Extract #5 – The Pyrenean Iron Age

Below is an extract from Chapter 1 of the forthcoming ‘Tears of Pyrene’ book. This chapter deals with the prehistory of the Pyrenees, ranging from Palaeolithic hunter-gathere communities to the latter Iberian tribes and the Roman presence. As always, endnotes here are presented as footnotes within the book itself!

The Iron Age


Pre-Roman Iron Age Iberia was a maelstrom of tribes from various cultural backgrounds, from Indo-European and ‘Celts’ to Basque, Aquitanians, Lusitanians, Iberians and a smattering of Greek and Phoenician settlements. From a miasma of proto-Celtic, Celtic (Celtiberian, Celitici and Gallaeci), proto-Basque/Aquitanian/Vasconic and Indo-European peoples that inhabited the Iberian Peninsula during the Bronze Age, those along the eastern and southern coasts begun to form a more cohesively identifiable culture (albeit within separate tribes) from the 6th century B.C., however the various developments and cultural evolutions that typify the Iberian peoples had begun during the Bronze Age. By this point, Phoenician and Greek influences had also crept in, due to the establishment of coastal settlements by these cultures in the 9th and 8th centuries B.C. respectively, due to trading links with Iberian populations.

During the Iron Age, the Pyrenees held a number of tribes which, although holding individual identities and varied gods, could be broadly divided into two linguistic camps; Iberian and Vasconic or Proto-Basque. The Pyrenean tribes whose languages can be broadly grouped under the Vasconic banner were the Vardulli, Vascones (the largest Vasconic tribe), and the Iacetani, and Iberian derived dialects were spoken by the Indigetes, Ceretani, Andosini, Ilergetes (the largest Iberian tribe in the area) and the Bergistani. Those within what is now Aragon and Castile mingled with Celtic groups, becoming what are now known as Celtiberians. The Vasconic linguistic group also include Aquitanian, a language that was spoken in what is now the Gascony area and parts of the northern Pyrenees, and together with Basque they represent the remnants of pre-Indo-European languages spoken in Western Europe.[1]  From here onwards in this chapter, the tribes of the Pyrenees will be described under the umbrella term of ‘Iberian’, with references to ‘proto-Basque’ cultures or tribes where appropriate.

Broadly, the lives of these Pyrenean tribes revolved around a reliance on agro-pastoralism, use of metallurgy and war-like exchanges with neighbouring tribes provided a common cultural base, heightened through trade and contact with Celtiberian/Celtic influences from further west in the Peninsula. Typically, these Iron Age Pyreneans would have lived within fortified settlements and villages, with tribal societal structures, and cremation was often the preferred method of disposing of the dead placing the ashes within urns that were in turn placed in stone tombs (many of which survive with inscriptions), under tumuli or beneath stone slabs, the latter especially within the proto-Basque context.[2] Society was largely structured and maintained through vassalage, which gave rise to a strongly martial culture amidst the various Iberian tribes, and it is reasonable to assume that the Pyrenees was no exception in this regard. Two main Palaeohispanic script types emerged, broadly categorized into the north-eastern and south-eastern variants, both with regional nuances, and evidence for the latter is heavily outweighed by the presence of the former on pottery sherds, coins, plaques, spindle-whorls, mosaics etc.[3]

The Iberians had long been trading with various Mediterranean cultures, as evidenced by the range of Iberian pottery found at archaeological sites in Italy, North Africa and France, demonstrated the adoption of Greek artistic techniques in some examples of statuary,[4] and aside from tin and copper, the Iberians around the Ebro valley opened large iron mines. Around the peninsula various locations become known for their artisan output such as Cabezo de Alcalá at Azaila, and the fortified city of Edeta, now Llíria, in Valencia.

The Proto-Basques during the Iron Age, prior to Romanisation, had also been developing complex societies along similar lines, cremating their dead, constructing villages and towns with comprehensive street patterns and fortifications, using metallurgy extensively in producing not only household objects but decorative items too, such as the bracelets, buttons and bowls.[5] One difference between these peoples and the Iberians was that although they cremated their dead, within the Pyrenean contexts they tended towards placing the ashes within tumuli, or a hollow encircled by stones, rather than a ceramic urn within a stone tomb.

A crucial influence within this period was that of the Romans, whose marks can be seen (amongst many areas) in the shifting and amalgamating of Pyrenean gods into a Classical mould or equivalency, the syncreticism of gods performing similar functions, as seen on numerous altar inscriptions, and this will be explored shortly, following an exceptionally brief sketch of the Carthaginian and Roman presence in Iberia.

Having established a presence in southern Iberia during the early-3rd century B.C., the Carthaginians further subjugated much of the eastern tribes through dominance and coercion, eventually reaching north of the Ebro River, furthering their trading power and the flow of Iberian mercenaries to Carthage. This dominance was abruptly brought to an end by the Second Punic War in the late-3rd century (sparked by the irrepressible Hannibal, of Alpine and elephant fame), in which the Roman Empire began to swiftly invade and dominate southern Iberian territories from the Carthaginians in reprisal. By 201 B.C. the Carthaginians had left the peninsula, and the Romans began establishing two major territories in Hispania: Citerior (Valencia, Catalonia and Aragon) and Ulterior (Andalusia). Between 220 and roughly 44 B.C., the Romans had laid claim to the majority of the Pyrenees, and their influence had been largely established in the daily lives of the tribes who lived there, not least in the gradual establishment of fortified Roman barracks through the range.[6]

For these tribes, the veneration of Pyrenean gods prior to the Roman presence (the Carthaginian aspect in the Pyrenes being, broadly speaking, minimal) occurred within open spaces, groves, caves, at springs etc., in a manner recognisable to many familiar with European pre-Christian practices. Greek and Phoenician influences can be identified within certain deities, due to trading contact with and settlements of these groups along the eastern Iberian coast. Picking apart the various deities and rites from Classical sources and archaeological sites is an unending task, not to mention the Hellenistic, Phoenician, Carthaginian and later Roman influences, and it is not the purpose of this book to provide an exhaustive account of Iberian and proto-Basque society, ritual and religion.[7] However, an summation of their known gods will be useful in establishing both the spiritual climate during Roman arrival, primarily identified (ironically) from Latin altar inscriptions, and the degree to which a synchronicity with Roman deities can be identified after the Empire’s domination of the area.

These Pyreneans mixed their prayers between their native Iberian Gods and the newly arrived Roman ones, in order to ensure their own protection, a spiritual hedging of bets was followed. It is important to note that throughout all Roman territories one of the fundamental (and indeed obligatory) cults was that of the Imperial Cult. The Imperial Cult was not exactly the deification of the reigning emperor, but rather the joint celebration of both Rome and the emperor. The latter was responsible for a perfect world, personified by Rome, where he reigned while peace existed both within the Empire and between gods and men. This allowed the Imperial Cult to exist (and be enforced) alongside local pantheons and imported Roman pantheons without excluding the veneration of other, native divinities.[8]

This contact between the local Pyrenean Gods and the Roman Pantheon brought about a mixing of divinities and a sort of assimilation. Local Pyrenean divinities, of which little is concretely known prior to the Roman presence, became hidden or amalgamated with their Roman counterparts under a Latin name. For example, the war god Leherennus became known as Leherennus Mars, particularly around the Ardiège commune (Haute-Garonne) where all inscriptions mention Leherennus in connection with Mars. Other gods emerged out of this melting pot, such as Fagus, a god of Beech trees, known from four inscriptions found in the Hautes-Pyrénées where there are numerous beech forests. Interestingly, this area’s language has been described as Proto-Basque rather than Celtic, whereas Fagus is the Latin term for Beech, indicating that he was likely renamed under a Latin term rather than his previous (currently unknown) indigenous epithet.

Sacaze was convinced that the Pyrenean being Tantugou held a similar role to the forest guardians of Roman myth.[9] In Luchonaisse (Haute-Garonne) mythology, Tantugou appears as a tall bearded old man, dressed in a hooded tunic with animal skins, and armed with a club – similar to the Aragonese Silvan figure across the border, whose name bears more than a hint of Latin influence. His role was typically to protect crops, flocks, and the secrets of nature, ensuring that no thieves of these things go unpunished. Tantugou is associated with the Gallo-Celtic god Sucellos, himself a bearded pastoral god who roams the land, cloaked in a hood.[10]

From inscriptions found across the Pyrenees, we know of at least forty-five names of Pyrenean deities that are present in the archaeological record, typically on funerary monuments and, most commonly, votive stone altars. A few, such as Xuban (found on an altar near Comminges and Arbas in Gascon territory in an inscription which refers to him as ‘God Xuban’) and Edelat (found in a single inscription on a votive altar in Benque, in the Haute-Garonne department, possibly a Latin name for a local god) occur only once. It has been suggested that Xuban may have been associated with a local mountain.[11] An inscription referring to ‘Dianae et Horolati et Garre deo’ has been found at the foot of the Gar mountain, with ‘Horolati’ possibly referring to an eponymous god of the Ore village, and ‘Garre’ referring possibly to a god of the local Gar mountain.[12] The village of Saint-Pe-d’Ardat has an inscription ‘Artehe deo’, which forms an interesting picture of the village’s name, which combines both its new patron St Pierre and its former, Arteh, another local god.

At Escugnau, in the Val d’Aran, one can find an inscription which is dedicated to Iluberrixo, whose name resembles many other Pyrenean deities (Iluro, Ilumber etc.) and some Pyrenean Roman towns (Illiberis which became Elne, Eliberis or Elimberris Auscorum which became Auch, etc.)[13] Does this point towards a broader Pyrenean divinity whose name adapted to local dialects yet fulfilled the same role, sharing the same etymological root? In this vein, we find more frequently represented deities in inscriptions, such as Baicorrix (otherwise known as Baigorisco, Baigorix or Buaioris, and possibly relating to a Behigorri, an underground Basque spirit or guardian), Ilun (again, possibly deriving from a Basque etymological construct relating to the evening, the moon or darkness), and Abellion (a deity related to sun worship and assimilated into the cult of Apollo with no less than eight recorded inscriptions). With regard to the latter, a carved ‘Cross of Beliou’ exists in the valley of Lesponne (Hautes-Pyrénées), and this stone altar is seen to be the most visible vestige of the cult. Another figure of note in the Pyrenean pantheon seems to be Ageio (or Ageion/Egeion), found in the Baronnies valley in the Hautes-Pyrénées. The inscription on his altar references the mountains, suggesting a strong link between the local peaks and his cult.[14]

The ‘Mask of Montserie’ is an excellent high end example of the material culture associated with these Pyrenean gods. Crafted from a single sheet of bronze, this mask found in the sanctuary of Montserie (Hautes-Pyrénées) portrays a bearded male deity. Dating is controversial, ranging from the 3rd century B.C. to the 2nd century A.D., and could represent either a votive offering or a standing representation of the divinity in question. At the same site (protohistoric & Gallo-Roman) were found statues of a wild cockerel, a boar, coins and votive stelae, the latter being dedicated to the god Erge. Dolmens still stand on the site, and allegedly the situation of the site (high altitude with impeccable views) allowed for the observation of the stars.

Some deities will no doubt exist to whom the votive altars must wish them to remain anonymous, being dedicated as many are to Montibus (the mountains) or fontibus (springs). Interestingly it seems that latter appears more frequently than the former, possibly influenced by the imported Roman cult of the nymphs, or possibly simply reflecting that age-old impulse to venerate the source of water, that gifts the ability to live.

Having examined some of the concretely pre-Christian elements of the Pyrenean peoples, from their Palaeolithic animist foundations through to more specified, named and divergent Iberian, Celtiberian and proto-Basque manifestations, it is now time to turn to the post-conversion landscape of the Pyrenees, with Christianity’s materialization and amalgamation with extant Pyrenean practices, and the turbulent histories of this mountain range. The Roman fall, Germanic tribes, Medieval crowns, witch crazes and the toll of ‘Enlightened’ belief await, heavily veined by rural practices and folklore that reaches back to the peoples explored in these previous pages. It is time to explore the years of anno Domini Pyrenees.


[1] Trask, Lawrence, The History of Basque (London: Routledge, 1997).

[2] Zapatero, 1997.

[3]  Rodríguez Ramos, Jesús, Análisis de Epigrafía Ibera (Vitoria-Gasteiz: Universidad del País Vasco, 2004).

[4] The Greek coined the term Iberians, writing in the 6th century B.C. when they referred to those tribes who lived south of the Ebro River as such. See: Harrison, Richard, Spain at the Dawn of History: Iberians, Phoenecians and Greeks (London: Thames & Hudson, 1988).

[5] An example of the latter was found in Eskoriatza, embossed in gold and dating from the 8th/7th centuries B.C. See: Ibabe, Enrike, Zemarika Herrikoia Gipuzkoan, Bertan Vol. 19, 2002.

[6] Cleary, Simon, Rome in the Pyrenees (London: Routledge, 2007).

[7] See: Ruiz, Arturo, and Moinos, Manuel, The Archaeology of the Iberians, Mary Turton (trans.) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998); Arribas, Antonio, The Iberians (London: Thames & Hudson, 1964). An excellent article on Romano-Celtic deities in the Iberian Peninsula (outside of the Pyrenees and the remit of this volume), can be found in: Simón, Francisco, Religion and Religious Practises of the Ancient Celts of the Iberian Peninsula, E-Keltoi, Vol. 6. Available here: https://www4.uwm.edu/celtic/ekeltoi/volumes/vol6/6_6/marco_simon_6_6.html

[8] For an analysis of the Imperial Cult, see: Brodd, Jeffrey, and Reed, Johnathon, Rome and Religion: A Cross-Disciplinary Dialogue on the Imperial Cult (Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 2011).

[9] Sacaze, Julien, Les Anciens Dieux des Pyrenees: Nomenclature et Distribution (Saint-Gaudens: Imprimerie et Librairie Abadie, 1885).

[10] de Marliave, Olivier & Pertuze, Jean-Claude, Pantheon Pyrénéen (Carbonne: Éditions Loubatieres, 1990).

[11] de Marliave, Olivier. Dictionnaire de Mythologies Basque et Pyrénéenne (Paris: Éditions Entente, 1993).

[12] Sacaze, 1885.

[13] Sacaze, 1885.

[14] Sacaze, 1885.

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