Dancing with the Devil | Mallorca’s Bizarre Satanic Fire Festival

We spoke to the secretive "federation of demons, devils and fire beasts" about their explosive Nit de Foc celebrations

by Clem Fiell
Jul 24 2018, 10:45am

The Mediterranean isle of Mallorca is often seen as a package holiday hell. Just mentioning the name conjures up images of sunburnt, boozy Brits in their thousands falling out of clubs and into ‘Real English Food’ pubs. This is, after all, the home of Magaluf.

But the Mallorca I know is very different. Having visited the Balearic isle since early childhood, my memories are filled with countless happy summer afternoons spent playing in the tiny towns which dot the island’s mountainous interior. With their sleepy church spires and cool public pools, these places always seemed to be a paradise.

Except, that is, for one night of the year. For every July, as the sun sets slowly upon the baking terracotta rooftops, the gates of hell itself would open.

“For every July, as the sun sets slowly upon the baking terracotta rooftops of Mallorca, the gates of hell itself open.”

In a spark-showering, fire-throwing spectacle known locally as ‘Nit De Foc’, masked and hooded raiders would begin terrorising the neighbourhood.

The streets of Mallorca are exploding with masked demons. Photo: Richard Cunynghame

Picture me, a trembling child kitted out in goggles and two extra jumpers, screaming as volleys of fireworks skitter across the cobblestones amidst the crowd. Imagine my horror as horned demons snatched babies from their shrieking mother’s arms, carrying them off into the smoke.

How was I supposed to know this was all pretend; that Satan himself had not descended on my summer holiday? Only as I got older did I begin to ask questions: Why did this pious Catholic community allow the devil to run amok? I needed answers. I decided to hunt down a demon myself.

What I found was a shadowy network of part-time monster clans, with each representing a remote Catalonian parish. One of these long-standing, hooded fiends – real name Mikel Cai – agreed to speak to me.

Flames being thrown into the crowds. Photo: Richard Cunynghame

He explained that devilish fire-dancing had occurred across the Mediterranean since pagan times, nearly always occuring around the shortest night of the year. “When humanity discovered how to make fire,” Cai told me, “he began the process of taming this ancestral element. It became an indispensable tool for human survival. It also contributed to the socialization of the community, as everybody gathered around the light of the fire. Fire gained festive function.”

As Catholic Orthodoxy swept Spain, old pagan rituals were modified to suit the Christian moral order. Chaotic celebrations were reshaped into educative depictions of the devil. “Bonfires lit the islands at different times of the year; especially to celebrate San Antonio and San Juan. Fire was also adopted into medieval street theatre. It represents the confrontation between good and evil.”

Much like the bloodied photoreal martyrs whose images fill Spanish churches, the depictions of hellish torment became increasingly violent and grotesque. Audiences were shown every gory detail of hell – not as an abstract idea, but as a burning-hot reality.

The satanic ritual of fire-breathing. Photo: Richard Cunynghame

“In the Balearics,” Cai boasted, “we have tamed the devil – turning him into a real being that can be beaten and mocked. Representing him allows us the freedom to transgress the rules, and to laugh at the seriousness of everyday life. He frightens us yet seduces us.”

The rituals carried out in different regions varied somewhat, but remained relatively unchanged until the mid-20th century. Under the fascist General Franco, festivities were forced underground – perhaps because there is nothing scarier to an autocrat than a crowd in masks holding flaming torches.

The fire was never quite extinguished however, and upon his death in 1975, a new generation of devils reignited the tradition. It was this movement which inspired Mikel to don the horns.

The long lost tradition of correfoc, re-ignited across Mallorca. Photo: Richard Cunynghame

“[These groups] fused their local satanic customs with ideas taken from experimental street theatre. They aimed to recover the street as an arena for chaos, combining spectacular pyrotechnics with traditional Mediterranean insolence. The term ‘correfoc’, literally meaning ‘fire runs’, emerged to describe the rituals they performed. The movement resulted in an explosion of demon gangs across the Balearics.”

Since then the performances have become bigger, scarier and more vibrant. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the role of a demon held such appeal to the young men of Mallorca that a special ministry had to be formed for their training; the EU-recognised ‘Federation of Demons, Devils & Fire Beasts’.

Locals and visitors celebrating the Night of Fire. Photo: Richard Cunynghame

“To understand the life of a demon,” said Cai, “you really have to live it. During the preparations for the ceremony, there’s always a moment when you ask yourself, ‘what the fuck am I doing here?’”

“But as soon as you change, paint your face and see the environment, your brain switches. The devil inside you emerges. You have a license to be scary ­– to break every rule. All the while you are protected behind the privacy of the mask and the costume. This is the significance of the demon brotherhood.”

The festival of the ‘Nit de Foc’ runs every July across Mallorca from the 12th to the 25th of July. For more information, click here.

Richard Cunynghame is a film-maker and photographer based in Mallorca. Check out more of his work on Instagram.