Witchcraft has a very special place in the culture of Spanish Galicia. One of the most famous people related to the old magical traditions is Maria Soliña, a Galician witch who lived during the 17th century. Despite her openness about supernatural practices, the intelligence of this remarkable woman allowed her to avoid the stake during the Inquisition.
The Ria de Vigo is one of the Rias Baixas bays of Galicia. Each of these bodies of water is full of wrecks and old stories that excite researchers even today. The history of Galicia is a mixture of Celtic tales, Roman legends, and witchcraft heritage, mixed with the expansion of Christianity. Thus, witches and Celtic amulets are still an unbreakable part of Galician culture.
There are not too many references related to Maria Soliña’s life. All that is known can be written in a very small document. She was born in 1551 in Cangas, but her family roots are unknown. Cangas was a town full of fishermen, like most of the rest of Galicia. However, there was also a monastery of nuns in the town.
Maria married Pedro Barba and had some children. They lived on the northern coast of Ria de Vigo and had properties from Cangas to Moana. Maria and her family lived in a two-floor stone house, and she owned several farms, as well as land on which a few churches were built - including the Church of San Martiño in Moaña, the Collegiate de Cangas, and the church of San Cibrán in Aldán. With these assets in hand, the Catholic Church had to pay Maria every year for using her land.
They also needed to respect the rights of a woman who was a known witch. The atmosphere around Maria was very mystical. Although she was well- respected and helpful to anyone who needed her, some people feared her due to her supposed supernatural skills.
Map of Spain Illustrating the location of Cangas and Moana. ( Public Domain )
Cangas was thriving economically in those times, and people who lived there were generally quite wealthy. Thus, Ria de Vigo was a victim for many attacks and robberies. According to a local story, Maria Soliña became even more respected in Galicia after taking action during an attack by the Turkish fleet. That event took place just a few decades after the famous heroine of A Coruna, Maria Pita, led a group of women to defeat Francis Drake’s fleet.
This time, Maria was the one who motivated a big group of women to defeat the Turkish. They were successful, but that success cast the eyes of the Holy Inquisition onto the local witch from Cangas. The relationship between the Catholic Church and Galician witches is long, but during Maria’s lifetime it became especially complicated. According to Allyson M. Poska:
''During the early modern period, Galicia was already famous as a land of witches. Outsiders regularly remarked on the prevalence of superstition and witchcraft there. In 1572, Inquisition officials decried Galicia as lacking in ‘the religion that there is in Old Castile’, and described Gallegos as ‘full of superstitions’, and with ‘little respect for Christianity’. The dramatist Tirso de Molina (1579–1648), who had spent time in Galicia, popularized the association of Galicia with witchcraft. Caldeira, a character in the play ‘Mari-Hernández, La Gallega’ (1610), comments wryly that ‘Galicia produced witches as easily as turnips’. They were not wrong. Gallegos, like their counterparts across Europe, believed that witchcraft existed and that certain people in their communities had the special ability to call upon supernatural sources of power. These practitioners were referred to by a wide array of different names, among them hechicera, bruxa, and meiga. Gallegos believed that these people could invoke the full range of supernatural interventions, from astrology and divination to palm readings and traditional cures.''
Portrait of Tirso de Molina. ( Public Domain )
Maria was captured by the Holy Inquisition in 1621. She was tortured and put in the Santiago de Compostela prison until she decided to speak. Her confession shocked the priests. She claimed that she had practiced witchcraft for decades, was well-known as a healer, and had helped everyone who lived near Ria de Vigo.
Magic Circle by John William Waterhouse, 1886. ( Public Domain )
Oddly, it seems that the Inquisition decided to let her live. Maria wasn’t burned at the stake, but her life after the trial is a mystery. It is necessary to remember that she was about 70 years old by that time. Some researchers believe that she was tortured so badly, that she probably died soon after the Inquisition stopped their torment. Others say that she was set free and lived for a few more years in Cangas, practicing witchcraft in her own style. But the lack of resources means that historians still haven’t been able to find the truth. Her place of burial is also forgotten, but Galicians still hope to fill in the gaps in her story someday.
Nowadays, the people of Galicia still sing songs about the old witch from Cangas. The belief in ancient symbolism, witchcraft, and many mythical creatures is strong even today. When you are in Galicia you need to be careful of spirits in the rivers, forests, and households. Many people still believe that these mythical beings are watching you and will award or punish you as they see fit.
If you ask them why they still maintain early Christian and Celtic symbolism, now, in the 21st century, they would probably answer ''Just in case”.