While following up on tales of villages where women have always called the shots, Beebe Bahrami encounters surviving vestiges of Northwest Spain's matriarchal past.
Miles, Maria, Carlos, and I were leaning over the ramparts of San Vicente de la Barquera's fortress at low tide. It was mid–afternoon in late December and we were in a town in Spain's north, in Cantabria, the region that sits between Basque Country and Asturias. Behind us snow–capped mountains sparkled in the unusual sunlight for this rain–sodden area. The retreating Atlantic's water revealed a grid pattern on the sludge just below the salt–stained, sturdy stone wall beneath us. Women with high fishermen's boots, aprons, and white scarves on their heads to keep the hair out of their faces were feeling for something under the mud. Occasionally, one would take the long dredging tool in her hand and dig up a clam.
"Those grids are people's clam plots, just like a garden plot," Carlos explained. "They are the women's domain. The men take the boats and fish out in the open ocean."
"Do the women own the boats the men take out?" I asked.
"What?" He looked at me curiously. "No. Why?" Carlos and Maria were from central Spain, Castile's heartland. Years ago they had fallen in love with the north's beauty. Though Miles and I were renting one of the sections of their village house in eastern Asturias, they went beyond the landlord–renter relationship and wanted to take us around to their favorite spots in the north.
"I've been reading a cultural anthropologist's account of Galicia," I explained. Galicia is Spain's northwesternmost province, flanking Asturias to its west. "She says that matriarchal rules used to be the norm there and that today you'll still find small, remote pockets in Galicia where women inherit the land and the fishing boats. Galicians I've spoken to don't refute it."
"So, the women fish?"
"No. They just own the boats. The men still take the boats out into the open ocean. But they know who owns the boats. Is there a matriarchal past in Asturias and Cantabria as in Galicia?" I was curious, as a woman, an anthropologist, and someone who'd fallen in love with Spain, north and south, over twenty years ago. I've lived in and visited Spain many times in those two decades. Having read anthropological accounts and having heard enough local banter to confirm it, I set out to find out if northern matriarchy still existed.
It was Maria who answered my question. "Asturias has the same traditions as Galicia. The women in both places still have a lot of power over the control of the land, the fishing boats, and property. But Cantabria was more Castilianized in the past and is therefore more patriarchal. It's a situation that just didn't occur in Asturias or Galicia."
Goddesses, Mothers, and Mary
Maria confirmed my hope and suspicion, that the matriarch was well and alive in Asturias. Since then, I've experienced the matriarch first–hand and most profoundly in three ways in Asturias: in the form of goddess–like stories about the Virgin Mary; in folkloric expressions of a female deity called a xana; and in the way women confidently move around in public, in villages, towns, and cities throughout the region.
Asturias seems to be full of retreating goddesses who find they can continue to live quietly but fully in this northern watery reach where sisters further south have been submerged or exiled. Perhaps this is why Asturian mythology, on a powerful revival in recent years, is full of goddesses and the gods who share power with them. Perhaps this is why there are rumors of a continued matriarchy in the north that in the south was squelched by both Arabs and Castilians, both peoples from waterless places. Perhaps this is why I saw so many women–run businesses, so many women in prominent public roles, so many women mulling about in the villages and running the towns in Asturias and neighboring Galicia, unlike their sisters in Andalucía who command the home but leave the public domain to men.
One Tuesday afternoon as I mulled about Llanes, a fishing town in eastern Asturias, I began to notice that the many postcards for sale in local shops had a strong feminine theme. Two post cards were especially common at all the stands. One was of Mary of the Guia, the watery Mary who guards the fisherman and their life and families. The other was of Mary's mother Ann, standing in a boat with the young Mary at her skirt. There is also a male saint associated with Llanes—El Roque—but the postcards of him were less frequent and overwhelmed by those of the two sacred women.
That was when I began to notice how many women owned and ran businesses here not to mention how public and visible women were, allowed to laugh loudly, make comments, and speak their mind.
At the top of the hill there stood a hermitage, La Ermita de la Guia, dedicated to La Guia, the Virgin Mary of Llanes, their protectress of fishermen and boats. It only opened on Tuesdays, coinciding with Llanes' weekly market. Upon climbing up to the top of the hill after lunch with my husband we discovered that La Guia was also a Tuesday women's club. There women placed fresh flowers at Mary's feet, cleaned, sat, and visited with each other. They were all dressed up for going out on the town.
And then when we climbed back down the hill, there were almost only women out and about. I smiled at Miles, "It seems you're it and all your counterparts are at home, washing the lunch dishes!"
"Or taking a nice siesta." he quipped without pause.
We walked past cafes where groups of impeccably dressed women sat sipping café solo and café con leche, a few downing a corto beer—a short beer—or a glass of wine. When we neared the tourist office, open after a long afternoon interval, we stopped in and asked.
"We've traveled to other parts of Spain but never have we seen so many women commanding public space, especially after lunch. What's the custom here, and what's up at the Hermitage—it looks like a women's club."
The woman, of course, with whom I spoke looked at me in surprise. "Women are quite visible and active in public and in businesses. But the Hermitage? Well, I don't really know." She looked intrigued—a magnificent matriarchal habit right here under her nose all along but she never noticed it. "I'll venture a guess that after lunch every day women have time for themselves. They go out, walk, visit each other, or go to the hermitage. It's their time to relax."
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