DISSEN-STRIESOW, Germany – Riding at a thunderous gallop, young men in a small east German village attempted to snatch the head of a dead rooster hanging from above in a traditional Sorbian harvest fest, as could be seen in images provided by epa on Monday.
The prize for whoever managed to rip off the fowl’s noggin? The honor of being bestowed with a wreath of oak leaves and the title of Kral (king), which carries the added bonus of selecting a dance partner among the village maidens.
Ascending the throne, however, is no small feat: riders must stand up on their stirrups and lunge at the deceased bird while bestriding their mounts at full speed, a hazardous endeavor that often ends in bruising falls, as witnessed by the epa photographer at the site.
Still, as the epa pictures show, the young competitors risk life and limb in their quest to be crowned Kral; at the dance, the winner will be able to fumble for an unseen co-dancer while blindfolded as the girls swirl around in an alluring act of old-fashioned courtship.
This season’s victor, Marcus, showed his delight as his blindfold came off to reveal the identity of his traditionally-attired dance partner.
In other Sorbian villages, the Kral gets to dance with the “Frog Queen,” the damsel who wins a race which involves pulling small carts on which live frogs are perched.
The slippery amphibians must remain atop the cart as it reaches the finish line – some contestants allegedly stick them in the fridge before the race to make this easier.
Located some 110 kilometers (68 miles) to the southeast of Berlin and close to the Polish border, the tranquil town of Dissen-Striesow (pop. 1,006 as of Dec. 2015) reveals its Slavic heritage in its name: it combines the Lower Sorbian words Desno (“right”) and Strjazow – derived from “straza,” or “watch post.”
Every year come harvest time, the town holds its famed summer fest, with villagers dressing up in traditional garb and reveling to the sound of folk tunes in a festive paean to their idiosyncratic heritage.
In times past, the cock – which is hung upside down from an ornate gate along with smaller prizes, such as tiny liquor bottles or cigarette packs – was alive; nowadays, thanks to pressure from animal rights activists, the feathered creature is mercifully unaware of his own decapitation-by-yank.
The rooster symbolizes the spirit of fertility: after the harvest, it has outlived its purpose and will inevitably be replaced by a younger sperm donor in the next installment of the never-ending wheel of life.
These unique traditions are cultural staples of the Sorbs, a West Slavic minority scattered through the easternmost parts of Germany, who for centuries have been plucking cocks and racing frogs on carts pulled by village women in the picturesque Spreewald region.
Sorbs as an ethnic group make up an important national minority possessing constitutionally-protected rights in Germany, with an estimated 60,000 living predominantly in the German states of Saxony and Brandenburg, which are part of what was once known as the Central European region of Lower Lusatia.
The Sorbs are culturally and linguistically differentiated from Germanic people, although most now speak German as their first language due to factors such as standardized schooling, mass media and the rural flight phenomenon.
Harvest fests and other traditions, such as Easter egg painting, are some of the methods through which their distinctive culture lives on despite the steady erosion of the language and the relentless forces of cultural homogenization.