It’s a warm afternoon in late May, and a small crowd gathers on a circular platform overlooking a valley of almond, lemon and carob trees. Soft, slightly melancholic music fills the air, and people wear headdresses of freshly gathered rosemary, rockrose and pine. A tapestry hangs beneath a canvas awning; it shows the simple, curved motif of a universal symbol – the tree of life. The crowd starts to hush and story is told – about an ancient fallen goddess, her once-fertile island, and a mythical tree of life whose leaves have been lost. In this little valley in Ibiza, an immersive theatre performance is about to begin, called the Walk of the Moon.
Only later in life did it become clear that the Ibiza I knew was not the tacky tourist destination familiar to my English counterparts. Aged 20, working dismal shifts in my local village pub to fund a return trip to the island, I told one of the regulars of my plans. He placed his pint down on the counter and said solemnly, his eyes never leaving the glass, ‘But I thought you were better than that, Jo.’
That summer my best friend and I headed to the tourist town of San Antonio for a two-week package holiday. On our last morning we missed the return flight, emptied our suitcases on the beach next to the hotel, and headed to a roundabout on the edge of town. There, we stuck our our thumbs. Neither of us had hitchhiked before. When the first car pulled over we got in, telling the driver: ‘Vamos al norte’ – we’re going north.
Moon phase: waning. The first group embarks on the route. They weave along a path through aloe vera plants and over a low stone wall. On the other side, the Hag awaits – with rat-tailed braids and a cryptic symbol carved into an avocado seed on her forehead. She teases and cajoles the walkers, begging them to confess their personal weaknesses and fears – obstacles to the coming quest. When satisfied, the Hag points the walkers towards the yurt, where a masked figure chants and cleanses the group with incenses in preparation for the journey ahead.
That first summer we hitchhiked our way around the north. We slept on beaches, under trees, in caves. We surrendered ourselves to the road, and one by one the teachers appeared, like chapters in an unfolding saga: eccentrics, lost souls, madmen, one or two wandering sadhus playing the flute beneath a full moon… We danced to trance music in the forest, ate Weetabix in an old hippy’s boat up a mountain. Our hearts felt open. It seemed like anything was possible, as though we were protected by some kind of island magic.
But what was this magic? People spoke of Ibiza’s neighbouring ‘magnetic’ rock, Es Vedra, where a monk meditated in the 1800s and reported meeting ethereal light beings. They talked of Nostradamus, who, according to local urban legend, once prophesied that when nuclear disaster befalls the planet, Ibiza’s unusual wind patterns would make it ‘Earth’s final refuge’.
But the most consistent explanation was Tanit. She was, I was told, the goddess of Ibiza, recognised by the Phoenicians, the ancient civilisation which settled on the island in 654 BC, naming it Iboshim, after the Egyptian god Bes. The island became a major Phoenician trading post, but also a place of worship to Tanit – powerful and destructive; goddess of dance and hedonism. Indeed, it did all seem an uncanny coincidence on the very island which shaped rave culture – an island where people are known to lose it, or lose themselves…
‘You’ll know if Tanit wants you to stay or go…’ repeated the island mantra. But for 15 years I wasn’t sure.
Moon phase: new. In the tipi are goblets, vessels and vases filled with water. A six-year-old girl conducts the ceremony, urging the group to harness their deepest desires to restore leaves to Tanit’s bare tree of life. The group writes messages on slips of paper, then rolls each one within a ball of wet clay, like a seed encased in earth. The girl sprinkles drops of water over each clay-encased wish, and the walkers continue their journey, seed-balls held carefully in the palms of their hands.
I would revisit the island every couple of years – it became some kind of strange, guilty secret. I had become another of those inexplicably drawn to this pine-covered island whose history was shaped by transient visitors, settlers and invaders. The Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Moors, finally the Catalans – each had left their traces on an island which, ultimately, never seemed to belong to anyone. From the 1950s, new foreign visitors arrived, bringing beatnik and counterculture ideas, oriental mysticism – these mixed with the layers of past ancient civilisations to create the elusive product now packaged as the Ibiza Spirit.
But despite the many cultures which passed through in following centuries, the Phoenicians, with their goddess Tanit, still seem to offer Ibiza a much clung-to, mythical foundation. In the north, the island’s ‘spiritual’ circles offer their treatments and ceremonies on the premise that Tanit was a goddess of healing, and that the sick and dying were brought by boat from distant lands to be cured, or laid to rest, on Tanit’s red soil. Meanwhile, down in the backstreets of the capital city it is perfectly normal to stumble upon a local, family-run Tanit mechanics, decades of trade under its belt. The goddess’s image is ubiquitous – despite local media recently speculating that the Tanit bust reproduced on countless laminated bar menus and postcards across the island is actually that of a different goddess, the Greek Demeter.
But the most telling observation of Tanit’s place in modern-day Ibiza can be found on the southerly road connecting the capital city to San Jose. Here, a giant billboard sign advertises a well-known, trendy beach club using as its logo a digitalised, ‘stencil’ version of Tanit’s face. The icon is immediately recognisable, but a graphic designer has tweaked the goddess’s usually neutral, soft mouth into nothing less than a snarl. ‘Come and get me’, she spits, and I always drive on wondering what they did to Tanit to make her snarl like that. But perhaps the answer is simple. They decided Tanit was a sexy extrovert and hedonist, and made her the face of a new sun-worshipping industry called mass tourism. And that, I suppose, is how Tanit accidentally became a sun goddess.
Moon phase: waxing. After an uphill walk the group arrives at the cal oven, a stone structure traditionally used to cook limestone for plastering houses their brilliant white. Out of a doorway he emerges, a hulking, giant-like creature, flames streaming from his mouth, eyes and fingertips. He beckons the group close, seemingly interested in the clay balls clasped in people’s hands. When these clay-encased wishes are presented to the fire being, he dances, whirls and twirls – as though bestowing the buried wishes with the force and vigour to sprout shoots, to burst through their clay casing, to manifest.
I had done it – I had moved to Ibiza, with my bicycle, books and sewing machine. That summer I lived inland, in a cramped van next to a giant prickly pear cactus. After previous summers gloriously bathing in the island heat like a lizard, this one felt different. I shied away from the beaches and ocean at midday – stayed inland, seeking shade. My new urge to escape what felt like the aggressive rays of the sun led me to discover two refuges – both as deeply nestled in the island’s interior as you could ever get. An emerald green, freshwater pool beside a whitewashed well, and the shady, tranquil banks of an empty river.
I didn’t quite understand why at the time, but that summer my rebellion against the summer sun-worshipping culture had brought me to the banks of a dead river, one which had once flowed from the high northwest to its mouth in the east, at the town of Santa Eularia. Several decades ago, the Riu de Santa Eularia flowed abundantly. But little by little it had petered out, so that now it was identifiable only as a meandering, hollowed-out scar in the landscape, little streams occasionally forming here and there after heavy winter rains.
The death of the Balearic Islands’ only river was the direct result of a year-on-year depletion of Ibiza’s underground aquifers, the subterranean vaults of fresh water feeding the island’s wells, and therefore vegetation, for many centuries. Each year these aquifers were increasingly drained by a hotel and tourism industry that was steadily gaining momentum, and it was getting serious. No-one really noticed when the river died. But then they began talking about a Water Crisis, and murmuring that the island was running out of water. And then people noticed, and they started getting scared.
So here I was beneath the pine trees, beside an empty inland river – meanwhile, on the island’s outer fringes, something else was happening. Endless hypnotic beats merging into one, a thousand faces turning towards the sun, following the lure of something – the sensual bliss of warmed, naked skin, the promise of oneness with… something – something greater. Yes, with the sun – always, eternally, with the sun.
Moon phase: full. Steep steps descend into the cave. Down here, candlelight fills the nooks and crannies, and there is a shrine decorated with dried herbs, flowers and seed pods, painted with the phases of the moon in silver and indigo blue. The guardian of the cave has a face caked in earth and is draped in animal fur. When the people are seated, she gestures for them to bring forward their clay-encased wishes; in the silence of the cave they craft them into small dolls using twine, twigs and sheep’s wool. The dolls which began as wishes are placed around the altar, in the belly of the earth.
In the north east of the island, a path leads from the bay of Cala San Vicente up into surrounding hills. Millennia ago, they would have arrived here by boat from other lands, such as the neighbouring island of Mallorca, where 70 years ago Robert Graves sat at his writing desk in Deia, rolling between his fingertips various Phoenician amulets and deities, searching for the words for The White Goddess. Up the path into the forested hills they would have walked, carrying their small clay dolls to the sanctuary of Es Culleram, where in the early 20th century around 600 would be unearthed by archaeologists. Along the route through pines and junipers, the shapes in the rock are still visible – gulleys and troughs carved to channel rainwater off the mountain into small pools. Here, washing rituals would have been carried out to mark the end-point of an oversea voyage, a pilgrimage to Tanit’s cave.
Farther south, heading west towards Santa Gertrudis, lies one of the island’s oldest wells, the Font d’en Miguelet. The mouth of the well is decorated with finely-preserved patterns of Middle-Eastern design, painted in the red ochre pigment of the Ibizan soil. The central motif is like a flower stretching upwards on a long stalk, leaves unfurling on either side – it is a tree of life. But once upon a time there was also another symbol here, one which faded with time. From Tunisia, to Malta, to Lebanon, it was a shape recognised unmistakably as that of the goddess Tanit – a figure based on the triangle, symbol of water, with hands outstretched towards the moon.
The sun sinks low as the final group returns to the circular platform. A live group fills the air with haunting electro-folk music, as people flock around the tree of life tapestry, attaching fabric leaves to its branches. The crowd drinks hierbas ibicencas, the local aniseed spirit infused with rosemary and thyme, and eat sweet carob and almond paste passed around on spoons. As the sun begins to set, the the giant goddess Tanit emerges, slowly pacing figures of eight beneath the canvas awning. She comes to rest beside the tapestry – her tree of life – its branches filled with leaves.
This winter I looked after an empty rural hotel in the high northwest, where moss-filled forest meets the cliffs, while the island was hit by some of the worst storms on record. The diminished winter population braced itself against fierce winds and torrential rain. My daily drive through the San Mateu valley took me past piles of rubble where sections of centuries-old dry stone walls had caved in. Trees fell. A pirate lookout tower dating back to the 1600s collapsed one day. It made the island seem small and fragile, and felt like a dark time. But then something extraordinary happened.
Shortly before Christmas, Ibiza’s dead river started flowing again. Its fast, gurgling waters could be traced along its inland route to Santa Eularia, where it erupted in a series of deafening waterfalls beneath the Pont Vell bridge. In the days leading up to Christmas, crowds flocked to the river, many of them local Ibicencos, posing for family selfies. Grandparents proudly showed their grandchildren the river they swam in as children, a sight they never expected to see again.
The river flowed for a few days, then petered out again. People who knew about my obsession with the river jokingly congratulated me on my work. But the point was, it only reappeared – almost without any sense. It didn’t stay. Its return wasn’t a clear signal of anything – neither of the power of intention and ritual, nor of the resolution of an ecological crisis. Rather, the river seemed to have simply reminded an island of its aliveness – as a possibility, as a metaphor, as a lingering, unfinished story. The river’s demonstration that a land’s story can change so unexpectedly filled me with awe, and fear.
The Walk of the Moon was an attempt to mend a broken myth – one whose incompleteness continues to threaten an island’s rich but fragile culture and ecology. The island of Ibiza is a miniaturised mirror of the world – it has ancient myths, and modern cheap masks, both struggling against each other for power. On closer inspection, each of these cheap masks is a clumsy attempt to bandage a wound which happened a long time ago, in the realm where myths are made. And perhaps there, in the place where a dead river flows, is where the balm for old wounds is found.
As I write, spring unfolds its glory on Ibiza – fields are filled with tiny yellow flowers, meadows are thick with herbs. In coming months, the red earth will slowly crack open and the island will enter its annual, scorching ‘second winter’. By mid-summer the island’s all-pervasive, hypnotic heartbeat will gain pace once more, backed by crescendoing waves of cicada chorus, and a thousand revellers will surround their giant, snarling icon – the goddess of the sun. Meanwhile, in the silent shade of an orchard, a secluded stone well remains. And though the painted image is long gone, its trace remains, for those who seek it. A faded symbol that was, and always will be Tanit, goddess of the moon.
The Walk of the Moon was an immersive theatre performance held in May 2016 at the ecological centre La Casita Verde, San Jose, Ibiza. It was a collaboration between Theatre of the Ancients and artist Michaela Meadow, puppeteer Andres Orgalla, theatre-maker Philip Kingslan John, the London-based band Moth Rah and many other performers and volunteers.
All images by Can Gato Ibiza © 2017
Next week we continue our series ‘The Mythos We Live By’ with writing by Sophie McKeand.