Sunday, September 04, 2016

Breaking Pots: Games And La Beata

I am reminded of a game I played many a long year ago (when a child) at a birthday party. As far as I can recall, it was the only time I ever encountered the game. It had been, therefore, a novelty. The name of the game was (and no doubt still is) Are You There, Moriarty? Who Moriarty was I had no idea - I'm assuming, rightly or wrongly, that he had something to do with Sherlock Holmes' archenemy - and in the game he was your opponent. Blindfolded, and without going into too much detail, you basically tried to belt your opponent with a rolled-up newspaper.

This memory of a blindfolded game comes flooding back because of pots, which might also be termed jars or pitchers. All of an earthenware variety, these pots are central to a children's game in which the player is blindfolded, spun around a few times and given a cane (certainly something more robust than a rolled-up newspaper) with which to try and break a pot that is hanging from some cord.

This is a very popular game among others that crop up at Mallorcan fiestas under the general heading of, well, popular games. Rather than enquiring after the whereabouts of Moriarty, other players seek to assist the prospective pot-breaker by shouting instructions - right, left, back, forward and so on.

Where this game came from is anyone's guess, so a guess has been made. This has it that it originated from mediaeval China and was imported to Venice by that Venetian traveller extraordinaire of the period, Marco Polo. (And before you say that Polo never went to China, scholars have ripped to shreds the theory that he didn't.) So, Polo brought the game back and it was adapted to Lent celebrations. Given trading relations between Venice, other Italian ports and Spain, it made its way across the water. It was to develop into one of the final acts of Carnival, similar in a sense to the burying of the sardine in marking the onset of the abstinence of Lent. Break a pot and out would fall something tasty. Nowadays the pots have sweets. 

Pot-breaking is therefore a common theme of fiestas. In its children's game guise it isn't violent, but it takes on a whole different significance on the first Sunday of every September. Pots aren't just broken, they are smashed. Force is involved, though blindfolds are not. Indeed, and somewhat unusually, no masks are involved. The demons of Santa Margalida are identifiable, and it is they who engage in a great deal of pot-smashing.

The legend of Santa Catalina Tomàs - La Beata - is enshrined in an old folk song. It is a song which tells of Catalina taking food to poor labourers (sometimes stated as farmers) and being confronted by an envious demon who grabs the pot, jar (or pitcher) with the food in it and smashes it, only for Catalina to pick up the pieces and to deliver a feast that was even tastier than it would have been. La Beata of the procession of the first Sunday each September defies demonic pot-smashing, while couples from the town likewise are undeterred by the demons who snatch their pots and give them a good smashing.

The procession, which the Bishop of Mallorca attempted to at least modify if not ban outright in 1849 because the whole occasion was felt to be disobedient to God, attracts vast numbers. Although it is now far better known, especially among tourists, than was once the case, even some thirty years ago it was attracting, according to a local publication, more than ten thousand people. It is not termed the "most representative" Mallorcan procession for nothing. They've been calling it this for decades.

There was never any association between the saint and the town. She wasn't born there (she came from Valldemossa) and she didn't enter a convent there (that was in Palma). Quite why Santa Margalida came to have the association is something of a mystery. However, it was evidently the case that some one hundred years after she died in 1574, the town felt a particularly strong devotion towards her. In 1687 the town hall advanced "ten Mallorcan pounds" to the cause for her to be beatified. (This didn't occur until 1792.) And somewhere along the line came the folk song and thus the legend of the pot-smashing.

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