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A pamphlet as key to ritual interpretation

Stanley Brandes
p. 157-162

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Brochure listing the 1976 Cazorla annual festival schedule, including the procession of Giants and Big-Heads

Brochure listing the 1976 Cazorla annual festival schedule, including the procession of Giants and Big-Heads

Source: Photo by Stanley Brandes

1A search for information regarding a festival, ritual, or other significant event is likely to yield a highly detailed, mainly chronological description of the event. What we miss in many of these accounts is an interpretation of the proceedings, some guiding theoretical framework by which to deepen understanding of the occasion. In this article I show how, thanks to a small illustration in a festival pamphlet, I came to a reasonable interpretation of a ritual event that originally seemed totally baffling.

2At the end of August 1976, my family and I moved temporarily to Cazorla, an agro-town in southeast Spain, with the goal of carrying out anthropological fieldwork on family structure. At that time, Cazorla had some 6000 inhabitants, most of whom worked in olive production. I knew almost nothing about that community, except that I found a decent place to live there and that it was stratified socially and economically. Barely two weeks after settling in Cazorla, I found myself in the midst of a festival in honor of the town’s patron saint, el Santísimo Cristo de Consuelo (Most Holy Lord of Consolation), portrayed in an enormous, reputedly miraculous painting of the saint. I had not known previously about this festival, called by locals simply la feria (the fair) nor was I prepared theoretically to analyze it.

3Festival activities that year stretched from September 14th until September 21st, starting with a small parade through town – a kind of harvest display called la entrada del trigo (entrance of the wheat) – and ending with a series of bullfights, fireworks displays, and dances. Each day throughout that week was packed with public processions, celebrations and displays, all worthy of anthropological description and interpretation. What concerns me here is day two of the feria, the highlight of which was a procession of gigantes y cabezudos (giants and big-heads) in which costumed performers advance slowly along a route through the town. This was an occasion advertised of special interest to children, and in fact the majority of people watching the event were pre-adolescents and their parents. My wife and I brought our two daughters to the town plaza where the procession originated and stayed there for about an hour until the event ended. For my daughters and myself, this was simply a curious diversion, a source of entertainment, an interruption of mundane daily routine. And yet, as I watched these costumed figures and the way they interacted with the viewing public, I suspected that there was something of anthropological significance about it all, but remained totally ignorant of what that might be. Nonetheless, I took back to California a series of photographs and a pamphlet that outlined the events of the week, not nearly what I would have liked, but sufficient to serve as a partial record, at least, of this visually striking occasion.

4The procession of giants and big-heads begins at noon. Amidst loud, incessant ringing of church bells, the giants emerge from the town hall, located just off the main plaza. There are two giants, a man and a woman, known as the rey (king) and the reina (queen), dressed with crowns and simple tunics reminiscent of the garb of medieval monarchs. Each figure is about 12 feet tall, its clothing and molded papier-maché head suspended from a hidden wooden frame that is borne by an adolescent male. This young man’s identity remains anonymous, for his entire body from the knees up is hidden by the flowing gown of the towering image. Following the giants out of the town hall come 14 big-heads, whose oversized papier-maché heads and necks each rest directly on the shoulders of young townsmen. With the big-heads, the human body, dressed in baggy flamboyant costume, becomes part of the figure itself. However, because of the oversized heads, the adolescent boys who don the costume remain anonymous. No two big-heads are alike. Some, like Popeye, the devil, a witch, a Chinese male, and a black African male, are recognizable. Others, like an anthropomorphic ape and cow-goat, are the products of fantasy. A few, including an androgynous youth and an elderly man with whiskers, appear to be human caricatures.

5The contrast in appearance between giants and big-heads could not be starker. The giants are a visual representation of monarchs. Apart from their crowns and other clothing, they are structurally stiff, limited in movement by their internal wooden frame. Only their feet and lower legs are flexible, given that they belong to the adolescent boys who bear their weight. Most of the big-heads, by contrast, represent entities that might be termed the Other. They include humans of different racial composition from anyone in Cazorla, plus animals and unidentifiable beings. The elderly man and androgynous youth are the only exceptions to this general characterization.

6Even more striking is the behavioral contrast between these two types of processional figures. The stiff appearance of the giants perfectly matches their stiff comportment. For nearly an hour they march slowly and in tandem to the regular rhythm of an accompanying musical band. Every once in a while, they pause in place for a few seconds to move in somewhat jocular fashion from side to side, but after that interval they proceed ahead using measured, predictable steps. The big-heads, on the other hand, demonstrate aggressive, autonomous, and always freewheeling humorous behaviour. They carry socks filled with sawdust, which they use to threaten and sometimes strike against the children in the audience. They swarm around the giants, never in unison, always on an individual basis and in a chaotic, unpredictable fashion.

7The contrast between the two types of figures might be listed thus:


Big-Heads :

















8This list evokes the kind of structural interpretation based on binary oppositions so common among Levi-Straussian style ethnographic accounts. For example, the distinction between the royal giants and the plebian big-heads evokes images of class distinctions in Cazorla during pre-democratic Spain, and specifically during the 1970’s when my research was carried out. In fact, there could be no clearer example of anthropologist Mary Douglas’s assertion that “the social body constrains the way the physical body is perceived”. The rigid bodies of the giant figures – constrained as they are by interior wooden frames – correspond, according to this theory, to the rigidity of the social norms governing elite comportment. The aloof, dignified bearing of the giants accords perfectly with the lower-class image of monarchs and social elites alike, whom they view as bound by starkly defined rules of etiquette. By contrast, the bodies of the big-heads bounce and twist as if purposefully to mimic the awkward, uncontrolled demeanour attributed to workers. The giants stand taut and rigid, their faces peering out from high above the big-heads and the human crowd below. The big-heads, by contrast, interact closely with that crowd, mingling with it, standing level with it, and relating to it by touch. “Greater space means more formality, nearness means intimacy”, states Mary Douglas (1973, Natural Symbols, 101). By this measure, giants and big-heads conform to social images of elites and workers respectfully.

9Suggestive as the analogy between class structure, on the one hand, and giant and big-head behaviour, on the other hand, might be, this procession conjures an even more convincing binary opposition: that between parents and children. I came to this conclusion more than a year after witnessing the procession of giants and big-heads, after returning to California from fieldwork. My key to the symbolism of giants and big-heads came from a simple illustration in the printed program announcement of the feria, the document I had brought home with me. This illustration clearly demonstrates giants and big-heads as a human family consisting of parents and children. The illustration distorts the actual figures in significant ways. For example, it shows the male giant as taller than the female, just as wives are likely to be shorter than their husbands. In the drawing, too, the big-heads are much smaller in proportion to the giants than children would be comparatively to their parents. Yet the relative difference in height among family members appears clearly in the pamphlet illustration. Recognizable as well is the somewhat stiff bearing of the parents in the drawing in comparison to the animated movements of their children.

10In Cazorla, we may say, giants and big-heads are fundamentally a visual representation of powerful large people in juxtaposition with weak small ones. These costumed figures, while referring to various sorts of social distinctions, are basically modeled on childhood perceptions of power relations within the family, as portrayed in the pamphlet drawing. Parents dominate within the family. They set the rules, which they impose on children, who by contrast have yet to internalize and conform to societal norms. No wonder, then, that the parade has a special appeal to children, for it effectively conveys its wider social message by couching its representations of class in generational terms. The parade is therefore more than a simple description of family relationships. It is a means of subtle instruction to children about societal divisions. It is an agent of socialization, a function that the drawing in the feria pamphlet itself might also serve.

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Título Brochure listing the 1976 Cazorla annual festival schedule, including the procession of Giants and Big-Heads
Créditos Source: Photo by Stanley Brandes
Ficheiro image/jpeg, 2,0M
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Referência do documento impresso

Stanley Brandes, «A pamphlet as key to ritual interpretation»Etnográfica, Número especial | -1, 157-162.

Referência eletrónica

Stanley Brandes, «A pamphlet as key to ritual interpretation»Etnográfica [Online], Número especial | 2022, posto online no dia 22 dezembro 2022, consultado o 28 janeiro 2023. URL:; DOI:

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Stanley Brandes

Department of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley, USA

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Creative Commons - Atribuição-NãoComercial 4.0 Internacional - CC BY-NC 4.0

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