To the unfamiliar, the "Festival of Bears" or Fete de l’Ours in Prats de Mollo, might at first appear to be A. the lost work of Mathew Barney, B. a highly offensive minstrel show, or C. madness.
While C would be closest to the truth, the festival has roots that go back to the pre-christian legends of this Catalan region of the Eastern Pyrenees. According to the story a young shepherdess tending her flock was startled by a bear, who was actually the devil in disguise and carried away to a nearby cave where -- like any good bear-devil -- he intended to seduce her and steal her virginity.
The virgin-shepherdess prayed to the nearby chapel Notre Dame du Coral (the Christian elements were likely grafted onto the story somewhere along the way) and the bear was unable to go near her without howling in pain and frustration. Local woodcutters heard the cries, came hither, thwarted the bear-devil, and saved the shepherdess. The end of the story (which trails on a bit after the saving of the shepherdess) ends with a hermit and a boy setting a trap for the bear and the bear falling to its death..
But it is the way in which the legend is acted out which makes this festival a particularly amazing sight.
Essentially, the young people of Prats de Mollo are either a bear, a barber, or a hunter. If you are a bear (usually a job assigned to the most in shape of the residents) you cover yourself in a coating of soot and oil turning yourself a jet black, and are provided with a large club or stick. The hunters meanwhile are given the reassuring combination of a gourd of ’good wine’ and a shotgun filled with blanks. Finally if you are a barber you are covered in flour and dressed in white with a lace bonnet, though you still get to be armed with a heavy chain, One barber each also carries an axe, a "botifarra" or locally made blood pudding and a basin. These will come in handy later on.
Once everyone has been provided with their appropriate accoutrement, and is sufficiently sauced (heavy drinking is a large part of the festival) three shots ring out from the Fort Lagarde and the madness begins.
The bears run immediately run out into the crowd stick swinging overhead and begin wresting spectators to the ground and smearing them in the black goo they are covered in. The hunters are in close pursuit, swinging their wine and firing shotgun blanks into the air. The crowd is going wild.
After this goes on for a while the ’hommes en blanc’ or ’barbers’ intervene, catching the bears in their chains. The bears are forced to sit down and are covered in black pudding (representing soap) and "shaved" by the axe returning them to human form.
The final piece is a mad dance circle in which bears, hunters and barbers all dance around in a frenzied fury until a gunshot is fired and the bears fall to the ground "dead." Three days of partying follow. How exactly all of this -- such as the barbers, for example -- emerged from the legend, is somewhat unclear.
The festival takes place on the second Sunday of February.