Like so many other places in Portugal Serra da Estrela (of which I’ve spoken about in all of these posts) has several legends. The most popular is, probably, the one that talks about a shepherd who loved a star. Like all legends it has some variations but it goes something like this: There once lived a shepherd whose only friend was his dog. This shepherd longed to travel to the mountains beyond his village. One night while gazing at the starry sky a star with the face of a child came down and spoke to him, saying that it would guide the shepherd to where he wished to go. So the shepherd walked for years and years, looking for his destiny, with the star smiling down on him. One day he came to the top of the highest mountain he could find. Because it was closer to the sky and his star he decided to stay there and go no further.
A view of the snow covered Serra da Estrela.
This, according to the legend, would explain the name of this mountain range (Serra da Estrela = Star mountain). Everyone seemed to think this was just another legend and nothing else. But all legends have some element of truth to them and it seems to be the case here, as well. In 2010 Fábio Silva* was in Central Portugal, between the rivers Douro and Mondego, studying 6000 year-old dolmens. Three years later he focused on a particular area of the valley of the Mondego river and that’s when he came to a conclusion: all the dolmens in that area were aligned with the Serra da Estrela. What’s the significance of this? Let’s hear it (or read it, actually) from Fábio Silva himself: From within the chambers of all these dolmens it would not only be possible to see Star Mountain Range in the horizon, it would also be possible to see the stars Betelgeuse and Aldebaran rising above it. These two stars are not only very bright they are also both red. Around 4,000 BC, when the megaliths were built, these stars would disappear from the night-sky at the end of February/beginning of March, not to be seen for two lunar cycles (two and a half in the case of Betelgeuse), until they would reappear in the eastern sky at dawn before sunrise, just as spring was starting to reinvigorate the landscape. This was when the Neolithic communities of the Mondego valley would “follow this star” and transition to the high pastures of the mountain range it illuminates. One can’t be sure whether it was Betelgeuse or Aldebaran that was being targeted, or even both, but the timing of the heliacal rising of the latter, closer to the Vernal Equinox, would make it better suited to be used as a seasonal marker. The presence of the Hyades star cluster around Aldebaran, giving it a “different shine”, would further support this, based on a (semi-)literal reading of the toponymical folktales about Star Mountain Range. (Source: http://www.pia-journal.co.uk/article/view/pia.405/518 and you can read his paper there as well: “Landscape and Astronomy in Megalithic Portugal: the Carregal do Sal Nucleus and Star Mountain Range”).
The brightest star is Aldebaran, the eye of the bull (Taurus constellation). Photo credits: http://apod.nasa.gov.
What I find really fascinating about this is the fact that it is directly connected to something still done today in some areas: transhumance or migratory herding. Simply put: In Winter months you live in the valley, in the Summer months you go to the mountains. It’s obviously connected to herding, usually of goats and sheep, and even if it seems a waste of time or just plain silly to do it today it does have a reason if you consider all the specifics regarding the production of milk-based products and fleece. Remember this bit of legend Vs science next time you visit Serra da Estrela!
*Fábio Silva: BSc Hons., Physics, University of Aveiro (PT), 2006; PhD, Astrophysics, University of Portsmouth, 2010; MA, Cultural Astronomy, University Wales TSD, 2012; currently a PhD student at the Institute of Archaeology, UCL (Sources: http://www.ucl.ac.uk and http://ucl.academia.edu)