Book Extract #1 – Chapter Four: Witchcraft in the Pyrenees

 

Welcome to the first in a series of extracts from the forthcoming book. We begin with a sample from Chapter Four, which focuses on witchcraft in the Pyrenees. The full chapter consists of two lengthy parts, the first of which discusses the various aspects of Pyrenean witchcraft in a cultural and historical sense, and the second provides an extensive gazetteer of sites across the Pyrenees linked to witchcraft in local folklore. The extract below is taken from the first section, and discusses both the concept of the Pyrenean witch as a distinctive cultural entity and also some of the folkloric tools used to protect against her influence. It should also be noted that the notes in this extract appear as footnotes in the actual book, but for the sake of ease in terms of layout with WordPress they appear as endnotes here. Without further ado, read on…

 

Malefic Pyrenean Tendencies

The development of the ‘witch’ figure from a character who works magic, has a wealth of healing and herbal knowledge, and who is in contact with the spirit world into a figure in league with the Devil is not unique to the Pyrenees, but what concerns us here is this heritage and lineage within a Pyrenean context. An assertion that has been put forwarded is that the Pyrenean witch represents the first kind of witch, an ur-witch from which other witch-figures in Europe grew.[i] Whilst this is unsubstantiated at the time of writing, given the likely pre-Indo-European origins of the Basques, the prospect of their witch-figure in oral folklore (prior to the influx of non-Basque witch-lore from neighbouring territories) holding a deeply archaic character is certainly possible.[ii] There are however etymological elements that indicate the origins of the Pyrenean witch-figure occupying a more ethereal, or at least, non-corporal aspect, traces of which may be found lingering in later Medieval heresies around the Pyrenees. Castell writes:

 

‘The early mentions of the term bruxa documented in Catalan sources indicate a certain type of nocturnal spirit characterized by the crushing or suffocation of sleepers, especially newborn babies. This fact allows us to assume a so far unexplored etymology for this term by pointing to the Indo-European root *bhreus– “to smash, crush, break, crack”, which developed into the Old English brysan “to crush, bruise, pound” from Proto-Germanic *brusjanan, as well as into the Old French bruisier “to break, shatter” probably from Gaulish *brus– (Harper 2001).[iii] This same root could in fact be the origin of the Catalan bruxa, a nocturnal figure that crushed the sleepers, in a sense close to the Semitic kabus, the Latin succubus and the European variants of the *mahr type (Nightmare, Cauquemare).’ [iv]

 

This background of the bruxa as a lamia-esque figure, with close functional ties to the pesanta,[v] draws on the tradition of projection, astral travel and non-corporeal existence discussed by Lecouteux, who makes comparative links with pre-Christian concepts of the soul and its double found in Germanic, Norse and Celtic cultural contexts (i.e. the fylgja, the hamr, the hugr etc.)[vi] These are, of course, non-Pyrenean elements, however one interesting point made by Lecouteux which pertains in particular to the Pyrenees is that of the soul-concept held by the Cathar heresy. He refers to the Register of Bishop Jacques Fornier, director of the Inquisition at Palmiers, in which Fornier relates that the Cathars believed there were two spirits in man; one which stays permanently in the body during life and another which can come and go at will. Lecouteux writes:

‘The soul corresponds more or less to the vital principle, which explains the confusion of certain inhabitants of Montaillou, [vii] for whom “the soul means blood”. The spirit is close to the Greek daimôn and the Roman genius, but it joins with an individual only after his conversion to the faith preached by the perfecti. This is either a concession for Cathar dogma or an attempt to conform a folk belief to the local religion.’ [viii]

If Lecouteux is correct in his assertion that this theological element of the Cathar heresy was an attempt to co-opt an existing conception within local folklore or folk-belief of the dual spirit, or at least that the spirit could leave the body and wander at will, then this raises an interesting question as to the origin of this potential belief. The concept of the spirit temporarily leaving the body for a specific purpose is highly archaic, found in shamanic cultures and practises reaching back into our primordial history. The Catalan bruxa in its early context appears to be a spirit that engages in nocturnal activity, separate to the body it inhabits, if it inhabited a specific body. The Pyrenean witch, prior to gaining its diabolical trappings, may have been seen more as a malign spirit which conducted interplay between the spiritual and natural world, growing from the figure who would have acted as an intermediary between this world and others. [ix] [x] It must be emphasised that this is a speculative interpretation, but the Basque example may provide some substantiation to this theory. As has been mentioned above, the sorgina originated as a helper of the goddess Mari,[xi] with the ability to shapeshift, an attribute that is also commonly found within the shamanic figure, who is typically also able to send his spirit to other realms and consciousnesses at will. In Basque mythology, numerous numina or spirits live in all aspects of nature, and communication with them via a medium would have been crucial to the sociological wellbeing of a community. A tentative suggestion put forth here is that these attributes may form a link between the early pre-Christian and Christian concept of the ability of the soul to leave and travel, at least within the folk-belief of the Pyrenees, one which became concentrated in the witch-figure and then mutated into dream invasions and astral night flights to diabolical Sabbaths.

Protective Measures

In the second part of this chapter, we will explore some locations across the Pyrenees in which local lore and documentary evidence alleges that witches’ Sabbaths would take place, during which many believed that curses, spells and storms were created and dispersed across the landscape, usually with the Devil himself officiating in the form of a goat. What follows below are some protective measure that people would take (often in form of talismans or symbols) to insulate themselves against any malevolent malefic influences from these events, and from witches in general. In a study of signs found on village doors within the Aragonese Huesca region in the Pyrenees, many examples emerge of protective amulets designed to bar the intrusion of a witch’s influence or of demonic forces.[xii] In Ainsa, villagers would place small twigs from olive trees in the door knocker, or between cracks in the door itself, to protect both the house and any crops from bad storms conjured by witches, the pieces were especially powerful if blessed on Palm Sunday. In the same village, larger branches were thrust into the soil in fields to protect the crops from hail, and ears of barley were hung both in the arcades around the town square and from the eaves of private houses to scare witches.[xiii] [xiv] Puerto also alleges that boars’ feet nailed to doors formed a similar talismanic purpose, however, this may simply be a hunter’s trophy.[xv] Christian crosses are also found carved in the doorways of several houses in this village, forming a protected space within and a barrier to demonic forces. In Tella, found in the same region of Sobrarbe in Huesca, olive branches, sprigs of rosemary and or spruce, all blessed on Palm Sunday, would be placed in the fields to ward off storms and hail conjured by witches. In the village of San Juan de Plan, crosses made from stones would be put in chimneys, and from wood in kitchen hearths, to keep evil spirits and witches at bay. One door in Ansó, a village near Jaca, is described by Puerto as having a curiously ornate lock, the ironwork of which has a cross carved within it that catches and reflects the sun’s rays when struck by them, and is surrounded by snarling animals which have their backs to the cross. The owner of the house explained this as the cross actively repelling evil, represented by the beasts turned away from it, prohibiting any malign and devilish influences from entering the house. In Aragon, another form of protection known as espantabrujas (literally ‘hunting-witches’, or capsicol in Aragonese) took the form of a rock carved with an anthropomorphic face, often grimacing, placed on the chimney top.[xvi]

 

In the Cerdagne at Vallespir and Confluent (Pyrénées-Orientales) a similar expression can be found in the form of a cockerel on the roofs of village houses. One also finds roof tiles in this area that are painted with wheels, triangles and stars, to banish witches from flying nearby. In contrast, statuettes of owls (porta-xots) were mounted on roofs, intended to attract the favour of witches and demonstrating a folkloric link between owls and nocturnal spirits.[xvii] [xviii] In the Languedoc region that borders the French Pyrenean départements to the south-west, peasants would nail bats (which they termed the ‘flies of the Hell’) to the doors of their barns, accusing them of being connected to the Devil and witches’ Sabbaths. Fennel would also be used to counter evil and witch-based influences, sometimes being cut with golden scissors and placed in the form of a cross in beds, across doors, and even in holes dug in fields to protect against storms. The medals of Saint Benoît and Saint John the Evangalist, when worn in a small pouch, were considered very efficacious in repelling witches. On the feast day of St John (San Juan or Sant Joan in Spanish, Basque and Catalan regions), small crosses made from confectionary are still placed on door lintels to stop witches and evil spirits from entering. A more unusual example of protection can be found in Landes and the French Basque Country, where cow horns are hung above the fireplace to keep away witches, evil spirits and malign fairies (often called Hitilhères or Hitilleyres), and whose potency is maintained through offerings of slices of bread, apples and sweets. Salt, iron and horseshoes are also commonly used throughout the Pyrenees to keep malign influences at bay, and another interesting custom to keep witches at bay took place whilst relieving oneself outside, required spitting on either the urine or the right shoe before readjusting one’s dress.[xix]

 

Notes

[i] Castell cautiously writes that ‘Some authors have already insisted in the northern origin of the Iberian witch figure, born in the Pyrenean region and later adopted in other areas of the Peninsula.’: Castell, 2014, p. 91.

[ii] This will be briefly discussed shortly below.

[iii] Harper, Douglas. Online Etymology Dictionary. 2001-2013. Available here: http://www.etymonline.com

[iv] Castell, Pau, “Wine vat witches suffocate children”.The Mythical Components of the Iberian Witch, eHumanista Vol. 26, 2014, p. 90.

[v] The Pesanta is a large black hound in Catalan folklore that causes sleep paralysis.

[vi] Lecouteux, Claude, Witches Werewolves and Fairies: Shapeshifters and Astral Doubles in the Middle Ages, Clare Frock (trans.) (Vermont, VT: Inner Traditions, 2003).

[vii] A commune and village in the Ariège, and the subject of the classic microhistorical study: le Roy Ladurie, Emmanuel, Montaillou: Cathars and Catholics in a French Village 1294 – 1324, Barbara Bray (trans.) (London: Penguin Books, 1980).

[viii] Emphasis by author. Lecouteux, 2003, p. 59.

[ix] A further substantive point with regard to this theory is that the so many of the Pyrenean tales and folklore regarding witches focus on this nocturnal ‘envisioned’ aspect. Carreras Tort points out that the diabolical and devil-worshipping aspect of the Pyrenean witch appears to have been an elite-imposed idea (Carreras Tort, forthcoming 2020 & pers. comm.).

[x] Also worth mentioning are the benandanti of 16th– and 17th-century Italy, who would leave their bodies at night, meet other benandanti, and struggle against malevolent witches to ensure good harvests. They have been described as belonging to an agrarian visionary tradition, and were tried as heretics by the Inquisition. This phenomenon is dealt with exhaustively in: Ginzburg, Carlo, The Night Battles (New York, NY: Joh Hopkins University Press, 5th Edition, 1992). It would be interesting to investigate whether there was an equivalent within the Pyrenees.

[xi] Although it is possible that this is a romantic, later interpretation (Carreras Tort, forthcoming 2020 & pers. comm.).

[xii] Puerto, José Luis, Signos Protectores en las Puertas del Pirineo Aragonés, Revista de Folklore, Torno 10b, No. 120, 1990, pp. 189 -194.

[xiii] Villar Perez, Luis, et. al., Plantas Medicinales del Pirineo Aragonés y Demás Tierras Oscenses. Huesca: Diputación Provincial de Huesca, 1987), p. 122.

[xiv] These barley ears are also frequently combined with Rue, which has a protective aspect as will be seen in the case of Pedraforca in Chapter Five.

[xv] An Isard’s foot is nailed to a rural house in the Vall de Madriu Perafita Claror (UNESCO) in Andorra, and when asked the owner told the author that it was for ‘good luck against storms’, but would go into no further details.

[xvi] de Marliave, Olivier, Magie et Sorcellerie dans les Pyrénées (Bordeaux: Editions Sud Ouest, 2006), p. 90.

[xvii] This is briefly discussed in Chapter Five.

[xviii] de Marliave, 2006, pp. 90 – 91.

[xix] Dubourg, Jacques, Histoire des Sorcières et Sorciers dans le Sud-Ouest (Bordeaux: Éditions Sud Ouest, 2013), pp. 137 – 139.

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