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:

[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:

[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:

[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

[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:

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:


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!


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


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


Malefic Pyrenean Tendencies

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


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


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

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

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

Protective Measures

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


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



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

[ii] This will be briefly discussed shortly below.

[iii] Harper, Douglas. Online Etymology Dictionary. 2001-2013. Available here:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[xvii] This is briefly discussed in Chapter Five.

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

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

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!