The Myths, Legends and Folklore of Spain

Spain is a wonderfully diverse country. One need only look at its incredibly varied and staggeringly beautiful landscape from the soaring Pyrenees, to the wild cliffs of the Atlantic, to the sun-baked plains of Andalucia, to see the truth in this statement.

Spain’s stories are just as wild and improbably diverse showing influence from its vast history and many cultural infusions. From the magical mice of childhood, to medieval legends of knights and dragons, Spain’s colourful history and vibrant culture lend itself to some of the most evocative myths, legends and folklore, which are still beloved and celebrated today.

El Coco. The bedtime boogeyman.

Children the world over often have the easiest time believing in a culture’s myths and legends, even when they are a bit scary. El Coco is one of these scary stories – a mythical ghost-monster, originally depicted with a pumpkin head, which is Spain’s version of the bedtime boogeyman. In Spain, parents invoke el Coco as a way of discouraging naughty behaviour from their children and encouraging them to go to sleep.

At night, when they put their children to sleep, Spanish parents will sometimes sing lullabies or tell nursery rhymes about el Coco. The children believe that if they don’t obey their parents, el Coco will come and spirit them away and even, perhaps, eat them.

El Coco lurks on rooftops and skulks through the darkened streets at night, forever on the look out for disobedient children. He takes the shape of any dark shadow, so Spanish children know they must always be on their best behaviour!

Rantocito Peréz (Perez Mouse). The tooth fairy of Spain.

Rantocito Peréz, on the other hand, is a children’s tale that is not in the least scary. On the contrary, Spanish children simply adore him. This tale begins in an 1877 book where Rantocito Peréz was originally just a little vain mouse. But in 1894, a writer by the name of Luis Coloma used him as a character in a story he was crafting for the benefit of Alfonso XIII, King of Spain, who, at the age of 8, had just lost a tooth.  In that story, Rantocito Peréz is a clever, cheeky little mouse that lives in a box of cookies. He sneaks his way into the bedrooms of little children who have lost their baby teeth and leaves a small gift or a few coins in return for the tooth. Spanish children will often wait up late into the night hoping to catch Rantocito Peréz on his rounds, but he is always too sly. Regardless, he is beloved by Spanish children everywhere.

The Legend of San Jorge (Saint George).

There is more to Spain’s mythology than just children’s tales. One of these is the legend of San Jorge, or Saint George.

According to legend, there was once a dragon living in Montblanc. He terrorised the villagers and devoured all their livestock. But once the animals were all eaten, the dragon didn’t cease his rampage. Instead, he demanded that the villagers bring him a person to eat instead – one a day.

The villagers were horrified, but they had no other options. So, they decided to draw lots each day to see who would be the sacrifice, and on one occasion it was the princess who was selected.

The king was honourable and refused to let anyone take his daughter’s place. Though he was heart broken at the thought of losing her, she was dutifully sent to the dragon at the appointed time. The dragon was quite excited to eat such a dainty morsel but, just as she was about to be swallowed, Saint George appeared and killed the ferocious creature.

Where the blood of the dragon spilled, a red rose grew. The knight plucked the rose and presented to the princess. The villagers rejoiced that they would never have to fear the dragon again.

This legend is still commemorated every year on the 23rd of April when men give roses to the women they love and celebrate with huge, energetic street parties. The city of Barcelona embraces this legend (and its accompanying festivities) with particular gusto.

The Basajuan of the Basque

Of course, myths and legends are also used to explain the unexplainable, and to tell origin stories. The Basajuan of the Basque people in Northern Spain is a wonderful example of this.

Variously described as an ogre, the Spanish bigfoot and simply a large, hairy man, the Basajuan is a famous spirit whose name means ‘lord of the woods’. He is the protector of the woods and nature, and particularly of flocks. When a storm is approaching, the Basajuan will roar to alert the shepherds who can then take shelter against the storm.

He was also the first blacksmith, the first miller and the first farmer, and the master of each of these trades. The legends tells us that humans stole the secrets of these skills from the Basajuan in order to learn how to make a saw, the axis of a mill and how to weld.

Sirenuca from Cantabria

Another famous legend in Spain is about Sirenuca from Cantabria. She is a mermaid who had once been a young and beautiful human girl. When she was human she had lived near the sea at the edge of high cliffs with her family. For her own safety, Sirenuca had been banned from going to the cliffs. However, she was always disobeying her mother and going to the cliff’s edge to gather shellfish.

One day her mother got tired of her disobedient ways and shouted the curse, ‘God grant that you become a fish!’ In that moment, her legs began to shift and changed into the long, bright tail of fish.

Spanish tradition says if you listen carefully you can still hear Sirenuca’s song in the mists along the shore of the cliffs, warning sailors of their danger.

Whether you embrace the myths and legends or remain skeptical, on your next visit to Spain, be sure to keep in mind the stories that have made the country, its culture and its people what it is today. And perhaps you’ll even catch a glimpse of a mermaid while sailing the Mediterranean Sea, or of the Basajuan while hiking through the wild north.

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