Book Extract #2 – Bear Cults and Bear Dances

This extract is, in fact, two extracts from Chapter 3 of the forthcoming book. The first part describes some of the archaeological evidence for the possibility of Pyrenean Palaeolithic bear cults, and the second delves into the modern bear festivals and their various rituals outside of the Basque Country (some things must be reserved for the book!). Again, all notes are presented here as endnotes due to WordPress limitations, but in the actual book are footnotes for ease of reference. I hope you enjoy!

Extract 1: Bears and the Pyrenean Palaeolithic


Whilst some evidence from which an extrapolation of bear worship is circumstantial, other examples seem to point towards a deep time signature for this practise. It is important to note that due to the preference of caves as a shelter and place of hibernation/rearing young, it is precisely within such environments that one would expect to find the remains of bears, and the heavier long bones and skull would survive natural degradation processes far better than smaller, more fragile bones. The crucial aspect is in the context within which these bones are placed, and while some archaeologists such as Ida Wunn claim that these placements are down to natural processes (flooding, the movement of other bears, soil deposition etc.), other archaeologists are convinced that these discoveries indicate the presence of a primordial bear cult in the Palaeolithic, and are the origins of the ethnographic examples mentioned above.

One persuasive example of the apparent deliberate deposition of cave bear bones can be found in Veternica Cave near Zagreb, in the Mousterian context of the cave’s history.[1] Bednarik reports that no less than sixty-three skulls were excavated, along with several hearths, and that six Cave Bear skulls had been found neatly arranged in a row, with their snouts pointing towards the cave entrance. Several other skulls also indicated man-made perforations and polishing, and in the east of the cave, a niche had been made or exploited for the placing of a skull and long bones, then carefully sealed with boulders.[2] The seemingly deliberate positioning of cave bear skulls is also reported at the Caverne de Furtins in the Saône-et-Loire region of France, and other examples have been suggested based on evidence at the caves of Reyersdorfer and Salzofen (Austria), Drachenloch (Switzerland),[3] and those at Homoródalm ser, Istállóskö, Kölyuk and Mornowa (Hungary).[4] Recent evidence is also postulated at the infamous Chauvet Cave, whose rock art is discussed in Chapter One. Here, nearly two hundred skulls were discovered, several of which are positioned anatomically within the context of the rest of their remains, indicating natural deposition and decomposition of the bears’ corpses within the cave. However, many are also found in isolation, with several of their lower mandibles showing evidence of having been forcibly removed, placed in often upright positions in prominent locations within the cave complex, with one placed on a table-like boulder that protrudes seventy centimetres above the cave floor. Bednarik writes:

There are two other clear examples of deposited cave bear bones in Chauvet, both found in the Salle des Bauges. This is a very large hall near the original entrance, containing only four skulls. In two cases, about 10 m apart and perhaps 30 to 40 m from the former, now collapsed entrance, occurs the combination of a cave bear skull with a cave bear humerus. In both cases the skulls are placed upright, and the humeri have been inserted into the ground perfectly vertically, at least half submerged in the sediment. In one case the long-bone is located close to the skull, in the other it is about a metre away, but precisely aligned with its longitudinal axis and in front of it. There are no other bones in the vicinity. In both cases the surrounding surface is entirely of fine-grained sediment and fairly flat. Fluviatile action is not indicated, though the area appears to have been submerged under a shallow pond occasionally. It is extremely unlikely that these two placements are random, natural effects; the two humeri are the only elongate bones in the cave orientated vertically.[5]


Within the Chauvet Cave we also find cave art depicting the bear, as well as other predatory animals such as lions, and other examples of Palaeoart from around Europe seem to suggest that the hunting of cave bears was not out of the ordinary. At the caves of Les Trois Freres, we find ‘two bears apparently lying on their sides, with marks at their nozzles suggesting an issuance and their bodies covered by numerous apparent piercings and arrow-like marks’,[6] and in another cave in the Ariège, La Grotte du Montespan, one finds a nearly life-size bear statue crafted from clay and covered in small holes. In the Midi-Pyrénées, the Grotte du Peche Merle contains a petroglyph which details a bear’s head, with two lines suggesting the head’s severance. Furthermore, the caves of ‘Goyet, Princesse Pauline, and Trou de Chaleux, which are located in the Condroz, a region south of the Sambre and Meuse valleys in Belgium’ have offered up evidence for what has been termed a ‘proto bear cult’.[7] Several fossilised bear bones from the Upper Palaeolithic have been discovered in these caves, which is not unusual in itself, but red ochre was found to have been applied to them. Germonpré and Hämäläinen make comparisons to the ethnographic record, within which it is common to find the remains of hunted bears being treated with some manner of dye, either from bark juice, blood, earth-derived pigments or cloth, or even smoked to produce a blackening of the skull. It has also been suggested that the presence of red ochre traces on these bones was not due to accidental contamination with the pigment, and was instead deliberately and carefully applied; red ochre being a part of the known Upper Palaeolithic symbolic mortuary practises:

The examples noted above of manipulated bear remains in Belgium, Europe, and North America could be interpreted as continuous with bear-related rituals that started with a proto bear-ceremonialism dating from the Gravettian, and possibly even from the Aurignacian. The presence in the Upper Paleolithic of red ochre or black charcoal traces on the bear skull and bones of the bear paws, and the application in ethnographic rituals from all over the circumpolar realm of these same colors on these same bear body parts could be interpreted as similar acts by the people who hunted the animals. It is not possible to be certain whether the ochre and charcoal-applying activities had the same meaning and purpose as the recent bear rituals in the circumpolar hunter-gatherer cosmology. However, given the above, it seems reasonable to conclude that the coloring by red ochre or black charcoal of the bear remains was associated with bear hunting and eating of bear meat and probably formed an integrated part of the proto bear-ceremonialism.[8]

Whilst the degree to which this evidence displays a specific reverence is debatable, it is clear that in the cases listed above, the positioning of these bones and skulls in such a manner, and their colouring, cannot be put down to simple taphonomic processes; there must have been a degree of intentionality behind them, which indicates that the cave bear and by extension the figure of the bear itself occupied a heightened position within the minds of these caves’ occupants. It is important to note that these discoveries have been found only within caves which demonstrate extensive human occupation and use; no such arrangements have been found in connection with caves that are used exclusively by bears alone. Whilst the argument of bear cults within the Palaeolithic context has been raging for decades, the recent trend to reject out of hand, and without sufficient analysis, the possibility of reverence or ritual treatment of bear remains is unwise; when one considers the ethnographic data, it would certainly seem possible. The hunting of bears within the ethnographic contexts is always accompanied by some manner of special treatment, either before and/or after the killing of the bear, and synonyms are always used to avoid offending the bear. These practises must have an origin point, and given the depositional contexts of certain skulls, the evidence shown for the hunting of bears in the Palaeolithic, and their being the subjects of both painted and sculptural Palaeoart, it seems certainly plausible that the kernel for these practises may be traced back to this period. It is also highly interesting that both sculpture and painted representations of bears, particularly in the case of hunting and the severing of a head, are found within the Pyrenean context, indicating that certainly the practise of bear-hunting took place in the region. As to the degree of ritualised or proscribed behaviours that surrounded such a practise, only speculation can be engaged in, but this cannot preclude the possibility of some form of deliberate deposition of the bear’s bones and its occupation of a particular place within the minds of the hunters, or indeed the Palaeolithic population at large.

Extract 2: Contemporary Examples of Pyrenean Bear Festivals

Turning to the bear festivities found in the nearby Pyrenean principality of Andorra, we find that historically the bear dances took place in Ordino, Andorra le Vella, Santa Coloma, Escaldes (where the bear’s body was placed in a fire but the bear always leapt up alive from the embers – probably quite quickly given the fact that it was a man in costume!) and finally in Encamp,[9] which has the longest continuing tradition of the Ball de l’Ossa (Bear Dance), and its origins are quite unique, being based on (alleged) social history:


The story is that the rich important famer of Can Moles and his charming wife were out one day in their best clothes to pay a visit [to a notable local family, Can Joan Antoni], when a huge and terrifying bear charged out of the bushes to attack them. A gallant hunter heard their cries and slew the bear with one shot. The bear was so huge, the hunter so brace, the lady so beautiful and the husband so grateful and rich that this created an indelible folk memory. A dance was organised to celebrate it and has continue ever since.’ This sounds a relatively straightforward explanation, however the dance still incorporates many commonly found motifs of the bear dances across the Pyrenees, including a maiden attacked by a bear, the bear being dragged to the central square and shot, the corpse then has harvesters’ scythes crossed over it after which it springs back to life and dances with the harvesters and the farmer.[10]

This dance still takes place each year, and is a ribald affair which, much like in Prats-de-Mollo, is aided by local wine to keep the cold at bay. We begin with several smugglers[11] who are scything straw (or rather, distributing it), and who periodically wrestle each-other. Their leader makes an appearance and directs them in song, after which a notable figure on a horse arrives to make a speech. After he leaves, a ‘woman’ (i.e. a very large man in drag) appears and quite violently forces the seated smugglers to drink wine, eat fuet (a local type of cured salami) and be generally knocked about through aggressive hospitality. The ‘bear’ then makes his entrance and attempts to carry of the ‘woman’[12], upon which local hunters appear and shoot the bear, and dance about his corpse. The scythes are no longer crossed over the bear’s body, and the bear does not become reanimated.

To the West, in the town of Pau within the Béarn region, one finds another ‘Chasse de l’Ours’. Interestingly, the bear is still referred to by locals as lou pedescaou (he who goes barefoot) and lou Mousse (the gentleman), indicating a level both of respect and anthropomorphism that resonates strongly with the echoes of bear veneration and reverence that seem to reverberate around the Pyrenees. Several days after Carnival (again, at the start of Spring), this sleepy town reverberates to one of the most raucous incarnations of the ‘Bear Hunt’, but with two key differences. It takes the place of a procession, in which several ‘bears’ are escorted throughout the town by ‘hunters’; however, the ‘hunters’ are all women in men’s costumes, and the bears are in full bear costume and all men, and several men also dress in drag as provocative young women, the Rosettes. The bears all sport bright red ‘appendages’, however it is safest to attribute this to a more modern twist on the traditional costume, tempting as it is to ascribe ‘fertility rites’ to such a presence, it being more likely a representation of the robust local humour! The ‘bears’ are led through the town, and in keeping with tradition will periodically grab either the Rosettes or genuine female townsfolk and rub against them in a lascivious manner. The ‘hunters’ then gather together in the main square, and the ‘bears’ make their way into the square shortly after. The Rosettes are set on one side of the square, and the bears make charges at them, driven (apparently) into a frenzy due to their months in hibernation. A final charge by the ‘bears’ gives the signal for chaos to break loose, and the Rosettes are vigorously fondled and wrestled by their ursine pursuers. In a curious (and what must be a modern) twist, a group of men dressed in antiquated English huntsmen outfits, red coats and all, appear and give the signal for the hunt to begin, upon which the ‘hunters’ tussle with the bears, cutting off the modern ‘appendages’ which are given to the Rosettes as a present. The ‘bears’ are left for dead, however Los Orsatèrs (the Bear Keepers) appear and revive them, and are left in charge of the bears for the rest of the evening.[13]

We turn next to the rural valley of Bigorre, also in the Béarn region, whose bear festival is also worth including, not least due to an attentive description of its elements by the irrepressible Violet Alford in 1930. Sadly, this festival seems to no longer be in existence, or at least, could not be verified at the time of writing,[14] however its combination of both common and rare motifs make it most worthy of inclusion and examination here. Alford reports that following Carnival, on Jeudi Gras (the Thursday before Lent), a man dressed in goatskins, a mask and with woollen gloves on mimicking paws, would dash across the fields, led by a humpbacked figure with a staff, and accompanied a figure dressed in a white blouse, white handkerchief and a whitened face, with a bushel of green leaves stuffed up its back. After this dash, the ‘bear’ pranced and danced with its leader, and was then ordered to ‘dance like those at the carnival’, upon which it gyrated and writhed in the dusty road in a distinctly sexual fashion. After this a second ‘bear’ would approach the first, growling, and the two would fight, only to be separated by a black-clad ‘doctor’, who produces from his cloak a magic bean. Several other ‘bears’ from neighbouring hamlets appear and join in fighting, chasing girls and dancing all day and night. The following day the main bear, known as Marti, is shot due to the damage he has caused, much to the leader’s despair, who begins to ‘skin’ the beast. At the touch of his knife the bear jumps up, resurrected, and dances with its leader.[15]

The sight of a goat-skinned creature dashing across a field is not a common one within this processional collection, however the familiar motifs of resurrection, sexual acts (unconsummated in this case), revelry and skinning/shaving are all present. In all the rites mentioned above, one finds this collection of motifs and actions, and strikingly all the named female characters involve some mutation of the name Rose, which warrants future investigation. All also recur around the advent of Spring, and/or the days after Carnival, a well-known scene of revelry and behaviour that subverts the social norms. All also involve a man or several young men shedding their human identity and taking on ‘bear-form’, however the Basque examples are particularly striking for their gait and grunting which directly mimics that of a bipedal bear. Other examples abound throughout the Pyrenees, and whilst this chapter is not meant to catalogue each and every one, the most prominent have been selected to display their common motifs, and the special place that the bear holds within Pyrenean folklore.

In a final illustration however, we find ourselves thrown back into the primordial, far from the smiling crowds and town squares found in the present-day bear dances. Alford fleetingly mentions a description by La Boulinière,[16] of a bear-chasing tradition near the commune of Argelès (Pyrénées Orientales), which had seemingly died out by the time of her writing.

One of the young men dresses himself as a bear, and at dusk runs through the woods, a torch in his hand; all the others follow him and endeavour to catch him, which is rather difficult although the torch acts as a guide.[17]

The image of flickering flames illuminating a bear-man as he dashes through the forest as the sunlight fades, pursued by the cries and thundering feet of several baying young men as they wove between the trees, brings into sharp relief the primordial visual aspect of this tradition, and extends itself by association to all the bear festivals mentioned above. In this brief description, we find all the terror, exhilaration and sweat of the bear-hunts of old, an echo of those found now only in the Pyrenees, but as described earlier in this chapter in the peoples and tribes of the Arctic hemisphere, and possibly reaching even further back into the pre-history of the Pyrenean populations.



[1] The Mousterian Industry is largely identified with Neanderthals, but also occurs within the context of anatomically modern humans, and defines the Middle Palaeolithic.

[2] Bednarik, Robert, ‘“Aurignacians” and the Cave Bear’ in Ecco Homo: In Memoriam Jan Fririch, Ivana Fridrichová-Sýkorová (ed.) (Prague: Vydala Agentura Krigl, 2010).

[3] ‘In a chamber of the Drachenloch in Switzerland, a stone cist had been built to house stacked bear-skulls: piles of sorted long bones were laid along the walls of the cave. Another heap of bones contained the skull of a bear through which a leg bone had been forced, the skull resting upon two other long bones, each bone was from a different beast.’: Coles, John, and Higgs, Eric, The Archaeology of Early Man (London: Faber & Faber, 1969), pp. 286-287.

[4] Bednarik, 2010, pp. 11 – 20.

[5] Bednarik, 2010, p. 15.

[6] Bednarik, 2010, p. 12.

[7] Germonpré, Mietje and Hämäläinen, Riku, Fossil Bear Bones in the Belgian Upper Paleolithic: The Possibility of a Proto Bear-Ceremonialism, Arctic Anthropology, Vol. 44, No. 2, 2007, p. 4.

[8] Germonpré and Hämäläinen, 2007, p. 21

[9] It should be noted however that Encamp is the oldest (in terms of founding) of Andorra’s seven parishes.

[10] Ure, Ursula, ‘Dancing with Bears’ in Andorra: Festivals, Traditions and Folklore. (Escaldes: Andorra Writers Circle, 1998), p. 33.

[11] Due to its unique position straddling the borders of France and Spain, Andorra has an illustrious history in this regard, mainly in terms of wine and tobacco, but nobler examples can be found in more recent history, with many fleeing either Franco or Hitler finding safe passage through the Andorran smuggling routes to either France or Spain, respectively.

[12] When the author witnessed this tradition, the carrying off of the female figure was not an easy affair, mainly due to her weighing at least ninety kilos.

[13] For photographs of this event, see

[14] Although in a twist of fate, it has been one of the five sites in which Slovenian bears were released recently in an effort to reanimate the Pyrenean bear population, following its decimation through hunting.

[15] Alford, Violet, Pyrenean Festivals: Calendar Customs, Magic & Music, Drama & Dance (London: Chatto & Windus, 1937), p. 110.

[16] Alford is quoting from: Toussaint de La Boulinière, Pierre, Itineraire Descriptif et Pittoresque des Hautes Pyrénées Françoise, 2 Vols. (Paris: Libraire de Gide Fils, 1825).

[17] Alford, 1937, p. 110.

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


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


Malefic Pyrenean Tendencies

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


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


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

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

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

Protective Measures

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


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



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

[ii] This will be briefly discussed shortly below.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[xvii] This is briefly discussed in Chapter Five.

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

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

Article 25 – The Mythology of Giants in the Pyrenees

Throughout the Pyrenees, one finds constant references and representations of giants, be they the Basque Jentilak and Mairuak, the mythological creators of the dolmens and megaliths throughout that land, the gigantic Prouzous family in the Hautes-Pyrénées, and the giant Ferragut slaughtered by Roland during the Battle of Roncesvalles Pass. In this article, we will explore these examples and more, tracing a mythology of giganticism and lost archaic races that once roamed the Pyrenees.

Beginning with two of the most well-known examples, that of the Jentilak and Mairuak, these Basque figures are deeply ingrained in the landscape of the Basque Country and the Navarre. Basajaun is without a doubt the most famous representative of this gigantic race, and can be seen as a Wild Man figure, as covered in a previous article ( However, the Jentilak and Mairuak are more than simply this hoary Lord of the Forest. Speculation as to the etymological origins of the Jentil or Jentilak (plural) are wide, but primarily revolve around a corruption of the Latin gentilis or ‘gentile’, as an epithet to refer to the pre-Roman and pre-Christian peoples of the Basque region, much like the use of the term paganus which evolved from its original rustic reference to refer to pre-Christians in general. In the same way that Basajaun is said to have passed on the secret of agriculture, milling and metallurgy on to the Basques (potentially thereby acting as a folk-memorial embodiment of the arrival of these groundbreaking technologies to the Basque peoples – this will be discussed more deeply in a forthcoming article in the journal Viarany), the Jentilak were the first to cultivate crops, to forge and smith metal, and created the Basque game pelota. This aspect of being bearers of secret or lost wisdom may derive from their representation of pre-Christian peoples, as demonstrated in the legend of San Martin Txiki, where the latter steals the secrets of smithing and farming from them via his cunning is a very Loki-esque manner! The last attribute allegedly comes from their habit of throwing boulders at each other from mountain to mountain! Typically, they are depicted as covered in hair, carrying a huge staff or club, are possessed of enormous strength, and are frequently credited with the construction of the megalithic funerary monuments that litter the Basque Country and the Navarre. The Jentilak are said to have disappeared into the earth, beneath a dolmen within the Arratzeran valley (Navarre), when a star appeared in the sky announcing the birth of Christ. Only one, Olentzero, remained, evolving into a rural Christmas figure who would descend from his mountain on a horse, and roam the land leaving presents in peoples’ shoes (see The implications of this are discussed later in this article. Several of these megaliths and caverns are not only attributed to the hands of the Jentilaks, but also bear names referencing them, such as: Jentiletxe in Azania and Mutriku; Jentileio and Jentil Sukalde in Udiain; Jentillarri in Aralar; and Jentilzulo in Orozko.


A sketch of a mythical Jentil by Christian St Pierre.


Another region within the Pyrenees, or at least on their periphery, can be found in the Aude, with the legend of ‘The Menhir of the Giant Marre’ (Saint-Salvayre). The giant Marre was overtaken by boredom one day besides the Roquo de Broundo, and seeing as the menhir was but a pebble for him he decided to hurl it at the village of Alet, seven kilometres away.  However, he overshot, and the menhir struck the top of the mountain of Saint-Salvayre and stuck fast. Here we see again the mixture of strength, the attribution of the location (if not the creation) of a prehistoric monument, and the practice of hurling large rocks for sport, similar to the Jentilak. Within Caunette-sur-Lauquet one finds the legend of the giants Brau and Bacou. Brau was enormously strong, yet fond of sleep, and Bacou found nothing more amusing than disturbing the sleep of his friend. One day, Bacou encouraged all the wolves in the region to howl themselves to death in order to, once again, disturb Brau’s repose. Enraged, Brau awoke and hurled a huge block of stone at Bacau, trapping him forever within his cave. When hot air blows across the region, it is said to be the breath of this entombed giant. Here again we find common elements, in the hurling of rocks, strength, and a gigantic origin for a natural phenomenon.

To the north-east, in the Bigorre and the Béarn, the Bécut is said to roam, a cyclopean giant that is said to herd cattle and sheep with golden horns, arousing the envy of the villagers in the valleys around. It is also said to hunt for Christians, which it will roast on a large open grill, and theories regarding the etymological origins of the Bécut are varied. It has been put forward that Bécut may derive from Vécût, itself deriving from vivre (Old French), the Latin vivo, and finally the Proto-Indo-European *gʷíhweti meaning ‘to be alive’, indicating that the meaning may derive from ‘those who lived’, an indication of Bécut referring to the concept of a past people, potentially from a pre-conversion era. Other theories involve the reference to a beak, or one who lives along in savagery.  Jean-François Bladé in Les Tales populaires de la Gascogne reports three stories surrounding the Bécut, and parallels can be drawn to the Basque Tartaro and the Alpine Ulhart, both cyclopses who dwell in the mountains, alone and apart from civilization. There is a certain reference to the Classical Cyclops, as after capturing his Christian prisoners to roast alive he is frequently blinded in his eye by the prisoners escaping. Another example from the nearby Haute Pyrénées region, in the valley of Aventignan, is that of the giant Gargan, who lived in a cave. It has been suggested that Gargan derives from the Celto-Gallic, meaning quite literally ‘giant’, or from the French term gargantuan.


A charming depiction of the Bécut, artist unknown. Taken from:

Across the border in the Val d’Aran another giant memory is preserved, that of the giant of Garòs. Interestingly, the local lore surrounding this giant is that it was, in fact, Mandronius the Giant, who fought against the Romans at Betlan. He spent his days living in a cave in the area and, when combatting the Imperial Army, he invaded their camp to rescue his wife and daughter after the Romans captured them. He freed them but was captured himself, and eventually killed by an enormous nail that was driven into his skull. Legend has it that his pierced skull was kept within the church tower in Garòs as a relic, which was believed to have the power to heal and strengthen children. It is alleged that, in the early 20th century, a potato farmer was digging in a field outside the town, and found a skeleton that displayed obvious signs of giganticism, yet the presence of a hole in the skull of the nail is unreported.

The figure of Ferragut is, on the contrary, a far from native giant to the Pyrenees, featuring in the Matter of France (another name for this text is The Carolingian Cycle, a set of literary and historical texts that deal with the Carolingian era and Charlemagne’s exploits. Deriving from the Old French Chansons de Geste, by the early 13th century it had been divided into three distinct cycles by Bertrand de Bar-sur-Aube). As with the transformation of the Battle for Roncesvalles pass, in which Basque fighters ambushed Charlemagne’s forces in revenge for his sacking of Pamplona, into a fight between Moorish and Christian forces in which the archetypal knight Roland (originally a general in Charlemagne’s army) is killed, Ferragut is portrayed as a superhuman giant of Saracen origin. In a nod to Classical literature, specifically that of Achilles, he is only defeated with a spear thrust to the navel, being otherwise impervious to arrows, swords or spears, standing twelve cubits tall with the strength of forty men. The featuring of Ferragut in this article is not to illustrate the giant within native Pyrenean belief, but rather as an example of the influence of Classical themes and literature on legends and tales that sprung up surrounding actual Pyrenean events.


Various representations of Ferragut in Medieval manuscripts. Taken from:án%20y%20Ferragut

Moving forward into the 18th century, one finds a historical example of gigantism, that of a family in Luz (Haute Pyrénées) which were recorded as being around eight feet high each. The engineer François Pasumot in his Voyages Physiques dans le Pyrénées 1788 et 1789 mentions that the locals referred to this family as Prouzous or ‘Great Men’, all being buried within the local cemetery. The last of this line was a man whose death certificate recorded him as being 109 years old, and who was known as Barrigue. The author also noted that the size of the men in this family was famously repugnant to local girls (although obviously not sufficiently to cancel the line out in its origins). In his 1977 book Guide des Pyrénées Mystérieuses, Bernard Duhourcan discusses this account, supplementing it with a report by a local priest written in 1777, which reports that a clavicle taken from one of the graves measured twelve inches, and a shin bone measured twenty to twenty-four inches in length. Clearly, whilst giants were a feature of myth and legend in the Pyrenees, real-life examples of gigantism such as these would have done little to dispel their tenacity in local folklore.

Giants often have characteristics that encompass aspects such as chaos, primordialism, elements of ‘the wild’, arcane or archaic knowledge and vast capacities for strength. Belief in them often seems to surge from the Medieval period onwards, and it could be posited that they represent in the popular folk-consciousness a form of ‘other’ that symbolizes the distant past of a people. Whilst they are often feared, they are also usually held in some manner of respect, which is possibly an echo of their older forms as revered spirits or gods that held some aspect of nature. This ‘othering’, often with depictions and descriptions as wild, bestial creatures living in marginal landscapes (peaks, caves, forests etc.) could be a socio-cultural process of placing a pre- and post-Christian equation on a people or its belief-culture, with the giant forming a symbol of older figures of reverence that are often seen as in conflict with the current society, principally through folktales of livestock theft, confrontations and glimpses within the wild. In the case of the Pyrenees, this link to megalithic monuments, for example, ties them to the peoples and cultures that they live outside of, which when considered in conjunction with their intimate knowledge of ‘nature’s secrets’ may render Pyrenean giants as both representations of nature and as longue durée symbols of cultural history. Witch activity too is also typically associated with prehistoric monuments, the witch also functioning as an ‘other’ that is both feared and revered and also privy to secrets outside of daily experience. The confrontations between the giant (and the witch) with normal society can be seen as an analogy, especially within the Basque context, of the conflict and transition from a generally pre-Christian to a ‘converted’ populace, albeit one within which many pre-Christian spirits and deities became subsumed into a large well of folklore that continues to hold power today. An example is found in the above mentioned Olentzero, who as the last representative of the Jentilak race, became integrated and almost a representative of the Christmas period, swapping boulder hurling for the distribution of gifts, however, he is still represented as living on a mountain far from human interference for the majority of the year; in short, he is still ‘the other’.

Article 24 – The Fires of Midsummer and St John’s Eve.

On the 23rd of every June, fires are lit around Europe to celebrate both Midsummer and also St John’s Eve, however, these are particularly prevalent in Spain, where the night is a cascade of fires and fireworks, especially in Catalonia. The Pyrenees is, of course, no exception to this tradition, with many flaming torches being found processing down mountainsides and in town and village squares, with revels lasting long into the night.



Sant Joan celebrations in the Alt Aneu region. Taken from


The origins of this tradition are commonly agreed to predate the eminent St John himself, forming the central aspect to a seasonal celebration of Midsummer, hovering around the summer solstice, and several traditional practices which still survive appear to reinforce this notion. Certain plants are held to have potent qualities if gathered on this night, including (obviously) St John’s Wart, fennel, rosemary, rue, foxgloves and several others. If these are left in a bowl of water facing the moon overnight, they will acquire particular properties, and the water should be used to wash one’s face the following morning. In this aquatic vein, the water itself, either collected in the bowl or drawn from springs and wells this night, will also be imbued with a magical aspect, and if washed with the following morning can be seen as a purifying ‘shedding’ of ill luck gathered throughout the year so far. Certain modern traditions include the use of crystal or quartz around the bowl, which soaks up the moon’s rays and can be used in divinatory practices.

The fires themselves are said to ward off malign spirits, and also keep witches at bay, who are reputed to spend the night rushing around on broomsticks in order to attend Sabbaths on lakes and mountains on this night. Often, a bonfire is lit following some manner of procession, punctuated by the bangs and crackles of fireworks, and several performers swinging burning logs on chains around their heads. Some brave souls also leap over the bonfires to prove themselves and gain luck. In the Pyrenees, especially around the Lleida and Pyrénées Orientales regions, one can find some truly majestic sights, as men and women carry blazing branches and logs down the mountain to the square of the village or town below, where they will all be piled up against a specially selected trunk which acts as the nexus of the great bonfire. Sometimes, the charred trunk will be left there for the following twelve months, until it is replaced by a fresh bonfire on the next night of Sant Joan(Catalan)/San Juan(Spanish)/San Juan Eguna (Basque)/Saint Jean (French).


A vision of the fiery serpent making its way down the mountainside in the Catalan Pyrenees. Taken from:


People often write wishes or the names of desired love ones on scraps of paper, and push to the front of the crowd to through these into the fire itself, consigning their wishes to the heavens and hoping for them to come true over the ensuing months – heaven help the man or woman who finds themselves unusually popular during this period!

The festivities are of course richly furnished with libations of the best kind, and no doubt when the festival falls on the weekend people are especially relieved, but even when workaday matters might loom, this is an occasion for people to cut loose and enjoy watching the flames climb high into the night sky, accompanied by music, wine and the stars.

Article 23 – Pyrenean Pastoral Lore

One of the perennial figures of the Pyrenees, and indeed of many rural areas in general, is the pastoralist. The secrets of their folklore, traditions, and symbols of ownership are a treasure trove of information and still abound in various areas of the Pyrenees. Below we will briefly explore some of these traditional practises, cures and folk-beliefs, with a view to expanding on this subject in the near future, as time allows, for it is a fascinating one indeed! The vast majority of the information in this article is taken from the splendid book ‘La Vida Pastoral al Pallars’ by Ramon Violant I Simorra (Edicio d’Ignasi Ros I Fontana, 2001, in collaboration with the Ecomuseu de les Valls d’Àneu, which recently held an exhibition on Pyrenean witchcraft – see the Pyrennial Pyrenees Instagram account for details).

Livestock are vital to any rural community, where the rhythms of the year are measured in transhumance, births, and slaughter, and it is only natural that, as with so many other traditional roles, the shepherd and goatherd have built up a body of practises that are passed down from father to son, imbued with appeals to Saints, and the use of natural elements that recall deeper echoes of the past. For example, one general belief held by shepherds, found through the Pyrenees, was that in one hung up an oil lamp in the barn where sheep were kept overnight, then they would be afflicted with a strange malady. Somewhat more amusingly, the call of crickets was said to drive the sheep quite wild!


Rosa Bonheur Shepherd 2

Berger des Pyrénées by Rosa Bonheur, 1864.


In Benés (Lleida), anyone lambing would make the sign of the cross on Good Friday, before eight in the morning, lest they be thrown to the ground and the sheep rendered infertile.

In Benavarri (Baixa Ribagorca), shepherds and goatherds, in order to preserve their sheep and goats from becoming angry or crazy, would hang an amulet made from three dried fish drilled in the middle and threaded with cord on the door of the animal corral, and this would act as a protective and sure that the corral (typically on the mountainside) would remain safe, and also that any cattle on the mountain would also be secure.

Many pastoral folk believed that breeding cattle cannot be given salt on either the Monday or the Friday of any given week, as on Monday their eyes would begin to hurt, and on Friday they would be driven crazy. In Espot (Lleida), the Friday is known as ‘damned Friday’ as it does not allow for salt to be given to the cattle, and if the animals are wet then this further prohibits them from being given salt, as the pastoralists believe this gives them swellings on the hide.

In this saline vein, shepherds refuse to give wounded sheep salt, as this would make them become infertile and refuse to mate! Also, any sheep who becomes pregnant on the Feast of St James will be certain to lamb on Christmas day, due to the five-month gestation period (Sarroca de Bellera).

A certain code of silence was held by the shepherds in the past in their traditional lore, and there is a record of this persisting until 1935, when in Sentis, a housewife refused to show a visitor the owner’s mark, brand or staff used by her husband, in case by showing these implements she somehow brought bad luck to the flock itself. The visitor was later told by someone in the same town that the flocks were often loved more deeply than some of the shepherds’ relatives and that this reticence and refusal to show the implements and marks of the trade was perfectly normal; just by touching it the flock on the mountainside could be afflicted! A comparison can be drawn to the cowherds of Asturias, who refuse to answer how many livestock they have, as they believe that this will curse the herd and many cattle will die.


Rosa Bonheur Shepherd Pyrenees.jpg

Another untitled study of a Pyrenean shepherd by Rosa Bonheur, date unknown.


Bewitchment was a perpetual terror for any pastoralist, with many examples existing around the Pyrenees in which some drowsiness of sudden bout of illness was blamed on ‘the wicked art’. In the Vall de Cardós (Lleida), illness among cattle was often accorded to witchcraft, and similarly, in Avellanos (Lleida) malaria was often blamed on malefic influences and thought to be incurable unless some strong protective magic was utilised. In Son (Alt Àneu), deaths in livestock were thought to be directly related to witches’ curses, and shepherds passed the Holy Gospels over their flocks in an effort to counter any malign influence. In Farrera (Lleida), a shepherd is recorded as recounting that one winter in the mountains of Camarasa (La Noguera) many of the lambs in his flock died in the woods, and in an effort to protect the living ones he would rub a mixture of dried snake flesh, salt, and other secret condiments into their wool.

Lambing season would bring great joy, but also great pressure, stress, and fear to those for whom sheep were the foundation of their lives. When lambing, the shepherds of Benés (Lleida) would make a cross from two stems of grass and place it on the backs of the ewes, in amongst the wool, and this would ensure the smooth delivery of the lamb.

Popular shepherd lore in Pallars (Lleida) also dictated that when the clouds were seen to be threatening a great storm, the shepherds would take the stem of a dog rose (Rosa canina, a plant also popularly associated with the Virgin Mary in Medieval lore) and place it in their cape or cap, and this ‘amulet’ would protect against lightning. They would also take a sheep’s hide and attach it to the floor with their knife, in an effort to draw the lightning to that point, as the steel would act as a focal point for the storm.

These are but some of the tricks, traditions and beliefs of these men who dwelt so long in the Pyrenean mountains, not to mention the variety of sheep marks (i.e. denoting flock ownership), saint appeals and traditional remedies/amulets that would ward off evil influences and sickness, many of which will be documented by the Perennial Pyrenees project in time. In a land were livestock were the basis of life, the secrets and wisdom associated with their good health and fertility were of inestimable importance, and we will see that they do not die out, and in fact are brought to a wider, receptive audience!

Field Report – Carcassonne & Mirepoix

Having left the grey and moody skies of the Andorran valleys, we were greeted with blazing sun and pure white snow as we wound down from the border into the pristine Ariege. Coupled with the now-customary coffee stop at Tarrascon-sur-Ariege, overlooking the Ariege river itself, we sped by forests, cragged hills and green fields. Eventually, after 3 hours, the Medieval castle of Carcassonne appeared on the horizon, emerging from the heat above a rugged (and currently grape-less) vineyard, although shoots were beginning to appear on the vines. The region is rather famous not only for its Medieval relics and Cathar heritage but also for its production of a rather fine bevy of wines, some of which (of course) it was nothing short of a research duty to sample.

Situated in the Aude region, adjacent to the Ariege, Carcassonne has a long and illustrious history, peppered with violence, most famously during the Albigensian Crusade launched against Occitania. Neolithic, Roman and Visigothic populations have occupied the site, however, in this case, it is the Carcassonne of the Middle Ages which is of greatest interest to us, it being at that point one of the principle strongholds of Cathar belief in Occitania. It should be mentioned that the fortified Medieval cité that one sees now is not authentically Medieval, but rather the creation of reconstructionist and architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, who saved the cite from complete the destruction as ordered in 1849 by the French government due to its ruinous state. Whilst the rebuild could not be called a strictly authentic affair, with many details being erroneous, it is generally agreed that the spirit of the original castle is there, and the hundreds of thousands of tourists that flock to it each year are evidently not put off by any inaccuracies in the slate roofing!


Carcassonne today, peeping above the treetops.

The first known Count of Carcassonne was a relative of Charlemagne, the uniquely named Bello, who founded the Bellonid dynasty and ruled from 790 until his death in 810. The cité stayed within the Bellonid family until it passed over to the Trencavel family in 1067, when Raimond-Bernard Trencavel married the sister of the aged Bellonid Count of Carcassonne. It would be the fate of Raimond’s descendent Raymond-Roger to die in mysterious circumstances whilst negotiating the city’s surrender to the army of the Papal Legate in 1209; yet another of the countless victims of the tragic Albigensian Crusade. In an ironic state of affairs, the foundation stones of the cité’s cathedral was blessed in 1096 by none other than Pope Urban II; less than 150 years later the papal forces would be descending upon Occitania and Carcassonne for a far less benedictory purpose.

Much has been written on the Cathars and their beliefs, ranging from the scholarly study to the scurrilous and sensationalist, ranging from their pursuing a Manichaean-style heresy to their being the custodians of the Holy Grail itself! An examination of their beliefs is best left for another day (and article), but we will briefly surmise where Cathar belief differed from Catholic and indicate the possible reasons for the Church desiring their extinction (aside from the simple motivation of seizing the wealth and lands of Occitania).

Roux-Perino sums Catharism up thus: ‘Fundamentally Christian, the Cathars suggested a dualistic reading of the New Testament, which led them into Docetism and hence into elaborating their own cosmogony with a strong whiff of Gnosticism.’ (Roux-Perino, 2006, 53). Present in Northern Italy and Southern France, it was in Occitania where it rose particularly to prominence among the local dignitaries and peasants (Martin, 2005). They considered themselves to be the authentic Gleisa de Dio, descended from the first church of the Apostles, and opposed the Pontifical Roman Catholic Church. A truly dissident counter-church, it was comprised of a body of clergy (Bons Hommes and Bonnes Femmes) who had taken the Consolament (a Cathar sacrament which served the purposes of baptism, penance, ordination and extreme unction, depending on the situation, given through a laying on of the hands and the New Testament on the head), and a body of the faithful, known as credentes (believers). These credentes were not allowed to say the Paternoster, the primary Cathar prayer, as this was reserved for the clergy, and they would greet a Bon Homme or Bonne Femme by bending at the knee three times. The clergy would wander the roads of Occitania, especially Languedoc, in pairs, preaching from their bibles in villages and towns.

Strayer (1971) has described the Cathar movement as a reaction against the perceived corruption and vast earthly power held by the Roman Catholic Church at the time, and a rejection of papal authority. Unsurprisingly, this did not sit well with the Church, who declared Catharism a heresy in the 1176 Church Council held near Albi (hence the term ‘Albigensians’ being applied to Cathars). At that time, the County of Toulouse held a huge amount of power and influence, rivalling the Crown of Aragon, and the local lords and heirs in this region were highly interested in maintaining relative independence from both the French King and the Pope. These factors led Pope Innocent III to send a delegation to Languedoc in 1198 to assess the situation, and they found Raymond VI, Count of Toulouse to be openly supporting and protecting the Cathar movement, leading to his excommunication. This act was lifted some years later after Raymond made efforts at reconciliation with the church, however, he was once again kicked out of the Catholic fold in 1209 for failing to live up to his word in stamping out Catharism. Innocent III then insisted upon a crusade against the Albigensian heresy in Languedoc, officially because he wanted to rid the land of heresy to better protect Christendom’s borders against Saracen incursion, however there is little doubt in historical analyses that the power and wealth of the Languedoc lords, as well as their desire to maintain a level of autonomy from the Church and the King, was also a decisive factor (Roux-Perino, 2006).

The Albigensian Crusade began in the Summer of 1209, with up to ten thousand crusaders gathering at Lyon, before marching towards the Cathar communities of Albi and Carcassonne. The first city to be put to the sword was Béziers, in which the often quoted but unproven exclamation was allegedly uttered in response to determining which of the population were Catholic and which were Cathar: ‘Kill them all! God will know his own.’ A letter to the Pope by papal legate Arnaud Amalric, who was commanding the armies, records up to twenty thousand people being killed, with Strayer noting that no hint of guilt or regret is contained in the letter, not even for the clergy killed in front of their own altar in the town’s cathedral (Strayer, 1971). The effect of this slaughter was that word spread fast, and many subsequent settlements gave up without a fight.

Onwards the Crusade marched, down to Carcassonne, which was under the protection of the aforementioned Raymond Roger Trencaval, and well known for its protection of Cathars. Within six days of leaving the blood-filled streets of Béziers, the Crusaders had covered the forty-five miles between the two towns, arriving on the 1st of August, 1209. The cite was fortified with impressive battlements, however, it had received large amounts of refugees in the past few days, and resources were stretched. Rather than attack directly the crusaders cannily decided to lay siege to the town and cut the water supply. By the 15th August, Carcassonne surrendered, with Raymond having already died in a crusader dungeon some days prior, after trying to negotiate peace terms with the enemy camp. The population of Carcassonne was unceremoniously ordered to leave the town with nothing but the clothes on their back, and Simon de Montfort, a notorious French nobleman, was placed in charge of the crusader army (Roux-Perino, 2006). Following the fall of Carcassonne, the other major towns of the region (Albi, Castres, Fanjeaux, Limoux etc.) all surrendered without a fight, and by the Autumn, they were all under Crusader control.


This Medieval painting allegedly shows the Cathars being expelled from Carcassonne, as one can see they were booted out without a great deal of their posessions. Image taken from

Over the next few years, various sieges and routs succeeded in toppling Lastours, the castle of Cabaret, Termes and Toulouse. In 1214 Raymond IV, Count of Toulouse escaped to England with his son, during which his lands were gifted to the Pope by Phillip II, King of France. In 1216 Raymond IV and his son Raymond VII (evidently a popular name) returned to the region to initiate an uprising, which found substantial support among the local lords and their soldiers. By 1224, Raymond IV had retaken several towns including Toulouse, and after his death that year his son Raymond VII claimed Carcassonne following de Montfort’s abandoning of it.

However, by 1225 Raymond had been excommunicated (like his father), and the Council of Bourges convened to deal with the Cathar heresy once and for all. Another crusade, led by Louis VIII, set out in the Summer of 1226, and quickly retook Béziers, Carcassonne, Beaucaire and Marseilles without a fight. Avignon was besieged, surrendering in September, and by 1228 Toulouse was also under siege, with the surrounding landscape decimated, and the town surrendered. Having died in November 1226, Louis VIII was succeeded by his son Louis IX, but the Queen-regent Blanche of Castille ruled in his stead, and she offered Raymond Toulouse and the surrounding lands in exchange for his word that he would stamp out Catharism. The Inquisition moved in and began their systematic persecution and execution of any known (and unknown) Cathars. The ‘last bastion’ of the Cathars was the infamous castle of Montsegur, which was besieged for nearly a year, finally surrendering in March 1244. Two hundred Cathar perfecti (the clergy) were offered to convert to Catholicism, refused, and were burnt in the field below the fortress, the prat dels cremats (Oldenbourg, 1962).

After this, any Cathar would practice in secret, and many fled over the Pyrenees into the more tolerant arms of Catalonia, indeed there is still a walking route known as the Cami del Bons Homes which runs from Berga (Catalonia) into and over the Pyrenees, finishing near Montesgur and Foix (Ariege). Strayer suggests that by the mid-fourteenth century, all known presences of the heresy had been wiped out by the Inquisition (Strayer, 1971).

To return to the present, upon entering Carcassonne through the Porte Narbonnaise, one passes over the bridge and into the main gate of the castle, watched over by a statue of the Virgin Mary. Surrounding the cite are three kilometres of ramparts, interspersed with no less than fifty-two towers. Immediately the quality of the reconstruction is apparent, as one is thrown right back into the atmosphere if the Middle Ages, with the small winding streets being filled with merchants and their wares (i.e. tourist shops and eager museum touts). Bottles of local wines and Hypocras, a local spicy herbal wine or tonic first made in the Medieval period, vie with stone gargoyles and coats of arms, among the obligatory key chains and wooden swords. As one makes one’s way into the heart of the cite the streets open out into a series of small squares, lined with bars and restaurants, most of which serve the local favourite, cassoulet, a warming and heart-attack inducing mix of beans, pork, sausage and duck confit. Towards the south of the cite lies the Basilica of Saint-Nazaire, a building which rather uniquely combines the Romanesque and the Gothic, being constructed between the 9th and 14th centuries. It is recorded that a Carolingian cathedral stood on the site prior to the Basilica, however, no trace of that is seen today (at least visibly). The stained windows within are among the most beautiful in France, representing scenes from the life of Christ and the Apostles, and date to the 13th and 14th centuries. It remained the religious hub of Carcassonne until 1801, when, following the movement of the cité’s inhabitants to the newer town below, it was deprived of the title of cathedral (this going to the lower town’s Church of Sant-Michel), however, it was given the title of Basilica in 1898 by Pope Leo XIII. To the north lies the iconic Chateau Comtal, which defines the cité’s panorama. Dominated by a huge square tower, the castle also consists of a courtyard, two single floored buildings, a palisade, and the private chapel of Sainte-Marie (built in 1150). Much time can be spent nosing around the various nooks and crannies of this castle, with its mix of Romanesque and Gothic architecture, exhibitions and magnificent views over the river and the modern city below.


The Basilica emerging into view through the Medieval streets.



The leering gargoyles the decorate every inch of the Basilica’s roof.

Speaking of which, within the modern town, the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Carcassonne can be recommended, not just for its collections of Old Masters (from Breughel to Van Goyen) and a huge array of painters from the French School throughout the centuries (including the very fine ‘Combat de Romains et du Gaulois’ by Luminais) but also a fine array of curios. The aforementioned cathedral is also worth a visit. First built in the thirteenth century, it became fortified after war damage in the fourteenth century, and five centuries later was given cathedral status as the modern town began to become more populous than the cite.


A very fine bedroom view!

The next location on this whistlestop tour was our old favourite, Mirepoix. Information on the history of mirepoix can be found in a prior trip report on this website (, suffice to say that in the Spring sunshine it was even more lovely than before. In addition, the bookshop did not disappoint, providing three more volumes on the Cathars, Rennes-le-Chateau and the myths and legends of the Aude region, for the project’s ever-growing library.


An excellent tipple.

There is nothing like watching the sun go down over some gabled houses, with the cathedral tolling to the left of you, all set within a Medieval square surrounded by swooping swallows and a delightful beer at hand. Magical!


Martin, S. 2005. The Cathars: The Most Successful Heresy of the Middle Ages. Harpendon: Pocket Essentials.

Oldenbourg, Z. 1962. The Massacre at Montsegur. Translated from the French by Peter Green. London: Pantheon Books.

Roux-Perino, J. 2006. The Cathars. Vic-en-Bigorre: MSM Publications.

Strayer, J. 1971. The Albigensian Crusades. Ney York, NY: The Dial Press.


Article 22 – The Cthonic Cult of Mari

We return after passing some moons in hibernation, like the bear in Spring. Appropriately, below we will find a short treatise on the chthonic spirit Mari in Basque mythology, who emerges from her network of caverns for various malevolent and benevolent purposes, to wend her will on Pyrenean men and women!

Without a doubt, of all the archaic and mysterious plethora of spirits who haunt the forests and mountains of the Basque Country, it is Mari who can be described as one of the chief figures in Basque mythology and folklore. Mari has a husband, the snake Sugaar (described within a prior article on this site about Dragons), however, she takes many lovers. Beautifully dressed and easy on the eye, she dwells in caverns and caves within a series of mountains across the Basque Pyrenees, sometimes taking the form of an animal or a ball of fire as she moves from one subterranean lair to another. The scholar Julio Caro Baroja (2003) has described Mari as a ‘numen of the mountains’, linked especially to the sorgin or Basque witches. A highly interesting feature of Basque witchcraft appears to be an emphasis less on the Devil but rather on the numinous spirits of nature – this is a weighty topic destined for another article (and the forthcoming book)! However, it is worth mentioning that place-name evidence related to these sorgin within the Basque Country is numerous:

At present, there are numerous place names in the Basque Country and Navarre that refer to the Sorginak , such as Sorginaren Txabola ( Chabola de la Hechicera ) in Evillar (Alava), Dolmen de Sorginetxe ( witch’s house ) in Arrizala Agurain (Alava) or in Elbete Baztan ( Navarre), Sorginzubi ( Puente de la bruja ) in Abaurrea Alta (Navarre), etc.

(de Barandiarán Irízar, 1999, 75)

To return to Mari, she appears to holds a special fondness for storms, as demonstrated by her fondness for the storm spirits Odei and Itsai. She also has a strong link within Basque folklore to the control of local weather conditions, as pertaining to her proximity; de Barandiarán Irízar writes:

The people of Onati believed that the weather would be wet when she was in Anboto, and dry when she was in Alona. In Zeanuri, Biscay, they say that she would stay seven years in Anboto, then the next seven in a cave in Oiz called Supelegor. A similar legend in Olaeta, Biscay substitutes Gorbea for Supelegor.’

(de Barandiarán Irízar, 1999, 89)

Certainly, this connection between caves and weather is not unusual in the Basque Country, and in fact further lore connects this caverns to underground realms which are linked to the meteorological events on the surface of the earth:

‘It is also believed that there are vast regions inside the earth, where rivers of milk flow; but they are unreachable for men as long as they live on the surface. These regions are communicated with certain wells, pits and caves, like the well of Urbion, the pits of Okina and Albi, and the caves of Amboto, Muru and Txindoki. From such underground conduits come different weather events, mainly stormy clouds and strong winds’

(de Barandiarán Irízar, 1991, 36)

In the compendium ‘Serpent Songs’ (2014), one author and practitioner describes various aspects of Mari, including that rather than being a demoness, as presented by anthropologists, she should rather be seen as a ‘merging of opposites’, of both destruction and also becoming (Urbeltz, 2014, 32). She can present herself as a tree shooting forth flame, a bird-footed woman, a vulture, or a red woman holding a flaming sickle with snakes crawling around her feet, amongst other forms (Urbeltz, 2014, 33).


Mari 1

Figure 1. A stylised modern depiction of Mari in the manner of a mother goddess by Josu Goni. Image taken from Mari_euskal_jainkosa.jpg


Her caverns are said to be laden with offerings of gold in the form of precious objects, however in any which are stolen are turned to charcoal in the morning. These magical lairs are jealously guarded by Mari, one does not enter easily nor without permission. In fact, shepherds avoid building their hits near her caves in Supelegor (Uribe-Zelay, south of Bilbao), as through local lore she expresses her displeasure in their doing so, chasing one unfortunate shepherd whilst disguised as a raven, scaring him to death! With the proper respect however, it is possible to enter these cavernous sanctuaries without harm. A method of gaining entrance to one of Mari’s caverns is described thus:

When you find a cave where she resides you must address her respectfully before entering and offer water, wine and milk at the entrance, stating why you have sought her out. You must state that you are coming to her with no deceit in your heart, lest she strike you down and make you one with Ama Lur (the earth). You will then walk into the cave and bring to her milk, wine and water. When you leave the cave, you leave in the same way as you entered, meaning that if you entered walking forward you will leave walking backwards without turning around. You are forbidden to sit down in her presence and should either stand or kneel in such way that your buttocks are not touching the ground. You can than state the nature of your visit and wait for her response there or later in dreams.’

(Urbeltz, 2014, 36)


Mari cave amboto

Figure 2. The cave of Mariurrika Kobea in Amboto, one of the principal dwelling places of Mari in Basque mythology. Photo taken from https://eusturandalucia.files.wordpress. com/2015/02/


Whilst Mari punishes those who lie and thieve, she does possess a benevolent aspect, as indicated in the aforementioned ‘merging of opposites’. One story from the town of Amezketa tells of a cave in Mount Txindoki, where Mari lived with furniture wrought from gold. After disappearing for seven years, Mari returned accompanied by a large thunderstorm. A young girl called Kattalin was in the mountains with her flock, however at the end of the day while counting the sheep she realised that one was missing. Despite being warned by all the townsfolk not to approach the cave, she was desperate to find the missing sheep and so, steeling herself, walked up to the cave’s entrance. There was the sheep, and the most beautiful woman Kattelin had ever seen. This, of course, was Mari. Mari asked Kattelin her name and who she was, and Kattelin replied that she had no family and was the shepherd for a noble family. Mari told her that if she would spend seven years living with Mari in the cave and helping her, then Mari would make her rich. Kattelin accepted and spent seven years learning sewing, bread baking, the magical properties of local plants and even the secret language of animals. At the end of the seven years Mari gave her a large coalstone, which surprised the young girl as this was not what she had expected after all those years of servitude! However, when Kattelin reached the village, the coalstone had become a huge lump of gold, which allowed her to buy her own house and even her own flock of sheep, never needing to take orders from anybody ever again.

Another legend relates that due to the god of darkness, Gaueko, eating shepherds and sheep, the Basque people asked Mari for help, and so she gave them the light from her first daughter, Llargi, the moon, but this was insufficient, So, she also gave them the light of her second daughter, Eguzki, the sun. But even this was not enough to deter the antics of Gaueko. So she created the sunflower, Eguzkilore, which to this day is still used to keep evil spirits at bay. When crossing the threshold of a house and finding a sunflower, any nocturnal evil spirit will be compelled to count all the petals, and by the time it is finished the sun will have risen and dispelled it (de Barandiarán Irízar, 1991).

The figure of Mari survived well into the Christian era, and is still popular within local Basque folklore. It has been suggested that the etymological affinity with ‘Mary’ has helped in some way, which is certainly possible. More likely, however, is the deeply ingrained aspect in which Mari is connected with weather, caves and the night, all of which feature prominently in the Basque mythological corpus. So, if one walks in the Basque mountains and find a cave, have a care to approach with caution, for who knows what primordial lady might lie within!


Urbeltz, Arkaitz. ‘Lezekoak’ in Serpent Songs, (ed.) Nicholaj de Mattos Frisvold. Croydon: Scarlet Imprint, 2014.

de Barandiarán Irízar, Luis (ed.). A View From The Witch’s Cave: Folktales of The Pyrenees. Reno, NV: University of Nevada Press, 1991.

de Barandiaran, Jose Miguel. Materiales y Cuestionarios, Eusko-Folklore. Vitoria, 1921

Article 18 – Count Estruch

As we draw nearer to Halloween, it is perhaps appropriate to relate one of the oldest vampire tales in European folklore, coming as it does from one of the rugged archaic castles that perch in the Pyrenees.

Surprisingly, Spain is not rich in vampire-lore, although of course it certainly is wealthy in many other areas of legends and tales so this story can be counted as a rare exception!

The legend tells of a certain Count Guifredo Estruch, who lived during the 12th century when there was still a Muslim presence in the south of Spain. The king of Aragon at the time, Alfonso II, was very worried about a collection of pagans in Emporda (Catalonia), who he feared might be tempted to ally themselves with the Muslims and create some rather serious problems for him. To prevent this, he decided to send Count Estruch, a noted war hero (allegedly), to occupy a castle in the region (Castle Llers, sadly destroyed during the Civil War) and convert the pagans to Christianity.



(Castle Llers, photo taken from:


Estruch’s methods seem to have been less than charitable, as the tale then goes on to describe an orgy of blood-letting, torture, witch-hunting, executions, and burnings; he certainly seemed to have preferred the sword to merely spreading ‘the good word’. Having murdered, raped and tortured his way around the region, even his soldiers seemed to tire of his antics, and one of them (a chap named Benach) poisoned him. Another version of the tale alleges that the Count died from a curse offered up on the dying breath of a witch he had tortured and burnt to death. Either way, Estruch died in an uncomfortable circumstance, and not undeservedly, in 1173, and he did not receive a Christian burial as his body mysteriously disappeared from the castle the night before the funeral.



(The Inquisition following Count Estruch’s example many years later. Photo taken from:


Some days after, several cows were strangely killed in the night, and locals said that when they were found they had been drained of all blood, and some were terribly mutilated, with their bowels torn out, and hearts lying shredded on the grass. The servants of the castle reported that the Count could be seen walking at night through the corridors and rooms, looking as if he were a young man again, strangely rejuvenated. Estruch also took to lurking in the local village, murdering young men and drinking their blood, as well as abducting young women. When these women were returned to the village, they would always be pregnant, but after nine months the child would emerge either stillborn as hideously deformed.

There are two candidates in the various versions of this tale for who bravely drove a stake through the Count’s heart, after locating his hidden coffin; a Jewish hermit, who used ancient rites derived from the Kabbalah, and an old nun. Strangely, it is never recorded as a local villager, whom one would think would have ample reason for doing just such a thing!

What is particularly noteworthy about this story, apart from the fact that it seems to be Europe’s oldest cohesive vampire myth, is that the legend persisted in local folklore through mothers warning their children about the Count (presumably if they were poorly behaved), and women whose children were stillborn were said to have been seduced by the Count (this seems rather unfair, compounding a rather tragic event with a reputation for undead affairs, but peasant life is not known for its charity!).

There is an interesting suggestion (not my own) that the legend derives from a confused memory of Cathar persecution in Catalonia, many of which were indeed convicted and burnt as heretics in Occitania during the Albigensian crusade, and equally many fled to Spain, in particular to Catalonia which, like Occitania previously, had a more tolerant attitude to ‘spiritual deviance’. Who knows what other legacies this mysterious group may have left in the area?

Weekly Article #11 – A Brief Archaeological History of Andorra (Part I)

This week’s article is slightly different, being an extract from a forthcoming guidebook  (in time for Christmas with any luck) dealing with the archaeology and culture of Andorra. In this extract, a broad brush archaeological history of Andorra’s human occupation is provided, from the Palaeolithic to the Visigoths highlighting some of the best sites …


The Retreat of the Glaciers

As the ice sheets began to melt and withdraw from the deep valleys that they carved out, the small pockets of human inhabitants began to emerge from their isolated refuges in the Pyrenees. As these nomadic, hunter-gatherer tribes began to roam the emerging landscape, looking for fresh game and foraging for edible plants, a small seasonal band discovered a comfortable and vast rock overhang in what we now know as Andorra. Discovered in 1959 by the godfather of Andorran archaeology, Pere Canturri, this site, the rock shelter ‘Balma de la Margineda’ dates back to the Epipalaeolithic period, and is the first known evidence of human occupation in the Andorran valley (Sant Julia de Loria parish). It is thought that these settlers came from the Ariege and the Segre regions, and used this rock shelter as a seasonal summer camp. The climate of snow, harsh winds and rains would not have rendered it useful during the Autumn, Winter, or early Spring. It is also worth noting that the valley floor at this time would have been dominated by the river.


(Balma de la Margineda, taken from

Located in the middle between the two boundaries of the Pyrenees (now Catalonia and the Ariege/Aude), it acted as an ideal stepping stone for travelling hunters and tribes. Another helpful feature of the site was that it offered excellent resources for hunting, with eel, trout, chamois, boars, deer, and goats roaming the surrounding mountainsides and forests in abundance, as well as some competitors in the form of bears, wolves and lynx.

Material culture from this initial Palaeolithic period is slim, however that which survives belongs firmly to the Azilian culture, an Epipalaeolithic industry rooted in northern Spain and Southern France. This culture follows the more refined (artistically) Magdalanian culture, and the cruder aspect to the materials produced is thought to derive from the melting of ice sheets reducing available resources, both for nutrition and also for tool manufacture. In terms of the Epipalaeothlic finds at Balma de la Margineda, archaeologists discovered harpoon points (which are very typical of the Azilian industry, and presumably were used for trout and eel fishing), flint spearheads engraved with abstract figures, and geometric microliths used as arrowheads. Sadly, none of the items are available for the public to view, as they are still under analysis by the Cultural Dept. of Andorra, which is preparing a National Museum at the time of writing.

Moving into the Mesolithic, the situation at Balma Margineda seems to remain broadly the same, with the site remaining seasonal and occupied by nomadic population groups, however evidence of another site emerges a short distance away, that of the Madriu-Perafita-Claror valleys (now a UNESCO site). These two valleys have an immensely long history of human exploitation and management, whose beginnings reach back to the middle of the Mesolithic period in the form of a circular stone structure.


(Madriu-Perifata-Claror Valley – photo by Perennial Pyrenees)

It is during the Neolithic however when we begin to see substantial changes in both these sites, and newly established ones throughout Andorra. In caves near the settlements of Pal, Arinsal, La Massana and at Balma del Llunsi (Encamp), evidence has been discovered of human occupation dating back to this period. At Balma de la Margineda we find the grave of a woman, the oldest human remains found in the country, in which were placed ceramics, arrowheads and lithics. Other ceramic fragments have been found that were typical of the Neolithic Revolution, when communities turned from a nomadic existence to a sedentary one, fuelled by early forays into agriculture and land management. The population here increased during the 6th millennium BC, and the site appears to be used partially as a cattle enclosure before being largely abandoned in favour of the Madriu-Perafita-Claror valleys. Several round stone structures are built, likely functioning as huts and a mixture of early agricultural cultivation and hunting/gathering sustains the population. Traces of wheat and barley have been found by archaeologists, as have the remains of goats, sheep and oxen, and archaeobotanical evidence for the clearing of areas of pine forest indicate that these animals had managed grazing areas.

Other sites in Andorra display a complex culture emerging in the valleys, with funerary monuments existing at Juberri (Sant Julia de Loria) and Segudet (Ordino). These contain extensive grave goods, including bracelets, bangles, and ceramic ornaments, and these ‘cist’ monuments (a stone burial chamber) also contained pottery. One pot in the Segudet burial contained a pot within which traces of various cereals, milk and even honey were found, displaying evidence for a both budding land exploitation and, along with the presence of non-local materials, possible contact with other communities in the region. Votive axes made from serpentine and other items fashioned from variscite suggest trade with (for example) the mines of Can Tintorer in Gava, 135km to the south of Andorra. The funerary practices of sites in neighbouring Catalonia and Languedoc suggest that the bodies may have been left in grottos to rot and be stripped of their flesh by animals before the remaining bones were interred in the cist and walled in.

Pollen analysis indicates that as the Neolithic wore on, the lowlands of Andorra began to see pastoralism and cultivation, including the practices of forest clearance and using fire as a management tool.


(Feixa del Moro Neolithic cist burial at Juberri – taken from

From Bronze to Iron

The Bronze Age in Andorra was a mixed economy, with predominantly livestock farming but also a persistence of small scale hunting and gathering. As the Neolithic period came to a close, several small settlements became established between what is now Santa Coloma and Andorra la Vella, just above the valley floor, which was still largely occupied by the river and various lagoons and had a ‘prairie’ aspect to it (the valley sides were still heavily wooded). These seven sites are known as the ‘Estacions del Cedre I – VII’ (Cedar Stations I – VII), and occupy the sunnier side of the valley. These small encampments have yielded a small amount of artefacts, including polished stone axes and ceramic materials decorated in styles typical of the early Bronze Age, many of which find comparisons with other sites of a similar date in the Pyrenees (e.g. Bescaran, Grotte Montou, Les Escaldes, Llo, Grotte d’Enlene, Cova Negra etc.) A small hand-operated millstone was also found with traces of wheat on its surface, indicating a small level of agricultural activity around the Cedre sites. During the early Bronze Age a new culture that shared similar features with the Polada culture in Italy began to emerge in the South of France, Catalonia and the Pyrenees, and the occupants of the Cedre sites began to integrate aspects of this culture into their own, specifically in terms of ceramic vessels. A typical feature of the Polada culture are the cylindrical protuberances on the handles, which serve to make gripping easier – these begin to appear on the vessels of the Cedre camps during this time, as do decorative ‘buttons’ on the vessel body. A bread oven was also discovered by archaeologists at ‘Cedre IV’, a typical conical affair built from branches and dried mud (the imprints of the pine needles could still be seen) that bears great resemblance to furnaces used by the Berber tribes in the Atlas mountains. Within the furnace were found several chunks of granite forming a partial floor on which the bread could lie.

Towards the end of the Bronze Age, the camps at Les Cedres were abandoned, for the likely reason that the organisation and way of living had changed beyond the need for these small outposts, evolving into more complex settlements that demanded greater space. It is also possible that the strategic territorial uses that these small outposts provided were no longer relevant, and thus their function became outdated.

Another feature of the late Bronze Age that made itself felt in Andorra is an abundance of rock carvings – many of which can be seen today and have Medieval carvings alongside them, providing an unusual continuity of use. The best examples of these carvings (and directions of how to find them) will be provided later in this book. Many of these carvings have motifs which can be compared to very famous sites such as Val Camonica in the Alps, and other sites throughout the Pyrenees, Ariege and the Cantabrian region of Spain. Without a doubt, the most famous of these carvings are found on the upper surface of the ‘Roc de les Bruixes’ (Rock of the Witches) in the parish of Canillo. Overlooking the sanctuary of Our Lady of Meritxell, this site has a wide range of motifs engraved upon its surface, including pentacles, stylised stars, anthropomorphic figures, networks of deeply incised lines and many more. On its eastern side are representations of warriors that are thought to be Medieval in date. Other examples of Bronze Age carvings can be found in the petroglyphs of Sornas, Montalari (Les Bons), La Gonarda (Ordino), Puy (la Massana) and Mas del Diumenge (Vilars), as well as a host of incised (Medieval) crosses on various rocks throughout the country, and undoubtedly many more as yet undiscovered due to Andorra’s mountainous terrain.

Further up the Andorran valley, near Encamp, we find another site with Bronze Age origins (but its fullest expression was in the Iron Age). Roc l’Oral has yielded a wealth of artefacts. Established in the Late Bronze Age, Roc l’Oral couldn’t be more different in terms of aspect to the Cedres sites. Situated on a cliff overlooking the river and valley path of Encamp, it occupies a far more defensive prospect and at its base lies the previously mentioned Balma dej Llunci. Identifiable now by a long strip of cultivatable land and protected from erosion by surrounding rocks, local folklore tells of great treasures buried here and wells sunk deep to access the river below. In reality the only holes discovered are made by moles, and in these molehills and tunnels have been found a plethora of archaeological material, due to the disturbances to the stratigraphy from successive ploughing. Numerous bronze objects have been found at this site, including bracelets with incised decoration, a fibula brooch, various pins and 2500 ceramic sherds. There is also evidence that the site crossed over into the Iron Age, with iron needles being discovered. The most exciting find however is undoubtedly the bronze foot of a (likely) votive vessel that has a probable Roman origin, dated to between the 2nd and 1st century BC. Comparisons with other Roman votive vessels revealed that this was likely taken from a sanctuary or church, and a ring attached on the top of the foot may have allowed it to be worn as an amulet.

This raises all sorts of interesting questions regarding the interactions between the proto-historic populations of Andorra, and the Romans, who by the 3rd century BC had begun to extend their empire through Gaul, across the Pyrenees and into the Iberian Peninsula (although this conquest would not be completed until the Cantabrian wars in 19 BC). The ‘Via Cerdanya’, ‘Via Augusta’ and other Roman route ways would have facilitated trade and communications with Romanised populations. The ‘Andorran’ population is referred to by Polybius as belonging to the tribe of the ‘Andosins’, and is recorded by the historian as attacking the passage of Hannibal through the Pyrenees in 218 BC. The Andosins are said to have existed between the 7th and 2nd centuries BC, and some experts believe that they spoke an Iberian language, as did many of the tribes in the Pyrenees, possibly influenced in their language and script by the arrival of Iron Age Greeks along the Catalan coastline in 750 BC. However, other experts claim that they spoke a derivative of Basque. In addition, the surviving material culture of the Andosins does not appear to resemble particularly the assemblages found at other Iberian sites, so the degree to which they (and indeed other Pyrenean tribes) could accurately be described as ‘Iberian’ is in doubt. As with so many of these historical questions, we may never truly know the answer. Either way, the collection of people that lived within and around the Andorran valleys became known as the Andosins and began to be seen within a collective identity.

Through the early Iron Age the Andosins lived in relative peace within Andorra, with the degree of archaeological (and actual) Roman presence being a hotly debated topic. It is said that the hot springs in Escaldes (that now fuel the huge Caldea spa) were frequented by Romans, however there is no firm evidence of this despite Andorra falling under the broad Roman territory of Hispania Citerior. However, excavations at the Romanesque church of Sant Vinceç d’Enclar (Andorra la Vella) have yielded evidence of Roman interaction. This site (the ‘Roc d’Enclar’) is known to have been occupied since the 3rd Century AD, and coins bearing the image of Emperors Galienus (260 – 268), Magnus Maximus (382 – 388) and Honorius (395 – 423) have been discovered in the archaeological deposits. Whilst this does not prove an actual Roman presence in the Andorran valleys, it does point towards firm contact and possibly trade with either Roman or Romano-Iberian populations.

March of the Visigoths

In the early 5th century AD a momentous change was to remold the political and social fabric of western Europe. The Visigoths (‘Western Goths’) who had settled near the Danube in Roman territory became unhappy with their treatment at the hands of local Roman governors and rebelled. This started a chain of events that would begin to unravel the Roman Empire in the west and saw the Visigoths sack Rome and move into Gaul and the Iberian Peninsula, both wresting territory from the Romans and eventually establishing their own kingdom whose centre was in Toulouse. When the Huns invaded Gaul, the Visigoths turned their attention from challenging Rome to beating back the Attila’s forces, and having done this they began to move into Spain. By the early 6th century the Visigoths had lost most of their Gaulish territory to another ‘barbarian’ horde, the Franks, and were established almost exclusively in Spain.

The Visigothic presence in Andorra is invisible, at least archaeologically. There may have been passage of Visigothic peoples through the valleys however there is no legacy of their being in Andorra in the archaeological record. This is not surprising due to the relative isolation (or ‘comfortable isolation’) of settlements in many Pyrenean valleys, however one important site does begin to develop during this period in Andorra, that of the aforementioned Roc d’Enclar in the Enclar valley. Previous phases of occupation and exploitations saw a small Bronze Age and Iron Age presence, and some evidence of viniculture (i.e. terracing, sherds of glass amphora and the remains of a rough granite press) between the 4th and 6th centuries. However, in between the 5th and 7th centuries, changes began to occur on this site. New areas began to be cleared near the terraces, and it has been suggested based on the archaeological deposits that foundation walls and structures were built using wooden props and trellis branches covered with raw clay and straw. Ceramics associated with cooking were also found, as well as a staggering 52 burials that ranged from simple pits to stone tomb-like structures. Carbon 14 dating and documentary evidence from the 9th and 10th centuries point towards these burials being from between the 6th and 8th centuries. The still extant old Roman route ways such as the Via Cerdanya and Via Augusta, combined with numerous other more localised route networks, would have facilitated the trading of goods such as the wine produced at Roc d’Enclar, and experts believe that by the 7th century this site along with others across the Andorran valley would have been well linked into existing trade networks throughout the Pyrenees, Catalonia, the Cerdagne and beyond. The path created by the Valira river that runs through Andorra down to La Seu d’Urgell and beyond would have been of particular importance. Political and military shifts in power and territory during the 5th to 7th centuries saw the building of hill forts and high altitude villas for defensive purposes in the Visigothic Narbonne, and some believe that the development of Roc d’Enclar might be linked to this trend too, becoming a self-sufficient and easily defendable settlement.

Next: Charlemagne, the Romanesque style and power games for control of Andorra by Fois and Urgell! More soon…

Weekly Article #3 – The Mythical Origins of the Pyrenees


(The Tears of Pyrene)

A lighter hearted (slightly) and shorter article this week, on the classical mythology behind the creation of the Pyrenees. Who else but Hercules could be involved in the raising of this vast mountain chain?

There are in fact two variations to this story, the first being the more commonly repeated version from Silius Italicus’ Punica (Book III, 415 – 441), the latter being found unreferenced on an obscure website (reference provided at the end of the article). As Silius describes the story, courtesy of Hannibal as he makes his way across the Pyrenees:

‘But now Hannibal, throwing a peaceful world into confusion, made for the leafy summits of the Pyrenees. From the eminence of their rain-swept peaks they command a wide prospect and divide Spain from Gaul, making an eternal barrier between two great countries. These mountains took their name from Pyrene, daughter of Bebryx and victim of Hercules. For Hercules, in the course of his appointed Labours, was travelling to the distant land of three-bodied Geryon [1], when he was mastered by wine in the savage court of Bebryx, and left Pyrene robbed of her maidenhood; her beauty was a cause for mourning. The god (if it is not sinful to believe it), the god was the cause of the poor maiden’s death. For when she gave birth to a serpent she fled at once from the home she loved, in horror and dread of her father’s wrath. Then in lonely caves she mourned for the night when she lay with Alcides [2], and told his promises to the dark forests; till at last, as she mourned the ingratitude of her ravisher, and stretched forth her hands, imploring the aid of her guest, she was torn in pieces by wild beasts. When Hercules came back victorious, he wetted the mangled limbs with tears; and when he found the head of the maid he had loved, he turned pale, distraught with grief. Then the high mountain-tops, smitten by his cries, were shaken; with loud lament he called Pyrene by name; and all the cliffs and haunts of wild beasts echoed the name of Pyrene, Then, with a last tribute of tears, he laid her body in the grave. And time shall never eclipse her fame; for the mountains retain for ever the name that caused such grief.’

(Italicus, 1961, Vol. 1, p145 – 147).

This is the most commonly repeated version of the story. However, an even more lurid version has been found in the article ‘The Catalans’ Mythical Universe’ by Joan Soler (link at the end of this article):

‘Catalan cosmology describes the formation of the highest mountains by magic or by a mysterious spell: the Pyrenees and, especially, the massis of Canigó: “Olympus of the fairies”. Behold, an evil being set fire to all the forests of fir – Pyrenees is said to come from the Greek “pyr”, fire – in order to trap the damsel Pyrene, daughter of Bebryx, the king of that land; a hero or demigod, assimilated to the Greek Hercules, eventually buries her body and raises an enormous mausoleum of “mountain ranges over mountain ranges” from one sea to the other: the Pyrenees.’

(Soler, 1991, p12)

It has also been said that the tears of Pyrene created the many lakes in the Pyrenees, which is a lovely if rather sad origin for those pristine waters! Interestingly there is a reference to a Celtic city called ‘Pyrene’ by Herodotus in his ‘Histories’ (Book 2, 33), however it refers to the Ister (the Danube) flowing from ‘the land of the Celts and the city of Pyrene through the very middle of Europe.’ It is possible that Pyrene may refer to the hillfort of Heuneburg, which was a major regional centre in the south of Germany on the banks of the Danube. It seems that Pyrene’s name was by no means restricted to the Pyrenees…

Sadly, it is very difficult (or well-nigh impossible without a thorough grasp of the language) to identify any concrete Basque origin myths for how the Pyrenees came to be – although doubtless some traces exist in their folklore – due to the advent of Christianity in their culture trying to stamp out pre-Christian customs and beliefs (unsuccessfully it should be said, more on this in the future). Of course, with the history of human habitation in the Pyrenees dating back to over 600,000 BC, there must have been a whole host of myths that for each group or tribe that told the story of how they came to be and how the landscape around them was born. It is very possible that these tales linked into more common primordial mythic tropes (such as that featured in the previous article) – we may never know, although educated guesses based on cave art and the study of hunter gatherer cultures might just give us clues. The hunt goes on for the myths and legends of Iberian and ‘Celtic’ tribes that inhabited the Pyrenees: the Andosini, Castellani, Ceretani, Indegetae, Sordones and others. Who knows what may be uncovered in their inscriptions – more research is required!


[1] The stealing of Geryon’s cattle was one of the great Labours of Hercules. Geryon is sometimes associated with Iberia, and according to Strabo his triple-body was located in Gades, modern day Cadiz – Strabo, Geography, Book III, 311.

[2] The Greek name for Hercules (a Roman term).


Italicus, S. 1961. Punica. Volume 1. Translated from the Latin by J. D. Duff. London: William Heinemann Ltd.

Strabo. 1903. Geography. Volume 3. Translated from the Latin by H. C. Hamilton. London: George Bell & Sons.

Soler, J. 1991. The Catalans’ Mythical Universe. Accessible here: