EL CARPIO DE TAJO, Spain — The goose hangs by its feet from a thick rope stretched across the town square on the feast day of Santiago, the patron saint of Spain. A rider on horseback passes underneath and yanks the head off.
He has his prize and the crowd cheers. Another goose is brought out and strung up for another rider.
Critics call it barbarous.
But to the thousands of Spaniards in the villages and towns, yearly fiestas that often involve the ritualistic killing of a goose or a rooster or a bull are an essential part of their lives and an affirmation of their cultural identity.
None of the onlookers at the fiesta in this agricultural village of 2,500 near the Tagus River in the rolling hills of central Spain could say for certain why the eight male riders dressed in black britches and embroidered jackets try to pull the heads off geese.
But they know young men have been doing it every July 25, the feast day, for 400 years, at least.
The practice gained notice abroad about five years ago when photographs of the event appeared in the British press. Headlines called the Spaniards barbarians and worse. Nowadays the geese have been injected with a tranquilizer.
"They're numb, they don't feel anything, that's all I'll say," said Mayor Pedro Villalba Cedeno.
Anthropologists surmise that the practice grew out of a celebration of the legendary appearance of Santiago, or St. James, at the Battle of Navas de Tolosa in 1212, sparking a Christian victory over the Moors.
The geese represent the Moors, who ruled much of Spain for more than 700 years.
Traced to Prehistoric Caves
In some towns, the sacrificial victim is a bull, whose ritualistic importance in Spain can be traced back to the prehistoric caves across the northern part of the country and to the Iberian culture that predates the Romans.
The bulls at one time were burned alive. Now the ends of their horns are set on fire with flaming balls of tar, sending the bulls into panicked flight. Young boys chase them and beat them with sticks until the fire in the tar balls dies out. In one town, the bulls are killed after that but in others they simply left alone.
In other towns bulls are driven over cliffs into the sea. Townspeople rescue them from the water, but if the bulls break their legs or are otherwise injured they are taken to the slaughterhouse.
Julio Caro Baroja, the dean of Spanish anthropologists, has done extensive studies of the fiestas, their relation to the seasonal cycle and the role of animals in them.
The ritual killing of animals, he writes, serves an expiatory function that has been incorporated, if not explicitly sanctioned, by the Roman Catholic Church.
In El Carpio de Tajo, a rider carrying the religious banner of St. James precedes the riders who behead the geese.
"We've received hundreds of letters of protest from foreigners who've read about the geese and other fiestas involving animals," said Alicia Tiemblo Diaz, head of information at Spain's Secretariat for Tourism. "I've talked to town officials who tell me, 'Let them complain. It's our fiesta, and we'll keep on doing it the way we want."'
The Spanish Animal Rights Assn. has joined forces with other European organizations to encourage governments of the 12-member European Community to pass legislation banning cruelty to animals. There is little likelihood such action will prosper in Spain.
"Our fiestas are cruel. I didn't realize how cruel they were until I started going out and studying them," said Guadalupe Gonzalez Hontoria, director of the Museum of Popular Arts and Traditions at Madrid's Autonomous University. "We Spaniards do have our brutish side, but we can also be very brave."
During the 36-year dictatorship of Gen. Francisco Franco, many fiestas, particularly those that emphasized regional or local characteristics, were suppressed. Pre-Lenten carnivals were banned as being too licentious until authorities figured out that it drew tourism.
Following the return to democracy 12 years ago, Gonzalez Hontoria said, Spaniards began to celebrate their fiestas with renewed gusto.
"It seems now with modernization, everyone wants to go back to his roots, and people see that they can lose their fiestas if they don't defend them."