The pilgrims are steadfast, fervent, determined as they pass through the Galician village of O Cebreiro, in northwestern Spain. The dogs do not bark; they see pilgrims every day. O Cebreiro is on the final leg of the Way of St. James, a medieval route that ends in Galicia’s capital, Santiago de Compostela.
Mine is a different pilgrimage. Not across the verdant mountains of northern Spain. Not for the remission of sins. Mine is a pilgrimage into my Celtic ancestry. Celts once inhabited much of Europe, including the wild fringes of Atlantic Ocean, from Scotland south through Wales, Cornwall (where my ancestors resided), Brittany, and northern Spain.
That they established themselves this far south surprises many, but the evidence is all around me. In O Cebreiro, thatched palloza huts, peaked like the mountains beyond, are based on Celtic designs.
Stone walls of ancient pallozas crowd Santa Tecla hill, on Galicia’s western coast. Looking down from this site — already old when the Romans came — to the modern suburbs of A Guarda below, I can feel the continuity of human existence, of communities following one another for 2,000 years.
Stone is everywhere in Galicia. Hundreds of weathered stone granaries, set on pillars to keep rodents out, grace the countryside. In Galicia’s western reaches, by the town of Muxía, sits the church Nuestra Señora de la Barca.
Below it, the flared Pedra dos Cadris draws visitors with its purported healing powers. Pilgrims come here after completing the Way of St. James to crawl under the stone, repeating a local tradition.
Celtic rituals appear to inform Galicia’s queimada, or “burn,” which refers to both an alcoholic drink and the ceremony around it. In the town of Piornedo, I watch as the drink — made with a liqueur, sugar, lemon peel, and coffee beans — stews in a clay pot. It then is set on fire. As flames leap into the night, an incantation is read: “Demons, goblins, and devils, spirits of misty vales…howl of the dog…omen of death…maws of the satyr…” Finally, the steaming brew is ladled into cups. I drink. No witches; I have a good time. Though I wonder what older Galicians make of such Celtic throwbacks.
Horses played a big role in the Celtic world. Valued for their strength, they were associated with gods. Wild descendants of those horses are rounded up today in the rapa das bestas, or taming of the beasts, at which they are wrestled to the ground by bare-handed men and women so their manes and tails can be trimmed.
I join the fray, watching as two men single out a horse and grab at its mane; others go for the tail. Dust rises in clouds, and the horse slips away. Suddenly, I see a wall of horses charging toward me — and I do something strange: I wait for them to get closer. Why? I can’t say, except that at that moment I understand why men grab a feral horse: to feel the wild in their hands.
Galician nights have their own wildness. At O Bar de Fredi, musicians beat tambourines to songs they chant with frantic energy, a music that has filled the valleys here for centuries.
Like other pilgrims, in Galicia I have found what I’ve been looking for: living echoes of my Celtic ancestry.