Weekly Article #1.
The Witches of Engolasters
Witchcraft and the Pyrenees have long been linked in popular memory, not least due to the infamous Basque witch trials. The subject of witchcraft in the Pyrenees is far too large to be dealt with here, although it will certainly be a theme frequently revisited in this project due to its scope and survival in the historical and folkloric record. However, what with Perennial Pyrenees being based in Andorra, it is worth beginning in this vein by looking at the presence of witchcraft in the legends of this tiny Pyrenean country – these legends can be found in their original Catalan in the wonderful book ‘Llegendes d’Andorra’ by Alvar Valls and Rosa Carol (2010, Publications de l’Abadia de Montserrat). Legends abound throughout the Pyrenees of witches’ sabbaths being held at lonely spots throughout the mountains, and Andorra is no different, with its own sabbatical hotspot being located at Engolasters lake in the parish of Encamp (see photo, taken in midwinter).
Allegedly, on the night of Sant Joan (the summer solstice, when fires are lit and leapt over across Iberia) witches from all across the Pyrenees would gather at this lakeside and engage in frenzied ecstasies, calling up the Devil to adore and please him. Besides those from Andorra, they would come from places such as Canigo, Puigmal, Cadi and Lanos, Prior to the start of the ceremony, the witches would gather certain herbs so that they could create a magic potion that would enable them to cast all manner of spells. The Andorran witches would then take a short sleep with one eye open, while the Devil would swap their hearts from left to right and smear them with a maleficious ointment which would increase their breast size! At midnight all the witches would gather over the middle of the lake in three concentric circles surrounding the Devil, who had turned himself into a goat playing a flute and a drum. As the music and dancing became more and more frenzied, the witches would scream, drink their potions and celebrate the curses that they had released over their regions throughout the past year. Obviously this kind of activity did not go unnoticed, and some young Andorra men were keen to glimpse these witches, not least due to their voluptuous nature and nudity. Each year a handful would climb up to Engolasters lake, draped in laurel leaves so as to protect themselves from witchcraft, or so they thought. But each time they were caught before reaching the lake by witches set to guard the sabbath, who would hurl enchanted blades at them and turn them into black cats. The cats would in turn be strangely attracted by the smell of the dancing witches and cling to their backs, inadvertently participating in their devilish rites. Happily, the next morning after the witches had departed, these cats would turn back into young men, albeit naked and exhausted, without any recollection of the previous night’s activities.This type of legend is far from unique, involving the classic ingredients of concentric dances around a goat-like Devil, the flute and drum, the Midsummer Solstice and the onlookers who remember nothing the next day. However, it is not so common to come across enchanted blades and the onlookers participating in the dances, albeit as cats.
There are other indicators that, like much of the Pyrenees, Andorra is steeped in maleficious folklore.There are locations such as the Roc de la Bruixes (‘The Witches’ Rock’, see the previous post for a photo of the bizarre engravings). History and myth collide in the legend of the Witch of Fener, during which the village of Fener is buried by a landslide, the inhabitants walk to the parish of Escaldes, then a woman whom they saw returning to the ruined village to look for her money and they presumed had been killed during her search appears in Escaldes before them with a large bag of coins. The village of Sornas possesses an alleged long standing tradition of witchcraft, and above the village are rock carvings attributed to this practise. In valley of the River Os (St Julia parish), the nickname of the Llimois stream is ‘Gully of the Devils’. Perennial Pyrenees will be conducting far more detailed research on this area in the future, not just in Andorra but across the Pyrenees, cataloguing the legends, carvings and memories of these practises. This is merely an appetiser…