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The legend of the wolf and the bear

The novel that the Indianos have always wanted to write. Imagine, in the fifth century, a group – perhaps ex-legionaries and therefore probably practitioners of Mithraism – that, being unhappy with the religious reforms and fed up with political and military turmoil, decides to defect and take the path of Ara Solis. They stop taking part in the battles of the time for building the world they want to live in somewhere between the Pyrenees and the Finisterre.

lobo e indianasIt must have been the mid nineties when a good friend encouraged us to visit what back then was the Provincial Museum of Oviedo. At that time, we cyberpunks visited Colunga in the island quite often, and the beach was becoming the reference site of more than a few meetings and discussions that would, few years later, lead to the creation of las Indias. This friend, who knows the local history very well, encouraged us to look for a tombstone found in the late eighteenth century in the Church, and that had been incorporated into the first collection of the Museum around 1880.

lapida mitra la islaThe tombstone, dedicated by someone by the name of “Fromto” to the imperial cult, and that should “preside over the pater patrarum besides the lion,” proved the existence of a Mithraeum on the island. Originally dated in the third century, the archaeological debate has pushed forward the date to the fourth or even the fifth century.

It was found in 1786 as part of the portico of the Church and had been part of the first collection of the museum in 1880. New remains appeared with the construction of the new church in the late nineteenth century, but most of it got lost. It seems that one of them was the pedestal of the wolf illustrating this post, which in the 90’s appeared in the museum as originating in the island and dated on the fifth century, but now – many years after the museum was closed – appears in the medieval hall without dating and with a short caption that reads “unknown origin.”

Aesthetically, the image is very powerful: a wolf walking under the stars towards the West. In the top frame, a stylized human figure, and what looks like a shooting star or a comet. I remember we left the Museum wanting to know more about this pedestal that no one seemed to have payed much attention to.

The pieces of the puzzle

The first pictorial representation of a wolf on the peninsula is probably the Tajo Cave of Figures, in the current Casas Viejas, painted in a hunting scene that is about 20,000 years old. But the first thing one finds when researching the appearances of wolves in Peninsular iconography is its importance for the pre-Roman Iberian world, in which it is the guardian of the Hades and the groundwaters.

The figure of the wolf appears frequently in sites from the third century BCE, like the famous head found at El Pajarillo Hill (Huelma, Jaen). The wolf walking under the stars first appears in an Ace coined in the Oretan mint of Iltiraka (near present Jaen). In the peninsular north, the wolf was the main attribute and form of Tautates or Dispater, the Celtiberian Mars, a God of the community (dis-pater = father of each) with traces until the thirteenth century in the Cantabrian mountain range, which influenced the subsequent conversion of Santiago into a warrior.

As de Iltiraka (segunda mitad del S II aec), el lobo camina de Oriente a Occidente bajo la estrella lobo en heraldicaThus, the wolf as a symbol is clearly associated with the “old gods,” and that’s the way the thriving Christian culture of the Middle Ages understood it, identifying it with danger, paganism, and irrational ferocity. From being a watchdog that protects from death, it turned into a symbol of greed and savagery. In the Iberian Peninsula, the wolf will occupy the place given to the Bear in the Central European medieval Christian symbology: a symbol of the past and of the beliefs to be rejected.

And yet, it will become the second most common animal of Hispanic heraldry, or the first if we separate the catalanphone world and Galicia from the peninsular story. This vexilological attribute reinforces the perception of the strength of the polytheistic substrate in the culture of the kingdoms of Cantabrian origin of the peninsula.

The legend

El lobo y la OsaWhy this fixation with the wolf? Although the topic does not seem to have worried historians too much, there is a hypothesis that our friend who introduced us to the treasures of the Archaeological Museum of Asturias told us for the first time, and that has appeared several times in our discussions with specialists throughout these years: the presence on the Cantabrian coast and the Pyrenees of polytheistic groups that arrived from elsewhere in Europe -perhaps linked to the armies of late imperial times- because they had not accepted the decrees that imposed Christianity. And although we have heard about it quite often, the truth is that there are no scientific works to support it. So instead of a hypothesis, perhaps it is better to call it a legend – its value as a story is not diminished by the fact that it has not been proven.

It is a beautiful story, and even if perhaps there is not enough archaeological evidence available to write a paper about it, it would definitely be good source material for a good historical novel. Imagine a group – perhaps ex-legionaries, and therefore probably practitioners of Mithraism – that, being unhappy with the religious reforms and fed up with the political and military turmoil, decides to defect and take the path of Ara Solis, a direct antecedent of the Camino de Santiago of which there is evidence from Celtic times, and which had been a widespread religious reference back then.

Escudo de los Elorriaga de OñatiThe Ara Solis was an altar located in Finisterre, the most western point of the then known world, where the the dusk was celebrated. From Augustus onwards it will have an annex temple where, apparently, the birth of Venus was also celebrated – that is the reason why the “pilgrim’s shells” of today are known as “veneras” (scallops).

This also explains the change in the direction of the wolf (the East was usually represented towards the right back then) and the replacement, common in later centuries, of the stars of the Little Dipper for scallops, as in coat of the Elorriaga de Oñati family (pictured).

The historical basis

The great religious reform promoted by the Emperor Constantine, which ended up imposing Christian monotheism and prohibiting traditional worship throughout the Empire with the Edict of Thessalonica of Emperor Theodosius in 380 CE, did not happen instantly or without resistance.

In the Iberian Peninsula, there is in fact a direct order of destruction and Christianization of temples until 435 CE, and its assertive and violent character indicates the persistence of the old religion, which in the late fourth century was, according to historians of the late Roman Hispania, practiced by a majority. It is known that the Iberian West had maintained considerable religious autonomy. The famous pedestal dedicated to Erudinus, which appeared in the Dobra Peak (Santander), dated 30 years after the decree of Theodosius, does not seem to represent an isolated incident whatsoever, although the dating has been questioned.

The association of Mars with the legions, the appearance of the wolf walking from east to west, several shields mentioned in the “Notitia Dignitatum,” and the island’s Mithraic temple, could signal a military origin of our pedestal. However, we have not been able to locate in the Cantabrian any of the units symbolized by wolves in the Notitia between the third (dating of the temple of Mitra) and fifth (dating of the pedestal) centuries. However, in tauroctony (the central myth of Mithraism, a symbolic sacrifice of a bull that generates primordial abundance), the wolf – or some times a dog – represents Humanity, which benefits from abundance in the form of grain that the blood of the sacrificed bull turns into.

Lobo en la Iglesia de OlcozThis also would be consistent with findings of the last decade demonstrating the persistence of the religio within sectors of the Cantabrian upper classes as recently as the eighth century.

In fact, the struggle of the Catholic Church against the traditional polytheistic practices continued until much later, as seems to suggest the “pagan door” of the Church of Olcoz already in the twelfth century, where, by the way, the wolf takes center stage.

Leyend, story, and inspiration

The truth is that it matters very little whether anything other than our dear pedestal arises as supportive evidence for the hypothesis that our friend told us twenty years ago. Although we cannot know whether it is true, it has -despite the buts we have found ourselves- a certain plausibility, and it definitely is inspiring.

Logo del Grupo Cooperativo de las IndiasThe “story of the wolf and the Bear” became, from that very first time we heard about it, the novel that we always wanted to write. The timeless story of those who choose to leave the great conflicts of their time to prioritize the people they cherish. We have not writen it yet. But somehow, the reason we took a version of the main theme as the logo of las Indias, was that we had already started, in a way, to live it.


Translated by Alan Furth from the Original in Spanish.

«The legend of the wolf and the bear» recibió 1 desde que se publicó el domingo 29 de junio de 2014 dentro de la serie «» . Si te ha gustado este post quizá te gusten otros posts escritos por David de Ugarte.

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