And now for something completely different…because horses

A Scotsman on a horse!

Ok, sorry, no Scotsmen for the time being (more’s the pity), but there’ll be horses. This post doesn’t have anything to do with herbs, it’s just something I thought was interesting and felt like writing about. Because horses!

Actually I really debated about whether to post this. I’ll be mentioning religion and what I say may be considered controversial, I guess–I mean there really isn’t any topic that can’t get someone’s knickers in a twist–plus it’s way off topic for this blog. But then I thought, what the heck. After all you don’t have to read it, right?

Wild retuerta horses being released in the Campanarios de Azaba Biological Reserve, Spain.

Wild retuerta horses being released in the Campanarios de Azaba Biological Reserve, Spain.

Anyway, you may have seen this article or heard the story on NPR if you’re in the States. In a nutshell:

“Four-dozen Retuerta horses have been released into the wild in western Spain over the past two years as part of a project by Rewilding Europe, a nonprofit group that seeks to turn the loss of rural farming life into an opportunity to boost biodiversity.

The endangered Retuerta is one of the oldest horse breeds in Europe and most closely resembles the race of ancient Iberian horses that populated this region before being domesticated.

Retuertas are nearly extinct, with only about 150 remaining in Doñana National Park in southern Spain. Living in a single cluster there, the entire species could be wiped out by any potential disease or calamity.

So wildlife experts arranged to have two batches of two-dozen Retuertas each brought to the Campanarios de Azaba Biological Reserve, an unfenced area of western Spain that’s believed to have once been native territory for the horses.”

Many moons ago, I lived three of my teenage years in Andalucia. I once had the chance to see some of these horses when a friend took me and my mom to the sanctuary of the Virgen del Rocío (“Virgin of the Dew”). There is a giant church in the middle of what is ostensibly a village, except that no one really lives there. The sanctuary is a hermitage, so perhaps the people who maintain the church and its grounds may live there–but other than that, as far as I could tell the place is only inhabited for a week or so during the annual pilgrimage, when people come from all over Spain and even beyond to see the Virgin. Beside the church I remember a low stone wall (bear in mind this was years ago and things may have changed), and beyond that, a grassy area with trees in the distace. Horses were placidly grazing. I asked my friend what was the deal with those horses, and she said, “Oh, they belong to the Virgin.”

The Virgin's horses grazing in the Coto de Donana reserve beside her church.

The Virgin’s horses grazing in the Coto de Doñana reserve beside her church.

There has never been a little girl who loves horses more than I do. I literally wanted to be a horse when I grew up. So you know I was down with a Virgin who was a patroness of horses.

I should probably explain here–and in the past when I’ve tried to describe this to Catholic friends they have been very uncomfortable with the idea and some insisted it could not possibly be true–but all I can say is, if you don’t believe me, go see for yourself–that every statue of the Virgin Mary in Andalucia is considered a separate being from all the others. The followers of a particular Virgin consider their statue to be the true representation of the Virgin Mary, and all others as whores and impostors. Before the church hierarchy started cracking down, fistfights used to break out during Holy Week between followers of different Virgins. In some cases, there are serious rivalries, such as that between Esperanza de la Macarena, the most popular Virgin in Sevilla, and Esperanza de Triana.

(Sidebar: When the Macarena song came out, with its lyrics describing a promiscuous golddigger, I just automatically assumed this was a slam against La Macarena, the Virgin. The singers, Los del Rio, are from the Triana side of the river, and although I don’t have proof I suspect they may be followers of Esperanza de Triana. I’ve read that the songwriter took the name from some dancer in South America, and it’s true that Macarena is a fairly popular woman’s name in Andalucia, but given the known rivalries between followers of those two Virgins, I am not sure I buy the dancer story. At the very least I’d say it was a happy coincidence for Los del Rio.)

Rumble in the barrio: Macarena vs. Triana.

Rumble in the barrio: Macarena vs. Triana.

So what I’m saying here is that while people may believe theologically that all these statues are inanimate representations of a single being, the Virgin Mary, in practice they are treated as individual, animate goddesses. Please do not write to me saying, “I am from Spain and I don’t believe that,” or “I’ve been to Spain and my tour guide never mentioned that.” This is not something people talk about, it’s something they do. Besides, I can’t vouch for everybody in Andalucia, I can only vouch for what I personally witnessed and experienced. And as a child of two anthropologists, and a future anthropologist myself, and also because I believed that my family had relocated to Spain perhaps permanently, I was very interested in observing how people went about their lives. Whenever possible, I participated. I stayed up all night on Maundy Thursday/Holy Friday every year. As far as I knew, this was my home and those were my new people. So am I an expert? No. But I am a big time enthusiast. Anyway, almost every time I met someone in Andalucia, even just brief conversations with taxi drivers and such, I would be asked the following questions, pretty much in this order:

  • “Are you a follower of Christ or the Virgin?” [sic]
  • “Which Virgin?” (or “Which Christ?”–note that frequently people follow a Virgin and a Christ from different parishes; Rocío stands somewhat aside from the Virgins of Sevilla, so many people follow her as well as a city Virgin)
  • “Do you like football (soccer)?”
  • “Which team?” (there are two teams in Sevilla, Real Betis and Sevilla FC–and by the way–Betis till I die.)
  • “Do you like bullfighting?”

The fact that I, as an American living long-term in Sevilla, was asked these questions so consistently is I think good evidence that my interlocutors considered the answers to be indicative of how assimilated I was to local life; and also how essential these were to people’s identity as sevillanos. At least when I was there, with the people I talked to, if you could give good answers to these questions you would make people very, very happy (for the bullfighting one, it was ok not to be a fan as long as you didn’t condemn it–but that’s another story which I am not getting into).

The Virgin of Rocio/Rocinas.

The Virgin of Rocío/Rocinas.

Ok, getting back to the horses. (Finally!) So there I was visiting the patroness of horses. I didn’t realize at the time that they were honest-to-goodness wild horses–I thought they were local stock that was allowed to go feral when it wandered into the sacred precinct or something. All these years later I still hold that memory near and dear, because horses. But it turns out that Nuestra Señora del Rocío (“Our Lady of the Dew”) is actually a corruption of Nuestra Señora de las Rocinas (“Our Lady of the Wild Horses”–rocina refers to a nag or hack, i.e., not a pedigreed, purebred horse but a scraggly [wild] one). My understanding is that the Coto de Doñana marshes have been known pretty much as far back as written records go for the wild Retuerta horses, while it is thought the birch-wood statue of the Virgin may date to the 1200s, though it has been “improved” various times over the years. Legend says that at the beginning of the 1400s, the Virgin of Rocío/Rocinas was found in the marshes by a hunter, who was alerted to the presence of…something…by the barking of his dogs. It was in a place called “de la Rocina,” then so wild that “it was accessible only to birds and wild beasts.” The statue, dressed in a simple linen tunic “between white and green,” was standing in or on the stump of a tree. The hunter attempted to take the statue back to the village of Almonte, three leagues away, but got so tired he had to rest. He fell asleep and upon awaking, the statue wasn’t there. He went back to where he had first seen it, and there it was, back on the tree stump. The people of the town wisely decided that she must want to remain in the marshes, so they built a hermitage at the site.

A very sad chapter that has been added to the story of Virgin of Rocío/Rocinas and her horses is the fact that every year, dozens of the 100,000+ horses on the pilgrimage die of exhaustion, malnutrition, and thirst. It is believed that even more deaths, or crippling, pass under the radar, when horses die after having returned to their home stables. It seems that the fault frequently lies with inexperienced riders, often renting a mount, who have no idea how to properly care for horses. The people renting the horses apparently don’t care, as losing a horse doesn’t hit them too hard economically, and the animal cruelty laws are not easily enforced because the perp can’t be found after the horse is dead, or the death is ostensibly “natural” (though really caused by neglect and ignornce). I am pretty certain that the Virgin would not approve.


I was thinking about the rewilding of Europe, the retuerta horses, Our Lady of the Wild Horses, and the perils facing our own mustangs today in the US when I left to go grocery shopping this evening. I laughed when the first song that played on the radio was Fleetwood Mac’s Rhiannon. In Welsh mythology, Rhiannon is a goddess of horses.


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