Monsters of Cantabria: Rural Epics, Ancient Myths

I am back with another update on Cantabrian mythology, as we are sporting a new look and the month is still young. So gather around to hear stories of my home land. This time, as promised, I bring you stories of monstrous creatures and impossible animals, which the Cantabros believe to inhabit their mountainous, green land.

I will first introduce you to a beast known only to inhabit in the area of Cabuerniga, which is one of the municipalities in the centre of the region: proper rural area, all full of stone houses and old farmsteads. This small odd-looking creature is called Cuegle. It is a bipedal, of humanoid shape but feral looks. It has a big, fat head, with a rough horn and hair like wild bush. Supposedly it has 3 eyes, one blue, another green and the last one red. Usually, it is also portrayed as having a long harsh beard. The Cuegle also has 3 arms but with no hands or finger, and its legs are very sturdy full of wounds and scratches, and they cover their bodies with the pelts of animals they kill. There is a popular believe, almost now forgotten, that these monsters are conceived from cursed Anjanas, who due to an evil spell turn into dreaded witches that every 30 years mate with old bears, giving birth to this abhorrent beast. It is said that Cuegles have a taste for meet, particularly foxes, but they will also eat small children. So the women of the villages put a small branch of holy or oak by the cradles for the smell of the trees sap makes the Cuegle have nausea and flee in horror. On a final note, and just so you see how all Cantabrian myths interlinks together, they say when a Cuegle dies, the insides turn into funny coloured worms, and if you catch one, this will bring you eternal luck and even prevent you from the evil doing of Ojacanos.

Now moving on to a relatively local legend for me, is the tale of the Sierpe de Peñacastillo. Peñacastillo used to be a small community outside of Santander, but now it has become part of the suburban area of the city. There is a cave known as Cueva del Tesoro (treasure cave), where it is said that inhabits a horrendous creature, half human-half serpent, that guards this treasure hidden in Peñacastillo. This legend goes back to the 16th Century, and it is said that Felipe II, sent an Italian wizard to find and defeat the beast, and steal the treasure. However, the legend says that upon seeing the monster, the wizard got so terrified that he run away never again to be seen or heard of again. And ever since, the secret of the cave and its treasure has remained a myth. And following on this serpents motif, we move on to the biggest and most epic monster of Cantabrian mythology: el Culebre.

In Spanish, particularly in the Cantabrian manner, a culebra is a word used as a synonym for a snake. In the rural areas of my region you hear lots of farmers using the work culebra rather than snake, simply because for us a culebra is a smaller kind of serpent type, (we would not use it to refer to a python, if you see what I mean). I remember being called “culebrin” (little culebra) many times, for being little and always twisting and turning, and moving from one place to another, trying to be sneaky but hissing and doing weird noises playing with the chickens and the like. So, you may get the hint by now what the Culebre may be: yes, Cantabria has its own Dragon! And a very famous one in fact! For it is said that this creature inhabited the caves located at the cliffs of San Vicente de la Barquera, a port town at the far west cast of Cantabria. This is the kind of dragon that spits fire, guards treasures and demands tributes. Legend has it that many centuries ago the people from San Vicente use to offer a maiden so the beast would leave them be. If you know a bit of your Spanish geography, Cantabria, and particularly San Vicente, is in the pilgrims route for El Camino de Santiago. And it is said that in his was to Compostela (Galicia) the apostle Santiago saw a maiden tie to a post on a path, as she was crying for help. He approached her and she explained that she was the sacrifice for the Culebre and that any time the beast would come to eat her. But Santiago being a courageous and noble apostle freed the maiden and rode into the cave where the Culebre lived, and slayed the monster. And there is the popular believe that, even nowadays, if you visit these caves you can see the imprints of Santiago’s mighty white steed on the rocks, from the fiery battle against the dragon.

Once again, Cantabrian myths prove that the people of the region were conscious of their harsh landscape, and the isolation of many communities allowed for these legends to pass down from generation to generation, perpetuating stories of strange ogre like creatures like the Cuegle. However, it also shows that not all these stories are just a local rumour, for guarding serpents and dragons that require the interventions of kings and apostles are the stuff the European medieval epics are made of. Thus, Cantabrian folklore is not only the reminiscence of the Celtic heritage, but it echoes the grand narratives of the Germanic tribes that inspired stories such as the Nibelungenlied, Beowulf, or St. George and the Dragon.

…I would like to see you try to find dragons in the dry, arid lands of the interior like Madrid, though I am sure the Castilian farmers would like to blame their missing sweep on a Culebre or two, if you know what I am saying… 😉

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