Tuesday, February 13, 2018

The Sardines Of A Mallorcan Carnival

* A revival of an article from the past; appropriate as today is the sardine burial day.

Francisco de Goya knew a thing or two about painting. He could turn his hand to pretty much any subject and do so with a remarkable ability for subversion and the portrayal of darkness. His painting of the burial of the sardine is a good example. Apparently there were at least two alternative versions, but the one most commonly known is an expression of supreme grotesqueness with the "sardine" symbolised by a grinning but disturbing face on a banner. Goya's painting, while celebrating the joy of the common man, is a satire on the church and on the crown. It was created during the reign of the absolutist monarch, Ferdinand VII, who had attempted to outlaw Carnival and so the end-game of Carnival, the burial of the sardine before the start of Lent.

Goya didn't invent the tradition of the burial of the sardine but he certainly helped to popularise it. Quite what its origins are is open to debate. The generally held theory is that it arose during the reign of Carlos III, so some time between 1759 and 1788. The king, the story goes, ordered that there be one final party before Lent and, because there was an abundance of sardines, these were the culinary centrepiece. However, because there were so many sardines and because the weather was particularly warm, there was an almighty great pong on account of sardines rotting in the heat. The solution was to bury them. As theories go, it seems as good as any, though the fact that there appears to be no documentary evidence to support this royal command could mean that it is just a tall tale.

Goya's painting (or paintings) most definitely assisted in spreading the sardine tradition and in also reinforcing the bizarre, profane and anti-establishment nature of Carnival as a whole. Over the decades of turmoil through the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, Carnival and the sardine were symbolic of the people taking over for a short while and poking fun at those who often made their lives a misery.

The burial of the sardine is nowadays absolutely central to the Carnival story. It clearly isn't a Mallorcan tradition as such, but it finds expression here in Mallorca as much as it does on the mainland. Consequently, there are sardine-burial ceremonies, most of which confirm that, on occasion, Mallorcans are more than capable of acting in a totally bonkers fashion.

A sardine, being a sardine, is only small. As such, it doesn't command a great presence when it comes to a spot of street-theatre, fiesta-style celebration. In order to overcome its diminutive nature, there are mock, giant sardines instead, and nowhere does this in any more peculiar fashion than the village of Portol in Marratxi.

Since 1993, the burial of the sardine has taken place on Shrove Tuesday, the last day of feasting before fasting, Ash Wednesday and Lent kick in. Today at 6pm, as has become traditional, a giant, comedy sardine will be paraded through the streets, carried as though by pallbearers, accompanied by suitably solemn music from the local band (music of a tongue-in-cheek variety, if it is possible to describe music in such a fashion) and by ladies of the village, clad in black mourning dresses and weeping (in a hammed-up, over-the-top manner). The weeping, so tradition suggests, is all to do with the people being saddened at the end of the Carnival festivities and being faced with the prospect of several weeks of strict religious observance (or not). 

The Portol sardine, as is the case with some sardines elsewhere, doesn't actually get buried. The Mallorcans enjoy nothing more than setting fire to something, and little excuse is needed for a festivity to feature a roaring bonfire. The comedy sardine is toast, its final moments being marked by the sound of a trumpet reveille. Having committed the sardine to its fiery end, it is of course time to get eating. Cue, therefore, many a real sardine and any amount of strong alcoholic beverage plus, of course, the ubiquitous ball de bot folk dance.

The actual burial (or burning) usually requires some form of blessing, which may or may not be serious and may or may not actually feature clergy. These burials can crop up anywhere. So, take note. If you see some strange sorts wandering along the streets carrying something which looks as though it is destined for a funeral, don't be alarmed. In Mallorca, just as you are never far from the sea at any time of the year, at the end of the Carnival, you are never far from a sardine.

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