Cascamorras and Fighting over a Virgin for 500 years

       A visitor to the towns of Baza or Guadix in Granada, Andalucía, during the annual Cascamorras Fiesta would be taken aback at the fantastic spectacle unfolding before their eyes, and more than a little puzzled as to what exactly is going on. Without some explanation as to the history of this spectacular event it would be most difficult indeed to understand what exactly is happening and why there are thousands and thousands of people running through the streets covered in oil chasing one poor unfortunate who alternatively swings a stick with a leather ball at the end of it as futile protection or is carried aloft as he swirls a flag before throwing it in the air.

A short history lesson is needed to better understand this fantastic fiesta which originates over 500 years ago from the time of the expulsion of the Moors from the province of Granada in the final act of what modern day Spain calls ‘la Reconquista’ or the re-conquest. Let us go back to the year 1490.

Legend has it, and as it is over 500 years ago, it is a legend, that in Baza, a worker from the neighboring town of Guadix, while helping to build a church on the ruins of a Moorish mosque, found a buried statue of Our Lady of Mercy (Virgen de la Piedad). Some accounts say it was buried, others say it was hidden behind a wall and cried out “Have Mercy! Have Mercy!” Please feel free to decide which version of the legend you prefer.

Conflict then arose when the worker sought to bring the statue back to Guadix only to have it snatched from him by inhabitants of Baza who insisted that the Virgin should be theirs. You should remember, at this point, that this was at the height of the Spanish Inquisition and just two years before the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. Religious fervor was at a height and La Virgen de la Piedad was a prize to be fought for.

It was left for the authorities of the time to decide on the important matter of where La Virgen de la Piedad should reside and the decision was that Baza should be the location. However, on the 8th of Sept each year Guadix could have a fiesta in the Virgin’s honor and bring the statue to Guadix. When the time came for the Guadix fiesta Cascamorras who, it is believed, was a jester, threatened to keep the Virgin, much to the chagrin of the people of Baza who did not believe that they would get the Virgen back again. Eventually it was agreed that if Cascamorras could reach the church in Baza where La Virgen de la Piedad was kept without being soiled by whatever the people of Baza could throw at him Cascamorras could take the Virgen back to Guadix with him.

For over 500 years Cascamorras has being trying to do so without success, being foiled by the people of Baza and subsequently being punished by the people of Guadix three days later when returning to Guadix without La Virgen.

Today this event is celebrated on a grand scale with thousands of people taking part. While Cascamorras sets out from Guadix with a small cohort of protectors and drummers the people of Baza prepare outside the town by coating themselves with many liters of a black oil specially prepared for the event. At 6 o’clock on the 6th of September Cascamorras makes his futile entry into the town of Baza. Naturally both he and his small band of protectors are soon covered in oil.

There are organized stops en route where flag waving takes place after which the flag and flag pole are thrown high into the air, and so the thousands proceed into Baza. While it is part of a religious celebration one would be forgiven for thinking that this was some sort of pagan ritual. Eventually, having failed yet again in his task, Cascamorras is allowed clean himself up and then allowed pray to La Virgen de la Piedad in Iglesia de la Merced.

Cascamorras must stay as a guest in Baza until the 9th of September and on the 8th solemn religious ceremonies take place followed by a procession through the streets.

On the 9th of Sept poor Cascamorras must pay for his failure to bring La Virgen da la Piedad to Guadix.

On returning to Guadix he is now greeted by thousands where, once again, everyone is covered in oil and paint. Whereas Cascamorras seems to put up only token resistance to those in Baza on returning to Guadix he has no difficulty swinging his stick with leather ball attached and those who come too close can get a fair whack from him. Buckets of water are thrown from the balconies as the crowd race with Cascamorras through the narrow street of Guadix. Eventually Cascamorras turns from villain to hero and is carried aloft as the run reaches its conclusion. The crowds celebrate and are sprayed with foam in Plaza de la Constitution.

The entire event is truly spectacular and has been declared a Festival of International Tourism Interest yet strangely it is little known of outside of Spain and does not attract anything like the better internationally known festivals such as La Tomatina or the running of the bulls in Pamplona.

Perhaps even more surprising is the fact that whereas most fiestas in Spain are accompanied by the consumption of very large quantities of alcohol this is not the case in Baza – Guadix. in fact, alcohol plays no part in the two runs of Cascamorra and public drinking is not to be seen. no doubt Cascamorra and the many thousands who take part in the runs will, after cleaning themselves up, retire to a local bar to recount the adventures of the day. it is after all a fiesta.

And who could blame them!

The above article is from the book Spanish Fiestas – The Wild, The Wonderful and The Downright Weird.

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