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 provinces: Bizkaia, Gipuzcoa, Araba and Navarra in Spain, Lupurdi, 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 words.
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 Erroas 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 their gods. Later on, the Roman armies that passed through Iberia reported to have been in contact with a population they called Vascones.
The advent of Kixmi
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 communities). However, the presence of groups of Christianised 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 religion.
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 aker, 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 Ouaskonous.
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 many.
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 practised 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 authorised the Spanish Inquisition to fight Jewish and Moslem apostasy. In 1483 he nominated the person who would organise 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 false confessions.
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 organisation and killing of heretics.
The Inquisition and the Dominicans concentrated themselves on the Alps of northern Italy. The use of torture was officially authorised 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 natural instruments, one enters the second through magic. The 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 signalled: 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 childrens 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 and magic.
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 inside caves.
Among these one is particularly important.This is Mari, an anthropomorphic goddess, one of the most ancient chthonic female deities.
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 lightening.
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, on the surface instead she appears as a very beautiful lady elegantly dressed who is combing her hair with a golden comb; sometimes she moves in the sky in a chariot drawn by horses or surrounded by flames. 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 white ram. 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 phenomena.
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 cortage. 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 or infirmity.
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 that says:"Sasi guztien ganeti eta odei guztien aizpiti" ( Above all the thorns and through all the clouds).
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 flocks. 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 malevolent.
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 descendants.
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 festivities. 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 past.
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 neighbours. 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 against fires.
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 ferocious.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.
By Carlo Barbera