We return after passing some moons in hibernation, like the bear in Spring. Appropriately, below we will find a short treatise on the chthonic spirit Mari in Basque mythology, who emerges from her network of caverns for various malevolent and benevolent purposes, to wend her will on Pyrenean men and women!
Without a doubt, of all the archaic and mysterious plethora of spirits who haunt the forests and mountains of the Basque Country, it is Mari who can be described as one of the chief figures in Basque mythology and folklore. Mari has a husband, the snake Sugaar (described within a prior article on this site about Dragons), however, she takes many lovers. Beautifully dressed and easy on the eye, she dwells in caverns and caves within a series of mountains across the Basque Pyrenees, sometimes taking the form of an animal or a ball of fire as she moves from one subterranean lair to another. The scholar Julio Caro Baroja (2003) has described Mari as a ‘numen of the mountains’, linked especially to the sorgin or Basque witches. A highly interesting feature of Basque witchcraft appears to be an emphasis less on the Devil but rather on the numinous spirits of nature – this is a weighty topic destined for another article (and the forthcoming book)! However, it is worth mentioning that place-name evidence related to these sorgin within the Basque Country is numerous:
At present, there are numerous place names in the Basque Country and Navarre that refer to the Sorginak , such as Sorginaren Txabola ( Chabola de la Hechicera ) in Evillar (Alava), Dolmen de Sorginetxe ( witch’s house ) in Arrizala Agurain (Alava) or in Elbete Baztan ( Navarre), Sorginzubi ( Puente de la bruja ) in Abaurrea Alta (Navarre), etc.
(de Barandiarán Irízar, 1999, 75)
To return to Mari, she appears to holds a special fondness for storms, as demonstrated by her fondness for the storm spirits Odei and Itsai. She also has a strong link within Basque folklore to the control of local weather conditions, as pertaining to her proximity; de Barandiarán Irízar writes:
‘The people of Onati believed that the weather would be wet when she was in Anboto, and dry when she was in Alona. In Zeanuri, Biscay, they say that she would stay seven years in Anboto, then the next seven in a cave in Oiz called Supelegor. A similar legend in Olaeta, Biscay substitutes Gorbea for Supelegor.’
(de Barandiarán Irízar, 1999, 89)
Certainly, this connection between caves and weather is not unusual in the Basque Country, and in fact further lore connects this caverns to underground realms which are linked to the meteorological events on the surface of the earth:
‘It is also believed that there are vast regions inside the earth, where rivers of milk flow; but they are unreachable for men as long as they live on the surface. These regions are communicated with certain wells, pits and caves, like the well of Urbion, the pits of Okina and Albi, and the caves of Amboto, Muru and Txindoki. From such underground conduits come different weather events, mainly stormy clouds and strong winds’
(de Barandiarán Irízar, 1991, 36)
In the compendium ‘Serpent Songs’ (2014), one author and practitioner describes various aspects of Mari, including that rather than being a demoness, as presented by anthropologists, she should rather be seen as a ‘merging of opposites’, of both destruction and also becoming (Urbeltz, 2014, 32). She can present herself as a tree shooting forth flame, a bird-footed woman, a vulture, or a red woman holding a flaming sickle with snakes crawling around her feet, amongst other forms (Urbeltz, 2014, 33).
Figure 1. A stylised modern depiction of Mari in the manner of a mother goddess by Josu Goni. Image taken from https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/01/ Mari_euskal_jainkosa.jpg
Her caverns are said to be laden with offerings of gold in the form of precious objects, however in any which are stolen are turned to charcoal in the morning. These magical lairs are jealously guarded by Mari, one does not enter easily nor without permission. In fact, shepherds avoid building their hits near her caves in Supelegor (Uribe-Zelay, south of Bilbao), as through local lore she expresses her displeasure in their doing so, chasing one unfortunate shepherd whilst disguised as a raven, scaring him to death! With the proper respect however, it is possible to enter these cavernous sanctuaries without harm. A method of gaining entrance to one of Mari’s caverns is described thus:
‘When you find a cave where she resides you must address her respectfully before entering and offer water, wine and milk at the entrance, stating why you have sought her out. You must state that you are coming to her with no deceit in your heart, lest she strike you down and make you one with Ama Lur (the earth). You will then walk into the cave and bring to her milk, wine and water. When you leave the cave, you leave in the same way as you entered, meaning that if you entered walking forward you will leave walking backwards without turning around. You are forbidden to sit down in her presence and should either stand or kneel in such way that your buttocks are not touching the ground. You can than state the nature of your visit and wait for her response there or later in dreams.’
(Urbeltz, 2014, 36)
Figure 2. The cave of Mariurrika Kobea in Amboto, one of the principal dwelling places of Mari in Basque mythology. Photo taken from https://eusturandalucia.files.wordpress. com/2015/02/cueva-de-mari.jp
Whilst Mari punishes those who lie and thieve, she does possess a benevolent aspect, as indicated in the aforementioned ‘merging of opposites’. One story from the town of Amezketa tells of a cave in Mount Txindoki, where Mari lived with furniture wrought from gold. After disappearing for seven years, Mari returned accompanied by a large thunderstorm. A young girl called Kattalin was in the mountains with her flock, however at the end of the day while counting the sheep she realised that one was missing. Despite being warned by all the townsfolk not to approach the cave, she was desperate to find the missing sheep and so, steeling herself, walked up to the cave’s entrance. There was the sheep, and the most beautiful woman Kattelin had ever seen. This, of course, was Mari. Mari asked Kattelin her name and who she was, and Kattelin replied that she had no family and was the shepherd for a noble family. Mari told her that if she would spend seven years living with Mari in the cave and helping her, then Mari would make her rich. Kattelin accepted and spent seven years learning sewing, bread baking, the magical properties of local plants and even the secret language of animals. At the end of the seven years Mari gave her a large coalstone, which surprised the young girl as this was not what she had expected after all those years of servitude! However, when Kattelin reached the village, the coalstone had become a huge lump of gold, which allowed her to buy her own house and even her own flock of sheep, never needing to take orders from anybody ever again.
Another legend relates that due to the god of darkness, Gaueko, eating shepherds and sheep, the Basque people asked Mari for help, and so she gave them the light from her first daughter, Llargi, the moon, but this was insufficient, So, she also gave them the light of her second daughter, Eguzki, the sun. But even this was not enough to deter the antics of Gaueko. So she created the sunflower, Eguzkilore, which to this day is still used to keep evil spirits at bay. When crossing the threshold of a house and finding a sunflower, any nocturnal evil spirit will be compelled to count all the petals, and by the time it is finished the sun will have risen and dispelled it (de Barandiarán Irízar, 1991).
The figure of Mari survived well into the Christian era, and is still popular within local Basque folklore. It has been suggested that the etymological affinity with ‘Mary’ has helped in some way, which is certainly possible. More likely, however, is the deeply ingrained aspect in which Mari is connected with weather, caves and the night, all of which feature prominently in the Basque mythological corpus. So, if one walks in the Basque mountains and find a cave, have a care to approach with caution, for who knows what primordial lady might lie within!
Urbeltz, Arkaitz. ‘Lezekoak’ in Serpent Songs, (ed.) Nicholaj de Mattos Frisvold. Croydon: Scarlet Imprint, 2014.
de Barandiarán Irízar, Luis (ed.). A View From The Witch’s Cave: Folktales of The Pyrenees. Reno, NV: University of Nevada Press, 1991.
de Barandiaran, Jose Miguel. Materiales y Cuestionarios, Eusko-Folklore. Vitoria, 1921