Basque and mythology

From their ancestors settled in the Pyrenees long before the arrival of the Indo-European peoples, the Basques inherited a singular mythology.

At the beginning of the fifteenth century, Gaston Armand de Belsunce, son of the lord of Macaye, near Hasparren, sacrificed his life to rid the region of a three-headed hydra nicknamed Sugulna. She loved to eat young girls working in the fields. His lair was located in a cave, near the fountain of Lissague, on the current town of Saint-Pierre-d’Irube. Flanked by his squire, Belsunce goes up one day the banks of the Nive to the lair of the dragon, who attacks them immediately. Mortally wounded, Sugulna tries to get rid of the knight hanging on his side by diving into the river. The body-to-body, terrible, continues under the water, until calm finally returns. The next day, the villagers find the two bodies entwined at the bottom of the Nive. After a grand mass in the cathedral of Bayonne, the house of Belsunce is authorized by Charles III, King of Navarre, to add a dragon to his coat of arms. The village of Saint-Pierre takes, him, the Basque name of “Hiriburu”, which means “three heads”.

Basque mythology shows significant differences with those of the Greeks or Romans. Here, for example, there are no gods on Olympus, but mythical beings who mingle easily with humans through the airlock that is the caves and chasms. In this region where agropastoral civilization developed from the Neolithic era, a woman of great beauty embodies the main figure of the tempest, triggering storms and winds at will. Living in a cave in the mountains, the Lady of Anboto flies away in the summer in a trail of fire to other summits, announcing the storms that destroy the crops. To guard against it, you must shut it up in your home by means of conspiracy ceremonies. But beware of those who come in his absence! Prevented from returning home, she lets out her anger and causes hail storms for seven years, it is said on the side of Mount Murumendi, Gipuzkoa. Her husband, the serpent Herensuge, who also lives underground, is no less terrible. At Saint-Jean-de-Luz, it is believed to have seven heads and lurking under the Rhune. Crossing the sky like an inflamed scythe with the terrifying sound, he also announces the bad weather. Beliefs to be closer to the fires of St. John, annual meeting where we burned cross and brandish to call the clemency of the heavens before the harvest, according to Anuntxi Arana, author of Basque mythology. Gentiles and Christians.

Other stories give the Lady of Anboto a historical dimension. According to a legend of the fourteenth century, she was married to the lord Diego Lopez de Haro, founder of Bilbao, before fleeing with his daughter after her husband invoked before her “holy Mary”. A story that recalls the theme of the fairy Mélusine, very present in Poitou or Lorraine.

Strongly rooted in the popular spirit until the 1950s, the figure of the Lady is often superimposed on that of Mari, popularized by the work of the priest and anthropologist José Miguel de Barandiaran Ayerbe (1889-1991). The character gives rise to many interpretations, sometimes contradictory. Some want to see it as an incarnation of Mother Earth, coming directly from prehistory, which would support a matriarchal vision of Basque society. For its part, the Catholic Church has long played on the proximity of the name Mari with that of the Virgin to bring it into the bosom of the official religion. The cave of the “holy sweat”, or Harpeko Saindua, in Bidarray, in Lower Navarre, is a good example of this syncretic mechanism. The story is that of a young shepherdess turned into a stalactite. Guided by the light train of Mari, his father can only note his petrification. But rock oozes water that is beneficial for skin diseases. From then on, there is a cult, adoubé by the Church, which is perpetuated today.

Far more savage creatures haunt the forests and ravines of the interior of the Basque Country. The Gaueko – that of the night – chastises the boasters who venture into the darkness. Tartaro is a cruel, violent Cyclops … and cannibal, who evokes his Greek cousin The Odyssey as the ogres of Perrault. But the lord of the woods remains unquestionably Basajaun, the “wild man”, very popular on the side of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. This giant covered with hair, with a kaiku-shaped foot, the wooden container that is used to milk the sheep, utters creepy howls running the mountain. The shepherds fear him, even if he protects the herds from the attacks of wolves in the pastures. To attract his good graces, it is always better to leave him a part of the dinner.

A young cowher, who, unlike his friends, had been helpful to Basajaun Anxo, was thus rewarded with 101 beautiful heifers. In Saint-Sauveur d’Iraty, on the other hand, pilgrimages are organized to eradicate his presence. The giant, whose wife is Basandere, is ambivalent, like most of his peers in Basque mythology. A big difference with the Christian religion, where God is good and the devil fundamentally bad. Often even the giant is the victim of the cunning of humans, who steal the secret of wheat cultivation, or the technique of the saw or the mill.

This duplicity of men is also at the heart of legends featuring Lamina. Very connected to the underworld and water, they sometimes take the form of devils in the provinces of Soule and Basse-Navarre, sometimes pretty young women with webbed feet in more Western countries. The first, who are all called Gilen – “Guillaume” – know how to build complex buildings such as bridges, castles and churches in record time. To erect in one night the bridge of Licq-Athérey, which spans the Season, Lamina require the soul of a resident. Malicious, they then cast a spell on the roosters of the village so that they do not sing in the morning. But, while they had almost finished their work, here is a chick still in the egg pushes a cocorico! In spite, the accomplices let loose in the river the last stone which still misses today the work. An unfinished work that remains the characteristic of these funny builders.
The beautiful Lamina live, they, at the edge of streams, not far from the villages. At Saint-Pee-sur-Nivelle, they are said to be hidden under the old bridge of Utsalea. They smooth their long hair with a gold comb. A precious metal of which they would have large quantities, stored in the hill of Gaztelu, which shelters the prehistoric caves of Isturitz and Oxocelhaya. If they frequently ask for help from humans, for childbirth or death, these creatures are often disappointed, deceived or even martyred. The culprits are punished and their households, stricken with madness or sickness. Love between men and Lamina is almost always impossible. “These legends symbolize relations between neighbors: sometimes, we help each other, on other occasions, we fly,” says Anuntxi Arana. Which emphasizes: “In Biscay as in Guipuzcoa, people say that it was the firearms that drove Lamina and mythical beings.”

Evenings, where people gather to strip corn, for example, have long been the main vector for oral transmission of these legends. Especially since maids and valets from elsewhere – the integral birthright has long forced the cadets to leave the etxea, the family home – then take these stories to other valleys. At the fireside, grandfathers like to evoke the memory of the Gentiles, or “Jentilak” in Basque. Many caves, dolmens or cromlechs – these burials dating back to protohistory – remain associated with these very distant ancestors. These strong men, willingly builders, were sometimes accused of kidnapping girls. But the Gentiles – names that in the Bible designate pagans – would have chosen to fade away, or even commit suicide, at the arrival of Christianity, announced by a star or a mysterious cloud. This explains that they are also assimilated to the Moors, especially in the east of the Basque Country. In some interpretations, their disappearance would mark the end of a golden age in the Pyrenees, at which time the land and its inhabitants lived in harmony.

As elsewhere in France, the Christianization of the region has recycled many local myths, dressing Mari or the Lamina with beneficent or evil attires. On the other hand, the official religion has been pitiless with other extraordinary beings: the witches, those women supposed to draw supernatural powers from their relationship with the devil. Perfect scapegoats to explain all the misfortunes of the time. The caves of Zugarramurdi, in Navarre, were reputed to be one of their favorite haunts. In 1610, the Inquisition condemned ten inhabitants, including three men, at the stake. The year before had seen the so-called Pierre de Lancre, sent by Henry IV to the castle of Saint-Pee-sur-Nivelle, to visit the coastal villages where, it was said, sorcery was powerful. At the end of a judicial machination, political and commercial motivations, nearly a hundred women were burned alive. A trauma that is not a legend and remains deeply buried in the Basque imagination.