Article 26 – The Flaming Chalices of the Pyrenees

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

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

Valencia chalice

The ‘Holy Chalice’ of Valencia Cathedral. Photo taken from:

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



The Virgin holding the Flaming Chalice, located in the apse of Sant Pere del Burgal (Pallars Sobirà). Photo taken from:


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


Article #19 – Divination and Grasshoppers in Aragon

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

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


Abizanda. Photo taken from


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

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

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


A handsome diviner! Photo taken from:


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





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

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

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


Article 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


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


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.


Expedition Report – Roca del Corb

Expedition Report – Roca del Corb, Peramola

Disclaimer – Under Spanish law, apparently, it is forbidden to take photos of archaeological artefacts found ‘in situ’ or even to describe them, if one does not have a permit for archaeological prospection. So, it should be formally stated here that (for legal reasons) any descriptions of surface artefacts here are based on hearsay from other sources unrelated to Perennial Pyrenees.


(View down towards Peramola, with Roca del Corb on the right and Roques de Sant Honorat on the left)

Recently a visit was made to the Peramola municipality near Oliana in the Alt Urgell, Catalonia, to examine some fascinating archaeological sites. This area is heavily wooded and is situated at the very beginning of the Pyrenean foothills. Stretching away down to Barcelona lies a far gentler undulating series of hills, so gentle in fact, that one can just about make out the imposing mountain of Montserrat in the distance, rising impressively out of its surroundings. The village of Peramola itself possesses a wonderful Lombard Romanesque church in the cemetery, dedicated to Sant Miquel de Paramola, and the church of Santa Maria de Castell-llebre, which stands on a rocky spur and has an unusual square based belfry.

The whole region offers a wide and excellent set of archaeological and even palaeontological sites, and one of the main reasons for this is the presence of the River Segre that flows through it offering good communication and trading possibilities. Sites range from one of the world’s largest fossilised dinosaur nest in Europe (just to the north at Coll de Nargo) to prehistoric engravings and rock shelters/cave sites, Medieval graffiti, Romanesque churches and troglodyte dwellings that were also used more recently to shelter refugees in the Spanish civil war. The nearby town of Oliana is said to owe its origins to a Roman colony, and possesses a very fine Romanesque church and a castle.

(Map of the region showing Roca del Corb in relation to Roques de Sant Honorat and the Rumbau river. Taken from

In a nearby, heavily wooded valley, The Roca del Corb (‘Rock of the Crow’) and Roques de Sant Honorat (‘Rocks of Saint Honorat’) are popular with walkers and rock climbers alike due to their unusual shape and excellent views, and for possessing the largest natural rock bridge in Catalonia. Below them in a ravine, the Rumbau river flows south east down towards the Segre. Due to the heavy vegetation, steep inclines and multi-hued stones that litter the floor (a mixture of riverbed sediment and washed stones that have hardened into a concrete like deposit), little to no field-walking or archaeological surveying has taken place here, despite the obvious presence of some highly interesting sites (recorded by Catalan archaeological services). The Roca del Corb was first occupied in Prehistory and has seen sporadic settlement in various forms ever since (1). Given the abundance of possible rock shelters and caves around the Roca and in the ravine below this is hardly surprising, especially with the Rumbau river at hand and the surrounding forests offering hunting and foraging possibilities. At the base of Roca del Corb lies a troglodyte house (‘Casa del Corb’) built around a cave in the rockface. Its origins are unknown, but it is recorded as being inhabited up to the early 20th century. The interior is 20m by 25m and has a well-preserved oven. Records indicate the site was first inhabited during the Neolithic, which given its situation (shelter, visibility, resources) is unsurprising (2).


(The Chapel of San Salvador, Roca del Corb)

Perched atop Roca del Corb is one of the smallest Romanesque chapels in Catalonia, dedicated to San Salvador. Occupying one of the needle-like formations of the Roca, its precarious position offers an amazing view and a truly unique setting, with the cliffs plunging down 50 feet on three sides. The church has been dated to the late 11th century, and is built in the Lombard Romanesque style, although it is currently in a ruinous state with no surviving roof (1). The apse holds a niche in which a modern sculpture of the Virgin rests, and a small window in the centre of the apse looks out to the north. A fascinating feature of the church (albeit unintentional on the part of the builders) is the use within the walls of two large chunks of a Neolithic mill/quern stone made of granite.


This poses an interesting question; seeing as the location of the chapel makes it unlikely that anything other than (very literally) immediately available stone would have been used during construction, these fragments must have been found around the Roca del Corb. This would, therefore, indicate a food processing site either on or around Roca del Corb, which leads to further speculation about Neolithic settlements and early agricultural activity in the same area. On another plateau of the Roca de Corb, I have been informed that a fragment of sandstone which strongly suggests the shape of a grinding/quern stone has recently been sighted (a definite circular curvature on the outside, worn smooth and ‘dish’ shaped on the interior – diameter uncertain). Other finds on this plateau adjacent to the chapel have been said to include fragments of possibly Roman pottery, a blue gaming piece, glass fragments and ever traces of iron, leading to the suggestion of a possible metallurgy site. The great mystery is that this site is almost inaccessible – only now possible through the use of a climbing chain – so the alleged presence of all these finds (including those relating to industry and food processing) is peculiar, to say the least.


(Saxifraga longifolia)

An interesting aside is the presence of ‘Corona del Rey’ (‘Kings Crown’ or ‘Pyrenean Encrusted Saxifrage’ – Latin: Saxifraga longifolia) along much of the Roca del Corb. This alpine perennial is very hardy and can grow up to a foot across before putting out a stem that forms a cascade of white blossom, announcing the plant’s death. This plant has ‘medicinal’ qualities that relate to abortion, and local folklore tells that it was favoured by queens so that they may eradicate any evidence of ‘extra-curricular activity’ whilst their husbands were away fighting or touring the kingdom!

At a lower level, the Col du Mu links the rock formations of Roca del Corb and Roques de Sant Honorat. Allegedly there are the remains of a cremation site here which may date back to the Bronze age, with detectable burnt soil, fragments of cremated bone and small flecks of bronze detectable on the surface. However, the combination of neither preservation nor excavation efforts and the passage of vehicles (not to mention walkers/climbers) over this tiny site has rendered it crushed, and no doubt the stratigraphy is highly compacted or disturbed.


(An anthropomorphic tomb cut into the rock)

In the ravine below these two rocks and the Col lies a very curious site indeed. Amongst the heavy tree cover, boulders and smoke blackened caves/shelters lie a series of anthropomorphic tombs cut into the rock-face of the Col. These tombs are commonly known as Olerdolana (named after their prevalence in the Olerdola municipality outside Barcelona), or rupestres anthropomorphic in Spain, and are present across the Peninsula as well as in Britain, France and further afield. They are primarily identified in Iberia with the Late Antique/Medieval period, which may place them within the Visigothic or Frankish periods, especially the former given the popularity of this necropolis style with this culture. The local name for this site is ‘Cementiri del Moros del Coll de Mu’ (The Cemetery of the Moors of Coll de Mu’), however anything which is slightly unknown in terms of origin tends to be ascribed in folklore to ‘the Moors’, so this reference should be taken with a pinch of salt (2). There appears to be a red staining around the head areas, which may be remains of some form of paint (it does not appear to be linked to an oxidation process or staining of the rock naturally). Five tombs are present in this necropolis however no remains are visible within them, filled as they are with compacted soil, stones, vegetation and other detritus. No doubt they would benefit from sampling.


(Two more examples of the anthropomorphic tombs)

Further along, reaching into the rock-face of Roques de Sant Honorat is the cave known as the ‘cathedral’. Some of the walls are blackened with what may be soot, however, the extensive interior of this cave is overgrown and nothing remains to indicate occupation. Yet, it would seem an ideal spot for some form of habitation, occupying a prime site that is sheltered, extensive (perfect for spatial allocation in terms of food processing, sleeping, even industry), near an excellent water source and easily defended. Allegedly some fragments of what appears to be crudely made Medieval pottery have been spotted on its floor, which combined with the soot-stained walls may indicate some form of presence here during this period – possibly hunters rather than herdsmen, or indeed there may have been some form of industry down in this ravine that we are unaware of now due to the heavy vegetation obscuring all evidence.


(View out across the ravine and Roques de Sant Honorat from the highest plateau on Roca del Corb)

Evidently both the Roca del Corb, Roques de Sant Honorat and the ravine below with its river has seen a high amount of human occupation and exploitation throughout the ages, which is to be expected given the resources/aspect of the sites, and the proliferation of similar sites throughout the region (and indeed Catalonia as a whole). Further studies of these sites would yield useful information in terms of shifting patterns of land use, and potentially comparisons could be drawn between settlement/exploitation patterns in these Pyrenean foothills and the High Pyrenees. The presence of the anthropomorphic tombs, however, is of great interest, and points towards the question of why choose such a place for internment in such a deliberate and labour intensive manner? Was there a nearby settlement associated with these burials, as surely Peramola (for instance) is far too great a distance to carry bodies through such vegetation and inclines for internment? Were they related to as yet undiscovered troglodyte dwellings, such as Casa del Corb? A mystery indeed, and one to which that landscape is not going to yield any easy answers.




Weekly Article #8 – The Legend of Our Lady of Meritxell

Seeing as this is the Paschal week a Christian theme has been chosen, thus Perennial Pyrenees presents the legend of Our Lady of Meritxell!


Our Lady of Meritxell is the patron saint of Andorra, and in the parish of Canillo a sanctuary is built upon the spot of her miraculous appearance. The legend tells us that on a Sunday morning that was also Epiphany, the people of the village of Meritxell were walking to nearby Canillo to hear Mass. This being Winter, the last thing they expected to see peeking up through the snows was a Dog Rose in flower, and especially not one that held an image of Our Lady with the Infant Jesus nestling between its branches, but that is exactly what they found! Astonished, they took the image and, under the watchful eyes of the parish priest they placed it in the church at Canillo. Imagine their surprise when, the next morning, the image was back between the branches of the Dog Rose. In addition to this miracle, the snows had fallen all night and there were drifts everywhere but not touched the Rose itself. The villagers then realized that Our Lady wanted to remain in that prices spot, and so they built a chapel to house the image right there, which is where the current sanctuary stands today.

The symbolism of the Rose has long been linked with Marian cults, especially within the Medieval period, and Mary herself was known as the ‘rose without thorns’ as she was free from original sin. The flower is typically depicted with five petals, each of which are equated with the ‘five joys of Mary’ and the five letters that constitute the name ‘Maria’. The Christmas rose, a white flower that blooms when the rest of the garden is asleep, symbolises the Nativity and the coming of Jesus (Sill, 1996, 50 – 53). The Dog Rose was particularly prevalent in Britain, and still has an identification riddle associated with it called ‘The Five Brethren of the Rose’ (Locker, 2015, 170; Maby, 1996, 191). As can be seen, the use of a Dog Rose appearing when the rest of the land is still in the grips of Winter, cradling a statue of the Virgin and Child within its thorns, is laden with Marian symbolism.

The original sanctuary and chapel were both Romanesque constructions, placing their date in the early 12th century, and in 1658 a renovation took place which gave the buildings a more Baroque character and larger dimensions. Sadly, in the night of 8th September 1972 a fire tore through the sanctuary and church, destroying not only the buildings but the altarpieces, documents and, most sadly of all, the original Romanesque carving of Our Lady of Meritxell that the legend places within the thorny branches of the Dog Rose. A new sanctuary was built in 1976, which aimed to synthesis a more modern style with the original Romanesque aesthetics and proportions of the sanctuary. It was proclaimed a ‘Minor Basilica’ by Pope Francis. The chapel was rebuilt in the Romanesque style to mimic its predecessor. The copy of the now charred and ruined statue is housed in the sanctuary itself, the original of which was said to have been the oldest in the Pyrenees. The Virgin is seated, a crown of five flowers on her head, with a red tunic speckled with flowers and stars. Her right hand is disproportionately large to emphasise the gesture of blessing and welcome, whilst her (normally sized) left hand hold the Infant Jesus on her knee. Interestingly, the shoes on her feet are the flat wooden shoes that mountain farmers would wear!

The cult of Our Lady of Meritxell is still deeply engrained in Andorran culture, and every September 8th sees thousands undertake a pilgrimage to the site, with celebrations (both liturgical and also distinctly secular – like wine tasting!) marking the occasion at and around the sanctuary. It is perhaps appropriate to end this short article with the prayer often recited to the Virgin of Meritxell, written by rector of the sanctuary, Mosen Ramon:

Meritxell of silence, teach us to listen.

Meritxell of the mountains, teach us to appreciate.

Meritxell of the snow, teach us not to lie, to be true to ourselves.

Meritxell of the rose-bush, teach us the joy of giving and of being humble

Meritxell of the narcissi, teach us the sweetness of life.

Meritxell of the clear skies and resplendent sun, show us the Light.

Meritxell dweller of the meadows and the lowly crofts, teach us simplicity.

Meritxell of suffering, teach us to pray.

Meritxell of the children, teach us to smile.

Meritxell of peace, teach us solidarity.

Meritxell, Mother of Andorrans, teach us unity.

Meritxell, Mother of God, teach us to love.

Happy Easter to you all!


Locker, Martin. 2015. Landscapes of Pilgrimage in Medieval Britain. Oxford: Archaeopress Archaeology.

Mabey, R. 1996. Flora Britannica. London: Chatto and Windus Press

Sill, Gertrude Grace. 1996. A Handbook of Symbols in Christian Art. New York: Touchstone Press.


Weekly Article #5 – Carnival and Lent in the Pyrenees: Some Traditions and Customs


Constituting the borderland between two Roman Catholic countries, yet with folklore and customs that stretch back to primordial origins, it is unsurprising that the Carnival and Lent period in the Pyrenees features both eclectic and unique traditions. Some are purely Christian, others certainly contain older echoes, but all are entered into with great enthusiasm.

During Carnival, one finds records of a curious custom in certain towns and villages in Catalonia and the French Pyrenees. A figure known sometimes as ‘Gregoire’ (an effigy representing the spirit of Carnival) was paraded around the streets in an ox cart loaded with fresh greenery – that night, men dressed in their wives’ chemises with bundles of paper attached to the hem like a tail, would make their way with torches down lanes into the town’s main square, during which time they would attempt to set alight the paper ‘tail’ of the man in front! Gregoire was then ‘tried’ in villages up and down the valleys, before being burnt in a main square, during which the townsfolk would sing:

‘Al Carnabal es mort

Tire ballanes, tire ballanes;

Al Carnabal es mort,

Tire ballanes din dal clot’

(Carnival is dead,

Throw nuts, throw nuts;

Carnival is dead,

Throw nuts in his grave.)

(Alford, 1937, 37)

Across the border in the French Pyrenees, Shrove Tuesday also saw a unique event in the village of Poubeau. A cherished (and some might say clandestinely worshipped) boulder named ‘Cailhaeo d’Arriba-Pardin’ would be approached by a procession of young men from the village, who would then light a fire on the rock accompanied by ludicrous and obscene gestures. The fire lit, they would then dance joyfully around the rock, singing lustily. This was known as the ‘Fete des Gagnolis’ (Alford, 1937, 91).

In the Basque country, one finds the Masquerade/Maskarada performances in Soule (or Zuberoa in standard Basque) during Carnival. This performance is complex and highly nuanced, and rather than try to condense and reduce the events into a simple paragraph, the full description by Violet Alford is attached to the end of this article, it is highly recommended reading. Also, as mentioned in Article #2 (Bears) we can find the bear dance in the carnival of Bielsa in Aragon, part of a three day carnival which sees numerous archaic figures such as man encased in ivy leaves, a form of ‘hobby horse’ (the ‘caballet’) and the ‘trances’, young unmarried men who dress in goat skins and blackened faces and ‘attack’ young girls and children.

Ash Wednesday marks the end of the Carnival season, a time of excess and pageantry and start of Lent, a far more sombre (and lean) affair. One custom that marks this transition is the burial of the sardine (‘Entiero de la Sardine), a tradition found across Spain and the Catalan Pyrenees (and Andorra) is no exception. This tradition is said to originate in Madrid in the 18th century, and features a large mock funeral procession climaxing in the burial of a sardine (either real or replica) in a coffin, or its burning. The burning of the sardine has been suggested by Carmen Vargas (1993) to represent the purifying and purging of vices and chaos indulged in during the Carnival, restoring order for the start of penitence during Lent, and the burial of the sardine symbolises the start of a period of reflection. There are claims that this festival has its origins in pagan custom, however if it does indeed originate to the 18th century then this seems unlikely, even if it continues a now lost folkloric motif, possibly relating to the advent of Spring with the sardine representing the last of the Winter stores being given in thanks (entirely my own conjecture).

This day was a particularly ripe one in Andorra, during which opportunities were taken to have one last burst of fun before Lent really kicked in, indeed many took the day as the last day of carnival rather than the first day of Lent. The stuffed effigies of ‘Carnestoltes’ (the spirit of Carnival) were taken down from where they hung, and, in some parishes, they were publically burnt (this still happens). Some men went into their houses to ‘seize a woman there, lift her skirts and throw a handful of flour or ashes between her legs’, and others would daube their faces with flour or ash a parade through the village with knives in their hand, as if they were shaving (Hadden, 39, 1998). Carnival in Catalonia was also associated heavily with the slaughter of pigs, and in Urgell ‘El Funerals del Porc’ is sung during this period.

Another remarkable custom that occurred at the start of Lent in Catalan villages was the hanging up of a paper doll with seven legs (see photo), or a salted cod from which seven dried herring hang. This is reported in Joan Amades’ splendid ‘Guia de Festes Tradicionals de Catalunya’ (1958). The doll was typically hung from the tympanum of a chimney or the kitchen door, and every Sunday when returning from Mass the household would cut one leg from the doll, thus marking the passing of each week of Lent. The paper from which the doll was made would either be from the diary of the previous year, or in some cases Amades claims that it could be fashioned from a papal bull saved from the previous Lent! In some parishes, the doll would be framed by sardines, onions and garlic, as if it were an icon in a chapel. At the time of Amades’ writing, the custom was still being practised in Barcelona and Tarragona, however it is possible that this tradition survives in the more rural parts of Catalonia and the Pyrenees. The hanging salted cod is another method of counting down the weeks of Lent. The cod would be hung from the ceiling in the centre of the household’s or village’s store (Amades is unclear on this), with seven dried herring hanging from its tail. Each Saturday evening one of the sardines would be cut down from the cod, marking another week of Lent. Amades remarks that until recently (in 1958) in the district of Sant Marti de Provencals in Barcelona, this still occurred in some establishments.

With all this occurring, it is exciting to see what customs Holy Week itself will bring to these peaks and valleys!

Amades, J. 1958. Guia de Festes Tradicionals de Catalunya. Barcelona: Editorial Aedos.

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

Hadde, A. 1998. ‘Lent, Holy Week and Easter’ in Andorra: Festivals, Traditions and Folklore. Escaldes: Andorra Writers Circle.

Vargas, C. 1993. ‘3.7. El Entierro de la Sardina: muerte y resurrección.’ in El carnaval de Santa Cruz de Tenerife: un estudio antropológico.  Servicio de Publicaciones de la Universidad de La Laguna. pp. 254–261. Doctoral Thesis. Available here: