Among the joys of exploring Portugal and delving into its history are the legends I encounter. I found some intriguing Moorish legends depicted in a tapestry rug and paintings in the Municipal Museum in Faro. The Algarve was the last Portuguese region to be taken from the Muslims; they ruled the area from 711 to 1249, which explains the Moorish themes in these tales.
Tapestry of Holy Mary and the fish
The first of these Moorish legends is woven into a woolen tapestry rug. It was made in 1988 by Emília Pensiga from Faro using the same techniques as the traditional rugs from Arraiolos in the Alentejo region.
Her colourful handiwork tells the story of a miracle that occurred in Faro during Muslim rule. Since Christians were already living in the area, a statue of the Virgin Mary was placed on the city walls to acknowledge the importance of the Christian community.
However, following subsequent disagreements and skirmishes between the two groups the Muslims threw the statue into the ocean as an insult to their rivals.
They stopped feeling so pleased with themselves when local fishermen began returning empty-netted. The coincidence was too strong to be ignored; the sudden lack of fish was seen as punishment for the act of sacrilege.
To test the theory, the statue was retrieved and repositioned on the city walls. Lo and behold, the next time the fishermen went out to sea, they came back with an enormous catch so the statue stayed and fishing continued.
The story comes from one of many songs about the Virgin Mary that are attributed to King Afonso X the Wise.
The spellbound Moors and Algarve bewitchings
Back in 1898, local priest, lawyer and researcher Franciso Xavier de Ataide Oliveira published a collection of Moorish legends from the Algarve. Several decades later, Faro-born artist Carlos Porfírio used these tales as inspiration for a series of paintings, many of which are on display in Faro’s Municial Museum.
The Moorish woman with the golden comb
This is the curious story of a young man who was passing the Golden Fountian in Salir one day when he saw a beautiful woman sitting there, combing her hair with a gold comb. Transfixed by both, he gawped until the woman asked him what he wanted. He admitted he’d never seen such riches or beauty.
The woman then offered him enough money to buy lots of gold combs if he enabled her and her sister to break free from the spell they were bound by. She told him to return to the fountain before sunrise the next day where he would find two bulls. He was to yoke them to a plough and use it to make a furrow between the church of Salir and the village of Palmeiros.
“You mustn’t be distracted by what you see, even if the plough turns up pieces of gold,” she warned, “otherwise our spell will become even stronger and you will get nothing.”
The next morning, he did as instructed and was able to stay focused until the plough hit a rock that shattered, sending dozens of gold coins into the air. The youth was unable to resist and stuffed his pockets full of money. When he turned around to look at the plough, the bulls had disappeared. That’s when he realised his pockets were empty.
The howling old fox
The zorra berradeira (howling old fox) struck such fear into the hearts of the people living near Odelouca in Monchique that they were too scared to leave their homes at night. Her monstrous howls and foul stench pervaded the hills and valleys and she brought nothing but bad luck to those who heard her cries.
From afar, she looked like a goat but up close, she resembled a grotesque and filthy bird because she also had wings. She would swoop down on an unsuspecting person and carry them off to the highest mountain. Or, in the case of one young man who tried to show he wasn’t scared by mimicking her screams, she beat him to death without leaving a scratch on his body.
While all agreed that she was abhorrent, the origins of this vile creature were unclear.
One theory is that the old fox was an incarnation of a bewitched Moorish woman who had rebelled against Allah in a bid to break free from the spell. As punishment, Allah turned her into an object of hate, fear and revulsion among both Moorish and Christian communities.
Others claimed that the fox was the soul of an old woman who had lived a wicked life and was now responding to her critics by showing that she could do as she damned well pleased in the afterlife.
Either way, the painting shows a creature that I wouldn’t want to meet!
Find out more about what Faro has to offer in this post: What to see in Faro, the overlooked capital of the Algarve