The Fishman of Liérganes

Mar 22, 2023 1 comments

In the small town of Liérganes, in Cantabria, northern Spain, a legend has been around since the late 17th century about a young man who drowned at sea only to return a few years later as a fish-human hybrid. He was reported to have gills and fins, but unlike mermaids, he retained his legs and barely spoke. The fact that the legend was reported in some detail by Benito Jerónimo Feijoo, a monk who had a reputation of encouraging scientific and rational thinking and who regularly debunked myths and superstitions, has given the story of the fishman some credence. But if Feijoo was not lying, then what actually was the fishman?

A statue of fish-man in Liérganes, Spain. Photo: Alex J. Judkins/Twitter

The story as told by Father Feijoo goes like this—around 1650 there lived in Liérganes, a couple named Francisco de la Vega and María del Casar, who had four sons. After the death of the father, the mother, unable to make ends meet, sent one of her sons to the city of Bilbao so that he could learn a trade as a carpenter. The boy lived in Bilbao as a carpenter till 1674 when, on Saint John's day eve, he went with some friends to swim in Bilbao's estuary. Although he was a good swimmer, the currents of the river swept him away to the sea. He was presumably drowned.

Five years later, in 1679, some fishermen seafaring in the bay of Cadiz saw a strange looking creature caught in the nets, but before he could been reeled in, the creature escaped. In the following weeks, the creature was spotted several times by the fishermen, until one day they were able to capture it by luring it with loaves of bread. When they got the creature on board, they were surprised to find that it was human-shaped, but not quite human. It had white skin and thin red hair. A strip of scales went down from his throat to his stomach, and another one covered his spine. He also seemed to have gills around his neck.

The fishermen took the creature to a nearby convent, where the pastor tried to exorcise it and then interrogated it in several languages but without success. After several days of questioning, the creature finally articulated a word, “Liérganes”. Nobody knew what it meant until a sailor from northern Spain recognized the word to be a place near his hometown. Word was sent to Liérganes about the found creature, and from Liérganes came an astonishing reply that five years earlier Francisco de la Vega’s son had gone missing, and he had red hair.

To test the theory that the creature was indeed the missing boy, it was arranged that the boy would be taken to Liérganes to his alleged home. The friar who accompanied him reported that the boy recognized the way and was able to guide the friar until they reached the house of María del Casar, who recognized him as her late son Francisco.

With Maria, claiming Francisco as her son, the priest left him with his family. Francisco lived quietly and peacefully, but he had peculiar habits. He would always walk barefoot, and unless he was given clothes, he would rather walk around nude. He never spoke enough words to form a sentence so never really conversed with anyone. He would just mumble single words such as bread, wine or tobacco, but never seemed to relate them to eating, drinking, or smoking. Although he would eat with enthusiasm when the mood took him, he often went a week before eating again. He was always amiable and affable, and when asked to do a task he would oblige, completing it quickly and efficiently but without showing any enthusiasm. After spending nine years with his mother, one day he went out to sea to swim and never returned.

Benito Feijoo refused to believe the fishman story when he first heard about it in the early 1700. But after collecting testimonies and interviewing several people who had lived when the fish-man had purportedly appeared, Feijoo came to the conclusion, that as far as the facts were concerned, a fish-man did appear in Cadiz, was taken to Liérganes, and lived there for some time before disappearing again. Feijoo was an extremely rigorous writer who bitterly criticized superstition and frauds, and it seems unlikely that he would have backed the legend without having good reasons to do so.

Gregorio Marañón, a reputed 20th century Spanish scholar and physician, argued that the story about the fish-man was undoubtedly false, yet the amount of testimonies offered by Feijoo and others related to the fish-man of Liérganes could not be promptly discarded. According to him, several elements in the tale such as the creature being almost mute and unable to pronounce a word, his white skin, red hair, the scaly skin, the fact that he would allegedly bite his fingernails or that he would wander about are typical symptoms of cretinism, an illness which is endemic to mountainous regions and which was quite common in the Santander area at that time. Cretinism is caused by insufficient intake of iodine by the mother during pregnancy. Its symptoms include poor growth, thickened skin and goiter around the neck, which could be mistaken for gills. Alternatively, Marañón pointed out that ichthyosis, another widespread genetic disease, could have caused the skin problems such as becoming exceptionally dry, rough, and flaking, not unlike fish scales.

Marañón proposed that the man may have somehow wandered off and lost his way, thereby ending up in Cadiz, where his strange appearance would have aroused curiosity giving birth to the strange legend.


  1. Thanks for bringing this story. The fishman of Lierganes is a beautiful story from the north of Spain. Everyone knows that it is a fable like many others, but for local traditions, it represents a symbol. The journey, the transformation and the reunion, all within the culture of the fishermen of northern Spain


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