Book Extract #4 – Faunal Folklore

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[14] Vernier, 2008, p. 134.

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

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

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

[18] Alford, 1937, p. 83.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[25] Dubourg, 2013.

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