About 100 Spanish horse riders jumped burning logs, flames leaping into the night, in a controversial, centuries-old rite celebrated every year in the village of San Bartolome de Pinares.
Crackling logs and branches lay strewn through the paved streets of the village of 600 inhabitants for the festival on January 16, the eve of Saint Anthony’s Day remembering the patron saint of animals.
A parade of horses leaped over piles of branches, braving flames that danced meters (yards) high in the “purification” rite held in this town about 100 kilometres (60 miles) northwest of Madrid.
“It is really a pagan tradition. With the smoke and the fire the animals are blessed so they will be purified for the whole year and won’t get hurt or ill,” said Anibal Martinez, 36, who returned to his home town for the night’s festivities.
No-one is certain of the origins of the tradition, which seems to have its roots in a Medieval belief that the rite protects the animals from curses and sorcery.
“According to documents in the church and town hall, we have been able to date it back up to 500 years,” said Martinez, who studied the tradition when he was at school.
The town, whose population is dwindling each year, is fiercely attached to the festival despite opposition from animal rights groups concerned about the safety of the horses.
Each year, the villagers prepare the festival, gathering branches in the countryside to make bundles of sticks that will keep the logs burning through the night.
As night falls, men light the blazes and sprinkle water over the fires to create a thick, acrid smoke. The riders prepare and groom their mounts, brushing and twisting the animals’ tails and manes into plaits.
When the church clock rings at nine o’clock in the evening, they gather in the village square, receive a blessing from the village priest, and join a spectacular parade through the main street, bathed in smoke and leaping over flaming obstacles.