Caganers, nation, faith

"Shit, operating as the preeminent figure of self-alienation ..., becomes a symbolic medium for questioning the place of the autonomous individual in new postcolonial societies."

Trebots @ Wednesday January 21st 2004 00:55: caveat lector!

A northern barbarian goes native. More pics.

Whole load of shitting going on over at Uncle Jazzbeau's, where the flavour of the month is scatological Catalan (good verses here). As usual, top of the bill are two customs often taken to be uniquely Catalan and an integral part of the Christian nativity myth: caganers ("shitters"; gents, pants down, doing their duty) and fer cagar el tió ("making the geezer shit"; beating a dendromorph until it presents presents). Let's start by cautiously trying to get to the bottom of the caganer.

Firstly, caganers aren't specifically Catalan. Jordi Arruga and Josep Mañà in El Caganer cite similar usage in Murcia, Portugal and Naples, where they are known respectively as cagones, cagöes and cacone or pastore che caca. Apart from this, I don't know of any configurations that come close to the modern day version.

Secondly - and this may not surprise you - they're not particularly Christian, or at least not in the orthodox sense. Although Jordi Bassas suggests that they are displayed doing what the shepherds did when introduced to the Herald Angel, folklorist Joan Amades is probably closer when he suggests that the caganer's function is to fertilise the soil, thus assuring the following year's nativity and the health and tranquillity of body and soul required etc etc.

The psychoanalytical angle on what Amades was saying (he died in 1959) is that, given the presence in Catalan of words like caganiu ("nest-shitter") and cagó ("shitter") to indicate small children, I think it would certainly worth looking for links to excremental creation myths. The only ones I can slide off the top of my head are Ganesh and his mum and - and ... and this is fairly random - Rory McTurk's Òðinn-eagle, which swallows mead and then vomits some to give us poetry (In the beginning...) and farts some more to give us bad poetry. Similarly, although the world of anal-birthing and pregnancy envy would probably have given Amades the horrors, the all-male world of the caganers might have suggested to him male birthing myths such as the rib-woman and the womb-ark. Whatever the link, I'm pretty sure that the presence of the caganer in pessebres is not because he is a shitting shepherd but because he represents some other cosmogony that the local Christians felt it would be appropriate to include in their story.

One of the things that happens in the late Middle Ages is that folk myths that seem to have previously represented good are either driven out of existence or recreated to represent evil. While I'm unable to think of anything appropriate in contemporary Catalan iconography, there is elsewhere a well-established apocalyptic tradition linking the devil and defecation - check this ca 1590 German illustration depicting a demonic Pope converting clergy into infantrymen:

Source: Andrew Cunningham & Ole Peter Grell's fascinating The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Religion, War, Famine and Death in Reformation Europe. More photo-posts here.

There's still something of this hanging in the air: while the caganer is still generally a goodie, someone who I would regard as fairly conservative surprised me the other day by commenting that the mother of current Catalan president Maragall had not given birth to him, but had shat him.

Finally, I'd be interested to know at what stage farmers here stopped using night soil on the fields. Braudel seems to have suggested that they were still doing so down in Valencia in this period, but I would have thought that much more favourable environmental conditions and, from the C19th, the widespread use of limekilns would have made it unnecessary in this part of the world. What I do know is that public shitting remained fairly common until fairly recently - check the small boy squatting in front of the cistern in Miró's La Masia, possibly--suggests Robert Hughes--the great man himself.

I'm getting sleepy and you're getting bored, so I won't inflict caga tió and rebirthing myths on you - just read Frazer's The golden bough and remember to transpose everything a couple of months earlier to take account of the short winters in the Mediterranean (the rosemary hasn't stopped flowering). However, before I go I just want to clarify for you why - in the opinion of intellectuals with whom I wouldn't dream of disagreeing - shitting is so important in Catalonia in these turbulent times. This is Joshua Esty in a piece entitled Excremental Postcolonialism in the spring 99 edition of what sounds like a fascinating journal, Contemporary Literature (ref):

Sh*t, operating as the preeminent figure of self-alienation (the matter that is both self and not-self), becomes a symbolic medium for questioning the place of the autonomous individual in new postcolonial societies.

Yup, science.

Initial hint from Margaret Marks. Robert A Segal's Psychology and Myth is good on anal birthing. No, don't even think of Googling that. BTW, crapper is a also a ™.

  • Caganer (8)
  • Catalan language (51)
  • Catalonia (1006)
  • Ethnology (14)
  • Fernand Braudel (3) Fernand Braudel (French: [bʁodɛl]; 24 August 1902 – 27 November 1985) was a French historian and a leader of the Annales School.
  • Joan Amades (15) Joan Amades i Gelats (Catalan pronunciation: [ʒuˈan əˈmaðəz i ʒəˈɫats]) (Barcelona, 23 July 1890 - 17 January 1959), was an eminent Catalan ethnologist and folklorist.
  • Mediterranean Sea (73) The Mediterranean Sea (/ˌmɛdɪtəˈreɪniən/; Italian: Mare Mediterraneo or Mar Mediterraneo [mar mediterˈraːneo]; Arabic: البحر الابيض المتوسط‎ al-Baḥr al-abyaḍ al-Mutawassiṭ; Modern Greek: Μεσόγειος Θάλασσα [meˈsoʝos ˈθalasa]; French: Mer Méditerranée [mɛʁ mediteʁane]; Spanish: Mar Mediterráneo [mar meðiteˈraneo]; Latin: Mare Nostrum) is a sea connected to the Atlantic Ocean surrounded by the Mediterranean region and almost completely enclosed by land: on the north by Southern Europe and Anatolia, on the south by North Africa, and on the east by the Levant.
  • Pasqual Maragall i Mira (30) Pasqual Maragall i Mira (Catalan pronunciation: [pəsˈkwaɫ məɾəˈɣaʎ]; born January 13, 1941 in Barcelona) is a Spanish politician and was the 127th President of Generalitat de Catalunya (the regional government of Catalonia).
  • Popular culture (13)
  • Robert Hughes (3) Robert Hughes may refer to:
  • Shepherd (39)
  • Socialists' Party of Catalonia (44) The Socialists' Party of Catalonia (Catalan: Partit dels Socialistes de Catalunya, PSC-PSOE official acronym) is a social-democratic political party in Catalonia, Spain resulting from the merge of two parties Partit Socialista de Catalunya-Reagrupament led by Josep Pallach i Carolà and Partit Socialista de Catalunya-Congrés and also Catalan Federation of PSOE.
Categories: Empire, God, the angels and the orders of the faithful, Heathen philosophers, Late Middle, Liberals & locals, Theatre

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  1. Geoff
    January 21st 2004 16:02


  2. pj
    January 23rd 2004 02:19

    Very, very good post. I liked so much the part about the Caganers :-)

    Geoff: lol

  3. Geoff
    January 23rd 2004 13:01

    PJ, what's happened to your blog? I could do with some confrontation.

  4. pj
    January 27th 2004 13:11

    Blogalia doesn't have that "99% uptime warranty" and I'm suffering from (let's see if I don't take the wrong word) procrastination. I can't finnish what I start :-\

    So, it's online often but without anything new :-(

  5. Trevor
    January 27th 2004 13:20

    Don't worry PJ, I had a chat with Josep Lluís this morning and my impression is that whatever was discussed in Perpinyà won't include Blogalia ;o)

  6. pj
    January 29th 2004 23:18

    Heheheh ;-)

  7. Uncle Jazzbeau’s Gallimaufrey
    January 21st 2004 23:24 els pessebres de catalunya
    Thanks go out to Mr Bali Hai of the Eye of the Goof blog for a comment he left on...

  8. kalebeul » Real live caganer crapping in a field
    May 4th 2007 21:49

    [...] Off the other evening to see Chelsea-Liverpool on a big screen in a village bar in another valley. Coming down from the pass on an old walled stone track, I turn a corner and there’s a great flock of goats nibbling the hedges. In the middle of the path, the cloth-capped ruddy-faced goatherd in classic caganero pose, his trousers round his ankles and a great sea of shite pouring out of his arse. He sees me and rapidly pulls his trousers up his boney white legs. What to do in such circumstances? Introduce yourself and hope you don’t shake the shithand? Farmer JM, when told, laughs himself sick: he hasn’t seen something like that for 20 years; even goatherds are usually more discreet. I detour through the field and forget even to get a photo, so here’s a replay: [...]

  9. kalebeul » No sh*t
    December 25th 2009 11:28

    [...] the council’s going to ban the western Mediterranean’s take on the Smurf, the caganer, then as good socialists and advocates of a complete separation of church and state they should [...]

  10. Old China, new Spain?
    April 8th 2012 11:44

    [...] in one of the fields stands an old man, trousers round his ankles, white shirt down to his knees, fertilising the soil. "He looks like my grandad!" [...]


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