What has made the carnival of Bielsa so popular are its characters. Some beautiful, others terrifying, partly human, partly bestial. The social imaginary collects from the mountain myths and its natural resources to define part of the local culture.
It is the most authentic carnival of all which proliferate in the Pyrenees, its origin dating back to pre-christian periods and based on the myth of the journey back to life. With the life cycle commencing in spring, the carnival is the ceremony which attempts to bring forward its arrival, a symbol of the domination of man over nature which in this quaint mountain valley has added significance. For there is a sense of this resistance in the carnival of Bielsa, which neither the Spanish Civil war or the dictatorship could paralyse. The celebration overcame the prohibition of carnivals by Franco, and heavily charged in symbolism, tradition and emotional value, continues to capture the ancestral Pyrenean rituals it originates from.
Local men and women dress up in costumes symbolising spring, fertility and new life. Young men dress astrangas, each wearing a skirt and a chequered shirt, put on a goatskin on their backs and a large buckhorn on their heads. Young women play the role of madamas, wearing white dresses decorated with colourful ribbons, as representation of purity.
Trangas must search the village and grab the young brides who will be waiting at their doorstep, and take them to the dance. Other peculiar characters add to the bizarre spectacle, such as the onso, or bear, paraded around the village by its tamer. Despite the fact that it was a century ago when the last bear was hunted down in the local valley, the animal plays a vital role in local beliefs. Legend says that if the bear comes out of the cave and sees a full moon it will return to its winter den and delay the entry of spring for another forty days. A pitch black night, on the other hand, will bring forward the life cycle of this emblematic animal of the Pyrenees and make it come out of its winter hibernation.
But at the Bielsa Carnival the ordinary turns to mayhem.The characters and the alcohol make for an explosive mixture, and crowds assist to an episode of sexual bedlam, where trangas abandon their brides in pursue of other young women in the crowd. The crowd assists to an episode of sexual bedlam, trangas cornering women, humping and shaking the buttocks in uncontrollable fashion, the mock rapes resonating around the town square and adjacent streets to the sound of cowbells. The public also become full participants of the collective bestiality, the interaction with the macabre understood by all. Men and women laugh as they amuse themselves at the expense of fellow victims, the sexual debauchery of the carnival represented in a healthy and friendly manner.
The love and dedication to the carnival is manifest. The brilliance of the festivity and its importance to the young locals acts as a clear indication of a long- lived past and inviolable future. Parents and friends are overflowing with pride, the year wait forgotten, drowned in the participants’ high spirits. Frugal and serious people, the inhabitants of Bielsa enjoy a few days of liberation, forgetting the rigorous temperatures and slow pace of mountain life. The carnival is at the heart of their identity, and for a few days, any excesses are permitted.