History, development and social, symbolic and cultural functions
From the historic point of view these lands in the North-West of the Iberian Peninsula possessed common cultural characteristics for millennia. Therefore, the megalithic culture spread over almost all of the geographical area in the third millennium B.C., followed by the so-called “bell-shaped cup” culture, which presupposes the commencement of gold and copper metallurgy and a beginning for the influence of Mediterranean and Atlantic bronze throughout the second millennium B.C. and at the beginning of the first.
On the other hand, the north-west of the Peninsula is a region where things Celtic, due to the reasons of mutual appropriation explained above, are no longer specifically Celtic, common with other regions, but are another definite culture, an analytical element for the understanding of its expressions of social organisation, its ritual processes, its symbolic world and even its material culture of which the “castros” [hill forts] are a perfect example. The remains of more than 5,000 are known, some of them excavated, such as Carvalhelhos, Briteiros and Sobroso in Portugal, or Sta. Trega, Baroña, Castromao and Viladonga, in Galicia. This culture, typical of peoples called galaicos [Galician] by classical writers is the fruit of Celtic, Indo-European and also Mediterranean influences, which were combined with the local substrate.
When one speaks of the symbolic world, one normally invokes the mark of the Celtic world. In spite of the ethno genetic obsession of the majority of the studies which portray the Celts as an identifying unit, explanatory of the culture of the North-West of the Peninsula, if initially this reference was over-valued in order to legitimise uniformity in the culture of this region, subsequently it provoked strong criticism and fierce opposition from the scientific community. In addition to the scientific questions, in themselves controversial, others, such as the political questions, gave wings to nationalistic partial interpretations, as was the case of the New State in Portugal or the Franco regime in Spain, which hindered a calm viewpoint on the question. Before making any theoretical formulation it is important to understand what we mean by “Celtic” and “Celts”, as possibly these presuppositions have made scientific approaches to the problem unfeasible.
Any approximation to the study of the Celtic question in the North-West of the Peninsula must go beyond archaeological or even linguistic dimensions, to be carried out through a complexity of fields of analysis which, we believe, define the specific nature of the culture of this region. The Celtic-ness of the North-West of the Peninsula was formed by the prevalence of mutual interferences provoked by the contact between a proto-Celtic substrate and the new groups which arrived here, thus initiating a mutual cultural appropriation which characterises the diversity and the complexity of Celtic reality, both in the geographical and chronological spheres. Besides any controversy, the prevalence of Celtic components in the language is undeniable, whatever the level and the time of the relationship between the Portuguese and the Celtic languages, which gave shape to a relative linguistic identity in the territories of ancient Gallaecia.
But more important than the linguistic datum, in itself important, was the convergence of peoples and of cultures which was expressed by a census and a social organisation imposed by the economic and ecological limitations of the region. It is to this collection of peculiarities that one may confer an individual identity and culture, which the Romans recognised in a multi-ethnic Gallaecia, with varied languages and peoples, but unified as a culturally identified territory.
This Gallaecia, created by the Romans, embraced the lands of Galicia, the North of Portugal, Asturias and León, including cities such as Lucus Augusti (Lugo) in present-day Galicia, Brácara Augusta (Braga) in the North of Portugal, and Astúrica Augusta (Astorga) in León.
The influence of the administration, language and religion transmitted by the Romans, likewise new techniques for agricultural tasks was, here too, fundamental. The imprint of Rome made itself evident in various cultural expressions which survived until recent times, among which the beginning of the Christianisation of the North-West, with momentary peculiarities, such as the Priscilianist movement in the 4th – 5th centuries; and a slow latinisation which, with the passage of time, gave rise to the appearance of neo-Latin languages, among which the medieval Galician-Portuguese language emerged, may be emphasised.
In spite of all this, the truth is that this influence, like that of the Swabians (who had their capital in this region) and that of the Visigoths, altered only slightly the world that had been constructed by pre- Indo-European, Indo-European peoples, Celts and Iberians, and readapted by the culture of the higher Middle Ages.
In a region where the organisation of strong urban structures is traditionally difficult, and where the prevalence of an agricultural economy, in spite of there not being many spaces of excellence for development, created communities which had to develop a special relationship with nature in order to negotiate their survival, where the agricultural-pastoral economy was predominant and the exploration of maritime resources was always an alternative, from time immemorial, as the leftovers of food in some of the hill forts show. The disorganisation of the Roman empire during its decline, the constant disagreements during the Swabian and Visigothic occupation, and the Muslim occupation, which was never consolidated -the region was considered poor and without interest by the Berbers to such an extent that they abandoned their fortified positions and never occupied them again- caused this region in the North-West of the Peninsula to lose its relationship with stable administrative centres, and gave rise to rural communities which favoured the links of solidarity between relatives and neighbours, returning to archaic practices of subsistence. These are signs of a difficult but welcoming nature which is involved in a constant struggle with human aspirations, of a society based on communities strongly held together by family and neighbourly links, to which the “councils” of Trás-osmontes bear witness, ignoring the centralising authority and distrusting the urban spaces, which define the culture of this region and are reflected in its oral culture.
Here, in contrast to what occurred in the centre and the South of the Peninsula, a Roman-Christian culture survived in the 8th and following centuries, which allowed a Galician investigator and thinker, Vicente Risco, to define the Galician man as a homo infimae latinitatis. The links with Christian Europe were intensified, too, with the “invention” of the tomb of St. James the Apostle, in Compostela, from the beginning of the 9th century, a phenomenon which lasted during the following centuries and which entailed a close relationship with other European peoples from beyond the Pyrenees, or which would be reflected in legends of oral tradition, particularly in romances.
In general, we may state that, in spite of slight local nuances, the cultural and political unity represented by the ancient Gallaecia was a fact until the 11th century. However, from that date onwards, a slow but continuous politically-based divergence began between the lands situated to the North and the South of the River Miño.While Galicia, that is to say the northern part of the whole, was subjected to the monarchy of Castile and León, Portugal was established as a separate kingdom, under king Afonso Henriques and his successors, causing a decentralisation of the seat of power towards the South, to Coimbra and Lisbon, from where cultural peculiarities emanated, generating small differences, for example in the language, and in particular contributing to develop different feelings of dependence and of possession.
The above data allow us to establish a differentiation between Galicia and the North of Portugal where political dependences are concerned, and also to recognise that the two territories depended on different “state cultures”. But it must be mentioned that, until the 19th century, both the Portuguese and the Spanish states were pre- or proto-national states, the fruit of hereditary conceptions, and therefore would tend not to create a uniform culture at the popular levels of the population, which were made up of peasants, craftsmen and sailors, which facilitated the survival of traditional forms of culture with great similarities on both sides of the Miño and of the “dry line” of the more eastern lands. Subsequently, from the late 19th century onwards, the gradual establishment of national-liberal states in Spain and Portugal caused the appearance of policies directed towards consolidating a uniform national area, as is the case in other parts of Europe. But it must be borne in mind that these two states suffered a chronic weakness which prevented them from completely satisfying their wishes to create a citizenry with a uniform state culture.
The eventualities of history, which have been recounted above, caused the North-West of the Peninsula to be characterised as a strongly rural society, of which its cultural manifestations are its most accurate reflection.
The rich Galician-Portuguese poetry of the 13th and 14th centuries was written in a common court language, based on a popular tradition of an oral nature, by Galician and Portuguese authors but, little by little, in a long process which has lasted until our times, the common characteristics would coexist with differences, which leads us to consider that the Galician and Portuguese languages are very close, but distinguishable.
Galician-Portuguese literature finds forms of learning and a place among the elite, but the maximum expression of the feelings and the actions of this region are to be found in the Oral Tradition. This expresses the natural world from which it arose; it expresses the feelings of those who work there and transcend there.
And it is not by chance that common language characteristics still survive on both sides of the frontier as country talk, as is the case in Baja Limia (Galicia) and in Castro Laboreiro (Portugal).
Poor schooling favoured the preservation of a culture of oral transmission and of a very local nature, regarding both the exploitation of the natural environment and social organisation or the symbolic belief – based, creative universe. A group of brilliant archaeologists, linguists, persons of letters, historians and ethnographers/folklorists, with figures such as Teófilo Braga, Leite de Vasconcelos, Mantíns Sarmento, Coelho, Vieira Braga, J. Dias, etc. in Portugal, or Manuel Murguía and the members of the Seminario de Estudos Galegos in Galicia give us an account of the past and present culture of the popular levels in order to document cultural forms which were being weakened by the joint action of the respective state cultures and of technological innovations. Although the principles defended by them may be interpreted as signs of conservatism, it must be acknowledged that thanks to their efforts, we are able to assess singular manifestations which must be preserved as far as possible, and even revived as a response to the threats of the indiscriminate globalisation which is typical of our times.
Only the prevalence of the models of social and economic organisation of the ritual processes and of the consequent symbolic world, made possible by the ecological specificity of the region, its political and economic history, justify a sense of belonging to a common cultural reference by the communities living here, however different their respective social practices may be at the present time. But this sense is reinforced when the social factors become aware of common linguistic characteristics and a very close symbolic world which was verified in the experiment “Ponte…nas Ondas!” [Get on the (radio) waves!] in which oral culture is the maximum expression. In a world which is under transformation, where the ecological, economic and political impositions of the past are no longer manifest, the prevalence of this Oral Tradition is at risk and the symbolic wealth of generations of men and women who lived it could disappear.
However, the purpose of the assessment and the declaration of this Oral tradition does not assume the situations which, in the recent past, nationalistic folklorist theses attempted: to celebrate an original purity, a “people” which must be protected from all modern influences and which must be in line with the rulings of a geological ideal which, attempting to be a defender of a cultural, ethnic truth, becomes slavery to the lost identity. This heritage is exceptional because it is the co-substantialisation of an extraordinary experience of human communities between a difficult nature and original historic circumstances, with literary wealth, boundless imagination and appropriate sense. It is a heritage where the subjects of nature, love, work, good and evil, luck and misfortune, the discovery and admiration of things magical and fantastic and particularly, the original, central role played by the woman appear. The whole cultural world of the North-West of the Peninsula appears in the stories and legends, the poems which refer to work, love, the saints; in the sarcasm of the “burning of Judas” [of an effigy] and the festivals of the young; in the irony of the duels of sung poems and of other songs, of which our collections of popular songs are an example. This is a heritage which the inhabitants of the region assume as their own, a definer of a sense of belonging in which each group joins those others which it considers to share its own identity.To declare it as a Heritage of Humanity is not only to state its exceptional nature, its extraordinary creation and survival over the centuries, but also to wish to share it with the human community which inhabits the globe.
This Oral tradition was very frequent in the past in the everyday practices of the inhabitants of this region during their work and their festivals, accompanying the agricultural cycles and the processions, being incorporated into professions and crafts, invoking luck and good fortune or foreseeing misfortune and fearing evil. It still survives today in small elements of everyday life, given the changes in the rural world, and can even be seen on more festive occasions, exceptional moments, linked to singing and dancing, or feasting and celebrating nature, in the rituals of the festive and natural cycles.
In everyday life, proverbs, aphorisms, prayers, descriptions and prescriptions of traditional medicine, as found in Barroso, classifications of work and professional matters emerge. To the everyday sense we must add the sense of the agricultural cycle and the events it provides: sowing, harvesting and threshing. For all of these occasions Nordestino has a song, for each task a reflection in verse, for each exploit a romance and for any circumstance of life, a saying.
Economists, historians, sociologists and anthropologists usually establish a horizon of reference in order to establish the beginning of an irreversible crisis in the old cultural system of Galicia and the North of Portugal. In spite of the different antecedents which announce this crisis, it was in the 1960’s, when a massive emigration together with intense demographic transformations came about, the surviving agricultural exploitations and fishing activities were technicalised, the popularity of industrial products grew, access to written culture and means of communication became generalised, and new types of family and of recreation emerged. In this context, the forms of oral culture disappear or survive in the memory of the elderly, or under circumstances where the strategies of adaptation to the new situation permit the preservation of old techniques, skills and celebrations which maintain traditional forms or attain new social significance, as, for example, that of being elevated to a symbol of local identity, whether Galician or Portuguese.
On the other hand, the migratory factor, common to both communities, can be explained by the poor agricultural economy; this is a phenomenon which goes back to the 19th century and still persists today. Emigration and colonisation caused this oral culture to become part of the heritage of countries such as Brazil, Angola, Mozambique, Cuba or Argentina.
One question which gives a special value to this candidature is that which refers to the new situation of this geo-cultural area as a consequence of its entry into the European Union. Indeed, if Galicia rotated in the orbit of the Spanish State, and the lands between the Miño and Duero rivers did the same with regard to the Portuguese State, now a trans-frontier space termed the Galician-North Portuguese Euro-region is beginning to be outlined. In this historic situation it is of particular interest to recover the old common cultural heritage, which should cease to be a heritage with coincidences, to become more and more a shared heritage. In other words, the assessment of Galician-Portuguese oral culture may be an important path by which to reinforce a relationship which is inevitable due to historical imperatives, as well as facilitating the projection of this area in European and universal spheres.