A Living Fossil?

 by Elyn Aviva

In Search of Celtic Heritage in Galicia, Spain

Elyn Aviva is a cultural anthropologist and freelance writer who specializes in the study of sacred sites. Gary White is a composer, author of textbooks, and retired professor emeritus from Iowa State University. Aviva and White live in Spain.
Lilting Celtic melodies, mist-shrouded valleys, legends of "the Little People" ... Ireland? No. It's the province of Galicia, located in the northwest corner of Spain. Though not all experts agree, many believe that Celts settled there several millennia ago and later sailed from Galicia to conquer Ireland. For centuries the Celtic heritage of Galicia was more or less forgotten. In the nineteenth century, Galician writer Eduardo Pindal led a highly successful Celtic revival movement. His romantic epics proclaimed that Gallegos--the inhabitants of modern-day Galicia--were not Spaniards but Celts, the inheritors of a glorious past of heroism and independence.

The revival continues. In recent years it has become a mixture of Galician political separatism, neopagan spirituality, and tourist promotion. Posters featuring red-haired, kilt-wearing warriors advertise Celtic music festivals, and Celtic-style jewelry is sold in numerous shops. Hotels offer queimadas, dramatic storytelling events performed over a bowl of flaming liquor, a ritual said to go back to Celtic times.

But is Galicia still Celtic? Some people claim that modern Galicia's Celtic image has been manufactured by the tourist industry, its long-dead past resuscitated for commercial reasons. Others claim the Gallegos' Celtic roots are an integral part of the way they live today. My husband and I decided to find out the truth.

Jorge, a Spanish friend who had lived in Galicia for ten years, enthusiastically offered to take us on a tour of Celtic sites and introduce us to some experts on Celtic Galicia. He said we might even be able to participate in an authentic queimada.

Our first stop was A Coruña, a sprawling city on the Atlantic coast. We drove past modern high-rise office buildings and smoke-belching factories to the Tower of Hercules, the oldest functioning lighthouse in the Western world. By most accounts, it was built by the Romans. According to Gallego legend, however, the Celtic king Breogán erected the structure. Father of the warriors who sailed from this very location to invade Ireland, King Breogán stands guard over the tower in the form of a larger-than-life statue.

We walked down the hillside to a sixty-foot-wide mosaic sculpture set into an outcrop of land that jutted into the sea. It was designed as an eight-pointed compass star, and each point was decorated with a colorful emblem representing one of the seven Celtic nations: Ireland, Scotland, Isle of Man, Wales, Cornwall, Brittany, and Galicia. The eighth star-point was labeled "Tartessos," a mythical land off the coast of southern Spain. Though Tartessos was not Celtic, the sculptor needed an eighth nation to complete the pattern--an inventive, although inaccurate, solution. I wondered whether the Celtic revival that had inspired the sculpture was any less inventive.

Celtic roots unrecognized

urning our backs to the sea, we returned to town for an interview with Manoel "Mhor" Camba and his wife, Andrea Abeledo, who helped found the League of Celtic Galicia in 1996. A Galician bagpipe, or gaita, decorated one wall of Mhor and Andrea's living room; books on Celtic history and traditions lined another. Mhor ("stone" in a Celtic tongue) received us eagerly and gave us materials. The first was a League of Celtic Galicia brochure. Its motto proclaimed, "A people who forget their origins lose their identity; a people who lose their identity become dust."

In a mixture of Gallego (the official language of Galicia) and Spanish, Mhor told us about the league. "The LCG believes it is important to awaken within the Galician people an interest in being themselves, without alien customs. It emphasizes the customs and traditions of Celtic origin that continue, unchanged, in the heart of the people to the present day. The LCG is planning its Second Congress of Celtic Culture, to be held in the nearby city of Ferrol, to unite people from Portugal, Spain, and the rest of Europe to learn more about our shared Celtic history."

Mhor stressed that Celtic linguistic, religious, and social traditions have remained important in Galicia, although research must rediscover these connections. Local place-names, folklore, festivals, architecture, and customs prove this, he assured us.

I asked Mhor if the LCG was part of the pan-Celtic League of Nations. He informed me that, regrettably, the six other nations hadn't yet accepted the LCG as a member because Gallego is a Romance language (related to Spanish and Portuguese), not a Celtic language. Politics, politics. ...

Mhor talked rapidly, intent on conveying the importance of the LCG's mission. I managed to ask about the gaita on the wall. It is very popular with Gallego music groups, including Milladoiro, which recently recorded a CD with the popular Irish group the Chieftains. Isn't the bagpipe a clear example of the survival of indigenous Celtic traditions in Galicia?

Mhor shook his head. The gaita may have come from Scotland, he told me. "Celtic music is just a label to sell music. The bagpipe occurs in many places, not only Celtic countries."

Galicia has been called "the land of sorcerers," with more than a dozen kinds of magical specialists. I asked if these have a Celtic origin.

"Yes indeed. Long ago," Mhor explained, "there were Druids in this land. The Druid priestesses--the meigas--passed the information down to their daughters, and their powers for magic and healing were highly regarded. But now meigas are considered negative, even criminal."

I remembered seeing haglike figures, popular gift items, in the stores in Galicia. They looked like Halloween witches, not like religious leaders--a sacred Celtic tradition turned into tourist souvenirs.

"And the queimada?" I asked.

"The queimada goes back to the Celts. In the old days, strong drinks were associated with religious ceremonies."

I had read that large cauldrons filled with the remains of mead have been found in Celtic burials--a far cry from a pot of witches' brew but evidence of another ongoing Celtic connection.

One last question. "What does `being Celtic' mean to you?"

Thoughtfully, Mhor replied, "It's about being close to nature. About honoring the land, listening to nature. We've forgotten how, gotten too busy, watching TV. The knowledge still exists in the rural villages--not that they know it's Celtic, but it's how they behave anyway." He paused, then continued. "Being Celtic for me is a way to God through nature. It's spirituality."

Andrea added, "For me, it's about being in peace with myself."

We had been talking for hours--or, rather, Mhor had--and it was time to go. We thanked Mhor and Andrea for their help, and they thanked us for listening. Loaded down with LCG pamphlets, xeroxes of articles, and travel brochures, we said good-bye.

A shared heritage

alking back to the car, Jorge appeared distressed. "The Celtic League folks are the only ones, aside from some teachers, who are interested in the past. Most people have no interest in Celtic traditions. Most people think the Celtic stuff is too close to esoteric, magical, even eccentric interests. For many, `hippie' is linked with Celtic."

We were puzzled. Jorge had offered to take us to Celtic sites and meet Celtic experts, but now he seemed to deny the importance of exploring Celtic roots. What had changed his attitude?

When we checked into our hotel, a brightly colored brochure lay on the reception desk. From the cover a long-nosed, black-hatted witch peered over a large pot. The text described an upcoming queimada celebration, complete with folkloric dances. Guests could listen to the recitation of the lengthy queimada spell, watch the production of the flaming alcoholic potion, and then, once the flames died down, drink from the cauldron. Fortunately, we would miss this tourist spectacle.

The next day we interviewed Andrés Pena, a local archaeologist and specialist on Celtic Galicia. He took time from his busy schedule to meet us in the cafeteria at the University of Santiago de Compostela.

"Galicia is like a living fossil," began Andrés, quoting the famous historian of religion Mircea Eliade. "Unlike other provinces of Spain that were influenced by the Greeks and the Moors, Galicia was able to maintain continuity in its culture. Some of the drumming and dancing, recorded over two thousand years ago, is still done today. After all, it's only `thirty grandfathers'--generations--of oral tradition from 200 ^b.c.^ to today. Not long ago at all!"

Soon Andrés was regaling us with tales he had collected in isolated Gallego villages. "In Galicia, as in other Celtic nations, the movement between worlds is very easy. Beneath this world there are other creatures: mouros (the Ancient People), giants, dwarfs, the Little People. The mouros live below the earth, but they come up to go to market and steal things. Sometimes they leave treasure in exchange, but if you tell anyone you see them, they may blind you or punish you."

As Andrés stirred his espresso, he linked together five-thousand-year-old petroglyphs of hunters with ongoing traditions of cattle theft. "In Galicia," he explained, "there were many Celtic tribes with armies of young warriors, and they stole cattle from other tribes. Today, in many coastal villages, young people steal a little boat--or the door of a house--and take it a few kilometers away. The grandfathers ridicule the young people for not stealing pigs or cattle like they did when they were young."

And what about witches?

"Originally the meigas were the protectors of the tribe. In Ireland, they were called machas. Here, the word changed to meiga. Galicia was part of the Atlantic culture area, just like Ireland and Brittany, with shared language and religion."

Because of the Celtic invasions?

"Scholars used to think there were invasions, but now they don't. Instead, there were movements. Colin Renfrew's book Archaeology and Language: The Puzzle of Indo-European Origins explains all about it. The Atlantic culture is still very powerful. Some of the stories told by Gallego grandparents are the same as those told by the Irish--and they are very different from the stories told in the rest of Spain."

I had many questions, but time was short. "What's the importance of Celtic traditiom to you and other Gallegos?"

"People in the countryside believe they are Celts. It's important to them. And it's very important to me. When I walk in the country, I can read the landscape, who was living here and how they lived, like a book. Dolmens, crosses, altars on the way for souls. ... I hear the legend told by an old lady and I know it occurs elsewhere in Europe and how old it is!"

Andrés looked at his watch apologetically. "There is so much more to tell you--if you come back to Santiago, let me know so we will have more time." We shook hands and watched him hurry out the door to another meeting.

A landscape in fog

omewhat dazed from our rapid-fire conversation, we walked to the car. Jorge was perturbed. "The villages have changed so much, there's nothing Celtic there. People have no idea that something they do is `Celtic.' "Jorge went on to say that he had spent time in the villages as a Catholic youth leader, and the people he worked with didn't place any importance on being Celtic. They had superstitions and told old stories, but it didn't mean anything anymore.

Regional identity versus national identity ("We're Celtic Gallegos, not Spaniards"), nature religion versus Catholicism--I wondered if this was why Jorge kept denying the importance of Celtic traditions. Perhaps for him the "back-to-nature" spirituality of the Celtic movement was personally offensive. After all, the Spanish Catholic Church had worked to replace paganism for some seventeen hundred years!

Jorge decided not to take us to his friend's house for a queimada. Instead, we went to visit archaeological monuments, including the Castro de Baroña, an impressive Celtic settlement perched on rocks at the edge of the sea. Circular piles of stones marked what once had been a large, fortified community.

Our last stop would be Os Ancares, a remote mountain region famous for its Celtic-style stone huts, called pallozas. I hoped that here we might finally learn the truth about Galicia's Celtic traditions. After driving for hours on a tortuous one-lane road--a road filled not with curves, Jorge said, but with corners--we arrived at Piornedo, an isolated hamlet of seventeen families. At the entrance to the village, a handwritten sign directed us to the Celtic Museum. We walked eagerly up the stony path to a large, straw-thatched palloza.

A middle-aged Gallego woman stood by the open wooden door and invited us in. She had lived in the palloza until fifteen years ago and proudly showed us around the spacious building.

Did she know anything about Celtic traditions?

She pointed to two rusty spearheads lashed to a wooden post. "My grandfather told us these are Celtic lances. The Celtic word is chuzo."

Anything else? She hesitated a moment, then uttered something about dolls on a rooftop and a marriage custom.

She told us the pallozas were thousands of years old, dating back to the Celts. We thanked her for help and wandered through the village, seeing other signs pointing toward other Celtic Museums. The village café was filled with tourists. Whether or not Celtic traditions were alive and well in the village, Celtic tourism was thriving.

Jorge wanted to make sure we weren't duped. "That woman said chuzo is a Celtic word, but it's used in other provinces as well. She's just telling you what someone told her. It doesn't mean it's really Celtic."

As we drove out of mist-shrouded Galicia and into the harsh sunlight of central Spain, I realized that Celtic Galicia is like the land itself: It appears and disappears, like a landscape seen through fog. For some people, Celtic Galicia is a tourist attraction. For others, it's an archaeological site. For still others, it's a deeply meaningful mixture of myth, memory, and magic--an evocative collection of ancient traditions and modern re-creations that fills their lives with pride and purpose. Mhor and Andrea want to build their future on the knowledge of their Celtic roots. They want to reclaim their cultural identity and keep it from becoming dust. I hope they succeed.

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