all day. It’s hellish on the back. And they will be drinking all evening, and there is no possible way to take that costume off quickly or unassisted.”
The dedication to the carnival is the heartbeat of Bielsa. It is a ritualised passing of the baton from one generation to the next and a ritual to mark the passage of the seasons. Parents are intensely proud of the moment when a son comes of age and can first take a significant role in this annual frolic.
The trangas are almost ready. Little pieces of potato peel are added to their lips to affect the appearance of fangs and cowbells are tied to their waists. The men grab long wooden poles (also called trangas). These are thrown into the crowd or thumped on the ground to encourage the seeds to sprout. Fertility (in all its varieties) is the theme of the day. Tradition has it that the trangas must search the village and grab the young virgins or madamas, who will be waiting at the front door of their homes, wearing white dresses decorated with colourful ribbons. This really is a story of beauty and the beast.
Half-animal and half-human, the trangas set off to impose on Bielsa their own peculiar kind of promiscuity. The men shake their buttocks, the cowbells moving in rhythm to create a rumbling cacophony of sound which echoes through Bielsa’s narrow streets. A few local kids gaze in awe, for all the boys of Bielsa look forward to one day being a tranga in the carnival. For now, the most they can expect is to be chased and taunted by these characters they so admire. The trangas make their way up through the village. The air is heavy, for all who know Bielsa appreciate the feigned sexual brutality that will soon erupt.
The tired onso has disappeared into the crowd. He is passé. The trangas now hold the stage. And the trangas are on the hunt.
The young women of Bielsa wear costume too. They are all immaculately groomed and dressed for the occasion. This is a ‘bring out your daughters’ moment. Entire families gather on their front step, encouraging and supporting the young woman of the family who dares to take the role of a waiting madama.
The awful clatter of cowbells presages the arrival of the rampage. The trangas are coming. The madama on the doorstep, a pretty young woman with long dark hair, is almost paralysed. Whether this inertia is born of fear or eager anticipation is unclear, but the woman’s stillness contrasts sharply with the forceful sexual energy and movement of the approaching trangas.
One of the trangas grabs the madama. She is now his ‘possession’ for the duration of the carnival. He grins, and she seems not at all displeased at being so literally swept off her feet. Was this a moment of impulse? Or had the tranga planned this catch all along? We shall never know, but the young couple head off arm- in-arm to the dance. They dance to the brass band in the town square, which is presided over by a straw doll hanging from the town hall balcony. This is Cornelio, no more than a dummy but one who each year suffers the same awful demise. Blamed for all the curses of Bielsa life, Cornelio will be judged, tortured and burned on the last day of the carnival. “Of course he must die,” explains an elderly woman who watches from her balcony. “Only if Cornelio dies can we keep misfortune at bay,” she adds. Cornelio, it seems, is the sacrificial victim who, through his death, atones for the sins of the people dancing below him in the village square.
The spectacle of the dance ushers in other carnival characters. There is Amontato, a curious cardboard representation of an old woman carrying a man on her back. Now comes Caballé, a wicker horse, closely followed by Hiedra. The name means ivy in Spanish, and the character is a woman wearing an elaborate costume made with the leaves of this plant. And here is Garreta, wearing a costume of hundreds of coloured handkerchiefs.
The characters, the crowd and the alcohol make for an explosive mixture. As the dance ends, mayhem erupts as some trangas abandon their brides in pursuit of other young women around the square. The crowd eggs on the young men, energetically sanctioning this extraordinary feast of promiscuity. The trangas corner women. The men hump and shake their buttocks in uncontrollable fashion, the mock rapes resonating around the town square and adjacent streets with the sound of cowbells. The collective bestiality brings the onso back into the fray. The carnival bear is lying in the square, and the domador grabs any passing woman and throws her to the prone bear.
Tomorrow is another day and normality will return to Bielsa. This village in the hills is a place of frugal and serious people, who just once each year go utterly mad. The frenetic energy of the carnival contrasts with the normally slow pace of mountain life. Who knows what sins are really committed in these days of transgression. And, despite the sacrificial slaughter of Cornelio, who knows whether those sins really are forgiven.
Over a coffee in a bar in a back street, well away from the noise of the square, a sober barman has his own take on the spectacle of Bielsa. He has seen the carnival before and has no intention of mingling with the masses.
“I brought my daughter to the carnival when she was eight,” he explains. “But she must have been traumatised by the event, as she hasn’t once returned since. She is twenty-eight now,” he says.
Back in the square, the brass band music has been eclipsed by the grunts and taunts of noisy drunks. Trangas charge aggressively at anyone who dares look into their eyes. They tease little kids, some of whom respond by laughing. Other children stare in admiration, but many cover their terrified faces, running for cover behind their parents. One lad, no more than a child, cries inconsolably inside a car, as a tranga rocks the vehicle, ignoring all pleas from passers-by for clemency. And yet there are grandparents who puff their chests in pride at the brave bestiality of the young men of Bielsa. And here is the proudest person in Bielsa, an older woman whose face is drenched in tears. “Look, look,” she says, pointing at the carnival bear. “My son. Onso. The bear of Bielsa.”
The greatness and the awfulness of Bielsa is reflected through a variety of prisms.