Our mother’s hands, magically weaving
What is our European heritage when it comes to the world of magic, old songs and forgotten tales? Are German werewolves as ferocious as Slovenian ones, or Finnish easter witches as fun as their Hungarian relatives? European diversity within the magic realm is as original and creative as the daily reality our European citizens live in, with at least one common advantage – the magic world of mysteries and tales is a safe place our imagination can slip into and allows distance to our deepest concerns, such as in recent years the SARS CoVid pandemic or war threatening the Community’s longest period of peace. Since stories are told in a cozy environment, by and for those we love, in our most inner circles, the story we want to unfold is what Peter Pan considered to be a happy thought; that what links us intrinsically back to our roots and empowers us to outreach our limits. We bring you Portuguese real life “fairies” and how their cultural and social traditions have been interwoven with the intangible fairies, our so-called Janas. We want to share how our mothers and grandmothers passed down their rural heritage through their own hands by showcasing their marriage ceremonies, so different from the fairytale, happily-ever-after-weddings in books and movies. Why did they invite the community to the “bride’s house”, sell their most exquisite crafts, and how did they embroider so delicate items in the harsh reality of rural life. Could they have been helped by the Janas?
The story will be published in a bilingual book (PT and EN), interweaving real-life stories and photos with recipes, folklore music and tales with QR codes to access online content. The project will further be presented in an exhibition 2024, under the Third Edition of Alto Alentejo Cultural Encounters 20|30, organized by DiVA’s project where a real-life “bride’s house” will be staged together with photos and audio tracks of both the folk music and tales from their collective immaterial archives.
Our great-aunt Filomena has two huge wooden chests, one for her linen, the other for wool and felt blankets. Some of these had been inherited through her grandmother, some embroidered by her mother, others by her stepmother, and many had been her own creations. Once a year she takes them out, washes what needs to be, or hangs everything out to air. Then she folds them the wrong side to prevent wrinkles damaging the fibers. I had the privilege to be present during one of these yearly rituals and when she opened her chests to show the different needle stitches, patterns, felt appliques, etc., I saw magical creatures peeking out of the flowers and leaves decorating the textiles, hopping outside, and whispering their ancient stories to me. Chests, blankets, and rituals such as these are common in Portuguese rural areas. We will focus our work on the Alentejo, Portugal’s poorest and harshest region, since it is the inner area, away from the sea, touristic beaches, and fishing life, far from the major city centers and exposed to the long, hot, and dry summer months. The climate change has increased draught, making it more challenging for the poor local agricultural people to make profitable living on arid soil. Past mistakes in agricultural and forestry politics as well as a lack in socio-economic and educational vision has led to isolation and demographic decrease. Villages are getting old; heritage is threatened to die with these last memory keepers.
Aunt Filomena explained how young women would have prepared their dowry, whilst stitching and embroidering for months in their teenage years. Then, when the marriage was to be celebrated, often with men they didn’t know, they would cover their beds, some very humble, with all the craft ship they had put into the blankets and bedlinen and display them in the bride’s house, “a casa da noiva”, a sort of open day where wedding guests, village inhabitants or especially wealthier women from places nearby could come to and marvel at their work - and buy them! The money would allow the bride to have her own nest-egg to help in buying the newlyweds’ future house. I encountered other elderly ladies in surrounding villages retelling this exact same tradition that had been passed down to them, and they were the last in mastering that special sort of embroidery or felt applique typical of the region. I felt a sudden urge to honor and preserve this memory and all heritage that comes with it, how they mastered the craft, what the music was like, what recipes would be prepared on special occasions. And above all, to give voice to these silent fairies.
Women in Portuguese rural society, like many other European women, had no income of their own and were expected to obey their husbands, subject to the breastfeeding cycle of countless children during their fertile years. Family was the man’s castle, and it was generally accepted that he was always right and was allowed to exercise his authority according to his temper and vices, such as alcohol and gambling, often leading to some sort of violence, be it disguised or not. Men were expected to ensure their family living and security and would mark the rhythm of rural chores and harvesting seasons. The woman played a decisive role as a working partner to her husband. Her day was longer, though, because after her day in the fields, she had to take care of the house, prepare meals, educate, and nurture the children.
The real power and magic happened inside family walls, mainly the woman’s kitchen. Often with no formal education, this was where she passed on her knowledge and values through a more genuine alphabet – make a fire, prepare a meal, recycle household materials, weave and knit clothes, know how to use herbs, share memories of past generations, sing lullabies and tell bedtime stories. She excelled in imagination and art to find useful and practical solutions with small means and would sacrifice herself limitless, having no time to think about herself. She would organize the household, being wife and mother, a silent and heroic caretaker of memory. This is why I see them as fairies.
I would need the help of the Janas, mystical river fairies common in Portugal and some regions in Spain. Legend has it that if you left your linen by the fireplace at night, together with a slice of bread or cake, even a golden coin, as an offer for the Janas, the next morning your linen would have been exquisitely embroidered. But their justice could also be vengeful. If you offered no token, they would leave the linen burnt to ashes.
The bilingual book edition will tell the real life history and stories of 6 women from the villages of Montalvão and Falagueira through interviews and photos, retell folk tales related to family, marriage and the role of women as a means of revealing the unknown world of Portuguese mythology and fairy tales and spice them up with local recipes and music. QR codes will give access to online content and make the diversity found within the book accessible to digital diaspora across Europe. The style of the book will further be aimed to please younger readers/audiences. One of its public presentations is already scheduled to be hosted in an exhibition in 2024, under the Third Edition of Alto Alentejo Cultural Encounters 20|30, organized by DiVA’s project – “Routes back to Roots” where a real-life “bride’s house” will be staged together with photos and audio tracks of both the folk music and tales from their collective immaterial archives.
This project could only have come to life through the pioneer work of the Digital and Immaterial Village’s Archives – DiVA’s project, a philanthropic initiative, aiming to promote free universal and digital access to the unseen cultural heritage of peripheral, low-density, and depopulating areas in Europe’s rural context. The project’s main goal is to stimulate a higher and sustainable social and territorial cohesion, as well as an inter-generational awareness of the local cultural heritage’s value through a new and integrated historical perspective. And this is where we see the purpose of our book reflected: interconnect communitarian nodes through DiVA’s network, use their repository of cultural heritage to allow virtual or physical cultural visits, making living testemonies and unique traces of identity visible and above all stimulate a “sense of belonging” and importance of the remaining inhabitants and their descendant generations of digital diasporas.
We see a strong educational potential in the book, not only because its style is intended to please younger audiences, but the bilingual version can help in making it interesting school material, comprehending different disciplines such as sociology (through the history of the elderly ladies), literature (through the retelling of lesser known folktales), music (through the QR codes that will offer audio tracks). It is a preservation of collective memory, promoting inclusive approach to heritage and making it more accessible, it is a creative way to present cultural heritage and it supports intergenerational activities.