The stories behind the local traditions
Salento has an alternative history, parallel to the official one, that you won’t find in the history books. It’s one made up of lots of stories handed down through the generations, with all the stories behind the local traditions. These are hardly very realistic accounts, given that they’re often stories and legends about magic, saints and heroes, but they comprise a history that really reflect the soul of Salento people. Hidden in the myths and fables can lie deep truths, and often legends are birthed to explain certain names, or establish origins of things, or ward off fears. Some recurring figures in the Salento imagination are the house gnome guilty of mysterious disappearances of precious objects, and the witches specializing in spells, who inhabit children’s fairy tales and are said specialise in love potions.
Anthropology and sociology scholars continue to seek explanations for such inventions. All the alternative biographies that exist for all the Saints would need a chapter of their own. The people of Salento, as a sign of affection, portray the saints as very human, with all their earthly emotions and sufferings. And very often these stories end with music, songs and ditties often sung by farmhands working in the fields, to keep tiredness at bay.
After all, even the Taranta traditional dance was spawned by the belief that women bitten by a spider, the tarantula – that could cause convulsions and epileptic seizures – could be healed by the rhythmic sound of a tambourine.
And plenty of myths and legends have sprung up about Leuca, too, and some of its local places of interest. The inhabitants of Leuca even borrowed Greek myth to explain the dangers of its “damned rocks” that lie around the islets off the coast of Punta Ristola. Sailors regard them as particularly dangerous as they’re only just visible above the water. Some say it was here that Medea, in the grip of delirium, killed the children she had with Jason and scattered them in the sea, where they turned into the rocks. Another legend has it that the port of Venus where Aeneas landed was, in fact, Leuca. Others say it was Porto Badisco, others, Otranto. Every village and town here in Salento has its own legends about its origins.
Another beautiful story is said to have taken place in the waters of Leuca: the story of Leucasia, the mermaid. She lived in the sea and was completely white. One day she saw Melisso the shepherd and fell hopelessly in love with him, but he was already in love with Aristula. So, to take her revenge, Leucasia drummed up a storm and Melisso was drowned. The goddess Minerva took pity on them turning them into rocks that from that time on were named Punta Meliso and Punta Ristola, and as a punishment Leucasia was turned into the city of Leuca. The sculptures you’ll see standing in the port that are known as the ‘Trittico della Trascendenza’, were inspired by this story.
So, when you approach the sea in Leuca, watch out that the wind, who knows, doesn’t bring with it a voice, a song perhaps of a mermaid, a sorceress, or a young man in love.