Blog post

Castellers: Catalonia's human towers

'Strength, balance, courage and good judgement'

colour photograph of people beginning a human tower, each with their arms out-stretched
CRDI - Ajuntament de Girona (opens in new window)
Sofie Taes (opens in new window) (KU Leuven / Photoconsortium)

'Strength, balance, courage and good judgement' is the motto of the human towers or 'castells' typical of Catalonia, Spain. These words stem from the choral composition Els Xiquets de Valls, written by Josep Anselm Clavé in 1867. As a slogan, they sum up the vital ingredients needed for successfully building constructions of people ('castellers'). But there's something else at the heart of the tradition: community spirit.

In this blog, we zoom in on this extraordinary practice that serves as a prime example of intangible cultural heritage.

Performance practice with pedigree

Castells are human constructions, six to ten people high, that can occasionally be spotted in cities and town squares in Catalonia. Having originated at the end of the 18th century in the Camp de Tarragona area, they have spread all across the region - and beyond.

colour photograph of a human tower with a yellow and red flag in the top right corner obscuring the view of the top of the tower

Catalonian towns often boast their very own castellers teams, who not only perform on public squares or - occasionally - inside large buildings, but also go beyond city limits to appear at dedicated events. Yet their performances can't be considered a competition. Teams mainly aim at pushing their own limits and achieving new challenges. Competitions such as the biennial 'Castells de Tarragona' are actually quite exceptional.

colour photograph, a large crowd of people surround a human tower inside a cathedral

Unwritten rules

Should you ever have the opportunity to attend a castellers performance, it is good to know how it works. There are some basic elements and customs to grasp, even though you won't find 'Rules of Human Towers' published anywhere: castells are built according to unwritten conventions, known and accepted by everyone.

Usually three teams participate in a performance - although this can vary depending on the importance of the day. Each of these groups constructs three human towers and a farewell pillar. Their castells are named according to the number of castellers per level and the number of levels, for example, '4 out of 9' (a castle consisting of 9 levels with four people each). A minimum of 6 levels is needed for a structure to be considered a castle. The exception is the pillar, which can contain 4 levels.

colour photograph, a man holds a sheet of paper with a plan diagram against the back of another man

Each part of the tower (as well as the people constituting it), has its specific terminology. First of all, there's the base, supporting the structure of the castle. Next is the trunk, crowned at its very top by a dome. In higher castles, the base may be followed by a cover or auxiliary base and shackles or extra base as a reinforcement of the structure.

colour photograph, a human tower in a crowded city square, the people on the tower wear white while the crowd around them wear red and green clothing

At the very top stands the crowner. When they raise their arm, the tower is considered complete and the audience rewards the achievement with enthusiastic applause!

colour photograph, a person stepping up to be the crown on a human tower

To achieve this success, every element of construction is intensely rehearsed. And each casteller has a specific place and role in the tower with children - protected by safety helmets - often forming the top layers.

colour photograph of a child wearing pink safety helmet being carried above arms by two other children

The lower in the tower, the more difficult it becomes to observe how the construction is unfolding. Therefore, music is an indispensable tool for castellers, indicating the stage of the construction effort. Typical instruments involved in creating such a soundtrack, include the gralla (a traditional Catalan wind instrument) and the drums.

colour photograph, four people wearing light blue clothing playing musical instruments

When a castle collapses, it is said that 'it makes firewood'. Though it looks daunting, there is no reason to panic! Castellers train to succeed but also to fail. They learn how to manage falls and reduce injuries.

colour photograph, a man in a human tower cheering, he wears white trousers and a pink-striped shirt

The ultimate success of the castellers is not the finished tower, but its controlled dismantlement. Only when a castell is deconstructed without fails or falls, teams will celebrate and congratulate one another.

Dream teams

The team aspect of the art of the castellers goes far beyond the actual performance.

Teams reflect the communities in which they are embedded, counting any number of members from a hundred up to a thousand! Each team has a leader, who manages a group of people of a wide range of builds, skills and ages. Although women did not join in massively until the 1980s, today they make up a large part of a typical castellers team.

The name of the teams usually refers to their place of origin, for example Xiquets de Valls, Marrecs de Salt, Castellers de Barcelona. Furthermore, teams are recognisable by their costume.

colour phtoograph, a large human tower surrounded by a big crowd of people

These outfits boast a long tradition too. An important part of a team's identity is its shirt in a proprietary colour, often red, blue or green. To avoid confusion, teams often use different shades as if it were a Pantone chart.

colour photograph of a human tower surrounded by a large crowd in which different groups with differently coloured clothing can be seen

To go with the shirt, castellers have white trousers, a black waist sash and a red polka dot bandana that has several functions, such as protecting the wrists of the members who are in the lower part of the castle, keeping hair out of the way or offering protection to the head on sunny days. Chest badges are the finishing touch, reinforcing the team's identity.

Castells in Catalonia

Nowadays, there are 104 castellers teams in Catalonia. They raise around 10,000 human towers a year, mainly between the midsummer feast of Sant Joan (24 June) and the Day of Santa Úrsula (first Sunday after 21 October). Often, they mark unique ceremonies or celebrations, such as the tribute to artist Salvador Dalí - an avid enthusiast of castellers - organised by his hometown Figueres in 1961.

black and white photograph, crowds surrounding a human tower rising to greet a man standing on a platform

In the north of Catalonia and more specifically in the city of Girona - location of the archive from which this blog's images were taken - constructing castells is a rather recent practice. Historical pictures do document, however, that throughout the 20th century, teams from outside of the city have visited Girona to perform at public festivities.

black and white photograph, a human tower rises to greet a number of people standing on a first floor balcony

Since 1997, the city of Girona has its very own team, Marrecs de Salt. It has since become a tradition for them to raise human towers during local events, especially at the occasion of the Sant Narcís Fair, the last week of October.

A global story

The practice of building human towers is not exclusive to Catalonia, though. Teams often travel abroad to demonstrate their skills. There are also castellers teams in other countries, such as the Castellers of París (France), Castellers of London (UK), Xiquets of Copenhagen (Denmark), Xiquets of Hangzhou (China) or the Koales of Melbourne (Australia).

colour photograph of a smiling woman, she wears a red shirt and blue headband and is in a crowd with other castellars wearing similar clothing

In 2010, UNESCO approved the inclusion of castellers in its Representative List of Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

In this way, human towers acquired a universal status and gained the highest possible recognition as an element of popular culture. With this validation, the underlying meaning and importance of the castellers' art has gained worldwide recognition. Mixing modernity and tradition, castellers transmit universal values such as teamwork, solidarity and self-improvement. Participants share a strong sense of being part of the community. Therefore, casteller associations are of great importance for the inclusion and integration of people of all ages, origins, races and social status.

This blog is part of WEAVE – Widen European Access to cultural communities Via Europeana: a project funded by the European Commission under the Connecting Europe Facilities (CEF) aimed at developing a framework to link the tangible and intangible heritage of cultural communities.