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

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

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

Book Extract #4 – Faunal Folklore

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[14] Vernier, 2008, p. 134.

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

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

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

[18] Alford, 1937, p. 83.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[25] Dubourg, 2013.

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

Article 21 – The Wild Men of the Pyrenees

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


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


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


An Assyrian relief possibly showing Enkido as ‘Master of Beasts’. Photo taken from: https://en.wikipedia.org


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



‘The Fight in the Fores’ by Hans Burgkmair, depicting a mighty Wodewose and his club. Image taken from https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons

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

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

And so we left our wordly goods

To make our home in these deep woods

With our little ones protected

From that falsehood we rejected

We feed ourselves on native fruits

And from the earth dig tender roots

For drink pure springs are plentiful

For garments grass and leaves we make

Our homes are made of caves and stone

And no-one takes what’s not his own’

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


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

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

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



An engraving of a Simiot from the Valle du Tec. Image taken from (and more information available at) http://es.mitologiaiberica.wikia.com/wiki/Simiot


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

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

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

(Leroy, 1776)

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


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

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

(Raynal, 1989)

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

Fete des Ors.jpg

The Fete des Ours at Prats-de-Mollo, wild men and women indeed! This annual festival is soon to be videoed for this project mid-February 2018. Photo taken from http://anglophone-direct.com/ap_img/fo6.jpg


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

RAYNER, Michel (1989): L’Homme Sauvage dans les Pyrenees et la Survivance des Neanderthaliens. Le Bulletin de la Bipedie Initiale, Bipedia no. 3. Available online here:  http://initial.bipedalism.pagesperso-orange.fr/3.htm#1

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

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

YOUNG, Helen (19??) : Wodewoses: the (In)Humanity of Medieval Wild Men. University of Western Sydney. Unpublished. Available here: http://research-repository.uwa.edu.au/files/14264740/Young._Wodewoses_the_Inhumanity_of_Medieval_Wild_Men.pdf


Article #20 Christmas Customs in the Pyrenees

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


A man dressed as Olentzero, walking from village to village. Photo taken from https://i0.wp.com/aldaiaberri.eus/


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

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

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

‘Esta casa Buena, Buena casa,

Ochuneki ogi papur toba…

(‘This good house is a good house,

With this cold a bit of bread…’)

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

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


Caga tio.jpg

The unfortunate log being beaten by children, in the hope it will produce presents for them. Photo taken from: http://m.claver.fje.edu


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


Danza de los Pastores en Labastida.jpg

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


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


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

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

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

Article #19 – Divination and Grasshoppers in Aragon

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

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


Abizanda. Photo taken from http://www.patrimonioculturaldearagon.es


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

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

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


A handsome diviner! Photo taken from: https://i.pinimg.com


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





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

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

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


Article #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).



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…





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



Anthrome blog:


Sacred Earth blog:


New Scientist (2nd March, 2011):




Article 16 – Snake skins, oils and conjurors.

The Pyrenees is extremely rich in folklore relating to snakes, with tales and uses ranging from the medicinal to the maleficious. As in many European societies, this is in part due to its biblical connections and links with sorcery, not to mention the physical appearance and movement of the beast, all of which conspires to make the snake both feared and mistrusted throughout these mountains.


Alps snake

Alpine ‘snake’ drawn by 18th century Swiss ‘naturalist’ and traveller Johann Scheuchzer. Image taken from http://2.bp.blogspot.com


Like the dragons of the Alps, snakes were reputed to be able to fly in the Pyrenees and could transmit their venom to humans with the merest touch. They also had a reputation as aiding clairvoyance, and several tales tell of a character who was able to guess the secrets of others because he carried a viper in his pocket, or in a bundle of sticks on his shoulder. In the Basque Country, there is a popular saying that having a living snake under one’s foot means you will never lose a game, and in Aragon, some used to keep the dried skin of a snake in their pocket to win at games of cards. Similar uses were made of unfortunate lizards and their tails, with one lizard in a hundred thousand being said to possess a double tail, which if captured and kept would grant its keeper success in any game and lottery they played throughout their life!


Other beneficial qualities of the snake included a reputation for healing, although rather strangely this was through a stone that the snake would always keep balanced on its head. In Serrablo (Aragon) you can still find the serpent stone (piedra de serpiente) which is still said to have curative powers, and in Troncedo (Aragon) the villagers still keep dried snakes, from which they make all sorts of broths, unguents and ointments that are used to treat illnesses and keep the evil eye at bay. These snake soups are also used in Puyarruego (Aragon) by women who give birth at home, to facilitate the process. When the woman is suffering too much during the birth, the midwife will place the dried skin of a white snake around her belly. It has been suggested that this connection between the snake, childbirth, and the relationship of skin shedding in accordance with the cycles of the moon all points towards some manner of link between snakes and lunar cults in antiquity, and also towards their own immortality as creatures, in that they never die simply shed their skin. Mircea Eliade was convinced of this lunar link, describing the moon as the basis of fertility and periodic regeneration, and stating that ‘There are a great many different women-snake relationships, but none of them can be fully explained by any purely erotic symbolism. The snake has a variety of meanings and I think we must hold its ‘regeneration’ to be one of the most important.’ (Eliade, 1996). He also feeds into this the link between the female menstrual cycle, and the snakeskin shedding, both of which traditionally are seen as having relationships with the lunar cycle; after analysing a variety of snake cults and mythologies he concludes that snakes are essentially lunar in character (Allen, 1978).


Gartersnake skin

Gartersnake skin. Photo taken from http://www.naturenorth.com


Throughout many Aragonese and Catalan valleys, villagers would capture garter snakes at the start of summer, kill them and dry them, keeping their desiccated remains in the pantry. If any of their livestock became ill, they would mix a little of the snake’s dried flesh with the animal’s feed to cure them. From the Ariege to Béarn, one used to be able to commonly find a bottle with a drowned snake kept near the hearths. The liquid would be rubbed on any infected or poisoned spots, the theory being that the venom of the dead snake would chase away the venom already in the skin. According to legend, it was enough to simply leave a bottle with oil on the hearth and the snake would come along and drown itself in the bottle. The grease and fat from snakes was also used as a poultice, spread on course paper that could be reused and even reheated! It could also be spread on the breasts of a woman who was suffering pain during breastfeeding. In some areas, a freshly moulted viper skin was seen as an excellent remedy for sore eyes, and highly prized.

Unfortunately, snakes were also killed purely for the great joy of seeing them writhe in agony, much like toads and cats, due to their perceived links with witchcraft, especially during the celebrations of San Juan/Saint-Jean. In Ax-les-Thermes (Ariege), children would spend all day on the 23rd of June collecting snakes, only to toss them into a huge town fire during the night. As the flames began to rise, the snakes would try to escape them by climbing to the top of the fogairol (woodpile), only to fall writhing back into the flames, which caused great joy amongst the onlookers. In Axait, Gourbit and other villages, there was even a competition to see which of the snakes that sheltered at the top of the fogairol were the most beautiful, and when they would fall back into the fire!

In Bearn, only curés, it was believed, had power against snakes, for it was thought that these reptiles were the incarnations of the Devil. One particularly cunning curé lit a large fire to imitate Hell, and hundreds of snakes rushed into it because they were homesick for that diabolical realm. The same town also has a legend that associates snakes with witches, saying that when a man marries a witch unknowingly, he can tell by watching the side of the road, because snakes will follow the wedding carriage but only on the side where the witch sits.

Many villages had diviners who possessed special formulas and incantations that would give power and protection against snakes. These were said to be especially powerful on the first Tuesday of March, both the month and the day being said to be sacred to Mars (‘Mardi’ being Tuesday and ‘Mars’ being March), and on this day the master of a household would rise at dawn to escarnir los serps (‘summon the serpents’). This was still done in Luchonnais (Haute-Garonne) well into the 1950’s, where the elderly villagers would go into the undergrowth with a cane, using the stick to mimic the undulating movements of the snake, and chant the following words:


‘The first Tuesday of March,

The viper comes out of the bush.

May every creeping beast,

Pass its head under its spine,

So that the Great God sees it,

And me as well,

Before it sees me!


This prayer has many variations, but there is always an allusion to God, suggesting that divine assistance in necessary in subduing the devilish snake. In some valleys, this prayer was accompanied by the ‘Our Father’ and several rounds of ‘Hail Mary’. In the valley of Job (Midi-Pyrenees) the prayer went:


On the first Tuesday of March,

Every creeping beast raises its head,

First it is what the snake does,

Serpent, serpent, serpent,

You will not be able to bite me,

No more than I can kiss my elbow.


This last allusion to an impossible act is a humorous way of stopping the serpent from being able to bite the conjurer. In Plantaurel (Ariege), the prayer differs in a notable way:


On the first Tuesday of March,

The viper leaves her hole,

I see her, but she does not see me.


Finally, it is also worth mentioning the connection in Basque mythology between snakes and Sugaar/Sugoi, the latter a being preeminent character in the Euskadi legends and cycles. Sugaar is associated with thunder and storms, flies through the air trailing flames, and his name is said to derive from ‘male serpent’ (Trask, 1997). In order to create storms, he joins his (more famous) female consort Mari, however, aside from that his purpose and legends remain shrouded in mystery.




Allen, D. 1978.Structure and Creativity in Religion: Hermeneutics in Mircea Eliade’s Phenomenology and New Directions. New York: Mouton Publishing.

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

Eliade, M. 1996. Patterns in Comparative Religion. Nebraska: University of Nabraska Press.

Trask, L. 1997. The History of Basque. London: Routledge.


Article #15 – Pajuzu, the Aragonese Demon

This week’s article involves an unusual and largely unreported phenomenon – the possible residence of a Mesopotamian demon in the Aragonese Pyrenees! The only reference I can find to this creature with any real information is in Olivier de Marliave’s Magie et Sorcellerie dans le Pyrenees (Editions Sud Ouest, 2006, p. 247), but it is too unique a superstition not to write about, albeit briefly due to such scant reference.


The Aragonese Pyrenees, dwelling of the unique Pajuzu and his hailstorms. Photo taken from http://mw2.google.com/mw-panoramio/photos/medium/5792893.jpg


Pajuzu is a little know demon from upper Aragon, who is responsible for creating the thunderstorms that rage against the mountains in this region.  Curés from the area are recorded as referencing this malefic creature during their prayers, recited in their exconjuradoras (little chapels devoted to warding off storms).

It is highly likely that the name Pajuzu is corrupted and imported form of Pazuzu, the chief Mesopotamian demon of the winds, who often appeared as a smiling man with wings, a dog’s head and eagle’s talons. Both Pazuzu and Pajuzu share this role in the controlling and creation of winds and storms. Interestingly, Pazuzu also wards off evil spirits (despite being one himself), and is sometimes seen as a protector spirit for humans against plagues and general misfortune.


The infamous Mesopotamian demon Pazuzu. Photo taken from http://www.louvre.fr


But how on earth would the memory of Pazuzu end up on the slopes of the Pyrenees in upper Aragon? It has been suggested by de Marliave that, similar to the apparent appearance of Eastern saints within the Pyrenees during the arrival of Christianity in the region, so too may have some more malevolent superstitions from the deserts also have crept in with this imported religio-cultural wave. More research is needed on this to provide evidence of a pattern for these apparent Eastern saint cults and the dates (and locations) of their being established within the Pyrenees. However, if true, then this is a further illustration that the concept of the Pyrenees being culturally isolated is a myth, further bolstered by the presence of the Cathars, whose own philosophy wound many threads of Eastern and Western thought together into a particular dualist gnostic thread.

This brief article closes with two examples of curés attempting to use Pajuzu to ‘get back’ at rival villages. The curé of Saravillo (Sobrabe) pleaded with God from his exconjuradora that Pajuzu would cast down a hailstorm upon the nearby village of Plan, and the mayor of Abiego begged for precisely the same action to be performed against his rival, in the village of Bierge, just a (hail)stone’s throw away! Pajuzu was evidently kept busy by those who needed a touch of meteorological revenge.

Article #14 – The Akerbeltz

I was moved to write this brief article after watching (finally) ‘The VVitch’, whose real star is none other than the devilishly charming billy goat known as ‘Black Phillip’. But Black Phillip is far from alone, he has many counterparts across Europe, not least in the Basque Country, where his alter-ego Akerbeltz lurks underground, in the caves and in the forests of that mysterious and archaic region, especially in Zugarramurdi where elves and witches meet.

Akerbeltz (‘Aker’ mean billy goat and ‘beltz’ means black – the Basque are nothing if not literal in their language), is a popular Basque folk spirit who can be seen represented at numerous processions and folkloric gatherings throughout the region, and he also has numerous servants in the form of elves. Unsurprisingly, given his manifestation as a goat, the post-conversion religious landscape of the Basque Country linked Akerbeltz with the devil, however more nuanced recent folklore studies have linked him with the role of protector of animals, the herd, and in some cases, houses, and ascribe to him the potential as being an echo of a far more primal, complex deity from the Basque pagan past. Several Roman inscriptions exist which refers to ‘Aherbelste’, believed to be a Romanised version of the name Akerbeltz, indicating a definite pre-Christian existence in the area, possibly as a god in charge of protecting livestock and general fertility. Folklorists have also suggested that he shares some characteristics with the great Basque goddess Mari, who surprisingly took the occasional form of a black billy goat.

The worship or presence of the billy goat in folklore and religious lore within Europe is far from rare – Thor’s goats Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstrone who pull the thunder god’s chariot, and the popular northern European tradition of the Yule Goat spring to mind. One only has to look at examples such as Dionysius or Pan (to take two more famous cases) to see that the goat (and many horned creatures) have served as models of fertility, protection, and passions within the pre-Christian European past, and often they too were transformed into devilish figures within the Christian mythos. In Akerbeltz’s case, he became linked with witches’ Sabbaths, known as Akelarreak (witches’ covens), named after the pasture lands where goats grazed.

Akerbeltz too is seen as a figure of fertility, however, aside from his protectorate role (discussed below), he also is linked to storms, being able to whip up tempests and call down hail storms at will. It is a belief in the Pyrenees that the Devil, witches and Akerbeltz could all go to a stable, cut off the billy goat’s beard, and use it to call down terrific thunder and hail storms! In Freser (Catalonia) a saying still exists: ‘A la casa han tosa la cabra, aquesta tarde tindrem pedra.’ (‘They have cut the beard of the billy goat, this afternoon it will hail.’)


Witches’ Sabbath, 1789, Goya – Akerbeltz in the early-modern era!

In his protective role, Akerbeltz is believed to care for domestic animals left in his care, and even cure them of disease in some cases. For this reason, many Basques traditionally have a black billy goat in their stable as a representative of Akerbeltz, to ensure their livestock are protected from any malevolent force or predator. This two-sided nature has also given rise to the legend that Akerbeltz possesses two faces, one for his benevolent role and another for his malevolent character.

Several legends surround Akerbeltz. At one point a priest enters one of Akerbeltz’s caves carrying a consecrated host. Whilst he was touching the gold cross he wore around his neck, a snake appeared from the darkness and tore his hands off, together with the gold cross. As the poor priest fled the cave an ominous voice could be heard from the depths, saying ‘Be thankful you were wearing your gold, if not I would have kept you here instead.’ The priests of Urepel have tried several times to pray Akerbeltz away from their caves but, apparently, he refuses to leave. Akerbeltz is also said to be fond of the caves near Balgorri, where his spirit is said to wander frequently at night. One can still see Akerbeltz celebrated in the annual Festival of Witches at Zugarramurdi, and some Basques say he can be seen or sensed during the summer solstice celebrations held high in the Pyrenees…


Weekly Article #12: The Witch-lore of Catalonia

El Aquelarre.goya

(Aquelarre or El gran cabrón, Francis Goya, 1821 – 1823)

In keeping with the ongoing research project ‘Archaic Traces: A History of Pyrenean Witchcraft’, we will turn our attention to the presence of the witch in Catalan folklore, and in particular, those beliefs that are peculiar to this region.

In Catalan folklore, it is said that one can identify a witch due to their being a permanent imprint of the Devil’s teeth in her buttocks, which cannot be washed away even with holy water! Another indication of someone being in league with the horned one is that of unnatural pupils. This is common in witch-lore across the world, one combination is peculiar to Catalonia. One pupil will be a double pupil, and the other will be in the shape of a deer’s antlers (Soler i Amigo et al, 2014).

One aspect that is immediately apparent is the use of the comb in witch-lore. One of the oldest tools in the archaeological record, the comb can be found in many forms, but often has links to those with high status, presumably due to its role in caring for long hair, often historically a luxury of the upper echelons of society due to the time and care involved. Of course, the comb is not an unusual object in ‘magical’ folktales more generally, however it seems particularly prevalent in Catalan folklore. The comb is typically linked to storms, especially out at sea, with hair that falls to the floor or becomes entangled in the comb either causing or indicating the approach of a mighty tempest. It also plays a role in the binding with or destruction of amorous feelings, often accompanied by the action of combing or seeing an enchantress combing her hair. Tales exist of witches combing their hair by the side of a pool of water with golden or silver combs, and those that look upon them fall under their spell forever.

One tale that illustrates this power of the comb is ‘L’Amor de les Tres Taronges’ (‘The Love of the Three Oranges’), in which an old woman (the witch) offers to comb the hair of a beautiful young girl. She accepts, and the witch pricks her neck with the comb, causing her to fall into a deep death-like sleep. In other versions, she turned into a bird. In either case, the girl can only be returned to her previous state by being pricked again by the same comb (Soler i Amigo et al, 2014).

Another comb-centric tale is that of ‘The Castle of Iras’. The daughter of a powerful witch escapes from her mother’s castle with her lover, on a horse that runs as fast as the wind. However, the witch is far from pleased by this and sets off after her on a horse that can run as fast as thoughts. The witch almost catches the desperate couple, however, the daughter has some tricks of her own, inherited from her mother. She tears her comb from her hair and throws it over her shoulder into the path of the witch. The comb falls to the ground and becomes either a thick impenetrable forest or a river of flames, depending on which version of the tale one reads. In either case, the witch cannot cross the obstacle, and the couple ride to safety and happiness (Soler i Amigo et al, 2014).

Yet another tale the emphasizes the link between the comb, hair and power, is that of ‘The Three Hairs of the Devil’. Hair is also a long-established component of both spells and fetishes that can bring control over a person, and in this case, this ability is extended to the locks of the Devil himself! A king offers to pardon the crimes of a man if he is able to bring back from Hell three of the Devil’s hairs. The man wanders for months and determines that should he find the Devil he will ask him three questions: Why a pear tree that produces golden pears has failed to yield fruit; why a well that is filled with wine has run dry; and how was the boatman that ferried dead souls persuaded to return to the land of the living? The reason for his desire to know the answers to these rather unusual questions is not given, however, he eventually finds himself at the gates of Hell. Rather surprisingly, the Devil’s grandmother bustles out and offers to help him in his task! When the Devil returns to his home, it is dark and he is tired. He lays his head in his grandmother’s lap, who begins to sing softly to him, combing his unruly hair. The man, who has been lurking out of sight, seizes his chance and once the Devil has fallen asleep, he plucks out three hairs and asks the Devil those three questions, which the fiend answers softly in his sleep. Not wishing to outstay his welcome the man flees with the three hairs and his answers, returning to the king’s palace to hand the hairs over and gain his hard-won pardon (Anglada i Ferran, 1989).

  Turning to some more general aspects of Catalan witch-lore, it is said that one can become a witch by travelling to the coast at night and rolling around in the sand seven times, followed by walking round in a circle (direction unknown) three times. In keeping with the septenary theme, in order to maintain the powers granted to them, witches would need to make seven circuits of their house on New Year’s eve, sprinkling it with holy water and making gestures with blessed objects such as a palm from Palm Sunday. This would be followed somehow with the witch dancing within her (presumably capacious) oven! An unusual aspect of this piece of lore is the beneficial contact with and use of consecrated and blessed objects, which are usually a feature of repelling witches or destroying them in many other cultures. Another powerful date included All Saints Day (November 1st) during which a witch would break off the crosses on any graves they passed, so as to de-consecrate the burial plot. Conversely, it was also an excellent day for destroying witches. This was done by visiting the house of a witch and making a star on her door, then waiting ten days until the Feast of St Martin and attending a mass dedicated to the saint. Upon return to the house after this mass the whole building will have burned down, destroying the witch in the process (Garcia Carrera, 1987). In a similar manner to the gathering at Engolasters in Andorra, several sites in Catalonia are linked to Sabbatical gatherings. Pedraforca played host to the witches of Alt Bergueda and Cadi, who applied various salves to their bodies and launched themselves from their chimney stacks on brooms to head to the meetings. When all were gathered the witches would dance and perform a call and response routine with the Devil:

Alfàbrega i valeriana,

menta i ruda

salven tota criatura.

Ruda i valeriana

menta i alfàbrega,

tot ho cura i tot ho salva.

Menta i alfàbrega,

ruda i valeriana

salven tota persona nada.


Ruda i Valeriana,

alfàbrega i sàlvia

tot el món salven.

(Basil and valerian,

Mint and rue

Saves all creation.

Rue and valerian,

Mint and basil

Cures all and saves everyone.

Mint and basil

Rue and valerian

Saves every person born.

Rue and valerian

Basil and sage

Saves the whole world.)


The Devil would allegedly respond to each verse with the refrain:


Més val l’orella d’ós

que ho cura i salva tot.

The ‘Orella d’os’ is worth more

Which cures and saves all. (Garcia Carrera, 1987)

The ‘Orella d’os’ (literally ‘Bear’s Ear’) is the Pyrenean Violet, and is also known as the ‘borage leaf’, or ‘hairy grass’. In folk medicine is used to combat the common cold (Agelet et al, 2002).

  Pyrenean Violet

(Pyrenean Violet [Lat. Ramonda myconi], taken from http://frantrabalon.blogspot.com)

The plain of Beret saw meetings of the witches from Alt Pallars and the Vall d’Aran, and even the monastic mountain of Montserrat was not safe from these diabolical gatherings, where the Devil kept the witches dancing to the strains of his frantic violin playing. However, the villages surrounding Montserrat had tricks of their own, and would place blessed palm leaves over the chimney to prevent witches entering it. Salt, laurel, rosemary and holy water were also used elsewhere on all windows, keyholes and doorways to prevent any unwanted sorcerous intrusions (Soler i Amigo et al, 2014).

Fire is also an age-old method of keeping witches at bay, and Catalonia is no exception with this practise. The feast of Sant Joan (Midsummer) is celebrated with great bonfires, and these are traditionally said to keep witches at bay, during a night when the herbs they gather are particularly potent. This was particularly important on this night as the witches were said to fly around tipping poisonous concoctions on the heads of their enemies (Garcia Carrera, 1987).



 (Canigou Mountain taken from http://www.tourism-canigo.com)

A final piece of witch-lore for this installment comes from the Canigou mountain (or Canigó in Catalan) of the Pyrenees-Orientales, made famous by the Catalan poet Jacint Verdaguer i Santaló. According to legend, hailstorms were created by witches using a most unusual method. They would relieve themselves into a hole in the ground, and then beat their produce with local vines, raising a great storm to attack the local villages! Presumably, and hopefully for the sake of the villagers, the hail stones were made from normal water rather than ‘witch’s water’!

Works referenced:

Agelet, A, Muntane, J, Parada, M & Valles, J. 2002. Plantes Medecinals del Pirineu Catala. Sant Vincent de Castellet: Farell.

Soler i Amigo, J & Pubill, R. 2014. Les Bruixes es Pentinen: Mitologia i Realitat de la Bruixeria Catalana. Barcelona: Portic Singular Edicions.

Anglada i Ferran, M. 1989. Histories i Relats Pirinencs. Andorra La Vella: Editorial Andorra.

Garcia Carrera, R. 1987. Cacera de bruixes al Vallès. Terrassa: Editorial Ègara.