Tuesday, March 10, 2009


While attending a pastorela dance in Michoacan I was struck by the tall pointy hats of many of the dancers. These dancers were called the hermits (ermitanos) and this hat is found in many pueblos while other hermits are characterized by a very European looking mask and on occasion by a peasant-like straw cape. The pastorela is usually performed over the Christmas season and is in essence a nativity play. The first description of such a play in Mexico is from 1586 although the performance can be dated back to the 12th century. While some of the roles appear to be similar to those dating back many years each community presents its own version and it is often difficult to see just how it relates to the nativity story. So what was the origin of the pointy hat?

I recalled my childhood days when the pointy hat was called a “dunce cap” and was associated with being stupid or misbehaving. This hat goes back to the 13th century Scottish philosopher John Duns Scotus whose ideas where very popular. Duns had his students wear a pointy hat because he believed this shape helped channel knowledge. As always happens, however, Dun’s ideas fell out of favour and the pointy hat became associated with being stupid or holding unorthodox religious ideas. We need to keep in mind that philosophy at that time was largely religious philosophy. So how does this get to Mexico?
These hermits of Ihuatzio show that not all hermits wear the pointy hat.

You may be familiar with an interesting painting by the Spanish artist Goya (1746-18280) of an ecclesiastical tribunal in which the accused wears a pointy hat. The Spanish Inquisition was introduced in 1478 and while controlled by the Catholic monarch was really a religious court aimed at maintaining Catholic orthodoxy. Spain at that time was a multi-religious society (Catholics, Jews and Muslims – and later Protestants). The Muslims were defeated in 1492 and were converting to Christianity in order to attain access to the benefits of the wider society. Jews had begun to do the same after the terrible pogroms of the last part of the 14th century. However, there was growing concern that many of these were false conversions and that in fact many were secretly practicing their previous religion. A great majority of the accused during the first 200 hundred years of the inquisition were indeed Muslims. Other offences that came to the tribunal were sexual offenses and misbehavior by priests, particularly if they were espousing unorthodox beliefs.
Here the hats are very very pointy - Santa Fe de la Languna.

The inquisition was introduced to Mexico in 1570 so we can now guess a little as to what happened. Perhaps a priest was involved in sexual misbehaviour or announced unorthodox beliefs and his punishment involved something more than acquittal and less than burning at the stake. His public humiliation led him to withdraw from the society and as a result become a little crazy. His role in the pastorela is in part comic but also a symbol of someone who gave way to temptation. Thus, like the devils and the drunkards he is to be tamed by the presence of the church.

There is a remaining mystery. In the dance depicted in the above photo all of the hats had a number on them. I was unable to imagine that this was a personal identification or a hat size, so now I wonder if it was just a random number representing the number of the accused in the ecclesiastical tribunal. Does any one have knowledge of this?

No comments:

Post a Comment