Cyber Dantza - An Internet Resource for Basque Dance
Back to Main Page

Talk in Argos

by Juan Antonio Urbeltz

In the Basque Country folk traditions are very similar to those in the rest of Europe, but the Basque language which is pre-Indoeuropean is of great importance to the study of this folklore. In our area the Carnival period makes references to some specific terms which give it a meaning which pre-dates the Lenten explanation. There are two specially important names: Iñauteri and Aratuste, both meaning ‘the time of pruning’, as corresponds to the tasks carried out in the month of February before the arrival of spring which brings with it the insects. These activities which possibly date from the Neolithic period clean the trees and fields of the larvae of insects. Let us see the relation between this pruning and Carnival.

           During the Carnival the most important traditional element to be found is in the clothes that people wear. In the Basque Country, as in other parts of Europe , there are numerous people is fancy dress processions, as we shall see. But the most striking thing is that in Basque the words for ‘disguise’: zomorro, mozorro, koko, ñañarro, mumua etc., also mean ‘insect’. That is why the Basque language paints a very different picture of the Carnival. If the same word is used for ‘disguise’ and ‘insect’ it means that all the fancy dress costumes turn people into ‘insects, they ‘insect-isize’ people. In the month of February, Carnival time, there are no insects. They are stuck in a larval state. This is why everyone ‘becomes an insect’ by means of a costume. The disguises replace the spring insects which have been warded off.

          The exorcising of the insects is seen when disguised callers come the door of the houses and they are given offerings of money, wine or bacon. This means that the “insects” have received their payment, and will not be able to come begging a second time. Some Carnival characters such as the Ioaldunas from the villages of Ituren and Zubieta in Navarra are used to protect against insects. Their weapons are a horsetail used as an aspergillum (holy water sprinkler) and great cowbells of 30 litre capacity.

           It is well known the horse uses its tail to drive of flies and horseflies, but perhaps it is less well known that the cowbell has the same function. Greek cowbells made of cast bronze similar to those shown are engraved with horseflies, which in our opinion offers a clear explanation of the function of the cowbell, which is to scare off the flies so as to protect the face of the cow or horse grazing in the field. For this reason the costumes we are looking at are a clear expression of a power intended to exorcise the insects.

           There are two insects that, in our opinion, have this great primitive power: the mosquito and the locust. In the Basque Country we also have the horsefly. Because of their diabolical nature, these insects are hidden in several metaphors. Thus, the fox is a metaphor for the mosquito; the hobby horse for the locust; the sword for the horsefly.

           First I’ll speak about the hobby horse. This animal mask is made from cardboard and cloth and appear in many places in Europe. Here I will analyse, briefly, its presence and meaning in the Carnival celebrations of the village of Lantz . I mentioned that the hobby horse is a metaphor of the locust. I support this idea with evidence from de Old Testament: the book of Joel, the book of Nahum, and in the Apocalypse of Saint John where it appears as a terifying animal referred to as ‘a horse’. Also the common name for the locust, in many European languages is ‘horse’, or perhaps ‘mare’. In Spanish as well as in Italian and Sicilian it is caballeta. In Italian it is also saltacavaglia; in Rumanian it is calus; in Russian and Czech kobylka; in French sauto-pou chinchin, pouchinchin; in Basque larraputinga, etc.

           In the village of Lantz we have three main characters: Miel Otxin, the giant; a straw filled man called Ziripot, and a hobby horse called Zaldiko. There is a fancy dress procession of Perratzailles –blacksmiths, and the costumed young people of the village known as the Txatxos.  

          The giant Miel Otxin, like all the giants of the Middle Ages, represents hunger. Giants, include in the Ogre group, are voracious and have and insatiable appetite. Their stomach reach from the roots of their hair to their toe nails. In Lantz they say that the giant is a bandit who robbed travellers on the roads around the village. They say, one day he was captured, tried and killed. Local people say that Carnival is celebrated in memory of this drama.

          Ziripot with his clusmy movements can hardly walk. During the Carnival he is constantly charged by the hobby horse or Zaldiko. Zaldiko is made of a wooden frame which a young man wears attached to his waist. This young person’s face is blackened. The hobby horse races wildly among masqueraders and spectators, chases the girls and attacks Ziripot. They also act out a parody of the shoeing of the horse.

           In Lantz, in this drama, the bandit Miel Otxin tries to flee but is caught and returned to the town. On Carnival Tuesday, they act a parody of a triak when he is condemned to death. They ‘kill’ him with two shots of a gun. His straw body is burnt on a bonfire while the Txatxos perform a traditional dance.

           This is a summary of the farce of Lantz. Let us see how we can show the meaning of this ritual drama. Starting from the connection between the hobby horse and an insect such as the locust, fat Ziripot is also participating, in one way, as an “insect”. In our opinion the principal characteristic of this costume, an incredibly fat body and difficulty in walking, represents the insect in its larval state. From this we conclude that the hobby horse, which represents the fully developed insect, attacks Ziripot attempting to put an end to the larval stage which he represents. The plague of locusts represented by the hobby horse hat its consequence: hunger. Miel Otxin, the giant, is the symbol of revenous hunger. This is why is not allowed to escape, nor roam on the loose. He is kept safe because of the danger he represents. The parody of the trial and punishment, the gun shots and the noisy dance by the Txatxos end this Carnival act in Navarra.

           As a complement to this Carnival drama, some Basque sword dances also correespond to insect metaphors. Basque sword dances are called in Basque Ezpata-dantza, and the dancers ezpata-dantzaris –In Basque Country there are two forms of sword dance. In one, which is seen in Zumarraga, Legazpi and Markina and in the Corpus Christi processions in Gipuzkoa, two, three o four dancers armed with a dagger in each hand covered with and handkerchief are followed by a largish group carryng linked long swords. Another type of dance is seen in the villages of the Merindad de Durango in Bizkaia. The villages of Berriz, Garai, Iurreta, Mañari, Abadiño and Izurtza have this type of dance which is performed by eight young men face to using sword and staves in a mock battle. The movements are very spetacular, with the dancers leaping high.

           You can see, the dancers are wearing white shirts and trousers and white espadrilles with red ribbons, a red band -gerriko at the waist, and a red beret on their head. It is also traditional to wear a velvet waistcoat with an immortelle flower embroidered on the lapel.

           Today the dancers are performed in front of the local authorities. Formerly the young dancers performed on the eve of the Patron Saint’s Day before the elders of the village, who had to give their approval of the performance. The dances begin with the dancers  filing out accompanied by the local flag. Then there is an exhibition of dances by, one, two, and four dancers. One dance is called ‘short swords’ o Ezpata-txikiek in Basque, another known as the ‘grat game of swords’ or Ezpata joko nagusia, a dance with long staves –Makil-dantza and to finish one of the dancers is raised horizontally above the ground, as though he were dead in a dance called Txotxongillo. In addition, and perhaps related to the previous dance, there is also a ribbon dance Zintza-dantza.

           Now let us speak about some symbolic aspects of these dances. Firstly, the name ‘sword’, ezpata in Basque, is the generic name of these type of dances and ezpata-dantzari the dancer. The word ezpata has two meanings in Basque, one is ‘sword’ while the other is ‘horsefly’ (Stomoxys calcitrans or Hippobosca equina). In our reseach, we have tried to solve this question leaving to one side the obvious meaning of the sword and analysing how far we can take the metaphor of the horsefly.

           The question we are raising is that if we omit the evidence offered by the sword, the name of ‘sword-dancer’ take us to the metaphor of the dancer=equals a horsefly. From this point of view these (groups of) dances would be ceremonial dances performed to ward off the dangers that the insects bring in the spring under the leadership of the horsefly.

           The series of dances commences with a violent waving of the flag, like a variant of the movements of the handkerchiefs in English Morris dances; or the presence of horsetails in the Carnival, it is a powerful instrument for shooing away insects such as the horsefly, for example.  The cme the dances in which the young men show their physical strengh, by hiah kicks and leaps. But there are two dances in which we can capture the symbolism of the horsefly. One of them is the Ezpata joko nagusia -‘the great game of swords’ where the dancers take a sword with both hands using it as though it were a sharp point. These are exercises of attack and defence. In the attack the dancer projets the sword as though it were the proboscis of an insect. This could not be done with real swords because the edge of the sword would cut the fingers of the left hand. After the waving of the flag, the choreographic movements of Zortzinango dance imitate the flight of a fly. The repetitive tune of the dance reminds us of the buzzing of the fly.     

 ©Urbeltz 2006