We start again a series a theme posts – based on the supernatural, and/or local history. I have taken the task to combine these two synergies and to bring you something very personal for me. I want to tell you the stories of creatures now forgotten to many. I am talking about the mythology of my home region: Cantabria. The north of Spain is very different from the rest of the Iberian Peninsula. It is cold, wet, and green. It is also blue, with the brave and treacherous Cantabrian sea shaping out the coasts of the Basque Country, Cantabria, Asturias and Galicia. Although the northern regions share similarities amongst themselves, Cantabria is, well, special. People from the south say we speak like singing. Traditionally our diet was based on milk and beef, pulses, and fish: essentially what the farmers could grow in this tought landscape. As the modernisation of Spain occurred after Franco’s dictatorship, traditions, however, have become more like the rest of the country. Yet, we know Cantabria is different.
We still remember that the Cantabros kept the Romans away forcing them into a long campaign. Champions like Corocota forced Augustus to come in person to oversee the Cantabrian Wars (29 AC-19 BC), for my people came from a long lineage of bellicose celts, living in fortified castros. These dexterous and relentless warriors were so fierce that Roman accounts tell us how the legionaries would chop off the arms of the combatants to hinder the Cantabrian army. Yet, years later, when Cantabria raised in rebellion, the Romans noticed many of the warriors had become left-handed, and nothing would stop them from fighting. These warriors would also use the berries from one of their sacred trees – the Yew – to poison their weapons, or even eat them to take their own lives rather than falling at the hands of the enemy. The Cantabros, living in a well defended land by the sea, the mountains and the forests, had a rich culture of myths and legends, like many other celtic tribes. However, through the process of Romanisation, that was later on perpetrated by the Visigothic rule over Iberia, many legends were replaced by Christian traditions, or mingled and undermined as simple folk tales. They have been preserved thanks to oral tradition. Nevertheless, as the rural exodus increases due to modernisation – Cantabria was always a rural region – and the urban communities grow while villages drop dramatically in population, these tales are being lost.
Many of our folk tales are similar to those of other cultures. The celebration of San Juan, still popular nowadays that is, in essence, a summer equinox festivity. We light fires by the sea or in the woods to send away evil spirits. You can sometimes hear people speak in spells, drawing seven crosses over the fires to keep away the Caballucos del Diablo. These are seven faylike creatures, similar to dragonflies and fireflies, that go in groups. The red one leads the way followed by the other six: white, blue, black, yellow, green and orange. Legend has it that the Devil himself rides the on the red, and other demons and sinners ride the others. To keep them away you shall go to the forest searching for a four-leaved shamrock or flores del agua (water flowers). But this becomes a difficult task as by night the Caballucos destroy all the flowers and plants in their hellish ride. However, most people would just brush myths like this as blatant Christian superstition.
However, I was lucky to have known my great grandparents who owned a mountain house in a very remote village hidden in the mountains by the river Miera, close to the town of Liérganes. It was almost automated in the speech in the villagers to warn me against the Trenti or the Trasgu; these little gnome like creatures who were mischievous. Trentis would get travellers lost in the mountains for a joke. They wear clothes made of leaves and moss that allows them to camouflage in the woods. Trasgus, or trastolillos, are house gnomes who like messing around with your food, misplacing your items, and in general making a mess. But these creatures are mostly inoffensive. Whether the villagers actually believed in them or whether they were part of their cultural memory is difficult to tell. However, remember I just mentioned a place called Liérganes? Well, we used to go there regularly as it was the closest train station and the biggest town near by. Legend has it that many, many years ago there was a man there, who loved being in the water, he used to swim constantly in the Miera river. Turns out this man was somehow capable of breathing underwater. So his longing for the sea took him down river to the Cantabrico, actually to my natal city – Santander – and as he saw the vast sea before him, he became enamoured with it and disappeared into the deep. Some years later, it is said some mariners found this strange thing coming out of the water all the way down the bay of Cádiz (Andalucia). This creature did not look human to them, but fish like, however it could walk and talk, but he would say nothing except the word “Liérganes”. It seems some monks took pity of him and brought him back to his home town, to shortly after disappear into the water once more. This is was actually first recorded by Fray Benito Jerónimo Feijoo (a clergyman), and later on written by a Cantabrian author in 1877, José María Herrán. The book was called El Hombre-Pez de Lierganes – the Man-fish from Liérganes. I recall clearly, that when I was a child, one of the cafe places down in Liérganes operated under that very same name.
Thankfully, there some attempts by the people of Cantabria to keep their legends alive. Many have now been amalgamated with other tales of the north – but those are not our tales. We do not have a Basque Maya, or Galician Meigas; we have our own stories. I was pleased to find out that last year, my family went to celebrate the fayre of Cantabrian Mythology to a village called Barriopalacio (Anievas). There the villagers make their own festivity about our mythsby crafting costumes, recreating scenes from the folktales, and they even have folklore talks, where someone shares these ancient stories. They even have a play!
In addition, the makings of the Parque Mitologico Mina Pepita are showing great progress:
This is a natural park repurposed as well as a place where to celebrate Cantabrian mythology, although there are still many creatures to be included. It is nice knowing that the hard work of Manuel Llano, a famous Cantabrian author who compiled all these stories towards the end of the 19th century/beginning of the 20th century, was not in vain, and that Cantabrian people are slowly waking up to their own heritage.
So if you are intrigued by the creatures of La Montaña, please follow me in this personal trip and set of updates where I will share with you the rest of our mythos in the course of the next couple of months.