The Sanctuary

Sofia Batalha
9 min readJun 21, 2023


Portuguese edition of the book “The Sanctuary — Essays on Eco-Mythology”

My current line of work keeps me looking for stories of place, and myths, constantly searching for different versions of local folktales. One of my motivations to keep unearthing and recovering the submerged layers of my culture, is to rescue other ways of relating, different forms of telling stories, that, without appropriating other culture’s myths and wisdom, might bring us close to an animist sacred perspectivethe complex relational presence in a living conscious world.

This is a daunting task, at the brink of multiple war and ecological crises along with conspirationist, fascist, and systemic racial gloom. Doing so means digging deep into the Portuguese cultural fabric, patiently opening the thick iron doors of fifteen hundred years of hierarchical Christian annihilationwhich, paradoxically, also became the best keeper of the local ancient cultures it repudiated — and stubbornly walking the systematically demonized and aseptic landscapes. Recently, while speaking with two friends and colleagues in the same line of work, Élia Gonçalves and Patricia Rosa-Mendes, I shared the difficulty in finding local narratives with integrity, and how sparse and frail this ancient mythic and ecological knowledge is in Portuguese folk stories. Élia and Patricia readily echoed my feeling, sharing the same challenges caused by this deep severance — indeed, all of us face the profound alienation and collective amnesia of the roots of our culture. They mentioned that when archaic shamanic and animist hints do show up, they arise in bizarre and absurd ways, always without context and in a violent, random, and demonized way.

For example, the tale “The Crow’s Bride,” tells a story of a woman with a raven in her company. The raven wanted to marry, so she sent for the eldest of three beautiful sisters living nearby; she answered no, and the raven angrily gouged out her eyes. Eventually, the third one submitted to marry the crow, and after many adventures — from scorching feathers, walking the earth in iron shoes, a mother-of-pearl fountain with a washerwoman in a feathered dress, along with the disenchantment of birds that were princes; all symbolic elements gesturing to primal shamanic ceremonies and their precepts, now completely lost — the girl was able to marry the crow, who was really a bewitched king. In another example, discussed further in my book, “The Sanctuary — Essays on Eco-Mythology,” there is a piece of raw meat puked by the desecrated mermaid D. Marinha, out of fear of her son being burnt by the father. Likewise, there is the tale of the “The Wolf-Child,” the demonized wolf boy, hexed by an evil witch with blood streaming down her face. Only the Christian Lord can save the boy, although through the hand of a curandeira, a local woman healer. There’s also a different type of story, like the “Tale of the Moon and the Water”: When God made Hell, he left Luz-Vela1 in his chair; when he returned, Luz-Vela would not give him back his chair, claiming that the Lord had given it to him. The Lord said, “The chair is mine; I lent it to you, I did not give it to you.” Luz-Vela burned very hot and made a quarrel with the Lord. The Lord presented the Moon, the Water, and the Sun as witnesses that he had lent and not given the chair. The Moon and the Water swore falsely; the Sun swore the truth, saying to the Lord “What is given is given; what is sold is sold; what is lent is lent. Therefore, the chair is yours.” Of course, God punished the Moon, by taking away her rays to give them to the Sun; He also punished the Water by forcing it to run always, never falling. Here it is clear the demonization, by false testimony in favor of the devil himself, of the Moon and Waters, both ancient sacred elements of Earth’s immanent and seasonal spirituality, while aiming for a mono faith symbolized by the Sun.

In my previous book, “Tales from de Serpent and the Moon,” I opened the possibility that these stories are scraps of very ancient shamanic and animist myths, wisdom, observations and rituals, part of a lost and forgotten oral web of eco-systemic knowledge, now appearing in a grotesque and nonsensical way. Possibly, these stories were part of bigger mythic narratives, now vanished, and what remained are loose knots adrift with no ground, primal whispers now barren, with no roots or real meaning.

Through their brave work, Élia and Patrícia, described this forgetfulness as a consequence and symptom of buried intergenerational trauma from the shattering violence this territory and its inhabitant bodies have endured since time immemorial. Indeed, the thousand years of successive colonizations triumphantly violated, silenced, and exiled animist ways of being in this area, extirpating any possible relation with the groundthe rooted bones where these painful and bloody memories still reside. And, together with the forgetfulness of communal rituals to alchemize such ache, the only safe place is in transcendence, yielding to a mono sky god — shattering any possibility of local, visceral, kinship, and reciprocal connection. In this work of recovering other ways of being in this land, we want to remember who we were before exporting these aggressive and predatory lenses throughout the world. This is no romantic endeavor, for it implies responsibility and rigorously dealing with the exiled living shadows of our history and present, with its metabolic monsters and paradoxes. These abyssal wounds cut deep into our collective psyches, breaking all possibilities of safety or integrity, for when every place, ground, soil, river, or stone is disturbingly demonized, all that is left is fear, which is what we mostly find in Portuguese folktales and oral rural communities.

Near extinction of the Portuguese native Forest

We can see this alienation in a short review of the history of the near extinction of the Portuguese native Forest, finding extractivist and desecrating behaviors from long ago. Of course, hints of this fear-based relation are all over European folk tales that consider the Forest as a monstrous and dangerous place, where one can be lost, hurt, and even die — carrying feeble and undecipherable yarns of revelation and initiation. From 7000 years ago until the 4th century, local human communities were already cutting and burning trees, shaping the landscape. The Roman invasions of the Iberian Peninsula, from 218 BCE — 410 CE, sourced local wood and metals from this land to the rest of the empire, and the big cuts began. Later, in the Early Middle Ages, from the year 476 to 1000, oak and chestnut groves provided firewood, ash, and charcoal for local industries and populations. The big cuttings continued, although the Peninsula was still mostly Forested with native woodlands. With the Muslim invasion in the 7th century, timber needs increased exponentially, with commercial fleets and Christian and Muslim military campaigns fighting one another. Extraction and intensive grazing further accelerated degradation. The constant demand for charcoal, firewood, and timber from local Christian, Jew, Muslim, and Mozarabic populations hindered the Forest regeneration. Throughout the 12th to 14th centuries, international trade increased the demand for wood and firewood. The old-growth diverse native Forest, a resilient ecosystem adjusted to the territory’s natural fire season, began to be substituted by mono-crops of fast-growth pine trees — although these are native resinous trees, the monoculture system has made it difficult for vast areas to withstand local wild and human-induced fires. Paradoxically, after Christians demonized and desecrated the landscape, monasteries became guardians of Forest pockets, securing functional wood reserves for inner consumption. By the 13th century, the systematic degradation of the Forest, already residual and sparse, created marshes and wastelands all over the territory. So, we arrive at the 15th century, with the soil increasingly thinner and drier, washed away by rain due to the constant demand for wood by accelerating predatory industries like metallurgy, glass, and shipbuilding; intense grazing; fires and burning clearing space for agriculture; manufacture of ash for soap; constant extraction of logs, firewood, and coal. During the time of the maritime invasions, more than five million oak trees were cut to build ships that would enslave and interrupt cultures and landscapes worldwide. Official documents of that time already speak of the local population’s complaints about the growing lack of wood and the degradation of the natural environment. And so, much of the woodland went extinct, and most of our native old-growth Forests disappeared.

Perception Crisis

In arriving at the present, we understand that the crisis is one of perception, for the Forest has been seen as a dangerous place and mere resource for over a thousand years, along with the illiteracy and confusion between monoculture and a real native and biodiverse woodland. Of course, humans have long used trees, their wood and bark, for tools, houses, and boats, firewood for cooking, heating, and lighting, charcoal for furnaces and writing, and ash for soap. But attitudes changed, and here, trees are no longer sacred, along with mountains, stones, and rivers. Local human communities stopped listening to the cries from the ground and the trees, cutting and burning indiscriminately. Voraciously. Men succumbed to violent hierarchies in fear, war, cold, and hunger, forgetting that these more-than-human Elders were their original sacred relatives and caretakers. Local human communities severed the more-than-human dialogue and forgot the songs and stories — these new miserable and poor human groups only remembered hunger, pain, suffering, and demise. So, local Forested ecosystems could not resist the quick and violent cuts of men, avid, greedy, thirsty, and ragged. With human fires and the speed of amputation, the animals that sought refuge in the woods also began to disappear. Bears were hunted to extinction because they were noble animals — kings coveted their hands as trophies. Beavers were stripped of their skins and are also gone, for without the trees and their roots, water would not stay, and everything became parched. But not only hunger and misery were the motors of violent human destruction on this land, but also greed and insatiable desire annihilated the placethe houses and boats grew bigger and bigger, and the glass and lime furnaces hotter and hotter. Men no longer asked permission; they just drilled, pierced, tore, hoarded, stole land for their crops, and domestic herds ate what little was left. While fuelling expansionist ravaging campaigns overseas, the Portuguese, plundered their own land, mimicking the same actions, enslaving land and people, for they’d already forgotten how to act with integrity millennia ago.

Bear in mind that this short review of the history of the Portuguese Forest, only reaches the 15th century, not even close to the local intense eucalyptus monoculture for the paper industry and its consequential raging wildfires, river dams fueled by skyrocketing energy demands, or the further destructive lithium mining policies of the 21st century. This is but a glimpse, serving as the inquiry of what a Forest is from a thousand-year-old predatory and extractivist fear-based culture, that severed kinship ties long ago. When a place is silenced as an inert resource for exclusively human use, it is profaned and systematically ravished by our own hands, while we foolishly call it progress.

The Book

So, “The Sanctuary” amulet-book gathers these frail threads, re-weaving fabulated ancient stories and picking up on four popular Portuguese narratives, from sonnets to folktales. Demonstrating that this dissociated cultural mindset has been brewing for millennia in this place — and the fifteen-century invasions were already a symptom of a desecrated and violent culture, while not intending to remove any accountability from the perpetrated omnicide. At the same time, throughout the pages of the book, fabulated prayers and stories from an animist paradigm (versus the current anthropocentric lenses), are woven to rekindle a somatic more-than-human dialogue. Opening a different ritual space for a culture that bypassed that the Forest is a sovereign place, a creator of meaning and stories, harboring food, medicine, revelations, and memories; a culture that forgot the communal ceremonies and rituals to ask permission, tell and listen to stories, sing songs, or leave offerings.

Can we still hear the brittle echoes of the ancient dances and the many voices that sang them, the rhythmic drumming, feet pounding on the ground, cries from the heart, bird melodies, howls, and roars? Togetherness, whispered conversations, shared secrets, communal accounts, revealed stories, sensed ceremonies, joys and mourning, collective rituals, and living pain? Can we still delight in dreaming of the memories of these nutritious and vibrant conversations of multi-species kinship?

1 — Luz-Vela translates to Light-Candle, and equates to Beautiful light, or Lucifer, the morning star, the bringer of light.



Sofia Batalha

Journeying 🌿 between inner and outer landscapes, remembering ancient earth practices, radical presence, active listening, ecopsychology, art and writing.