Article 25 – The Mythology of Giants in the Pyrenees

Throughout the Pyrenees, one finds constant references and representations of giants, be they the Basque Jentilak and Mairuak, the mythological creators of the dolmens and megaliths throughout that land, the gigantic Prouzous family in the Hautes-Pyrénées, and the giant Ferragut slaughtered by Roland during the Battle of Roncesvalles Pass. In this article, we will explore these examples and more, tracing a mythology of giganticism and lost archaic races that once roamed the Pyrenees.

Beginning with two of the most well-known examples, that of the Jentilak and Mairuak, these Basque figures are deeply ingrained in the landscape of the Basque Country and the Navarre. Basajaun is without a doubt the most famous representative of this gigantic race, and can be seen as a Wild Man figure, as covered in a previous article ( However, the Jentilak and Mairuak are more than simply this hoary Lord of the Forest. Speculation as to the etymological origins of the Jentil or Jentilak (plural) are wide, but primarily revolve around a corruption of the Latin gentilis or ‘gentile’, as an epithet to refer to the pre-Roman and pre-Christian peoples of the Basque region, much like the use of the term paganus which evolved from its original rustic reference to refer to pre-Christians in general. In the same way that Basajaun is said to have passed on the secret of agriculture, milling and metallurgy on to the Basques (potentially thereby acting as a folk-memorial embodiment of the arrival of these groundbreaking technologies to the Basque peoples – this will be discussed more deeply in a forthcoming article in the journal Viarany), the Jentilak were the first to cultivate crops, to forge and smith metal, and created the Basque game pelota. This aspect of being bearers of secret or lost wisdom may derive from their representation of pre-Christian peoples, as demonstrated in the legend of San Martin Txiki, where the latter steals the secrets of smithing and farming from them via his cunning is a very Loki-esque manner! The last attribute allegedly comes from their habit of throwing boulders at each other from mountain to mountain! Typically, they are depicted as covered in hair, carrying a huge staff or club, are possessed of enormous strength, and are frequently credited with the construction of the megalithic funerary monuments that litter the Basque Country and the Navarre. The Jentilak are said to have disappeared into the earth, beneath a dolmen within the Arratzeran valley (Navarre), when a star appeared in the sky announcing the birth of Christ. Only one, Olentzero, remained, evolving into a rural Christmas figure who would descend from his mountain on a horse, and roam the land leaving presents in peoples’ shoes (see The implications of this are discussed later in this article. Several of these megaliths and caverns are not only attributed to the hands of the Jentilaks, but also bear names referencing them, such as: Jentiletxe in Azania and Mutriku; Jentileio and Jentil Sukalde in Udiain; Jentillarri in Aralar; and Jentilzulo in Orozko.


A sketch of a mythical Jentil by Christian St Pierre.


Another region within the Pyrenees, or at least on their periphery, can be found in the Aude, with the legend of ‘The Menhir of the Giant Marre’ (Saint-Salvayre). The giant Marre was overtaken by boredom one day besides the Roquo de Broundo, and seeing as the menhir was but a pebble for him he decided to hurl it at the village of Alet, seven kilometres away.  However, he overshot, and the menhir struck the top of the mountain of Saint-Salvayre and stuck fast. Here we see again the mixture of strength, the attribution of the location (if not the creation) of a prehistoric monument, and the practice of hurling large rocks for sport, similar to the Jentilak. Within Caunette-sur-Lauquet one finds the legend of the giants Brau and Bacou. Brau was enormously strong, yet fond of sleep, and Bacou found nothing more amusing than disturbing the sleep of his friend. One day, Bacou encouraged all the wolves in the region to howl themselves to death in order to, once again, disturb Brau’s repose. Enraged, Brau awoke and hurled a huge block of stone at Bacau, trapping him forever within his cave. When hot air blows across the region, it is said to be the breath of this entombed giant. Here again we find common elements, in the hurling of rocks, strength, and a gigantic origin for a natural phenomenon.

To the north-east, in the Bigorre and the Béarn, the Bécut is said to roam, a cyclopean giant that is said to herd cattle and sheep with golden horns, arousing the envy of the villagers in the valleys around. It is also said to hunt for Christians, which it will roast on a large open grill, and theories regarding the etymological origins of the Bécut are varied. It has been put forward that Bécut may derive from Vécût, itself deriving from vivre (Old French), the Latin vivo, and finally the Proto-Indo-European *gʷíhweti meaning ‘to be alive’, indicating that the meaning may derive from ‘those who lived’, an indication of Bécut referring to the concept of a past people, potentially from a pre-conversion era. Other theories involve the reference to a beak, or one who lives along in savagery.  Jean-François Bladé in Les Tales populaires de la Gascogne reports three stories surrounding the Bécut, and parallels can be drawn to the Basque Tartaro and the Alpine Ulhart, both cyclopses who dwell in the mountains, alone and apart from civilization. There is a certain reference to the Classical Cyclops, as after capturing his Christian prisoners to roast alive he is frequently blinded in his eye by the prisoners escaping. Another example from the nearby Haute Pyrénées region, in the valley of Aventignan, is that of the giant Gargan, who lived in a cave. It has been suggested that Gargan derives from the Celto-Gallic, meaning quite literally ‘giant’, or from the French term gargantuan.


A charming depiction of the Bécut, artist unknown. Taken from:

Across the border in the Val d’Aran another giant memory is preserved, that of the giant of Garòs. Interestingly, the local lore surrounding this giant is that it was, in fact, Mandronius the Giant, who fought against the Romans at Betlan. He spent his days living in a cave in the area and, when combatting the Imperial Army, he invaded their camp to rescue his wife and daughter after the Romans captured them. He freed them but was captured himself, and eventually killed by an enormous nail that was driven into his skull. Legend has it that his pierced skull was kept within the church tower in Garòs as a relic, which was believed to have the power to heal and strengthen children. It is alleged that, in the early 20th century, a potato farmer was digging in a field outside the town, and found a skeleton that displayed obvious signs of giganticism, yet the presence of a hole in the skull of the nail is unreported.

The figure of Ferragut is, on the contrary, a far from native giant to the Pyrenees, featuring in the Matter of France (another name for this text is The Carolingian Cycle, a set of literary and historical texts that deal with the Carolingian era and Charlemagne’s exploits. Deriving from the Old French Chansons de Geste, by the early 13th century it had been divided into three distinct cycles by Bertrand de Bar-sur-Aube). As with the transformation of the Battle for Roncesvalles pass, in which Basque fighters ambushed Charlemagne’s forces in revenge for his sacking of Pamplona, into a fight between Moorish and Christian forces in which the archetypal knight Roland (originally a general in Charlemagne’s army) is killed, Ferragut is portrayed as a superhuman giant of Saracen origin. In a nod to Classical literature, specifically that of Achilles, he is only defeated with a spear thrust to the navel, being otherwise impervious to arrows, swords or spears, standing twelve cubits tall with the strength of forty men. The featuring of Ferragut in this article is not to illustrate the giant within native Pyrenean belief, but rather as an example of the influence of Classical themes and literature on legends and tales that sprung up surrounding actual Pyrenean events.


Various representations of Ferragut in Medieval manuscripts. Taken from:án%20y%20Ferragut

Moving forward into the 18th century, one finds a historical example of gigantism, that of a family in Luz (Haute Pyrénées) which were recorded as being around eight feet high each. The engineer François Pasumot in his Voyages Physiques dans le Pyrénées 1788 et 1789 mentions that the locals referred to this family as Prouzous or ‘Great Men’, all being buried within the local cemetery. The last of this line was a man whose death certificate recorded him as being 109 years old, and who was known as Barrigue. The author also noted that the size of the men in this family was famously repugnant to local girls (although obviously not sufficiently to cancel the line out in its origins). In his 1977 book Guide des Pyrénées Mystérieuses, Bernard Duhourcan discusses this account, supplementing it with a report by a local priest written in 1777, which reports that a clavicle taken from one of the graves measured twelve inches, and a shin bone measured twenty to twenty-four inches in length. Clearly, whilst giants were a feature of myth and legend in the Pyrenees, real-life examples of gigantism such as these would have done little to dispel their tenacity in local folklore.

Giants often have characteristics that encompass aspects such as chaos, primordialism, elements of ‘the wild’, arcane or archaic knowledge and vast capacities for strength. Belief in them often seems to surge from the Medieval period onwards, and it could be posited that they represent in the popular folk-consciousness a form of ‘other’ that symbolizes the distant past of a people. Whilst they are often feared, they are also usually held in some manner of respect, which is possibly an echo of their older forms as revered spirits or gods that held some aspect of nature. This ‘othering’, often with depictions and descriptions as wild, bestial creatures living in marginal landscapes (peaks, caves, forests etc.) could be a socio-cultural process of placing a pre- and post-Christian equation on a people or its belief-culture, with the giant forming a symbol of older figures of reverence that are often seen as in conflict with the current society, principally through folktales of livestock theft, confrontations and glimpses within the wild. In the case of the Pyrenees, this link to megalithic monuments, for example, ties them to the peoples and cultures that they live outside of, which when considered in conjunction with their intimate knowledge of ‘nature’s secrets’ may render Pyrenean giants as both representations of nature and as longue durée symbols of cultural history. Witch activity too is also typically associated with prehistoric monuments, the witch also functioning as an ‘other’ that is both feared and revered and also privy to secrets outside of daily experience. The confrontations between the giant (and the witch) with normal society can be seen as an analogy, especially within the Basque context, of the conflict and transition from a generally pre-Christian to a ‘converted’ populace, albeit one within which many pre-Christian spirits and deities became subsumed into a large well of folklore that continues to hold power today. An example is found in the above mentioned Olentzero, who as the last representative of the Jentilak race, became integrated and almost a representative of the Christmas period, swapping boulder hurling for the distribution of gifts, however, he is still represented as living on a mountain far from human interference for the majority of the year; in short, he is still ‘the other’.

Article 24 – The Fires of Midsummer and St John’s Eve.

On the 23rd of every June, fires are lit around Europe to celebrate both Midsummer and also St John’s Eve, however, these are particularly prevalent in Spain, where the night is a cascade of fires and fireworks, especially in Catalonia. The Pyrenees is, of course, no exception to this tradition, with many flaming torches being found processing down mountainsides and in town and village squares, with revels lasting long into the night.



Sant Joan celebrations in the Alt Aneu region. Taken from


The origins of this tradition are commonly agreed to predate the eminent St John himself, forming the central aspect to a seasonal celebration of Midsummer, hovering around the summer solstice, and several traditional practices which still survive appear to reinforce this notion. Certain plants are held to have potent qualities if gathered on this night, including (obviously) St John’s Wart, fennel, rosemary, rue, foxgloves and several others. If these are left in a bowl of water facing the moon overnight, they will acquire particular properties, and the water should be used to wash one’s face the following morning. In this aquatic vein, the water itself, either collected in the bowl or drawn from springs and wells this night, will also be imbued with a magical aspect, and if washed with the following morning can be seen as a purifying ‘shedding’ of ill luck gathered throughout the year so far. Certain modern traditions include the use of crystal or quartz around the bowl, which soaks up the moon’s rays and can be used in divinatory practices.

The fires themselves are said to ward off malign spirits, and also keep witches at bay, who are reputed to spend the night rushing around on broomsticks in order to attend Sabbaths on lakes and mountains on this night. Often, a bonfire is lit following some manner of procession, punctuated by the bangs and crackles of fireworks, and several performers swinging burning logs on chains around their heads. Some brave souls also leap over the bonfires to prove themselves and gain luck. In the Pyrenees, especially around the Lleida and Pyrénées Orientales regions, one can find some truly majestic sights, as men and women carry blazing branches and logs down the mountain to the square of the village or town below, where they will all be piled up against a specially selected trunk which acts as the nexus of the great bonfire. Sometimes, the charred trunk will be left there for the following twelve months, until it is replaced by a fresh bonfire on the next night of Sant Joan(Catalan)/San Juan(Spanish)/San Juan Eguna (Basque)/Saint Jean (French).


A vision of the fiery serpent making its way down the mountainside in the Catalan Pyrenees. Taken from:


People often write wishes or the names of desired love ones on scraps of paper, and push to the front of the crowd to through these into the fire itself, consigning their wishes to the heavens and hoping for them to come true over the ensuing months – heaven help the man or woman who finds themselves unusually popular during this period!

The festivities are of course richly furnished with libations of the best kind, and no doubt when the festival falls on the weekend people are especially relieved, but even when workaday matters might loom, this is an occasion for people to cut loose and enjoy watching the flames climb high into the night sky, accompanied by music, wine and the stars.

Article 23 – Pyrenean Pastoral Lore

One of the perennial figures of the Pyrenees, and indeed of many rural areas in general, is the pastoralist. The secrets of their folklore, traditions, and symbols of ownership are a treasure trove of information and still abound in various areas of the Pyrenees. Below we will briefly explore some of these traditional practises, cures and folk-beliefs, with a view to expanding on this subject in the near future, as time allows, for it is a fascinating one indeed! The vast majority of the information in this article is taken from the splendid book ‘La Vida Pastoral al Pallars’ by Ramon Violant I Simorra (Edicio d’Ignasi Ros I Fontana, 2001, in collaboration with the Ecomuseu de les Valls d’Àneu, which recently held an exhibition on Pyrenean witchcraft – see the Pyrennial Pyrenees Instagram account for details).

Livestock are vital to any rural community, where the rhythms of the year are measured in transhumance, births, and slaughter, and it is only natural that, as with so many other traditional roles, the shepherd and goatherd have built up a body of practises that are passed down from father to son, imbued with appeals to Saints, and the use of natural elements that recall deeper echoes of the past. For example, one general belief held by shepherds, found through the Pyrenees, was that in one hung up an oil lamp in the barn where sheep were kept overnight, then they would be afflicted with a strange malady. Somewhat more amusingly, the call of crickets was said to drive the sheep quite wild!


Rosa Bonheur Shepherd 2

Berger des Pyrénées by Rosa Bonheur, 1864.


In Benés (Lleida), anyone lambing would make the sign of the cross on Good Friday, before eight in the morning, lest they be thrown to the ground and the sheep rendered infertile.

In Benavarri (Baixa Ribagorca), shepherds and goatherds, in order to preserve their sheep and goats from becoming angry or crazy, would hang an amulet made from three dried fish drilled in the middle and threaded with cord on the door of the animal corral, and this would act as a protective and sure that the corral (typically on the mountainside) would remain safe, and also that any cattle on the mountain would also be secure.

Many pastoral folk believed that breeding cattle cannot be given salt on either the Monday or the Friday of any given week, as on Monday their eyes would begin to hurt, and on Friday they would be driven crazy. In Espot (Lleida), the Friday is known as ‘damned Friday’ as it does not allow for salt to be given to the cattle, and if the animals are wet then this further prohibits them from being given salt, as the pastoralists believe this gives them swellings on the hide.

In this saline vein, shepherds refuse to give wounded sheep salt, as this would make them become infertile and refuse to mate! Also, any sheep who becomes pregnant on the Feast of St James will be certain to lamb on Christmas day, due to the five-month gestation period (Sarroca de Bellera).

A certain code of silence was held by the shepherds in the past in their traditional lore, and there is a record of this persisting until 1935, when in Sentis, a housewife refused to show a visitor the owner’s mark, brand or staff used by her husband, in case by showing these implements she somehow brought bad luck to the flock itself. The visitor was later told by someone in the same town that the flocks were often loved more deeply than some of the shepherds’ relatives and that this reticence and refusal to show the implements and marks of the trade was perfectly normal; just by touching it the flock on the mountainside could be afflicted! A comparison can be drawn to the cowherds of Asturias, who refuse to answer how many livestock they have, as they believe that this will curse the herd and many cattle will die.


Rosa Bonheur Shepherd Pyrenees.jpg

Another untitled study of a Pyrenean shepherd by Rosa Bonheur, date unknown.


Bewitchment was a perpetual terror for any pastoralist, with many examples existing around the Pyrenees in which some drowsiness of sudden bout of illness was blamed on ‘the wicked art’. In the Vall de Cardós (Lleida), illness among cattle was often accorded to witchcraft, and similarly, in Avellanos (Lleida) malaria was often blamed on malefic influences and thought to be incurable unless some strong protective magic was utilised. In Son (Alt Àneu), deaths in livestock were thought to be directly related to witches’ curses, and shepherds passed the Holy Gospels over their flocks in an effort to counter any malign influence. In Farrera (Lleida), a shepherd is recorded as recounting that one winter in the mountains of Camarasa (La Noguera) many of the lambs in his flock died in the woods, and in an effort to protect the living ones he would rub a mixture of dried snake flesh, salt, and other secret condiments into their wool.

Lambing season would bring great joy, but also great pressure, stress, and fear to those for whom sheep were the foundation of their lives. When lambing, the shepherds of Benés (Lleida) would make a cross from two stems of grass and place it on the backs of the ewes, in amongst the wool, and this would ensure the smooth delivery of the lamb.

Popular shepherd lore in Pallars (Lleida) also dictated that when the clouds were seen to be threatening a great storm, the shepherds would take the stem of a dog rose (Rosa canina, a plant also popularly associated with the Virgin Mary in Medieval lore) and place it in their cape or cap, and this ‘amulet’ would protect against lightning. They would also take a sheep’s hide and attach it to the floor with their knife, in an effort to draw the lightning to that point, as the steel would act as a focal point for the storm.

These are but some of the tricks, traditions and beliefs of these men who dwelt so long in the Pyrenean mountains, not to mention the variety of sheep marks (i.e. denoting flock ownership), saint appeals and traditional remedies/amulets that would ward off evil influences and sickness, many of which will be documented by the Perennial Pyrenees project in time. In a land were livestock were the basis of life, the secrets and wisdom associated with their good health and fertility were of inestimable importance, and we will see that they do not die out, and in fact are brought to a wider, receptive audience!

Field Report – Carcassonne & Mirepoix

Having left the grey and moody skies of the Andorran valleys, we were greeted with blazing sun and pure white snow as we wound down from the border into the pristine Ariege. Coupled with the now-customary coffee stop at Tarrascon-sur-Ariege, overlooking the Ariege river itself, we sped by forests, cragged hills and green fields. Eventually, after 3 hours, the Medieval castle of Carcassonne appeared on the horizon, emerging from the heat above a rugged (and currently grape-less) vineyard, although shoots were beginning to appear on the vines. The region is rather famous not only for its Medieval relics and Cathar heritage but also for its production of a rather fine bevy of wines, some of which (of course) it was nothing short of a research duty to sample.

Situated in the Aude region, adjacent to the Ariege, Carcassonne has a long and illustrious history, peppered with violence, most famously during the Albigensian Crusade launched against Occitania. Neolithic, Roman and Visigothic populations have occupied the site, however, in this case, it is the Carcassonne of the Middle Ages which is of greatest interest to us, it being at that point one of the principle strongholds of Cathar belief in Occitania. It should be mentioned that the fortified Medieval cité that one sees now is not authentically Medieval, but rather the creation of reconstructionist and architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, who saved the cite from complete the destruction as ordered in 1849 by the French government due to its ruinous state. Whilst the rebuild could not be called a strictly authentic affair, with many details being erroneous, it is generally agreed that the spirit of the original castle is there, and the hundreds of thousands of tourists that flock to it each year are evidently not put off by any inaccuracies in the slate roofing!


Carcassonne today, peeping above the treetops.

The first known Count of Carcassonne was a relative of Charlemagne, the uniquely named Bello, who founded the Bellonid dynasty and ruled from 790 until his death in 810. The cité stayed within the Bellonid family until it passed over to the Trencavel family in 1067, when Raimond-Bernard Trencavel married the sister of the aged Bellonid Count of Carcassonne. It would be the fate of Raimond’s descendent Raymond-Roger to die in mysterious circumstances whilst negotiating the city’s surrender to the army of the Papal Legate in 1209; yet another of the countless victims of the tragic Albigensian Crusade. In an ironic state of affairs, the foundation stones of the cité’s cathedral was blessed in 1096 by none other than Pope Urban II; less than 150 years later the papal forces would be descending upon Occitania and Carcassonne for a far less benedictory purpose.

Much has been written on the Cathars and their beliefs, ranging from the scholarly study to the scurrilous and sensationalist, ranging from their pursuing a Manichaean-style heresy to their being the custodians of the Holy Grail itself! An examination of their beliefs is best left for another day (and article), but we will briefly surmise where Cathar belief differed from Catholic and indicate the possible reasons for the Church desiring their extinction (aside from the simple motivation of seizing the wealth and lands of Occitania).

Roux-Perino sums Catharism up thus: ‘Fundamentally Christian, the Cathars suggested a dualistic reading of the New Testament, which led them into Docetism and hence into elaborating their own cosmogony with a strong whiff of Gnosticism.’ (Roux-Perino, 2006, 53). Present in Northern Italy and Southern France, it was in Occitania where it rose particularly to prominence among the local dignitaries and peasants (Martin, 2005). They considered themselves to be the authentic Gleisa de Dio, descended from the first church of the Apostles, and opposed the Pontifical Roman Catholic Church. A truly dissident counter-church, it was comprised of a body of clergy (Bons Hommes and Bonnes Femmes) who had taken the Consolament (a Cathar sacrament which served the purposes of baptism, penance, ordination and extreme unction, depending on the situation, given through a laying on of the hands and the New Testament on the head), and a body of the faithful, known as credentes (believers). These credentes were not allowed to say the Paternoster, the primary Cathar prayer, as this was reserved for the clergy, and they would greet a Bon Homme or Bonne Femme by bending at the knee three times. The clergy would wander the roads of Occitania, especially Languedoc, in pairs, preaching from their bibles in villages and towns.

Strayer (1971) has described the Cathar movement as a reaction against the perceived corruption and vast earthly power held by the Roman Catholic Church at the time, and a rejection of papal authority. Unsurprisingly, this did not sit well with the Church, who declared Catharism a heresy in the 1176 Church Council held near Albi (hence the term ‘Albigensians’ being applied to Cathars). At that time, the County of Toulouse held a huge amount of power and influence, rivalling the Crown of Aragon, and the local lords and heirs in this region were highly interested in maintaining relative independence from both the French King and the Pope. These factors led Pope Innocent III to send a delegation to Languedoc in 1198 to assess the situation, and they found Raymond VI, Count of Toulouse to be openly supporting and protecting the Cathar movement, leading to his excommunication. This act was lifted some years later after Raymond made efforts at reconciliation with the church, however, he was once again kicked out of the Catholic fold in 1209 for failing to live up to his word in stamping out Catharism. Innocent III then insisted upon a crusade against the Albigensian heresy in Languedoc, officially because he wanted to rid the land of heresy to better protect Christendom’s borders against Saracen incursion, however there is little doubt in historical analyses that the power and wealth of the Languedoc lords, as well as their desire to maintain a level of autonomy from the Church and the King, was also a decisive factor (Roux-Perino, 2006).

The Albigensian Crusade began in the Summer of 1209, with up to ten thousand crusaders gathering at Lyon, before marching towards the Cathar communities of Albi and Carcassonne. The first city to be put to the sword was Béziers, in which the often quoted but unproven exclamation was allegedly uttered in response to determining which of the population were Catholic and which were Cathar: ‘Kill them all! God will know his own.’ A letter to the Pope by papal legate Arnaud Amalric, who was commanding the armies, records up to twenty thousand people being killed, with Strayer noting that no hint of guilt or regret is contained in the letter, not even for the clergy killed in front of their own altar in the town’s cathedral (Strayer, 1971). The effect of this slaughter was that word spread fast, and many subsequent settlements gave up without a fight.

Onwards the Crusade marched, down to Carcassonne, which was under the protection of the aforementioned Raymond Roger Trencaval, and well known for its protection of Cathars. Within six days of leaving the blood-filled streets of Béziers, the Crusaders had covered the forty-five miles between the two towns, arriving on the 1st of August, 1209. The cite was fortified with impressive battlements, however, it had received large amounts of refugees in the past few days, and resources were stretched. Rather than attack directly the crusaders cannily decided to lay siege to the town and cut the water supply. By the 15th August, Carcassonne surrendered, with Raymond having already died in a crusader dungeon some days prior, after trying to negotiate peace terms with the enemy camp. The population of Carcassonne was unceremoniously ordered to leave the town with nothing but the clothes on their back, and Simon de Montfort, a notorious French nobleman, was placed in charge of the crusader army (Roux-Perino, 2006). Following the fall of Carcassonne, the other major towns of the region (Albi, Castres, Fanjeaux, Limoux etc.) all surrendered without a fight, and by the Autumn, they were all under Crusader control.


This Medieval painting allegedly shows the Cathars being expelled from Carcassonne, as one can see they were booted out without a great deal of their posessions. Image taken from

Over the next few years, various sieges and routs succeeded in toppling Lastours, the castle of Cabaret, Termes and Toulouse. In 1214 Raymond IV, Count of Toulouse escaped to England with his son, during which his lands were gifted to the Pope by Phillip II, King of France. In 1216 Raymond IV and his son Raymond VII (evidently a popular name) returned to the region to initiate an uprising, which found substantial support among the local lords and their soldiers. By 1224, Raymond IV had retaken several towns including Toulouse, and after his death that year his son Raymond VII claimed Carcassonne following de Montfort’s abandoning of it.

However, by 1225 Raymond had been excommunicated (like his father), and the Council of Bourges convened to deal with the Cathar heresy once and for all. Another crusade, led by Louis VIII, set out in the Summer of 1226, and quickly retook Béziers, Carcassonne, Beaucaire and Marseilles without a fight. Avignon was besieged, surrendering in September, and by 1228 Toulouse was also under siege, with the surrounding landscape decimated, and the town surrendered. Having died in November 1226, Louis VIII was succeeded by his son Louis IX, but the Queen-regent Blanche of Castille ruled in his stead, and she offered Raymond Toulouse and the surrounding lands in exchange for his word that he would stamp out Catharism. The Inquisition moved in and began their systematic persecution and execution of any known (and unknown) Cathars. The ‘last bastion’ of the Cathars was the infamous castle of Montsegur, which was besieged for nearly a year, finally surrendering in March 1244. Two hundred Cathar perfecti (the clergy) were offered to convert to Catholicism, refused, and were burnt in the field below the fortress, the prat dels cremats (Oldenbourg, 1962).

After this, any Cathar would practice in secret, and many fled over the Pyrenees into the more tolerant arms of Catalonia, indeed there is still a walking route known as the Cami del Bons Homes which runs from Berga (Catalonia) into and over the Pyrenees, finishing near Montesgur and Foix (Ariege). Strayer suggests that by the mid-fourteenth century, all known presences of the heresy had been wiped out by the Inquisition (Strayer, 1971).

To return to the present, upon entering Carcassonne through the Porte Narbonnaise, one passes over the bridge and into the main gate of the castle, watched over by a statue of the Virgin Mary. Surrounding the cite are three kilometres of ramparts, interspersed with no less than fifty-two towers. Immediately the quality of the reconstruction is apparent, as one is thrown right back into the atmosphere if the Middle Ages, with the small winding streets being filled with merchants and their wares (i.e. tourist shops and eager museum touts). Bottles of local wines and Hypocras, a local spicy herbal wine or tonic first made in the Medieval period, vie with stone gargoyles and coats of arms, among the obligatory key chains and wooden swords. As one makes one’s way into the heart of the cite the streets open out into a series of small squares, lined with bars and restaurants, most of which serve the local favourite, cassoulet, a warming and heart-attack inducing mix of beans, pork, sausage and duck confit. Towards the south of the cite lies the Basilica of Saint-Nazaire, a building which rather uniquely combines the Romanesque and the Gothic, being constructed between the 9th and 14th centuries. It is recorded that a Carolingian cathedral stood on the site prior to the Basilica, however, no trace of that is seen today (at least visibly). The stained windows within are among the most beautiful in France, representing scenes from the life of Christ and the Apostles, and date to the 13th and 14th centuries. It remained the religious hub of Carcassonne until 1801, when, following the movement of the cité’s inhabitants to the newer town below, it was deprived of the title of cathedral (this going to the lower town’s Church of Sant-Michel), however, it was given the title of Basilica in 1898 by Pope Leo XIII. To the north lies the iconic Chateau Comtal, which defines the cité’s panorama. Dominated by a huge square tower, the castle also consists of a courtyard, two single floored buildings, a palisade, and the private chapel of Sainte-Marie (built in 1150). Much time can be spent nosing around the various nooks and crannies of this castle, with its mix of Romanesque and Gothic architecture, exhibitions and magnificent views over the river and the modern city below.


The Basilica emerging into view through the Medieval streets.



The leering gargoyles the decorate every inch of the Basilica’s roof.

Speaking of which, within the modern town, the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Carcassonne can be recommended, not just for its collections of Old Masters (from Breughel to Van Goyen) and a huge array of painters from the French School throughout the centuries (including the very fine ‘Combat de Romains et du Gaulois’ by Luminais) but also a fine array of curios. The aforementioned cathedral is also worth a visit. First built in the thirteenth century, it became fortified after war damage in the fourteenth century, and five centuries later was given cathedral status as the modern town began to become more populous than the cite.


A very fine bedroom view!

The next location on this whistlestop tour was our old favourite, Mirepoix. Information on the history of mirepoix can be found in a prior trip report on this website (, suffice to say that in the Spring sunshine it was even more lovely than before. In addition, the bookshop did not disappoint, providing three more volumes on the Cathars, Rennes-le-Chateau and the myths and legends of the Aude region, for the project’s ever-growing library.


An excellent tipple.

There is nothing like watching the sun go down over some gabled houses, with the cathedral tolling to the left of you, all set within a Medieval square surrounded by swooping swallows and a delightful beer at hand. Magical!


Martin, S. 2005. The Cathars: The Most Successful Heresy of the Middle Ages. Harpendon: Pocket Essentials.

Oldenbourg, Z. 1962. The Massacre at Montsegur. Translated from the French by Peter Green. London: Pantheon Books.

Roux-Perino, J. 2006. The Cathars. Vic-en-Bigorre: MSM Publications.

Strayer, J. 1971. The Albigensian Crusades. Ney York, NY: The Dial Press.


Article 22 – The Cthonic Cult of Mari

We return after passing some moons in hibernation, like the bear in Spring. Appropriately, below we will find a short treatise on the chthonic spirit Mari in Basque mythology, who emerges from her network of caverns for various malevolent and benevolent purposes, to wend her will on Pyrenean men and women!

Without a doubt, of all the archaic and mysterious plethora of spirits who haunt the forests and mountains of the Basque Country, it is Mari who can be described as one of the chief figures in Basque mythology and folklore. Mari has a husband, the snake Sugaar (described within a prior article on this site about Dragons), however, she takes many lovers. Beautifully dressed and easy on the eye, she dwells in caverns and caves within a series of mountains across the Basque Pyrenees, sometimes taking the form of an animal or a ball of fire as she moves from one subterranean lair to another. The scholar Julio Caro Baroja (2003) has described Mari as a ‘numen of the mountains’, linked especially to the sorgin or Basque witches. A highly interesting feature of Basque witchcraft appears to be an emphasis less on the Devil but rather on the numinous spirits of nature – this is a weighty topic destined for another article (and the forthcoming book)! However, it is worth mentioning that place-name evidence related to these sorgin within the Basque Country is numerous:

At present, there are numerous place names in the Basque Country and Navarre that refer to the Sorginak , such as Sorginaren Txabola ( Chabola de la Hechicera ) in Evillar (Alava), Dolmen de Sorginetxe ( witch’s house ) in Arrizala Agurain (Alava) or in Elbete Baztan ( Navarre), Sorginzubi ( Puente de la bruja ) in Abaurrea Alta (Navarre), etc.

(de Barandiarán Irízar, 1999, 75)

To return to Mari, she appears to holds a special fondness for storms, as demonstrated by her fondness for the storm spirits Odei and Itsai. She also has a strong link within Basque folklore to the control of local weather conditions, as pertaining to her proximity; de Barandiarán Irízar writes:

The people of Onati believed that the weather would be wet when she was in Anboto, and dry when she was in Alona. In Zeanuri, Biscay, they say that she would stay seven years in Anboto, then the next seven in a cave in Oiz called Supelegor. A similar legend in Olaeta, Biscay substitutes Gorbea for Supelegor.’

(de Barandiarán Irízar, 1999, 89)

Certainly, this connection between caves and weather is not unusual in the Basque Country, and in fact further lore connects this caverns to underground realms which are linked to the meteorological events on the surface of the earth:

‘It is also believed that there are vast regions inside the earth, where rivers of milk flow; but they are unreachable for men as long as they live on the surface. These regions are communicated with certain wells, pits and caves, like the well of Urbion, the pits of Okina and Albi, and the caves of Amboto, Muru and Txindoki. From such underground conduits come different weather events, mainly stormy clouds and strong winds’

(de Barandiarán Irízar, 1991, 36)

In the compendium ‘Serpent Songs’ (2014), one author and practitioner describes various aspects of Mari, including that rather than being a demoness, as presented by anthropologists, she should rather be seen as a ‘merging of opposites’, of both destruction and also becoming (Urbeltz, 2014, 32). She can present herself as a tree shooting forth flame, a bird-footed woman, a vulture, or a red woman holding a flaming sickle with snakes crawling around her feet, amongst other forms (Urbeltz, 2014, 33).


Mari 1

Figure 1. A stylised modern depiction of Mari in the manner of a mother goddess by Josu Goni. Image taken from Mari_euskal_jainkosa.jpg


Her caverns are said to be laden with offerings of gold in the form of precious objects, however in any which are stolen are turned to charcoal in the morning. These magical lairs are jealously guarded by Mari, one does not enter easily nor without permission. In fact, shepherds avoid building their hits near her caves in Supelegor (Uribe-Zelay, south of Bilbao), as through local lore she expresses her displeasure in their doing so, chasing one unfortunate shepherd whilst disguised as a raven, scaring him to death! With the proper respect however, it is possible to enter these cavernous sanctuaries without harm. A method of gaining entrance to one of Mari’s caverns is described thus:

When you find a cave where she resides you must address her respectfully before entering and offer water, wine and milk at the entrance, stating why you have sought her out. You must state that you are coming to her with no deceit in your heart, lest she strike you down and make you one with Ama Lur (the earth). You will then walk into the cave and bring to her milk, wine and water. When you leave the cave, you leave in the same way as you entered, meaning that if you entered walking forward you will leave walking backwards without turning around. You are forbidden to sit down in her presence and should either stand or kneel in such way that your buttocks are not touching the ground. You can than state the nature of your visit and wait for her response there or later in dreams.’

(Urbeltz, 2014, 36)


Mari cave amboto

Figure 2. The cave of Mariurrika Kobea in Amboto, one of the principal dwelling places of Mari in Basque mythology. Photo taken from https://eusturandalucia.files.wordpress. com/2015/02/


Whilst Mari punishes those who lie and thieve, she does possess a benevolent aspect, as indicated in the aforementioned ‘merging of opposites’. One story from the town of Amezketa tells of a cave in Mount Txindoki, where Mari lived with furniture wrought from gold. After disappearing for seven years, Mari returned accompanied by a large thunderstorm. A young girl called Kattalin was in the mountains with her flock, however at the end of the day while counting the sheep she realised that one was missing. Despite being warned by all the townsfolk not to approach the cave, she was desperate to find the missing sheep and so, steeling herself, walked up to the cave’s entrance. There was the sheep, and the most beautiful woman Kattelin had ever seen. This, of course, was Mari. Mari asked Kattelin her name and who she was, and Kattelin replied that she had no family and was the shepherd for a noble family. Mari told her that if she would spend seven years living with Mari in the cave and helping her, then Mari would make her rich. Kattelin accepted and spent seven years learning sewing, bread baking, the magical properties of local plants and even the secret language of animals. At the end of the seven years Mari gave her a large coalstone, which surprised the young girl as this was not what she had expected after all those years of servitude! However, when Kattelin reached the village, the coalstone had become a huge lump of gold, which allowed her to buy her own house and even her own flock of sheep, never needing to take orders from anybody ever again.

Another legend relates that due to the god of darkness, Gaueko, eating shepherds and sheep, the Basque people asked Mari for help, and so she gave them the light from her first daughter, Llargi, the moon, but this was insufficient, So, she also gave them the light of her second daughter, Eguzki, the sun. But even this was not enough to deter the antics of Gaueko. So she created the sunflower, Eguzkilore, which to this day is still used to keep evil spirits at bay. When crossing the threshold of a house and finding a sunflower, any nocturnal evil spirit will be compelled to count all the petals, and by the time it is finished the sun will have risen and dispelled it (de Barandiarán Irízar, 1991).

The figure of Mari survived well into the Christian era, and is still popular within local Basque folklore. It has been suggested that the etymological affinity with ‘Mary’ has helped in some way, which is certainly possible. More likely, however, is the deeply ingrained aspect in which Mari is connected with weather, caves and the night, all of which feature prominently in the Basque mythological corpus. So, if one walks in the Basque mountains and find a cave, have a care to approach with caution, for who knows what primordial lady might lie within!


Urbeltz, Arkaitz. ‘Lezekoak’ in Serpent Songs, (ed.) Nicholaj de Mattos Frisvold. Croydon: Scarlet Imprint, 2014.

de Barandiarán Irízar, Luis (ed.). A View From The Witch’s Cave: Folktales of The Pyrenees. Reno, NV: University of Nevada Press, 1991.

de Barandiaran, Jose Miguel. Materiales y Cuestionarios, Eusko-Folklore. Vitoria, 1921

Article 21 – The Wild Men of the Pyrenees

A very Happy New Year to you all. As we swing through January, let us cast our eye on the savage folklore of the Wild Man, especially within the context of the Pyrenees.


We have all felt him near us, when wandering out in the forests, around the mountains and across the meadows in our youth. I am not referring to any deity, but to a far more intoxicating figure in our collective imagination, the Wild Man.  Lurking in a variety of guises in folk tales, behind the masks in village celebrations, within the majority of Western traditional art, church sculpture and most appropriately in our minds when we are surrounded by foliage, the Wild Man and his consort the Wild Woman lie at the heart of our complex European relationship with the natural world. Figures which have been feared, despised, admired and even envied, they encapsulate the changing perceptions of our place within nature and the shifting ideologies that dominate our societies.


The Wild Man emerges out of characters we all have known and loved; each forest dwelling sage, sorcerer, ‘noble savage’, witch and hermit from folklore resonate with his presence. In Gilgamesh we find Enkido, fashioned from the very saliva of the Gods mixed with clay, providing an early link between the Wild Man and a wholly natural state of being closest to the divine. Enkido is created to humble Gilgamesh, and lives as a wild creature raised by animals until he is bedded by the sensual Shamhat, who tempts him away from the wild to live in ‘civilisation’, becoming the companion of Gilgamesh after equalling him during a wrestling match. Enkido acts as the flip side of the coin to Gilgamesh’s urban, cultured warrior-caste character. Wild, fiercely strong, loyal and deeply loved by Gilgamesh, Enkido helps the king during numerous adventures until he is killed, spurring Gilgamesh to undertake a quest to find immortality to escape his own death. Whilst a casual glance at this summary would find a simple example of ‘the other’ who becomes assimilated and ‘one of us’, look more closely. Enkido is the first literary Wild Man, the antithesis to the courtly wrangling, deceit, weakness and seduction of Uruk, possessed of immense strength, honesty and loyalty, whose own natural appetites (i.e. lust) allowed him to enter the court. Enkido also interprets dreams, fulfilling the role of seer, a role which is much more fully explored by future literary Wild Men in the Medieval West such as Merlin, and the folk figures of cunning men, witches and hermits.  Adam too was Wild; naked, living within nature, untroubled by feelings of guilt or morality, what a great irony that within the Christian tradition it was from a Wild Man that we sprung, and during Christianity’s most dominant social and political period the Wild Man was an official image of everything which a goodly, God fearing Christian should revile! What a tragic irony that such origins were lost on the Church, or more unpalatably, used to turn Eve – his consort, the Wild Woman – into a pretext for the subjugation and systematic repression for centuries to come. But let us turn away from polemics at this early point and return to the Greenwoods of Medieval Europe; the realm of pagan hangovers, liminal figures, monotheist neuroses and enduring folk figures.


An Assyrian relief possibly showing Enkido as ‘Master of Beasts’. Photo taken from:


The ‘Wodewose’, the Wild Man appears in numerous tapestries, Romances, paintings and most interestingly in the stone ornaments of church roof bosses, seat and doorway carvings across Medieval culture. The dichotomy of Medieval man’s attitude towards the Wild Man is worthy of mention and typifies the multilayered thinking with which we should more readily credit our ancestors. The Classical relation with wild humanoids living within nature was based on their extensive and, frequently sympathetic, collection of myths in which God and beast copulated, the woodlands were filled with personifications of nature such as satyrs, nymphs and fauns. In short, these creatures were seen as part and parcel of the supernatural pantheon, not always benevolent in nature but not necessarily figures of fear, and intrinsic parts of the landscapes of the Classical world. However, within during the Medieval period the Wodewose, shaggy, moss covered, primal and bestial, became associated with both a protectoral role of the woodland against encroaching agricultural reforms which began to break and clear forests for pasture, and also as existing outside God’s salvation, operating without adherence to the constant companions of Medieval man; guilt and fear of God. Officially it represented the antithesis of Christian man: uncivilised, beyond God (even unaware of God!), living as a beast in the land yet with some human characteristics – at least anatomically. Unofficially the Wild Man carried on a thread from pre-Christian myth and folklore, and gradually adapted within the mind of the rural peasantry as they to adapted mentally to Christianity. It survived as a mysterious figure who was connected and represented the land, sometimes angry, other times mischievous, and this mutation and survival can be seen on the carvings which bear the image of that perennial folk figure, the Green Man, in churches across the West. Young brings to light the merging of animal and man within the concept of the Wild Man: ‘[This] locates a being that is sometimes purely animal yet which on other occasions takes on markedly human characteristics. This liminality calls into question any fixity of medieval and early modern conceptualisations of humanity not only by making delineations of human and inhuman dependent on textual representation, but also by at times combining animal and human attributes in one being’. (Young, 2009, 41). They possessed extraordinary powers: ‘Caesarus of Heisterbach, in the thirteenth century, reports that he witnessed a wild man suddenly begin to grow until he towered over the entire forest.’ (Husband, 1980, 15).



‘The Fight in the Fores’ by Hans Burgkmair, depicting a mighty Wodewose and his club. Image taken from

Shapeshifters, dwellers in the deep dark wood, they retained a primordial connection to the land which the Church frequently attempted to dispel through portraying them as connected with demons and the Devil. They were also seen as teachers of magic wisdom, that which was of more use to the rural peasantry than the ‘magic’ of the Christian priest. Connections were drawn between them and madness, illustrated through Merlin going insane following the deaths of his brothers, and living wild in the forests of Celydonn. These flight into wilderness, madness and isolation, have been argued to represent surviving traces of shamanic initiation, portraying an inner journey, returning changed, re-aligned with nature, able to converse with beasts and look into people’s souls. In Valentine and Orson the Empress of Constantinople is accused of adultery and thrown out of the court, giving birth to twins in the wilderness. Orson (potentially etymologically linked to ‘Ursus’ son’) is stolen by a female bear and raised in the wild. At length, the wild twin is civilised but retains huge strength, then returns to the forest as a Wodewose. In these tales, it is the story of the homo silvaticus who obsessed the medieval imagination and who, when encountered in literature and art, was always asked: “Are you man or beast?”

Reflected in the perceptions and attitudes towards the Wild Man in art and literature were social conditions and constraints. Haydon White in his essay ‘The Forms of Wildness’ writes that their transformation from objects of loathing to figures of admiration and envy dovetail, not coincidentally, with the breaking down of the mechanisms of sublimation and societal control that occurred towards the end of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries (White, 1972). This resulted in their later portrayal during as representations of simple living, honesty and health, much like Tacitus’ descriptions of the Germanic tribes in contrast to his own Rome. The Wild Man had become examples of virtue, honest healthy living, reverting back to images of pre-Fall man, the ‘noble savage’, and reflected Renaissance trends in investigating and admiring the earthly domain rather than concentrating on the heavenly one. Nature became a source of inspiration, and this is well expressed through Albrecht Altdorfer’s painting of St George, wherein the saint occupies only a tiny fraction of the canvas, the rest being taken up with foliage and great towering tree trunks. In these primeval forests the Wild Man was reborn as a figure of admiration and envy, living freely and simply, and inspired the following verse by Meistersinger Hans Soch:

And so we left our wordly goods

To make our home in these deep woods

With our little ones protected

From that falsehood we rejected

We feed ourselves on native fruits

And from the earth dig tender roots

For drink pure springs are plentiful

For garments grass and leaves we make

Our homes are made of caves and stone

And no-one takes what’s not his own’

(Hans Sach ‘Lament of the Wild Forest-Folk about the Perfidious World’)


The Wild Man and its family had become ‘exemplars of the virtuous and natural life’, and as cultural and social attitudes towards nature evolved further through the Renaissance and Romantic periods, they became then turned into gentler creatures still, the natural no longer being seen as bestial and brutish but instead as honest, divine and eternal.

But what of the Wild Man in the Pyrenees? Michel Raynal’s 1989 paper ‘L’Homme Sauvage dans les Pyrenees et la Survivance des Neanderthaliens’ (The Wild Man in the Pyrenees and the Survival of Neanderthals) provides evidence of numerous sightings, as well as an intriguing origin theory for the Wild Man himself within the Pyrenees. In the Ariege, the Wild Man is known as ‘l’om pelut’ (homme poilu/hairy man) or ‘iretgge’, which may be a corruption of ‘heretique/heretic’, and Piniès describes the movements of two Wild Men in the 12th or 13th century, who lived in the forest of Barthes, covered in hair and armed with a gnarled club each, residing in caves and capturing game. Eventually the villagers left some red shorts in the forest to attract the Wild Men or iretgges, and the they captured these two unfortunates and made them their prisoners (Piniès, 1978).

In Arles-sur-Tech Wild Men are known as ‘simiots’, and an account of their activities reads thus: ‘monstres affreux, aux dents fourchues, aux mains crochues, rôdaient la nuit sur les toits et descendaient dans les maisons par la cheminée en poussant de funèbres hurlements’ (frightful monsters, with split teeth and crooked hands, roam the night on the rooftops, descending into the ohuses down the chimney, uttering mournful howls) (Blanc 1979). In the Basque Country we see the Wild Lord of the Forest, ‘Basa-Juan’, who is covered with hair, like a bear. He eats herbs and game, is incredibly strong and walks around naked day and night (Cerquand, 1875 – 1882). He is also accused of haunting shepherd’s cabins, looking to make use of the hearth and steal their dairy products (Webster, 1879). He is also accused of carrying off you women, which links him to the Bear tradition of the Pyrenees – as does the bear of the Arles-sur-Tech festival, whose name is also simiot which appears to derive from simia (Latin for monkey).



An engraving of a Simiot from the Valle du Tec. Image taken from (and more information available at)


As written in one of the very first Perennial Pyrenees articles on bears, one sees a great link between bears and humans within the Pyrenees, even so far as to suggest mythologically some manner of hybridisation between the two, resulting potentially in the folkloric Pyrenean Wild Man, with his shaggy fur, preference for caves, game and herbs. An alarming first hand account of some herdsmen in the 18th century also mentions the ‘bearishness’ of the Pyrenean Wild Man:

‘Il n’y a pas deux ans [ donc en 1774 ] que les pasteurs de la forêt d’Yraty, proche de Saint-Jean-de-Pied-de-Port, aperçurent souvent un homme sauvage qui habitoit les rochers de cette forêt. Cet homme étoit de grande taille, velu comme un ours, & alerte comme les hisards, d’une humeur gaie, avec l’apparence d’un caractère doux, puisqu’il ne faisoit de mal à rien. Souvent il visitoit les cabanes sans rien emporter; il ne connaissoit ni le pain, ni le lait, ni les fromages ; son grand plaisir étoit de faire courir les brebis, & de les disperser en faisant de grands éclats de rire, mais sans jamais leur faire du mal. Les Pasteurs mettoient souvent leurs chiens après; alors il s’enfuyoit comme un trait, & ne se laissoit jamais approcher de trop près. Une seule fois, il vint un matin à la porte d’une cabane d’ouvriers qui faisoient des avirons, & qu’une grande abondance de neige tombée pendant la nuit retenoit; il se tint debout à la porte qu’il tenoit des deux mains, & regardoit les ouvriers en riant. Un de ces gens se glissa doucement pour tâcher de le saisir par une jambe; plus il le voyoit approcher, & plus son rire redoubloit; ensuite il s’échappa. On a jugé que cet homme pouvoit avoir trente ans; comme cette forêt est d’une grande étendue, & communique à des bois immenses appartenant à l’Espagne, il y a à présumer que c’étoit quelque jeune enfant qui s’y étoit perdu, & qui avoit trouvé les moyens d’y subsister avec des herbes ‘

(Two years ago [therefore in 1774] the herdsmen of the Yraty Forest, near Saint-Jean-de-Pied-de-Port, often noticed an wild man who inhabited the rocks of this forest. This man was of great height, hairy as a bear, and alert as a chamois, of cheerful disposition, with the appearance of a gentle character, since he did harm to nothing. He often used to visit the cabins without carrying off anything; he knew neither bread, milk, or cheese; his great pleasure was to make the flocks run, and to disperse them by making great peels of laughter, but he never did them any harm. The herdsmen used to often set their dogs after him; then he would run off like a dart, and never let them approach very close. One single time, he came in the morning to the door of the cabin of workmen who were making oars, and which had retained a great abundance of snow fallen during the night; he stood erect at the door which he was holding with two hands, and was laughing as he looked at the workmen. One of these people softly slid [forward] so as to attempt to seize him by his leg; as soon as he saw him approach, he redoubled his laugh; then he escaped. It was judged that this man would have been thirty years old; as this forest is of great extent, and communicates with immense woods belonging to Spain, it is presumed that this might be some young child who was lost, and who had found the means to subsist on the vegetation.)

(Leroy, 1776)

Gomez-Tabanera (1978) records that in the 19th century a ‘mujer salvaje’ (wild woman) was identified in the mountains of Cantabria, nicknamed ‘la Osa de Andara’ (the she-bear of Andara), with hairy arms and legs like a bear and who fed on chestnuts, milk, fruits and berries and the occasional small goat (Gomez-Tabaera, 1978).


Raynal suggests that these Wild Man legends are linked to relics of Neanderthals:

Thought to be extinct since 35 000 years, Neanderthal Man was cold-adapted, as it can be conjectured from the proportions of its limbs, the shape of its nose, the protection of its brain by a prominent torus supra-orbitalis, etc. It is very likely that it was also hairy, as hairyness is the most common cold-adaptation. In the Pyrénées and in the Iberic Peninsula, traditions, folklore, artistic representations, and even recent enough sightings about Wild Men have been recorded. They are quite similar, if not identical, with modern accounts of Hairy Wild Men in the Caucasus, Mongolia, Tibet, etc, who have been supposed to be relic Neanderthal Men by several authors, mainly Porshnev and Heuvelmans. Ormières and Gomez-Tabanera have proposed a late survival of Neanderthal Men in the Pyrénées, an hypothesis which has gained new support recently after the discovery in Spain of a Neanderthal lower jaw in a level of late Würm III.’

(Raynal, 1989)

Certainly, it is feasible that some manner of early hybridisation between Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalis (which through recent archaeo-genetic studies seems increasingly more common than previously thought) may have produced unusually hirsute offspring, or even late surviving Neanderthal pockets which haunted the imagination of modern -man, however one should be cautious when ascribing such bombastic theories to a world-wide phenomena.

Fete des Ors.jpg

The Fete des Ours at Prats-de-Mollo, wild men and women indeed! This annual festival is soon to be videoed for this project mid-February 2018. Photo taken from


At the risk of repeating oneself, the work of Rosalyn Frank and Fabio Silva (2012) provides a mixture of anthropological, ethnography and genetic research, focussing on the seemingly simple premise that Basque bear hunters have long held that the Basques believed themselves to be descended from bears. This interesting but seemingly isolated origin myth began to form links, and another legend was unearthed which told that the Wild Man is the son of a union between a bear and a woman, caught between two worlds of being. Many of the Wild Man folk costumes capture this, being neither human nor animal, but something in between, covered in branches, furs, bells, ashes and sackcloth. For example, we have names like ‘The Straw Bear’ in Britain and ‘Stohbär’ in Germany. In Prats-de-Mollo, France, a man is covered in soot and fur and acts as ‘the bear’, kidnaps a shepherdess, is captured and brought back to the town square, where it is ‘shaved’ into a human appearance. Here we see it shedding it ursine qualities and displaying its human origins as a Wild Man! Bones and bells jangle against animal skins, a ‘bear’ is captured, fearsome female figures in gruesome masks and veils march along rural tracks and huge beast men leer out at villagers from behind horned and hair covered faces.  Are these remains of a prehistoric bear cult, the ‘UR-sine’ cult? If so, then the recent reintroduction of bears to the Pyrenees presents a beautiful example of things coming full circle, the return of an animal to the lands where it was once revered as humanity’s progenitor, and the potential origin of the Pyrenean Wild Man.


BLANC, Dominique (1979) : Récits et Contes Populaires de Catalogne. Paris, Gallimard, vol. 1, pp. 133-136, 146.

CERQUAND, J.F. (1875-1882) : Légendes et Récits Populaires du Pays Basque. Paris, L. Ribaud, pp. 10, 70.

GOMEZ-TABANERA, José-Manuel (1978) : La Conseja del Hombre Salvaje en la Tradiction Popular de la Peninsula Iberica, in : Homenaje a Julio Caro Baroja, Madrid, Centro do Investigaciones Sociologicas, pp. 471-509.

HUSBAND, Timothy (1980) : The Wild Man: Medieval Myth and Symbolism. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

LEROY, Julien David (1776) : Mémoire sur les Travaux qui ont Rapport à l’Exploitation de la Nature dans les Pyrénées, London, pp. 8-9.

PINIES, Jean-Pierre (1978) : Récits et Contes Populaires des Pyrénées. Paris, Gallimard, vol. 1 , pp. 110-119.

RAYNER, Michel (1989): L’Homme Sauvage dans les Pyrenees et la Survivance des Neanderthaliens. Le Bulletin de la Bipedie Initiale, Bipedia no. 3. Available online here:

WEBSTER, Wentworth (1879): Basque Legends. London, Griffith and Farran, pp. 47-63.

WHITE, Hayden (1972): ‘Forms of Wildness: The Archaeology of an Idea’ in The Wild Man Within: An image in Western Thought from the Renaissance to Romanticism, eds. Edward Dudley & Maximillian Novak. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, pp. 3 – 38.

YOUNG, Helen (19??) : Wodewoses: the (In)Humanity of Medieval Wild Men. University of Western Sydney. Unpublished. Available here:


Article #20 Christmas Customs in the Pyrenees

Across in the Alps numerous processions involving the Perchten and Kampus figures take place during the twelve-day period of Rauhnacht, typically starting on the winter solstice, all designed to banish evil spirits and usher in a new yearly cycle. These celebrations are archaic and fascinating, and well recommended to anyone who has a taste for the primordial and rustic. An excellent thesis to consult on this matter is that of Dr Molly Carter, ‘Perchten and Krampisse: Living Mask Traditions in Austria and Bavaria’ (2016, University of Sheffield). The Pyrenees are, as usual, a lesser known element in this regard, however, they hold their own rural winter customs, and below we shall briefly address some of the most interesting that surround the Christmas period.


A man dressed as Olentzero, walking from village to village. Photo taken from


In the Basque country, boys fashion a guy-like figure known as Olentzero, placing him in the chimney corner, a scythe in one hand and his head a created from a cauldron. He is taken out when they go singing on Christmas Eve, and it is said that the name Olentzero has some etymological reference to Christmas Eve, perhaps acting as a personification of the season, some archaic memory of another, older representative of winter? His current role is to declare Christmas throughout the Basque country (despite being ‘banned’ by the Franco regime as a symbol of regional separatism) and leave presents next to each family’s shoes, the latter being neatly arranged in the centre of the room on Christmas eve. He is also said to descend from the mountains on a divine horse, presumably to make it around to each house in time during this single night. His post-Franco incarnation is a rather more sanitised and family-friendly version. Prior to his repression, Olentzero was in various Basque regions said to have either three eyes or blazing red eyes, and to cut the throats of children who did not go to bed or those who broke the tradition pre-Christmas fast with his sickle. He is commonly said to descend from a race of Basque giants, the jentillak, with some legends claiming that the giants, after throwing an old man from a cliff who did not wish to live through the Christian conversion, tripped and fell off the cliff themselves except for Olentzero, and other purporting that the other giants simply left and Olentzero was the only one who stayed and embraced Christianity.

On the night of the 23rd December in the Basque valley of Roncal (or ‘Erronkari’ to give it its Basque name), after the so-called ‘cock’s mass’ at midnight (the ‘Misa del Gallo’ also recorded as occurring in Mexico in 1843), rough and ready music is made in the street, great fires are lit in the snows, and bells and saucepans are struck, producing a clattering cacophony as the flames are whipped up by the night air. The men then retire home and, on the dawn of the 24th, they burn a log they cut earlier in the year specifically for this date. Does this perform a similar function to the Yule log, that tradition so beloved in Scandinavian and Germanic societies? The burning of a specific piece of wood in the dead of winter seems common across many European cultures, which may point towards a much older commonality in terms of tradition.

They then go out wassailing, half in Spanish and half in Basque:

‘Esta casa Buena, Buena casa,

Ochuneki ogi papur toba…

(‘This good house is a good house,

With this cold a bit of bread…’)

The night of Christmas eve, villages in this area perform mock raids on each other, staging pitched battles with sticks and announcing their attacks with pealing bells. Certainly, this is not the time of solemn Catholic observances in this valley!

On a more scatological note, one finds in the valleys of the Catalan and Aragonese Pyrenees (and through these regions in general), very remarkable phenomenon in the form of a humble log. This log, the ‘Tió de Nadal’, the ‘Christmas Log’ (more commonly known as the ‘Caga Tió’ or ‘Shitting Log’, for reasons that will become apparent), has in recent times been dressed with a miniature red berretina (sock hat), stick legs, a nose and a face painted onto one end, however in days gone by it was simply a rough, dead piece of wood or slice of log. This piece of wood is traditionally kept inside from the 8th of December, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, fed (symbolically) nightly and wrapped in a woolen blanket to keep it warm. Come Christmas Eve (or Christmas Day, the timing varies), the niceties end, as the log is placed partially in the fire and ordered to defecate small presents. The children beat the log with sticks, sing songs and order it to fulfill its function, before leaving the room. Upon their return, the log will have magically secreted various small, edible presents (an unusual choice given the method if dispatch!) beneath its blanket.


Caga tio.jpg

The unfortunate log being beaten by children, in the hope it will produce presents for them. Photo taken from:


In Arudy, Béarn and Aragon, shepherds traditionally stationed their flocks around the church during midnight mass on Christmas Eve, taking one lamb inside, decorated with a ribbon and freshly washed, to offer it to the priest in return for a blessing. Similarly, in the Basque village of Labastida in Alava, groups of shepherds surround the church dressed in pelts, recite verses and perform simple dances to honour the midnight mass.


Danza de los Pastores en Labastida.jpg

The ‘Danza de los Pastores’ (Dance of the Shepherds) in Labastida. Photo taken from:


A darker tradition on this night can be found in the Ariege, where one must provide food for the dead on Christmas eve if one wants to avoid violent and frightening repercussions. This is to be achieved by leaving out a loaf with a knife stuck in the middle, whilst one is out celebrating midnight mass, thus allowing the dead to feed with impunity in deepest winter….


Alford, V., Pyrenean Festivals: Calendar Customs, Music & Magic, Drama & Dance (London: Chatto & Windus, 1937)

Amades, J., Festes Tradicionals de Catalunya (Barcelona: Editions Aedos, 1958)

Barandiaran, J., Dictionnaire Illustré de Mythologie Basque (Donostia: Editions Elkar, 1994)

Article #19 – Divination and Grasshoppers in Aragon

High in the Aragonese Pyrenees lies the small village of Abizanda, home of an impressive 11th century Lombard tower, a 16th century church, a puppet theatre, a museum of Pyrenean religious relics and curiosities (earmarked for a visit!), and a most intriguing ritual that comes about on Winter’s wane.

On the 12th of January, or the following Sunday depending on the year, at the hermitage of St Victorien (a 5th century Italian saint and, apparently, a governor of Carthage), the villagers and their curé gather together to celebrate the feast of St Victorien and also to preside over the unusual ‘ritual of grasshoppers’, a divinatory practise overseen by the cure himself!


Abizanda. Photo taken from


After attending a special mass at the local church, the villagers make their way to the hermitage chapel where the two main families of Abizanda lay out a large white sheet. On this sheet are placed offerings of charity, specifically thirty-two ‘galettes’ (a flat round bready cake), and around the sheet are set several jugs of local wine, to wash the cakes down.

Before they are consumed, however, the divination process must take place. The villagers stand around the sheet and watch carefully for the grasshoppers (and other insects) that are attracted to it. Observing the proportions of the various colours of the gathering insects, the men are able to divine the outcome of the following year’s crops. Whitish insects indicate that the cereal harvest will be the dominant one, green represent olives and black stand for wine. By observing the ratio, they predict which crop will have the superior yield in the months to come.

According to local legend, the predictions always come true, however, the origin of this ritual is lost. No mention of it appears in the local archives, and the cure alleges that the rite is simply a demonstration of the power of St Victorien. However, no mention of divination appears in this saint’s entry in that peerless compendium of Medieval saint-lore, The Golden Legend.


A handsome diviner! Photo taken from:


This example of entomancy is highly interesting, as within European folk culture the grasshopper is far less represented and revered than in other cultures (e.g. Chinese, Native American and Japanese), in which they represent good luck. There are some examples, however, such as in Germany where it warns of strange guests (Daniels & Stevens, 1903). The Athenians, according to Steele (1883) wore a golden grasshopper in their hair as an ornament to commemorate their springing directly from the Greek soil, straight from the sons of Gods. However, the use by the villagers of Abizanda of the grasshopper for divination purposes, especially given the accumulated connection with St Victorien (presumably the ritual predates his adoption as their patron), makes this a highly unusual practise, certainly within Europe and probably further afield!





Daniels, C. L. & Stevans, C. M (eds). Encyclopedia of Superstitions, Folklore, and the Occult Sciences of the World, Vol. II. Chicago, IL: J. H. Yewdale & sons Company, 1903.

Steele, J. D. A Brief History of Ancient, Medieval, and Modern Peoples, With Some Account of Their Monuments, Institutions, Arts, Manners and Customs, (Barnes Brief History Series). New York, NY: American Book Company, 1883.

de Marliave, O. Magie et Sorcellerie dans le Pyrenees. Bordeaux: Editions Sud Ouest, 2006.


Article 18 – Count Estruch

As we draw nearer to Halloween, it is perhaps appropriate to relate one of the oldest vampire tales in European folklore, coming as it does from one of the rugged archaic castles that perch in the Pyrenees.

Surprisingly, Spain is not rich in vampire-lore, although of course it certainly is wealthy in many other areas of legends and tales so this story can be counted as a rare exception!

The legend tells of a certain Count Guifredo Estruch, who lived during the 12th century when there was still a Muslim presence in the south of Spain. The king of Aragon at the time, Alfonso II, was very worried about a collection of pagans in Emporda (Catalonia), who he feared might be tempted to ally themselves with the Muslims and create some rather serious problems for him. To prevent this, he decided to send Count Estruch, a noted war hero (allegedly), to occupy a castle in the region (Castle Llers, sadly destroyed during the Civil War) and convert the pagans to Christianity.



(Castle Llers, photo taken from:


Estruch’s methods seem to have been less than charitable, as the tale then goes on to describe an orgy of blood-letting, torture, witch-hunting, executions, and burnings; he certainly seemed to have preferred the sword to merely spreading ‘the good word’. Having murdered, raped and tortured his way around the region, even his soldiers seemed to tire of his antics, and one of them (a chap named Benach) poisoned him. Another version of the tale alleges that the Count died from a curse offered up on the dying breath of a witch he had tortured and burnt to death. Either way, Estruch died in an uncomfortable circumstance, and not undeservedly, in 1173, and he did not receive a Christian burial as his body mysteriously disappeared from the castle the night before the funeral.



(The Inquisition following Count Estruch’s example many years later. Photo taken from:


Some days after, several cows were strangely killed in the night, and locals said that when they were found they had been drained of all blood, and some were terribly mutilated, with their bowels torn out, and hearts lying shredded on the grass. The servants of the castle reported that the Count could be seen walking at night through the corridors and rooms, looking as if he were a young man again, strangely rejuvenated. Estruch also took to lurking in the local village, murdering young men and drinking their blood, as well as abducting young women. When these women were returned to the village, they would always be pregnant, but after nine months the child would emerge either stillborn as hideously deformed.

There are two candidates in the various versions of this tale for who bravely drove a stake through the Count’s heart, after locating his hidden coffin; a Jewish hermit, who used ancient rites derived from the Kabbalah, and an old nun. Strangely, it is never recorded as a local villager, whom one would think would have ample reason for doing just such a thing!

What is particularly noteworthy about this story, apart from the fact that it seems to be Europe’s oldest cohesive vampire myth, is that the legend persisted in local folklore through mothers warning their children about the Count (presumably if they were poorly behaved), and women whose children were stillborn were said to have been seduced by the Count (this seems rather unfair, compounding a rather tragic event with a reputation for undead affairs, but peasant life is not known for its charity!).

There is an interesting suggestion (not my own) that the legend derives from a confused memory of Cathar persecution in Catalonia, many of which were indeed convicted and burnt as heretics in Occitania during the Albigensian crusade, and equally many fled to Spain, in particular to Catalonia which, like Occitania previously, had a more tolerant attitude to ‘spiritual deviance’. Who knows what other legacies this mysterious group may have left in the area?

Article #17 – Entheogens in the Pyrenees

Whilst walking up in the high forests I came across a lovely little example of Amanita muscaria or Fly Agaric, the archetypal mushroom of the European forests. The toxic and hallucinatory potential in these little red and white caps is well known, and prompted me to think what use they may have had in these mountains, and what other floral, fungal and faunal tools might have been used in the past to numb, transport and intoxicate, tying into the wider ethnobotanical research of the Perennial Pyrenees project.

There is a Catalan expression ‘Estar tocat del bolat’ (To be touched by the mushroom), which generally refers to those whose behaviour is a bit off, eccentric, or even bizarre, but in a friendly or even affectionate sense. This does seem to indicate some manner of folk memory of the use (and effects) of entheogenic mushrooms, although it may not refer to one species in particular. I have so far found no specific references to a tradition of consuming Fly Agaric (which, with a little preparation, is possible without poisoning oneself), however the writer of the Anthrome blog (address given at the end of this article) does mention encounters with old and young men ‘who live in the Pyrenees Mountains, which separate France and Spain, who even today turn themselves over to the intoxicating effects of this mushroom some time each year, when it appears in the fall in the birch and black pine forests’.


Amanita muscaria 

Amanita muscaria or Fly Agaric.  Photo taken from


One interesting feature of consumption of Fly Agaric reported by is that one is (apparently) affected by ‘macropsia’ and ‘micropsia’, in which objects appear larger or smaller than they are in reality. Mushroom-lore from Siberia speaks of ‘mushroom men’ whose frames are small and compact, sometimes lacking necks, who run along twisting paths and guide the shaman towards the otherworld. Cliff drawings found in the region appear to confirm the appearance of these Fly Agaric men. Given the widespread appearance of Fly Agaric throughout European folklore, habitats and potentially ecstatic consumption for animist ritual purposes, these ‘little men’ who answer the mushroom’s call may bear some link with the almost universal presence of ‘little people’ in European folklore, potentially even in the Pyrenees, or indeed the subterranean folklore of these mountains, where small crevices could be perceived to be great stone caverns or doorways if under the influence. It is always hazardous to paint with immensely broad brush strokes, especially when dealing with the undocumented archaic past and the transmission of myth and ritual, however, a little speculation never hurt anyone, and further research will be done on this by Perennial Pyrenees in time.


Psilocybe hispanica

Psilocybe hispanica growing happily on some dung. Photo taken from


Amanita muscaria is however by no means the sole entheogenic fungi to be found within the Pyrenees. Fifteen known species of the Psilocybe mushroom are known in Spain, three of which are hallucinogenic properties (Psilocybe semilanceata, Psilocybe hispanica and Psilocybe gallaeciae), and one of which grows specifically in the meadows and pastures of the Pyrenees:  Psilocybe hispanica. This mushroom grows on dung (i.e. it is coprophilic), and is particularly common in Aragon. A particularly striking potential representation of this fungi in connection with esoteric or sinister practices comes in the form of a 17th-century medallion from the Valle de Tena (Aragonese Pyrenees), which depicts the devil with several toadstools (Guzman, 2003). Given that the Psilocybe mushrooms (with Psilocybe hispanica in particular) are so commonly found around that area, and there is an alleged strong local tradition of witchcraft in this valley, it is possible that this depiction hints at a relationship between the devil, or witchcraft, and these hallucinogenic mushrooms. Another alleged medallion displays the Devil as an imp, surrounded by a horseshoe, and at his feet grow more of these toadstools. This would not be surprising, as the link between other poisonous and hallucinogenic herbs and the ‘witch flights’ or perceived Sabbaths is well known and explored (i.e. Carlo Ginzberg, Michael Howard, Dr. A. Gari etc.). The Basque term for these hallucinogenic Psilocybe fungi is sorguin zorrotz which means ‘witch’s beak’, which may refer to the small upper part of the cap and its link with consumption by local witches, despite no mention of this tradition within Inquisition records.

Selva Pascuala 

Selva Pascuala – note the alleged mushrooms in the bottom right and the accompanying bull. Photo taken from


A far older reference to Psilocybe hispanica comes from the Spanish interior. The 6,000-year-old rock art of the cave site Selva Pascuala (Pajaroncillo, Castilla-La Mancha) depicts in one mural some objects which match the morphology of Psilocybe mushrooms. At first, they were taken to be Psilocybe semilanceata, however they are placed next to a bull, which given the coprophilic nature of Psilocybe hispanica has caused some experts to revise their opinion and claim that the mushrooms in question are indeed Psilocybe hispanica (New Scientist, 2011). This is doubly interesting, as not only might it point towards some manner of ritualistic consumption of these fungi in prehistory, a tradition which may have continued in some manner throughout the centuries in the Pyrenees, but the fact that they grow more or less explicitly within the Pyrenees and that the site is located far from this mountain range might indicate some manner of importance placed on this specific species, easily identified as it is by its preference for dung, and it may have been specifically searched for and prized. If the identification of the mural is correct, it is the earliest known depiction of psychedelic fungi use in Europe, and the third found so far in prehistoric rock art.


Goya witch flight

Goya’s ‘Linda maestra’ (1798). It may be that Atropa belladonna helped these two believe they were indeed whizzing around on their brooms! Picture taken from


Another Pyrenean plant that is incredibly hard to find throughout the rest of the Iberian Peninsula is the infamous Atropa belladonna or Deadly Nightshade, long linked folklorically to witchcraft, spirit flights and poisoning. Ginzberg argues that along with opium poppy, monkshood, hemlock and other plants, Atropa belladonna was mashed into a salve and applied to ‘private areas’ (for greater absorption into the bloodstream) to encourage hallucinations or waking dreams of flight and diabolical interactions (Ginzberg, 2004).



The much-maligned European Toad, the subject of numerous sinister myths and folklore. Photo taken from


The final example given in this brief article comes not from a plant, but rather an unfortunate amphibian, the toad. These creatures produce a toxin in their parotid gland called Bufotoxin which causes (amongst other things) hallucinations and an increased heartbeat. Some references to the use of this toxin by five witches in Fago (Aragon) have been found in Inquisition records when they were tried in 1657: ‘The accused said that she had a toad and they whipped it with heather branches, they took what they had made it squirt out, they rubbed themselves with it and went wherever they wanted’ (Fericgla, 1996) In Catalonia there was a peculiar hangover of the use of this toad, at least up until around forty years ago. A popular form of dispensing justice was known as ‘sandbagging’, where a miscreant was beaten with a stocking full of sand, thereby dispensing punishment and avoiding involving local law courts. If the crime was more severe than pick-pocketing, stealing etc., then an unfortunate toad was also stuffed into the stocking. The apparent effect of this was that, not only would the accused be beaten black and blue, they would also get the Bufotoxin on their skin, which would leave him or her dazed, seeing terrifying visions (stressful situations tend to exaggerate the effects of hallucinogens) and having little memory of the event afterwards (Goithyja, 2012). No mention is made of what happened to the toad, but it is probably fair to say he would not be returning to his pond…





Fericgla, Josep Maria, 1996 ‘Traditional Entheogenic and Intoxicating Substances in the Mediterranean Area’. Speech given in the International Conference on Entheogenic substances in San Francisco, USA, in 1996. Available here:

Ginzberg, Carlo, Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath, trans. Raymond Rosenthal (Chicago, IL: University of Chigaco Press, 2004)

Goithyja, Ayahuasca Glimpse 2012 (Bloomington, IN: Xlibris Corporation, 2012) 

Guzmán G. (2000). “New species and new records of Psilocybe from Spain, the U.S.A. and Mexico, and a new case of poisoning by Psilocybe barrerae“. Documents Mycologiques.  29 (116): 41–52.

Guzmán G, Castro ML (2003). “Observaciones sobre algunas especies conocidas de Psilocybe (Basidiomycotina, Agaricales, Strophariaceae) de España y descripción de una nueva especie”[Observations on some known species of Psilocybe (Basidiomycotina, Agaricales, Strophariaceae) from Spain and description of a new species] (PDF). Boletín Sociedad Micológica de Madrid (in Spanish and English). 27: 181–7. Available here:



Anthrome blog:

Sacred Earth blog:

New Scientist (2nd March, 2011):