A Barcelos cockerel souvenir
A Barcelos cockerel souvenir

The Barcelos Cockerel

Some people like reading about world events, some people like reading scientific papers and some people like reading travel articles.

However, if you like reading answers to random thoughts you may have had once or twice before and never thought about again, then this is the article for you.

I have lived in Lisbon for almost a decade now, but I grew up in the countryside in the Algarve. Clearly, there are a lot of differences between the two places and one that I am most aware of is the mornings. Every time I visit the Algarve, I know I am there because in the countryside the morning starts around 5am, which is when the cockerels start to crow. But why do they crow? And how do they know when to crow?

Just like us humans, animals also have circadian rhythms that dictate their behaviour throughout the day and night. We have all heard the expression “the early bird gets the worm”. Well, a cockerel’s internal clock helps him anticipate the sunrise, so he can get a head start on the morning hunt for food and to mark his territory. His crow is his way of signalling to other cockerels that the territory is his and that, if they trespass, they are looking for a fight.

In the past, Greek mythology was used as a means to explain the world that we live in and the environment that surrounds us – and that also includes a legendary story as to why cockerels crow in the morning.

According to legend, Aphrodite was having an affair with Ares, the god of war. Fearing that their affair would be found out, Ares placed a young soldier named Alectryon outside his room to keep guard. However, during the night, the guard fell asleep on watch and Helios (the sun god) found out about the affair the very next morning. Ares, in a rage, punished his soldier by transforming him into a cockerel and now, every morning when the sun rises, he starts to crow in an attempt to warn Ares of the sun god’s arrival.

Portugal’s folklore also has a traditional story that dates back to medieval times regarding the crow of a cockerel. Portugal’s most recognised national symbol is the Barcelos cockerel. If you have ever lived in the UK, you would also recognise the Barcelos cockerel as the Nando’s logo – a chain of restaurants famous for its piri-piri chicken.

The Barcelos cockerel on a table cloth

According to the story, a robbery was committed in the northern city of Barcelos and its people falsely accused a pilgrim, who was just passing through the city, of the crime. The pilgrim pleaded his innocence, stating that he was merely on a Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela as part of a promise he had made. However, despite pleading innocent, he was arrested and sentenced to hang.

In a final attempt to save his life, he asked to be taken to the judge who had passed his sentence. His final wish was granted, and the authorities took him to the judge’s house who was hosting a banquet at the time. After failing to plead his innocence once again, the pilgrim pointed to a roasted cockerel on the banquet table and exclaimed: “It is as certain that I am innocent as that cockerel will crow when they hang me.” Everyone at the banquet laughed but, nonetheless, the judge put the roasted cockerel aside.

As the pilgrim had promised, as soon as he was hanged, the roasted cockerel stood up and begun to crow. The judge, overwhelmed with guilt, ran to the gallows in an attempt to try and stop the hanging. Miraculously, when he arrived, the pilgrim was still alive due to a poorly tied knot that broke during the act. He was immediately set free and permitted to carry on with his pilgrimage.

A few years later, he is said to have returned to Barcelos to sculpt the Cruzeiro do Senhor do Galo, which translates to “Crucifix of the Lord of the Cockerel”. The crucifix is located outside the Archaeological Museum of Barcelos and the carvings upon its surface depict the story of the pilgrim and the cockerel.

Since the exhibition of Popular Portuguese Art in Geneva in 1935, when the first clay cockerel was exhibited, the image of the cockerel of Barcelos has become symbolic with Portugal, appearing on souvenirs and promotional materials. It officially became the national tourist symbol in the 50s and 60s, thus elevating the status of the town of Barcelos too.

The Barcelos cockerel symbolises faith, justice, good fortune, and embodies the famous Portuguese love for life. Now, whenever I wake up at five in the morning to a cockerel crowing outside, I remember to be thankful and happy to be alive, even if all he is doing is warning me that if anyone enters his territory, he is ready for a fight.

By Jay Costa Owen

|| [email protected]
Jay recently graduated from the Faculty of Fine Artes in Lisbon. Jay’s interests are exploring new cultures through photography and the myths, legends and history that define them.