Spanish Folklore: The Legendary Fish-Man of Liérganes

Fish-man statue in Liérganes, Cantabria. – Image by Bigsus, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

THE FISH-MAN OF LIÉRGANES

The town of Liérganes in the region of Cantabria, in northern Spain, hosts a statue of a strange fish-man commemorating his life. An English translation of a nearby plaque referring to him reads,

“His feat crossing the ocean

from the north to the south of Spain,

if it was not true it deserved to be.

Today his greatest feat

is to have crossed the centuries

in the memory of men.

Truth or legend,

Liérganes honors him here and sponsors

his immortality.”

The plaque is found on the promenade of the Fish-Man of Liérganes, along the shore of the Miera River.

The statue and plaque are referring to a local myth of a strange individual known as the “fish-man of Liérganes, ” or “El hombre pez,” in Spanish and, “L’hombri pez,”  in Cantabrian dialect. According to this myth the fish-man was an amphibious humanoid being, alleged to have been a human male who had become lost at sea. A theory developed that somehow, he had evolved into a semi-human aquarian entity at home in the sea, or on land. After being captured by fishermen he was returned to his family in Liérganes.

BENITO JERÓNIMO FEIJOO

The Spanish monk, scholar and writer, Benito Jerónimo Feijoo, during the Age of Enlightenment in Spain, was well known for promoting scientific and pragmatic thinking. Yet, he claimed the fish-man of Liérganes to be fact.

There is more than one version of the myth with differences on how the boy disappeared. In one version he goes swimming in the Miera River on the eve of Saint John’s Day, 1674 with friends. After undressing and entering the water he continued swimming after they had finished and dressed. Initially, his friends knowing he was a strong swimmer, were not concerned but he never returned.

Everyone assumed he had drowned but according to the legend he continued swimming until he reached the sea where he evolved into a fish-man. It was in this apparent amphibious condition he was later captured by curious fishermen in the bay of Cadiz.

FEIJOO’S ACCOUNT

However, Feijoo maintained that in Liérganes, in Cantabria, in about the year 1650, there lived a couple named Francisco de la Vega and María del Casar, who had four sons. When Francisco, the father died the family had no means of financial support, so she decided to send one of her sons, Francisco de la Vega Casar, named after his father and mother, to Bilbao to work as an apprentice carpenter.

He was known to have lived and worked there until the eve of Saint John’s Day when he went swimming in the estuary of Bilbao with his friends. He was believed to have been a good swimmer, but he got caught in strong currents and swept out to sea. He was last seen alive still swimming into the sea where he was believed to have been lost and drowned.

In 1679,  five years after Francisco was last seen a fishing boat working in the bay of Cadiz discovered they had a made a very unusual catch. A very strange creature had become entangled and attempted to fight itself free. The fishermen tried to capture the creature, but it managed escape into the sea. Several sightings of the creature were reported by other fishermen in the area as it became entangled in their nets. Finally, someone had the idea of enticing it with bread and it was finally brought on deck.

To their surprise, they found the creature had a human body such as belonged to an adolescent human male. His skin was pale, and he had sparse red hair and his nails were short and corroded.Curiously, it also had noticeable attributes of a fish having a strip of scales from its throat to its midriff and another strip of scales running along its spine. Around its neck it had that appeared to be gills. The combination of human and fish features and having pulled it from the sea baffled them.

THE CONVENT OF SAINT FRANCIS

The fishermen had never seen anything like it before, having no idea whether what they had caught was human or fish. Thinking it may be an unholy monstrosity, they took it onshore to the nearby convent of Saint Francis. Here the strange individual was exorcised and questioned but yielded no identifying or helpful information. The only attempt at speech he made was one word which sounded like “Liérganes.”  Unfortunately, no one knew what the word, if it was a word, meant.

News of this strange unknown individual spread around Cadiz Bay, and although people wondered, no one could say what the word, “Liérganes” meant.Eventually news of the individual and its strange speech came to a sailor from the north of Spain who docked at Cadiz. He pointed out there was a village called Liérganes  close to his hometown.Furthermore, the secretary of the Holy Office, Domingo de la Cantolla, verified the existence of the village of Liérganes which was situated near to Santander where he had come from.

In a further development, the bishop of Cadiz forwarded a description of the individual detailing physique and appearance in the hope someone would recognise or at least know something of him. An answer came back stating that no such creature, or individual, was known to exist, or ever have existed, around Liérganes.Moreover, the only extraordinary, though tragic event in the village was five years earlier with the presumed drowning of Francisco de la Vega Casar. His body had never been found but it was remembered he had red hair.

RETURN TO FAMILY LIFE IN LIÉRGANES

It was not much to go on, but it struck a chord with one of the priests of the convent who speculated that the fish-man was Francisco de la Vega Casar.Therefore, he requested permission to visit Liérganes accompanied by the fish-man. Speculatively, he visited María del Casar, the mother of Francisco, who instantly recognised the unknown individual as her son.

With Maria, claiming Francisco as her son, the priest left him with his family. Although he lived peacefully and quietly with in the family home, he had peculiar habits.He never wore anything on his feet, preferring to walk around barefoot, and unless he was specifically given clothes to wear tended to prefer nudity. He never spoke enough words to form a sentence so never really conversed with anyone. Sometimes he would mumble single words such as “bread,” “wine,” or “tobacco,” but never seemed to relate them to eating, drinking, or smoking.

Although he would eat with enthusiasm when the mood took him, he often went a week before eating again.He was always amiable and affable, and in his own unassuming way, polite and courteous. When asked to do a task he would oblige, completing it quickly and efficiently but without showing any enthusiasm.

He spent nine years living with his mother and family in this way but one day he went into the sea for a swim and never returned. What became of him is a mystery, but very much speculated about. Whether he drowned, or simply resumed his former life living in the sea is unknown, but no sign of him was seen of him ever since.

CONTROVERSY

Of course, with such an extraordinary case as this there are no shortage of sceptics. Feijoo, although having a reputation based on his pragmatism and scientific approach seems to have been convinced of the authenticity of the case even if others were not. In his version of the case, he is meticulously detailed giving names and dates and has investigated and verified accounts given by reputable witnesses.

He confesses when he first heard of the story, he did not believe it, but claimed his research led him to conclude the case was genuine.The fact that Feijoo was a strong critic of superstition, hoaxes and charlatans lent to him considerable authority. People took the opinion that if such a renowned sceptic as he believed in the case it must be true. It does seem strange that he would have backed this story, but hedid, and later even put forward scientific arguments aimed at backing the existence of fish-men in the sea.

DR. GREGORIO MARAÑÓN

Nevertheless, there were others who were unconvinced he had interpreted the evidence correctly and one of them was 20th century Spanish scholar and physician named Dr. Gregorio Marañón.He argued that the existence of the fish-man was mistaken but admitted that the fact that there were so many credible witnesses and testimonies could not be easily ignored. He proposed there were certain elements of the story that were possible and offered an alternative explanation.

He proposed that the individual presented symptoms of being inflicted with an ailment called cretinism, now usually referred to as “Congenital Iodine Deficiency Syndrome.” This affliction is usually apparent at birth and one cause is inadequate dietary iodine during pregnancy (1).

He pointed out the individual displayed symptoms such as being virtually speechless, only being able to produce a few words. He had thinning red hair and white scaly skin, chewed his nails, and wander around which he asserted are symptoms of the disease. Furthermore, this affliction was often found in mountainous regions such as Cantabria, claiming it was commonly found around the Santander region at that time. Alternatively, he pointed out ichthyosis could have caused the skin problems – a very widespread genetic disease, causing the skin to become exceptionally dry, rough, and flaking, not unlike fish scales.

He suggested the boy had wandered off getting lost and followed the coast from the estuary of Bilbao where he was last seen round to the Bay of Cadiz where he was noticed by fishermen and captured.The scaly white skin gave him an outlandish, and fish-like appearance, to people who knew nothing of the disease. With his discovery by the sea and his scaly and unattractive skin condition, which may have been exaggerated as word spread, people jumped to false conclusions, from these coincidences, erroneously thinking he was part human and part fish.

MARAÑÓN’S THEORY

However, Marañón produced a different explanation as to how he had been found in the Bay of Cadiz. He believed it would not have been possible for him to swim there from the estuary of Bilbao, proposing he had wandered on foot following the coastline. Along the way he searched for food which he may have found readily along the seashore in form of shellfish and marine algae. Importantly, both foods happen to be rich in iodine, which is known to alleviate Congenital iodine deficiency syndrome, especially when given to babies diagnosed with the condition. Sea air is also naturally iodised and may have been a more comfortable environment.

It was purely coincidental that when he was last seen in Estuary of Bilbao, he was swimming out to sea, yet when he was found in the Bay of Cadiz he was also in the sea.

He speculated that when his father died, his mother and family struggled to make ends meet, which was why he was sent to Bilbao to learn carpentry. It may have been a relief to his employer and co-workers to be rid of such an unproductive burden as it may have been to his family.

Marañón further speculated both employers and family were not too sorry to be relieved of him, which was why little fuss was made of his alleged drowning. However, rather than perish in the sea he had wandered off alone, following the shore where possible, with no idea where he was going, he ended up in the Bay of Cadiz.

His diet of algae and seafood sustained and even helped him, but because of his age the iodine intake was of limited value.Nevertheless, the sea air and the warmer environment may have been more to his liking. It may have been the worst thing that could happen to him was to return to a mountain environment of Liérganes. His return to his mother and family may have been an unwelcome emotional and economic burden, an extra mouth to feed, or they may have been simply ashamed of him. Marañón suggests his later disappearance into the sea again was not an accident, and not of his own making, yet provides no firm proof of anything sinister.

The story of Francisco de la Vega Casar is certainly mysterious and unquestionably tragic we can only hope what ever happened to him in the end brought peace.

© 23/06/2022 zteve t evans


REFERENCES, ATTRIBUTIONS AND FURTHER READING

Copyright June 23rd, 2022 zteve t evans