WITCHCRAFT AND SUPERSTITION IN GALICIA
Following on from my last post about the legends and myths of Galicia, the history of witchcraft and superstition in this part of the world deserves more in-depth scrutiny. Galicia doesn’t carry the famed badge of “tierra meiga” for nothing – besides being the land of miraculous creatures and mystical beings, its long tradition of witchcraft, spells and magic continues to fascinate locals and tourists alike. Witchcraft was yet another means of explaining the unexplainable; living in a world where common every day occurrences have yet to be explained scientifically must have been confusing and terrifying and assigning reasons to events, however bizarre and unreasonable they may be, is part of our human heritage.
It’s mostly women who have historically been assigned the role of witch, which may be understandable given that they are traditionally the healers and nurturers. While the men were away fighting wars or working in fields, women kept the hearth warm, the children fed, created the herbal concoctions that could heal. They were engaged in tedious work such as spinning, weaving,
washing clothes which is where the oral traditions, knowledge, as well as gossip were passed on from mother to daughter. The image of the Crone – elderly, wizened, learned in the healing arts and the human condition, is one shared all over the world. And of course she is therefore responsible for when things don’t go so well; why is her child sick, ugly, malformed? Why have the crops failed this year? Why did my neighbour die despite the “cures” his wife had given him?
Witchcraft is far older than Christianity. The Christian image of a witch, thanks largely to a book written in 1486 by the clergyman Heinrich Kramer called 'The Malleus Maleficarum', or Hammer of the Witches, is the woman in league with the Devil, who has denied God and flies around on broomsticks, killing babies and generally causing havoc to the community. The Celts with their nature-based beliefs, their worship of the spiritual world of the moon, fire, water and earth attributed the divine mysteries to the gods and goddesses and exalted the priests and priestesses who could interpret those mysteries. The Gallegans carried on this tradition but with a Christian twist and came to regard witches as bringers of fortune and misfortune. The witch who had power to bring good luck, also had the power to take it away. A way to ward off the curses and evil eye of witches, rather than simply pray to God or the Virgin, was to faithfully reproduce rituals, make counter spells, carry talismans and wear amulets. This has carried on into modern day in many parts of the region.
Reference to an ecclesiastical tendency towards magic and superstition goes back to 1289 when a synod in Santiago de Compostela made it clear that bishops and clerics were prohibited to practice fortune telling, cast spells or charms or anything else that was considered heresy on pain of excommunication. With the establishment of the Inquisition in Spain, another synod was held in 1543 to once more insist on the excommunication of anyone who sought the advice or council of a fortune teller, enchantress or sorcerer or sorceress in order to know their future. They also were compelled to condemn the prevalent stealing of holy oil from the baptismal fonts for use in the making of spells.
Galicia was already gaining a reputation of being inordinately prone towards preserving their pre-Christian beliefs, with one inquisitor referring to the locals as “full of superstition….with little respect for Christianity.” Even the dramatist Tirso de Molina wrote in 1610, “Galicia produces witches as easily as turnips.”
However, in contrast with northern European countries, predominantly Protestant, witch hunts and burnings were relatively few. The Spanish Inquisition was more concerned with Jews and Moors than witches, specifically conversos and moriscos – those who professed to having converted to Catholicism, and Judaizers – Jews who secretly continued practicing their religion. After the overreaction of the Zugarramurdi witch trials in Logroño at the beginning of the 17th century, where hundreds of people, mostly women, were charged with witchcraft (though only 29 found guilty), the Inquisition decided the whole witch thing was getting out of hand. A distinction was made between the true meigas - witches who had pacts with the Devil as well as a penchant for nocturnal flight and a proclivity for child killing, and the simple sorceresses and healers who had knowledge of spells, herbs and blessings.
The more logically minded of the Inquisition realised that many of the accusers may just have personal grudges against their neighbours and a flair for misinterpreting natural phenomena. One enlightened young inquisitor, Alonso de Salazar Frías, argued that he had found no evidence of witchcraft in his travels and wrote, “…it is clear that the witches are not to be believed and the judges should not pass a sentence on anyone unless the case can be proven with external and objective evidence sufficient to convince anyone who hears it…” The idea that women could fly, become invisible, be in two places at the same time or change into any shape was “...beyond all human reason and may even pass the limits permitted by the Devil.” In 1614, the Inquisitor-General established the edict that more evidence for witchcraft must be provided, whereby helping to end witch-burning long before its European counterparts.
Nevertheless, belief and accusations of witchery continued. Famous witches tend to be revered rather than reviled as is the case of María Soliña, a wealthy landowner in Cangas de Morrazo, Pontevedra. In 1617, Turkish pirates pillaged the town killing her husband and brother and sending her into despair. Every night, in misery and anguish, the elderly woman visited the beach where they had died and that, interestingly, helped flame the fires of suspicion and she was eventually arrested for witchcraft. She was tortured by the Inquisition until she confessed to having been a witch for the last 20 years. They confiscated her property but allowed her to live. Nothing is known of what became of María, but she has inspired countless poems, stories, plays, films and opera. Even an educational institution is named after her!
It is also in Cangas where the witches were said to gather on the night of San Juan, called to their coven by the mysterious tolling of the bell of San Salvador de Coiro Church. The witches would gather a handful of sand, put it in a small cloth bag and place it in the chimney of some unlucky soul, provoking his or her demise. Further north on the Costa da Morte (Death Coast), pre-Roman inhabitants climbed to Monte Pindo at night to collect herbs for the witches’ sabbath. At its summit, the Pedra da Moa with its hundreds of natural waterholes, the rainwater blessed by the gods, was a popular place for fertility rites and other Celtic rituals of health and healing. Today, these places still attract visitors who like to cover all their bases – a little paganism mixed in with a prayer or two won’t do any harm…?
Witches and witchcraft continue to fascinate people all over the world. The types of witches can vary and as with the gnomes and goblins that can either be mischievous or helpful, spiteful or benevolent, the witches of Galicia also come in an array of temperaments. The Meigas Chuchonas (Bloodsucking Witches) are on the top of the list of badasses. They can change into vampires or insects and suck the blood and fat of children to make into potions.
The Marimanta abducts children in a sack and the Feiticeira witch entices children to the river with her hypnotic songs, where they fall in and drown. But there are witches of a more pleasant disposition who prefer to bring good fortune, such as the Dama de Castro who lives under the hillforts in an underground crystal castle. She will appear to those in need, who suffer from some kind of affliction or difficulty, and grant them favours. There are dozens more that all fulfil a fear or a desire or give answers to why things are the way they are in life.
For better or worse, modern life and a more worldly, less provincial education and upbringing is responsible for the decline, not only in the belief in witches and superstitions, but also in the folklore and ancient stories that have been the beating pulse of Galicia for so many centuries. The pre-Christian rites and rituals that have made their way into the Catholic tradition continue to survive but the stories of spells, charms, sorcerers, healers, along with the gnomes, goblins, witches good and bad, giants, mermaids and other magical beings are disappearing from the stories handed down from grandparents to grandchildren.
Today though, a new perspective on the crone archetype is gaining popularity in our present age of women empowerment and environmental awareness. A revitalization of pre-Christian nature religions appeals to those seeking a less institutionalised religion, which is often considered patriarchal and misogynist, and a more profound sense of spirituality. Preferring the term “goddess worshipper” over “witch”, these Spanish women, brought up Catholic, are more about reinterpreting the iconology of Catholicism than rejecting outright their history.
The Virgin Mary, for example, with her many manifestations, takes on the identity of the Earth Goddess, giver of life and nurturer, as well as many other pre-Christian goddesses - all fulfilling their function under the guise of Mother Mary. Maybe in the future the perception of a witch will have less to do with superstition, malice and ignorance and become a more effective symbol of feminine wisdom, environmental awareness and spiritual intelligence.
In the meantime, as they say in Galicia…”I don’t believe in witches, but there are, there are….”