One of the perennial figures of the Pyrenees, and indeed of many rural areas in general, is the pastoralist. The secrets of their folklore, traditions, and symbols of ownership are a treasure trove of information and still abound in various areas of the Pyrenees. Below we will briefly explore some of these traditional practises, cures and folk-beliefs, with a view to expanding on this subject in the near future, as time allows, for it is a fascinating one indeed! The vast majority of the information in this article is taken from the splendid book ‘La Vida Pastoral al Pallars’ by Ramon Violant I Simorra (Edicio d’Ignasi Ros I Fontana, 2001, in collaboration with the Ecomuseu de les Valls d’Àneu, which recently held an exhibition on Pyrenean witchcraft – see the Pyrennial Pyrenees Instagram account for details).
Livestock are vital to any rural community, where the rhythms of the year are measured in transhumance, births, and slaughter, and it is only natural that, as with so many other traditional roles, the shepherd and goatherd have built up a body of practises that are passed down from father to son, imbued with appeals to Saints, and the use of natural elements that recall deeper echoes of the past. For example, one general belief held by shepherds, found through the Pyrenees, was that in one hung up an oil lamp in the barn where sheep were kept overnight, then they would be afflicted with a strange malady. Somewhat more amusingly, the call of crickets was said to drive the sheep quite wild!
Berger des Pyrénées by Rosa Bonheur, 1864.
In Benés (Lleida), anyone lambing would make the sign of the cross on Good Friday, before eight in the morning, lest they be thrown to the ground and the sheep rendered infertile.
In Benavarri (Baixa Ribagorca), shepherds and goatherds, in order to preserve their sheep and goats from becoming angry or crazy, would hang an amulet made from three dried fish drilled in the middle and threaded with cord on the door of the animal corral, and this would act as a protective and sure that the corral (typically on the mountainside) would remain safe, and also that any cattle on the mountain would also be secure.
Many pastoral folk believed that breeding cattle cannot be given salt on either the Monday or the Friday of any given week, as on Monday their eyes would begin to hurt, and on Friday they would be driven crazy. In Espot (Lleida), the Friday is known as ‘damned Friday’ as it does not allow for salt to be given to the cattle, and if the animals are wet then this further prohibits them from being given salt, as the pastoralists believe this gives them swellings on the hide.
In this saline vein, shepherds refuse to give wounded sheep salt, as this would make them become infertile and refuse to mate! Also, any sheep who becomes pregnant on the Feast of St James will be certain to lamb on Christmas day, due to the five-month gestation period (Sarroca de Bellera).
A certain code of silence was held by the shepherds in the past in their traditional lore, and there is a record of this persisting until 1935, when in Sentis, a housewife refused to show a visitor the owner’s mark, brand or staff used by her husband, in case by showing these implements she somehow brought bad luck to the flock itself. The visitor was later told by someone in the same town that the flocks were often loved more deeply than some of the shepherds’ relatives and that this reticence and refusal to show the implements and marks of the trade was perfectly normal; just by touching it the flock on the mountainside could be afflicted! A comparison can be drawn to the cowherds of Asturias, who refuse to answer how many livestock they have, as they believe that this will curse the herd and many cattle will die.
Another untitled study of a Pyrenean shepherd by Rosa Bonheur, date unknown.
Bewitchment was a perpetual terror for any pastoralist, with many examples existing around the Pyrenees in which some drowsiness of sudden bout of illness was blamed on ‘the wicked art’. In the Vall de Cardós (Lleida), illness among cattle was often accorded to witchcraft, and similarly, in Avellanos (Lleida) malaria was often blamed on malefic influences and thought to be incurable unless some strong protective magic was utilised. In Son (Alt Àneu), deaths in livestock were thought to be directly related to witches’ curses, and shepherds passed the Holy Gospels over their flocks in an effort to counter any malign influence. In Farrera (Lleida), a shepherd is recorded as recounting that one winter in the mountains of Camarasa (La Noguera) many of the lambs in his flock died in the woods, and in an effort to protect the living ones he would rub a mixture of dried snake flesh, salt, and other secret condiments into their wool.
Lambing season would bring great joy, but also great pressure, stress, and fear to those for whom sheep were the foundation of their lives. When lambing, the shepherds of Benés (Lleida) would make a cross from two stems of grass and place it on the backs of the ewes, in amongst the wool, and this would ensure the smooth delivery of the lamb.
Popular shepherd lore in Pallars (Lleida) also dictated that when the clouds were seen to be threatening a great storm, the shepherds would take the stem of a dog rose (Rosa canina, a plant also popularly associated with the Virgin Mary in Medieval lore) and place it in their cape or cap, and this ‘amulet’ would protect against lightning. They would also take a sheep’s hide and attach it to the floor with their knife, in an effort to draw the lightning to that point, as the steel would act as a focal point for the storm.
These are but some of the tricks, traditions and beliefs of these men who dwelt so long in the Pyrenean mountains, not to mention the variety of sheep marks (i.e. denoting flock ownership), saint appeals and traditional remedies/amulets that would ward off evil influences and sickness, many of which will be documented by the Perennial Pyrenees project in time. In a land were livestock were the basis of life, the secrets and wisdom associated with their good health and fertility were of inestimable importance, and we will see that they do not die out, and in fact are brought to a wider, receptive audience!