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Like a Fish to Water

The incredible story of Francisco de la Vega Casar, The Fish Man of Liérganes, and the tragic legend of Pesce Cola (Nicholas Fish).

The Fish Man of Liérganes - La Píldora del Saber

'I wish you could swim... Like the dolphins, like dolphins can swim...' [LPDS/Wombo Art]

Surely any of you, distinguished and kind readers, have ever read or heard stories about werewolves, dog-men, the bullet-man, the strongest man in the world, the elephant-man... But, what about the fish-man, or rather fish-men? Yes, in the plural, because there are several documented cases of human beings who, never better said, felt like a fish to water every time they came into contact with a river, sea or ocean. On this occasion we bring you two ones, that of a Spaniard and a Sicilian, whose enigmatic and at the same time exciting experiences were collected by the Spanish Benedictine monk, Professor of Theology, Fra Benito Jerónimo Feijoo, in his essay work Teatro crítico universal, o Discursos varios en todo género de materias para desengaño de errores comunes, published in nine volumes between 1726 and 1740. For this article, it's been decided to translate several fragments of the Eighth Discourse of Tome VI. The first of the stories has its origin in Spain. In Cantabria, and more specifically in Liérganes, the birthplace of Francisco de la Vega Casar, who would come to be known as The Fish Man of Liérganes. What was published in the aforementioned work by the monk from Orense is nothing more than, as he himself indicates, the text of a correspondence «copied verbatim» sent by the Marquis of Valbuena, resident in the then Town of Santander, at the diligence of José de la Torre, His Majesty's Minister in the Royal Court of Asturias, which contained a detailed description of the case at hand. In the words of the monk himself, «a very thorough description of the event».

Disappeared in Bilbao, fished in Cádiz

Thus, and according to that letter, «Francisco de la Vega and María del Casar, his wife, lived in the Place of Liérganes, of the Council of Cudeyo, Archbishopric of Burgos, two leagues from the Town of Santander, who were residents of said Place, who had in their marriage four children, named Mr. Tomás (who was a priest), Francisco, José, and Juan, who is still living, aged seventy-four years». Next, the first enigmatic event is narrated with Francisco as the protagonist: «Said widow María del Casar, sent the aforementioned son Francisco to the Town of Bilbao to learn the trade of Carpenter, at the age of fifteen, in which exercise he spent two years, until that of 1674, having gone to bathe on the Eve of Saint Juan with other young men to the estuary of said Villa, they observed that he went swimming down it, leaving his clothes with those of his companions, and believing he would return, they were waiting for him, until the delay made them believe he had drowned, and so they shared it with the Master, and the latter with his Mother María del Casar, who wept for the death of said son Francisco».

But the enigma would continue, since no more and no less than five years after his disappearance... The fish man of Liérganes was supposedly not only fished in the waters of Cádiz, he was even subjected to exorcisms, with the Supreme Inquisition involved, because it is as if the strange being rescued from the ocean had forgotten the ability to speak...

«In the year 1679, a figure of a rational person appeared to the fishermen of the sea of Cádiz, swimming on the waters, and immersing into them at will, and who, wanting to get close to them, disappeared on the first day; but letting the fishermen see the next one, and experiencing the same figure, and escape, they returned to land telling the news, that having been divulged, the desires to know what it was increased, and the speeches were exhausted in finding means to achieve it; and having made use of nets that surrounded the length of the figure, which was presented to them, and of throwing pieces of bread into the water, they observed that it took them and ate, and that in pursuit of them it was approaching one of the boats, which with the strait of the fence of the nets he was able to take it, and bring it to land; where having contemplated this one, who was considered a monster, they found him a rational man in his formation, and parts of him; but speaking to him in various languages, in none, and he responded to nothing, despite having conjured him, in case some evil spirit possessed him, in the Convent of San Francisco where he stayed; but nothing was enough at that time, and after a few days he pronounced the word 'Liérganes'; the one that, unknown to most, explained a young man from said Place, who was working in the aforementioned City of Cádiz, saying it was his Place, which was located in the part mentioned above; and Mr. Domingo de la Cantolla, Secretary of the Supreme Inquisition, was from the same place; with whose news a subject, who knew him, wrote the case; and Mr. Domingo told his relatives in Liérganes, in case something new happened there, to shake hands with the one from Cádiz. They replied that there was nothing more than the disappearance in the Estuary of Bilbao of the son of María del Casar, widow of Francisco de la Vega, who was also called Francisco, like his father; but that there were years they already considered him dead. All of which Mr. Domingo shared with his correspondent from Cádiz, who made it well-known in the aforementioned Convent of San Francisco, where he stayed».

«This is my son Francisco, whom I lost in Bilbao»

The event was going to take a new twist at the hands of Fra Juan Rosende, after his visit to the convent where that man was, who after days and days in the most absolute silence had finally pronounced the word «Liérganes»...

«At that time, a Monk of said Order, named Fra Juan Rosende, who had come from Jerusalem at that time, and was going around Spain asking for alms for those Holy Places, was in the aforementioned Convent of San Francisco; and learning of the part where Liérganes was placed, and getting acquainted with the young man, who had appeared in the sea, and discussing if he was from the said Liérganes, according to Cantolla's account, he decided to take him with him in his postulation: that having finished it off towards the Coast of Santander, went to the aforementioned Place of Liérganes in the year 1680; and arriving at the mountain, which is called the Dehesa, a quarter of a league from said Town, he told the young man to go ahead leading, who executed it punctually, and went straight to the house of said María del Casar; the one who immediately saw him, knew him, and hugged him, saying: 'This is my son Francisco, whom I lost in Bilbao', and the priest brothers, and secular, who were there, executed the same with great joy; but the said Francisco did nothing new, nor did he show more than if he were a trunk».

The Fish Man of Liérganes
[LPDS/Wombo Art]

However, despite the reunion with his family, if that man found in the waters of Cádiz was really Francisco de la Vega Casar, from then on his life again on earth and among humans was going to take place in a somewhat anomalous way for him, as if he were, perhaps, outside his natural and marine environment...

«Fra Juan Rosende left this young man at his mother's house, where he spent nine years with a disturbed understanding, in such a way that nothing bothered him, nor did he speak more than sometimes the words 'tobacco','bread', 'wine', but without purpose. If they asked him if he wanted it, nothing he answered; but if they gave it to him, he took it, and ate excessively for some days, but later he would spend others without eating. If someone ordered him to carry some paper from one place to another, of which he knew before leaving, he would do it with great punctuality, giving it to the subject to whom he was entrusted, and he knew; and he brought the answer, if they gave it to him, carefully; so that it seems he understood what was said to him; but he by himself nothing happened. On one occasion, among others, that his subject from Liérganes sent him to Santander with paper for another, being necessary to cross the Ría, which is more than a league wide, and for that to embark on the site of Pedreña, not finding a boat there, he jumped into the water, and came out on the Santander dock, where many saw him wet, and the paper he was carrying in his pocket, which he delivered punctually to the subject to whom it was addressed; which, asking him how he had gotten wet, answered nothing, and he returned the answer to Liérganes with his regular punctuality».

About his physical appearance and regarding speculations about whether or not his body was endowed with a kind of scales, in the work of the Galician monk we can read:

«He was six feet tall, a little more, or less; corresponding corpulence, and well built; short red hair; as if it were beginning to be born; the color white; his nails were worn, as if they were eaten by saltpeter. He was always barefoot. If they gave him a dress he would put it on; if not, he had the same care to walk naked, as barefoot. If they gave him food, he drank and ate everything; if not, he didn't ask for it either: so that he seemed like an inanimate thing to reason, and animated to obey, and mute to speak, except for the words expressed above, which he pronounced perhaps, but without purpose or concert; what I can assure, for having met him. When he was a boy he had a great inclination to fish, and to be in the river, which passes through said Place of Liérganes, and he was a great swimmer. At that age he had regular powers. Everything that is referred to is the truth of the fact, according to the relationship of his brothers, the Priest Mr. Tomás, and Juan, who lives; and everything that separates from this fact is false, as is saying that he had scales on his body, and that this prodigy proceeded from a curse that his mother placed on him. In this disposition, the so-called young man Francisco de la Vega stayed in the house of his mother, and in this country, for a space of nine years, more or less, and then he disappeared, without knowing anything else about him; although it's said, that shortly after it was seen in a Port of Asturias a man from the neighborhood of Liérganes; but it lacks foundation».

Scales on the backbone and between the Adam's apple and the stomach

As a good journalist of his time, Fra Benito Jerónimo spared no effort in going to various sources in order to contrast this peculiar story that, although today it is still absolutely fascinating, at that time and in that social, religious and cultural context, it had to be seen as not only a supernatural or paranormal event, but the work of the evil one. Thus, regarding his sources of information, the monk born in Pereiro de Aguiar and died in Oviedo writes the following. And, be careful, because he makes a curious revelation about the possible presence of scales in the swimmer to which we previously alluded. And it is that, although the Marquis of Valbuena denied in his writing the existence of said scales, there were also those who expressed the opposite:

«So far the report sent by the Marquis of Valbuena, which shortly after was fully confirmed by Mr. Gaspar Melchor de la Riba Agüero, Knight of the Habit of Santiago, resident of the Lugar de Gajano, distant from Liérganes about half a league, in response to his son-in-law Mr. Diego Antonio de la Gándara Velarde, a resident of this city, who also did me the favor of requesting the report of that gentleman, who in his letter signs that he had had him at home several times, and fed him the subject of this story. This was confirmed to me by another gentleman named Mr. Pedro Dionisio de Rubalcaba, a native of Lugar de Solares, near Liérganes, who also treated our Swimmer very intentionally; and to him, in order to the circumstance of the scales, I owed the individuation, that when he arrived in Liérganes, he had some on his backbone, and like a ribbon of them from the Adam's apple to the stomach; but after a while they fell off. Mr. Gaspar de la Riba says in his Relation that in some parts of his body he had a rough complexion similar to sandpaper. With these last two warnings, the apparent meeting of the news in order to the scales is reconciled. Those who saw him when he arrived in Santander could truthfully affirm that he had them, because in fact he had them then; and those who saw him later, also affirmed truthfully, that he did not have them, because they had already fallen off. Also some would mistake the rough complexion of some parts of his body for scaly skin.».

Neither curses nor miracles to survive in the «Republic of Fishes»

The Fish Man of Liérganes
[LPDS/Wombo Art]

Finally, Fra Benito Jerónimo leaves us with an interesting reflection, assuring that in his opinion, instead of a curse or a miraculous event, the case of the swimmer falls within the natural, although not by reason of it ceases to be anomalous, extraordinary, astonishing:

«It is truly a pitiful thing that our Swimmer lost the use of reason, not only seeing it as his fatality, but also as our loss, and that of all the curious; Well, if this man had preserved his senses, and his memory, how much news, partly useful, and partly specious, would he give us, as the fruit of his maritime pilgrimages! How many things, hitherto unknown to all Naturalists, belonging to the wandering Republic of Fishes, we could learn from him! He could only have found out exactly how they raise, how they live, how they graze, how they transmigrate, and about wars, or alliances of different species. How well explored he would be the beds of various Seas, a new Ocean within the same Ocean, and a bottom without soil, with respect to innumerable philosophical speculations, either by the plants that are born in it, or by the materials that come together in it, or because of the mutations that they receive in it, already because of the sources, and rivers, that in it gush, and because of the caverns that receive the same maritime waters, to transport them to very different places, and because of a thousand other things! But what piques philosophical curiosity more closely, and what could only be known through the same man, are some circumstances of the same event: how this man so suddenly accommodated himself to a kind of life in everything so different from what he had on earth: how he fed in the sea: if he slept a few intervals: how long did he suffer from lack of breath: how did he evade the voracity of some sea beasts, &c.

If we had some positive sign that the case had been miraculous, by a way, although not very real, very well-trodden, we would evade all these difficulties. To resort in the embarrassments of Philosophy to the extraordinary power of the Deity, is to do what Alexander did, cut the knot with steel, which cannot untie speech. The word, which spread throughout Spain, that poor Francisco's unhappiness came from a curse on his mother, would justify such an appeal if it were true; but that voice was the daughter of ignorance of the limits to which nature can extend, and of the common itch to play a miracle in every extraordinary event. All the trustworthy accounts that I have acquired with my diligence and that of my Friends agree that there was no such curse, nor any other circumstance from which it can be inferred that the event came out of the natural terms».

Pesce Cola, the postman of the seas

Pesce Cola - Nicholas Fish
[LPDS/Wombo Art]

If the story of Francisco de la Vega Casar is curious and exciting, the one that it will be described below will not leave you indifferent. Also collected in the aforementioned work by the Spanish monk, it deals with the adventures of a young Sicilian «commonly called Pesce Cola by his family, (that is, Nicholas Fish)», whose life is located supposedly in the 13th century and from whom Fra Benito Jerónimo begins by pointing out the following:

«This Nicholas, born of humble parents in the City of Catania, by inclination gave himself a lot to swimming since he was a child. The exercise showed him, and at the same time increased, the native ability which he had for him; and his ability and inclination, accompanied by poverty, easily induced him to search the waters for a way to live. He found him fishing for oysters and coral. Continuing in this kind of farming, he became so accustomed to the water that something violent was already living on the land. Tamed with that ferocious Element, he equally reveled in its serenity, which despised its fury. With the same freedom he navigated both the restless and calm sea. Hardly any fish more daringly penetrated his deep breasts, or more quickly ran his spacious campaigns. Deity of the sea would believe the gentle superstition. What at first was just delight, became a necessity. The day that he did not enter the water, he felt such anguish, such fatigue in his chest, that he could not calm down.»

His expertise in the maritime environment was such that...

«He frequently served as maritime mail from one Port to another, or from the Continent to the Islands, making it necessary, when the sea was stormy, that the Sailors did not dare with it. His continuation in crossing all those seas made him known to all those who practiced sailing by profession on the coasts of Sicily and Naples. He was not content with the shores; he commonly gorged himself at a high altitude, where he perhaps spent whole days. When he saw a Vessel pass by, even if it was at a long distance, with a very fast course he would throw himself in pursuit of it, until he approached it: he entered it, ate, and drank what they gave him; He offered himself humanely and courteously to bring news from the navigators to any Port, and he executed it punctually. From there he went to different shores to notify parents, wives and children, their friends, and the dependents of this one, that one, and the other navigator, in another, everything that they told him and was ordered. He also handled any letters, for which he was provided with a well-trimmed leather bag, and adjusted, so that they would not get wet».

Fatal challenge for the «rational amphibian»

But one good day -perhaps not so good- King Federico of Naples and who knows if also greed and overconfidence crossed Nichola's path and then...

«This is how this rational Amphibian lived, until his misfortune made him a victim of Neptune, whom he adored. King Federico of Naples, or for making a relevant proof of Nichola's strange ability, or for a philosophical curiosity to know the layout of the sea floor, in the place where that violent whirlpool of waters is, whom Antiquity called Charybdis, located near Cape Faro, ordered him to go down to that cavernous depth. Making the execution more difficult, as one who knew the monstrous size of the risk, the King threw a golden cup on the spot, telling Nicholas that it would be his, if he could get it out of that abyss. Greed excited boldness. He threw into the horrific depth, from which, after nearly three-quarters of an hour had elapsed (which all that time was necessary to search for the cup in the maritime labyrinth), he came up with it in his hand. He informed the King of the disposition of those caverns, and of various aquatic monsters, which nested in them; in which perhaps something would exceed the truth, being certain that no eyewitness would convince him of the lie».

There would be a second test, increasing the degree of difficulty. Another exploration of the depths, although this time with no return to the surface...

«Or it was that the king wanted a more individual relation of all particularities, or that Federico was one of the many Princes, who already annoyed with common pleasures, only find sensible flattery when the ability of the one who entertains them is seasoned with his danger, he tried to commit Nicholas to a new examination, and finding him much more resistant than the first time, because he had felt the enormity of the risk, even much greater than he had previously conceded, he not only threw another gold cup into the water; but he also showed him a bag full of coins of the same metal, assuring him, that if he recovered the second cup, he would own it, as well as the pocket. The disorderly lust for gold, which has been fatal for so many mortals, was also fatal for poor Nicholas. he threw himself at the second dam; but it was never to return, neither dead nor alive, death and burial he found in one of those intricate caverns, leaving it doubtful if he incautiously entered some narrowness where he could not manage; or if having penetrated some tangled bosom, he missed the exit; or if in short he was captured by one of the marine beasts, which he had said inhabited those caves».

About breathing and sleep

The Fish Man of Liérganes
[LPDS/Wombo Art]

It is important to emphasize once again that Fra Benito Jerónimo, despite his religiosity, at all times flees from the supernatural when seeking an explanation for the extraordinarily super-developed gifts or abilities of these two human beings when it comes to functioning in an aquatic environment. In this regard, he points out that «in both cases a very violent passion for aquatic life is seen, an extraordinary strength and ability for the exercise of swimming; and finally, the natural marvel of spending many hours without the use of breathing (...) The Sicilian swimmer ordinarily spent the nights on land, where he rested like other men. The Spaniard continuously for four or five years inhabited the waves, where it seems he could not enjoy the benefit of sleep».

Precisely looking for an explanation of how resting and sleeping underwater took away the sleep of the Benedictine monk, who reflects on his work as follows:

«Assuming the truth of these Stories, there is no difficult that our Francisco de la Vega did not sleep for the four or five years that he inhabited the sea. The elements that his brain suffered were undoubtedly great, since it so extraordinarily disordered his judgment. What is there to admire, then, that he kept vigil continuously for four or five years? This is saving the fact for the part that seems most difficult; Well, if it is meant that at that same time he took a few hours of sleep at not too distant intervals, there is no stumbling block in that. Who would prevent him from retiring a few nights to this or that uninhabited shore, as many as the sea bathes, and resting there for the hours he needed? Perhaps he could also sleep on the same bed of the sea. (...) This breathing, which the submerged fish achieve, is clear, that our Swimmer could not enjoy, for lacking the instruments that the fish have for it. (...) But the truth is I don't see what connection breathing has with sleep, or why a man, who can be at the bottom of the sea for two hours without breathing, can't also sleep there for as long without breathing».

Men, women... and fish children

The Fish Man of Liérganes
[LPDS/Wombo Art]

But the Galician friar goes further in his disquisitions and even dares to launch hypotheses regarding the existence of fish women, leaving aside possible prejudices if taken into account the context in which he lived. He wonders about the possibility of different-sex couples, their offspring and even what childbirth would be like:

«(...) What the man from Liérganes did, some others could have done in previous centuries, not only men, but women, since all the strength, skill, inclination, and exercise in swimming that our man had was not odd in some individuals of this sex. And since a man and a woman were able to come together by common agreement (which could happen by innumerable accidents), from these by various successions could originate all the marine men and women who have been seen in different parts of the Ocean. Perhaps it would be difficult, how the work of generation, that of childbirth, and also the education of infants could be carried out within the waters. But in none of this I find difficulty, that is not very beatable; Well, about the fact that several deserted islets could serve all these trades, and the rocks themselves, which are a hindrance to navigators, and even many uninhabited shores of one and another Continent; There is no impossibility for the first two operations to be performed within the water, and as far as the third is concerned, the father and mother could alternate the care of holding the infant on the surface of the water for the time necessary to breathe, until the infant was able to swim like them. (...) What impossibility, nor even what improbability is there that the crazy love of a man and a woman, for whom it was impossible to achieve the desired consortium on earth, would impel them to seek perpetual company in the free Republic of Fishes?»

It is necessary to emphasize that, although myths and legends usually end up wrapping this type of stories, at least in the case of The fish man of Liérganes we are talking about an event documented by various sources and collected by someone trained academically and that, despite his religious vocation, appeals at all times to reason when analyzing and above all when looking for an explanation.

Benito Jerónimo Feijoo (1781). Teatro crítico universal (Tome VI - Eighth Discourse), Madrid: Blas Román
Benito Jerónimo Feijoo. "Examen filosófico de un peregrino suceso de estos tiempos". Filosofía en español, 17 January 2023, https://www.filosofia.org/bjf/bjft608.htm]