Sunday, May 29, 2016

The John Of Corpus Christi

The first Hairy John of the season appears today. The Sunday after Corpus Christi: the same procedure as every year. Hairy John will dance in the streets of Pollensa as will the eagles. To give him his proper (Catalan) name, John is Sant Joan Pelós. He is one of a handful of Johns who do their dancing stuff on the occasion of a Mallorcan fiesta. The Felanitx John comes out at midsummer. He's the island's head John, the best known of them all. His emergence for the midsummer fiestas of Sant Joan would seem obvious given his name, though he and other Johns do require some explanation. Sant Joan Pelós is a representation of John the Baptist, who was supposedly born on Midsummer's Day, i.e. 24 June; hence the fiestas.

This being the case, why is the John of Pollensa allowed out on the first Sunday after Corpus Christi? Moreover, why is he hairy?

To arrive at some sort of an answer - possibly - one needs to take account of the other protagonists in today's dancing procession in Pollensa. The girls with the eagles strapped to their waists in the style more commonly associated in Mallorcan folk tradition with the figures of horses may hold the key to the earlier appearance of Sant Joan Pelós in Pollensa.

An eagles' dance from mediaeval times was practised in Catalonia and Valencia, but its first documented staging in Pollensa comes from the eighteenth century, and the roots of it would seem to go back to the year 1614 and to Palma. During the Corpus Christi procession of that year, a giant eagle supposedly appeared. The Mallorcan version of the eagles' dance, based on old Catalan tradition, was thus perhaps developed because of the 1614 eagle. For reasons no one can really explain, it was Pollensa which took it upon itself to maintain the tradition: it is the only town in Mallorca with such a dance.

So where does Sant Joan Pelós fit into the story? Well, this may be on account of John the Baptist's association with the symbol of the eagle. From the point of view of religious interpretation, the eagle symbol when it has a halo is John the Baptist. John was responsible for his "soaring" gospel and is thus represented by an eagle. Another explanation is that the eagle symbolises the resurrection and ascension and so all baptised Christians.

Is this the explanation then? Well not necessarily, indeed many of the commonly held assumptions are open to question. Take, for instance, the eagle of 1614. There is an alternative version of events that places the appearance of a giant white eagle in Palma on 29 June. It was nothing to do with Corpus Christi, which had been on 23 May that year. An eagles' dance was as a thanksgiving response to the good fortune of the appearance of the eagle, as the crops would prove to be good.

Then, where Pollensa is concerned, there is the fact that Sant Joan Pelós did in fact once upon a time do his dance when all the other ones do: at midsummer. A further element in the conundrum is evidence which suggests that eagles were one of various images at Palma's Corpus Christi procession from at least the first half of the sixteenth century, so many years before the 1614 eagle arrived on the scene.

One also has to take account of the view that the image of Sant Joan Pelós is a relic from ancient history, a symbol perhaps of pagan ritual. This may fit with notions of midsummer but offers nothing to explain why he came to be associated with Corpus Christi. Except, and here is another version, he was associated with it and as long ago as the fourteenth century. All that time ago, he was to be found in Corpus Christi processions in Palma and quite possibly elsewhere.

The fact is that no one can state with certainty how the Pollensa dances came about. The Sant Joan Pelós and eagles' dance stories and legends are all open to varying interpretations. But here's another one for you. If there's any truth to the 1614 eagle version, why did the eagles' dance seemingly not take place in Pollensa until the eighteenth century? Was it in fact all something of a commercial enterprise? There are certainly grounds to suggest that the local weavers' guild was behind it. Pollensa's textile industry has a long history, and so were the dresses of the girls with the eagles, still made with the careful weaving of jewels into them, all part of a promotion? And might Hairy John have been included as an added attraction?

Who can honestly say. But as for why he's hairy. Well, have you ever seen an image of John the Baptist when he wasn't?

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