Stories & Legends
How the Costa da Morte (Death Coast) Got its Name
According to legend, Roman explorers named this coastal area Finisterrae or land's end because it appeared to to be the Peninsula's most western point. This place, where the land ends and the open sea begins, was in Roman belief the symbolic transition point between life and death, beginning and end, light and darkness. It also appears that pre-Roman (Celtic and Greek) ancestors appreciated the spectacular sunsets and the dramatic coastline as the place is also home to an ancient Ara Solis (Altar of the Sun) or sun cult.
The less romantic version of the name's origin is based on the sad fact that more than 140 ships and 500 lives have been lost on this rocky coast in less than 100 years. A gruesome, now discounted, legend of this historical version suggests that the coastal inhabitants provoked many of the shipwrecks to hijack their cargo. To lure the boats upon the dangerous rocks lights were strung on cows' horns and then the unsuspecting accomplices would be led to pasture on the hills. From the water the lights would appear to be boats sailing closer to the shore. Belieiving it safe, the ill-fated ship would then approach the coast and crash into the rocks. Another legendary method of the earth-bound pirates was to set bonfires (in imitation of the pre-electric lighthouses) along unsafe parts of the shore to bring the hapless victims to their fate in the chilly waters.
The Celtic Mount Olympus
Monte Pindo, the destination of Day 2 of the tour Galicia: From Mountain to Sea (in bold), is a sacred, mysterious mountain that has for generations inspired a rich corpus of legends in coastal Galicia. Beginning with its name, it's suggested that the mount reminded a Greek colony of merchants, established in the same area, of their own Mount Pindus. The name stuck across the centuries becoming adapted to the local language.
The Roman chroniclers, who accompanied the Legions in their colonization of the Iberian Peninsula, commented on the heroics of those in the rebellious northwest. Refuging themselves in Monte Medulio, believed by many historians to be present day Monte Pindo, against the fierce Roman barrage, the native Celtic warriors decided to commit collective suicide rathan surrender their arms.
Glacial action left behind huge granite boulders and subsequent erosion produced curiuos rocky outcroppings and formations scattered along the mount's slopes and upper pastures. Over the centuries the human imagination has seen in these strange stones animal figures, human faces and monsters. Some are even named such as the easily to identify Nose and Warrior. One section of the ascent, where these rocks are particularly abundant, is known as the Celtic Olympus. According to legend, the rocks were scuplted by Celts paying homage to their deities. Other legends and place-names indicate that Celts used specific rocks for sun and star worship or as "fertility beds". The latter were specific bed-shaped rocks that were used by infertile couples in hopes of bearing a child.
Monte Pindo also harbors the ruins of a 10th century castle and watchtower against the Viking attacks of the same period. In the 15th century the castle was destroyed by peasant uprisings. Other ruins include numerous stone shepherds’ cabins and a poor and isolated mining hut that during WWII was used to supply wolfram for the Allied and Axis powers’ war operations. During this same period, refugees from the Spanish Civil War were also said to eke out an existence in the ancient mount.
La Torre de Hércules / The Tower of Hercules
Among the numerous lighthouses that stand watch over Galicia's rough coastal waters, the most famous is the Torre de Hercules located on a lonely, rocky outcropping north of La Coruña. It’s the oldest, continuously active lighthouse in the world.
Constructed by the Romans in 2nd Century AD, its top had a platform with a larger circular steel plate. Shined to brilliant perfection, during the day the plate reflected the sun’s rays and at night it reflected the flames from a fire.
To fuel the fire a cartload of wood was pulled up daily by a pair of oxen along the great circular ramp that wrapped around the lighthouse's exterior. At the end of the 18th century, to protect the Roman structure, walls were constructed around the lighthouse giving it the altered neo-classic appearance that it has today.
The tower's fanciful legend suggests that Hercules constructed it on top of the cranium and weapons of his arch-enemy, the giant Gerion, who Hercules defeated after three days and three nights of uninterrupted battle. Gerion had raped Hercules' sister and fled the Mediterranean and the sibling's wrath. He believed he had found safety in this deserted coast at the edge of the world. After his victory, Hercules ordered the construction of a city which he named "Crunya" in honor of its first inhabitant which later became "La Coruña".
The Tale of the White Deer
Once upon a time, in the heart of the Ancares mountains lived an ancient noble with his two children. The elder, a boy named Egas, loved to hunt while his sister, the lovely Aldara, found great pleasure in taking long walks in the dense forest near the castle where they lived. One day Aldara did not return at the normal hour and her father and brother, greatly alarmed, set out to find her. After long joyless days, they sadly abandoned the search fearing that she had been victim to some treacherous bear or wolf. Several years later, while returning to the castle from a day of hunting, young Egas came upon a startlingly beautiful white deer eating by the side of a brook.
It was unique for its color, as pure as snow. Without thinking Egas took out an arrow and shot the deer which fell dead to the ground. Unable to return with the deer, he decided to cut off a hoof as a trophy and return later for the rest. Wrapping the hoof in silk and placing it in his pouch he returned to the castle. When he unwrapped the unusual prize for his father, they were both horrified to discover that instead of a hoof a delicate, feminine hand was in its place. In addition, the hand bore a ring that once belonged to the beloved Aldara. With a great sense of impending doom, the pair raced to the brook only to find Aldara’s lifeless body, dressed in white, and an arrow piercing her heart.
PICOS DE EUROPA
How the Picos Got Their Name and Asturias' Most Infamous Pirate The Picos de Europa (Peaks of Europe) are so named due to their altitude and proximity to the coast making them an ideal European landmark for sailors returning from the Americas.
The Cantabrian Sea, which laps the coast at the foot of the Picos, supported intense maritime activity, most importantly, fishing and commerce. According to a famous legend both maritime trade and fishing were seriously threatened during the Middle Ages by North African pirates. The most famous of all was Cambaral, the dread captain of a swift ship that terrorized the fisherman and merchants of the area.
Fed up with his villainy, a noble knight, who lived in a castle on the edge of the sea near the fishing village of Luarca, decided to put an end to his shenanigans. On an apparently defensefless merchant ship, the knight and his contingent of armed men, embarked to do battle with the pirate. During the bloody fight Cambaral was gravely wounded and taken prisoner. The Asturian knight agreed to take him to his castle and cure him for the long-awaited public trial. Unwittingly foolish, he ordered his young, beautiful daughter to cure the pirate's wounds. When Cambaral recovered consciousness he fell instantly and profoundly in love with the young woman who, during her hours of passionate nursing, had also fallen in love with the dastardly pirate. When the pirate recovered sufficiently to walk, one night they fled to the port and took a boat. Finally safe, they paused for a long, passionate kiss. Unbeknownst to them, the knight had been warned by his guards and he raced to the port where he saw the ill-fated kiss occur. Blind with rage he unsheathed his sword and with one fell swoop cut off their heads. While their bodies remained eternally entwined, their heads slowly rolled to the sea.
In Luarca today this legend actively continues in the fisherman's quarter which is called El Pirata Cambaral. Also, the Luarcan bridge, El Beso (The Kiss), remembers the spot where the embracing lovers fell to the sea.
The Spanish John Muir
Pedro Pidal, the Marquise de Villaviciosa, (1870-1941) is the most important figure in the history of the Picos de Europa. Conservationist and dedicated supporter of the Picos, Pidal spent his life exploring, observing and defending its thousand faces.
Ahead of his time and imitating the US system of conservation, he managed to make the Picos Spain’s first national park June 22, 1918 as a state senator. He’s also known for having initiated the history of Spanish mountaineering by being the first person to reach the summit of the Naranjo de Bulnes (2519m) August 5, 1904 accompanied by the sheperd Gregorio Pérez.
One of his favorite places in the Picos de Europa was the Mirador de Ordiales (we ascend on Day 3) and in one of his writings he expressed his wish to be buried there: "…under these humid ferns that receive the dew of the Picos and close to this rock mildewed by the cold winters, I will leave my bones to turn to dust over the centuries." His last wish became a reality eight years after his death during an emotional fall day when his many friends carried his remains to his beloved lookout.
El Rebeco/The Chamois
Due to inaccessibility and relative isolation, the Picos are in a relatively good state of preservation with thick forests and a huge variety of plant and animal species. The most representative animal of the Picos is the agile chamois, master of the rocky peaks.
Perfectly adapted to its hostile environment, some 6500 chamois leap and bound about the highest and most impossible appearing slippery slopes in constant search of green pastures.
Brown in color, they look like small goats but with a more svelte figure. The fur on their heads tends to be lighter and they appear to be wearing a mask due to swath of dark fur that extends from the ears to the snout.
Their thin, narrow horns are hook shaped. The chamois dominate the steep slopes between 1800m and 2000m and the does group with their offspring while the bucks wander solo. Natural selection controls the population: reproduction is limited to one offspring a year, the winters tend to kill off the old and sick, and predatory wolves and eagles make sure that the population is young and fit.
It’s likely that we’ll observe chamois during at least one day of our walk.
CAMINO DE SANTIAGO
Along the Camino, as well as back in their home countries, pilgrims of the medieval era told and retold up and down the Camino numerous fantastic stories of miraculous cures, of pilgrims’ trials and tribulations on the way to Compostela, of superhuman saints, of the Holy Grail, of Saint James’ (Santiago’s) interventions, etc. These stories and legends have been passed down through the Camino’s long history creating a rich body of folklore. On our On Glory Roads walking tours you’ll have the chance to visit some of the places where these events allegedly occurred and hear many, many more rich versions. Here are a few examples:
How the Apostle James Got to the Far Northwest Corner of the Iberian Peninsula
James was one of the original 12 apostles and was martyred (beheaded) in 44 AD in Jerusalem. The next news that we have of James comes from a 9th century religious hermit, Pelayo. Apparently, upon searching for the source of a strange, starry light, over what is present day Compostela, he discovered the apostle’s long forgotten tomb in the dense forest. But how did James get there after being beheaded in Jerusalem? The answer leads to one of the most remarkable translation stories of the medieval ages and is best understood in the context of medieval religious belief. After James was beheaded two of his disciples gathered up his remains and placed them in a stone boat. They set sail for Hispania, where James was said to have proselytized during his lifetime, and arrived on Galicia’s Costa da Morte before sailing upstream to present day Padrón (then a Roman colony). His body was then moved inland some 20 km, buried on Mt. Libredon and then neatly forgotten before Pelayo’s fateful discovery eight centuries later. Once the presence of his remains were confirmed faith drove millions of pilgrims to undertake the long, arduous journey to Compostela.
The Hanged Innocent
"Entering Santo Domingo de la Calzada cathedral’s south door, a curious pair of live white chickens (rotated weekly) are kept in an elevated niche on the western wall. This odd custom traces back to the famed miracle of Santo Domingo. A young pilgrim, traveling with his parents to Santiago, was accused of pilfering silver from a local tavern. In reality the barmaid, her amorous advances rejected, angrily slipped the silver into his knapsack and notified the authorities. To his parents’ horror, the pilgrim was strung upon the gallows.
Praying, they continued to Santiago and returned. Surprisingly, rather than encounter his rotting body, they found him well - yet still hanging, the saint supporting his feet. They ran to the judge who, having just sat down to roast chicken, refused to be bothered. When the pilgrims insisted, the judge exclaimed that if their son were innocent the chicken would rise from his plate and crow. And they did, giving the town its motto: ‘Donde la gallina cantó después de asar’ (Where the hen crowed after roasting). It is considered good luck to find a chicken feather or to hear them crowing." (Reprinted from Walking in Spain, p. 395, author Nancy Frey).
"In addition to the encounters with wild dogs that some pilgrims describe are the curious accounts of ‘dog pilgrims’…When I talked to pilgrims walking with dogs I was surprised to hear that their companions were often not pets brought from home but animals who had at some point joined them on the road and then never left their side for the rest of the journey. Sometimes traveling hundreds of miles, these dogs would leave their local areas to follow a pilgrim; often their paws suffered from the uneven, stony roads, and some came into the refuges wearing bandages. The pilgrim ‘owners’ remarked with awe that the dogs would continue despite the pain. These dogs, who had perhaps been abandoned, starving or lonely before joining the way, were always docile, usually older, and extremely loyal to their new companions.
A Portuguese man recounted that on his first journey to Santiago in 1995 he was joined on afternoon outside Logroño by a large, white, female dog whom he had given something to eat. He was convinced that the dog would not make it to Santiago, but each day she rose and set off with him and his companions. On the day they reached Santiago he said he sensed that she too knew the journey had ended; after having visited the cathedral they all went to a local park, and there she lay down and died.
This pilgrim, like several others whom I met, interpreted the unanticipated relationship with a canine companion as part of the mystery of the Camino and suggested that the dogs were pilgrims in their own right. Some even suggested that they bore the souls of pilgrims who had never been able to reach Santiago." (Reprinted from Pilgrim Stories. On and Off the Road to Santiago, pp. 108-9, by Nancy Frey).
Pilgrim’s Blessing from Roncesvalles (12th Century)
At the daily pilgrim's mass (usually 8pm) in Roncesvalles the priest reads the following blessing.
Priest: Oh God.....Be a companion for them along the path, a guide at crossroads, strength in their weariness, defense before dangers, shelter on the way, shade against heat, light in the darkness, a comforter in their discouragements, and firmness in their intentions, in order that, through your guidance, they might arrive unscathed at the end of their journey and, enriched with graces and virtues, they might return safely to their homes, which now lament their absence, filled with salutary and lasting joy....
Priest: May the Lord direct your steps with his approval, and be your inseparable companion on the entire camino.
Priest: May the Virgin Mary grant you her maternal protection, defend you in all dangers of soul and body, and may you merit to arrive safely at the end of your pilgrimage under her mantle.
Priest: May the Archangel Rafael accompany you on the Camino as he accompanied Tobias, and protect you from every injury and obstacle.
Walking the streets of Bilbao you're bound to spot one of the many representations of Bilbao's coat-of-arms. Looking closely you'll see that a large tower (bell tower of the Church of San Antón) abuts a double-arched (usually) bridge (San Antón Bridge) over a rushing body of water and, to complete the picture, two black wolves float off in the sky. These three symbols - the River, the Bridge and the Wolves - reflect the genesis and subsequent evolution of Bilbao.
Bilbao owes its development to the importance of its port and its relationship to the Nervion River. This tidal river or estuary (ría in Spanish, not to be confused with río which is river) that runs the length of the city past the Guggenheim and out to the sea permitted Bilbao and its safe inland port to become a major commercial center linking products from Castile (wool, wheat and wine) and the Basque Country (iron) to the rest of Europe.
The 15th and 16th century Church of San Antón, located on the right-hand bank of the Nervion River and adjacent to the San Antón Bridge, sits atop what once was Bilbao's great fortified alzcázar or castle (destroyed in 1366 to make way for the church) and which protected the walled medieval city. As was typical of bell towers in Europe they served the double function of ringing the hours of the day and mass for the faithful as well as making excellent watchtowers to spot potential attacks. The current double-arched stone bridge dates to 1878 and since the 14th century it has been the major artery and entry point into the city.
The two wolves owe their presence to the town's founder Diego López de Haro (son of Lope Díaz de Haro) and his family's coat-of-arms also adorned with wolves. Lope comes from the Latin lupus which means wolf and López signifies son of Lope (all 'ez' endings in Spanish family names originally meant 'son of' - eg, Fernandez - son of Fernando).
Since the 14th century the coat-of-arms has been used as a seal on all official documents as well as to adorn important public buildings such as the town hall. Enjoy looking for the numerous examples found in the city today.
The Enchanted Basque Land
Look up at the dramatic Basque peaks and you'll unwittingly gaze upon the dwelling place of Mari, the Basque Country's most powerful pre-Christian deity. Known for her quick fury and strong sense of justice, Mari's high mountain caves are said to be luxuriously adorned with golden furnishings and precious gems. It's very bad luck to enter in her caves without being invited, to sit without being asked or to turn your back upon departure. Reports of balls of fire or a brilliant chariot crossing the mountains at night are attributed to Mari moving from one of her caves to. She helps those who repeat her name three times and accepts tributes from villagers (explaining the presence of money and objects left in her caves) who pray to her to save their crops from bad weather as well as the ill-will of other deities such as the mountain-dwelling giant Maruak or Aideko who brings all manner of ruin usually with wind upon villages and villagers.
We'll be approaching two of these dwelling places on our hikes : the Aketegi cave in the Aizkorri range Aketegi and Anboto in the Urkiola range. The Dama (Lady) de Aketegi and the Dama de Anboto are the names given to Mari who dominates these dramatic ranges. Apparently belief in her was so widespread that the monks of the Arantzazu sanctuary would given special mention to her each year to prevent storms from raining down upon the Guipuzcoan fields.
It is believed that devotion to Mari continued into the 19th century and that she was an extremely powerful pre-Christian goddess who was never incorporated into the Christian host of saints and holy figures. Clandestine devotion to Mari may have been at the heart of the alleged gatherings of witches which were prosecuted with great severity from 1500 to 1700. The billy-goat, commonly associated with the Christian devil, was also apparently linked to the Mari cult as a symbol of fertility. According to Basque popular belief, a black goat was always kept in the stable to protect the other livestock from illness.
Witchcraft in the Basque Country
On the Basque Country tour we visit the village of Zugarramurdi (located on the border of France and Spain in the heart of the Labourd region of the Basque Country) and the immense caverns which were the alleged site of some of the most famous gatherings of witches or akelarres in the Basque Country. The word akelarre means field of the billy-goat and comes from the caves of Zugarramurdi (Akelarrenlezea). These three enormous limestone caves are cut through the center by a river known locally as the Rio del Infierno (Hell's River). Most likely the grain of truth in the outlandish stories is that clandestine meetings took place in which pre-Christian beliefs were perpetuated in violation of Christian rules and morality. Being a threat to the established order, the Catholic Church primarily, they were weeded out in the Inquisition as a dangerous form of heresy.
In 1609 at the height of the witch hunt craze the French prosecutor Pierre de Lancre executed 600 people (mostly marginalized, poor women) in Labourd. In 1610 33 people from Zugarramurdi were tried and executed as witches.
During the 14th to 17th centuries the Basque Country and Europe at large were plagued with accusations of witchcraft, witch hunts and subsequent trials and atrocious punishments in the name of purifying the countryside of evil practices and beliefs. The belief in witches was widespread and may have been based on remnants of pre-Christian religions present in the Basque Country (and Europe as a whole) as indicated above regarding the Basque mythological figures (Mari and others). Below we've included a story which captures a number of the elements which characterized Basque witches and witchery : primarily old, ugly women with terrible powers to fly, transform themselves into animals, do evil to people and crops, worship the devil (in the form of a billy-goat) dancing around fires and participating in illicit orgies and terrible crimes (sacrifice of children).
An excellent novel (unfortunately only in Spanish) set during this period in the Basque Country which treats the clash between remnants of pagan worship and the terror of the witch hunts is Toti Martínez de Lezea's La Herbolera (2000, Ttarttlo : San Sebastian).
"When Bidabe was a young man he arranged to get married. His betrothed had the reputation of being a witch, but witch or lamiña he was determined to marry her, for he loved her dearly. One evening he went to visit his betrothed and her parents. As a present for Kattalin he took a pair of sabots nicely cut and ready to put together. He took with him the leather uppers, the straps, the little nails of yellow brass, a hammer and an awl. He stayed some time with the family and it grew late. As it was a dark night he arranged with the people of the house that he should sleep on a wooden chest and leave at dawn. So he lay down and fell into a peaceful slumber. Just about midnight he was awakened by a slight noise. He did not move, but opened his eyes ever so little and saw Kattalin approach the fireplace. The girl lifted one of the hearth-stones and took out a bowl full of something that looked like oil. With this ointment she anointed her body and forthwith disappeared up the chimney. 'Now I know the truth about Kattalin,' said Bibade to himself.
He took the same bowl and, as Kattalin had done, he greased his body and made off in the same way. Without knowing where he was going he flew through the air and came to rest in a beautiful plain, where was gathered together as fine an assembly as ever you could see. Quite a number of Bidabe's friends were there. He saw Kattalin dressed in red silk, and stayed hidden, petrified with fear. He learnt a great deal about the Witches' Sabbath and found out, for instance, what virtue there is in alder-bark, what one can do with a stick of holly-wood, and what illness can be cured with mole's blood. He learnt furthermore how a man can pass through a key-hole and how one can discover the greatest of all secrets. Who knows what things he did not so unexpectedly learn ? But Bidabe had to keep these horrible things to himself under pain of being flayed alive. The hour had now come for rendering special honours to the Chief of the Sabbath. This was a big man, black of face, with great ears like two big cabbage leaves, long teeth and a narrow forehead. All the witches of the Sabbath were obliged to kiss his hind-quarters. When Bidabe saw what manner of salute this was, he began to scratch his head. However, he did not dare hang back. So he swore an oath as big as a mountain : 'A thousand million carts full of devils can carry you off yelling before you receive this honour from me !' When it was his turn he took the awl form his pocket and .... zist ! he plunged it into the King of the Sorcerers. The black brute gave a roar which would have shaken the desert. Of a sudden all the lights went out and the witches disappeared. Bidabe found himself in a thicket of prickly bushes, in the ravine of Kakueta, and it was eighty days before he could get out. The people of the house did not worry, for they thought that he had gone to the inn to get drunk with one-eyed Gilgorri. For two months Bidabe was ill with fright. As soon as he was better he started to look for another wife. And I promise you that Marie, she whom he married, was no witch." (An excerpt from Rodney Gallop's A Book of the Basques, pp. 255-57)
The Basques are known for their deep love of games and outdoor activities. The most popular and widely played are the numerous types of handball or pelota (Spanish) or pelote (French). The small ball (around 105 grams) has a rubber or latex core and is wrapped round with wool and cotton string and then encased in goat leather. Sewn when wet it dries to a mean tightness. This very hard ball becomes incorporated into several types of games played one-on-one or in couples: mano (handball), pala (long and short paddles), cesta punta (using a long curved basket called a chistera). Clad in red shirts and white pants the players, or pelotaris, play on a court, called a frontón, which is enclosed on three sides.
A frontón is ubiquitous in Basque communities and in villages it normally takes center stage sometimes incorporating one of the church walls into its structure. The game is intense whether it be the hand version (which leaves the hands of players deformed and "swollen to double their normal thickness") or the spectacular and potentially dangerous cesta punta in which the ball moves exceptionally fast as it is rocketed from the chistera to the wall. Popular in both the Spanish and French Basque Country it also has spread to South America and some parts of the United States, especially Florida, where it's called jai alai (an Euskera word which means happy game).
Other popular games, more like contests which take place on special occasions such as village festivals, stem from traditional activities such as log-cutting (aizkolaris - log cutters), weight-lifting of 400-lb (200kg) stones by arrijasotzaile stones, soka-tira - tug-of-war, dragging of huge stones using carts and oxen and regattas which consists of 13 rowers and one captain or caller. The regattas apparently had their origin with fisherman who would race back from the fishing grounds hoping to reach the port quickly to get the first corner on the market. The most famous of the regattas takes place in San Sebastian the first and second Sunday of September.