Superstitious artists – Miguel de Cervantes

When we were in Primary School in Montevideo, Uruguay, we first made contact with Don Quijote de La Mancha and Miguel de Cervantes, its renowned author. He was the first writer to use realistic storytelling techniques that departed from the pompous and superficial prose of the Middle Ages, which heralded modern writing. Usually they depicted him as an elegant gentleman who, majestically sitting at his impeccable desk with a plume in his hand, methodically worked at his writings.

Nothing could be further from the truth. He was a soldier of fortune, a shameless businessman, a gambler, a womanizer, a provocateur who was sent to jail for his bad debts. In fact some unconfirmed accounts say that once he was sent to jail by the powerful mayor of a city in Castilla La Mancha because he dared to praise the good looks of his young sister after the Sunday church services ended. Some even affirm that he started writing El Quijote in one of those forced stays. If you want to know more about his life, please read our past article in Testimonials.

Portrait of Miguel de Cervantes y Saavedra (1547-1615) by Juan de Jauregui y Aguilar (c.1566-1641)

In the early Seventeenth Century (Don Quijote was published in two parts in 1605 and 1615) the Spanish population was shocked by the numerous trials of witches carried out by the Inquisition and the continuous propagation of mendacious rumors. In 1610 there was a massive criminal process and auto da fé against several women of the village of Zugarramurdi in Navarra by the inquisitor Juan Valle Alvarado. Moreover, most of the Spanish population was living in small rural villages, where superstitions abounded, especially about the belief that animals could predict events.

Having lived in a farm, we can attest to the fact, that even in our digitalized times of plenty of streaming options for non-stop entertainment, most farmers in remote areas, men and women alike, will go to bed every night and, after completing some religious rituals or taking care of marital duties, they do the same thing: prep the ear. They assiduously listen to “the voices of the night”, which in normal circumstances are dominated by those resilient troubadours of the shadowy world: dogs and cats. Many believe that dogs in particular can detect the smell of death and predict one; they might be also capable of spotting the presence of wandering, restless spirits. The mewing of a black cat at midnight is considered as an omen of impending death. One difference that you learn quick enough when you listen to the concert of nightly sounds is that there is an ominous undertone to a dog’s howling, but not its barking.

Professor E.C.Riley said that in the second part of Don Quijote, the author used the omens (called augurios in Castilian language) as a strong rhetorical tool in the text. Cervantes used two metaphors to refer to Dulcinea del Toboso, Don Quijote’s belle and Impossible Love, which were represented by a hare and a cage for crickets.

In the beginning of Chapter IX of the Second Part, Cervantes narrates the arrival of the two novel characters in Toboso, the village where Dulcinea lived, at midnight.

“No se oía en todo el lugar sino ladridos de perros, que atronaban los oídos de Don Quijote, y turbaban el corazón de Sancho. De cuando en cuando rebuznaba un jumento, gruñían puercos, mayaban gatos, cuyas voces, de diferentes sonidos, se aumentaban con el silencio de la noche, todo lo cual tuvo al enamorado caballero a mal agüero,”

“You could hear in all the place nothing but barking of dogs, that thundered in the ears of Don Quixote, and troubled the heart of Sancho. From time to time a mule brayed, the pigs growled, the cats mewed, whose voices, of different sounds, rose with the silence of the night, all of which felt like a bad omen to the knight in love.”

In his book, Pedro Ciruelo said there were three omen types in Cervantes’s times:

  1. Omens based on the movements of animals, including the birds.
  2. Omens based on the movements of human beings, either physical or spiritual.
  3. Omens based on the interpretation of what someone else does or says.

After the furtive entrance of the knight and his page in the village, which is tainted by the first type of omens, Cervantes places the second type in a rather special place. In his times, there were many popular tales of apparitions in cemeteries at nighttime. Searching for Dulcinea’s house in total darkness, they spot a big building nearby.

“-Con la iglesia hemos dado, Sancho.

-Ya lo veo—respondió Sancho—y plega a dios que no demos con nuestra sepultura, que no es buena señal andar por los cementerios a tales horas…”

“-We came across the church, Sancho.

-I can see—Sancho replied—and pray that we will not bump into our graveyards, because it is not a good signal to wander in the cemeteries at this time of the day…”

In this type of omen, the fact that they might be wandering in hallowed ground at night constitutes a bad signal for the ultimate outcome of their foray: find Dulcinea.

After discussing for some time about how the residence of Dulcinea might look like, they come across a lone humble peasant who seemed to be on his way to work in the field. But he was carrying a subtle message for them.

“Venia el Labrador cantando aquel romance que dicen:

Mala la hubistes, franceses,

En esa de Roncesvalles.”

“The peasant approached singing that romantic tune that said:

Bad you had it, Frenchmen,

In that episode of Roncesvalles.”

During our studies in the Lycée Français  , we learned about the Chanson de Roland, an 11th century epic tale (chanson de geste) describing the 778 ambush and demise of Roland, nephew of Charlemagne, together with his army when they were crossing back into France, through the mountain pass of Roncesvaux in the Western Pyrénées. The casual recall of the battle where the knight Roland lost his life and army might constitute a bad omen about a possible happy ending for their quest: find Dulcinea.

We might not know for sure whether Cervantes was superstitious or not, but we have the certitude, based on his writings, that he was well aware of their significance.

Note. The above tableau was painted by Pablo Picasso.

Stay distant. Stay safe. Stay beautiful.

What do you think? Please tell us.

Don’t leave me alone.