Canarian Folklore: Magical Legends I

The Camel Driver – my own painting, depicting a young man dressed in traditional Canarian clothing, preparing his camels for work. Painted from a vintage postcard.

This short article presenting several Canarian legends was first published on my website’s newsletter in the summer of 2011. I’ve edited slightly to add extra content, and because my English has improved a lot since then :). Enjoy!

The Garoé Tree

In the island of El Hierro, there was a tree considered specially sacred by the Bimbaches*, called the Garoé Tree. A giant specimen of this tree (Ocotea Foetens, from the Laurel family), was worshipped near the area of Tiñor, its trunk having five feet in diameter. Its branches were so high that they would pick up the mist of the low clouds and create a phenomena of rain dropping slowly from the condensation on the leaves. The Guanches had built a fountain at its root to collect the water, and all the ground around it was used as a farming are because the earth’s fertility was superior to the rest. Offerings and sacrifices were made at its feet.

The existence of this tree was widely documented by the Spanish, so this is not a mythical tree in any way – the Bimbaches hid the location of the sacred tree from the Spanish conquerors for a long time, so they wouldn’t have access to drinking water, but a young Guanche woman, in love with a Spanish soldier, betrayed the secret – as the Spanish knew of it, a curse fell on the Bimbaches; in 1610, a hurricane uprooted it and a deathly drought fell on the island, killing many of the inhabitants of the island.

*Bimbache: the aboriginal inhabitants of the island of El Hierro. Although the word Guanche is used to name the inhabitants of all the islands now, originally it was used only for the indigenous people of Tenerife, since each island has its particular toponymic.

The place where the original Garoé Tree was located, in the island of El Hierro (Image from Wikipedia).

The Island Of San Borondón

The Island of San Borondón (Saint Brendan) belongs to that series of myths about hiding or disappearing islands like Avalon. Allegedly placed on the north of the Islands, the myth is tracked back to Greek authors like Ptolemy; it got its name from Saint Brendan of Cluainfort, who claimed to have arrived to the island on the year 512 with a group of monks.

As it happens on many European fairy tales, Saint Brendan and the monks believed that they had been only one week on the island – discovering after they went back home that they had spent a whole year there. The island was described by them as a paradise on earth; as in the Avalon myth, the island  hidden by a thick mist that made it invisible to other ships.

I have to say that, even today, there is hardly a family in the islands that doesn’t have a member that claims to have seen the island, or that knows someone who has seen it first-hand. As fishing has been one of the main sources of income for Canarian families, legends about the sea and its Magick are still alive; sadly, traditional fishing has been taken over by industrial fishing, and it is very likely that this belief will die in the next generations.

The Tibicenas

The Guanches believed that the Tibicenas were the sons and daughters of Guayota, the underworld deity that lived in the Teide Volcano. They had the shape of huge black dogs with fiery red eyes. The Tibicenas were born out of the dark, endless night that followed the abduction of Magec, the god of light, by the god Guayota. Guayota hid Magec inside the Teide, and in the complete darkness the Tibicenas came out from the deep caves and ravines that surround the volcano.

The Tibicenas had to be placated with offerings of honey and milk, placed in the deeper spots of the ravines, to prevent them from ravaging the Guanche villages. Their howling during the night was considered a bad omen – I don’t know if this tradition is related to the Tibicenas, but my mother-in-law told me that in her hometown, an area with plenty of very deep ravines, you must turn your slippers upside down (sole showing up) to make the howling dogs quiet during the night.

Note – most people think that the Canary Islands are named after canaries, but that is not true; the name comes from Canis (dog in Latin), and specifically from the Canarian Presa dog, a breed of mastiff that is endemic to the islands. These huge, temperamental, extremely brave dogs are absolutely essential to the history of the islands, both for the Guanches and for colonized Canarians, and is still bred today.


Canarian presa Dog (Image From Wikipedia)


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4 thoughts on “Canarian Folklore: Magical Legends I

  1. Wonderful! I absolutely love reading bits of folklore!
    I’m especially intrigued about the bit mentioning turning the slippers upside down. There’s so much folklore everywhere concerning footwear – for example in Romania children have to shine their boots so St. Nicholas who comes by every 6th of December night will be impressed and leave presents.
    Loved this, can’t wait for the next articles!


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