Caganers, nation, faith

“Shit, operating as the preeminent figure of self-alienation …, becomes a symbolic medium for questioning the place of the autonomous individual in new postcolonial societies.”

A northern barbarian goes native.

A northern barbarian goes native.

Whole load of shitting going on over at Uncle Jazzbeau’s, where the flavour of the month is scatological Catalan (good verses here). As usual, top of the bill are two customs often taken to be uniquely Catalan and an integral part of the Christian nativity myth: caganers (“shitters”; gents, pants down, doing their duty) and fer cagar el tió (“making the geezer shit”; beating a dendromorph until it presents presents). Let’s start by cautiously trying to get to the bottom of the caganer.
Firstly, caganers aren’t specifically Catalan. Jordi Arruga and Josep Mañà in El Caganer cite similar usage in Murcia, Portugal and Naples, where they are known respectively as cagones, cagöes and cacone or pastore che caca. Apart from this, I don’t know of any configurations that come close to the modern day version.
Secondly – and this may not surprise you – they’re not particularly Christian, or at least not in the orthodox sense. Although Jordi Bassas suggests that they are displayed doing what the shepherds did when introduced to the Herald Angel, folklorist Joan Amades is probably closer when he suggests that the caganer’s function is to fertilise the soil, thus assuring the following year’s nativity and the health and tranquillity of body and soul required etc etc.
The psychoanalytical angle on what Amades was saying (he died in 1959) is that, given the presence in Catalan of words like caganiu (“nest-shitter”) and cagó (“shitter”) to indicate small children, I think it would certainly worth looking for links to excremental creation myths. The only ones I can slide off the top of my head are Ganesh and his mum and – and … and this is fairly random – Rory McTurk’s Òðinn-eagle, which swallows mead and then vomits some to give us poetry (In the beginning…) and farts some more to give us bad poetry. Similarly, although the world of anal-birthing and pregnancy envy would probably have given Amades the horrors, the all-male world of the caganers might have suggested to him male birthing myths such as the rib-woman and the womb-ark. Whatever the link, I’m pretty sure that the presence of the caganer in pessebres is not because he is a shitting shepherd but because he represents some other cosmogony that the local Christians felt it would be appropriate to include in their story.
One of the things that happens in the late Middle Ages is that folk myths that seem to have previously represented good are either driven out of existence or recreated to represent evil. While I’m unable to think of anything appropriate in contemporary Catalan iconography, there is elsewhere a well-established apocalyptic tradition linking the devil and defecation – check this ca 1590 German illustration depicting a demonic Pope converting clergy into infantrymen:

Source: Andrew Cunningham & Ole Peter Grell’s fascinating The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Religion, War, Famine and Death in Reformation Europe. More photo-posts here.

There’s still something of this hanging in the air: while the caganer is still generally a goodie, someone who I would regard as fairly conservative surprised me the other day by commenting that the mother of current Catalan president Maragall had not given birth to him, but had shat him.
Finally, I’d be interested to know at what stage farmers here stopped using night soil on the fields. Braudel seems to have suggested that they were still doing so down in Valencia in this period, but I would have thought that much more favourable environmental conditions and, from the C19th, the widespread use of limekilns would have made it unnecessary in this part of the world. What I do know is that public shitting remained fairly common until fairly recently – check the small boy squatting in front of the cistern in Miró’s La Masia, possibly–suggests Robert Hughes–the great man himself.
I’m getting sleepy and you’re getting bored, so I won’t inflict caga tió and rebirthing myths on you – just read Frazer’s The golden bough and remember to transpose everything a couple of months earlier to take account of the short winters in the Mediterranean (the rosemary hasn’t stopped flowering). However, before I go I just want to clarify for you why – in the opinion of intellectuals with whom I wouldn’t dream of disagreeing – shitting is so important in Catalonia in these turbulent times. This is Joshua Esty in a piece entitled Excremental Postcolonialism in the spring 99 edition of what sounds like a fascinating journal, Contemporary Literature (ref):

Sh*t, operating as the preeminent figure of self-alienation (the matter that is both self and not-self), becomes a symbolic medium for questioning the place of the autonomous individual in new postcolonial societies.

Yup, science.
Initial hint from Margaret Marks. Robert A Segal’s Psychology and Myth is good on anal birthing. No, don’t even think of Googling that. BTW, crapper is a also a ™.

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