The Tower of Hercules has a rich intangible heritage rooted in legends tied to its origins and history. These have not always been valued or analysed as products of the societies that created them. However, they have had extraordinary relevance for historiography.
Of all the legends we know about the Tower, this is the one that has been the most influential. In fact, today we all know this legendary lighthouse as the Tower of Hercules, although when it was first built, this monument had no connection with this classical character.
The person behind this tradition was King Alfonso X the Wise (reign: 1252-1284) who in his Estoria de Espanna tells how the hero Hercules built a huge lighthouse to commemorate his victory over the giant Geryon.
According to legend, the mythical Greek hero came in search of the giant Geryon, who reigned over the lands between the Duero and the Tagus, in order to free the people from his excessive power. The confrontation between the two lasted three days and nights, at the end of which Hercules defeated the giant, cut off his head and buried it by the sea. To commemorate his victory, he built a lighthouse tower over the burial site and founded a city nearby, which he named Crunia in memory of the first woman who lived there, with whom the hero fell in love.
After Hercules' departure, his nephew, Espan, was appointed lord of the lands of Spain and populated towns and cities. He finished building the lighthouse tower that his uncle had begun and, as he was a wise man, he bestowed it with a lamp with a fire that never went out, as well as a large mirror through which enemy ships could be seen coming from a great distance.
Alfonso X the Wise's account influenced later works such as the Crónica Abreviada by Don Juan Manuel and the Crónica Geral de Espanha of 1344, in which the myth was completed. Licenciado Molina introduces this legend in the Descripción del Reino de Galicia (1550), as does Florián Ocampo in his Crónica General (1544), in which he attempts to separate history from the legend.
The Leabhar Ghabala or Book of Invasions, a 12th-century compilation of ancient Irish legends, contains the legend of Breogan linked to the Tower of Hercules. According to this source, Breogan, son of Brath, was the Celtic chieftain who subdued the tribes of Spain. After conquering the whole territory, he founded the city of Brigantia (A Coruña) and built a tower next to it, which he called the Tower of Breogan. On his death, he was succeeded by his son Ith, who, seeing the lands of Ireland from the top of the tower, set out to conquer them. However, the venture failed. Ith died, and his body was returned to Brigantia and buried. The baton was picked up by his son Mil, who again attempted the conquest of Ireland, this time successfully, and succeeded in defeating the Tuatha-Dé-Danann and dominating the whole country.
The spreading of this legend was encouraged in the 17th century by the Irish Colleges that settled in Spain, and in particular the one in Santiago de Compostela, which played an important role due to its proximity to the city of A Coruña. After a while, the story was forgotten, at least in Galicia, until it was revived in the 19th century by the Celtic movement led by writers such as Manuel Murguía and Eduardo Pondal. In Ireland, on the other hand, the myth was kept alive.
King Alfonso X the Wise tells in his General Chronicle that when Hercules defeated Geryon, killed him and buried his body, he built a tower on top of his tomb. The nephew of Hercules, King Espan, had a lantern and a large mirror placed at the top of the tower, which allowed surveillance of the entire sea so that no ship could travel along the coast without being sighted from the lighthouse.
According to tradition, this magnificent mirror was destroyed by the Jews who, escaping from Nebuchadnezzar, arrived by boat to the coast of A Coruña. When they found out about the existence of this mirror that could discover them, they decided to destroy it. To do so, they hid the ships under a blanket of leaves and tree branches. Camouflaged under the vegetation, they brought their ships to the foot of the tower and broke the mirror.
The legend of the mirror has come down to us in various ways. Some authors link the myth to that of Hercules and others to that of Breogan. The latter argue that, on clear days, thanks to the mirror, it was possible to see the coast of Ireland in detail and to warn of the arrival of enemy ships well in advance.
Legend of Trezenzonio (illustration by Miguel Robledo for "Galicia no mundo" - City of Culture)
The 11th-century story of the monk Trezenzonio combines the legend of Breogan with that of Hercules at a date prior to the writing of the Estoria de Espanna by Alfonso X the Wise. As the story goes, Trezenzonio arrived in the region to find uninhabited lands, empty after the Moorish invasion. On his way along the coast, he discovered a tall building, the Farum Brecantium, which he approached and climbed.
When he reached the top, he found a mirror in which he saw, three times, a distant island to which he longed to travel. When he reached the island, he fell into a state of almost mystical happiness which lasted for seven years, during which time he was nourished by supernatural means. After this time, an angel ordered him to return, but he refused and was punished by being struck with blindness and his body covered with sores. Faced with this situation, he implored divine forgiveness and returned in a boat to Galicia. However, when he arrived, very close to where he had first set sail, he realised that circumstances had changed and that the Farum Brecantium was half-destroyed and the city repopulated.
This interesting story has certain parallels with the story of the Leabhar Gabhala. Ith also climbed to the top of the Tower and from it saw an island that he decided to conquer, which is Ireland. But the same parallels can be drawn with the legend of Hercules, when the story refers to the mirror at the top of the Tower, which is also mentioned in the Estoria de Espanna.
There are, therefore, by the 11th century, two legends about the Tower: one linking its foundation to Breogan and the other to Hercules, which are fused together in Trezenzonio's account.
Tettamancy, in his work, La Torre de Hércules. Impresiones acerca de este antiquísimo faro bajo su aspecto histórico y arqueológico, tells the story of how, between 5 and 6 May 1589, the English pirate Francis Drake besieged the city and took the Pescadería neighborhood, but a group of soldiers took refuge in the tower and formed a stronghold, even though they endured a very harsh siege.
The siege lasted nine long days, and food and water ran out. Little by little, hunger and fatigue overcame the soldiers' spirits, but there was one soldier who held out to the end, with no food other than the eggs of some birds that nested in the old lighthouse.