Portugal: Peeps at Many Lands - Edith A. Browne

Country Dances, Songs, and Legends

The peasants are very fond of dance and song, particularly in Northern Portugal. At harvest-time, and in the month of May, they delight in gatherings where old-fashioned Oriental-looking dances take place. They are slow and sedate, consisting quite as much of movements of the body, arms, and hands, as of the feet, and must have been taken from the Moors. You seldom hear any laughter at these dancas, though in the ordinary way the northern Portuguese are cheery and light-hearted enough.

The music which accompanies them is also usually of a weird Oriental nature, in a minor key, like many of the national airs and ballads, but each district has its own peculiar songs, and these have often a great charm and sweetness about them, more especially in the mountainous districts, where the Moors never penetrated, and where the peasants retain more of their ancient Roman and Gothic origin.

"When the Portuguese labourer has done his long day's work, he does not lean against a post and smoke a pipe, nor does he linger in the wine-shop; but if it be a holiday or a Sunday, and in a rural district, he puts on a clean shirt, with a large gold or silver stud as a neck fastening, and his newest hat, varying in shape according to locality, but always of black felt, and of the kind one sees in pictures of Spanish life. He throws over his shoulder a black cloth cloak with a real gold or silver clasp. He takes his favourite ox-goad in his hand, as tall as himself, straight as an arrow, well-rounded, and polished, and bound with brass. He slings his mandolin round his neck, and makes his way to the nearest fashionable threshing-floor—the peasant's drawing-room. As he passes along, strumming careless chords and humming snatches of strange airs, the girls and lads stop their labour and accompany him, lovers will interrupt their love-making to follow too, or continue their courting to the rhythmic tinkling of the mandolin. When the music and its following arrives at the dancing place, and the partners are all ranged in a circle, the dance will begin, with the strangest, slowest, most old-fashioned steps, the like whereof has not been danced under a civilized roof for centuries. The musician, or the three or four of them whose mandolins make the orchestra, dance in the round with the others, and, when the time arrives, turn and set to their partners like the other dancers."

The above is taken from the writings of an Englishman who spent many years of his life in Portugal, and knew the country well.

There is still a great deal of superstition among the peasants, and some of the quaint legends of vampires, spirits, and fairies in which they firmly believe are most strange. Stories of Moorish maidens are very general. If, wandering through the forests, a man happens to hear an echo of his own voice, he thinks it is that of a Moorish maid, and, being a good Roman Catholic, crosses himself devoutly to keep off harm.

In one place they tell of a huge and terrible dragon, who did all sorts of dreadful things, and terrorized the entire neighbourhood. At last a brave and chivalrous youth set out to try and destroy it, but while he lay in wait for the monster in the heart of a dark wood, he was overcome by sleep, and awoke, to his horror, to find himself in the coils of the monster itself, and the horrible creature in the act of kissing him on the lips. But as it did so the spell was broken, and instead of a dragon, he found he was being embraced by a most beautiful Moorish maiden, with whom he fell in love on the spot, and they were married, and lived happily ever after.

In another place there is a story of one of these maidens whom some wicked spirit had turned into a stone, and quite unconscious of what it really was, a farmer was in the habit of using this particular stone as a weight on his harrow. One day, to his great surprise, he heard a voice in the air above him telling him to break off one corner of the stone and take it home, and then to throw the rest into a deep pool in the river, which flowed near at hand. He did as he was bidden, and as the stone splashed into the water, he heard a peal of joyful unearthly laughter, as the Moorish maid once more resumed her human form; and on returning to his house the farmer found that the piece of stone he had left there had been changed into pure gold, which made him rich for life.

There is also a great belief in witches—bruxas  they call them. The fishermen often think they see them at night on the crests of the waves. They say they are quite accustomed to them, that the lapping of the water is the murmur of their songs, and they are not at all afraid of them, as these water-witches are considered quite harmless. The land bruxas are, however, much more dreaded, and it is strange in a land of otherwise sensible people to hear of the queer customs which are still in vogue, and are supposed to avert the evil they might otherwise do. On May Day a piece of red wool is tied round the necks of all the young animals on a farm: mules, donkeys, sheep, goats, pigs, etc. Old horseshoes are nailed to the house-doors, and a slip of broom is stuck into every stable-door. Every cart, plough, or ox-yoke in the place is also decorated with broom, which is considered particularly efficacious against the dreaded spells of the bruxas.

Some animals are looked on as "lucky," particularly the oxen, and the most superstitious peasant will believe himself to be quite safe from all danger of charms or magic when standing among them.

Of all the birds the house-martins are the most cherished, for the legend still survives that they fly to heaven every day to wash our Lord's feet, and it would be thought most unlucky to in any way destroy their nests or young.