Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Cat Tossing and Witch Burning, or Sunday Evening in West Flanders

Belgium is home to some strange festivals. The one that really caught my eye, though, was the Kattenstoet of Ieper/Ypres, a city best known for the muddy slaughter that occurred in the surrounding fields in the Great War (I wrote about this last year). Ieper, like Brugge/Bruges, was a cloth town back in the Middle Ages; the huge, beautiful Lakenhalle (Cloth Hall) still dominates the Grote Markt, although it needed to be repaired after burning in the war. The Lakenhalle had a mouse problem, so cats were deployed, but eventually this resulted in "a plague of cats," as this year's program dramatically describes. The wise townspeople tried to solve this problem with an annual ritual hurling of living cats from the belfry of the Lakenhalle. In 1817, the last real cats were thrown - an early victory of the Dutch animal rights movement, perhaps, as Belgium was part of the Netherlands for 15 years after the fall of Napoleon.

Today, the town puts on a Cat Parade every three years - most recently Sunday, May 13. It's a stunning production of thousands of actors and elaborate floats and costumes, including giant cats from Ieper's "ambassadors" Mr. Cieper and Minneke Poes to Garfield, representations of cat worship from Egypt to Ireland, scenes from the town's history including a 16th Century Iconoclasm, and illustrations of Dutch sayings featuring felines, such as "the cat is in the clock" (domestic violence again) and "squeezing kittens in the dark" (seducing young girls at night). Hello Kitty through a cookie at me when I was trying to take his (her?its?) picture (on that note, the festival is apparently known in Japan - I saw more Asian tourists here than in a year in Brussels).

Then the jester scales the belfry and tosses stuffed cats to an energized mob below. The scrum gets fairly rough - as one poor American woman complained, a cat was falling into her arms and she was saying "kitty kitty kitty" and then it was "elbow elbow elbow." (The elaborate cat disposal might have worked historically by the way - I only saw one cat in the city, on the yard of an apartment block right before getting in the car to return to Brussels).

As a grand finale, the trial of a poor townswoman for witchcraft is reenacted, and she is burnt to death. Well, something in identical clothing is burnt atop a pile of branches, with the executioners anachronistically resorting to kerosene. It's a bit of a dark ending to the festivities, but just before the burning, cats made of balloons are released into the Flemish sky.

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