Carnival in Pau, France: The Bear Hunt
Just so you all are warned, this particular carnival event contains prodigious amounts of cross-dressing, gang-humping, and symbolic castration. The easily offended should look elsewhere…
In comparison to other mountain ranges where I’ve spent time – like the Andes, the Himalayas, the US Sierra Nevada, or parts of Alaska, the Pyrenees seem strangely, unnaturally tranquil. Yes the peaks are majestic and formidable in appearance, especially this time of year when they lie covered in snow, but wandering through these mountains, I often feel like something is missing. There’s something very quiet and unimposing about them, and they do not wholly feel like real wilderness. Somehow they make the world seem smaller to me, rather than endlessly vast like some settings can do.
I rarely spot animals apart from sheep, cows and horses, all of which roam unmolested.
And the mountains sleep.
While once the people that could handle living in the mountains were of hardy stock, used to hardships and extremities, now you mostly run into day-hikers and skiers, and vacationers. The mountains are no longer wild.
They almost seem domesticated – tamed, subdued, not quite alive enough.
But once, not so very long ago, these mountains were teeming with bears. The bears were such a real threat and a constant presence, such a part of the consciousness of the people who lived in the region, that they made appearances in myriad folk tales, songs, games, and incidentally in carnival tradition.
The “Caça a l’ors/Chasse de l’ours” or Bear Hunt takes place several days after the first day of carnival, The Pantalonada (which I described in my previous post). As described by the official Carnaval website, “The Bear Hunt is a brief moment of collective release, very lively and often crude.” It is one of the more unique traditions I’ve seen pretty much anywhere I’ve been.
On the night of the Hunt, dozens of women take on the character of hunters, and dress in men’s hunting clothes and arm themselves with rifles. A group of men dress in full bear costumes that are equipped with a gigantic brown, red-tipped dildos, a foot or two in length. (Yes, you read me correctly. The annual tradition is for all of these men in bear costumes to wear gargantuan strap-on dildos). The rest of the men dress as flirtatious, provocative young women.
At 8 o clock in the evening the party begins in a small but central square of town about a block from the castle. Musicians play and people slowly gather.
Many dozens of men dressed as women, dubbed the “Rosettes”, coyly flirt and giggle.
Music is played and dances are danced.
Occasionally a man in a bear suit will stalk through the gathering crowds and grab either a Rosette or a real female, hump them vigorously, and move on.
By 9 PM the square is crowded, both with costumed participants and many onlookers. Suddenly with a resounding shout, the hunters march single file into the plaza.
They hang out in the square for awhile, drinking, smoking, and swearing.
Then they gather together, chanting and waving around their weapons, charging up, getting ready for the hunt, ready to see blood spill. Testosterone, or something like it, fills the air as they cheer.
They get into position on one side of the plaza, waiting to confront the bears.
The bears gather on another side of the square and a path is cleared between them and the Rosettes, who clump together in the middle of the plaza in a terrified gaggle. The bears, after a winter in their dens, are aroused into a frenzy by the provocative, coquettish Rosettes. The bears make several false attacks, sending the Rosettes screaming and regrouping.
Finally the bears charge the Rosettes, and all mayhem breaks loose.
THIS is definitely the video to watch if you want a clear sense the ensuing craziness:
The bears, upon reaching the hoard of screaming Rosettes, aggressively grab, squeeze, hump, fondle, poke and prod them, pull them to the ground, pick them up, climb on them, etc. All the while the Rosettes fight them off valiantly.
After some minutes of screaming and sexual assault, a group of stuffy looking men dressed in English-style hunting clothes blow bugles, indicating the hunt has begun.
The hunters charge into the slavering pile of sexually voracious bears and feisty but violated Rosettes…
…and heroically struggle with the bears until they are able to overcome them long enough to cut off their penises (the strapons obviously) and save the Rosettes. The hunters give the thankful Rosettes the gigantic dildos as trophies.
The hunters leave the bears for dead, but then bear keepers ( Los Orsatèrs / les montreurs d´ours) come along and revive them, and put them into chains.
The chained and chastened bears are made to do a traditional dance while a band plays. The bear keepers’ job is to keep the bears under control for the rest of the evening.
Every now and then a bear escapes and grabs and mauls an unsuspecting female in the crowd. These bears mean business too – the moment you are off your guard, they will see you and grab every part of you, particularly genitalia, or they will pick you up, carry you away and jump on top of you. (Yes I was mauled by a bear, so I speak from experience).
My advice: it’s best, as a female, to attend this event with a large male friend, if you don’t want to be assaulted and symbolically bear-raped.
After some traditional dances and mingling and more bear assaults, there is a beauty contest – each of the Rosettes goes up on a small stage erected on one side of the plaza and introduces themselves. There is then a vote for the most beautiful Rosette who becomes queen for the evening.
Everyone then sojourns to a party tent to drink, listen to music and make merry.
St. Pançard is of course present, to encourage his people to enjoy the wonderful festivities…
…and to dance and enjoy them himself:
While the Bear Hunt obviously represents the villagers of the Pyrenees overcoming nature and taming it, there is also another layer of meaning in the interesting tradition. According to what I’ve read, the Bearnais (the people of the Bearn region) considered the bear to be a savage version of man himself, symbolizing primitive male sexuality. Apparently there are many stories about young village women who are charmed into the mountains by bears, seduced by their virility. The christian church (at least in this area) took the bear as a symbol of the devil, representing the temptations of the flesh.
The Carnival website explains this further, “Standing on its hind legs, the bear looks remarkably like man; its cunning and intelligence have also made him our equal. During Carnival this primitive man, this brute who lives in all of us, wakes up and temporarily gives free rein to his frenzy and fantasy. The only thing differentiating humans from this animal is the fur. In order to turn him into a civilized man, it suffices to shave and at times castrate him…”
Traditionally the Bearnais combined fear of the bear with reverence, fascination, and even jealousy. They saw themselves in this animal, and decided to control its qualities they could not themselves actually emulate, unsure whether to see them as desirable or diabolical.
But in the end is this really what they had wanted: A world where their mountains can be covered in sheep whose only concerns are fattening themselves up, and bears are made to dance to our music? The bears were their mirror, a wilder more savage, more bestial version of themselves, reflecting their passions and violence and desires. So what does it mean that all the bears save a handful in the Pyrenees have been killed? Perhaps the land here, these forests and mountains, are a little in need of more that is savage, and not just in mockery.
But it WAS a good party.
For more about Pau Carnival see my article about the Pantalonada, the first day of Carnaval Biarnés: