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Tall tales: Why Belgium loves its 2,500 processional giants

Folkloric giants
10:41 04/07/2018

Folkloric giants, made of papier maché, cloth and wicker come to life in a magical way to the delight and wonder of young and old, when they dance in the streets of Belgium during festivals and parades.

They are part of the folklore of 75 countries - but in very few countries does the importance of giants come close to the place they have in Belgium, especially considering the size of the country.

There are more than 2,500 giants in Belgium. In the Brussels region there are 125 and the City of Brussels alone has 58. If you include the giants of French Flanders and southern Dutch Limburg, the total number is even more impressive. Only Spain has more, especially Catalonia, which has a strong and living giant tradition with thousands of giants plus 15,000 giant heads and 1,100 wicker monsters.

Why are there so many giants in Belgium?

It seems to be a combination of reasons. Originally they were part of religious celebrations, characters from the Bible or saints and they served to educate and edify the illiterate masses.

But they were appropriated by the people and became secular heroes, representing the freedoms ceded to the cities by the lords and so they were symbols of independence and opposition of the central power. In the 14th century, there were three small areas of Europe with a much higher concentration of cities, population and wealth than the rest of Europe - and Belgium and northern France was one of those areas. These were the first areas where wealthy but non-aristocratic families ran the cities and wrested freedom charters from the ruling lord.

Giants

Belfries as symbols of civic independence, and giants, proliferated. Cities were close to each other and in a sort of keeping up with the Jones, the people of a city would copy another city and create their own giants. For instance in 1462 the city of Ath sent a team to Oudenaarde to observe that city’s Horse Bayard and make sketches of it so that Ath can copy it.

Jean-Paul Heerbrant, director of the Centre Albert Marinus, which exists to maintain and preserve intangible heritage, tells The Bulletin: "I think it’s because in Belgium there is a long tradition of the spirit of your town and of your region. The giants are a manifestation of that spirit, of the spirit of belonging to that community, but we really need to do more research."

Local pride

Nowhere is this spirit on display more readily that in the Hainaut town of Ath which holds a major folkloric festival at the end of every summer. Known as the Ducasse d’Ath, this event starts on the fourth weekend in August and goes to 8 September.

The first recorded mention of the Ducasse is in 1399. Virtually the entire town - and this includes children as young as three - is involved. The entire population is invested in the Ducasse but the stars of all the activity are the giants Goliath, Mrs Goliath, Samson, Miss Victory, Ambiorix, the Horse Bayard and the two-headed Eagle. Goliath dates from 1481 but he had to wait centuries for a mate, since Mrs Goliath dates from 1715.

There are numerous floats and marching bands and the parade is led by the municipal firemen. The main parade is performed twice, once in the morning and then it retraces its steps in the afternoon. There is such a rapport and respect between the citizens and the giants that on the first Monday the giants go individually into the neighborhoods to receive the thanks of the population for having danced for kilometres on cobblestone streets carrying an up to 80kg load, a true labour of love.

One of the high points of the Ducasse is the confrontation between David and Goliath and Ath is the only European city where such a religious mystery play is still being performed. Other examples of the perennity of the tradition are the popularity of the Ommegangs of Lier, Mechelen and Dendermonde despite the fact that in Mechelen and Lier it's once every 25 years and in Dendermonde every 10 years.

Renewal

The Belgian giants are also a living folklore and in Brussels alone there has been an average of one new giant every year for the past 20 years. They often are celebrations of contemporary figures - for instance, one of the Marolles giants is Le Grand Jacques, a four-metre-tall version of Jacques Brel carrying his guitar.

In Brussels you can catch the giants parading during the Ommegang today and Friday (4 and 6 July), during the planting of the Meiboom on 9 August, during the Bruegel Festival in the Marolles and during the Belgian National Day on 21 July.

Giants

And this summer you have a unique opportunity to get very close to the giants because the Coudenberg Museum is presenting a gorgeous exhibition where you can see a wide variety of the giants as well as discover the complete history of this very special folklore. As part of the exhibition, artist Phil van Duynen has created some quizzical photographic images including the Brussels giants invading Tokyo like Godzilla or using the Bird's Nest Stadium in Beijing as a bench.

"They asked me to make an exhibition of the giants from an artistic point of view," he says. "For me the giants are linked to childhood, I remember when I was young I liked them because they impressed me and so I tried to make something amusing and I hope that children will like it."

Lots of giants have disappeared over the years destroyed by wars or religious intolerance or the unease of the authorities - and now there is a new danger for the Brussels giants. There is a severe giant housing crisis. When they are not parading they need a big enough space with the right atmospheric environment considering their size and what they are made from.

Giants

"Sometimes when people create new giants they don’t take into consideration the fact that the giant will need a permanent shelter when it’s not out dancing," says Heerbrant. "So this is a real problem and we need help from the city to preserve and strengthen this unique folklore."

The Ommegang, 4 and 6 July, central Brussels
Giants! at the Coudenberg until 2 September

Written by Richard Harris