After centuries of Christian and Islamic control, very little of the original Lusitanian mythology is known in Portugal. Still, what we do know is some really unique, fascinating mythological figures. As well as a Portuguese pantheon of benevolent and at times harsh gods.
Popular Portuguese legends, interestingly, aren’t at all ancient. Rather, they’re distinctly Catholic, and capture more modern Portuguese sentiments and ideals.
I’ve put together the three most wide-spread and beloved folk stories from Portugal. Along with every mythological creature I could find!
(For those visiting Portugal, check out all the best things for travellers and history lovers to do in Lisbon! Glenn and I spent over a month in the city, and it’s as magical as these myths.)
Ancient Lusitanian mythological figures
Because of its position on the edge of Spain, you may not expect Portugal to have its own very distinct mythology. But it does. These are some ancient Lusitanian myths and creatures.
Mouras are shapeshifters with formidable strength and beauty. Basically, the whole package superpower-wise. They’re found in Portuguese and Galician fairy tales, and are often very seductive and magical.
The enchanted Moura usually has lovely flowing hair, and will be spotted combing it and singing. She offers treasures to anyone who can break the spell cast over her – since, in many stories, she is a cursed maiden or the spirit of one.
She guards liminal spaces – like bridges, rivers, and castles – and is often unbelievably beautiful.
The progression of the santa compana – graffiti in Pontevedra, just north of Portugal
A little darker than the previous figure, the Santa Compaña is a procession of souls in torment. They’re known by many names across Portugal and Galicia, including As da nuite (the Night Ones).
These figures wear white hoods and carry candles, but they cannot be seen by ordinary people. Their procession is led by a living person, who walks under a spell every night, and returns to his bed at dawn, unaware of his curse. He can only break the curse by passing on his cauldron or cross to another living person during the procession. Otherwise, he will soon die from sleep deprivation.
Coco, or Cucuy, is a very unusual mythical figure. It’s a ghost-monster which usually appears as a human body with a pumpkin head. Creepy right? That’s what they thought too, and el coco was (and sometimes still is) invoked to freak kids out of they were misbehaving.
The coco is a child eater or stealer, who preys on disobedient children. In Medieval Portugal, coco changed to become a female dragon and was included in various celebrations. Honestly, a dragon seems like a far more pleasant visual than a pumpkin-headed ghost-man. So the change makes a lot of sense.
Similar to goblins and sprites, the Duende is small and magical. In Portuguese and Spanish mythology, they lure young children into the forest by whistling an enchanting tune. Little is known about these figures now, and the name Duende has come to be used as a sort of umbrella term for sprite-like creatures.
Primary Lusitanian gods in Portugal
Lusitanian, or Iberian, mythology has its own pantheon of gods. Only a few are known now, and only through dedications to their cults around Portugal and the Iberian peninsula. Portuguese god-myths mingled with Roman beliefs when they were conquered, so you may find that some of these figures sound rather familiar.
A god of many faces, Endovelicus is now considered the most important god of ancient Lusitania. This is because we’ve found more dedications to him than to any other god in the area.
Endovelicus is a chthonic (underworld) deity. He is the god of health, light, prophecy, and the afterlife. Definitely the guy to talk to if you wanted prosperity and good health in this life and the next.
Also known as Atégina, this goddess is the Lady of the Underworld. As well as the Dawn Goddess. Ataegina is reborn every year, the goddess of rebirth, fertility, illness, and death. She is one of the Lusitanian pantheon’s primary deities, and would be invoked to curse enemies and enact justice. As well as to bless plans and dreams.
A river goddess with many roles in the Lusitanian pantheon, Nabia’s cult was widespread across Iberia. She presides over water, and seems to have played an important role in the protection of local communities, individuals’ health, and the earth.
A relief of Epona, found in Vorarlberg Museum
Epona is a goddess of fertility and protector of pack animals like horses and donkeys. She was later incorporated into Roman myths, and may have led souls into the after-life, riding on her animals.
Other Iberian deities we don’t know enough about
Of course, Lusitanian gods extended far beyond the ones listed here. But our access to and knowledge of these deities is very limited because of how little remains of their structures. The most we know of many gods is their names.
These gods include Trebaruna, who is most likely a protectress of the family and the home. Bandua, also a protector of the community. As well as Cosus, Ilurbeda, Quangueio, and Reve.
Portuguese legends and folklore
Portuguese legends are a lot more recent than the country’s mythology. You’ll find that they’re a lot more Catholic-styled, and stem mostly from the 13th century onwards.
These are some of the most beautiful and most popular Portuguese folk stories.
The Miracle of the Roses
The miracle of the roses at Elisabeth gallery at Wartburg. Image courtesy of Vera Belka
This is a lovely legend from the 13th century, celebrating a sense of generosity in the Portuguese spirit.
According to the legend, Queen Elizabeth of Portugal was a very compassionate and kind woman. She cared for all the poor people and undesirables of her husband’s domain, and would often go out to bring them loaves of bread from the castle.
One day, an aristocrat close to the king grew suspicious of her, and followed the queen. He saw her handing out the bread, and reported back to the king, making it sound as if his wife was stealing the food and robbing the royal coppers.
The king confronted his wife, noticing that she was hiding something beneath her cloak and demanding she show him. Aware that she would get in trouble for what she was doing, she sent up a silent prayer.
She told the king that what she had was roses for the church. Of course, he didn’t believe her, since it was winter and no roses were growing. Talk about panicking and saying the wrong thing. He insisted she reveal what was beneath her coat. Reluctantly she did, and to everyone’s surprise, a gorgeous bouquet of roses, covered in snow, fell to the ground.
The king apologised for doubting her (poor sucker), and word got around the country that God had turned her loaves of bread to roses. She was declared Saint Elizabeth of Portugal, and is still a very popular figure today.
Rooster of Barcelos
This is one of Portugal’s most famous legends. There are various tellings of this story, but the general tale is the same.
Sometime in the 15th century, a stranger arrived in a town recently hit by tragedy. The man was a pilgrim en route to Santiago de Compostela. But he was quickly blamed for the crime, and sentenced to death by hanging. A little quick to jump the gun, right?
The man insisted on being brought to the magistrate, who was at that time throwing a banquet. He tried to make his case but was turned away. But the man was faithful that his innocence would be proven. And so he pointed at the cooked rooster on the table, and declared that this rooster would crow at the moment of his hanging. This miracle would prove he was innocent.
Everyone had a bit of a laugh, and he was led out to the gallows. Lo and behold, as he was hung, the cooked rooster got up on the table and crowed! They immediately realised they had the wrong man after all, and this pilgrim was favoured by God. Fortunately, the man’s noose was too loosely tied, and so they could save him.
The man returned later, and sculpted a cross to honour the rooster and his Lord who saved him.
This legend is extremely popular in Portugal, and you’ll quickly find that one of the best souvenirs to take home is a hand-crafted rooster, in the specific style adopted to celebrate this legend.
Legend of the Seven Cities’ Lagoons
The Seven Cities’ Lagoon – you can see the blue seeping just a little into the green lake. Photo by Stephanie Silvaabreu
This legend is a classic tragedy, with forbidden romance, angry kings (one), and loss.
Once there was a king whose wife died, and he was left to raise his daughter alone. He loved her very much, but because of the loss of his wife, he stifled his daughter, keeping her safe through limiting all contact with the world. As she grew up she couldn’t spend time with kids her own age, and the only people she could interact with was her father and her old nurse.
This was an incredibly harsh way to grow up, and eventually her nurse made a way for her to escape every now and then. While her father had his afternoon nap, she would sneak out and explore the area. It always felt like a great adventure because she had seen none of the world before that.
One day, she came across a green-eyed shepherd on a hill. He was playing the flute beautifully, and she hid behind a bush and listened. She returned here whenever she could, always listening to the lovely music he made.
Eventually, he found her watching him, and fell in love with the beautiful blue-eyed princess at first sight. They became lovers, and she would return regularly to listen to him play and enjoy each others company.
The shepherd proposed to his love, and when they went to the king to ask his permission, he was furious. Livid, I’m sure, as he hadn’t even known that his daughter was slipping out.
The king refused their marriage and forbade them from seeing each other again. His daughter was absolutely devastated, and begged him to see her love one last time. He was moved by her anguish and allowed it. The princess ran to her love on the hill, and together they cried bitterly.
Their tears flowed down the hill, and formed a blue and a green lake, touching but always separate. So while they couldn’t be together, their love would always live on.
Last thoughts on Portuguese myths
I hope you enjoyed reading these myths and legends as much as I enjoyed researching them. If you have more you know about and you’d like me to add, let me know. I’m sure Portugal has lots more where that came from – some of my favourite stories so far!