A pattern began to emerge. Most towns and villages in Asturias are represented by a sacred woman—Mary in one form or another and usually in a chapel standing in or near a boat: All are associated with the sea, protectresses of those who go out and those who stay at home, waiting. Moreover, women were very present in all aspects of public life.
This was not the case in southern Spain where the male–female balance had to be brought on more self–consciously, as the mayor of the Andalusian town of Torredonjimeno realized. In the heart of patriarchal Spain, a few years ago the mayor implemented a mandatory women's night out. Any man not at home tending the children and preparing dinner by 9 PM (the Spanish eat later than we do) would be fined, and are. While Tuesdays are a natural afternoon out for the women of Llanes, Thursday night in Torredonjimeno has become a polarized battleground, where one mayor is inspired to bring the goddess back, not just at the foot of the cross, grieving her Son's execution, but in bars across town.
The xanas of Asturias
Other signs of surviving goddesses remain in Asturias, in the form of xanas. Nymph–like and fairyish, many Asturian mythologists believe xanas evolved from the Roman period when Diana was revered. Fabled to have had goddess–like attendants, Diana reigned as a symbol of the matriarch and the divine feminine that were in place before the Romans arrived. So, many Asturians believe xanas, the name perhaps somehow derived from Diana or her attendants, may well be more ancient than Romans in northern Spain but survived by being placed under a Roman guise. Perhaps before the Romans, xanas were known as the Celtic deity Ana. As powerful energies tend to do, rather that disappear when a new reality hits, they morph into the nearest best thing. Long after the Romans left northern Spain, xanas held fast.
Xanas inhabit watery places, mostly creek banks or spring sources and protect a vast treasure, usually with the help of their consort, the cuelebre, a fantastic serpent. They are known to have very long blond or red hair and stark green or blue eyes. A key signal that you are looking at a xana—should she choose to reveal herself to you—is that she holds a pure gold comb and uses it to comb her hair. Often she wears the water colors of blue, green, and violet. Sometimes seashells and flowers decorate her just–combed hair. Always she is beguiling and independent. Something of a Lillith character: unafraid of her own feminine power and unashamed of what it can do.
One morning our friend Flora picked up Miles and me up to show us her favorite spots around Ribadesella. We went through mountain passes, stopped at enchanting little alcoved beaches, and walked through a cave system so extensive that a road had to pass through one of the cave openings to get to an isolated village. The whole day reinforced the reality that Asturias is a land of magnificent natural spaces and many waterways, so much that a xana would find this an ideal setting in which to live. Given all the spring mouths and grottos and hidden beaches, I began seeing fleeting evidence of xanas everywhere.
I asked Flora about them. She laughed. "Sure, xanas are popular in Asturias, but you, as a woman will never see one. They only show themselves to men. I advise Miles to be forewarned, they're up to something when they do reveal themselves. They'll charm you and entice you." She smiled sweetly at Miles, "but be polite and keep moving, otherwise, it's trouble." Then Flora laughed again, "But this is all una fantasia. They don't really exist." I told her I still thought they did and that I was sure I heard one, by the creek under the oak grove near our apartment. "Believe what you like." Flora was one to live and let live.
Asturians say that on spring and summer nights the xanas like to sing. If a pure–of–heart passerby hears a xana sing, he will receive luck in the area he needs it most: if sick, he will get better; if in love, he will marry and be happy in marriage with the person he desires; if poor, he will receive wealth. But, if someone hears the xana's song and is not pure of heart and soul, he will become as if possessed and go crazy. Xanas are also known to protect those truly in love and dedicated to each other and to bring exposure and harm to the unfaithful.
Spain's northwest is a green land of farmers and fisherman. For them the xana represents the awareness that there is a need for balance and respect in our relationship with nature, which includes our feminine and masculine natures. If she is displeased, calamity befalls us; if we live in harmony and treat the Earth and each other with integrity, the xana protects us. Most likely her gold is nature's bounty and avarice is its worst enemy. And a passerby who helps a troubled xana, who heals the force of nature, is rewarded with a bounty of health and good living. It is no wonder the xana never left and is now emerging from hidden caves and grottos as Asturians embrace a life that honors the natural world and also strive to find their own place in the world.
Beebe Bahrami is a widely–published freelance writer and cultural anthropologist. Her writing has appeared in many publications, including Michelin Green Guides and National Geographic Books. Prior to becoming a fulltime professional writer, she was a university professor, an ethnographic consultant to diverse businesses, and then the editor for Expedition magazine. She earned her PhD from the University of Pennsylvania in anthropology, with a specialty in the cultures, languages, peoples, and histories of the western Mediterranean world. She divides her year between Europe and the USA.
The Penitent Legionnaire by Robert Ward
Modern Day Druids at the Hill of Tara by Ian Middleton
Discovering Forbidden Archeology by Brad Olsen
Strange Sensations in Iceland by Tim Leffel
Other European travel stories from the archives
Books from the Author: