Throughout the Pyrenees, one finds constant references and representations of giants, be they the Basque Jentilak and Mairuak, the mythological creators of the dolmens and megaliths throughout that land, the gigantic Prouzous family in the Hautes-Pyrénées, and the giant Ferragut slaughtered by Roland during the Battle of Roncesvalles Pass. In this article, we will explore these examples and more, tracing a mythology of giganticism and lost archaic races that once roamed the Pyrenees.
Beginning with two of the most well-known examples, that of the Jentilak and Mairuak, these Basque figures are deeply ingrained in the landscape of the Basque Country and the Navarre. Basajaun is without a doubt the most famous representative of this gigantic race, and can be seen as a Wild Man figure, as covered in a previous article (https://perennialpyrenees.com/2018/01/16/article-21-the-wild-men-of-the-pyrenees/). However, the Jentilak and Mairuak are more than simply this hoary Lord of the Forest. Speculation as to the etymological origins of the Jentil or Jentilak (plural) are wide, but primarily revolve around a corruption of the Latin gentilis or ‘gentile’, as an epithet to refer to the pre-Roman and pre-Christian peoples of the Basque region, much like the use of the term paganus which evolved from its original rustic reference to refer to pre-Christians in general. In the same way that Basajaun is said to have passed on the secret of agriculture, milling and metallurgy on to the Basques (potentially thereby acting as a folk-memorial embodiment of the arrival of these groundbreaking technologies to the Basque peoples – this will be discussed more deeply in a forthcoming article in the journal Viarany), the Jentilak were the first to cultivate crops, to forge and smith metal, and created the Basque game pelota. This aspect of being bearers of secret or lost wisdom may derive from their representation of pre-Christian peoples, as demonstrated in the legend of San Martin Txiki, where the latter steals the secrets of smithing and farming from them via his cunning is a very Loki-esque manner! The last attribute allegedly comes from their habit of throwing boulders at each other from mountain to mountain! Typically, they are depicted as covered in hair, carrying a huge staff or club, are possessed of enormous strength, and are frequently credited with the construction of the megalithic funerary monuments that litter the Basque Country and the Navarre. The Jentilak are said to have disappeared into the earth, beneath a dolmen within the Arratzeran valley (Navarre), when a star appeared in the sky announcing the birth of Christ. Only one, Olentzero, remained, evolving into a rural Christmas figure who would descend from his mountain on a horse, and roam the land leaving presents in peoples’ shoes (see https://perennialpyrenees.com/2017/12/19/article-20-christmas-customs-in-the-pyrenees/). The implications of this are discussed later in this article. Several of these megaliths and caverns are not only attributed to the hands of the Jentilaks, but also bear names referencing them, such as: Jentiletxe in Azania and Mutriku; Jentileio and Jentil Sukalde in Udiain; Jentillarri in Aralar; and Jentilzulo in Orozko.
A sketch of a mythical Jentil by Christian St Pierre.
Another region within the Pyrenees, or at least on their periphery, can be found in the Aude, with the legend of ‘The Menhir of the Giant Marre’ (Saint-Salvayre). The giant Marre was overtaken by boredom one day besides the Roquo de Broundo, and seeing as the menhir was but a pebble for him he decided to hurl it at the village of Alet, seven kilometres away. However, he overshot, and the menhir struck the top of the mountain of Saint-Salvayre and stuck fast. Here we see again the mixture of strength, the attribution of the location (if not the creation) of a prehistoric monument, and the practice of hurling large rocks for sport, similar to the Jentilak. Within Caunette-sur-Lauquet one finds the legend of the giants Brau and Bacou. Brau was enormously strong, yet fond of sleep, and Bacou found nothing more amusing than disturbing the sleep of his friend. One day, Bacou encouraged all the wolves in the region to howl themselves to death in order to, once again, disturb Brau’s repose. Enraged, Brau awoke and hurled a huge block of stone at Bacau, trapping him forever within his cave. When hot air blows across the region, it is said to be the breath of this entombed giant. Here again we find common elements, in the hurling of rocks, strength, and a gigantic origin for a natural phenomenon.
To the north-east, in the Bigorre and the Béarn, the Bécut is said to roam, a cyclopean giant that is said to herd cattle and sheep with golden horns, arousing the envy of the villagers in the valleys around. It is also said to hunt for Christians, which it will roast on a large open grill, and theories regarding the etymological origins of the Bécut are varied. It has been put forward that Bécut may derive from Vécût, itself deriving from vivre (Old French), the Latin vivo, and finally the Proto-Indo-European *gʷíh₃weti meaning ‘to be alive’, indicating that the meaning may derive from ‘those who lived’, an indication of Bécut referring to the concept of a past people, potentially from a pre-conversion era. Other theories involve the reference to a beak, or one who lives along in savagery. Jean-François Bladé in Les Tales populaires de la Gascogne reports three stories surrounding the Bécut, and parallels can be drawn to the Basque Tartaro and the Alpine Ulhart, both cyclopses who dwell in the mountains, alone and apart from civilization. There is a certain reference to the Classical Cyclops, as after capturing his Christian prisoners to roast alive he is frequently blinded in his eye by the prisoners escaping. Another example from the nearby Haute Pyrénées region, in the valley of Aventignan, is that of the giant Gargan, who lived in a cave. It has been suggested that Gargan derives from the Celto-Gallic, meaning quite literally ‘giant’, or from the French term gargantuan.
A charming depiction of the Bécut, artist unknown. Taken from: http://cfmradio.fr/podcast/le-becut/
Across the border in the Val d’Aran another giant memory is preserved, that of the giant of Garòs. Interestingly, the local lore surrounding this giant is that it was, in fact, Mandronius the Giant, who fought against the Romans at Betlan. He spent his days living in a cave in the area and, when combatting the Imperial Army, he invaded their camp to rescue his wife and daughter after the Romans captured them. He freed them but was captured himself, and eventually killed by an enormous nail that was driven into his skull. Legend has it that his pierced skull was kept within the church tower in Garòs as a relic, which was believed to have the power to heal and strengthen children. It is alleged that, in the early 20th century, a potato farmer was digging in a field outside the town, and found a skeleton that displayed obvious signs of giganticism, yet the presence of a hole in the skull of the nail is unreported.
The figure of Ferragut is, on the contrary, a far from native giant to the Pyrenees, featuring in the Matter of France (another name for this text is The Carolingian Cycle, a set of literary and historical texts that deal with the Carolingian era and Charlemagne’s exploits. Deriving from the Old French Chansons de Geste, by the early 13th century it had been divided into three distinct cycles by Bertrand de Bar-sur-Aube). As with the transformation of the Battle for Roncesvalles pass, in which Basque fighters ambushed Charlemagne’s forces in revenge for his sacking of Pamplona, into a fight between Moorish and Christian forces in which the archetypal knight Roland (originally a general in Charlemagne’s army) is killed, Ferragut is portrayed as a superhuman giant of Saracen origin. In a nod to Classical literature, specifically that of Achilles, he is only defeated with a spear thrust to the navel, being otherwise impervious to arrows, swords or spears, standing twelve cubits tall with the strength of forty men. The featuring of Ferragut in this article is not to illustrate the giant within native Pyrenean belief, but rather as an example of the influence of Classical themes and literature on legends and tales that sprung up surrounding actual Pyrenean events.
Various representations of Ferragut in Medieval manuscripts. Taken from: https://www.sasua.net/estella/articulo.asp?f=roldan&n=Roldán%20y%20Ferragut
Moving forward into the 18th century, one finds a historical example of gigantism, that of a family in Luz (Haute Pyrénées) which were recorded as being around eight feet high each. The engineer François Pasumot in his Voyages Physiques dans le Pyrénées 1788 et 1789 mentions that the locals referred to this family as Prouzous or ‘Great Men’, all being buried within the local cemetery. The last of this line was a man whose death certificate recorded him as being 109 years old, and who was known as Barrigue. The author also noted that the size of the men in this family was famously repugnant to local girls (although obviously not sufficiently to cancel the line out in its origins). In his 1977 book Guide des Pyrénées Mystérieuses, Bernard Duhourcan discusses this account, supplementing it with a report by a local priest written in 1777, which reports that a clavicle taken from one of the graves measured twelve inches, and a shin bone measured twenty to twenty-four inches in length. Clearly, whilst giants were a feature of myth and legend in the Pyrenees, real-life examples of gigantism such as these would have done little to dispel their tenacity in local folklore.
Giants often have characteristics that encompass aspects such as chaos, primordialism, elements of ‘the wild’, arcane or archaic knowledge and vast capacities for strength. Belief in them often seems to surge from the Medieval period onwards, and it could be posited that they represent in the popular folk-consciousness a form of ‘other’ that symbolizes the distant past of a people. Whilst they are often feared, they are also usually held in some manner of respect, which is possibly an echo of their older forms as revered spirits or gods that held some aspect of nature. This ‘othering’, often with depictions and descriptions as wild, bestial creatures living in marginal landscapes (peaks, caves, forests etc.) could be a socio-cultural process of placing a pre- and post-Christian equation on a people or its belief-culture, with the giant forming a symbol of older figures of reverence that are often seen as in conflict with the current society, principally through folktales of livestock theft, confrontations and glimpses within the wild. In the case of the Pyrenees, this link to megalithic monuments, for example, ties them to the peoples and cultures that they live outside of, which when considered in conjunction with their intimate knowledge of ‘nature’s secrets’ may render Pyrenean giants as both representations of nature and as longue durée symbols of cultural history. Witch activity too is also typically associated with prehistoric monuments, the witch also functioning as an ‘other’ that is both feared and revered and also privy to secrets outside of daily experience. The confrontations between the giant (and the witch) with normal society can be seen as an analogy, especially within the Basque context, of the conflict and transition from a generally pre-Christian to a ‘converted’ populace, albeit one within which many pre-Christian spirits and deities became subsumed into a large well of folklore that continues to hold power today. An example is found in the above mentioned Olentzero, who as the last representative of the Jentilak race, became integrated and almost a representative of the Christmas period, swapping boulder hurling for the distribution of gifts, however, he is still represented as living on a mountain far from human interference for the majority of the year; in short, he is still ‘the other’.