‘Hidden Faces of the Pyrenees’ Talk for Hidden History Travel.

Below you can watch the talk I gave for the ‘Armchair Archaeology’ series run by Hidden History Tours, focussing on the histories of Occitania and Andorra. The tour which I run with Hidden History in this region can be found here: http://www.hiddenhistory.co.uk/tour-item/andorra-the-occitan/

This is quite a broad-brush talk, however I hope some of you find something of interest in it none the less!

Audio of ‘Tears of Pyrene’ Talk 21/01/2020

I just finished giving a talk on the recent ‘Tears of Pyrene’ book at the Andorran International Club. It’s quite broad brush, but goes into three key themes. The talk was filmed however the video is being awkward so audio is all that can be salvaged right now (the end is cut off but that’s basically the end anyway), and can be downloaded here <<< Tears of Pyrene Talk 21:01:2020.mp3>>>




Fairy-Lore of the Pyrenees Part II

Carrying on from the previous article, below we will delve deeper into the existing fairy-lore of the Pyrenees, which is under-explored in the ethnographic record in the 20th century. We will read sweeping examinations by no less than Charles Dickens (!), local enthusiasts and French local anthologies from 1909…


Firstly, it is interesting to note that in the French Pyrenees, Les Blanquettes (as examined in the previous article) were also locally known in the Béarn as Hados, and the name of the village of Belhades (Petite Leyre) may derive etymologically from belle hados (beautiful fairy).


Also, coincidentally, from an anthology dating back to 1870 we can find the illustrious Charles Dickens summarising Pyrenean fairy-lore thus, which must be admitted is not in a uniformly complimentary fashion:

‘As to the fairies, they are still visible to the unsophisticated Pyreneans, and they sit at the entrance of their grottos, combing their golden hair, much as they used to in our old nursery days. He who tries to reach them, perishes; should he find favour in their eyes, he disappears for ever from this world. If, however, a mortal releases a fairy from a spell, she sometimes lends him her magic wand, with which he can obtain whatever he desires. In the Barège valley the fairies inhabit the interior of the Pic de Bergons, and flax placed at the foot of their abode is instantly spun into the finest thread. In the valley of Barousse they go from house to house on New Year’s night, carrying happiness in their right hands, and sorrow in their left, under the form of two children, the one crowned with flowers, the other weeping. To propitiate them a repast is spread in a room with open doors and windows, and on the morrow the master of the house distributes the food among his family and servants, with good wishes for the New Year. Occasionally, however, tricks may be played upon female fairies with impunity, as when one was caught in a pair of trousers left in a garden for this purpose’.[1]

Also discovered from much rootling around is a list of several different types of fairy attested as living around French Pyrenees. It should be mentioned that no sources can be found for this list, attributed as it is to a local within the Hautes-Pyrénées, however oral history is a vital part of ethnographic research and as such it deserves to be included:

Balandrou (Hautes-Pyrénées) – This creature allegedly cultivated an apple tree whose golden fruit would bestow immortality.

Dames Blanches (Aude & Hautes-Pyrénées) – These live within the castles of Puivert and Mauvezin.

Encantadas (Vaucluse) – These fairies dwell around Rousillon near caves, rivers and waterfalls, and also deep within the woods, and they dream of being human.

Fada (Ariège) – Similarly these fairies wish to be human, and protect hordes of gold.

Goga (Catalonia) – This fairy lives in Gariotxes beside a river, where she washes her clothes. Anyone who manages to steal these clothes by moonlight is said to become prosperous in the future.

Hada (Gascony) – These creatures have webbed feet and live near water or in caves. They have been known to help farmers, and also in the Ariège they are said to advise on crops.

Nore (Aude) – This fairy was said to live atop the peak of Bugarach.

Outasuna-Maithagarria (Basque) – Linked to hunting, she appears riding a deer and resembles the goddess Diana.

Sarrasine (Ariège) – Dwelling in the rivers of the Salat valley, they have webbed feet.

Parques de la Lune (Ariège) – These nocturnal fairies dwell at crossroads in the Arize Massif, and are said to hold the destiny of both the living and the dead.

Romula (Ariège) – This fairy is said to live in the Grotte du Camaillot near St-Jean-de-Verges, and she charms both humans and animals with her singing. She crosses the river of the dead and was the deity of that river (more about this creature below).

Roneca (Aude) – A terror of children, she is said to haunt various valleys in the Aude with a candle and a large sack on her back to collect infants who are bad.

Saurimonda (Aude) – Dwelling in the valleys of this area and also around the Montagne Noire, she is said to be beautiful with blonde hair and is popularly linked to both gold and the sun. Nuggets of gold in rivers are attributed to her dropping her comb in the waters.[2]


The legend of Romula is tied to a large stone head near the Roc d’Huile, seen when crossing the river at Saint-Jean-de-Verges (whether it is still there I cannot verify). The head is so large that it would take a dozen wine barrels to fill it where it hollow. In order to find out the name of this alleged ‘giant’, one has to ask Romula, who lives in the Grotte du Camaillot. She is in charge of checking the ‘passports’ of those who cross the river in Death’s boat, and has long golden hair and silver eyes. The head is said to date from the Roman era, and the legend linking Romula to this monument runs this:

At a time when the Romans had pitched their tents at the Massif du Plantaurel, Romula (whose name is eerily similar to Romulus, one of the twin founders of Rome) was awaiting Death’s boat on the landing stage at the Roc d’Huile. Within the boat were two people, Fortunatus and Infortunatus. Fortunatus had all his papers in good order and was allowed to pass, however Inforunatus was not so lucky, as his passport lacked the appropriate signature. Additionally, he was an infamous bandit and had been a cruel man during his lifetime, making the lives of local people wretched. Romula reproached him, showing him all that he had done badly in life, his robberies, bluster and injustices and condemned him to remain standing where he was. The water around him turned to oil, which became alight, the flames melting the rock around the man. By the time that the water had put the flames out, the man had become stone, and his enlarged form that had fused with the rock stood stolidly in the earth, his legs sunken into the soil, and only his head remained above ground… [3]


There are more fairy stories to follow in Part III, which will arrive in good time.





[1] Dickens, Charles, ‘Superstitions of the Pyrenees’ in All the Year Round, Vo. 3, No. 23, January Ist, 1870, p. 113.

[2] Translated from the French from this source: https://aubedesfees.forumactif.fr/t480-les-fees-des-pyrenees

[3] Anon, Almanac Patoues of the Ariejo (Fouix: Imprimario de Gadrat Ainat), 1909.


Fairy-Lore of the Pyrenees: Part I.

Fairy-lore, at least as understood within the 18th/19th century romantic context as so popularised by works such as those of the Grimm brothers within ethnographic literature, is curiously rare within the Pyrenees, at least within the character seen within mainland France and as recorded by Thomas Keightley.[1] Some examples do however exist, hidden away within caves, forests and mountain peaks, and there are presented below (Part I) three of these scarce examples, as recorded within travelogues and legendariums from this period. In Part II, further examples will be presented and dissected in relation to broader European fairy-lore.

It may be worth briefly qualifying what constitutes a ‘fairy’ or ‘sprite’ within ‘traditional’ European folklore. Generally (and this term is used advisably), this refers to some manner of natural spirit (usually small in stature) that personifies some manner of genius loci, and can be said to reach back to a reflection of pre-Christian belief in a spirit of place, minor ‘Pagan’ deity, or associated household spirit that could be both puckish, malign or benign, as so-whether it willed. Typically, they are etymologically linked to the concept of ‘small-folk’ in various ethnographic contexts, they inhabited the margins of human/natural interaction, both aiding, abetting and harming, in the manner of the ‘elves’ of folk belief, and within the 19th century they became transformed into the winged creatures so beloved of folklorists today. It is of course, within the space of a short article, impossible to trace back into the dim past the origins (in a Pyrenean context at least, although this may be the subject of a future volume) of the various and curiously scarce ‘fairy’ motifs within the Pyrenees, but it is worth recording some of the most interesting examples below. It is also worth noting that, within the French context at least, these beliefs have all but been eradicated.

Beginning within the French cultural regions of the Pyrenees, Les Blanquettes is a local term in the Haute Pyrenees for fairies, who are attributed with the power to raise storms, bring luck or misfortune to people, and are said to live in the interior of the Pic de Bergons, where they spin flax into fine thread.

The peasantry have been careful to prepare in a clean and empty chamber, the repast which they wish to offer to their guests. A white cloth covers the table upon which is placed a loaf, a knife, a jug of water, or of wine, with a cup and a candle in the midst. They believe that those who offer the best food, may hope to have their herds increased, their harvests abundant, and that marriage will crown their dearest hopes; but those who fail in these attentions to the fairies, and who neglect to make preparations worthy of the spirits who come to visit them, may expect the greatest misfortunes; fire will consume their dwellings, wild animals devour their flocks, hail will destroy their harvests, or their infants die in the cradle. Upon the first day of the year, the father, the eldest person, or the master of each house, takes the bread which has been offered to the fairies, breaks it, and after having dipped it in the water or the wine, contained in the jug, distributes it among the family, and also among the servants; after this they wish each other a good year, and breakfast upon the bread.[2]

Additionally, in the Bearn valleys, Les Blanquettes are also said to dwell in cavern mouths, mountain peaks, dress in white and often appear in a circular formation. Sadly, when asked at the time that this was reported, the local consulted said that he believed that these were only shadows, and thus that fairy-lore in that area was almost dead.[3]

There also exists a very specific legend from this region, pertaining to the Abadies family of Adast in Cauterets (Hautes-Pyrenees) with a domestic fairy, the fairy Abacia:

In the days when the fairy Urganda (one day old, another young) had her favourite among certain knights-errant whom she especially protected; when the fairy Monto, foundress of the city of Mantua [Lombardy, Italy], changed herself into an adder once a week, and Melusina, from the highest tower of the ancient castle of the Lusignans, announced with mournful and piercing shrieks their destruction and the ruin of the royal house; beneatha  hillock to the south of Adast, in the valley of Lavedan, the fairy Abacia remained enchanted in a fountain, which is no longer on, being at this day dry.

Tradition has not told us whether she was of the first, the second, or the third order of fairies; but Desinty, more powerful than the all, had carefully assigned to each the part she had to perform on earth, and it was written in her immutable decrees, that the fairy Abacia could only be disenchanted by a man not married, who was fasting, and yet had eaten. How many years elapsed before any one thus qualified appeared to release the imprisoned fairy, tradition has also forgotten to inform us.

However, it so happened that, towards reaping tie the youngest heir of the house of Abadie of Adast went abroad into his harvest fields, having for his companion the heir of Vignaux and Natala; and going in to the one where the fountain was with the fairy Abacia hidden under its waters, took an ear of corn, and breaking a grain between his teeth, cast it away without swallowing it.

At the same instant a young and beautiful woman stood before him, who, fixing on him the look which especially belongs to fairies, said in the sweetest of voices, “You have disenchanted me, and ought now to take me as your wife. Do you consent?” The young man, enamoured of her beauty, readily agreed. “My fate (she added) still depends on another engagement. Promise that you will never call me ‘lady’, or ‘lady of the water.’” He promised.

Two children, beautiful as angels, were the fruits of this union; every thing prospered in their happy home; but at an epoch, of whose date there exists no trace, it happened that the husband went up to see his hay cut on the summit of the mountain neighbouring to Cauteretz. As he returned in the evening with his servants, he saw with astonishment and anger, that the unripe grain of his fields had been cut down and piled in shocks; and his wrath redoubled  on arriving at his house he learned that it had been done by his wife’s command. He refused to listen to the gentle explanations which she would have given him; and at once to humiliate and punish her, cried out, “Lady – lady of the water!” The fairy instantly disappeared.

Then did he weep, groan, and utter bitter cries; but he was destined never to behold her more. Sometimes, when he was absent, she would come and embrace her children, combing their hair, and always with a golden comb.

One evening when she was alone with then, she said, and her tears fell as she spoke, “It is owing to your father’s perjury that I have not done for you all that my power as a fairy might have enabled me to undertake, and now my destiny calls me into another region; but from thence I shall watch over you. Love virtue, walk in the paths of honour, and learn what I am permitted to disclose to you of the secrets of futurity. Know, that one of your descendants will have much renown, and that a war-like and illustrious nation of the north will call him to reign over their nation”.

Having thus spoken, the fairy Abacia disappeared – and for ever![4]

Within this we can identify a few key themes that emerge in various ‘fairy’ tales across Western Europe, namely the disenchanting of a fairy via a man, the marriage that ensues, the bearing of children from the union, the ‘profane name(s)’ that must not be uttered, the subsequent uttering and the disappearance thereupon by the fairy wife. An additional note of interest is the mention of a golden comb – again, a typical feature of fairy-lore.

Moving across the granite Pyrenean spine, into the Basque Country, we find several examples of ‘Fairy’-lore, as recorded in the excellent Rev. Wentworth Webster’s ‘Basque Legends’.[5] Particularly of note is the legend of ‘The Lady Pigeon and Her Comb’, accompanied as it is with an interpretation:[6]

A mother and her son scratch a meagre existence, so much so that the son decides to venture off to make a living, and comes across a forest that lies a considerable distance away. Within the forest he finds a castle and, knocking upon the door, he is answered by a Tartaro.[7] Upon revealing the nature of his wretched state, the boy is spared by the giant, and given a very specific task, whose nature is strangely charitable. He is to leave the area in a few days and lie in wait for three young ladies who bathe in the giant’s garden. The boy is charged with stealing the middle of the three ‘pigeon cloaks’ that are discarded by the ladies whilst they bathe, upon which the lady whose cloak is stolen will be forced to remain in the water and promise to help the boy always. The boy thus does as he is told to, and the outcome is that the boy ventures, with an assurance of employment, to the father of the lady’s house the next day.

The father informs him that there is much work to do, much of it manual, and indeed much of it overwhelming: to pull up oaks by their roots, cut them into lengths, sort branches from trunks and roots. After he must plough, harrow and sow the land with wheat, finally creating a small cake of the self-same wheat by midday, lest he be killed.

The boy agrees, yet goes back to the forest to muse, pensively, upon which the fairy lady appears to him assuring him of her help. In order to do so she throws her comb into the air, utter various incantations which will mimic the workload of the boy, including the creation of the cake. By noon the cake is ready, which he races to take to the father. The father however is suspicious, and says to the mother ‘Be careful he is not in league with your daughter!’. I now defer to the legend itself:

His wife says to him, “Take care that he is not in league with your daughter.”

The husband says to her, “What do you mean? They have never seen each other.”

This husband was a devil. The young lady told our lad that her father is going to send him to fetch a ring in a river far away. “He will tell you to choose a sword from the midst of ever so many others, but you will take an old sabre and leave the others.”

The next day his wife told him that he ought to send him to fetch a ring which he had lost in the bed of a river. He sends him then, and tells him that he must choose a sword; that he will have quantities of evil fish to conquer. The lad says to him that he will not have those fine swords, that he has enough with this old sabre, which was used to scrape off the dirt.

When he arrived at the bank of the river he sat there weeping, not knowing what to do. The young lady comes to him, and says:

“What! You are weeping! Did not I tell you that I would always help you?”

It was eleven o’clock. The young lady says to him

“You must cut me in pieces with this sabre, and throw all the pieces into the water.”

The lad will not do it by any means. He says to her:

“I prefer to die here on the spot than to make you suffer.”

The lady says to him, “It is nothing at all what I shall suffer, and you must do it directly–the favourable moment is passing by like this, like this.”

The lad, trembling all over, begins with his sabre. He throws all the pieces into the river; but, lo I a part of the lady’s little finger sticks to a nail in his shoe. The young lady comes out of the water and says to him:

“You have not thrown everything into the water. My little finger is wanting.” 1

After having looked for it, he sees that he has it under his foot, hooked on to a nail. The young lady gives him the ring. She tells him to go without losing a moment, for he must give it to the king at noon. He arrives happily (in time). The young lady, as she goes into the house, bangs the door with all her might and begins to cry out:

“Ay! ay! ay! I have crushed my little finger.”

And she makes believe that she has done it there. The king was pleased. He tells him that on the morrow he must tame a horse and three young fillies. 2 The lad says to him:

“I will try.”

The master gives him a terrible club. The young lady says to him in the evening:

“The horse which my father has spoken to you about will be himself. You will strike him with all your might with your terrible club on the nose, and he will yield and be conquered. The first filly will be my eldest sister. You will strike her on the chest with all your force, and she also will yield and will be conquered. I shall come the last. You will make a show of beating me too, and you will hit the ground with your stick, and I too will yield, and I shall be conquered.”

The next day the lad does as the young lady has told him. The horse comes. He was very high-spirited, but our lad strikes him on the nose, he yields, and is conquered. He does the same thing with the fillies. He beats them with his terrible club, they yield, and are conquered; and when the third comes he makes a show of hitting her, and strikes the earth. She yields, and all go off..

The next day he sees the master with his lips swollen, and with all his face as black as soot. The young ladies had also pain in the chest. The youngest also gets up very late indeed in order to do as the others.

The master says to him that he sees he is a valuable servant, and very clever, and that he will give him one of his daughters for wife, but that he must choose her with his eyes shut. And the young lady says to him:

“You will choose the one that will give you her hand twice, and in any way you will recognise me, because you will find that my little finger is wanting. I will always put that in front.”

The next day the master said to him:

“We are here now; you shall now choose the one you wish for, always keeping your eyes shut.”

He shuts them then; and the eldest daughter approaches, and gives him her hand. He says to the king:

“It is very heavy, (this hand); too heavy for me. I will not have this one.”

The second one approaches, she gives him her hand, and he immediately recognises that the little finger is wanting. He says to the king:

“This is the one I must have.”

They are married immediately. They pass some days like that. His wife says to him;

“It is better for us to be off from here, and to flee, otherwise my father will kill us.”

They set off, then, that evening at ten o’clock, and the young lady spits before the door of her room, saying:

“Spittle, with thy power, you shall speak in my place.” 2 And they go off a long way. At midnight, the father goes to the door of the lad and his wife, and knocks at the door.; they do not answer. He knocks harder, and then the spittle says to him:

“Just now nobody can come into this room.”

The father says, “It is I. I must come in.”

“It is impossible,” says the spittle again.

The father grows more and more angry; the spittle makes him stop an hour like that at the door. At last, not being able to do anything else, he smashes the door, and goes inside. What is his terrible rage when he sees the room empty. He goes off to his wife, and says to her:

“You were not mistaken; they were well acquainted, and they were really in league with one another, and they have both escaped together; but I will not leave them like that. I will go off after them, and I shall find them sooner or later.”

He starts off. Our gentleman and lady had gone very far, but the young lady was still afraid. She said to her husband:

“He might overtake us even now. I–I cannot turn my head; but (look) if you can see something.”

The husband says to her: “Yes, something terrible is coming after us; I have never seen a monster like this.”

The young lady throws up a comb, and says:

“Comb, with thy power, let there be formed before my father hedges and thorns, and before me a good road.”

It is done as she wished. They go a good way, and she says again:

“Look, I beg you, if you see anything again.”

The husband looks back, and sees nothing; but in the clouds he sees something terrible, and tells so to his wife. And his wife says, taking her comb:

“Comb, with thy power, let there be formed where he is a fog, and hail, and a terrific storm.”

It happens as they wish. They go a little way farther, and his wife says to him:

“Look behind you, then, if you see anything.”

The husband says to her: “Now it is all over with us. We have him here after us; he is on us. Use all your power.”

She throws again a comb immediately, and says:

“Comb, with thy power, form between my father and me a terrible river, and let him be drowned there for ever.”

As soon as she has said that, they see a mighty water, and there their father and enemy drowns himself.

The young lady says, “Now we have no more fear of him, we shall live in peace.”

They go a good distance, and arrive at a country into which the young lady could not enter. She says to her husband:

“I can go no farther. It is the land of the Christians there; I cannot enter into it. You must go there the first. You must fetch a priest. He must baptize me, and afterwards I will come with you; but you must take great care that nobody kisses you. If so, you will forget me altogether. Mind and pay great attention to it; and you, too, do not you kiss anyone.”

He promises his wife that he will not. He goes, then, on, and on, and on. He arrives in his own country, and as he is entering it an old aunt recognises him, and comes behind him, and gives him two kisses. 2 It is all over with him. He forgets his wife, as if he had never seen her, and he stays there amusing himself, and taking his pleasure.

The young lady, seeing that her husband never returned, that something had happened to him, and that she could no longer count upon him, she takes a little stick, and striking the earth, she says:

“I will that here, in this very spot, is built a beautiful hotel, with all that is necessary, servants, and all the rest.”

There was a beautiful garden, too, in front, and she had put over the door:

“Here they give to eat without payment.”

One day the young man goes out hunting with two comrades, and while they were in the forest they said one to the other:

“We never knew of this hotel here before. We must go there too. One can eat without payment.”

They go off then. The young lady recognises her husband very well, but he does not recognise her at all. She receives them very well. These gentlemen are so pleased with her, that one of them asks her if she will not let him pass the night with her. 1 The young lady says to him, “Yes.” The other asks also, “I, too, was wishing it.” The young lady says to him:

“To-morrow then, you, if you wish it, certainly.”

And her husband says to her: “And I after to-morrow then.”

The young lady says to him, “Yes.” One of the young men remains then. He passes the evening in great delight, and when the hour comes for going to bed, the young lady says to him:

“When you were small you were a choir-boy, and they used to powder you; this smell displeases me in bed. Before coming there you must comb yourself. Here is a comb, and when you have got all the powder out, you may come to bed.”

Our lad begins then to comb his hair, but never could he get all the powder out, such quantities came out, and were still coming out of his head; and he was still at it when the young lady rose. The lad said to her:

“What! you are getting up before I come.”

“And do you not see that it is day? I cannot stop there any longer. People will come.”

Our young man goes off home without saying a word more. He meets his comrade who was to pass the night with this young lady. He says to him:

“You are satisfied? You amused yourself well?”

“Yes, certainly, very well. If the time flies as fast with you as it did with me you will amuse yourself well.”

He goes off then to this house. The young lady says to him, after he had had a good supper:

“Before going to bed you must wash your feet. The water will be here in this big copper; when you have them quite clean you may come to bed.”

Accordingly he washes one, and when he has finished washing the other, the first washed is still black and dirty. He washes it again, and finds the foot that he has just well washed very dirty again. He kept doing like that for such a long time. When the young lady gets up, the gentleman says to her:

“What! You are getting up already, without me coming?”

“Why did you not then come before day? I cannot stay any longer in bed. It is daylight, and the people will begin (to come).”

Our young man withdraws as the other had done. Now it is the turn of her husband. She serves him still better than the others; nothing was wanting at his supper. When the hour for going to bed arrives, they go to the young lady’s room; when they are ready to get into bed, the young lady says to him:

“Put out the light.”

He puts it out, and it lights again directly. He puts it out again, and it lights again as soon as it is put out. He passes all the night like that in his shirt, never being able to put out that light. When daylight is come, the young lady says to him:

“You do not know me then? You do not remember how you left your wife to go and fetch a priest?”

As soon as she had said that he strikes his head, and says to her:

“Only now I remember all that–up to this moment I was as if I had never had a wife at all–how sorry I am; but indeed it is not my fault, not at all. I never wished it like that, and it is my old aunt who kissed me twice without my knowing it.”

“It is all the same now. You are here now. You have done penance enough; your friends have done it too. One passed the whole night getting powder out of his head, and the other in washing his feet, and they have not slept with me any more than you have. At present you must go into your country, and you must get a priest. He shall baptize me, and then we will go into your country.”

The husband goes off and returns with the priest, and she is baptized, and they set out for his country. When they have arrived there, she touched the earth with her stick, and says to it:

“Let there be a beautiful palace, with everything that is needed inside it, and a beautiful garden before the house.”

As soon as it is said, it is done. They lived there very rich and very happy with the old mother of the lad, and as they lived well they died well too.

It has been suggested that this myth relates to the age-old cycle of weather and fertility. Webster (1879) writes that the opening of the story represents man in misery, without the knowledge or aid of cultivation and agriculture. The old king is Winter personified, and his daughter is Spring, her golden comb being the sun. The young man ‘who, without her aid, can effect nothing, is man in relation to the frozen ground, which needs her aid to quicken it into fertility. It is the old Sun-god, the Cyclops, who tells him where to find, and how to woo, his fairy bride.’[8] However, in order to be married, he must acquire the skills of managing the forest, sowing and reaping corn, and creating the cake, all of which are only learned with the help of the lady: ‘The taming of the horses shows the need and help of domestic animals in agriculture. These things are necessary to be known ere spring can free herself from winter’s dominion and marry her chosen lover.’[9] Ultimately after the escape from her father (Winter) and the conjuring of vegetation, it is the swollen river and rains of Spring that sweep Winter away, however she is unable to enter the Christian land. This has been interpreted by Webster as the need of the natural powers for the civilizing effect of agriculture for their potential to be reached, and the man, scared by the prospect of such work, it lured back to nomadic, hunter-gatherer ways. He forgets his bride in the pleasure of the chase and spends the rest of the Winter hunting. However, the lure of the Spring, with her food in abundance draws man back into the world of agriculture, and he submits to her, the wedding of earth and husbandry ensues, and the warm glow of Summer can be looked forward to.

In Part II we will explore more fairy tales from the Pyrenees and delve deeper into their interpretations…



[1] Keightley, Thomas, The Fairy Mythology : Illustrative of the Romance and Superstition of Various Countries (London: H.G. Bon, 1870).

[2] Murray, James, A Summer in the Pyrenees Vol. II (London: John Macrone, 1837), p. 173.

[3] Costello, Louisa Stuart, Béarn and the Pyrenees, Volume 2 (London: Richard Bentley, 1844), p. 335.

[4] Chatterton, Lady Georgina, The Pyrenees: With Excursions into Spain, Volume 2 (London: Saunders & Otley, 1843), pp. 208 – 211.

[5] Webster, Wentworth, Basque Legends (London: Walbrook & Co., 1879).

[6] Webster, 1879, pp. 120 – 132.

[7] This is a cyclopean giant frequently found within Basque mythology.

[8] Webster, 1879, p. 131.

[9] Ibid.

Book Extract #6

Here is the final extract from the forthcoming book ‘Tears of Pyrene’. In this we examine some of the Medieval and Early Modern events that shaped the cultures and peoples of the Pyrenees:


Pilgrims and Bandits

During the Middle Ages, the Kingdom of Navarre straddled the Pyrenees, and passed between several dynasties, all of which left their influence on the territory.[1] Originating as one of the ‘buffer states’ formed by Charlemagne, mentioned above, to protect the Pyrenees from Moorish attacks, the Navarre as a kingdom and a region has centred around Pamplona since its inception. Its borders ebbed and flowed from the 10th to the 20th centuries, being controlled by Basques, the Crown of Aragon, the Counts of Champagne, the dynasties of Foix and Albret variously, until the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659, which at least placed it beyond the reach of French claims.[2] [3] Despite changing rulers and territorial shifts, one aspect remained constant for much of the Medieval period in the Navarrese Pyrenees, and that was the flow of pilgrims following the ‘French Route’ towards Santiago de Compostela, and the relics of St James.

By the 12th century, the cult of St James at Santiago de Compostela was drawing between half a million and two million people each year.[4] Roughly five primary routes had come into favour during the Middle Ages, at least three of which converged at Roncesvalles before plunging down into the Pyrenean foothills towards Pamplona, generating a steady stream of human traffic over the Pyrenean pass between St-Jean-Pied-de-Port (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) and Roncesvalles (Navarre). So popular was the route, that one of the first examples of a tourist guidebook originates from the 12th century and addresses the best routes to take when travelling to Santiago de Compostela. The Liber Sancti Jacobi [5] was likely written between 1140 and 1150, and is filled with advice on the routes, landscapes, hostelries and peoples encountered along the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. One lengthy extract in particular is worth quoting, due to its description of the landscapes and dangers awaiting pilgrims in the Pyrenees from unscrupulous toll-collectors in the various passes that brought people to Roncesvalles:

Then, round the pass of Cize, is the Basque country, with the town of Bayonne on the coast to the north. Here a barbarous tongue is spoken; the country is wooded and hilly, short of bread, wine and all other foodstuffs, except only apples, cider and milk. In this country there are wicked toll-collectors – near the pass of Cize and at Ostabat and Saint-Jean and Saint-Michael-Pied-de-Port – may they be accursed! They come out to meet pilgrims with two or three cudgels to exact tribute by improper use of force; and if any traveller refuses to give the money they demand they strike him with their cudgels and take his money, abusing him and rummaging in his very breeches. They are ruthless people, and their country is no less hostile, with its forests and wildness; the ferocity of their aspect and the barbarousness of their language strike terror into the hearts of those who encounter them. Although they should levy tribute only on merchants they exact it unjustly from pilgrims and all travellers […] Still in the Basque country, the road to St James goes over a most lofty mountain known as Portus Cisere [Pass of Cize], so called either because it is the gateway of Spain or because necessary goods are transported over the pass from one country to another […] From the summit can be seen the Sea of Brittany and the Western Sea, and the bounds of the three countries of Castile, Aragon and France […] On this mountain, before Christianity was fully established in Spain, the impious Navarrese and the Basques were accustomed not only to rob pilgrims going to St James but to ride them like asses and kill them. [6]

Summer was an especially popular time for people to travel, due to the weather which would have been a major concern for those crossing the Pyrenees, and also due to the July vigil held in honour of St James in Santiago de Compostela. At this time, many pilgrims would have been walking among the high pastures containing livestock, watched over by shepherds and cowherds, in the tradition of transhumance.[7] [8] An indication of the level of traffic that flowed largely over the Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela was the reconsecration of the cathedral in 1207, as the fabric of the building had been destroyed by the crush of people around the altar, which had also led to bloodshed.[9] With both France and Spain remaining Catholic throughout the ensuing centuries, particularly from the 13th to late-18th centuries,[10] this steady stream of pilgrims crossing the Pyrenees, staying in local inns or purpose built pilgrim hospices, the area of Roncesvalles Pass has become synonymous with the tradition of pilgrimage, not least due to the impressive hospice, ossuary,[11] and collegiate church established there.[12] [13]

In the mid-14th century, the Black Death devastated Europe. The regions that surround and encompass the Pyrenees however were strongly affected; the Basque Country and Aragon lost up to two thirds of their populations, the Navarre lost roughly half, and Catalonia lost over a third. Huesca (Aragon) was particularly affected, as was the Bigorre region, and Urgell (Catalonia), where the Bishop of Seu d’Urgell died from the pandemic on 1st May, 1348. Several areas of the Pyrenees appear to have been spared however, likely due to their sparse populations and distance between settlements, which prevented the plague from spreading as effectively as in urban environments.[14]

Moving forward to the early-17th century, one figure emerges across the mountains in the Labourd (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) who would have a significant cultural and demographic impact in the Pyrenees, Pierre de Rosteguy de Lancre.[15] King Henry IV of France sent Pierre de Lancre, of the Parliament of Bordeaux, to pursue and eradicate witchcraft in the region, leading to dramatic hysteria and persecutions in Gascony. This had to dual effect of sending many local innocents to the stake, and also driving a wave of refugees from de Lancre’s witch hunts over into the Basque Country, many of which brought their own tales of Sabbaths and Inquisition ‘witch-lore’, that would have a lasting effect on how witchcraft was perceived in the region.[16] A further aspect of this was that the new arrivals, combined with existing fears and the European climate of malefic hysteria, formed the basis of what are now popularly known as the Basque Witch Trials, during which some seven thousand cases were investigated.[17]

Borders & Battles

The other event which shaped the Pyrenees in the 17th century was the Treaty of the Pyrenees, a document which in 1659 ended the war between France and Spain that had run from 1635.[18] The majority of the document was concerned with non-territorial matters, such as ‘princely alliances, commercial agreements, and the cession of jurisdictions along the French frontier of the Spanish Netherlands[19] and the Franche-Compté,[20] where the major battles in the Bourbon-Habsburg phase of the Thirty Years War had been fought.’[21] However it also finally demarcated the French and Spanish territories along the Pyrenean border, as the medieval states that preceded the Treaty rarely saw the Pyrenees as a boundary, often spanning the range and encompassing parts of what would become both France and Spain. Certain areas were contentious, such as the plains between Cerdanya and Roussillon and the area of Conflent, however the agreement was reached that these should be termed as French territories. However, it should be noted that the formally Catalan territories that extended into what are now the Ariège, Aude and the Pyrénées-Orientales (such as northern Cerdanya) are also frequently referred to as ‘Northern Catalonia’,[22] proving that the Pyrenean cultural memory is long indeed, and there are many examples of toponyms that hold Catalan signifiers. The final act to define several aspects of the Pyrenean Franco-Spanish border (particularly villages and townships on the border itself) would be signed in the Bayonne Treaties between 1856 and 1868. Thus, for the first time in its history, the Pyrenees found itself enshrined in law as a geographical territorial border between two nation states.[23]

The French Revolution in the late-18th century is well known for the violent social, political and economic upheavals that it wrought on the French population and the country’s institutions.[24] It is beyond the scope of this chapter (and indeed this book) to address this era in the detail it deserves, however there are elements that relate specifically to the Pyrenean populations that are of interest, crucially those relating to territory and autonomy. Broadly speaking, the system of provinces that existed under the ancien regime in which districts such as Languedoc, Béarn, Foix and Rousillon[25] enjoyed their own traditions, courts, taxation rights and a level of autonomy, thus making central French governance nearly impossible, was extinguished during the early years of the French Revolution.[26] Instead, the system of départements was introduced, forming along the Pyrenees the Pyrénées-Orientales, the Ariège, the Aude, the Haute-Garonne, the Hautes-Pyrénées and the Pyrénées-Atlantiques. The latter had a particular impact on the French Basque population, who had practised a system of foruak/fueros or ‘home rule’ in Labourd region for centuries,[27] and the new Jacobin state refused to recognise these liberties, suppressing the native government and declaring a new département, the Basse-Pyrénées (now the Pyrénées-Atlantiques) in 1790. The Lower Navarre also became amalgamated into this new territory, and the National Assembly decreed that French law superseded any prior autonomy in the area, despite Basque being the most commonly spoken language there.[28] This forced restructuring of Pyrenean territories, politics and national identities was followed in 1793 by the War of the Pyrenees, which saw the French First Republic fighting against the kingdom of Spain, itself allied with Portugal, in both the western and eastern Pyrenees until 1795. Already at war with Austria, Prussia and Sardinia-Piedmont, France occupied the Netherlands and declared its annexation, forcing a diplomatic break with Great Britain and, subsequently declaring war on Britain and the Dutch Republic, and then Spain; the battleground was to be the length and breadth of the Pyrenees. The French army was comprised of veterans, national guardsmen, and those conscripts that had been gained from the levée en masse which demanded all able-bodied men between eighteen and twenty-five to report for duty.[29] In Spain, the Army of Catalonia was deployed to the eastern Pyrenees, and on 17th April, 1793 it crossed the border[30] and captured St. Laurent-de-Cerdens (Pyrénées-Orientales). The Spanish forces advanced further over the next few months, winning the majority of their engagements, until they were defeated in the Battle of Peyrestortes (Pyrénées-Orientales) on the 17th September, which marked the Spanish army’s furthest incursion into French territory along the eastern Pyrenees. Various skirmishes, battles and repulsions followed in the Tech Valley, Villelongue-dels-Monts and Collioure, largely in Spain’s favour until the death of the commander of the Army of Catalonia, General Ricardos, on 13th March, 1974. After this, under the command of General Duggomier, the Spanish forces’ luck began to turn, culminating in the four-day Battle of the Black Mountain (Camany, Catalonia), 17th – 20th November, in which both the French and Spanish commanders were killed, followed by the French winning the Siege of Roses (Girona, Catalonia) in February 1975. After peace was signed, but before the frontline had heard the news, the Spanish recaptured Puigcerdà and Bellver. This would be the last act of the campaign in the eastern Pyrenees.[31]

Simultaneously to this campaign, battles between French and Spanish forces were also taking place in the western Pyrenees between 1793 and 1796. Following a small series of skirmishes by both forces in 1793, French forces seized both the Izpegi Pass and the Izpegi Bridge (Basque Country) on 3rd June 1794, with minimal losses. July saw the Armée des Pyrénées Occidentales[32]under Generals Moncey, Delaborde and Frégaville, attack and capture several positions in the northern Basque Country, culminating in San Sebastien on 30th July. Moncey then launched a series of offences from the Baztan Valley and Roncesvalles Pass towards Pamplona over the next year. By June 1795, Moncey had captured Vitoria and Bilbao, and when the Peace of Basel was finally signed on 22nd July and news reached the Armée des Pyrénées Occidentales, Moncey was preparing to cross the Ebro and take Pamplona.[33] Under the peace treaty, all areas in the Basque Country occupied by the French would be returned to Spain, which the Spanish Basques feared would bring to an end their self-government, much like their French counterparts under Jacobin rule.[34] In a twist of diplomatic fate, France and Spain would go on to create an alliance in 1796 with the Second Treaty of San Ildefonso, against the British Empire.[35]


[1] It should be mentioned that for the purposes of convenience, in Chapter Four the Navarre is grouped under the title of the Basque Country in terms of a cultural territory, despite being a separate modern region. The reasons for this are laid out in Chapter Four.

[2] The Treaty of the Pyrenees is outlined below due to its 17th-century chronology.

[3] Space in this chapter sadly limits the discussion and explanation of this fascinating kingdom, however for a detailed history of the Navarre, see: Bard, Rachel, Navarra: The Durable Kingdom (Reno, NV: University of Nevada Press, 1982).

[4] Rahtz, Phillip, and Watts, Lorna, ‘The Archaeologist on the Road to Lourdes and Santiago de Compostela’, in The Anglo-Saxon Church: Papers on History, Architecture and Archaeology in Honour of Dr H. M. Taylor, Lawrence Butler (ed.) (London: Council for British Archaeology, 1986), pp. 51 – 73.

[5] ‘The Book of Saint James’.

[6] Hogarth, James, (trans.), The Pilgrim’s Guide: A 12th Century Guide for the Pilgrim to St James of Compostella (London: Confraternity of St James, 1992), pp. 19 – 25.

[7] See Chapter Six for a detailed discussion of transhumance in the Pyrenees.

[8] Travel in the Medieval period was far more extensive than is commonly thought, for a thorough analysis of this subject, see: Ohler, Norbert, The Medieval Traveller, Caroline Hillier (trans.) (London: Boydell & Brewer, 2010).

[9] Gitlitz, David, and Davidson, Linda, The Pilgrimage Road to Santiago: The Complete Cultural Handbook (New York, NY: St Martin’s Griffin, 2000), p. 344.

[10] The author would suggest that the French Revolution (1789) very likely had an impact on the visibility of pilgrims along the ‘French Route’ to and over the Pyrenees, due to its systematic and institutional anti-clericalism, in much the same way that the Reformation in England (1529 – 1537) resulted in pilgrimage being seen as a ‘Papist’ activity, combined with the destruction of many shrines and pilgrimage centres throughout England.

[11] This ossuary allegedly contains bones from the Battle of Roncesvalles Pass in 778, between Basque forces and Charlemagne’s army, including, as myth would have it, those of the infamous Roland.

[12] As well as with Roland, Charlemagne, and the later Battle of Roncesvalles between Wellington and Bonaparte’s forces in 1813, discussed later in this chapter.

[13] For a detailed examination of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela from an archaeological perspective, see: Candy, Julie, The Archaeology of Pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela: A Landscape Perspective (Oxford: Archaeopress Archaeology, 2009). For an examination of pilgrimage, especially in Britain, that focusses on the issues of travel and experience, see: Locker, Martin, Landscapes of Pilgrimage in Medieval Britain (Oxford: Archaeopress Archaeology, 2015).

[14] Benedictow, Ole, The Black Death, 1346 – 1353: The Complete History (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2006).

[15] This character is discussed at length in Chapter Four with regards to witchcraft in the Pyrenees, and so will be discussed only briefly here, however his importance prohibits his exclusion from this historical discussion.

[16] See Chapter Four for a fulsome discussion on this topic, and a gazetteer of Pyrenean sites associated with witchcraft in folklore and legend.

[17] Henningsen, Gustav, The Witches’ Advocate: Basque Witchcraft and the Spanish Inquisition (1609-1614) (Reno, NV: University of Nevada Press, 1980).

[18] This information was taken from the following publication, which should be consulted for a detailed examination of the Treaty of the Pyrenees: Sahlins, Peter, Boundaries: The Making of France and Spain in the Pyrenees (Berkley, CA: University of California Press, 1989).

[19] This territory was held by the Spanish Crown from 1556 to 1714, containing large swathes of modern Belgium and Luxembourg, as well as areas in the southern Netherlands, northern France and western Germany, with Brussels as the capital. For more information see: Parker, Geoffrey, Spain and the Netherlands, 1559 – 1659: Ten Studies (Berkley Heights, NJ: Enslow Publishers, 1979).

[20] This is an historical region in eastern France that borders Switzerland, comprised of the modern Doubs, Jura, Haute-Saône and Belfort départements. A succinct history of the region is provided in: Rougebief, Eugène, Histoire de la Franche-Comté, Ancienne et Moderne (Paris: Ch. Stèvenard, 1851).

[21] Sahlins, 1989, p. 29.

[22] See: Collier, Basil, Catalan France (London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1939).

[23] The degree to which this immediately affected the identities held by the various villages and towns in this liminal zone is debatable, forged as they were in hyper-local events and the rhythm of the rural Pyrenean year (see Chapter Six).

[24] For an overview of this period and the various ramifications of the Revolution, see: Andress, David, (ed.) The Oxford Handbook of the French Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015); Shusterman, Noah, The French Revolution. Faith, Desire, and Politics (London: Routledge, 2015).

[25] These examples are chosen for their Pyrenean geography.

[26] This was in an attempt both to centralize administration, and break the influence of the nobility, who had shaped the boundaries of the provinces over the preceding centuries.

[27] Although in truth these rights had been steadily eroded for the past two centuries.

[28] See: Barrero García, Ana María, and Alonso Martín, María Luz, Textos de Derecho local español en la Edad Media. Catálogo de Fueros y Costums municipals (Madrid: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas. Instituto de Ciencias Jurídicas, 1989).

[29] The following information is taken from: Fremont-Barnes, Gregory, The French Revolutionary Wars (London: Routledge, 2013).

[30] As defined by the aforementioned Treaty of the Pyrenees signed in 1659.

[31] Fremont-Barnes, 2013.

[32] The Armée des Pyrénées was one of the French Revolutionary armies, created on 1st October, 1972, and following the outbreak of war with Spain in 1973, it was divided into the Armée des Pyrénées Orientales (Army of the Eastern Pyrenees) and the Armée des Pyrénées Occidentales (Army of the Western Pyrenees).

[33] Fremont-Barnes, 2013.

[34] The terms Spanish Basques and French Basques are used here purely for convenience to delineate the two ‘new’ territories following the hard border between the two nations and the formation of the new départements.

[35] Fremont-Barnes, 2013.

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.

Book Extract #4 – Faunal Folklore

The following book extract is from Chapter 5 ‘Flora & Fauna of the Pyrenees: Beyond Taxonomy’, which discusses the folklore of a variety of trees, plants and animals from the Pyrenees. This brief extract focusses on the Wild Boar, the Pyrenean Isard and the Owl. As always, endnotes present here are footnotes within the actual book. Enjoy!

Whilst rarely seen, the nocturnal handiwork of the wild boar (Sus scrofa) can often be detected in the morning within great tracts of churned soil, the result of digging for tubers, roots, fallen nuts, worms, and almost anything that can be found on or beneath the forest floor. Perhaps surprisingly, given the cultural significance enjoyed within the ‘Celtic’ cultures that surrounded and spread across the Pyrenees,[1] [2] it is relatively absent within Pyrenean folklore and myth, despite being widely hunted, and this unexpected discovery warrants a brief mention here. In the case of research, negative evidence is just as important as positive, albeit in a less satisfying manner. The boar is largely absent from cave art across the Pyrenees, and faunal remains from hunting contexts at these sites too are much reduced when compared to the Pyrenean Ibex (see for example the analyses of Grotte de la Vache, near Niaux cave, Ariège).[3] There is a debated depiction of a wild boar in Altamira cave (Cantabria), however little from the Pyrenean Palaeolithic gives a solid impression of the role of the wild boar other than as a food source; it does not find itself represented artistically in the same way as the bison, ibex or horse. Analyses of Mesolithic sites at Bourrouilla in Arancou (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) display evidence of early Pyreneans hunting boar,[4] and by the early Neolithic boar hunting in the Mediterranean Pyrenees is suggested to have been ‘diminishing’,[5]  however examples of its being hunted can be found in numerous Neolithic sites in the Pyrenees, such as at the rock-shelter of Dourgne II (Roc de Dourgne, Aude) where the bones of a mixture of livestock (including domestic pigs) and hunted wild fauna (such as boar) display the exploitation of a wide range of food resources.[6] The boar appears to have been hunted as a supplementary food source, a practise that continues in the Pyrenees to this day. The role of the boar outside of consumption within the Pyrenean Neolithic is unclear, and it is not until the Bronze Age, likely due to the influence of the Indo-Europeans with their association of the boar with the priestly caste, that a mythological element emerges with reference to the animal, particularly within a Celtic context. Numerous statues from sanctuaries in France depict the boar, and the Lingones tribe revered Moccus, a god of boar and boar-hunters. The unearthing of a bronze Celtiberian cultic vehicle depicting a boar hunt in Mérida (1st century), and the zoomorphic verraco statues of the pre-Roman Vettones appear across central Spain. Boar hunting was a great sport in the Medieval period, with special mention being made to the practise by Count Gaston Fébus of Foix (1331 – 1391), in which he writes that he was often thrown to the ground and his horse killed in such hunts,[7] and in literary circles ‘the folklore motif of the magical of miraculous boar-hunt (in some cases replaced by a deer-hunt) was thus well established in courtly literature North of the Pyrenees by the thirteenth century.’[8] The animal has been pursued by Pyrenean hunters throughout the ages, and its meat is consumed with relish both fresh and cured/dried in a variety of dishes the length and breadth of the mountains. Yet despite all this, much like its presence in the forests and valleys, whilst the boar’s traces can be seen in the historical record, it remains curiously elusive within Pyrenean folklore and myth. It is unclear as to the reasons for the general absence of such an iconic creature within the lore and legend of the Pyrenees, and warrants further research.

In a similar vein, the isard or Pyrenean chamois (Rupicapra pyrenaica) has been a feature of hunting culture in the Pyrenees for millennia, its remains being found in conjunction with sites as early as the Palaeolithic, along with the boar, bison and Pyrenean ibex. It is still a great trophy for hunters, who pursue it across the crags and cliffs of the mountain range, though diminishing numbers now severely limit the number of animals that can be legally taken. Formerly much more common, archaeological evidence shows its exploitation by as archaic inhabitants of the Pyrenees as Neanderthals.[9] In the cave of Mas d’Azil (see Chapter One for details), an infamous spear-thrower made from horn has the figure of a chamois or an ibex carved into it, looking back on itself,[10] and further afield in the Dordogne discoveries from the same Palaeolithic era suggest that the chamois has long held a particular fascination for man. At Laugerie-Basse, a small disc carved from bone shows what has been interpreted as a chamois standing up on one side, and lying down on the other, and when spun the animal appears to rise and fall,[11] and at Abri Mège (Teyat) three figures were found engraved on a bâton or sceptre in a Magdalenian context, wearing what are interpreted as chamois masks.[12] In the Alps, folklore concerning the chamois relates that it was known as the ‘devil of the mountains’ and some tales involve dwarves shepherding them around the mountains,[13] yet sadly nothing of that nature appears to exist in the Pyrenees. An interesting piece of chamois folklore is however supplied by the aforementioned Gaston Fébus in the 14th century, in which he writes:

Sometimes the boucs ysarus want to scratch their hind thighs with their horns, and they push so hard that they get their horns stuck into their backside and cannot pull them out because [the horns] are curved and barbed, and so they fall and break their necks.[14]

Needless to say, the isard cannot hook itself into an ouroboros by its own horns, however the mention of this curious folkoric belief is noteworthy, being both physically impossible and also serving no known function or association; it is just possible that this concept of a barbed and curved horn has some form of demonic aspect, similar to the Alpine example mentioned above. As was seen in Chapter Four, hunters sometimes nail the foot of an isard to the front door in order to protect themselves from storms, and in the Biros Valley (Ariège) lies the Chapelle de l’Isard, dedicated in 1638 to Notre-Dame des Neiges.[15] It has become an important site of local pilgrimage, and still hosts masses blessing the flocks for local shepherds.[16] The local cure would bless the flocks here when the sheep had moved to nearby summer pastures,[17] with shepherds leaving a candle on the altar, and legend dictates that such a practise will ensure fertility not only for the sheep but also for childless couples.[18] Chamois hunting remains an annual event the length and breadth of the Pyrenees, despite having been nearly hunted to extinction in the mid-20th century for leather.[19]

Deviating from the quadrupeds listed above, one avian example will now be briefly examined. Many could have been chosen, but the link between the owl and the witch is strong within the Pyrenees, and given the emphasis paid to the latter in the previous chapter, the owl is an appropriate departure within this analysis. Six species exist within the Pyrenees,[20] however there does not seem to be a great distinction made between them within the folkloric record. As mentioned in Chapter Four, within the Pyrénées-Orientales, roofs often have at least one upward curving tile, sometimes plain. Whereas those carved into a cockerel[21] were intended to ward off witches and the evil eye (sometimes called cue de gal or cornes de sorcières), in the Conflent region the tiles were accompanied by statuettes of owls. A common folkloric belief of the region is that witches could turn into owls, and by allowing them somewhere to perch and rest, the household would gain the favour of the witch.[22] In the Landes region, next to the Pyrénées-Atlantiques, it is traditional to throw a handful of salt in the fire when one hears the hoot of an owl, to ward off its curse.[23] Within the fearful climate of the 17th century, many records of ‘confessions’ from witches across the South-west of France, including the Pyrenees, state that owls would accompany the witches as they flew to the Sabbath, carrying out errands for them and aiding in their spells.[24] [25] In a less sinister aspect, throughout France, when a pregnant woman hears an owl hoot, it indicates that she will give birth to a girl.[26]


[1] For an overview of this theme and other pig-cults across Europe, see: Brown, Peter, The Luxuriant Pig, Folklore, Vol. 76, No. 4, Winter, 1965, pp. 288 – 300.

[2] The boar also occupied a primary position in Norse and Germanic mythology, as well as in Slavic, Greek and Italic legend.

[3] Pailhaugue, Nicole, Faune et Saisons d’Occupation de la Salle Monique au Magdalénien Pyrénéen, Grotte de la Vache (Alliat, Ariège, France). Quaternaire, Vol. 9, No. 4, 1998, pp. 385 – 400.

[4] Dachary, Morgane et al., The Mesolithic Occupations of Bourrouilla in Arancou (Pyrénées-Atlantiques, France), Paleo: Revu d’Archaéologie Préhistorique, 24, 2013, pp. 79 – 102. Available here: https://journals.openedition.org/paleo/2857

[5] Geddes, David. Neolithic Transhumance in the Mediterranean Pyrenees. World Archaeology, Vol. 15, No. 1, June 1983, pp. 51 – 66.

[6] Ballbè, Ermengol et al., ‘The Beginning of High Mountain Occupations in the Pyrenees: Human Settlements and Mobility from 18,000 cal. BC to 2000 cal. BC’ in High Mountain Conservation in a Changing World, Jordi Catalan, Josep Ninot and Mercè Aniz (eds.) (Cham: Springer, 2017), pp. 75 – 105.

[7] Vernier, Richard, Lord of the Pyrenees, Gaston Fébus, Count of Foix (1331 – 1391). London: Boydell & Brewer, 2008), 134.

[8] Deyermond, Alan, Epic Poetry and the Clergy: Studies on the “Mocedades de Rodrigo” (London: Tamesis Books Ltd., 1969), p. 89.

[9] Yravedra, Jose, and Cobo-Sanchez, Luciá, Neanderthal Exploitation of Ibex and Chamois in Southwestern Europe, Journal of Human Evolution, Vol. 78, January 2015, pp. 12 – 32.

[10] Hartt, Frederik, Art: A History Of. Volume 1: Prehistory, Ancient World, Middle Ages (New York, NY: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1976), p. 49.

[11] Bahn, Paul et al., Journey Through the Ice Age (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 1997) p. 202.

[12] Burkitt, Michael, Prehistory: A Study of Early Cultures in Europe and the Mediterranean Basin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1921), p. 246.

[13] Keightley, Thomas, The Fairy Mythology: Illustrative of the Romance and Superstition of Various Countries (London: G. Bell & Sons, 1850), pp. 264, 271.

[14] Vernier, 2008, p. 134.

[15] This area was heavily mined in the 19th century, and the chapel itself has been destroyed no less than seven times from fires and avalanches.  A recent example from 1933 provides an explanation as to the frequency of these fires; the cure had provided a zinc candle holder to act as a safety precaution against the flames of the guttering candles, however in 1933 more than forty candles were left burning on the altar itself, as the shepherds considered the candle-holders to impair the efficacy of the offering, and the chapel soon burnt to the ground yet again. It is said that prior to the chapel’s existence, an altar to Pan or Diana and Silvan was present, protecting the hunters, herds and shepherds. Silván is usually presented as an old bearded man carrying a staff, usually dressed in animal skins or a hooded tunic. Stele bearing his name appear in Comenche, Bigorre and the Valleé d’Aure in the Hautes-Pyrénées, and within the Vall d’a Cinca in neighbouring Huesca there lies the Cueva (cave) de Silván. A legend from the village of Tella (Huesca), around which are multiple dolmens, mentions that Silván steals animals and women, however this may be a confusion with the Classical motif of fauns, and this Classical element could explain the legend of the altar at the Chapelle de l’Isard being dedicated to Pan or Diana. The Virgin at this site appears to be related to a fertility legend that may well have its origins in these pre-Christian elements. At the time of writing, an article by the author on the Wild Man in the Pyrenees, including Basajaun, Silván, and Tantagou as repositories of cultural memory, will be present in the forthcoming inaugural issue of the Pyrenean journal Viarany.

[16] de Chausenque, Vincent, Les Pyrénées ou Voyages Pédestres dans Toutes les Régions de ces Montagnes Depuis l’Océan Jusqu’à la Méditerranée. Tome 3, Arège, Rousillon (Paris: Lecointe et Pougin, 1834).

[17] See the Summer section of Chapter Six for mention of the practice of transhumance and flock blessings.

[18] Alford, 1937, p. 83.

[19] For an informative and entertaining account of Isard hunts in the French and Spanish Pyrenees in the mid-20th century, see: Pujol-Carpdevielle, Louis, À l’Approche des Isards (Paris: Montbel, 2016).

[20] These are the Tawny Wood Owl (Strix aluco), the Scops Owl (Otus scops), the Long-eared Owl (Asio otus), Tengmalm’s Owl (Aegolius funereus), the Barn Owl (Tyto alba), and the Eurasian Eagle-Owl (Bubo bubo). Interestingly, the latter has a myth associated with it in the Hautes-Alpes, where an Eagle-owl known as the Duphon steals young women, braids horses’ manes and in the town of Serres there is a stone door and ruined rampart known as the Trou du Duphon (‘the Duphon’s Hole’). See: van Gennep, Arnold, Le Folklore des Hautes-Alpes, Tome II (Paris: J. P. Maisonneuve et Cie, 1948).

[21] The cockerel is a symbol of the rising sun and the resurrection in the Christian tradition, and in the Middle Ages he was also used to represent the preacher who, like the cockerel at the start of each day, must awaken the people to Christ.

[22] de Marliave, 2006, p. 90.

[23] Cuzacq, René, Le Folklore des Landes: La Littérature Orale et Populaire (Paris: Auteur, 1949), p. 44.

[24] This was no doubt influenced by the Classical Latin belief that witches were believed to be night-owls or screech-owls, strix, that could assume human form, and prior to this link to female witches the strix was an owl-like creature that flew at night drinking the blood and eating the flesh of children. Strix still refers to a genus of owls in taxonomy.

[25] Dubourg, 2013.

[26] Grimassi, Raven, Encyclopedia of Wicca and Witchcraft (Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Worldwide, 2000), p. 320.

Book Extract #3 – Carnival in the Pyrenees

Carnival sees various costumes, processions and indulgences being acted out across Europe, and the Pyrenees is no exception. Various rites and rituals that celebrate Spring are woven into the more usual parades, many of which recall potentially pre-Christian celebrations and invocations of fertility and the emerging season of new growth. These often involve dances, and sometimes centre on players dressing up as livestock (although this is discouraged by the Church), and (historically) the slaying of animals. At Ax-les-Thermes (Ariège) during the early-20th century a folkloric tale emerged of a man wearing a calfskin for the Carnival dances, and this was such an impious gesture that the hide stuck to him, and only prayers would remove it.[1] Numerous bestial examples occur within Carnival in the traditions of Catalonia and the Pyrénées-Orientales, such as the Bou Rouch (‘Red Bull’) in Vallespir, a hobby horse-type figure made from a frame over which a scarlet cloth is draped. At the end of the Carnival celebrations he is led around the streets pursuing a female figure known as Trésine,[2] frequently charging into shops and terrorising the towns-folk, before being ritually killed by men dressed as bull fighters.[3] Balls or dances mark the advent of Spring in Catalonia, such as the Ball de la Primera in Valls,[4] which is also accompanied by that most typically Catalan formation, the Castells, a human tower forming up to six or even seven levels. These towers are formidable to witness, in which the heavier members form a base and successively lighter and agile members climb on their colleagues backs to form higher levels, and are frequently accompanied by grallers i timbaler (pipers and a drummer).[5]

One of the most impressive Carnival celebrations is that of the Basque Maskarada, found within the Soule region of the Northern Basque Country (Pyrénées-Atlantiques), and its extensive cast of characters warrants a full description.[6] Two primary groups of players form the troupe; Les Beaux and Les Noirs. The former arrives first, headed by Tcherrero who wears a red tunic, bejewelled spats, sheep-bells and a horse-tail, used to brush the ground in front of the hobby-horse. Following him we have the Gathuzain, wearing a jewelled shirt and carrying an extendable tong-like implement which is used to snatch hats from the crowd. Alford describes this character as ‘the Cat Man’, and suggests that the tongs originate from an ancient symbolic representation of lightening, similar to the instrument carried by Carnival players in Biscay which are called ‘Witches’ Scissors’.[7] Then comes the Zamalzain, the rider of the Hobby Horse, who also wears a jewelled shirt as well as bells on his legs and a crown fashioned from flowers, ribbons, mirrors and feathers, and who sways the horse to and fro with each forward step. Behind him walks the Kantiniersa, a man dressed in a short skirt and apron who pirouettes, which replaced the older figure of a gypsy who would feed the horse and make ribald jokes with the crowd.[8] Finally there comes the flag-bearing Enseñaria, the smiths and the Kulkulleros who carry ribbon-tied rods that the strike together. The second group, Les Noirs, are led by the Gentleman, the Lady and the Peasant, and are dominated by figures which are dressed to demonstrate that they are not local, as well as speaking Béarnais rather than Basque. The company consists of Kauterak (‘tinkers’) with lambs’ tails, Tchorochak (‘knife-grinders’), Buhame Jaunak (‘gypsies’) and Kherestuak (‘gelders’). Obstacles are placed by the townsfolk across the road and both parties attempt to negotiate these in various humorous ways, eventually ending up in the main square where a series of traditional dances are performed, including one in which the horse and its rider balance themselves upon a (presumably sturdy) wine glass. Each character type has its role to play in a series of ritualised actions, including the gelding of the horse and its being hoisted upon the shoulders of the dancers, and it has been suggested that the figures of both the horse and his rider (representing a knight) and Les Noirs (representing serfs) can be traced back to the 15th– and 16th-century Sociétés Joyeuses.[9] [10] Further north, in the Labourd commune (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) a similar carnival dance is played out, with additional characters such as the Basa Andreak ‘Wild Ladies) with veiled faces and long black hair, and the Sapurak, men wearing huge sheep skins and aprons, carrying axes.[11]

Huesca too hosts carnival celebrations that seem to carry a strong whiff of the archaic, particularly in Bielsa, which in combination with the costumes and traditions suggests it is strongly tied to the emergence of Spring rather than pre-Lent celebrations. The main characters in this celebration is the Trangas, single men with goat horns and a hide mounted atop their soot or oil blackened faces,[12] carrying large bells on their belt who chase the Madamas (single women) and dance with them. The ubiquitous bears are also in attendance, represented by men wearing hides over straw-stuffed sacks and led by their ‘handlers’, and on the first night a large well-endowed doll is created from old clothes stuffed with straw, and hung from the window of the town hall. At the end of the carnival he is taken down, ‘judged’ for various misdeeds, beaten and burnt. It has been suggested by scholars that Bielsa’s carnival is in reality a seasonal fertility rite, as exemplified by the immolation of Cornelio, it being potentially a sacrifice that sustains the cattle, crops and society for yet another year.[13]

Other examples can be found in the Navarre, with the bear-like Hartza[14] featuring in the Carnival of Arizkun, in which he stops a wedding procession, is led around the town by his ‘handler’ or shepherd (the Hartzazain) and is clad in sheepskins. In Pamplona, too, one finds the Zezengorri (‘Red Bull’) in attendance at Carnival, and whilst this tradition seems fairly recent (the carnival here being founded in 1977), the figure of Zezengorri is an ancient one, being a feature of Basque mythology that dwells in caves and who can throw fire from his mouth and nostrils. In the carnival of Alsasua (Navarre) the Momotxorroak can be seen; half-man, half-bull characters armed with huge horns, wooden pitchforks and bloodstained clothes. These fearsome creatures chase townsfolk, attempt to enter houses, and it has been suggested that they may have a link to the sacrifice of animals at this time of year. In the evening of Shrove Tuesday hundreds of them process down the streets, accompanied by Juantramposos (humanoid characters with great oversized sackcloth costumes stuffed with straw) and Mascaritas (female figures in red hooded shawls with lace veils).[15]

Across the border in the Haute-Garonne, Shrove Tuesday also saw a unique event in the village of Poubeau. A locally revered boulder named Cailhaeo d’Arriba-Pardin would be approached by a procession of young men from the village, who would then light a fire on the rock accompanied by ludicrous and obscene gestures. The fire lit, they would then dance joyfully around the rock, singing lustily. This was known as the Fête des Gagnolis, and still occurs despite numerous attempts by local clergy to discourage the practise.[16] Further to the southwest, at Arles-sur-Tech (Pyrénées-Orientales), a figure known sometimes as Gregoire (an effigy representing the spirit of Carnival) was paraded around the streets in an ox cart loaded with fresh greenery – that night, men dressed in their wives’ chemises with bundles of paper attached to the hem like a tail, would make their way with torches down lanes into the town’s main square, during which time they would attempt to set alight the paper ‘tail’ of the man in front! Gregoire was then ‘tried’ in villages up and down the valleys, before being burnt in a main square, during which the townsfolk would sing:

Al Carnabal es mort                           Carnival is dead,

Tire ballanes, tire ballanes;                Throw nuts, throw nuts;

Al Carnabal es mort,                          Carnival is dead,

Tire ballanes din dal clot.                   Throw nuts in his grave.[17]

Ash Wednesday marks the end of the Carnival season, a time of excess and pageantry and start of Lent, a far more sombre (and lean) affair. One custom that marks this transition is the burial of the sardine (Entiero de la Sardine), a tradition found across Spain and the Catalan Pyrenees (and Andorra) is no exception. This tradition is said to originate in Madrid in the 18th century, and features a large mock funeral procession climaxing in the burial of a sardine (either real or replica) in a coffin, or its burning. The burning of the sardine has been suggested) to represent the purifying and purging of vices and chaos indulged in during the Carnival, restoring order for the start of penitence during Lent, and the burial of the sardine symbolises the start of a period of reflection.[18] There are claims that this festival has its origins in pagan custom, however if it does indeed originate to the 18th century then this seems unlikely, even if it continues a now lost folkloric motif, possibly relating to the advent of Spring with the sardine representing the last of the Winter stores being given in thanks.[19] [20]

This day was a particularly entertaining one in Andorra, during which the stuffed effigies of Carnestoltes (the spirit of Carnival) were taken down from where they hung, and, in some parishes, they were publically burnt. Men would then go into their houses to ‘seize a woman there, lift her skirts and throw a handful of flour or ashes between her legs’, and others would daube their faces with flour or ash a parade through the village with knives in their hand, as if they were shaving.[21] Carnival in Catalonia was also associated heavily with the slaughter of pigs, and in Urgell a song entitled El Funerals del Porc is sung during this period.[22]

Another remarkable custom that occurred at the start of Lent in Catalan villages was the hanging up of a paper doll with seven legs, or a salted cod from which seven dried herring hang. None of these are local species, all having been caught further to the north. The doll was typically hung from the tympanum of a chimney or the kitchen door, and every Sunday when returning from Mass the household would cut one leg from the doll, thus marking the passing of each week of Lent. The paper from which the doll was made would either be from the diary of the previous year, or in some cases Amades claims that it could be fashioned from a papal bull saved from the previous Lent. In some parishes, the doll would be framed by sardines, onions and garlic, as if it were an icon in a chapel. The custom was still being practised in Barcelona and Tarragona during the 1950s,[23] however it is possible that this tradition survives in the more rural parts of Catalonia and the Pyrenees. The hanging salted cod is another method of counting down the weeks of Lent. The cod would be hung from the ceiling in the centre of the household’s or village’s store, with seven dried herring hanging from its tail. Each Saturday evening one of the herring would be cut down from the cod, marking another week of Lent. In the district of Sant Marti de Provencals in Barcelona, this still occurred in some establishments up to the late 1950s.[24]

In Ripoll (Catalonia) the recently revived Ball dels Cornuts sees an extraordinary and seemingly archaic dance take place in the town square, in which young men don horns and various animal hides, charging at each other and feigning to gore their opponent, and a lone figure dressed in a mule mask with a halter and covered in bells pursues the girls of the town who are watching in the square.[25] Within the Aude region a similar expression can be found in the Bail dals Cornuts, which traditionally sees only married men dancing, led by the most freshly wed man in the village wearing rams horns.


[1] Alford, Violet, Pyrenean Festivals: Calendar Customs, Magic & Music, Drama & Dance (London: Catto & Windus, 1937), p. 26. It should be clarified here that this book is a treasure-trove for celebrations within the Pyrenean year, albeit divided into a rather binary Summer/Winter construct, however Alford has produced an incredible compendium especially in relation to dances and fêtes that were still enacted in the early-20th century.

[2] This is much like the figure of Rosetta in the various ‘bear dances’; see Chapter Three for details.

[3] Alford, 1937, p. 26.

[4] Amades, Joan, Guia de Festes Tradicionals de Catalunya (Barcelona: Editorial Aedos, 1958), p. 20.

[5] The tradition of these towers is said to originate in Valencia, first being mentioned in 1712, and frequently appear in all manner of Catalan street celebrations throughout the year.

[6] See Alford’s 1937 description of the Maskarada, pp. 142 – 149.

[7] Alford, 1937, p. 142.

[8] It has been suggested that the increasingly coarse nature of the jokes led to the figure’s replacement by the Kantiniersa in the late-19th century.

[9] The Sociétés Joyeuses were a Medieval French phenomenon consisting of various troupes who would perform satirical and farcical plays and performances, and which flourished under the reign of King Louis XII (1498 – 1515). For more information see: Janik, Vicki (ed.), Fools and Jesters in Literature, Art and History: A Bio-bibliographical Sourcebook (Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1998).

[10] Badé, Jean ‘Le Carnaval chez les Basques de la Soule’, in Le Théâtre Comique, Georges Hérelle (ed.) (Paris: Librairie Ancienne Honoré Champion, 1925), p. 46.

[11] Alford, 1937, p. 150.

[12] In this respect, they are very similar to the bear characters discussed in Chapter Three.

[13] Harris, Max, Carnival and Other Christian Festivals: Folk Theology and Folk Performance (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2003), p. 247.

[14] See Chapter Three for details.

[15] Fréger, Charles, Wilder Mann: The Image of the Savage (Stockport: Demi Lewis Publishing, 2012), p. 266.

[16] Alford, 1937, p. 91

[17] Alford, 1937, p. 37.

[18]Barreto Vargas, Carmen, El Carnaval de Santa Cruz de Tenerife: Un Estudio Antropológico.  Servicio de Publicaciones de la Universidad de La Laguna, 1993. pp. 254–261. Doctoral Thesis. Available here: ftp://tesis.bbtk.ull.es/ccssyhum/cs177.pdf

[19] It should be emphasized here that this is purely conjecture.

[20] It possibly fulfils a similar function to the Lenten herring tradition in the north of Europe.

[21] Hadden, Alan, ‘Lent, Holy Week and Easter’ in Andorra: Festivals, Traditions and Folklore. (Escaldes: Andorra Writers Circle, 1998), pp. 39 – 43.

[22] Amades, 1958, p. 33.

[23] As recorded by Amades.

[24] Amades, 1958, p. 35.

[25] Alford, 1937, p. 26.

Book Extract #2 – Bear Cults and Bear Dances

This extract is, in fact, two extracts from Chapter 3 of the forthcoming book. The first part describes some of the archaeological evidence for the possibility of Pyrenean Palaeolithic bear cults, and the second delves into the modern bear festivals and their various rituals outside of the Basque Country (some things must be reserved for the book!). Again, all notes are presented here as endnotes due to WordPress limitations, but in the actual book are footnotes for ease of reference. I hope you enjoy!

Extract 1: Bears and the Pyrenean Palaeolithic


Whilst some evidence from which an extrapolation of bear worship is circumstantial, other examples seem to point towards a deep time signature for this practise. It is important to note that due to the preference of caves as a shelter and place of hibernation/rearing young, it is precisely within such environments that one would expect to find the remains of bears, and the heavier long bones and skull would survive natural degradation processes far better than smaller, more fragile bones. The crucial aspect is in the context within which these bones are placed, and while some archaeologists such as Ida Wunn claim that these placements are down to natural processes (flooding, the movement of other bears, soil deposition etc.), other archaeologists are convinced that these discoveries indicate the presence of a primordial bear cult in the Palaeolithic, and are the origins of the ethnographic examples mentioned above.

One persuasive example of the apparent deliberate deposition of cave bear bones can be found in Veternica Cave near Zagreb, in the Mousterian context of the cave’s history.[1] Bednarik reports that no less than sixty-three skulls were excavated, along with several hearths, and that six Cave Bear skulls had been found neatly arranged in a row, with their snouts pointing towards the cave entrance. Several other skulls also indicated man-made perforations and polishing, and in the east of the cave, a niche had been made or exploited for the placing of a skull and long bones, then carefully sealed with boulders.[2] The seemingly deliberate positioning of cave bear skulls is also reported at the Caverne de Furtins in the Saône-et-Loire region of France, and other examples have been suggested based on evidence at the caves of Reyersdorfer and Salzofen (Austria), Drachenloch (Switzerland),[3] and those at Homoródalm ser, Istállóskö, Kölyuk and Mornowa (Hungary).[4] Recent evidence is also postulated at the infamous Chauvet Cave, whose rock art is discussed in Chapter One. Here, nearly two hundred skulls were discovered, several of which are positioned anatomically within the context of the rest of their remains, indicating natural deposition and decomposition of the bears’ corpses within the cave. However, many are also found in isolation, with several of their lower mandibles showing evidence of having been forcibly removed, placed in often upright positions in prominent locations within the cave complex, with one placed on a table-like boulder that protrudes seventy centimetres above the cave floor. Bednarik writes:

There are two other clear examples of deposited cave bear bones in Chauvet, both found in the Salle des Bauges. This is a very large hall near the original entrance, containing only four skulls. In two cases, about 10 m apart and perhaps 30 to 40 m from the former, now collapsed entrance, occurs the combination of a cave bear skull with a cave bear humerus. In both cases the skulls are placed upright, and the humeri have been inserted into the ground perfectly vertically, at least half submerged in the sediment. In one case the long-bone is located close to the skull, in the other it is about a metre away, but precisely aligned with its longitudinal axis and in front of it. There are no other bones in the vicinity. In both cases the surrounding surface is entirely of fine-grained sediment and fairly flat. Fluviatile action is not indicated, though the area appears to have been submerged under a shallow pond occasionally. It is extremely unlikely that these two placements are random, natural effects; the two humeri are the only elongate bones in the cave orientated vertically.[5]


Within the Chauvet Cave we also find cave art depicting the bear, as well as other predatory animals such as lions, and other examples of Palaeoart from around Europe seem to suggest that the hunting of cave bears was not out of the ordinary. At the caves of Les Trois Freres, we find ‘two bears apparently lying on their sides, with marks at their nozzles suggesting an issuance and their bodies covered by numerous apparent piercings and arrow-like marks’,[6] and in another cave in the Ariège, La Grotte du Montespan, one finds a nearly life-size bear statue crafted from clay and covered in small holes. In the Midi-Pyrénées, the Grotte du Peche Merle contains a petroglyph which details a bear’s head, with two lines suggesting the head’s severance. Furthermore, the caves of ‘Goyet, Princesse Pauline, and Trou de Chaleux, which are located in the Condroz, a region south of the Sambre and Meuse valleys in Belgium’ have offered up evidence for what has been termed a ‘proto bear cult’.[7] Several fossilised bear bones from the Upper Palaeolithic have been discovered in these caves, which is not unusual in itself, but red ochre was found to have been applied to them. Germonpré and Hämäläinen make comparisons to the ethnographic record, within which it is common to find the remains of hunted bears being treated with some manner of dye, either from bark juice, blood, earth-derived pigments or cloth, or even smoked to produce a blackening of the skull. It has also been suggested that the presence of red ochre traces on these bones was not due to accidental contamination with the pigment, and was instead deliberately and carefully applied; red ochre being a part of the known Upper Palaeolithic symbolic mortuary practises:

The examples noted above of manipulated bear remains in Belgium, Europe, and North America could be interpreted as continuous with bear-related rituals that started with a proto bear-ceremonialism dating from the Gravettian, and possibly even from the Aurignacian. The presence in the Upper Paleolithic of red ochre or black charcoal traces on the bear skull and bones of the bear paws, and the application in ethnographic rituals from all over the circumpolar realm of these same colors on these same bear body parts could be interpreted as similar acts by the people who hunted the animals. It is not possible to be certain whether the ochre and charcoal-applying activities had the same meaning and purpose as the recent bear rituals in the circumpolar hunter-gatherer cosmology. However, given the above, it seems reasonable to conclude that the coloring by red ochre or black charcoal of the bear remains was associated with bear hunting and eating of bear meat and probably formed an integrated part of the proto bear-ceremonialism.[8]

Whilst the degree to which this evidence displays a specific reverence is debatable, it is clear that in the cases listed above, the positioning of these bones and skulls in such a manner, and their colouring, cannot be put down to simple taphonomic processes; there must have been a degree of intentionality behind them, which indicates that the cave bear and by extension the figure of the bear itself occupied a heightened position within the minds of these caves’ occupants. It is important to note that these discoveries have been found only within caves which demonstrate extensive human occupation and use; no such arrangements have been found in connection with caves that are used exclusively by bears alone. Whilst the argument of bear cults within the Palaeolithic context has been raging for decades, the recent trend to reject out of hand, and without sufficient analysis, the possibility of reverence or ritual treatment of bear remains is unwise; when one considers the ethnographic data, it would certainly seem possible. The hunting of bears within the ethnographic contexts is always accompanied by some manner of special treatment, either before and/or after the killing of the bear, and synonyms are always used to avoid offending the bear. These practises must have an origin point, and given the depositional contexts of certain skulls, the evidence shown for the hunting of bears in the Palaeolithic, and their being the subjects of both painted and sculptural Palaeoart, it seems certainly plausible that the kernel for these practises may be traced back to this period. It is also highly interesting that both sculpture and painted representations of bears, particularly in the case of hunting and the severing of a head, are found within the Pyrenean context, indicating that certainly the practise of bear-hunting took place in the region. As to the degree of ritualised or proscribed behaviours that surrounded such a practise, only speculation can be engaged in, but this cannot preclude the possibility of some form of deliberate deposition of the bear’s bones and its occupation of a particular place within the minds of the hunters, or indeed the Palaeolithic population at large.

Extract 2: Contemporary Examples of Pyrenean Bear Festivals

Turning to the bear festivities found in the nearby Pyrenean principality of Andorra, we find that historically the bear dances took place in Ordino, Andorra le Vella, Santa Coloma, Escaldes (where the bear’s body was placed in a fire but the bear always leapt up alive from the embers – probably quite quickly given the fact that it was a man in costume!) and finally in Encamp,[9] which has the longest continuing tradition of the Ball de l’Ossa (Bear Dance), and its origins are quite unique, being based on (alleged) social history:


The story is that the rich important famer of Can Moles and his charming wife were out one day in their best clothes to pay a visit [to a notable local family, Can Joan Antoni], when a huge and terrifying bear charged out of the bushes to attack them. A gallant hunter heard their cries and slew the bear with one shot. The bear was so huge, the hunter so brace, the lady so beautiful and the husband so grateful and rich that this created an indelible folk memory. A dance was organised to celebrate it and has continue ever since.’ This sounds a relatively straightforward explanation, however the dance still incorporates many commonly found motifs of the bear dances across the Pyrenees, including a maiden attacked by a bear, the bear being dragged to the central square and shot, the corpse then has harvesters’ scythes crossed over it after which it springs back to life and dances with the harvesters and the farmer.[10]

This dance still takes place each year, and is a ribald affair which, much like in Prats-de-Mollo, is aided by local wine to keep the cold at bay. We begin with several smugglers[11] who are scything straw (or rather, distributing it), and who periodically wrestle each-other. Their leader makes an appearance and directs them in song, after which a notable figure on a horse arrives to make a speech. After he leaves, a ‘woman’ (i.e. a very large man in drag) appears and quite violently forces the seated smugglers to drink wine, eat fuet (a local type of cured salami) and be generally knocked about through aggressive hospitality. The ‘bear’ then makes his entrance and attempts to carry of the ‘woman’[12], upon which local hunters appear and shoot the bear, and dance about his corpse. The scythes are no longer crossed over the bear’s body, and the bear does not become reanimated.

To the West, in the town of Pau within the Béarn region, one finds another ‘Chasse de l’Ours’. Interestingly, the bear is still referred to by locals as lou pedescaou (he who goes barefoot) and lou Mousse (the gentleman), indicating a level both of respect and anthropomorphism that resonates strongly with the echoes of bear veneration and reverence that seem to reverberate around the Pyrenees. Several days after Carnival (again, at the start of Spring), this sleepy town reverberates to one of the most raucous incarnations of the ‘Bear Hunt’, but with two key differences. It takes the place of a procession, in which several ‘bears’ are escorted throughout the town by ‘hunters’; however, the ‘hunters’ are all women in men’s costumes, and the bears are in full bear costume and all men, and several men also dress in drag as provocative young women, the Rosettes. The bears all sport bright red ‘appendages’, however it is safest to attribute this to a more modern twist on the traditional costume, tempting as it is to ascribe ‘fertility rites’ to such a presence, it being more likely a representation of the robust local humour! The ‘bears’ are led through the town, and in keeping with tradition will periodically grab either the Rosettes or genuine female townsfolk and rub against them in a lascivious manner. The ‘hunters’ then gather together in the main square, and the ‘bears’ make their way into the square shortly after. The Rosettes are set on one side of the square, and the bears make charges at them, driven (apparently) into a frenzy due to their months in hibernation. A final charge by the ‘bears’ gives the signal for chaos to break loose, and the Rosettes are vigorously fondled and wrestled by their ursine pursuers. In a curious (and what must be a modern) twist, a group of men dressed in antiquated English huntsmen outfits, red coats and all, appear and give the signal for the hunt to begin, upon which the ‘hunters’ tussle with the bears, cutting off the modern ‘appendages’ which are given to the Rosettes as a present. The ‘bears’ are left for dead, however Los Orsatèrs (the Bear Keepers) appear and revive them, and are left in charge of the bears for the rest of the evening.[13]

We turn next to the rural valley of Bigorre, also in the Béarn region, whose bear festival is also worth including, not least due to an attentive description of its elements by the irrepressible Violet Alford in 1930. Sadly, this festival seems to no longer be in existence, or at least, could not be verified at the time of writing,[14] however its combination of both common and rare motifs make it most worthy of inclusion and examination here. Alford reports that following Carnival, on Jeudi Gras (the Thursday before Lent), a man dressed in goatskins, a mask and with woollen gloves on mimicking paws, would dash across the fields, led by a humpbacked figure with a staff, and accompanied a figure dressed in a white blouse, white handkerchief and a whitened face, with a bushel of green leaves stuffed up its back. After this dash, the ‘bear’ pranced and danced with its leader, and was then ordered to ‘dance like those at the carnival’, upon which it gyrated and writhed in the dusty road in a distinctly sexual fashion. After this a second ‘bear’ would approach the first, growling, and the two would fight, only to be separated by a black-clad ‘doctor’, who produces from his cloak a magic bean. Several other ‘bears’ from neighbouring hamlets appear and join in fighting, chasing girls and dancing all day and night. The following day the main bear, known as Marti, is shot due to the damage he has caused, much to the leader’s despair, who begins to ‘skin’ the beast. At the touch of his knife the bear jumps up, resurrected, and dances with its leader.[15]

The sight of a goat-skinned creature dashing across a field is not a common one within this processional collection, however the familiar motifs of resurrection, sexual acts (unconsummated in this case), revelry and skinning/shaving are all present. In all the rites mentioned above, one finds this collection of motifs and actions, and strikingly all the named female characters involve some mutation of the name Rose, which warrants future investigation. All also recur around the advent of Spring, and/or the days after Carnival, a well-known scene of revelry and behaviour that subverts the social norms. All also involve a man or several young men shedding their human identity and taking on ‘bear-form’, however the Basque examples are particularly striking for their gait and grunting which directly mimics that of a bipedal bear. Other examples abound throughout the Pyrenees, and whilst this chapter is not meant to catalogue each and every one, the most prominent have been selected to display their common motifs, and the special place that the bear holds within Pyrenean folklore.

In a final illustration however, we find ourselves thrown back into the primordial, far from the smiling crowds and town squares found in the present-day bear dances. Alford fleetingly mentions a description by La Boulinière,[16] of a bear-chasing tradition near the commune of Argelès (Pyrénées Orientales), which had seemingly died out by the time of her writing.

One of the young men dresses himself as a bear, and at dusk runs through the woods, a torch in his hand; all the others follow him and endeavour to catch him, which is rather difficult although the torch acts as a guide.[17]

The image of flickering flames illuminating a bear-man as he dashes through the forest as the sunlight fades, pursued by the cries and thundering feet of several baying young men as they wove between the trees, brings into sharp relief the primordial visual aspect of this tradition, and extends itself by association to all the bear festivals mentioned above. In this brief description, we find all the terror, exhilaration and sweat of the bear-hunts of old, an echo of those found now only in the Pyrenees, but as described earlier in this chapter in the peoples and tribes of the Arctic hemisphere, and possibly reaching even further back into the pre-history of the Pyrenean populations.



[1] The Mousterian Industry is largely identified with Neanderthals, but also occurs within the context of anatomically modern humans, and defines the Middle Palaeolithic.

[2] Bednarik, Robert, ‘“Aurignacians” and the Cave Bear’ in Ecco Homo: In Memoriam Jan Fririch, Ivana Fridrichová-Sýkorová (ed.) (Prague: Vydala Agentura Krigl, 2010).

[3] ‘In a chamber of the Drachenloch in Switzerland, a stone cist had been built to house stacked bear-skulls: piles of sorted long bones were laid along the walls of the cave. Another heap of bones contained the skull of a bear through which a leg bone had been forced, the skull resting upon two other long bones, each bone was from a different beast.’: Coles, John, and Higgs, Eric, The Archaeology of Early Man (London: Faber & Faber, 1969), pp. 286-287.

[4] Bednarik, 2010, pp. 11 – 20.

[5] Bednarik, 2010, p. 15.

[6] Bednarik, 2010, p. 12.

[7] Germonpré, Mietje and Hämäläinen, Riku, Fossil Bear Bones in the Belgian Upper Paleolithic: The Possibility of a Proto Bear-Ceremonialism, Arctic Anthropology, Vol. 44, No. 2, 2007, p. 4.

[8] Germonpré and Hämäläinen, 2007, p. 21

[9] It should be noted however that Encamp is the oldest (in terms of founding) of Andorra’s seven parishes.

[10] Ure, Ursula, ‘Dancing with Bears’ in Andorra: Festivals, Traditions and Folklore. (Escaldes: Andorra Writers Circle, 1998), p. 33.

[11] Due to its unique position straddling the borders of France and Spain, Andorra has an illustrious history in this regard, mainly in terms of wine and tobacco, but nobler examples can be found in more recent history, with many fleeing either Franco or Hitler finding safe passage through the Andorran smuggling routes to either France or Spain, respectively.

[12] When the author witnessed this tradition, the carrying off of the female figure was not an easy affair, mainly due to her weighing at least ninety kilos.

[13] For photographs of this event, see https://zoetropic.wordpress.com/2012/02/20/carnival-in-pau-france-the-bear-hunt/.

[14] Although in a twist of fate, it has been one of the five sites in which Slovenian bears were released recently in an effort to reanimate the Pyrenean bear population, following its decimation through hunting.

[15] Alford, Violet, Pyrenean Festivals: Calendar Customs, Magic & Music, Drama & Dance (London: Chatto & Windus, 1937), p. 110.

[16] Alford is quoting from: Toussaint de La Boulinière, Pierre, Itineraire Descriptif et Pittoresque des Hautes Pyrénées Françoise, 2 Vols. (Paris: Libraire de Gide Fils, 1825).

[17] Alford, 1937, p. 110.

Article 26 – The Flaming Chalices of the Pyrenees

Since the mysteries of Rennes-le-chateau and Montsegur, not to mention the Cathar heresy, found their way into the public imagination, the Pyrenees has often been linked in various ways with the subject of the Holy Grail. This is not least due to the efforts of German Medievalist Otto Rahn, whose theories surrounding the connection between Montsegur and Monsalvat of Parzifal fame have found a receptive and varied audience. However, a very recent article by Alfred Llahi Segalas in an Andorran national paper (Bon Dia, 4th February 2019, p. 5) seems to present another line of inquiry regarding the presence of a ‘flaming chalice’ in Romanesque church iconography within Pyrenean Catalonia.

Within the cathedral of Valencia lies the ‘Sacred Chalice’, which is legendarily regarded as the Holy Grail (or at least, one of them). Allegedly, it was brought from Jerusalem to Rome by Saint Peter, and Pope Sixtus II then gave it to Saint Llorenc, who transferred it across the Pyrenees to Huesca, where it stayed until 712. Saint Llorenc then fled the Islamic forces and took refuge in the Aragonese monastery of San Juan de la Peña, near Jaca. It was then transferred to Zaragoza, and given to the King of Aragon, Martin the Humane (1356 – 1410) in 1399, who kept it in the Aljaferia Royal Palace until he died, whereupon it was transferred to the Royal Palace of Barcelona. In 1424 his successor, King Alfonso the Magnanimous (1396 – 1458) gave the royal reliquary over to the cathedral of Valencia, and in 1437 the chalice was also passed over to the cathedral.

Valencia chalice

The ‘Holy Chalice’ of Valencia Cathedral. Photo taken from: http://www.catedraldevalencia.es/en/el-santo-caliz_historia.php

The cup itself is generally contained in the 14th-century Chapter House, other than when it is used at the High Altar for specific celebrations. The principal part of the relic is the dark-brown agate cup, which was dated in the 1960’s by archaeologist Antonio Beltrán to between 100-50 B.C. and ascribed an ‘Oriental’ origin. The stem and handles are later additions, and the alabaster base is Islamic in design. There is also some Arabic script on the foot of the chalice.



The Virgin holding the Flaming Chalice, located in the apse of Sant Pere del Burgal (Pallars Sobirà). Photo taken from: https://www.museunacional.cat/en/colleccio/apse-el-burgal/mestre-de-pedret/113138-001


Professor Vincent Zuriaga (professor of Art History at the Catholic University of Valencia) in a 2008 presentation on Romanesque frescoes suggested that the iconography of the Virgin holding a flaming chalice may be a representation of the Holy Grail. Coincidentally, or not, the only four Romanesque churches in the world that have such a motif in their wall paintings are found in the Pyrenees, including one in Andorra. These churches are: Sant Climent de Taüll (Alta Ribagorça), Santa Maria de Ginestarre & Sant Pere del Burgal (Pallars Sobirà), and Sant Romà de les Bons (Encamp, Andorra). The latter also contains a very fine fresco depicting St John’s apocalyptic dreams, and some rare examples of paintings of livestock – a scene usually considered too hum-drum for inclusion. Zuriaga also suggested that the singular presence of these frescoes in the Pyrenees, combined with the legend journey of the ‘Sacred Chalice’ through the Pyrenees to the monastery of San Juan de la Peña, indicates that it is possible that the chalice was the object referred to within these four frescoes. Whether this hypothesis is correct or not, and if so, whether the chalice in question was represented from hearsay or an artist’s direct interaction with it, is impossible to say, however the unique presence of these four representations in such a small area of the Pyrenees (and indeed, the world), gives one pause for thought!