Alminhas: “A Very Portuguese” Heritage
Updated: Sep 10
A votive candleholder left at a granite pillar "little soul" in a village of Oliveira do Hospital Municipality, Coimbra District (Photo by Cynthia Adina Kirkwood)
As the winds blow cooler and brown leaves swirl on the ground, the season of remembering the dead approaches, teetering on the edge of collective memory.
Thousands of alminhas, or “little souls”, populate Portugal. There are many styles, including small altars, niches, wooden shrines and granite monuments.
The granite pillars often feature human figures and crosses drawn in a naïve style. They inhabit many villages in the heart of Portugal.
The alminhas are special. They are sacred. They stand outside of time.
Alminhas and espigueiro (granary) in Vilarinho da Samarda, in the municipality and district of Vila Real, in 2006 (Photo by Rosino)
“And who, from the north, does not keep this happy memory of the alminhas, with flowers or without flowers, towering or encrusted in walls, in the middle of places or at the crossroads of paths, with a lamp or candle lit, or not, with figures on a panel of tiles, in small altarpieces or screened shrines, more rustic or more sophisticated, but always reminding passers-by of the need to remember them and pray for them, an “Our Father” and a “Hail Mary” or whatever their devotion might dictate?” wrote Antonio Dias, in As Alminhas – A Heritage Not to Forget (November 5, 2021), Diocese of Portalegre-Castelo Branco.
“And who doesn’t remember the person who always stopped to pray, the other who took off his beret or hat as he passed by, the other who paused, bowed or even genuflected? And that other one who looked after them as if they were impressive cathedrals.”
Villagers leave flowers and candles at the alminhas, especially, on All Souls’ Day (Dia de Finados) on November 2. Also, it is a popular tradition on the days leading up to All Saints’ Day (Dia de Todos os Santos) on November 1 for families to decorate the graves of loved ones with flowers and candles, remembering the dead and praying that their souls are at peace.
Funeral processions are said to have stopped at the granite pillar alminhas on their way to the cemetery.
Alminhas and cruzeiros, the stand-alone crosses
Pre-Roman, Roman Origin
There are different ideas about the origin of the alminhas: pre-Roman, Roman Catholic, Roman, or all of the above.
Flavio Gonçalves (1929-1987), a multidisciplinary scholar who studied religious art of 16th and 17th century Portugal, stated that, before the Romans, the Greeks, the Celts of Lusitania and Galicia, and others beseeched spirits for help, according to Alminhas e Cruzeiros: Uma experiencia de inventario em Lousada (2019), University of Porto, the master's degree dissertation of Sara Catarina Nunes Vieira.
Flavio Gonçalves said that the Catholic Church did everything to replace these pagan monuments on paths and crossroads, according to Alminhas e Cruzeiros. The symbol of faith in Christ took the place of altars of paganism. “Between the Roman altars and the appearance of our altarpieces in the open air spans an interval of more than a thousand years.”
“Jose Leite de Vasconcelos (1848-1941, the renowned ethnographer and native son of Ucanha, Tarouca Municipality, in Viseu District), said that they are the continuation of the Roman and pagan use of raising monuments at crossroads, entrances to bridges and next to houses, in honor of the Lares compitales and Lares viales,” according to Luis Pinheiro, in Folclore de Portugal: O Portal do Folclore Portugues. Luis Pinheiro wrote Alminhas Nichos e Cruzeiros de Portugal (1958).
Lares were deities of ancient Roman religion. They were the spirits that could protect or harm a family. In addition to the house, the exterior space also needed protection. The Lares were appeased during the Compitalia, a celebration held at urban and country intersections. Lares viales were responsible for travelers on land. There were Lares for any places with which society had an important relationship, such as fields, intersections, paths, houses and places of battle.
Leite de Vasconcelos said: “Our people raise a cross or erect some alminhas. Rome’s merchants particularly honored Mercury with festivals and sanctuaries . . . Today, especially in the North and Beira, business stores feature a niche with the image of Saint Anthony, flanked by small vases with flowers. Among us, the Christian patron saints correspond to the deities of Roman cities."
Two schools of German philology developed theories in the 19th and 20th century explaining the origin of Lares. One said that Lares were the souls of ancestors. The second supported agrarian origins that went beyond the domestic sphere. These theories continue to be the subject of debate.
However, they share common elements: a chthonic, or underworld, character as well as the relationship of the Lares with the land, with the cycle of life and death, and with the continuity between generations.
A representation of souls that wait to be purified of their sins in purgatory before rising, carried by angels, to the space of God
Roman Catholic Origin
“In early Christianity, there was only heaven and hell. The idea of purgatory only emerged in the Middle Ages, when the (Catholic) Church, following the Council of Trent in 1563, imposed it as dogma, in a Catholic response to the Reformation carried out by Protestants,” according to Antonio Matias Coelho, history professor, researcher of manifestations of religious and popular culture, and organizer of two national meetings on attitudes toward death, in Publico (November 2, 2009).
The Council of Trent (1545-1563), held in Trento, Italy, was the 19th ecumenical council of bishops and church authorities of the Catholic Church.
The researcher continued: “There was thus an intermediate state for the souls of people who died. And instead of the dualism of heaven, for the good, and hell, for the impure, an intermediate state was created, a place where, for some time, the souls would be purified.”
The living could help those in purgatory gain entry into heaven with prayer and alms, which explains the collection boxes on some alminhas.
The granite pillars have no such money box. They are the type of alminhas that ask of the passer-by nothing but time.
“There are those who claim that the alminhas are a very Portuguese creation,” wrote Antonio Dias, in As Alminhas – A Heritage Not to Forget. “Their multiplication, as well as the multiplication of Confrarias das Almas (Confraternities of Souls) and the altars of souls in churches, occurred mainly after the Council of Trent.”
“Preservation of an Intangible Heritage”
Some municipalities have been better than others at recognizing the alminhas and caring for them. Oliveira do Hospital Municipality, in Coimbra District, for example, notes the presence and location of 40 alminhas, mostly granite pillars.
In different parts of the country, there have been calls for preservation of the alminhas. According to ComUM (February 2, 2018), a University of Minho newspaper, such a plea was made at the Museu Nogueira da Silva, in Braga:
“The speakers pointed to the changes that occurred in the alminhas between the 1950s and the present, whether due to physical degradation or the replacement of purgatory panels with figures of saints. Despite this, there continues to be a cult of these monuments, especially on All Souls’ Day, when more candles and flowers are placed there than usual. The presenters then called for the preservation of the alminhas as an intangible heritage.”
Many, including the history professor, Antonio Matias Coelho, and the master’s degree candidate, Sara Catarina Nunes Vieira, have pointed out the need to inventory these historical and cultural treasures.
The professor said in Publico:
“There are many alminhas throughout the country, but especially in the North, and some municipalities certainly have hundreds of alminhas with some relevance spread across their territory.
“In the regions of Porto and Aveiro, and in municipalities, such as Arouca and Sever do Vouga, (both in Aveiro District), Vouzela and Sao Pedro do Sul, (both in Viseu District), Tras-os-Montes (a historical province in the northeastern corner of the country) and throughout Beira Interior (Beira is a traditional province south of Tras-os-Montes), there are alminhas scattered along the paths begging the living to remember them.”
Alminhas da Ponte (1897) in Porto: In 1809, soon after the collapse of the bridge and the deaths of 4,000, someone painted a rough panel, evocative of souls, and left it at Cais da Ribeira. Then, someone lit lamps there. Next, a small iron box for alms was placed there.
Some of the alminhas mark homicides, unresolved love and tragic death such as the bas-relief of Alminhas da Ponte in Porto near the Dom Luis Bridge. During the Napoleonic Wars, Porto was occupied by French troops. On March 29, 1809, townspeople tried to escape from soldiers on foot and on horseback. Tragically, the permanent ship bridge, composed of 20 anchored boats, collapsed, causing the death of about 4,000.
Many of the alminhas in Portugal owe their existence to the royal court painter, Luis Alvares de Andrade (c.1550-1631), known as Santo Pintor, who produced outdoor altars in honor of the salvation of souls, giving the impulse for others to be built -- sometimes for the Catholic Church, and sometimes for families and individuals who commissioned them to pray for their loved ones, according to Alminhas, Portugal num mapa (January 4, 2017).
"Rites From the Depths of Time"
Whatever the origin of the alminhas, there is a certain popular religiosity “in villages and towns or cities, rites from the depths of time continue to be practiced, countless times condemned by ecclesiastical institutions or even by municipal regulations. Christian religion, magic, sorcery form a coherent whole within the popular classes . . .,” Folclore de Portugal quotes O Douro, um olhar diferente (2017), Antonio Augusto Ribeiro.
In a village in Oliveira do Hospital, Coimbra District (Photo by Cynthia Adina Kirkwood)