The Origins of the Antroxu (Masquerades) Cycle of Feasts in Asturies go back to the dawn of time, and to explain them we must investigate the history of certain practices, both religious and festive, that extended through a great part of the European continent from long before Christianity.
The origins of the Masks of Winter have many similarities in Europe. It was a space in which the old Indo-European and Mediterranean cultures mixed their festive, religious and social calendars. They coincided in a special attraction to full moons and all the cycles and periods of Nature. The old Indo-European religions and especially the Celtic one considered the year to be divided into two halves. From the first of May (Feast of Beltaine, Christianized as the Cross of May) til the first of November was the half of the year consecrated to ‘Life’. spring and summer, days full of light where youth and all that is new takes centre stage. The second half, the months that on our calendar go from November to May (1st of November, Feast of Samhain, Christianised as All Saints Day) represented the half of the year where ‘Death’ took over; winter months, months of reflection, where older people were in charge. That was when everyone came together around the hearth and the elders explained old traditions, knowledge and legends.
In these two periods there were two very important moments: the solstices, where it was believed that an important natural change took place. The summer solstice or Saint John (San Xuan) symbolised the moment of maximum strength of the sun (the longest day and the shortest night). The winter solstice, or Christmas, precisely six months later, symbolises the strength of darkness (the longest night and the shortest day. The difference from 24th June to 25th December is an error caused by old calendars). From Christmas onwards, the days become longer bit by bit and the nights shorten. It is no wonder that Christianism chooses this date to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ (triumphant over death and darkness). It is not surprising that ancient Indo-European cultures, where so many important civilisations like the Celts, the Greeks, the Romans and the Hindus, among others originated. In time, they produced many beliefs and religions which are now widely extended in the world. They all agreed that at this moment of the year many prodigious events happened.
It was thought that at this time, a door to the Other World opened, a door to the world of spirits and magical and supernatural things occurred. If during the summer solstice there were positive beings like the Xanes (water fairies) who brought great riches, and other magical supernatural prodigies, during the winter solstice otherworldly beings appeared, but these were related to darkness and death…mainly demons and the Departed. Their arrival was signaled by the ancient Masked Dances, which sought to venerate the powers of these beings. The Masks often represent gods and demons, symbolised by animals or monsters, which try to attract the positive aspects of these visitors’ magic.
The souls of the Departed could also visit their earthly dwellings at this time. That’s why it was customary to leave food out for them on the nights they were believed to return to their old homes. They didn’t eat the material food that was left for them; they fed on the ‘essence’, that is, ‘the smell’. A remnant of this ancient veneration for the souls of the Departed are the tradition of the Night of the Three Wise Kings (Noche de Reyes/Nueche de Reis) where even the parade or procession (‘Cabalgata’) is only a Christianised old Masquerade Dance.
EVOLUTION OF THE ‘ANTROXU’ OR THE WINTER MASQUERADES.
Christianism wasn’t able to do away with these deeply rooted popular feasts so as it always happens, after condemning them, they added them to their own religion and liturgy.
One of the main approvers of the old Medieval Masquerades was the well known Asturian theologian, Beato de Liébana. As the old Masquerades were entwined, or more exactly varnished with a layer of Christianity, they were accepted, although not always totally, by the Ecclesiastic authorities.
A significant case of Christianisation is in Asturies is the famous ‘Reisada’, or ‘King’s Ball’, celebrated in Ibias around the Three King’s Day (Epiphany, 6th. January). The Masked People, who represent the different social classes of the village, after having roamed the county for days, get together on the Day of The Three Kings (Epiphany, 6th January) at the door of the church and then ‘perform’ a noisy dance, a Masquerade, while the public sing a traditional song as they give the dancers the ‘Aguilando’ or ‘tip’ (money, chorizos, sweets…). The song people sing is related to the birth of Christ and the Adoration of the Three Kings to the newborn Jesus. There is, nevertheless, one fact: the Masqueraders cannot enter the church, as it would be considered sacrilegious if it were done. They awaited the public outside the church and when the mass was over, they’d ‘perform’.
‘El Guirria’ is another of the surviving Christmas Solstice traditions in Asturies. It starts in San Xuan de Beleño, capital of the county of Ponga, on Saint Sylvester Day (31st.December), ‘The Last Feast of the Year’. That day there is a ‘Lads’ Raffle’, derived from the ancient ‘ Devout Raffles’ that were made on the same day in Asturias to match young men and women with no rules. The names were written on little pieces of paper and then the young men’s names were put into a small bag and the young women’s names were put in another. On New Year’s Day, the young men under 18 go around the nearby villages on horseback asking for the Aguilando, or Tip, and with them goes El Guirria. He’s the only one that wears a mask and is dressed like the mythological creature that he represents, a sort of Asturian Superman in a colourful suit and a long, pointy cap. They all sing songs related to the New Year and the Aguilando, while El Guirria chases and hugs all the young girls in the village.
As we are seeing, the Asturian Antroxu begins at Christmas (‘Antroxu is Already here on Christmas Day’), precisely when this ancient pre-Christian cycle begins, and it is then when the first Masqueraders start asking for the Aguilando ( small presents and gifts of money or things) in villages and towns, a tradition that almost disappeared after the Civil War for three important reasons: the wounds of the war, the official prohibition of these types of celebrations and the rural exodus. These factors together with the prohibitions and the disdain towards popular culture( except for a few folkloric characteristics that were ‘accepted’ by official politics) made the long, old Asturian Antroxu almost disappear, reducing it, when it was finally restored, to the Jueves de Comadres (Thursday of The Godmothers), Domingu l’Gordu (Lard Sunday, before Easter) and Carnival Monday and Tuesday.
That said, there are places where the Christmas Masquerades are still rooted. One is ‘A Reisada’ in Ibias and the other is ‘El Guirria’ of Ponga. A serious and detailed studied of our culture may show roots in other places. It is known that in some places, people, and especially the younger generation tried to go on celebrating Antroxu, which led to them being persecuted and even fined.
ROMANISATION AND CHRISTIANISATION
The Roman conquest of Asturias left its own cultural sediment, although due to the correspondence of many Asturian and Roman customs (there are common Indo-European origins in many respects) we don’t know the exact influence of Romanisation or the extent of previous cultures.
In ancient Rome there were famous Masquerading feasts, based on the cult to the Manes gods, spirits of the dead, and there were masks of dead people and animals. The Saturnalias, the Lupercalias, the Matronalias and others took place at the same time. All the feasts mentioned are deeply related to venerating the souls of the Departed or beings from the underworld. This is why it is important to keep safe from those beings which come with the purpose of doing evil, which explains the reason for all the noise, laughter and raucous celebrating that keeps them at bay. This tradition has equivalences in almost all the cultures in the world. That’s why so many Antroxu characters are so fun loving, full of bells and whistles, crying aloud and behaving in a crazed way. You have to make a lot of noise. Now we don’t know exactly why. ‘Because it’s Antroxu!’, people say. Two thousand years ago the forefathers of our Guirrios, Zamarrones, Sidros, Vexigueros, Bardancos, Zarrapastros and other creatures already did it. The bells of Christian churches are a remnant of that custom. The bell wasn’t only rung to call people to mass or to a council meeting, but to scare away the ‘Güesties’ (penitent souls), Nuberu (storm maker genies), witches and many other beings of the underworld that up til recently were regarded as frightful and eerie. Or are we still? However it is, Christianism had to accept these feasts. What’s more, they were favourable as they were often substituted by their Christian equivalent, although it did not always produce the desired result. Masks, dances, whoops and other customs are not only a celebration of winter, but a liberation from feelings and sensations. They are an open door to what authorities always called ‘excesses’. ‘Excesses’ of flesh (meat and sex) and ‘excesses ‘in the respect owed to authorities. Days in which people can go a little crazy and dispel the fears of the year, while they criticise the most sacred institutions in a legal and accepted way.
One of the major examples of this was the Obispín (the Little Bishop), a satire of the highest institutions that was celebrated in Oviedo cathedral, as well as other European cathedrals, between the 18th and the 28th December (Innocent Saints Day). During those days bishops and chaplains give their places to students, novices, choir singers and altar boys, who dressed up in liturgical clothes and satirised and criticised the Christian rites. One of them was the Obispín (the Little Bishop), who was the centre of attention, dressed with all the opulence of a bishop, surrounded by an exultant public, posing as parishioners who laughed and applauded the new authorities’ witty occurrences. There were also off key choirs, funny songs…Even the organ player performed the liturgical hymns badly to emphasise the satirical purpose of the event. There were also programmed ‘visits’ of the Little Bishop and his cohort to churches and monasteries, with the purpose of spreading merriment everywhere on those days. The tradition was prohibited by the Catholic church at the beginning of the 19th. century and was never recovered.
The’ Jueves de Comadres’ or Godmothers’ Thursday
Although several authors state that it has a different origin from Antroxu, the Jueves de Comadres is a profoundly Asturian tradition which is integrated in this festive cycle. On this day women are the protagonists, they get together, rule the county and it is also a day of liberation. We shouldn’t forget that the role of women in patriarchal societies was always relegated to a second place, even in cultures that considered themselves more egalitarian, human and liberal. After many years of absence, the Xueves de Comadres is again recovering its importance, adapted to the customs of urban societies, especially in Xixón and La Pola Siero. In Xixón, the famous ‘Cigarreres’ (Cigar makers) of Cimadevilla, workers of the cigar factory, joined by their goddaughters and other women, went up to La Providencia on the outskirts of Xixón, to spend an afternoon chatting and eat the famous ‘casadielles’ (puff pastry pies filled with chopped walnuts mixed with sugar and anis) and the ‘teresites'(typical Asturian sweets).
In Pola Siero the women used to go up to the Malatu field or Prau Picón to eat ‘bollos preñaos’ (chorizo buns), cider and ‘casadielles’, among other things. We know about the existence of a Xueves de Compadres, dedicated to men that was moved to the Sunday before Easter (Domingu’l Gordu), which has disappeared.
THE ASTURIAN ANTROXU OF TODAY
When the tradition of Antroxu was restored in the 70s and 80s, the major part of Asturian tradition was gone or forgotten. That’s why it was started up without bearing in mind the characteristics of the Asturian masquerades. Also, great part of the Asturian population was born and raised during the four decades of dictatorship that disregarded this celebration. The Asturian tradition, except in certain cases, was practically forgotten. That’s why when certain counties tried to restore it, they made a program that was more akin to Rio de Janeiro, in which even the dances and music were Brazilian rhythms. In all, what they did was to imitate what they saw on television.
In many places they did recover the typical Antroxu of their ancestors, limited to the four days between Domingo’l Gordu and Carnival Tuesday. In some places they prolong or move the Masquerades beyond Ash Wednesday, but it has never occurred to them to recover the Christmas Antroxu as it was done in past years. Now we have the traditional Asturian Antroxu with Carnivals from other places, in a mix similar to what there is all over Europe.
In any case, there is increasing interest in recovering the Asturian Antroxu, as well as all other manifestations of our culture thanks to the work of many organisers. The facts mentioned above are only a statement of certain habits and traditions of the Asturian Antroxu and its origins. There are many and good studies that go into many details than we expound here. In any case, there is much to study and analyse. The future works of ethnologists, folklorists or historians can provide facts that we cannot prove today, or take new and different approaches to previous investigations.
It is necessary to discover more data about Antroxu and the Masquerades all over the Asturian geography, as many can be lost forever.
At this time in which many town councils and organisations are striving to recover the typical Asturian Antroxu as it was in their villages and towns, it is urgent to discover new information about these celebrations, as well as encouraging promoters to look for good assessment when they organise any Antroxu event.
Translation to English:
llustrations and photographs
1st.- Wheel of the year or also called Celtic calendar. Source: Google.
2nd.- Asturians celebrating the Winter Solstice. Author: Estorbín.
3th.- The Güestia or Procession of the Souls. Source: Traciciones y mitos,com
4th.- Comments of the Apocalypse. The final judgement. Work of the Beato de Liébana ( X century). Source: Valladolid University.
5th.- A Guirrio in the council of Ponga – Asturies. Source: J. Arturo Suárez Prendes.
6th.- A Zamarrón of Retruyés in the council of L.lena – Asturies. Author: Gauson Fernande.
7th: The Sidros of Valdesoto in the council of Siero – Asturies. Source: El Cencerru.
8th.- The Reises of Tormaleo in the council of Ibias – Asturies. Source: tormaleo.blogspot
9th.- Traditional Asturian sweet called “Teresitas” consumed in the Xueves de Comadres.
10th.- Antroxu of Avilés – Asturies. Source: Asturiasbyme.com
11th.- Antroxu de Xixón – Asturies. Source: batukadalosplayos.com