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]

Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[14] Vernier, 2008, p. 134.

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

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

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

[18] Alford, 1937, p. 83.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[25] Dubourg, 2013.

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

Article #17 – Entheogens in the Pyrenees

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

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

 

Amanita muscaria 

Amanita muscaria or Fly Agaric.  Photo taken from http://pixdaus.com/

 

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

 

Psilocybe hispanica

Psilocybe hispanica growing happily on some dung. Photo taken from https://files.shroomery.org

 

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

Selva Pascuala 

Selva Pascuala – note the alleged mushrooms in the bottom right and the accompanying bull. Photo taken from https://i.pinimg.com

 

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

 

Goya witch flight

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

 

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

 

Toad

The much-maligned European Toad, the subject of numerous sinister myths and folklore. Photo taken from https://upload.wikimedia.org

 

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

 

 

References

Books/Articles

Fericgla, Josep Maria, 1996 ‘Traditional Entheogenic and Intoxicating Substances in the Mediterranean Area’. Speech given in the International Conference on Entheogenic substances in San Francisco, USA, in 1996. Available here: http://anthropogen.com/?p=3370

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

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

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

Guzmán G, Castro ML (2003). “Observaciones sobre algunas especies conocidas de Psilocybe (Basidiomycotina, Agaricales, Strophariaceae) de España y descripción de una nueva especie”[Observations on some known species of Psilocybe (Basidiomycotina, Agaricales, Strophariaceae) from Spain and description of a new species] (PDF). Boletín Sociedad Micológica de Madrid (in Spanish and English). 27: 181–7. Available here: http://www.samorini.it/doc1/alt_aut/ek/guzman03.pdf

 

Websites

Anthrome blog:

https://anthrome.wordpress.com/2010/06/09/traditional-entheogenic-and-intoxicating-substances-in-the-mediterranean-area/

Sacred Earth blog:

http://www.sacredearth.com/ethnobotany/plantprofiles/flyagaric.php

New Scientist (2nd March, 2011):

https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20928025.400-earliest-evidence-for-magic-mushroom-use-in-europe/