GALICIA - WHERE PAGANISM AND CHRISTIANITY MERGE
All of Spain boasts its fair share of myths and legends but the north of the country seems to have taken it to a whole new level, probably due to its isolating thick forests and impassable mountains that prevented invading cultures from fully permeating the interior regions of Galicia, Asturias and the Basque Country. North-western Iberia before the Roman invasion in the 1st and 2nd centuries BCE was populated by Celtic tribes that shared a similar culture and worshipped similar gods to other Celtic tribes in Gaul, Brittany, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. But Galicia’s pagan spirit can be traced back further, to 4500 BC – a megalithic age that saw the creation of large stone structures such as dolmens which already suggests a tendency to venerate the dead with cult-like observances. Since then there has been a continual oral tradition of religious beliefs and practices that run the gamut from goblins, witches, giants, snake dragons, wandering souls, elves, demons, mermaids, ogres to other miraculous creatures woven into endless elaborate rites and rituals.
It's remarkable how a land that was so ripe with ancient legends, witchcraft and superstition managed to become Christianized. Its story begins in the rocks, stones, earth, water and air. Galicia’s Celtic heritage is entwined with the mysterious fragas – the humid lush green forests of oak, laurel, holly, mosses, ferns, lichens, rivers, streams and brooks, veiled in the mist that lingers much of the year. These forests are the stuff of enchanted fairy tales, infused with the spirits of the elements and as conscious as the creatures that inhabit them. Its very landscape is manifest in its traditions, myths and legends going back to its most prehistoric history. Walking through the fragas, the sound of moisture trickling and dripping, etching its story into the landscape, you get a strong sense of these spirits as well as the magic elves, fairies and witches concealed behind the visible.
The ethnonym 'Gallaeci' is thought to mean “stone people” or “people who work with stone”. They are builders of dolmens, megalithic tombs of horizontal stone slabs supported by two vertical ones. Their castros (hillforts) were built on hills or seashores with clear views of invading parties from land or sea and made up of circular stone pallozas with thatched roofs. You can still see granite everywhere today in the architecture and in the form of hórreos, (granaries), lavaderos, (washing fountains), cruceiros (calvary crosses with images of Christ or saints) and the many grapevine supports dotted around the countryside.
But despite its long history of stone masonry, later generations seemed to have forgotten how many of these large structures came to be and invented legends to explain them. The legends then became part of the Christian narrative as did the magic and superstition that were the foundation of the Gallegans’ existence. The following is just a short selection of the kinds of legends that demonstrate a wonderful intertwining of ancient paganism and Christianity.
Mouros, Mouras and Dragon-Snakes.
The mouros and mouras are a mythical race that were responsible for the dolmens and castros under which they still live. They can only be seen at specific times of the year such as the night of Saint John the Baptist – an important midsummer festival celebrated all over the country that combines the cleansing ritual of fire and the triumph of light over dark. The mouros are invisible giants with strange powers and the mouras beautiful women with long blond or red flowing hair and blue eyes. These women possess riches and treasures beyond imagination which may be occasionally discovered by a local in the form of a golden hair comb or delicate earrings, traces of the area’s Bronze Age craftsmanship. The mouras sometimes appear as dragon-like snakes with wings and whose sharp claws are responsible for the petroglyphs found etched in the granite landscape.
Snake-dragons are a common motif in many cultures as guardians or protectors of treasure. The snake is a key figure in ancient Celtic times so it’s no surprise to find it associated with the Galician legends and litholatry. In the municipality of Laxe, in O Coruña, you can find the monolith A Serpe de Gondomil (The Snake of Gondomil) -a relief carved in stone of a coiled winged serpent of unknown date or purpose. In an attempt to Christianise what is obviously blatant paganism, a large Christian cross thought to date back to Roman times was added to the stone. In order to get past the dragon-snake and find the treasures beyond, one must engage the help of a priest or meiga (sorceress/witch) who will act as a mediator between the two worlds and then is required to undergo challenges to prove his spiritual worth.
The Catholic devotion to the Virgin Mary took on a powerful significance in Spain with the Virgin representing all manner of miracles and sacred locations. Marian devotion transformed the pagan deities and their responsibilities and became a powerful symbol of purity and militant strength, especially during the religious wars against the Moors in the Middle Ages. The Virgin of La Lanzada has particularly miraculous powers for fertility and protection against the evil eye. She is honoured at the estuary of Pontevedra, a beach stretching almost three kilometres with a history that dates back to at least the Iron Age. La Lanzada has a long pagan tradition involving water, the moon and reproduction – the hermitage itself is located where gods of fertility were likely worshipped as evidenced by three nearby dolmens. Also nearby are a castro, roman ruins and necropolis, a medieval tower used against Norman and Moorish attacks and a Romanesque hermitage from the 12th century - all testimony to its long historical importance.
During the last weekend of August, hundreds of people make the pilgrimage to the Virgin’s hermitage in the hope of divine blessings. Women who wish to become pregnant will sit on the nearby rocks and allow the Atlantic waves to wash over their abdomen nine times at twilight on the night of San Juan or a full moon in August. Sweeping around the altar three times or dropping three coins at the base of the Virgin or even three trips to the hermitage after mass will ensure protection against bad omens.
A Procession of Souls and the Hole of Hell.
Slightly more spine-tingling is the Santa Compaña (Holy Company), a ghoulish procession of souls on their way to purgatory from the beach of A Lanzada to the Buraco do Inferno (Hell Hole) on the island of Ons. O Buraco is a 43-metre-deep chasm in the shape of an X that reaches to the sea. After a storm in 2003, the hole collapsed and stones blocked the entrance but it was said that during wild and windy days the sounds of screaming souls being dragged to hell could be heard coming from the hole. The procession represents the sorrowful dead wandering around and offering candles to those who will die soon and though you can’t see the souls, you can sense them by the smell of wax lingering in the air as they pass. Re-enactments have the souls dressed in green or white hooded cloaks - one carries a cross, another an urn of holy water, others candles or a coffin. There are various superstitions regarding ways of avoiding the macabre procession, such as drawing a circle and standing inside it, tying a black cat in its path or making hand signs and gestures, but ultimately if your time is up……. it will find you.
Spain is famous for its festivals and nowhere are they more embraced than in Galicia, cloaked in Christian observance but still evincing a distinct pagan quality. The feast of Saint John the Baptist falls on the 24th June but he is mostly celebrated the night before in an explosion of bonfires, food and festivities, often conveniently coinciding with the summer solstice. In pagan times, the shortest night of the year was a time of sacrifice and ritual in order to ensure the sun would return as it began its gradual journey into winter. The fires symbolised the renewal of the sun’s energy and power. Today, the night of San Juan, apart from being the time when doors are opened to the underworld, is a time for purification and healing. The noite meiga (witch’s night) continues to see ancient practices that prevent curses, herbal concoctions with healing powers and protection from evil spirits if one jumps the fires nine times.
In Ribarteme, belief in the healing power of Saint Martha, the sister of Lazarus who pleaded with Jesus to resurrect her brother, has been transformed into a ceremony that manifests the believers’ gratitude to the saint for a near death experience or cure for an illness. Every year, the thankful are carried in coffins by friends or family in a procession that apparently was originally practiced by pre-Christians. Despite the efforts of a local priest to ban the practice because it propagates “a lot of superstition, a lot of witchcraft, a lot of nonsense”, the popularity of the ceremony and the tourism it generates, will no doubt ensure its continuation for many years to come.
Sacred Stone Boats
It took a lot to Christianize the Gallegans. They were infamously stubborn despite the efforts of the Romans and later, the Visigoths. It wasn’t until the legend of Saint James travelling to Spain to proselytize, and his remains “discovered” in the 9th century in present day Santiago de Compostela, that Christianity really took off. Other legends involving apostles, saints and even Mother Mary herself were largely intertwined with the local observances and rites. Legends involving stone boats also occur in Brittany and Ireland with stories of Celtic monks arriving in Brittany in these boats of granite or sandstone. Hermitages and sanctuaries were built on pre-Christian shrines of pagan worship and local gods were transformed into saints and biblical figures. One of the best-known and popular examples of this is the Sanctuary of Our Lady of the Boat and the oscillating stones.
The chapel was first built in the 12th century over a supposed pre-Christian site used in rites of initiation and healing. This was the place where the Virgin was said to have sailed in a stone boat. She had come to Galicia in the hope of encouraging the discouraged apostle Saint James when he felt the locals were not responding to the Christian message as much as he had hoped. Today you can see her boat in three pieces - the Rock of Alabar, which represents the sail, the Rock of Cadris which is the main part of the boat and the Rock of the Rudder which, as the name suggests, is the rudder. Pilgrims arrive every second week of September to Muxia, on the wind-ravaged and wave-lashed Costa da Morte (Coast of Death) to pay their respects and hope she will cure their back and kidney problems. The Rock of Cadris is shaped in the form of a kidney and it is said that crawling under it nine time will alleviate any back pains – a challenge for someone suffering this affliction, I would imagine. The Rock of Alabar will let you know if you are free of sin, or depending on what source you heed, the Virgin will hear your prayers if the rock moves and makes a noise when you stand on it.
Another legend involving a stone boat and a pilgrimage is that of San Andrés de Teixido. Perched majestically at the top north-west of Galicia, also with stunning views to the wild Atlantic, is the village and sanctuary of Saint Andrew. It’s a magical place that was given divine status and assurance by God to the apostle Andrew that many people would come to admire its beauty. According to legend, Saint Andrew’s stone boat capsized on the rocky coast, and he was left stranded and again, doubtful of converts. God promised him that if people did not make the pilgrimage to this sacred spot during their lifetime, they would make it after their death. Pilgrims must now be vigilant on their trek to the sanctuary to avoid stepping on any insect or interrupting the pilgrimage of any animal lest it be a reincarnated soul making the journey before it is allowed to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. In the nearby Fuente del Santo (The Saint’s Fountain) you can heal your warts in the medicinal water or make a wish by throwing breadcrumbs into the stream that runs beneath the fountain. If the bread floats, your wish has been granted.
The Catholic observances that have become such a prominent part of the Gallegans’ lives, such as the celebration of saints’ days, pilgrimages to sanctuaries and hermitages and religious festivals, are still interspersed with pagan rituals here and there. Besides the processions around the streets with the appropriate saint or other religious figure and the masses in the churches, there continues to be a Celtic element that runs through it all, usually related to the moon, water, fire and stone.
Whether it is drinking from a particular fountain a particular number of times, bathing in or sleeping with a herbal concoction, walking around a sacred place several times in the hope of being healed, wearing an amulet to protect against evil spirits or eating/not eating certain foods, the ancient superstitions continue to be an integral part of the monotheistic devotion.
As for witches! There is so much there, it will have to wait for another post.