One-sided Love

I am enthusiastic about this blog I have just discovered.  Read through the posts!  There is a lot of fascinating material here.

Picture courtesy: Tirukkural: Inbathuppal: Decad: 114 1.To the one who suffers from one-sided love There is no strong support except the palm horse. 2.The body and soul of the one whose love is one-sided Will brave even the palm horse without feeling shame. 3. There was a sense of shame and courage earlier. […]

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Down with Education: Bring Back Educetion

No, it isn’t a typo.  There’s a subtle but world-changing difference, you see, in the vowel. Education comes from the Latin educare – to bring up or train. Educetion (which I’ve just invented, of course) is derived from the Latin educere – to lead out, to draw from. See the difference?  In the first, we […]

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Three Poems About the Mountains

CHow quick the implacable axe
felled to the ground
oaks and holm oaks
and by the light of darling dawn
how bald appears
the mountain crest!

Where yesterday coppice and wood
were rustic thick,
enveloped in sweet mystery
when mists floated
in morning’s light,
where the river source burbled on,
hidden amongst flowers and moss,
now the barren hill-backs bare
their deep, deformed
and black furrows.

Now birds sing their love-songs there
no more, no longer gather
when May tricks out the slopes, left
naked of oaks, and only
passing winds bring echoes of
the barking deer,
the howling wolf.

Rosalía de Castro, En las orillas del Sar

If you have been following this blog for a while you will know that I make no separation between poetry and life. My reading has no function outside itself but it takes points in the landscape, be they geographical or cultural, and weaves stories between them. Today I want to weave a little story between some points that have lit up like little fairy lights in my reading recently. Yesterday I translated Seixo branco by Pernas Nieto and it reminded me of this bleak poem by Rosalía, which in turn made me think of Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

I am an Englishman in Spain and it is always of interest to find connections with other English men and women who have been here. Tennyson came to Spain with his friend Hallam in the summer of 1830. They were a part of a Cambridge group called the Apostles who, in true Romantic fashion, had discovered a cause with which to identify. Here is what John Suiter says about it on the Poetry Foundation website:

Tennyson’s political enthusiasm was considerably cooler than Hallam’s, but he was glad to make his first trip abroad. They went through France to the Pyrenees, meeting the revolutionaries at the Spanish border. Even Hallam’s idealistic fervor scarcely survived the disillusionment of realizing that the men they met were animated by motives as selfish as those of the royalist party against whom they were rebelling. Nonetheless, in the Pyrenees Tennyson marked out a new dimension of the metaphorical landscape that had already shown itself in “Mariana,” and for the rest of his life the mountains remained as a model for the classical scenery that so often formed the backdrop of his poetry. The Pyrenees generated such marvelous poems as “Oenone,” which he began writing there; “The Lotos-Eaters,” which was inspired by a waterfall in the mountains; and “The Eagle,” which was born from the sight of the great birds circling above them as they climbed in the rocks. Above all, the little village of Cauteretz and the valley in which it lay remained more emotionally charged for Tennyson than any other place on earth. He came again and again to walk in the valley, and it provided him with imagery until his death more than sixty years later.

Strictly speaking Cauteretz is not Spain but France. I will come back to the idea of “coming to Spain” in a moment, but first let’s look at a part of that lyrical poem, Oenone, which popped into my head when re-reading Rosalía:
“O mother, hear me yet before I die.
They came, they cut away my tallest pines,
My tall dark pines, that plumed the craggy ledge
High over the blue gorge, and all between
The snowy peak and snow-white cataract
Foster’d the callow eaglet—from beneath
Whose thick mysterious boughs in the dark morn
The panther’s roar came muffled, while I sat
Low in the valley. Never, never more
Shall lone Oenone see the morning mist
Sweep thro’ them; never see them overlaid
With narrow moon-lit slips of silver cloud,
Between the loud stream and the trembling stars.”

OI have wrested this segment from Oenone, which is the complaint of a mountain nymph betrayed by Paris: when he chooses Artemis above Pallas and Hera he brings about all the fatal consequences of the Trojan War. The felling of mountain pines is, therefore, an allegory of human destruction.

The young Tennyson of 1830 was yet to become the exemplary poet of Victorian Britain. He is a young Romantic. Wordsworth and Coleridge had been caught up in the fervour of the French Revolution. In the second generation of Romantics, Shelley had taken his atheistic stance in Italy and Byron found martyrdom fighting for Greek independence. This summer escapade of a gentle poet, a vicar’s son with a Lincolnshire country upbringing, seems pale by comparison, but who knows what imaginings were in the mind of the Apostles. There is something quietly condescending about the Cambridge boys seeking out a little revolution they can support, a naivety I can only compare with the fresh-faced scions of Harvard in our time who are as privileged as they are clueless.

Looking back at the part of the Rosalía poem I have translated for you, we can say that here the felling of the trees is not metaphorical but real: the Galician landscape was changed for ever by capital hungry entrepreneurs who cut down the virgin woods and sold the timber for a quick profit. For Rosalía the destruction of the ancient oaks and chestnut groves is a betrayal of spirits, for her they are sacred trees to the Celts: sacra encina del Celta. The rexurdimento of the Galician language and the enterprise of Galician Nationalists in digging up Celtic connections in their deep history is a phenomenon that echoes across nineteenth-century Europe, from Serbia, to Hungary, to Poland. The rape of the landscape is real, but has a high symbolic charge.

Here is what Hobsbawm says in The Age of Revolutions:

romantic primitivism lent itself more readily to leftwing rebellion… This was notably the case of ‘the folk’. It was accepted among romantics of all shades that ‘the folk’, i.e. normally the pre-industrial peasant or craftsman, exemplified the uncorrupted virtues and that its language, song, story and custom was the true repository of the soul of the people.

Remember that Rosalía’s first book Cantares Gallegos was precisely this: a re-working of ballads and songs; an evocation of the terra nai in the mouthes of the “folk”. Hobsbawm again:

‘The folk’ could be a revolutionary concept, especially among oppressed peoples about to discover or reassert their national identity, particularly those which lacked a native middle class or aristocracy. There the first dictionary, grammar or collection of folksong was an event of major political importance, a first declaration of independence.

He is not talking about Galicia here. In fact, the only Galicia he mentions in his book is the Polish province. Yet these words describe what happened in Spain very well: the Cantares became a symbolic text that launched the rebirth of the Galician language; its potent mix of celebration and outrage struck a chord not only with Gallegos but with a wider audience in Madrid and beyond who were imbued with Romantic ideas about regionalisms, nationalisms and peoples.

If we skip forward to Pernas Nieto we can see a different attitude to the landscape, an attitude he learnt from Noriega Varela. Noriega Varela was a folk writer not only in his themes and inspirations but in his very being: he was no Cambridge boy; he did not have the Classical education of Tennyson; yet the lyricism of his poetry taken from direct observations of fiestas, country customs and mountain life is unique. He was active writing for a satirical magazine that criticised the caciques- powerful land-owners who treated participatory politics with disdain. Much has been made of his about face after the Civil War: an anti-Semitic letter, intolerant and prejudiced. But what does it mean? Who can say what happens to a man who has had to live through the terror of Franco’s repression? As Peter Preston observes in The Spanish Holocaust, Red soldiers were responsible for many of the Nationalist atrocities: offered the choice between death and changing sides they changed sides and then outdid themselves in cruelties to prove themselves “loyal”. Pernas Nieto was a priest, a different man, but he must have witnessed some of the same horrors. And it is precisely the association of the “folk” with revolutionary concepts that brought Franco, a Gallego himself, to put bans on the language that was reborn with Rosalía.

If we put these poems in an historical line we would have Tennyson in 1830, Rosalía in 1884 and Pernas Nieto in 1936, each one taking the mountain landscape as the background for their poetic composition. Tennyson’s escapade in the French Pyrenees looks forward to the Spanish Civil War and the International Brigades that came to fight on the Republican side. I can hardly imagine him taking an active role in conflict like George Orwell, but there is a strand of continuity that links the two.

I love Tennyson’s “narrow moon-lit slips of silver cloud.” Isn’t it beautiful? I also admire him for stepping back from Hallam, and converting the landscape into poetry, not the people. For there is something callow in that wish to go out into the world and appropriate the rebellions of others for one’s own personal glory. I think of those Harvard graduates who made such a spectacular mess of the Middle East, probably because they never had enough time to sit down and read Edward Said with the attention he merits.

And this brings me tomy own coming to Spain and these readings. They have nothing of the grandur of nineteenth century travel. I am here because I am here. I read for the occasional glimpse of those fairy lights. And, in my twenty-first century experience as an Englishman in Spain, I can only look back with a feeling of embarrassment at the long line of Brits from Richard Ford to Jason Webster who have come here to patronise the natives and blow the trumpet in their own hero story.

No, there is no gap between reading and life. When I walk down into Grado from the village (which you can see here I go down a mountain valley for the first ten kilometres and it is easy to have a bit of Tennyson float into my head. Just as I turn off onto the road that will take me the next eight kilometres into town the oaks and the chestnuts give way to eucalyptus plantations on these lower slopes and I think of Rosalía and meditate on the continuing effect of speculation on the environment.

Then, when I am almost in Grado, the road takes me past a mass grave from the Civil War, only recently marked with a stone memorial. There are often flowers there. I have tried to think myself into the pain of that and confess I am not capable: a daughter with flowers for her father, perhaps, herself now ageing and most of a lifetime under that dictatorship. When the Nationals took over a town they would take offcials in the Republican government out and shoot them. The women they gave castor oil to make them shit themselves. They shaved their heads and paraded them through town. There was no redistribution of land when democracy returned so the families that profited from the property and land stolen from the “Reds” still have it. I can think of Daniel Pernas Nieto and Noriega Varela and never come to a conclusion.

But Englishmen abroad are not the self-confident sons of privilege they once were. We are human like the people we live among and dare not judge in case that judgement turn back upon us.

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Daniel Pernas Nieto- Seixo Branco


On that peak there a white rock guards the pines
in the misty, melancholy moonlight.
You, Old Shepherd of the crow-haunted wastes,
where by day the lark distils sun to song,
have watched your flocks for two thousand years
in the thickness of pines and winter snow,
in the misty, melancholy moonlight

You saw passing eagles and wolves on heat,
You saw the blood of your flock spurt forth,
You saw it gushing out in floods and saw
the years go by, a hundred peoples.
We were humble folk, we were the workers,
all those put upon and abused by Pride,
all those who cried and crying suffered.

You watched us passing by, year after year,
and you also cried, you, old rocky peak
when you saw your flocks’ blood spurt forth.
The sorrowing air in the pinewoods stilled
and you were quiet then, silent and sad,
watching the hours fall into silence
… and the crows haunted the moonlight still
in the solemn, mystic peace of wastelands.

This poem by Daniel Pernas Nieto comes from his small volume Fala D’As Musas, which was published in 1936, just when the Civil War was breaking out.  I have used the edition edited by Armando Requeixo and published by the Xunta de Galicia in 2014.

Pernas Nieto was a priest.  This explains how a collection of poetry in Galician got past the censor at a time when the Nationalists were clamping down on any expression of regional identity.  Perhaps once the repression had gathered force the censors might have paused at this poem and wondered what the poet was getting at.  It puts the poet on the side of the labourers and humble folk.

I have just finished reading The Spanish Holocaust, by Peter Preston, which gives a disturbing and immaculately documented account of the murders, violence and state-sponsored terror that took place during and after the Spanish Civil War.  The Nationalists were supported by the church but, particularly in the Basque Country, had no qualms about killing priests who favoured the “Reds”.

Daniel Pernas Nieto must have felt very sure of his position to present this poem for publication.

Daniel Pernas Nieto

The original text

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Álvaro Cunqueiro- Rosalía de Castro

Now this something no more is of this world
rose fountain perfume plum or glass
Now that it no longer is
you remembered this woodland
so sad in its birdless dawn
or how so early 
you fled a damp pipe dance sucking on the earth.

Now I no longer see you
today I would much like to see you
pale froth of blood in the world.

How you will be a soul in another air
how you will be white or deeplier
How you will be now on the dark riverbank
where the fields
run eternally before your eyes!
How you will be there without trickling streams
no Padrón, Adina or Lestrove
no sorrowful widows around low walls
no bushy green and with no dove of green
no headboards on the cleared bed!
How you will be there
without that nail you had here
harshly nailed into your heart!
Now that you already have death
doing vigil for your sad breasts
now that you already have death
with that sobbing morning choice of yours
what a delicate figure you will make in the other world
Now that you have
no shadow no desires no voice
and the grass grows in your new little boots.

 Herba aquí ou acolá  (1980; ed Xosé Henrique Costas González, Editorial Galaxia, Vigo 1984, p.138)

This is the second of my homage pieces to Rosalía de Castro. Álvaro Cunqueiro was a prolific writer of novels, essays and poetry. His statue presides over the main square of Mondoñedo and, fittingly, stares into space: he was a fabulist; his stories and poetry twist away from the real.
I have seen him interviewed on the television. He is a charming man of considerable learning and culture: a reader, an asethete. He went to Madrid to work as a journalist but in the early days of the Franco regime returned to Galicia where he edited the Faro de Vigo and published many books. He acquired the status of celebrity intellectual.
I can’t read Cunqueiro without hearing his voice: plummy, proud and perhaps a little defensive, weaving his words around ideas and often twisting ideas to his words. There is one word in this poem that I cannot find the meaning of: porfondal. I can hear him say it. It is appropriate to his voice. Fondal could mean that end of a field, but that does not make sense to me. The fondo is the depths of something. But porfondal? I’ve looked at the University of Vigo’s dictionary of dictionaries online and it does not help me and I have come to the conclusion that it is an invention of the poet and translated máis porfondal as deeplier, echoing what I take to be the poet’s invention in my translation.
The lack of punctuation is a direct translation of the poet’s lack of punctuation,

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Iglesia Alvariño- Rosalía de Castro


Rosalía de Castro
Oh, the long rain! A dream of grass atop the bridge

-Hill peaks, night peaks and many little children.

-Turn white, happy white mill, happy spout.

-What dreams are the still waters of your eyes milling?

Where is the gently cooing dove?

Oh! what a gust of wind,

cherry tree of the flowery air

-Give me sweet sun for an old olive tree in Adina.
-The cocks are crowing in the yard. Get up, girl!

-Breezy, breezy, breezes, from dark cliffs blustering down!

-And yellow cows in the pastures. Sing, little girl!

Ah, that breaking voice!

On what moonlit verandah,

Ah! on what verandah green?

-Oh, the happy barges on the Ulla, your strong river!

-Happy little girls of Tállara, orphan songs

-Oh, the green meadows of maize and fresh wind!

-Pigeons, pale pigeons, cold in the night.

Cold glass pigeon,

in the shadow of the long night,

no white love flowers nor river…

in what high alders

will April’s cuckoo

now sing endless April?

[Notes: Adina is the cemetery in Iria Flavia where Rosalía was buried and which she wrote about in Follas Novas; Tállara is a village close to Noya; galos de amor, I have tranlated as white love flowers, although the common name of galium palustre is white bedstraw- it is said to be common in the river Ulla, although I have not seen it there.]
Rosalía de Castro is perhaps the most famous poet in the history of Galician literature and this poem is a celebration written in that combination of strong images and paradoxical statements in dialogue characteristic of Iglesia Alvariño. He was a Latin scholar who translated Virgil, Horace and Plautus, and I think there is something of the Eclogues in the interchanging voices. As a Modernist, however, he reduces each voice to one line which gives a terse enigmatic tension to what they say. Perhaps it is my fancy, but I can see a process of reduction here that will lead to Novoneyra, a Japanese sense of the exquisite.

Let’s look at the images and see how they work.  
The bridge and the rain that open the poem are powerful local images that also recall the bridges in some of Rosalía’s famous poems: we can imagine a young man dropping a carnation into the water, for example. Bridges also connect one river bank with another and this is precisely what happens throughout the poem, one image being contrasted with another. We should not forget that Rosalía died in 1885, so she was on the other side: bridges and barges are both symbolic of death.
The second couplet is typical. The first line gives us the happy mill, white with the flour it is grinding and which is coming out of the caneta, or spout, a metaphor for productive activity and creation. The second line stops the movement and asks us to look into eyes that are compared with a still mill pool, where something else is milling. Can you appreciate the tension?
This tension is dramatic when we get to the line about the olive tree in Adina where Rosalía was buried. The next line tells the girl to get up! And then she is told to sing. Rosalía is famous for the sadness of her love lyrics, the anger of her social voice and the pessimism of her philosophical outlook. We careen from the cock crowing in the morning to her breaking voice on the moonlit verandah, as though the poet wants us to take the whole day in a breath or two, sunrise to moonrise. Death and life are threaded together here, happiness and sadness interwined. It is startling in the image of the happy girls singing orphan songs.
  I struggled with galos de amor at the end of the penultimate tercet. Galo normally means cockerel or Frenchman, but it is also the name of a family of plants whose Latin name is gallium. I haven’t been able to find any stories relating gallium to love, there are many varieties.  
I love that last image of the cuckoo singing in endless April- the season of regeneration, a season pregnant with literary connections for me, from Chaucer to Eliot; a season that was sung by the Goliards as we have seen and the troubadors later.     

Aquilino Iglesia Alvariño (Seivane, Abadín 1909- Compostela, 1961) belongs to the Mondoñedo school of poetry. He was educated at the seminary even though he went on to become a teacher and Latinist. He is of the same generation as Álvaro Cunqueiro. Next I shall offer a poem by Cunqueiro that is also dedicated to Rosalía. Cómaros Verdes was published in 1947. Rosalía was born in 1837 and died in 1885. Can you imagine Stephen Spender writing a poem to Christina Rossetti? That’s the time gap.
Iglesia Alvariño is a rural modernist, a fascinating combination. Fernández del Riego, Historia da Literatura (Galaxia: Vigo, 1984, p.143), says that he was influenced by Texeira de Pascoaes, Noriega Varela and Latin American modernism. Here is a translation of the last paragraph of his section on the poet:

“The poetic work of Iglesia Alvariño always shows a good understanding of peasant life, of his land and of the Latin classics. He was educated in Classical metrics, and brought to Galician poetry the eclogue in its Virgilian form with a range of themes drawn from everyday life. Besides his original work, we should notice his translation into our language of Horace’s Odes and the Aulularia of Plautus, translated as Comedia da oliña. As a writer of prose he brought out various essays, amongst them: Noreiga de Varela, mountain poet, The paths of men and the paths of God, and Brief essay as an introduction to a philosophical theory of saudade

I will be coming to these publications in later posts, although I have already translated parts of the essay on Noriega Varela.


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Saudade, Sebastianismo: Portugal

Today’s poem provoked me to some thoughts about Celticism.  Can you remember the theme tune from Titanic?  I think it will get you in the mood.

Texeira de Pascoes (1877-1952)

Who's that coming through the mist?

Who’s that coming through the mist?

Shadow of life, speak! Come tell me
your eternal secret.
O Cosmic shadow
shine out. I want to find myself
on your intimate, suffering breast.
I want to see you and get to know you, O life!
I want to touch your divine essence.
I want to see you in person and not
by means of lies and mere appearances.
Ah, tell me the very last word,
the magical word, that has been
a pallid, scarcely perceptible murmur,
an indeterminate vocal reflex
more a living light-struck silence,
in the mouthes of prophets and saints…
and a mechanical, dull imagein the dry, arid mouth of the wise…
and perfume in the opening flower,
and the vagueness of mist, water on the lips,
the avid and mute verb on rough rock
and light’s soft sound on soft sand
gorgeous song of the seven choirs
the Rainbow where divine love exists.
Feverish scream in the mouth when the sun burns
and sepulchral pallor in the sad moonlight.
It is what I, afflicted, say to the dark shadow
of life. And the dark shadow awoke
and a nocturnal voice, in my ears,
grew resounding splendidly, and spoke like this:

Listen to your heart if you want
to know the eternal living essence
which is bound up in transitory forms
where I was a little blind girl and a captive
in those forms I cried with tragic bitterness,
I suffered death, exile and misery
until one day, I was freed at last
from the brute density of matter.

Behold, look at the melancholy spirit,
the original: see the huge shadow
that was torn from top to bottom like
the black temple veils.

And from this formless
strange, cosmic shadow emerged
a scarcely visible ghostly glowing,
a faint form that little by little opened
its eyes in a Nebulous look.

And then the ethereal Mist wanted
to be a star and break apart in light
and the shining star wanted to be a frozen world
bathed in the blood of Jesus.
Then the bright chilled star
on the lips of dawn which impregnated it
turned itself into a tender green plant
which afterwards became, miraculously,
a creator also…

Last month I was in Portugal walking the Camino from Ponte de Lima to Santiago. We stayed in a beautiful country manor home in Calheiros, near Ponte de Lima. On a misty morning as we looked out over the valley, Francisco, the owner, spoke to me about Sebastianismo. Sebastian was a king of Portugal who disappeared in a calamitous battle in North Africa in which the cream of the Portuguese nobility was wiped out. He was young and the people thought of him as a good king so they did not want to accept that he had died. In the troubled years that followed a feeling grew that he had not, in fact, died, but had sailed out to the western sea and would return some day to restore justice and peace. The yearning for an ideal past and the idea that through the mists some day “a shining Star” itself the embodiment of an “ethereal Mist” will appear continued well into the twentieth-century: Sebastianismo has been potent in Portuguese and Brazilian politics and culture.

“Look at the mist on the hills,” said Francisco.  “That is Sebastianismo.”  How do you connect mist and the returning king?

The idea of the returning king has echoes of King Arthur. If you remember the Arthurian legend, the king also sails out into the western sea and will return. The cosmic battle of good and evil with a human king involved was cannily picked up by Tolkein in his Lord of the Rings books, which are larded with a Celticism he took from The Song of Ossian. One of those books is even called The Return of the King.  Ah, the plucky little hobbits who overthrow the mighty empire of the evil wizard: they are Irish, aren’t they? Or looking a different direction, think of cheeky Leonard di Caprio in Titanic helping his girlfriend to “fly” for that brief moment as they sail into the Western sea: that is part of the same Celtic deal too. The Titanic soundtrack could swell in the background of many a celticising legend.

This all suggests that there is more to the lyrical gallic connection than some people would like to admit- a melancholy feeling that, even when times are hard, you can yearn for a beautiful past and an impossible future. This yearning in Galicia goes by the name saudade, and the same word is used in Portugal and Brazil. Indeed there is a movement of poetry in nineteenth-century Portuguese poetry that is called “saudesista“.

Texeira de Pascoes (1877-1952) was born in Amarante. He was the founder of the “saudesista” movement, which explores “saudade” in all its forms. The poem above is his definition of “saudade“: he says that “saudade” was born of the fusion of Roman and Semitic blood and is, therefore, both pagan and Christian at the same time. I think you can appreciate in the poem the mythological thinking that goes into making the shadow of life an expression of saudade.

I was struck by the line “tell me the very last word/the magical word” because it chimes in with another book I have been reading recently: Marcelino Menéndez Pelayo, Historia de los Heterodoxos Españoles. I was searching for an account of the life of Prisciliano, a fourth century heretic who gained a vocal following in Galicia that came to threaten the church so much he was eventually executed. St Martin of Tours protested at this judgement.

According to Menéndez Pelayo, Prisciliano’s ideas were a mish-mash of Eastern mysticism and Manicheanism. The Manicheans believed that God could not have made all the evil in the world since God is good, so they invented a demiurge as the creator of evil. Observing the world, however, one could not deny the evidence of God’s grace. This grace, they said, comes from the sparks of divine breath that God breathed into his first Creation, and since then he has remained distant. The soul’s job is to work its way back to God.

I think you can see how this heretical belief could lead into saudade/sebastianismo: the soul is yearning for divine reunion. Divine sparks left in God’s creation come together in the mist.

This might have been my own fanciful imagining alone if it were not for Texeira de Pascoes mention of the “very last word/the magical word”. Here the coincidence becomes more striking. Texeira de Pascoes is not asking us to imagine Gandalf. The Manicheans and, by extension Prisciliano, believed that when the body died the Soul went on a journey to reunite itself with the Creator. On this journey it was important for the Soul to know the secret words in order not to be thwarted by the powers of evil. Actually that does sound a bit like Gandalf, come to think of it, as he struggles to make the grade as a White Wizard. Amongst the Albigensians, who could be seen as a later incarnation of Priscilianism, Gandalf would have made a fine Perfect, one of their elders who by discipline and meditation earned the “white cloak”.

In the trial of Prisciliano it was asserted that he and his followers gathered in moonlit woodland glades. Does this make him a distant ancestor of the saudesistas? Or does it just mean that Texeira de Pascoes read Marcelino Menéndez Pelayo and had the same thoughts that I am having?  Anyway the woodland connection was sufficient justification for the painting of the day also: a figure coming through the trees.

This post has been a whirlwind of readings, thoughts and ideas. I think I am going to have to keep reading!

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