Virgins Defeat Mohammed: Sacred Rituals in Spain's Festivals of Moors and Christians

Saturday, January 8, 2011
Ballroom C (Hynes Convention Center)
Aitana Guia , York University
In the Festivals of Moors and Christians, native Spaniards dress up like medieval Christians and Moors and re-enact episodes of the Christian conquest of Muslim Spain. While this folk tradition dates back to the early modern period, it was heavily reinterpreted and popularized by Romantic and orientalist thinkers during Spain's colonization, in the 19th century, of parts of Morocco. The religious component of the festivals was bolstered by Franco, but new secular aspects were added in the mid-1970s. Today the festivals are a defining part of Spanish identity, particularly in the province of Valencia, and a booming tourist industry.

In the festivals, the Christians are the defenders of Catholicism, and the Moors, its enemies and the enemies of the people. By studying how the roles of these two sides have altered over time, the festivals are a window into the thoughts of Spaniards and how they see and have seen the world around them. In most instances, changes to festival ritual were done with little regard for historical accuracy or political correctness. After the Anglo-Zulu War in 1879, for example, squadrons of stylized "Zulus" began to show up in the festivals, and though they had nothing to do with the Moors in Spanish history, they were incorporated into the side of the Moors, probably because native Spaniards sympathized with the British, as fellow Europeans, during that war.

In addition to deliberate anachronisms which served political ends, the festivals have also played with and, in the case of the Moors, trivialized the sacred. A town festival normally opens at the local Catholic church and is followed by a solemn procession through town. It is made clear that the town's allegiances are to be Christian, and any attempt to belittle the real Christian ritual is denounced from the start. Desecrations of symbols, all in the name of the light-hearted fun of the festivals, were left for the Moors. In some towns, Christian contingents destroy an effigy of Mohammed. They also replace the flag of the Moors, the crescent, with the flag of Saint George, thereby depriving the Moors of their power and symbolizing their forced conversion to Christianity. The Vatican quieted these more flagrant abuses in the 1960s, but they crept back in the 1980s, and were then removed following the controversy in 2005 of cartoons depicting Mohammed appearing in Dutch papers.

Many European Muslims now call for reform to the festivals, challenging not only the flagrant abuses but the depictions of forced conversion and even the festivals themselves as celebrations of Christianity's conquest over Islam in a democratic, multicultural Spain.

The conference poster will consist of historical images of the festivals, their use of history and symbols, and the sacred and its desecration by modern Europeans, with accompanying commentary and historical analysis.

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See more of: AHA Sessions