To Dance With the Devils….
For all Ibiza’s well deserved and legendary status as the global leader of dance music, there is another event that, for me, is better than any superstar DJ or secret villa party.
You never forget the night of your first correfoc.
Well; to talk about the Correfoc on Las Islas Baleares, we must, of course, begin our story in Norway in the year 1107 at the court of King Sigurd I. These times -in the aftermath of the First Crusade to conquer Jerusalem- were ones of great upheaval in the Mediterranean. Much of Spain was controlled by the Berbers of the Almoravid Dynasty (from what is modern day Morocco). Although technically the land was split into independent taifas (territories), the rulers were weak and the threat of invasion by the bellicose Christians led to a great annexation by the Almoravids of these smaller states.
King Sigurd set off on his own crusade (with a skaldic poet to record his deeds) and promptly started fighting almost everyone he met along the way. Working his way at sword point around the Iberian coast, his longships eventually had to pass Las Pituisas- The Balearics. Imagine, the next time you are sat at Cafe del Mar that amongst the yachts, sleek longships are paddling.
His army passed by Formentera, where they noticed a great number of Saracen pirates had made a base. Located in a cave high on a cliff and well defended, it seemed a fortress. Being of Viking stock, Sigurd attacked anyway. Using ingenious tactics to overcome the pirates, he made off with large amounts of booty.
Nordic Sagas of the Balearics….
The poet Halldorr wrote this verse to commemorate this part of the campaign.
“The highly renowned marker of slaughter-wheels (shields) came with his fleet to Ibiza. The chieftain of battle was eager for glory. The eighth storm of weapon points (a battle) was yet later stirred up on green Menorca, where the King’s host reddened their arrows.”
From this part of the saga we can see that Sigurd of Norway visited the Balearic Isles, killed a lot of people, and then carried on his way to the Holy Land. Once there he decides to do some more fighting, eventually returning to Norway by land; undefeated and with a splinter of the True Cross for his trouble.
This was the first Christian assault on the Balearics, which at the time was a strategically critical location in the Mediterranean. From the islands, one could raid across a huge area of Southern Europe and North Africa. The potential for piracy on the seas was also not lost on the Berber occupants, and for centuries they were a thorn in the side of both the Christians to the North and rival factions on the Barbary Coast.
King Sigurd’s battles showed that a conquest of the islands was at least possible. Therefore, in 1114 another crusade by the Count of Barcelona and his allies destroyed Ibiza’s defences, laid siege to Palma on Mallorca, and captured the ruler of the taifa, taking him to Pisa in chains.
This did not wrestle control of the islands from the Berbers. However, the Catalan crusade finally ended the piracy that the inhabitants of the islands had perpetrated. It would not be until 1235 and the Reconquista by the King of Aragon that the Balearics would be brought into what we might consider the beginnings of modern era Spanish control.
So what has a Norwegian king and the crusades have to do with 21st Century Ibicencos setting off fireworks and dressing as devils?
Not so much- except that without these events, and the subsequent Catalan suzerainty over the islands, the Ball des Diables might not have crossed the waters to Ibiza. The first recorded event of this kind- a clear precursor to the Correfoc- was in 1150. By the time of the Reconquista, the event seems to have been a popular occurrence at court. Imagine a sort of play that takes place in-between meals. Like an intermission featuring devils and acrobats, and we’re getting close.
At some point in the mists of time, the Ball des Diables moved outside, adopted by the church. A regular feature of catholic Corpus Christi events, it is likely that the Correfoc/Ball des Diables persisted as part of the Catalan lifestyle until the times of cultural repression under General Franco.
A Correfoc -literally ‘fire run’- was popularised again in Catalonia and the Balearics during the 1980s. During this time, a great wave of rediscovery for folklore and history took place. Accompanied in the modern age by a team of drummers (Batucada) that take their musical influence from Latin American Samba, local people revitalise an old tradition with the spirit of modern Catalonia.
The bateria of drummers pound out deep rhythms as the devils dance and spray sparks at you. The smoke of spent gunpowder hangs thickly in the air amid the screeching fireworks. Leering and capering devils, horned and wrapped in cloaks show their wrath.
The tale is that of good versus evil. In the towns across Ibiza young people will brave the ‘fires’ of the devils to show their bravery. Historically this is likely to have been an important rite of passage- for boys and men at least.
I first encountered a Correfoc with complete surprise, at the Fiesta of Sant Carles in November 2015.
It remains my favourite event anywhere on the island. At first the beautiful town square. One side is a village green reminiscent of the small towns back home in England. On the other side, cobbles, and on the festival days, a stage is erected. Pleasingly, a bar is present too.
With carnival stalls with tests of skill and a barbecue, the fiesta appeared to be a regular village fete.
And then, the drums. And then, the fireworks and the fusion of pagan and Christian. Then, the dance in the fire. To see Correfoc is to look into Catalan culture. Whether it is the large Correfoc in Barcelona or the more intimate displays on the islands, it is not to be missed.