by Carlo Barbera
July 24, 2007
While many European populations are linked to their original
homeland because of historical reasons or the archaeological
evidence of migrations that occurred in remote times, the origin of
the Basque people were and still remain shrouded in mystery.
Something like two million and half Basques live nowadays along the
Western range of the Pyrenees in a territory on the border between
France and Spain.
Euskal Herria (the Basque name of the country) is formed by seven
Bizkaia, Gipuzcoa, Araba and Navarra in Spain
Bassa Navarra and Zuberoa in France
Though these provinces straddle the
geo-political boundaries of the two European countries, their are
independent from an ethnic as well as a linguistic point of view.
The Basques think of themselves as the
original, prehistoric inhabitants of what is, today, Spanish
territory. Some scholars think that the Basques may indeed be the
descendants of the Cro-Magnon populations that occupied the area in prehistorical times and that made the famous rock paintings and
graffiti discovered inside many caves in this territory.
Physical anthropologists think that
modern Basques and ancient Cro-Magnon men share many characteristics
and physical traits.
On the basis of our current knowledge, the most ancient remains
discovered in the land today occupied by the Basques date to the
Lower Palaeolithic period and can be assigned to 200.000 - 100.000
BCE. The evidence is based on lithic and pointed tools in sandstone,
quartz, silica and basalt, discovered in sites along the coast and
in riverine settlements.
The origin of the language called Euskara, spoken by the Basques, is
unknown. It is a pre Indo-European language, totally unique, that
shares only a few analogies with Caucasic and Berber dialects. The
Basques call themselves Euskaldun, from Euskara "Basque language"
and dun "somebody who speaks". Modern linguistics try to discover
the age of this language by investigating its most ancient root
For example, the word axe, haizkolari, derives from the root-word
haitz, which means stone or rock. This has lead many to think that
it may be a linguistic reference to Neolithic stone tools.
In his studies, the abbot Dominique Lahetjuzan (1766-1818) came to
the conclusion that the Basque language was the language spoken in
the Garden of Eden. He showed how the names of the main chapters of
the Book of Genesis were all Basque in origin and had their
appropriate, specific meaning. For his theories, the abbot has been
called one of the strangest characters of the theological era.
In 1825, the French abbot Diharce De
Bidassouet wrote in his "History of the Cantabrians" that Basque was
the original language spoken by God, a statement for which the abbot
was soundly ridiculed.
At about the same period, the Basque priest
Erroa stated that Basque was the language spoken in the Garden of
Eden. His colleagues thought he was a lunatic, but Erroa was so
deeply convinced of being right in his hypothesis that he caught the
attention of the Bishop of Pamplona: he, conversely, directed his
appeals to the Chapter of the Cathedral of Pamplona.
The ecclesiastical institution
considered Erroa's theories and, after many months of deliberations,
established that Erroa was right and publicly supported his theory.
However, in a short time all the reports and the registry containing
the ecclesiastical deliberations disappeared mysteriously.
Many studies on the Basque people stress how deeply they are
different and separated from other cultures. However, if we look
closely we can see this is not completely true. In ancient times the
Basques were known to the Greeks, who called them Ouaskonous (the
people of the he-goat), due to their habit of sacrificing goats to
Later on, the Roman armies that passed
through Iberia reported to have been in contact with a population
they called Vascones.
The advent of
The expansion of Christianity in the land occupied by the Basques
was a very slow process. In the 9th century AD, in fact, in many
areas of the country there were still many Gentiles, i.e., Pagans
(the protagonists of a number of legends in which Gentile is often
the synonymous of a gigantic, wild man who has exceptional strength
and who lives hidden in the mountains, away from the local
However, the presence of groups of
Christianized people in certain localities from the 4th century AD
testifies that the Christian religion had already started to spread
in these areas since the beginning of the Christian era.
The mythological and folk lores will be deeply touched by the new
To exemplify that, it suffices to mention the legend of the
mysterious cloud. One day, in the vicinity of Ataun, a luminous
cloud coming from the East appeared in the sky. The Gentiles were
frightened. They asked an old man what was the meaning of that omen,
and he replied:
"Kixmi (Christ) has come. It is the end of our era,
throw me down a precipice".
This was done and then, followed by the
cloud, they tried to hide themselves beneath a large stone: the
refuge turned to be their grave.
Traces of this lost world can be found in the prehistory of the
Basque people: when ordered chronologically, these traces could
offer an idea of some of the most relevant traits of the Basque
original religious beliefs. A lot, however, can be reconstructed
analyzing the ethnographic data, the rites and the local folklore of
the Basque people.
The Pyrenees are dotted with sacred sites: caves, springs, wells,
valleys and mountain peaks. The mountains and the valleys were
thought to be the abodes of divinities and Genies: the earth was
believed to contain beautiful landscapes and green valleys hidden to
mortals. The most famous of all these sites is probably a plain
named Akelarre in the province of Navarra. The name comes from
he-goat and larre, pasture.
For hundred of years, this place was
connected to witchcraft and it has been probably chosen as the place
where to celebrate ancient rituals and sacrifices. The Church has
eradicated any information related to the pagan religion of the
Basques, and has even denied the existence of such rituals. However,
the Greek geographer Strabo reports beyond doubt that sacrificing
goats was a ritual crucial in the religious beliefs of the
Due to the many mountains which characterize the Basque landscape,
the Romans - and later on the Arabs, Spaniards and French - were not
able to gain full control over the region. The Romans occupied only
portions of the Basque land and imposed on them Roman law, but they
did not succeed in subjugating completely the Basque people.
It seems that the Basques have
assimilated in their own culture only few foreign words and customs:
they have been the last of all Western European people to be
converted to Christianity. For centuries, the Christian missionaries
and their new religion were ignored by a vast portion of the Basque
people, who preferred to practice their traditional religion, full
of magical beliefs. In the 14th century the number of Basques
converted to Christianity had raised sensibly, but until the 17th
century the non-Christian living in the area were still considerably
In 1609, a controller sent from Bordeaux to check the state of the
Christian church in the Basque territory under French rule reported
that Witches Sabbath were often held in the churches themselves,
with the approval, if not the participation, of the local priest.
The French controller was shocked to see how sympathetic were the
local Basque priests towards the old, pagan religion.
The majority of the population still
practiced a religion which was a mixture of Paganism and
Christianity. Such reports provoked strong reactions in France and
in Spain which led to the systematic destruction of the Basque
religion and culture. In this way
the Catholic Church was able to
reach the goal which the Romans and the Arabs had missed: full
control over the Basque people.
Altogether, 2000 people were first accused of witchcraft and then
executed: something like 50.000 people witnessed the trials, which
were public and held in open spaces to facilitate the audience.
Pope Gregory IX instituted papal Inquisition in 1231 against heresy.
In 1478 Pope Sixtus IV authorized the Spanish Inquisition to fight
Jewish and Moslem apostasy. In 1483 he nominated the person who
would organize the Inquisition in all the regions of Spain. This was
the great inquisitor Tomas de Torquemada.
A hunting season was declared against women, especially those that
gathered herbs, obstetricians, widows and spinsters. It has been
estimated that 9 million people, above all women, were burnt or
hanged in Europe at that time.
It appears that Franciscans participated in these trials against
witchcraft helping the gathering and the building up of proofs.
They were particularly busy spying potential witches and denouncing
them to the authorities. They tortured women obtaining from them
At Logrono many people were tortured until they admitted anything
they were ordered to say by the monks. It is recorded that one of
the tortured women, Mariquita de Atauri, after she had denounced
while being tortured, a great many innocent people she killed
herself by throwing herself in the river near her house and drowning
. When the Inquisition was established in 1231, it was the
Dominicans who were in charge of the organization and killing of
Inquisition and the
Dominicans concentrated themselves on the
Alps of northern Italy. The use of torture was officially authorized
by pope Innocent IV in 1252.
The Jesuits, many of whom were Basques like their founder Ignatius
de Loyola, don't seem to have taken part in the witch hunting but on
the contrary, it seems that they acted as mediators and translators
with the local population.
Maybe it was the Basque Jesuits who
defended their ancient language that was, together with the Basque
culture, one of the objectives of the Inquisition as it later was
that of Francisco Franco from 1930 onwards.
With the arrival of Christianity there also came the destruction of
much knowledge of various rituals and magical arts that were common
to all the valleys of Euskal Herria. Fortunately the Basques have a
strong oral tradition that is celebrated even today with songs and
competitions among storytellers. There is still a vast collection of
ancient myths and legends although many of them have never been
translated from Euskara.
According to the Basques there is a duality of beings and of worlds:
on the one side the natural world (berezko)
on the other the
supernatural one (aideko)
to operate in the first, one has to use
one enters the second through magic
magical means are many but they are all based on the ADUR, or
magical virtue, that links things with their representations.
Curses or birao are transmitted
thanks to adur, to the person or thing which is signaled: a
symbolic action towards an image emits its adur, that
operates at a distance. Names are sound images of things. According
to a popular Basque saying all that has a name exists "izena duen
gutzia omen da".
The main gods are Ortzi or Eguzki, the sun god, Ilargia or
Illargui, the moon goddess, Mari the earth goddess and Sugaar,
the god both of the earth and of the sky. Ortzi, also called Ost
or Eguzki, is the god of the sun, of the sky and of thunder
and is often compared to Jupiter, Zeus and Thor.
Ortzi, and its western equivalent Osti are the first elements in a
dozen words like "cloud storm", "thunder" and "dawn". For example
"rainbow" is Ortzadar (adar means horn) and "daylight"
is Orzargi (argi means light).
In many children rigmaroles there is mention of a female being,
scion of the earth (Lur). According to an old way of thinking, the
sun is born from the earth and goes back to it. It is believed that
sunlight is not liked by witches or by certain categories of Lamies,
as in a narration concerning a Lamia whose golden comb was stolen by
a shepherd. He was about to take it back when a ray of the rising
sun touched lightly the man's clothes .... "thank the sun" she told
him and retired in her cave.
Sun symbols are circles, swastikas, the flowers of thistles, very
frequent in Basque popular funerary art.
The dolmen culture with its dolmens oriented from east to west are a
proof of sun worship.
Unfortunately little remains of the god and of the myths and
knowledge of whatever ritual was celebrated to adore it.
The moon goddess Ilargia or Illargui appears in many myths and
legends. Because they are agriculturists and fishermen, the Basques
are very close to the moon cycles. Ilargia is the guardian of death;
lshe accompanies people on the way to the afterlife.
Ilargia regulates the world of the secret knowledge, of divination
Illargui like the sun, is of a feminine gender; when she
appears on the eastern mountains one says:
"Illargui amandrea, zeruan ze iberri?"
(Lady, mother moon, what news do you bring us?).
Friday is sacred to her in the same way
as Thursday is sacred to the sky. According to an old belief, the
moon is the light of the dead and to die with a waxing moon is
considered a good omen for the afterlife. Sun and moon are children
of the earth where they both go back after their run in the sky.
In traditional tales it is said that the face of the earth is
unlimited in all directions and whoever wants to explore its borders
is destined to fail. The earth contains treasures hidden in caves
and mountains that often cannot be found because there are no
precise indications useful to find them and also because menacing
genies intervene and terrify those who seek the treasures and force
them to abandon the search. It is the habitual dwelling of souls, of
divinities and of most mythical beings some of which take on the
likeness of bulls, horses, goats and other animals.
The mythical world of the Basques is peopled by genies or divinities
that take on the shape of animals or of half human beings who live
Among these one is particularly important. This is Mari, an
anthropomorphic goddess, one of the most ancient chthonic female
Mari's husband is Maju, who also appears as a snake or Sugaar.
Apparently they live separately. Mari lives on earth and Maju/Sugaar
in the sea. This is for a good reason. When Maju and Mari
meet they produce violent rain storms with hail, thunder and
A 16th century legend says that Mari is the founder of the
House of the Lords of Biscay.
The "Lady" or the "Dame", as Mari is often called, lives in the
regions of the deep, but also in grottoes and in precipices linked
with each other by subterranean conduits, Mari's shapes are diverse:
In the subterranean regions she takes on zoomorphic shapes
surface instead she appears as a very beautiful lady elegantly
dressed who is combing her hair with a golden comb
moves in the sky in a chariot drawn by horses or surrounded by
She also appears like a flaming tree, a
white cloud, a rainbow, a gust of wind, a bird, a sickle made of
fire, moving from one mountain peak to another
Mari sometimes drives across the
sky her chariot drawn by four white horses or she rides a
Like Persephone she is abducted by a bull. She
leads all subterranean genies. Sometimes she is not alone in her
dwelling but is surrounded by animal-genies or by young girls.
Many of her attributes are those characteristic of witches. A legend
narrates that Mari gave a piece of charcoal to one of her prisoners,
Catalina. The coal became pure gold. The goddess often changes her
dwelling place and for each of these places there is a corresponding
different character, as if the goddess was not one and the same but
a plurality of sister goddesses.
The caves where these live are often meeting places or witches
Akelarre. Like Mari, the witches have power over natural
The way the witches are called is Sorgin. Do witches exist?
"One cannot say that they exist, one cannot say that they do not
exist" according to a popular saying.
On the other hand the witches
themselves confirm their existence:
" No, we do not exist, yes we do
exist, we are fourteen thousand here", thus they answered some
women weavers at Eldauayen.
In many popular tales there is mention
of the abduction of people who disbelieved in them.
There are genie-witches and human-witches.
The first ones belong to Mari's cortege. They take on many of her
tasks and they build bridges and dolmen.
Men can also belong to the second category of witches but more often
they are women with a bad character whose interventions cause death
The witches often transform themselves into cats, sometimes into
dogs or rams and they very often move about from one place to the
other by smearing themselves with an ointment and reciting a phrase
"Sasi guztien ganeti eta odei
guztien aizpiti" ( Above all the thorns and through all the
Next to the subterranean and malevolent
genies there are some who are helpful (familiarrak), some
aquatic, rural, nocturnal, who fly, etc.
Between the world of the gods and that of man there is the Lord of
the Woods, the Basajaun. He is semi-divine and a strong,
hairy being with animal characteristics. Basajaun watches over the
forests and all wild creatures. He is a rural genie, the lord of the
woods or also the Wild Lord. He is considered to be the protector of
When comes a storm he shouts warnings to
the shepherds; he prevent wolves from approaching flocks. He is the
first to have cultivated the earth. Human beings obtained the right
to cultivate the earth when a man won a bet with Basajaun. He stole
the seeds that Basajun was sowing and he came back to his peoples to
teach them how to produce food.
The Lamie or Laminak have a particular importance. They are genies
with a human shape although they have chicken, duck or goat feet.
In the coastal areas they are women with the lower part of their
bodies in the shape of a fish. They are not of a specific sex,
although they are mostly female genies. Some legends describe them
as small people that live underground.
Caves are their dwellings but they can also live near puddles and
river pools. They are in the habit of spinning with a spindle and a
distaff, of building bridges, dolmen and houses.
Lamies often appear with a golden comb, they willingly accept
offerings left by men on the window sill of houses; they fall in
love and are loved by human beings. If people enter per chance in
their dwellings they greet them kindly unless they are intrusive. In
that case they abduct them.
The duplicity of their nature is obvious. They can be beneficiary or
They can become extremely violent with those they abduct. They can
drink their blood and also eat the flesh of their victims.
The cycle of the Lamies has many links with that of the witches or
that of the Gentiles.
There are other deities, spirits, semi-divine beings like Intxitxu,
the invisible spirit that builds the Cromlechs, the mysterious stone
circles in the mountains that surround Oiartzun. Irelu is a
subterranean spirit that abducts whoever disturbs it. Its mysterious
footprints can be seen near the caves of Armontaitz and Malkorburu.
If one climbs the mountain called Ubedi you can hear its singing
mixed with the sound of the wind.
Near the caves of Balzola and Montecristo lives Erensuge, a terrible
snake that attracts people with its breath only to devour
them. In the area of Albistur and Zegama one can be frightened by
the echo of strange laments and by some sheep nearby that is running
away. It is Basajun that announces its presence and warns shepherds
that a storm is about to come.
Near the caves of Santimamine, Sagastigorri and Covairadea, look for
a cow that is completely red, a calf or a bull with ferocious eyes.
It's Beigorri, the guardian of many of Mari's abodes.
This animal is represented in many of
the paintings found in the caves of this region.
Basques are attached to house cults, etxe. A home is not only
the place of origin but a temple and a cemetery, a symbol and a
common centre for the living and the dead of a family. The
"etxekandere" or lady of the house is the main priestess of domestic
cults and she performs some rituals inherent with frequenting the
dead and the training of living people.
These traditions bear witness to the great respect that Basques have
for female roles, so much so that at the time of the fueros
the choice of the heir would fall on the first born, boy or girl,
contrary to the feudal laws that gave this prerogative only to male
Before the arrival of Christianity the house was used as a family
burial place. Among the beliefs that are part of the religious
rituals there is that it is forbidden to turn around a house three
times. The Basque house was considered inviolable so much so that it
provided the right of refuge, and inalienable because it had to be
bequeathed whole and undivided to the members of a given family.
The souls of the dead were prayed to in the domestic cults, They
have a particular importance in Basque culture. According to a
widespread belief they appear in the shape of lightening, lights or
wind gusts, sometimes like shadows.
By night they often go back to
their etxe through subterranean passages.
According to tradition death does not break family links. The memory
of the dead lives in the magic rite of lighting thin candles, the
argizaiolak. The 1st of November is the day when the Winter
Festival begins. In places like Amezketa in Gipuzcoa the argizaiolak
light the tombs to keep alive the spirit of the dead.
The winter solstice has become part of the long Christmas
A character named Olentzero announces
this season and seems to have originated in some pre-Christian
rituals. He is described as a simple coalman who was the first to
hear the good news. Maybe he is what remains of a character that was
linked with the ceremony of the lighting of the fire in a remote
An interesting custom is that of "beating the Yule log ". The log is
brought to the house under a cloth blanket. The relatives and the
children say a prayer towards the log, then each of them beats the
log three times with a small branch. When the blanket is removed the
Yule log is exhibited together with candles and cakes.
The most important winter festival is Carnival. In many cities this
festivity is announced by strange processions during which the
participants are dressed like gypsies, a reminiscence of the time
when large tribes of gypsies used to come to the Basque carnivals.
In the province of Gipuzcoa the children of the two villages of
Amezketa and Abaltzisketa dance around all the houses to awaken the
generosity of their neighbors.
In the city of Lasarte-Oria the dance of
the witches 'Sorgin Dantza' is performed on the Sunday of Carnival..
While the ancient rituals of the winter solstice have almost
entirely been absorbed by Christianity, the traditions of the summer
solstice have remained strong and intact. The celebrations emphasize
the purification and the exaltation of summer and the sun. On the
night of the solstice practically in all the villages, city or farm,
a fire is lit.
In the countryside these can be seen on
the mountains and in front of the farms. In the towns they are lit
in the middle of squares or in a nearby field. A very popular custom
is that of jumping over the fire. In the country fires burning
branches are taken from the fire and dragged in the fields to cast
off any form of evil. The day after the summer solstice the markets
of the towns exhibit " lucky branches", pieces of wood that have not
been entirely burnt in the fires.
These are considered to be protective
This is only a brief research on a very old and little known
Tradition. There is much to learn concerning the mythology and the
magic-spiritual practices of the Basque peoples. They contain the
archetypes from which all the knowledge of the world has emerged.
Within the deep knowledge of this people it seems that are hidden
the keys to open the secret doors of all the world Traditions.
The genetic and ethnic-cultural constitution of the Basques, the
remote origin of their language that seems to stem directly from the
ancestral memory of the earth and possibly from words, sparks of
life fallen from the gods of heaven, allow us to perceive a remote
enchanted garden, beyond the barriers of time, inhabited by
fantastic and wonderful creatures.
The attempts at erasing the signs of the Great Origin have not been
capable of shadowing the intact consciousness of reality that
appears in the folds of a world as modern as it is unreal and
The Lamies of the Baia still sing their melodious whispers in the
gusts of winds coming from the ocean and Mari still travels in the
starry sky of the nights in Euskal Herria, with her flaming chariot
leaving behind her on the top of the mountains tokens of her love
for her wonderful kingdom.
And in the streets of the villages, in the countryside and in the
towns one can still hear the agonizing laments for a Peace that has
never been acquired and of a Freedom forever negated to the
Euskaldunak people, those that speak the Basque language.