SAN JUAN DE ORIENTE & DIRIA—In the small towns lining the base of Nicaragua’s Mombacho Volcano, men young and old relentlessly lash one other with sticks and petrified bull penises in the celebration of their patron saints.
The annual festivities—called fiestas patronales—are celebrated during the last week of June in honor of Saint Peter, the patron saint of Diria, and Saint John the Baptist, of Jan Juan de Oriente.
For three days, residents dance and march to drumbeats and trumpets in processions that snake through the towns’ streets, carrying religious statues that sway to the beat of the music. The processions go door to door, stopping at each house to collect gifts of fruit, candles, cash, drinks and sweets in offering to the saints.
But the flogging matches between men have become the highlight of the celebrations, as contenders revel in the thrill of beating one another to a swollen mess.
While the beatings once had strict Biblical implications, the increasingly violent nature of this annual blood sport—one where participants occasionally lose an eye or ear, or get beaten to the point where they are unrecognizable to their mothers—has left some folks concerned.
“This used to be an act of repentance where the hitting represented a purification of the spirit and body, but it’s changed into a celebration of machismo and drunken debauchery,” historian Ronald Bendaña laments from his rocking chair, as he watches the bands of wiener wielding men process through Diria’s streets.
“In the past, the celebration was a religious act of faith. People asked for forgiveness and everything was for the saint, but now it’s only about drinking, drugs and fun,” Bendaña says.
In San Juan de Oriente, a town famous for its ceramics and artisans, Monce Darling, 18, points to her friend who is sporting bright red lash marks all along his back, with a bloody arm and black-and-blue eye to boot.
“It’s so violent,” she says, standing next to her popcorn stand and serving the many observers gathered in the bleachers to watch the beatings in front of the town’s Catholic church. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a little kid—you can still fight. I don’t like it.”
Darling’s friend, Eddyson Vasquez, 14, proudly displays his battle scars. Asked what he thinks of the experience, Vasquez mumbles a few drunken and incoherent words, before stumbling away, tailed by a strong stench of rum.
Though no one in the town seems to know exactly why petrified bull penises are used in the celebration (other than the boilerplate answer “tradition”), the phallic whips seem to greatly invigorate the men, who alternate between jumping around and shouting battle cries, and then pairing off for a penis fight.
Ramon Vega, who owns a pulperia in Diria, says the centuries-old practice is interesting because it combines tradition from three cultures.
“It has components of African, Spanish and indigenous cultures, which makes it more interesting,” he says as he hands out cokes and beers to a group of soldiers who came to march in the band.
“It’s certainly a unique celebration that you won’t find anywhere else in Nicaragua, or the world.”
And the bulls are thankful for that.