Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 15. Nr. Juli 2004

1.2. Signs, Texts, Cultures. Conviviality from a Semiotic Point of View /
Zeichen, Texte, Kulturen. Konvivialität aus semiotischer Perspektive"

HerausgeberIn | Editor | Éditeur: Jeff Bernard (Wien)

Buch: Das Verbindende der Kulturen | Book: The Unifying Aspects of Cultures | Livre: Les points communs des cultures

Grundlagen/Fundamentals Teil 1/Part 1:
Teil 2/Part 2:
Teil 3/Part 3:
Moderation / Chair: Gloria Withalm
Teil 4/Part 4:
Nonverbale Zeichen/Non-verbal Signs

Unified in Conflict: Moros y Cristianos and Moreška, Mimetic Fascination of Intercultural Agon

Lada Cale Feldman (Zagreb)


Summary: The narrative of the battle between Moros and Cristianos is still alive in modern Spain, giving rise to numerous and diverse ritualized practices, from street performances to danced mock-battles. Its various echoes throughout Europe have been thoroughly studied, including the moreška, a dramatized dance performed on the island of Korcula, the only surviving example of the Moros y Cristianos theme still performed in Europe outside Spain. The aim of the paper, however, is not to trace the origin of the Croatian dance and the foundation of this lasting Spanish "influence", but to address a more general issue regarding the fascination of the whole family of European, mostly Mediterranean performances, with a conflict which was historically characteristic only of Spain, but whose fictional elaborations earned it the status of an obsessive mirror of recognition. This fictional, mimetic "conviviality in conflict" will be interpreted as a shared fascination with the battle of the Self with its internal Other. The analysis will refer to René Girard's theory of agonal mimetism, its further elaborations in the work of Eric Gans, and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's gender-sensitive critique, since the figure most often disregarded in the interpretations of the theme is a female character in whose name or in whose favor the battle is taking place.


This paper deals with an example of a cultural paradox consisting in the celebration of cultural unification and conviviality through the representation of intercultural conflict and violence. In order to demonstrate its workings on my chosen example, I will rely on the ideas regarding the role of mimesis in human relations, expounded by the French anthropologist and literary critic René Girard, as well as on their further elaboration in the work of Eric Gans, who particularly stressed and developed the semiotic implications of Girard's "fundamental anthropology". I will, however, also use my example in order to stress that both of these hypotheses could also profit by the gender perspective offered by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick as regards the fundamental role that the Girardian mimetic triangle plays in the engendering of cultural forms.

Let me state at the outset that this presentation is a part of a larger project on which I am working with the British theater anthropologist Max Harris, whose findings regarding the various enactments of the moros y cristianos theme in Spain and the Spanish New World led me to re-frame the inherited methodological approach concerning the moreška on the Dalmatian island of Korcula, one of the rare surviving European examples of that same theme regularly performed outside the territories formerly under Spanish rule. The tradition of mock-battles between Moors (or Turks) and Christians probably began in the late thirteenth century, and varied in form from small dances to massive street theater, still popular along Spain's Mediterranean coast and throughout much of Latin America. However, it also traveled eastward to parts of Italy and Germany under Spanish rule and further to parts of Europe not ruled by, but engaged in trade and diplomatic relations with Spain, such as the towns on the coast of Dalmatia, primarily Dubrovnik (cf. Ivancan 1967), as well as the island of Korcula, where that tradition still thrives.


A "symbol of local identity"?

My dissatisfaction with the current state of research regarding the Korculan moreška concerned a tendency on the part of scholars to stick to the collection of data, the search for historical origins and influences, descriptions of formal features, changes through time and variations across cultures, and to avoid any attempt to postulate a theory or offer a model which would account for the semiotic regularities discernible amongst apparent morphological differences. The most frequently used generalizations - when there were any - regarding the meaning of moreška most often affirmed its role as a "symbol of local identity" (Lozica 1990: 186-192), but never actually touched the semiotic mechanism by which that particular "symbol" retroactively produces the identity said to be its presupposed origin. I will argue that moreška is more than just an occasion for exhibiting exotic attractions to tourists: it also thematizes the very semiotic mechanism of the production of cultural identity, and it does so by enacting a precarious ritual balance between the aesthetically appealing choreography and the actual danger in which it places its performers.

Since on this occasion I do not want either to offer new ready-made and vacant phrases of the sort just mentioned or to enter into the historical quandary of the search for the origins and trajectories of this "fashion", as it is often called - particularly having in mind the diversity of morphological genealogies to which each particular instance of it can lead, depending on whether we deal with a street procession, a ballet, a puppet-theater performance, a mock-battle sword dance, a text or even a musical accompaniment - I chose to concentrate on the agonal structure of the narrative which gave the name to all these different performances. Its core is the conflict with the Moors, who by virtue of their dark complexion encompassed to the mind of Renaissance Europe all the racial, religious and cultural Others, and even Otherhood as such - paganism versus Christianity, carnality versus spirituality, and so on. It still remains enigmatic why the enactment of this narrative engendered such a wide-spread fascination all over Europe and the New World, and what was the role of mimetic desire and horror in this representational process.

The fact that one of the variants of this narrative is still performed on the island of Korcula, although the island was neither ruled by Spaniards nor did ever know Moors as enemies, will figure here as a convenient analytic example of the mimetic echoing produced by the secret hidden in this fictional representation of violence engendered by the mimetic desire. The Korculan moreška, furthermore, seems to comprise a whole host of different forms and guises under which morescas appeared across time and space, sometimes even, as in the central and northern parts of Italy, deriving its name not from the subject matter but from a supposed similarity with Moorish dances: alla moresca, in Moorish fashion (cf. Sparti 2001). The Korculan moreška, in contrast, is a rare example of a syncretic event consisting of a script of a drama with distinct characters, and of a pyrrhic sword dance, accompanied by music, enacting a mock-battle between the White and the Black army, led by their respective Kings, over a virgin, who is, depending on the version, either already a slave of one of the Kings or about to become one.

Involving two armed groups of men, sharply contrasted by racial difference, fighting over a woman, the Korculan moreška will here be taken as an outcome of the triple mimetic effect induced by the aforementioned Spanish medieval tradition. The first level is the level of mimesis implied by the very ritual displacement of an actual historical situation - the clash between the Christians and the Moors for the control of what is today the territory of Spain - into a fictional enactment. The second concerns the mimetic urge of cultures, which have never been implicated in that historical conflict, to repeat the enactment of this scene of violence by preserving what is sometimes called "the exoticism" of the moros y cristianos theme, but for their own local purposes of communal unification, and sometimes even, as Max Harris suggested for Mexico, for the purposes of insinuating the inverse, "hidden transcript" - the indigenous resistance to the European Catholic triumph (Harris 2000). The designation of the third level of mimesis as the "deepest structure" of the ritual, however, should for the moment be postponed, for therein, in my view, lies the core of the enigma of the workings and effects of the two already mentioned.


Variations in the plot

Whatever part different political contexts may have played in the adaptation and the allusions added to the basic script, the resilience of the narrative could hardly have been explained by local political circumstances, although at the same time they must have contributed somehow to its attraction. The Korculan moreška is a striking example in this respect: instead of pitting Christians against Moors or at least Turks, with whom longstanding fights have been fought since the 16th century, today's moreška pits Turks, the White army led by Osman, against Moors, the Black army led by the king Moro, also called Otmanovic, that is, "the son of Otman", a name strangely resembling the name of the Turkish sultan Otman. The virgin to be saved from the Moorish slavery is called Bula - a Muslim woman, who is in love with Osman, the victorious White king (see Fig. 1 & 2).

Fig. 1 (enlarge)

Fig. 2 (enlarge)

This version of the plot, unsubstantiated by anything in the actual historical situation of the island, however, is not the only one we have of the text of the Korculan moreška, but earlier versions only contribute to the confusion: in the first one, we do not know who the Whites are, but the Blacks are said to be the army of "the Moorish king"; "Mori" being a word which in the Dalmatian dialects means both Moors as an ethnic group and people of dark or black skin in general. The woman for whom they fight is Dark herself, the daughter of the king of Algiers. Being in love with the son of the Moorish king, she is finally captured by Whites. This ending has incited much perplexity among Croatian scholars on account of the unethical behavior it ascribed to the White - supposedly Christian and therefore, at least for the interpreters, automatically "positive" - side in the conflict (cf. Foretic 1974: 26). In another version known to us, that precedes the one still performed today, the Whites are definitely Christian soldiers trying to save a "Virgin", found weeping alone in the desert, from the Black Tatars who might, as she explicitly fears, not only capture but also rape her. How, then, are we to explain the changes in the plot - the shifting identity of the virgin girl and the replacement of the Christians by the Turks, who are put on the "good", White side (not to mention the Turkish name given to the leader of the Moors, which is probably a remnant from the earlier layers of the script, which pitted Christians against Muslims, instead of the later Muslims versus Muslims conflict)?


Agonal mimesis...

The answer to that question brings us back to Girard's theory of agonal mimesis (1987), the crisis produced by the mimetic triangle, and the either sacrificial or representational resolution of the crisis, for that is precisely what in my view the aforementioned plots are all about. Concentrating mostly on the two groups of men, the researchers often tended to disregard the crucial element provoking the conflict, the woman, who, although seeming to be nothing more than a witness of the danced mock-battle, is the focal point in its dramaturgy. The triangle is thus formed which in Girard's opinion is the crux of human desire and violence: his theory is troubling in that he does not simply expose the convergence of appropriative gestures by two conflicting parties over the basic objects of need - food, women and territory, as he says - but also to the mimesis preceding that convergence, the desire to imitate the one who already set his eyes on the object, and the violence ensuing from the decision to act upon that desire, since the mimetic model for the action of appropriating the object turns out to be its obstacle.

Fig. 3 (enlarge)

Fig. 4 (enlarge)

The second version of the moreška script is particularly eloquent on this point, for the girl is not in love with anyone, and is approached by the Blacks only after having already been approached by the Whites. The enactment of the mimetic triangle, as we shall see, not only offers the mirror to that scene of appropriation, desire and violence, but itself uses mirror-like representations in order to reveal the mimetic mechanism which gave birth to the conflict in the first place (see Fig. 2). Far from being pure signs of exoticism and decorative accompaniment of the plot, which seems undermined in comparison to the performative attraction of the danced battle, the features of costume and choreography demonstrate their tight connectedness to the dramaturgical logic of the mimetic triangle: both sides wear the same costumes which mix ancient Roman and oriental features, differing only in color (see Fig. 7 & 8) - red for the White army and black for the Black. The choreography consists of the shift of complicated figures and clashing of swords between two rings formed by the opposing armies, alternatively occupying the internal and the external one (see Fig. 3 & 4). Apart from that, one can observe the kinetic alternation of the positions of dominance and submission (see Fig. 5 & 6) during which it is difficult to distinguish the dissenting parties, until the internal, black ring is finally defeated. Here is what Girard would have said about the dance, had he chanced to have seen it:

Where we tend to see a difference emerge from the outcome of a conflict, the difference between victory on one side and defeat on the other, traditional and primitive societies emphasize the reciprocity of the conflict, or in other words the antagonist's mutual imitation. What strikes the primitive is the resemblance between the competitors, the identity of aims and tactics, the symmetry of gesture, etc. (1987: 11)

But to what ritual purpose, we may ask, could have Korculans enjoyed watching and acting Turks and Moors mirroring each other? As paradoxically as it may seem, the mimetic fascination of the mimetic enactment of the mimetic crisis and conflict derives from the urge to simulate disintegration in order to avert its actual possibility. Perceived to be a force, which can lead to unification as much as to violence, mimesis suffers continuous prohibitions, which are intentionally transgressed in order precisely to preserve the peace and social organization. That could probably explain the fact often insisted upon by researchers, that moreška was regularly performed on pro-regime occasions, during the visits of high Venetian and then Austrian officials, as it continued to be during the socialist regime, when the performers allegedly obeyed Marshal Tito's wish and ceased to blacken their faces with soot in order not to offense their black non-aligned brothers (cf. Marosevic 2002: 116).

Fig. 5 (enlarge)

Fig. 6 (enlarge)

Fig. 7 (enlarge)

Fig. 8 (enlarge)


... and its victims

But it is only after solving the issue of who or what is, according to Girard, responsible for bringing about the peace and social unification that we shall be able to fully comprehend the meta-cultural semiotics and the ideological stakes of the plot of moreška. After mimetic desire turns the adversaries into doubles, making them identical, the conflict can be exorcized only through an act of violence against a victim, who in turn becomes a sacred figure, responsible both for the conflict and for its resolution. However, it is around the interpretation of the role of this crucial figure - the victim - that Girard's initial hypotheses and Eric Gans's interpretation of his triangular structure slightly differ. The latter will interest us not only because it seems to fit the dealings of the Korculan moreška better, but also because it touches the precarious threshold of actual violence and its representational mimesis, leading us likewise to the importance of the gender-sensitive critique of the Girardian triangle offered by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (1985).

For Girard, the victim is arbitrarily chosen in order to carry the burden of insufferable violence of de-differentiated "all against all" already induced by the mimetic desire. The role of the victim can even be assumed by one of the rivals, but what singles it out is a mark of a difference, a weakness conferring on it the opposing features of vulnerability and power at the same time. Having been sacrificed, the victim becomes the founding sacred figure of the community, the one finally enabling the differentiation "between an inside and an outside, a before and after, a community and the sacred" by its very embodiment of contradictory features: "it seems to emerge from the community, and the community seems to emerge from it", it appears to be "simultaneously good and evil, peaceable and violent, a life that brings death and a death that guarantees life" (Girard 1987: 102).

In contrast to Girard, Eric Gans (1995) does not insist on the actual immolation and expulsion of the victim, but on the deferral of appropriation through representation: for him, Girard's mimetic triangle is sufficient to explain the semiotic mechanism establishing the threshold of human culture, which supersedes the imitative mechanism of more simple animal appetites directed at the same object. In his view, the victim is already picked up in the very object of mimetic desire, its designation is what he calls "the first sign", producing the primary scene of representation which replaces the scene of inevitable violence. By substituting the relations of horizontal imitation by the vertical relation of the sign to the object it represents, the originary representation however continues to manifest the ambivalent features of the object, since the confluence of imitated appropriative gestures produced its desirability and inaccessibility at the same time. Hence its simultaneous attraction and repulsion, an ambivalent power of which it is the object, the mediator and the sign: its power to fascinate is at one with its power to mediate signification. The victim, as Andrew J. McKenna's confronting of the theories of Girard, Gans and Derrida suggests, is decisive in its very undecidability: it is a "hallowed illusion, a quid pro quo by which abstinence constitutes presence. The only presence is that of the community to itself as mediated by the victim" (McKenna 1992: 72).

The scenario of today's moreška again says it all: the object of appropriation, the virgin Bula, offers to kill herself and thus end the battle at the peak of the crisis, whereupon the Black king is either defeated or willingly surrenders, praising the virgin's beauty and professing his love and unending loyalty. Here it is an actual woman for whom the battle is fought, while in the Spanish versions of the moros y cristianos theme, where the battle is fought over the possession of a castle, the female figure does indeed most frequently appear in a form of representation, as an image or statue of Madonna, having its black counterpart in the Moorish-Musulman Mahoma, a feminized version of Mohammad (cf. Harris 2000: 223). She is present, therefore, in two emblems exchanging their positions as transcendent keepers of the community. That an Algerian girl, the anonymous white Virgin, and finally Bula, could in turn stand for the representation of the continuously endangered religious, national or cultural identity of the island on which the moreška is performed, and which all throughout its history had to suffer foreign, for the most part Venetian dominance, was long inconceivable to Croatian scholars (see especially Foretic 1974: 52), forever puzzled by her changing affections.


Whose fiancée is she?

In order to conjecture a possible answer to that puzzle, we must turn to Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's use and criticism of René Girard's reading of the mimetic triangle in his study Desire, Deceit and the Novel as a reading which (like, I would add, Eric Gans's in the Origin of Language), does not take into account gender, i.e. the fact that the appropriative gestures rather frequently, if not always converge on the woman as the object of men's rivalry in mimetic desire, producing a profound asymmetry of power (Kosofsky Sedgwick 1985: 21-23). Following Kosofsky-Sedgwick's remarks and putting them into the framework of Gans's interpretation, we could then infer that at the core of the cultural differentiation perhaps lies sexual difference - the necessary difference, prior to any cultural identity. That the weak and vulnerable are appropriately singled out as victims, inevitably placed women in the position of object, where they continue to figure "as exchangeable, perhaps symbolic, property for the primary purpose of cementing the bonds of men with men" (ibid. 26), as is the case in so many cultural forms, from rituals to modern novels.

Transformed into the sign of the aborted gestures of appropriation, the figure of the woman acquires metaphorical power, enabling a transfer of the anxieties surrounding her sexual purity onto anxieties regarding the right to a territory. It is a phenomenon pertaining to the sexualization of political relationships and vice versa, in which the homo-social relations of mirroring reign over the traffic in women. Has she, having belonged for a while to the Others, perhaps became sullied and impure? Hence the persistence of ambiguous connotations of these contested and sacred female figures for whom, incidentally, races are run in Palio di Siena (cf. Handelman 1989), and battles are fought in fiestas de moros y cristianos and moreška, figures which, standing for the communal identity, always embody both the spiritual and the mundane, the Christian and the pagan aspects, the assurance of the Self and the insinuation of an Other.

In the Croatian dramatic tradition they follow the matrix established in the Korculan moreška, taking the shape of endangered virgin girls who always fear for their chastity, and whose affections might shift from one side to the other: Algerian, Christian, Turkish or Moorish, Venetian or Korculan. Having displaced the Christian-Christian tension, that is, the threat of an actual conflict between the Venetians and the Korculans, onto the fictional, mock-battle between Turks and Moors - those seemingly all-too-distant Others - the Korculans produced a version of the moros y cristianos theme which not only reversed the usual moral attributions regarding the White and the Black side in the conflict, designating the White side as equally or even more threatening Turks, but also managed to insinuate, to borrow James C. Scott's phrase already applied in Harris's analyses, a "hidden transcript" of a possible reversal of political fate (Scott 1990: 3).

It is a version in which they pretend to give over Bula to the powerful White king and to all the Korculan masters identified with the White King, but in which and through which they can still continue to desire the dark side of her inherent ambivalence, their own founding "hallowed illusion" - their Black virgin girl, the island itself, whose name in antiquity, and in a tradition lasting to this day, branded her as a true Moorish fiancé, Korkyra Melaina, Korcyra Nigra, Black Korcula.

© Lada Cale Feldman (Zagreb)


Foretic, Vinko (1974). Moreska. Korculanska viteska igra (Moreska. The Korcula sword dance). Korcula: Radnicko kulturno-umjetnicko drustvo Moreska Korcula

Gans, Eric (1995). "Mimetic paradox and the event of human origin". Anthropoetics I(2): online journal

Girard, René (1987). Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World. Transl. Stephen Bann & Michael Metteer. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press

Handelman, Don (1990). Models and Mirrors. Towards an Anthropology of Public Events. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Harris, Max (2000). Aztecs, Moors, and Christians: Festivals of Reconquest in Mexico and Spain. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press

Ivancan, Ivan (1973). Narodni plesovi Dalmacije, I. dio. Od Konavala do Korcule (Dalmatian Folk Dances. From Konavle to Korcula). Zagreb: Institut za narodnu umjetnost

Lozica, Ivan (1990). Izvan teatra (Outside Theater). Zagreb: HDKKT

Kosofsky Sedgwick, Eve (1985) Between Men, English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. New York: Columbia University Press

Marosevic, Grozdana (2002). "Korculanska moreska, ruggiero i spagnoletta" (Korcula moreska, ruggiero and spagnoletta). Narodna umjetnost, Casopis za etnologiju i folkloristiku 39(2): 111-140

McKenna, Andrew (1992). Violence and Difference. Urbana, IL-Chicago: University of Illinois Press

Scott, James C. (1990). Domination and Arts of Resistance. Hidden Transcripts. New Haven, CT-London: Yale University Press

Sparti, Barbara (2001). "The moresca and mattacino in Italy - circa 1450-1630". Proceedings of the Symposium Moreska: Past and Present. Zagreb: Institute of Ethnology and Folklore Research

Grundlagen/Fundamentals Teil 1/Part 1:
Teil 2/Part 2:
Teil 3/Part 3:
Moderation / Chair: Gloria Withalm
Teil 4/Part 4:
Nonverbale Zeichen/Non-verbal Signs

1.2. Signs, Texts, Cultures. Conviviality from a Semiotic Point of View /
Zeichen, Texte, Kulturen. Konvivialität aus semiotischer Perspektive"

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For quotation purposes:
Lada Cale Feldman (Zagreb): Unified in Conflict: Moros y Cristianos and Moreška, Mimetic Fascination of Intercultural Agon. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 15/2003. WWW:

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