Small Myths in Portuguese Culture

Lynne Booker 2010

Deu-la-Deu, wife of the absent lord of Monção (Vasco Gomes de Abreu) was charged with holding Monção castle against the invading Castilians during the wars between D Fernando I and Enrique II de Trastámara of Castile. The year was 1369 and D Fernando had begun the first of his three Castilian Wars. During a long siege, the defenders of the Monção fortress began to feel hungry, and to think of surrender. Deu-la-deu would have none of this She ordered that all the remaining grain in the town be ground and baked into bread. Taking the loaves to the ramparts, she ordered that they should all be thrown out to the surrounding Castilians. Deu-la-deu called out to them Deus lo deu, Deus lo há dado. There was plenty more, and they had only to ask if they needed more. The Castilians understood that if there was so much surplus food inside the fortress, they could never reduce the town by starvation. And so they gathered their equipment and left for an easier siege. And to this day the arms of Monção show Deu-la-Deu above the ramparts with her arms outstretched and holding a loaf of bread in each hand. This story has the additional attraction of showing Portuguese in a better light than their neighbours the Castilians.

Bread also features in another story, that of the Baker of Aljubarrota. Brites (or Beatriz) de Almeida was born in Faro in 1350 to humble tavern keeper parents. Not only was she famously ugly but she was also well-built and powerful, with 6 fingers on each hand. Bored with tavern work, after her parents died she toured the fairs as a female fighter in search of excitement. She was one day challenged by a soldier. The deal was that if he won, she would marry him and if he lost, he would be dead. He lost! After this murder, Brites became an outlaw on the run to Castile. Her boat was taken by pirates and she was sold into Mauritania as a slave. With fellow Portuguese, she escaped by sea and landed by chance in Ericeira. From there, still on the run she made her way to Aljubarrota where she found work as a baker and married a husband. It so happened that the battle between the Portuguese pretender D João I, Mestre de Avis, and the Castilian invaders under their king Juan I took place at Aljubarrota on 14 August 1385, and Brites went to watch the fun. After the famous victory of the Portuguese over the Castilians, she went back to her bakery where she found 7 Castilian soldiers hiding in her oven. Declining her invitation to emerge and surrender, they found in Brites an enemy as powerful as D João I. She took up her iron bread shovel and beat them to death, before going out again to look for more fun. In memory of her heroic deed, there is on 14 August every year a procession to celebrate the battle, and the symbol carried at the head of the procession is of course an iron baker´s shovel. And, during the 60 years of the Spanish Habsburg occupation of the throne of Portugal, the shovel was kept hidden, and it emerged again only when D João, Duke of Bragança, was acclaimed King of Portugal in 1640. And the symbol on the arms of the Freguesia of Prazeres-Aljubarrota, Brites´ home parish? An iron baker´s shovel.

Portugal has its share of heroes as well as heroines. Martim Moniz, for example. Of the fifty metro stations in Lisbon, three are named after real people: Pombal (chief minister to D José I), Saldanha (Pombal´s grandson who was four times Prime Minister in the nineteenth century) and Martim Moniz. The story of Martim Moniz is concerned with the siege of Lisbon in 1147. When the Christian forces were attacking the Moorish castle, they saw that one of the gates was open, and just as Martim Moniz was leading his men through it, the Moors slammed it shut. He died trapped in the doorway but the gate clearly could not be shut. His unplanned sacrifice enabled the Christian forces to break in and take the city. By 1258 one of the city gates located in the present day parish of Socorro was already called Martim Moniz. The Socorro metro station was renamed and remodelled in 1995-7 and its name was changed to that of our hero. Gracinda Candeias and José João Brito decorated the wall of the metro station with witty azulejos showing Christian knights and prelates from the siege, and also Martim Moniz trapped in the gate. Their particular illustration bears an uncanny resemblance to the sign warning people to stand clear of the train doors.

In different towns in both Portugal and Galicia there abound stories of the Moura Encantada. The Moura often appears singing and combing her long hair and she promises to give treasures and love to whomsoever frees her from the spell. The tales are believed to be of Celtic origin. One of the most famous Mouras is Floripes, the Moura Encantada of Olhão. The Portuguese film director, Miguel Gonçalves Mendes, has filmed this story in half fiction and half documentary. Floripes lured fishermen to help her escape from her spell and if they failed, they lost their hearts to her - literally as well as metaphorically: she ate their hearts. It is quite gruesome.