‘BOUNTIFUL BORDERLANDS’ EXTRACT #4: CHAPTER FOUR ‘HAMMER & TONGS: THE MINER, SMELTER & SMITH’

‘We now turn to the figure of the blacksmith, in terms of his industrial, social and folkloric role within the Pyrenees.[1] By and large, the Pyrenean blacksmith used a bellows driven forge, anvil and a handheld hammer, in contrast to the water driven sledgehammers found in many local forges, and was responsible for a myriad of ironmongery. These ranged from highly practical services such as the reparation of agricultural tools, shoeing horses (both making and fitting the ‘shoes’ and seeing to any hoof related ailments), making domestic implements such as pots or griddles, shepherd tools such as wolf traps, dog collars protective against bear attacks, shears etc., and of course, weaponry, through to ornamental products, such as the wrought iron gates within churches and the Estripagecs (‘jacket strippers’) found in so many traditional rural houses and huts across the (primarily Catalan and Andorran) Pyrenees. The latter are flat metal bars cut along their length to make curved spikes which protrude from their sides. They are fixed in window frames and designed to tear (or ‘strip’) the clothing of any thief trying to gain access, particularly their jackets (‘gecs’).

Depending upon the region, the village blacksmith was either completely independent, taking on business as and when, or under defined obligations from the community (and/or feudal lord) to fulfil certain tasks for free. Testimonies from the 14th and 15th centuries indicate that, for example, in Comminges (Gascony) and Vicdessos (Ariège) the blacksmith was obliged to repair agricultural equipment, in Foix (Ariège) he had to sharpen tools,[2] and between the 15th and 19th centuries in Andorra the blacksmith was forced to have certain fixed prices in order to gain exclusive labour rights within the village community.[3] The blacksmith was thus a vital figure within the community who fulfilled a multifaceted role of smith, hoof doctor, mechanic and public servant, deeply tied into the social contract of give and take that held rural life together.[4]

Curiously the Pyrenees, in general, has a lack of recorded folklore attributed to the smithy, however the very word ‘recorded’ may explain this, as oral transmission would have been the primary method of keeping knowledge and traditions alive, and perhaps guarding certain elements from public discourse. This is particularly seen in evidence from the Basque Country, in which a very deep-time signature of ‘smith-magic’ can be detected, and given the movement across the Pyrenees by Basque peoples (detected by various toponym examples, even as far down as Andorra),[5] it is possible that such concepts were spread across the valleys orally. However, aside from such speculation, let us briefly examine Basque smithing in its context.[6]

The figure of Basajaun is a popular one in Basque folklore and mythology, being most commonly portrayed as a wild, huge and hairy figure who acts as a protector both of the forests and flocks which graze there. He is also attributed as being the first miller and the first blacksmith, from whom the secret of the forge was stolen by Martin Txiki (or San Martinico), particularly the technique of making a saw, and also soldering iron:

Thanks equally to the use of a trick, San Martinico managed to steal from the baxajaun (from the devil according to other versions) the secret of the making of the saw, the soldering of iron, and the axle of the mill wheel. The baxajaun was making the saw, according to a certain legend from the region of Oyarzun (Oiartzun); San Martinico could not do it because he lacked a model for it. Wanting to know the secret, he sent a servant to announce in the town that San Martinico had constructed a saw. On hearing this, the baxajaun asked him, “Has your master seen the leaf of the chestnut tree?” “He hasn’t seen it but he will,” answered the servant, who later told San Martinico what had happened. This is how the technique for making the saw was spread throughout the world. With the same trick, San Martinico succeeded in learning how the baxajaun soldered two pieces of iron together, according to a legend from Cortézubi (Kortezubi). He ordered the herald to announce that he had discovered the process for soldering iron. The baxajaun asked the herald, “Did San Martinico sprinkle the pieces of iron with water from potter’s clay?” “He didn’t, but he will,” was the reply. And as a consequence of this new secret stolen from Baxajaun or the devil, the technique of soldering iron was spread throughout the world.[7]

Martin is also responsible for stealing the secrets of wheat cultivation, water-mill construction and welding from Basajaun; in the case of the latter the Basajaun gave away the trick of sprinkling clay water upon the pieces of iron. This relates to the technique of using a clay suspension in the water during soldering.

Whilst the Basajaun is famous beyond the Basque borders, Martin Txiki is less well known, yet just as crucial to the world of the Basque smithy. The origins of Martin are tangled, yet offer tantalising clues of a ‘character’ in whom many aspects are married. Archetypal Promethean aspects can be detected, in stealing vital secrets from the divine so that man might thrive, and also a Puckish or Loki-esque trickster element in his manner of fooling the Basajaun into revealing these secrets. One theory revolves around the possibility of Martin (and other Basque ‘cunning-men’ figures) being an echo in the folk-consciousness of travelling Celtiberian healers from the Moncavo area, in particular the region now known as San Martín de la Virgen de Moncavo, whom may have treated people with tools made from bronze, iron and copper. This is, however, a very difficult theory to square with the presence of Basque metallurgy sites in the archaeological record, which seem to co-exist chronologically with those of other cultures sharing the same mountain range; unless the perceived healing properties of these metals were unknown to the Vascons.[8] Folk-etymology and origin stories are both difficult to unpick and determine their definitive sources, allowing much speculative theorising; however, this one is so particular that it seems worthy of inclusion here.

Another aspect of Martin is in his saintly guise, Saint Martin (San Martín), one of whose symbols is the horseshoe, which also happens to be a traditional stock-in-trade of the blacksmith. This symbol was used for Saint Martin because of his horse, from which he gave a beggar half of his cloak. We also see an echoed link between the blacksmith and the horse, whose hooves he was qualified to care for should a horse be lame. A curious feature of this saint can also be found in Polish folklore; during his feast-day (11th November) horseshoe shaped biscuits are baked for his white horse, who would come riding through the snow when least expected.[9] Clearly Saint Martin’s horse is a large feature in his folkloric presence, and if extrapolated both to blacksmiths and general Basque lore we may find two things. Firstly, the role of the horse in Basque folklore is potent, particularly in a white or ghostly context. The Ireluak are spirits or genius loci, which in some cases are said to take the form of a white horse, such as at the cave of Laxarrigibel near Soule (Pyrénées-Atlantiques), and the Zamari Zuria is a white headless horse that portents death when seen.[10] Could it be that these figures have merged with Saint Martin’s horse in the folkloric/mythic record over the centuries, thereby instilling the horse both in the Basque spirit landscape and also in the link between the blacksmith and the horse? Another aspect is the (albeit tangential) similarity in the Basque smith’s relationship with horse via the Saint Martin/Martin Txiki motif, and two groups of rural specialists in rural Britain; the Society of the Horseman’s Word in Scotland, and the ‘Toadmen’ of East Anglia.

Both were comprised of rural workers and ‘cunning-men’, and both of whom claimed to exercise unusual and ‘magical’ powers over horses, albeit via different methods, but both held blacksmiths in their ranks. The Society of the Horseman’s Word was a 19th-century fraternal secret society spread throughout Scotland and eastern England which focussed on the labour protection of its members (those who worked draft-horses), guarding the secrets of horse-control (many were known as ‘horse-whisperers’) and the ‘horseman’s word’, which would grant this control. Initiation ceremonies typically took place at night in barns or stables, and were presided over by the ‘High Horseman’ who held a goat’s hoof in one hand, during which various oaths were spoken.[11] [12] The ‘Toadmen’ were individuals in East Anglia who allegedly made a deal with the Devil in order to gain control over horses via a very specific rite, recorded in an interview with a Norfolk horseman, born in 1886:

Well, the toads that we used for this are actually in the Yarmouth area in an around Fritton. We get these toads alive and bring them home. They have a ring around their neck and are what they call walking toads. We bring them home, kill them, and put them on a whitethorn bush; They are there for twenty four hours ‘till they dry. Then we bury the toad in an ant-hill; and it’s there for a full month, ‘till the moon is at the full. Then you get it out; and it’s only a skeleton. You take it down to a running stream when the moon is at the full. You watch it carefully, particular not to take your eyes off it. There’s a certain bone, a little crotch bone it is, it leaves the rest of the skeleton and floats uphill against the stream, take it home, bake it, powder it and put it in a box.[13]

Whilst there seems to be no documentary evidence for a similar rite among blacksmiths in the Basque Country, there are elements which stand out; namely, the affinity (both practical and folkloric/magical) with horses, and also the importance of the toad, which held a special place in the eyes of the Devil in Basque witchcraft, and also features in the following legend:

On a number of occasions, someone asked advice of Mari and her predictions turned out to be accurate and beneficial. Thus, the ironmonger of Iraeta saw that his foundry was not working and presented himself to Mari in the cave of Amboto. She explained the cause and the remedy for the malfunction, and the ironmonger was able to get his factory working again. A similar case occurred in the foundry of Zubillaga, and thanks to the oracle of Amboto, production was able to start up again.[14]

In at least one of these cases the problem was the presence of a toad under the anvil; this may have been preventing the proper functioning of the forge due to some mal-intent on behalf of the toad, or it may have been due to the toad’s protection from any harm from the hammering etc., due to his status in Basque witchcraft.[15]

The Devil, too, forms a link with the blacksmith in Basque folklore; at least in the folkloric sense than the Judeo-Christian ‘Devil’. We can read a very famous legend, ‘The Devil and the Blacksmith’, which is widespread throughout Europe and finds its own Basque rendition. Broadly speaking, a smith enters into a pact with the Devil in order to gain wealth and superior smithing skills, in exchange for his soul. When the Devil returns years later to keep the bargain, the smith tricks him into captivity, only freeing him when the Devil reneges on his bargain.[16] However there is another ‘devilish’ figure associated with the Basque blacksmith whose origin lies far beyond the Devil; that of Aatxe or Etsai, the latter term dating to the early 16th century and meaning ‘enemy’ or ‘adversary’.[17] Aatxe can appear in various forms, particularly a red bull, a man, a goat or a horse (zaldi), and is said to be a representative of the Basque arch-goddess Mari, inhabiting caves and hollows; this also ties in with the theme of the blacksmith visiting Mari for advice on the malfunction of his forge.[18]

When talking of Mari it impossible to ignore her consort, Sugaar, a serpentine figure which in many instances of Basque folklore embodies lightening and, crucially, fire. Sugaar was a ‘divinity’[19] that was, and is, bound to blacksmith fraternities and guilds in the Basque Country; one which challenged both one’s wit and skill, just like the iron worked in the forge. Much in Basque folklore links the two, however there is one tale in particular that illustrates the bond between the smith and the ‘serpent’ Sugaar. If Sugaar wished to put his skills to the test, he would ask a fox[20] to present him with a challenge. The fox would invariably direct Sugaar towards a forge, to test his strength against the resident blacksmith. In one case, the smith asked Sugaar to wait a while, during which the smith placed his tongs in the fire and then suddenly grasped the serpent by his head; Sugaar cried out in pain, and begged for his life, after which the smith, perhaps recognising him for his supernatural form, let him go, despite Sugaar vowing revenge. It is important to realise that Sugaar relates, via his lightening connection, to the element of fire, and this is obviously of fundamental importance to the smith. It is perhaps possible, too, that the smith’s work which involves all four elements renders him, in folklore, well acquainted with the supernatural, and thus recognised Sugaar for himself and the test he proffered, to which some terrible end might result for the loser. [21]

We also see the 19th century Basque intellectual Agosti Xaho attributing the ancestry of the Basques to Tubal Cain, the ‘first blacksmith’ in Biblical chronology, claiming that his descendant Aitor was the first common Basque patriarch.[22] Whilst on the surface this might be considered part of a European fanciful 19th century tradition of ascribing biblical origins to an ancestor group, usually to deepen its legitimacy, we see in this example something far more interesting and potent. Within traditional Basque culture, the blacksmith held a deep current of connection with both the land and the supernatural, and even today many of his secrets are communicated only within family groups and guilds, much like with other fraternal societies, including those mentioned above. Thus, the Basque forge was likely a place of mystery, along with communal service, and even the forging of such a seemingly ‘mundane’ item (to outsiders) as pot hooks by Basque smiths would have been a highly-charged process, given its symbolism within Basque households:

The pot hook, like the hearth, is in some cases a symbol representing the house: the coals deposited beneath the boundary stones of a plot of land represent the limit of the property belonging to the house; when a cat is brought to the house as a purchase or gift, they walk it around the pothook in the kitchen three times so it won’t run away to look for a different place to live. Servants do this as well when they first come to work in the house, according to a custom in Liguinaga. [23]

Given the nature of the work carried out by miners and blacksmiths across the Pyrenees, not to mention the trade secrets which kept their livelihood impervious to ‘outsiders’, such as the behaviour of the miners of Raincie, it seems probable that, even though they were often obliged to serve the community maintaining tools etc., their role in the village did not detract from their ‘otherness’ and secrecy, not to mention an aura of magic.

There are other folkloric instances of iron being used in protective or magical contexts in the Pyrenees. In the 17th century, it was recorded that in the Navarre, it was customary to stick iron pins or needles in a specific tree ‘belonging to the church of Saint Christopher, situated on a high mountain above the city of Pampeluna [sic].’[24] In Luchon (Haute-Garonne), an iron axe was carried into the yard to protect against lightening and hail, lain edge upwards against the house’s threshold, and should lightning strike ‘the spot was visited and an attempt was made to dig out the thunderstone; if it was not to be found, the place was marked, as the thunderstone comes up to the surface after seven years and can then easily be found. The thunderstone protects the house against lightning and brings good luck.[25] [26] We also see these themes in Basque folklore:

Certain names for lightning, such as oneztarri, tximistarri, and ozpinarri (probably ozkar, ozkarri, and inhar, as well) which mean “lightning stone,” correspond to an ancient myth known widely in European countries in which lightning is a special stone (Neolithic axe, knife, or point of flint) that sinks down to the depth of seven states or levels upon falling to the earth. After seven years it slowly begins to rise one state per year until after seven years it reaches the surface. From then on it protects the house where it is found against evil spirits or Aide-Gaizto, which is lightning itself. This myth includes the Indo-European idea of Thor’s hammer and Jupiter’s arrows. In some places in the Basque Country, however, it is thought that lightning is made of bronze; in others they say it is made of iron. The current custom of placing steel axes with the sharp edge facing upward on thresholds during storms in order to protect houses from lightning derives from the veneration of the stone axe and belief in its supernatural powers. Before the discovery of steel axes, those made of bronze must have served the same function: in the entrance to the cave of Zabalaitz (in the mountains of Aizkorri), an axe from the bronze age was found stuck in the floor of the cave with the blade facing up. [27]

It is also possible to see the use of iron horse shoes as wards against evil and protectors against storms on the doors of various Pyrenean huts and houses, however specific reference to this in the context of the Pyrenees is lacking in the available literature.[28]


[1] An excellent French resource on blacksmiths, which is sadly difficult to obtain is: Jean-Dupont, Claude, L’Artisan Forgeron Quebec: Les Presses de l’Université Laval, 1979).

[2] Verna, Catherine, ‘Forgerons de Village: Quelques Témoignages Béarnais des XIve et XIe Siècles’ in L’Artisan au Village: Dans l’Europe Médiévale et Moderne, Mireille Mousnier (Ed.) (Toulouse: Presses Universitaires du Midi, 2000). Available here: https://books.openedition.org/pumi/24131

[3] Bosch, 2004, p. 11.

[4] For a microcosmic example of Pyrenean village socio-economics, featuring the blacksmith, see: Bonnain, Roland, ‘Household Mind and the Ecology of the Central Pyrenees in the 19th Century: Fathers, Sons, and Collective Landed Property’, History of the Family, Vol. 10, 2005, pp. 249 – 270.

[5] An example is the village Aixovall, which roughly translates to ‘valley valley’ using two difference Basque words for ‘valley’.

[6] My thanks here to María Martínez Pisón, an expert in Basque ethnography and a practitioner of Basque traditional ways, for her insights and information: Martínez Pisón, María, 2020, pers. comms.

[7] de Barandiarán, José, Selected Writings of José Miguel de Barandiarán (Reno, NV: University of Nevada, 2007), p. 131. Available here: https://scholarworks.unr.edu/bitstream/handle/11714/750/Barandiaran_SelectedWritings.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

[8] This theory is not supported by any reference.

[9] Taylor, Demetria, The Cook’s Blessings (New York, NY: Random House, 1965).

[10] de Marliave, Olivier, Trésor de la Mythologie Pyrénéen (Bordeaux: Éditions Sud-Ouest, 2005).

[11] Neat, Timothy, The Horseman’s Word: Blacksmiths and Horsemanship in Twentieth-Century Scotland. Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2002), p. 53.

[12] An excellent account of this society can be found in: Fernee, Ben, The Society of the Horseman’s Word (Hinckley: The Society of Esoteric Endeavour, 2009).

[13] Evans, George, The Pattern Under the Plough (London: Faber & Faber, 1967), quoted in Pearson, Nigel The Devil’s Plantation: East Anglian Lore, Witchcraft and Folk-Magic (London: Troy Books, 2015), pp. 123 – 124.

[14] de Barandiarán, 2007, p. 103.

[15] de Marliave, Olivier, Magie et Sorciellerie dans les Pyrénées (Bordeaux: Éditions, Sud Ouest, 2006), p. 111.

[16] In the 2007 Basque film Errementari, based upon the local version of this tale, the blacksmith tortures the Devil in revenge for all his troubles. I have been unable to verify if this is in the original Basque tale.

[17] Martínez Pisón, 2020, pers. comms.

[18] It should be noted that Basajaun is recorded as being known in French as homme du boc/bouc, which may provide a further conflation with the Devil and the origin of man’s use of iron, due to the infamous lande du bouc, a region in Lannemezan (Hautes-Pyrénées) in which the Witches’ Sabbath was meant to take place. For a more detailed exploration of this subject see: Locker, Martin, The Tears of Pyrene (Andorra: Mons Culturae Press, 2019), pp. 114 – 116.

[19] This is a categorical crude simplification of Sugaar but sufficient in a brief overview. For more information on this figure see: Locker, 2019, pp. 112, 200.

[20] Another creature renowned throughout Europe for its cunning abilities.

[21] Martínez Pisón, María, ‘Serpents & Dragons’, Hidden in the Brambles (podcast), 2020. Available on the Patreon account Above all the Brambles: https://www.patreon.com/posts/hidden-in-7-40716481

[22] This theory is presented out in: Xaho, Agosti, ‘Aïtor – Kantabriar Kondaira’, Ariel, 1845.

[23] de Barandiarán, 2007, p. 206.

[24] Hartland, E., ‘Pin-Wheels and Rag Bushes’, Folklore, Vol. IV, 1893, p. 457.

[25] Blinkenberg, Christopher, The Thunderweapon in Religion and Folklore (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1911), p. 104.

[26] One can also see the use of iron by Basque shepherds as a lightening deterrent in the sarobes; see Chapter One.

[27] de Barandiarán, 2007, p. 115.

[28] Some blacksmiths counted themselves as specialists in horse shoes, and during the early 19th century those who made both the shoes and the nails in the commune of Arget (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) dubbed themselves chevaliers (‘knights’) due to their productivity. Baring-Gould, Sabine, A Book of the Pyrenees (London: Methuen & Co., 1907), p. 253.

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