This essay was published by Troika Magazine in Fall of 1998.
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My Secret Spain
by Katherine Neville
My first exposure to Spain took place in the early 1970’s, when I was living in North Africa as a consultant to the Algerian government. This period would later provide fodder for my first book, The Eight, an epic story based on a 200-year-long global chess game that leaps back-and-forth from the 1790s of the French Revolution to the 1970’s of the OPEC oil embargo.
Naturally, while living in Moorish North Africa, I received a very different picture than in Western textbooks of our near neighbors, the Spanish—as brutal conquerors who’d financed Columbus and driven the Moors from Spain in 1492.
But I did see a good deal of Spain. At that time most flights from Algiers to the European continent made puddle-jump stops in either the Mediterranean Balearic islands or the Canary isles along the Atlantic coast of Morocco. These Spanish isles have long and colorful histories, including the role they played more than 400 years ago as provisioning houses for the Spanish navy that was then the premier nautical power in the world-a fascinating period rife with espionage, piracy, and plunder, which will appear as the colorful backdrop to the book I’m writing now.
I visited the islands often because of their proximity to my home in Algiers. I also stopped along the southern coast of the Iberian Peninsula, where a number of my friends and colleagues had vacation retreats, an area that was just then being developed for tourism. But somehow, I never seemed to find time in my busy work schedule to penetrate farther inland, into Central and Northern Spain.
Over the decades my mental image of Spain remained pretty much as it had been in those first impressions: A sun-drenched, palm-festooned land of balmy breezes and dark interiors, too hot to go outdoors in the afternoons Europeans strolling the endless beaches, attired in little but their suntans and espadrilles. But that image, nearly thirty years past, was about to be transformed into something quite different and magical.
In 1992, when my second book, A Calculated Risk, was published, first in America and then in Spain, I was invited to speak at the Ateneo de Madrid. Though I didn’t realize it until I arrived, this was a huge honor customarily reserved for top Spanish authors and scientists, and only the most prominent cultural figures of other countries. Nobel laureate Ilya Prigogine, for instance, was the invited speaker the month before I spoke there. The United States Cultural Consul to Spain threw an elegant private soiree, and before representation, I had the ordeal of 16 solid hours of interviews with the press.
After this invitation to the Ateneo, I was drawn back year after year to Spain with many invitations from universities and other forums to speak about my work. I used these opportunities to travel throughout Spain after each conference, working on research for my future books. After each conference, I would rent a car and hit the road, in quest of some of those fascinating but little-known revelations that I love to weave into my tapestry-like works of fiction.
One year I traveled the “cheese route” in France, cluttered with many interesting little mountain villages, suppliers of delectable French cheeses that can be sampled from outdoor tables along the way. These towns lie along the mountain road running from the glittering watering-hole of Biarritz on the French coast, down through the craggy mountain gaps between Spain and France. The highest point is the famous Roncesvalles Pass, where Charlemagne’s beloved nephew Hruoland was killed in battle, as depicted in the epic troubadour cycle, the Chanson de Roland, a scene also described in the dark, mysterious opening of my novel, The Eight.
The cheese route criss-crosses another, more famous, route of pilgrimage that runs the length and breadth of Spain, “El Camino de Santiago,” The Way of Santiago, or Saint James. As the legend goes, just after the crucifixion, James, the brother of Jesus, traveled the Iberian Peninsula on foot, living as a simple peasant and converting folks to Christianity along his way.
The four scenic routes coming from all directions all meet at Santiago de Compostela on the western coast, where James’s bones reputedly lie today. My own lecture route, on the thousand-year anniversary of the return of James’s bones to Compostela, happened to lie directly along the Way. None of the exuberance of the original pilgrimage festivities had been lost over the intervening centuries.
The marketing and promotion of Santiago de Compostela as a pilgrimage site throughout the Middle Ages had been so brilliant that Santiago soon became the third largest pilgrimage attraction of the Christian world, also rivaling Rome and Byzantium, in its day, in terms of political clout. So many pilgrims from all over Europe and East flooded into Spain, including some of the Pilgrims in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, that the roads were jammed and impassable in the high tourist season, while inns and businesses, and even whole villages, sprang up along the route. More than 600 years after the first recorded pilgrim had set foot on the path of James, no less an authority than the German poet-philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe could make the observation: “Santiago built Europe.”
After visiting and lecturing at many locales along the Way, I finished with the University of Menendez y Pelayo, located at La Coruna on the coast just North of Compostela. La Coruna was originally the site of the ancient seaport of Brigantium, named for the Celtic goddess Bridghe, the spot where the Druids once disembarked for Ireland. With its dense, roiling summer fogs rivaling those of San Francisco, Brigantium made the perfect locale for the epic meeting, in my most recent book, The Magic Circle, between the Druid High Priest and Joseph of Arimathea.
It was clear that Spain and her mysteries were beginning to work on my imagination. But it was not until one summer, several years later, that the magical thing happened.
In my travels around the world, I’ve found certain ancient sites that seem to be waiting, like Sleeping Beauty, for the right person to find and discover the lost history of their past that needs to be told. The ancient themselves referred to such stories as tales of the genius loci, or the soul of the place. The story that had been waiting for me for so long turned out to lie far to the north of Spain, in the Pays Vasco, the Basque country.
I was in the Basque region and attending a conference with my best friend and significant other, noted brain scientist Dr. Karl Pribram, who’d been invited to give the keynote address before the World Congress of Music Therapy at Vittoria-Gastiez, the capital of the Basque region. After the conference, a group of us adjourned to a remote country house in the mountains for a follow-on workshop. Each day, we sat outdoors at a wooden picnic table so the proceedings could be filmed in natural light, as the basis of a subsequent book on music in the brain.
We had a beautiful view of a pastoral valley with a stream running through its wildflower meadows, and cows with tinkling bells wending their way home to the barn at dusk. Each morning and evening, a certain farmer came along the dusty road, going to and from the fields, carrying a rake over his shoulders. Whenever he passed, the little household dog ran out from beneath our table and chased the man, barking and snapping at his heels. I pointed this out to our hostess, the owner of the dog.
“Oh, don’t worry,” she said, reassuringly. “It is only this one man he hates. He never bothers anybody else. ” An odd comment.
That afternoon, we recessed to visit the famous ‘painted forest’ nearby. Some years earlier, Agustin Ibarrola, the illustrious Basque sculptor and painter responsible for much of the public art one finds throughout the Basque region, had suddenly felt himself called to this forest on the side of the mountain, where he had now created a kind of organic art by painting the trunks of the trees, his personal vision of color and form now penetrating even the deepest corners of these woods.
As you climb the mountain into the forest, the perspective changes so that each collection of trees forms the design of one more paintings—a living art form which, as you move higher and higher into the forest, never ceases to astonish.
Numerous books have been published with pictures of the painted forest, and different views of the sparkling trees appear on illuminated signs in airports and other commercial advertising for the Pays Vasco throughout Spain. Our group was fortunate to be given a personal guided tour of the painted forest by Mr.Ibarrola himself, a charming and fascinating man sporting an artist’s beret. As we climbed, he described the techniques he uses to paint the trees in such perfect patterns.
When we all reached the summit, still in the thick of the woods, rain broke out and we put on our various rain togs, which proved to resemble very closely the rainbow behind us in the form of painted trees. We snapped our photo.
“There’s something mysterious and interesting about this growth,” I told our friends. “At the top here is painted the magical rainbow that appears at the end of alchemical experiments, just as it does in my book, The Eight. And just as we reached it, a real rainbow appeared in the sky. And when we put on our raincoats, we ourselves formed another rainbow.” Everyone nodded knowingly.
“You asked why my dog chased that man,” our young hostess told me. “When Mr. Ibarrola first came up here to paint the forest, my father owned half the forest and the other half lay on that man’s property. The man was very angry about this unapproved artwork, so he came one day and told us, ‘These trees belong to me,’ and he cut them down! The Basque government was so upset by the destruction of this rare and living art form that they purchased my father’s half of the forest, still standing, to preserve it as a national treasure. My dog is very friendly with Mr.Ibarrola’s dog here. Our two dogs both share a common contempt for that sort of behavior. That is why they bark at that man.”
Since I was familiar, myself, with the unspoken feelings of even the most domesticated animals toward nature, I wasn’t surprised by this story. But I felt something else was happening here.
“Maybe this is really an ancient sacred grove,” I said. “My great grandmother always claimed to be descended from a line of Druid priestesses. Maybe Agustin Ibarrola was drawn here to paint the trees through some inner magic in the place, which only he could tune into. Maybe the forest wanted all the world to expose its secret: maybe this forest was once really a Celtic sacred grove, a site of pilgrimage as important to an earlier faith as Santiago de Compostela is to Christianity today.”
“The Sorgina!” Agustin Ibarrola cried as soon as my words had been translated for him. “I knew one day she would come!”
After much heated translation among English, Spanish and Basque, it was explained to me that a Sorgina was the female counterpart of a Sorgin, which was the male Basque witch, or wizard: Brujo and Bruja in Spanish.
I had already done an in-depth study and a personal film documentary of the witching fields in Spain, where for hundreds of years the Inquisition had hunted down and killed tens of thousands of heretics’ and devil worshipers.
But the Basque witches, as I understand, were closer to the Catholic priests and priestesses who served and defended the sacred forest even unto death—a scene described in vivid detail in The Magic Circle. These forests were regarded by the ancients as possessing a soul of their own, a genius loci. And after much heated and animated talking in multiple languages, it was further explain to me why my remark to Agustin Ibarrola on this topic had aroused so much enthusiasm.
It seems that only a few months earlier, the Basque government had been conducting an official survey of the parcel of land they had purchased to save the forest. In the middle of the survey, they had accidentally discovered something hidden just over the rise of the hill from the rainbow of trees were we now stood in the rain. What they discovered was the buried remains of what is now believed might prove to be the largest site of Celtic religious pilgrimage known throughout Western Europe.
“So maybe we should consider that the farmer with the rake was only part of the sleeping forest’s plan,” I suggested to Mr. Ibarrola and our companions. “Perhaps the forest needed to have some of its trees sacrificed in this public manner, in order to get attention, to get the Basque government to come to its rescue. But after discovery of what lay just over the hill, the whole world will now realize that these woods were once part of a pre-Christian shrine of major importance.”
So today, I am the “official Sorgina: of the Basque Celtic sacred painted forest.” And like the pilgrims to Compostela, I try to make at least one trip now and then, whenever possible, to set foot once again on Spanish soil.
When my book The Magic Circle came out, I was invited to Spain for the “International Day of the Book,” an event which takes place each year on St. Jordi—St. George’s Day, April 23—an important date for authors around the world, since it also marks the date of William Shakespeare’s birth and of Miguel de Cervantes’ death.
St. George, an eastern saint, is also claimed as patron of England, of the Russian city Moscow, and—more importantly from my perspective—he is regarded as patron of the Dragon Forces which the agents believed were connected with all sacred sites on earth. These forces the ancients ‘pinned’—just as George pins the Dragon to earth—by placing a monument or a building dedicated to worship on the spot to harness and channel its energies. Celtic standing stones like Stonehenge, as well as the obelisks of Egypt, are widely regarded by archaeologists as having served such purposes for ancient cultures.
Since The Magic Circle is a book that deals with just such natural forces—with how ancient cultures perceive them, and with what the ancients believed would take place just now, as we approached the turn of the new 2000-year cycle—I knew it was kismet that I must travel to Spain for this most auspicious day. You might say it’s only an accident that my book was No. 3 on the best-seller lists in all of Spain for St. Jordi. But I don’t believe in accidents, and neither does the sacred forest. After all, it only took me twenty years to write my book.
More pictures from my visit to the Oma Painted Forest
More about My Adventures in Spain