The Best Spanish Legends: Cornellana on Camino Primitivo

In the verdant landscapes of the Camino Primitivo, one of the lesser-traveled but profoundly historical routes to Santiago de Compostela lies a treasure trove of Spanish legends that have captivated the hearts of pilgrims for centuries.

Among these, the Monasterio de San Salvador in Cornellana holds a particularly enchanting story etched not just into its ancient walls but also into the fabric of Spanish lore.

This blog post explores the enigmatic bear legend of Cornellana – a narrative skillfully carved into the very stones of the Monasterio de San Salvador. It invites us to peer into the past and uncover the secrets and symbolism that have been preserved through the ages.

Join us as we delve into this captivating tale, where history, art and mythology intertwine to tell the story of faith, perseverance and the indomitable spirit of the Spanish people.

Asturias is home to the largest population of native brown bears in Western Europe. Although more than 250 brown bears wander the Asturian forests, I saw not one while walking Camino Primitivo three months ago.

Summary

In this post we’ll explore:

  • Bear lore and Spanish legends on the Camino Primitivo
  • Bears motifs carved into the stonework of Monasterio de San Salvador
  • Puerta de la Osa in Cornellana
  • What US bear naturalists say about the Spanish legends
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Bear ‘sign’ on Camino Primitivo near Cornellana

medieval carving of nasty bear crouching on stiff human form at Monasterio de San Salvador in Spain
Bear carved into stone archway, which is called the Puerta de la Osa or Gate of the Bear at Monasterio de San Salvador

I did, however, see “signs” of bears on family coats of arms, in names such as Senda del Oso / Bear’s Path, and in local lore.

One of these Spanish legends and bear tales has become so celebrated that it is carved into the stonework of a monastery in Cornellana Asturias.

The Monasterio de San Salvador lies near a strategic crossroads of the Camino Primitivo and the old Roman road called Camín Real de la Mesa.

Monasterio de San Salvador in Cornellana Asturias

twin towered white Monasterio de San Salvador with rose window above main door
Monasterio de San Salvador in Cornellana Asturias

Monasterio de San Salvador was founded in 1024 by the widow of Ordoño el Ciego (The Blind), Cristina Bermúdez, who lived there until her death. She was the daughter of Bermudo II, King of León, and that makes her a princess.

The story, one of my favorite Spanish legends goes that as a toddler, Princess Cristina wandered away from her nanny and was lost in the dark forest surrounding the remote Asturian village of Cornellana. Since this is a bear tale and you already know that the lost infant lives, you can imagine the rest of the story.

Child found suckling on a mama bear

When the child is found days later, she is suckling on a mama bear, which seems to have rescued the princess from certain death … or at least starvation. The story does not explain why the princess, whose father ruled from Santiago de Compostela over 160 miles away, would be in Cornellana Asturias.

The Spanish legend goes on to say that the princess was so thankful for the animal that, in later life, she built the monastery and decorated it with bear motifs.

If you look closely, you can find six bears depicted in stone relief throughout the monastery and adjoining church. However, the buildings were renovated and resurfaced throughout the centuries. There is only one bear that experts believe is an architectural element that has survived since the founding of the monastery in Cristina’s time.

The bear is positioned on top of a stone archway, which is called the Puerta de la Osa or Gate of the Bear. That bear looks mean and nasty and hovers over a stiff human figure that hardly looks like a child. It certainly doesn’t represent the fairytale-like rescue of a princess by a benevolent bear.

Spanish legends revealed: Puerta de la Osa or Gate of the Bear

Shield at Monastery of San Salvador with bear circa 1678

But by 1678 (654 years later), the Cornellana story seems to have changed. During a renovation to the façade of the church that year, another bear image was installed in a crest mounted on the square clock tower at Monasterio de San Salvador.

The shield depicts a kindly bear full of milk licking the face of a smiling, chubby little girl. The other four stone bears, added to the monastery during an 18th-century modernization, look like replicas of the original bear found on the Puerta de la Osa.

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Spanish legends and bear questions to contemplate

So, I ask you:

Does the original image (nasty bear and stiff, seemingly deceased human) depict the unlikely legend that a bear suckled Infanta Cristina?

Or instead, did the legend originate from this very stone carving?

In medieval times, churches and monasteries were decorated with figures of the devil or grotesque forms meant to warn viewers against corrupt living.

Is the image of the devilish bear on the Puerta de la Osa just such a warning? Was this primitive message reinterpreted as religious practices changed over the centuries into a fable about the goodness of nature and the monastery foundress in Cornellana?

Here’s what a bear expert says about these Spanish legends

Or perhaps the Spanish legend is not so “unlikely” after all. I’ve always heard that within any legend, there is an element of truth.

So, I asked an expert, Sean Farley, PhD, Wildlife Physiologist at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, what he thought about the possibility of bears nursing human infants. I learned from a press release that Dr. Farley “actually milked bears, measured milk production and milk intake by nursing bears.”

He seemed to be my “go-to guy” as an expert witness in this case of Spanish legend versus truth.

According to Dr. Farley, the notion of wild animals raising human young is quite old. “From Romulus and Remus to Mowgli to Tarzan there are many supposed cases to be found in fictional literature. All manner of non-human primates, wolves, pumas, bears, dogs, and who knows what else are all identified in the popular press as representing species that have raised human children,” he told me.

Bear milk would sustain a small child, but…

Farley continued, “In the short term, say a few days, the milk produced would provide lipids, proteins and water needed to sustain a small child. However, if the presumed adoptive bear was not in hibernation mode and denning, it might be roaming long distances while foraging. Young humans would have a difficult time remaining with a traveling bear.”

He noted that bears are known to care for the young of other bears and detailed, “We do not understand what behavioral cues are triggered to elicit this action, but some adult black bears are known to mysteriously gain cubs while out of the den. I have seen dens with multiple-age bears, including two adults and three cubs.

“While the cry of a black bear cub in distress is nothing like the sound made by a young child, maybe the size similarities could trigger maternal behavior,” stated the bear expert.

“Regardless, I think it is unlikely a bear would care for a young child,” concluded Dr. Farley.

What do you think? Does the image at Monasterio de San Salvador chronicle a true story, or did it spawn the legend? Please leave your comments or Spanish legends and bear stories below.

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Hi, I’m Stacey

UNSTOPPABLE Stacey Travel is a travel blog focused on immersive travel that highlights food, wine and the spirituality of place. I also occasionally write about life as a Camino de Santiago pilgrim. I hope you enjoy what I post here. Feel free to leave comments! Read more…

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