Blog Update

As some may have realised, the blog has not been updated for quite some time. This is due to the focus of the project having shifted to books and (more recently) monographs rather than short articles. This is the approach which will be continued into 2023, however some bite-sized posts will also emerge on highly specific subjects related to the Pyrenees. It will also continue to be used to present short extracts from up-coming publications.

‘Bountiful Borderlands’ Extract #2: Chapter Two ‘Bane of the Izard – The Hunter’

Turning to wolves and bears first, these beasts were perennially seen as threats to livestock and people, and thus ruthlessly hunted with traps, rifles and spear-like contraptions. An excellent account of a village wolf-hunt in Landes (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) in the early 19th century provides details as to how such an event was organised. In this area, stilts (known as sangues) were used by some to cover the sandy ground and obtain good visuals of the prey or flock, and an accomplished user could move as fast as a trotting horse. In this case, the party set off at day-break, some on their sangues and all carrying rifles:

Every one being mounted on sangues, the appearance of the parties as they came in sight was extremely singular. Those at a distance seemed moving along high above the surface of the ground, and without any visible support; while others, surmounting a sandy knoll, continued to ascend long after the whole of their person had appeared above it. Some wore the sombre-coloured cloak and narrow-crowned hood, out of which it was almost ludicrous to behold a young face peeping; others wore their sheep-skin jackets with the wool outside, some black, some white, and all of the strangest cut imaginable.[1]

They arrive at the extreme end of a forest, in which the wolves are said to live, and they begin beating and guarding in order to flush out the animals:

Single files, from fifty to a hundred paces distant from each other, according to the inequality of the ground, but always within shot of any animal which might attempt to escape by breaking though the lines, were extended down each side of the forest, the side next the river requiring a less number to guard it that the other, as the wolf will not, unless hard pressed, take to the water. Along the upper end of the forest, that to which the wolves were to be driven, the files were placed closer, and the best shots of the district invariably occupy this, the post of honour. The sides and upper end of the forest being thus as it were secured, a line of beaters was drawn across the lower part of the wood. This party, always on foot, is generally composed of the youngsters of the canton, whose business it is to make more use of their lungs than of the old horse-pistols and carbines, with which a few of them are armed. Dogs, although sometimes useful in following a wounded animal, are seldom permitted to accompany the beaters, as they are never sufficiently well-trained to range close, but wandering ahead destroy the regularity of the battue. As the beaters advance, the files who have been guarding the sides of the wood fall into a line with them, so that, increasing in numbers as they go through the wood, they soon become so near to each other that not a single thicket or dingle, however small, escapes their search.[2]

After several hours, the beaters are visible as they make their way through the forest, and guns are checked and preparations are made for the breaking of the wolves from their sylvan cover. The first wolf to emerge escapes to the next woodland, avoiding the excited shots of the hunters, however the three others that are flushed out by the beaters are shot. Amusingly, during the shooting the Maire (mayor) tumbles to the ground screaming and then falls silent; much is made of this and everyone fears he is dead from a stray shot. It is revealed however that a bullet merely severed one of his stilts, and the fall to earth knocked him unconscious. This has been fortunate for the other wolves that broke cover, as during this confusion they manage to escape unharmed. Other animals are also killed by the beaters and guards during the hunt, and the author recounts of foxes, wild boar and roe deer as being among the prizes. After this everyone settles down to drinking brandy, eating and dancing, as well as a race to determine who is fastest on his sangues. The results are predictably chaotic, as one would imagine when combining brandy and stilt-racing, and are described in this charming passage:

I have already said that the sangues were from four to five feet in length; it may therefore be supposed that mounting upon such articles is no easy matter, without having a wall or bench from which to start. The usual mode of managing the affair by the Landais is to sit on the ledge of a window of the second story of their cottage, and there fastening on the stilts, walk away from the place; or a ladder is generally leaning against the walls of the cottage, up which they mount until sufficiently high to effect their object. Here, however, there were none of the usual facilities afforded for mounting; and every one was put to his wits to discover some method or other to get on his horse. The most active of the party having selected a pine which had a drooping branch, climbed on to it, and managed without much difficulty to effect their object. Several of the elderly ones, and some of the juniors, whose libations had placed their capacity on a level with that of their seniors, were not so successful. One heavy fellow, who had raised himself on the branch of a pine close to where we were sitting, had just succeeded in buckling on one of his stilts, when the branch on which he sat gave way. The leg with the stilt on was mechanically thrust out to break the fall, but the result was much the contrary. With only one support, a single stride was all that could be made, but that stride was an important one; for, unable to deviate from the direction in which the branch broke away, the heavy carcase of the fellow landed in the centre of a group whose advanced state of jollification altogether precluded their joining in the race. […] Another fellow had, in the hurry of the moment, carried off one of his neighbour’s sangues instead of his own, and did not discover the mistake until he had buckled them on, and thinking that all was right, started from his place of mounting. Then he found to his surprise that one stilt was half a foot shorter than the other, and that, accordingly, to balance himself was quite impossible. So away he went staggering and limping, endeavouring to describe a circle, so as to get back to the tree from which he had sprung. But the odds were against his succeeding. The shorter stilt having sunk in the hollow of a decayed tree root, the discrepancy of length became still greater; to recover his equilibrium was impossible, and he measured his length on the ground.[3]

After a few fights break out, one of which is settled with staffs, the race takes place across a river and a plain, and the winner is greeted with thunderous applause. This is also the only mention that I have found in any English account of the practise of sangues racing, hence its inclusion here. Murray also recounts the method used by a professional wolf and fox hunter using hounds, around Pau:

The wolves are frequently driven down from the mountains by the snow, and take refuge in the woods of the low country; and the peasants, when they see then, inform M. Dupont of their presence. The wolf is a more difficult customer to deal with than the fox. He is hardly ever killed by being fairly run down by dogs. Very few instances of wolves being so killed are known; although runs of this kind have been known to last a day and a night – the dogs following the same wolf for that length of time. On this account, the hunters always endeavour to wound or cripple him, so as to put him upon a more equal footing with the dogs; and, accordingly, every one, upon such occasions, is armed.[4]

Whilst Murray is not present for a wolf-hunt but rather a fox-chase, he does describe the pomp and ceremony with which this hunter dresses and enters through villages, announcing his arrival with a horn so that the locals might come and admire him in all his splendour, and it is likely that the same happened when Monsieur Dupont went chasing wolves. This is a very different affair to the Landais wolf hunt recounted above; here we can see overt displays of social status, potentially even paying clients, in a manner more akin to the aristocratic hunts of Fébus:

Afraid that we should not get out of bed early enough, M. Dupont had ordered his piqueur to come to our hotel about four in the morning and ‘blow us up’ with his great horn.[5] About five, the master and his hounds, and a party of French gentlemen arrived, and we, being all ready, joined them. […] Our master of the hounds, a most enormous man, could not, with jack-boots, great coat, blunderbuss, holsters and all, ride under one and twenty stone. He was mounted upon a small chestnut mare, with legs like those of an elephant, and it was amazing to see how she moved under the prodigious weight she carried. […] There are, – as I observed before, – generally, two of these abominable French horns in a hunting party, the one carried by the piqueur, the other by the master, or a friend. M. Dupont’s nephew was the bearer of this – to the ears of a sportsman – most disagreeable instrument; and he rode at the head of the party: while the piqueur, with the dogs and the other horn, brought up the rear. In this manner, we rode into the town of Tarbes, our leader halting at each turn or winding of the streets, and sounding his ‘Tantara’ for a few seconds; after he had been answered by the piqueur, with the other horn, from the rear, he moved on again, thus giving warning of our approach, and affording all the inhabitants plenty of time to come to their windows, and admire us. Glad were we, when the neighbourhood of our hotel permitted us to escape.[6]

Again, whilst this relates specifically to a fox hunt, it is more than likely that for this gentleman, such grandeur would accompany a wolf hunt, also potentially with a team of helpers and participants which he would lead through villages and out to the forests.

Violant i Simorra describes two methods of wolf hunting in the Pyrenees. One involved a group of men running around a series of mountains shouting a whistling to drive the wolves towards a party of armed hunters. These men would be waiting at the other end of the route ready to shoot the creatures on sight. Another method involved driving the wolves towards either a gorge or an enclosed field. The latter was known as a lobera and would narrow to a trap concealed with branches where, occasionally, a lamb would be tethered as bait. Boar hunts would sometimes follow a similar course in the Pallars (Catalonia); hunters armed with axes and shotguns would be posted throughout the mountains, waiting and watching while their dogs would root the boars out from their shelters. Once the boars had been driven out they would be chased into a ravine or a cave where the axes and shotguns would be employed. In the Valle de Hecho (Huesca), two scouting groups would run along the flanks of the mountains tracking the boars while a reseguero (aided by dogs) would ensure that no boar could turn back and escape, using screams and whistles.[7]

In the Ariège there used to exist a formula for increasing the potency of a hunter’s hounds. In Loubens, the several hunters would turn up a sleeve of their jackets or coats, cross themselves and repeat:

Cassaïre de lardos                      Chasseur de chair                       Hunter of flesh

Autant de lebres tuaras,               Autant de lièvres tu tueras,           As many hares that you kill,

Coumo m’en daras.                     Autant tu m’en donneras.              As many you will give me.

At the end of the hunt, usually in the evening, the hunters would wash the dogs’ muzzles in a stream, to rid them of the magic.[8] Traditionally the most common hunting dog in the French Pyrenees is the Braques Français, the original breed of which dates back to the 15th century. Typically a pointer, it is also employed in flushing, retrieving and even trailing game, and over time has evolved into two distinct regional varieties: the type Gascogne and the type Pyrénées. The former is larger and slower, the latter is smaller and swifter. It is possible that the breed is descended from the Spanish Pachon Navarro. Whilst the French Mastiff was favoured during aristocratic hunts of boar, deer, wolves and bears, the Braques Français is a versatile breed that can cover many roles and also would have been more readily available to the peasant hunter.[9]

A more formidable but no less enthusiastically pursued ‘threat’ was the Brown Bear; so much so, in fact, that by the mid 20th century it was practically extinct in the Pyrenees and is only recently making a return via controversial conservation schemes. As Hemingway noted, ‘Every year hunters kill dozens of bears in the Pyrenees mountain fastness’.[10] Mention has already been made earlier in this chapter of the rewards offered by monastic institutions for the slaughter of bears (and wolves), and of the Medieval views towards bears. Interestingly, this is belied by the focus on the bear in various traditional festivals throughout the Pyrenees, in which it is a major character and indicates a profound presence in the Pyrenean psyche, myth and folklore.[11] This, however, did not stop hunters from pursuing the bear, killing the adult and in many cases taking the cubs to sell to bear trainers in the Ariège; the hamlet of Ercé, for instance, was famous for its bear school during the 19th century, and the Haute-Couserans was home to many of the best bear trainers:

Visitors to the remote region of the Couserans region were often alarmed to see children playing with bear cubs. The cubs were always orphans. The hunter would wrap himself in a triple layer of sheepskins and arm himself with a long knife. When the bear reared up and hugged the woolly human, the hunter pushed its jaw aside with one hand and stabbed it in the kidneys with the other, remaining locked in the embrace until the bear collapsed. The cubs were taken to the village where they grew up with the children and the livestock until they were old enough to be trained.[12]

The Ariège was quite unique in this respect, as it produced the best orsalhèrs, and by 1800 up to two hundred of these bear-trainers/handlers existed in just two valleys, those of Alet and Garbet. One noble from the Comminges (Haute-Garonne) remarked in the late 19th century that each time a bear cub was captured, it would go to the Ariège. The cubs would be raised in the house like a dog, and the mistress of the house would feed them with bottles, and in one case from Ustou, even breast-feed them.[13]

Despite this apparent affection, one could almost call bear hunting an obsession in some areas of the Pyrenees. To give an example of the extent to which bears were hunted, we can turn to Andorra, which traditionally has been one of the richest areas for bears. Records indicate that between 1520 and 1854, five hundred and thirty-seven payments were made to bear hunters upon the presentation of their kill; this figure was actually exceeded by the Béarnaise hunters of the Ossau valley (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) during the same period. The records for the parish of Andorra la Vella over twenty years at the start of the 19th century give an idea of the frequency in which bears in this valley were killed; three in 1800, six in 1802, three in 1803, three in 1805, four in 1806 and 1808, ten in 1812, three in 1816 and 1818, seven in 1819 and three in 1820. Even if these figures represent a particularly populous region for bears, if one extrapolates this over the centuries, and indeed over the various valleys of the Pyrenees, it is unsurprising that the population was decimated by the 1950s.[14]

[1] Murray, Hon. James Erskine, ‘The Pyrenean Hunter: Wolf-hunting in the Landes’ in Bentley’s Miscellany, Volume 4, J. M. Lewer (ed.) (New York, NY: Jemima M. Mason, 1839), p. 499.

[2] Ibid, p. 500.

[3] Ibid., pp. 504 – 505.

[4] Murray, James Erskine, Summer in the Pyrenees, Vol. II (London: John Macrone, 1837b), p. 156.

[5] A piqueur is an attendant that directs the hounds in a hunt.

[6] Murray, 1837b, pp. 157 – 160.

[7] Violant i Simorra, Ramon, El Pirineo Español (Barcelona: Editorial Alta Fulla, 1986), pp. 360 – 362.

[8] Vézian, Joseph, Carnets Ariégeois (Présentés par Olivier de Marliave) (Bourdeaux: Éditions Sud Ouest, 2000), p. 104.

[9] Clark, Anne Rogers & Brace, Andrew, The International Encyclopedia of Dogs (Hoboken, NJ: Howell Book House, 1995), pp. 146–147

[10] Hemingway, Ernest, Hemingway on Hunting (New York, NY: Scribner Classics, 2001), p. 160.

[11] For a detailed study of the bear in the Pyrenees, see Chapter Three of Locker, Martin, The Tears of Pyrene (Andorra: Mons Culturae Press, 2019).

[12] Robb, Graham, The Discovery of France (London: Picador, 2007), p. 169.

[13] Casanova, Eugeni, L’Ós del Pirineu: Crònica d’un Extermini (Lleida: Pagès Editors, 2005), p.197. This book contains a wealth of statistics and interviews with hunters, and is recommended for an in-depth analysis of bear-hunting in the Pyrenees.

[14] Casanova, 2005, p.197.

Audio of ‘Tears of Pyrene’ Talk 21/01/2020

I just finished giving a talk on the recent ‘Tears of Pyrene’ book at the Andorran International Club. It’s quite broad brush, but goes into three key themes. The talk was filmed however the video is being awkward so audio is all that can be salvaged right now (the end is cut off but that’s basically the end anyway), and can be downloaded here <<< Tears of Pyrene Talk 21:01:2020.mp3>>>




Fairy-Lore of the Pyrenees Part II

Carrying on from the previous article, below we will delve deeper into the existing fairy-lore of the Pyrenees, which is under-explored in the ethnographic record in the 20th century. We will read sweeping examinations by no less than Charles Dickens (!), local enthusiasts and French local anthologies from 1909…


Firstly, it is interesting to note that in the French Pyrenees, Les Blanquettes (as examined in the previous article) were also locally known in the Béarn as Hados, and the name of the village of Belhades (Petite Leyre) may derive etymologically from belle hados (beautiful fairy).


Also, coincidentally, from an anthology dating back to 1870 we can find the illustrious Charles Dickens summarising Pyrenean fairy-lore thus, which must be admitted is not in a uniformly complimentary fashion:

‘As to the fairies, they are still visible to the unsophisticated Pyreneans, and they sit at the entrance of their grottos, combing their golden hair, much as they used to in our old nursery days. He who tries to reach them, perishes; should he find favour in their eyes, he disappears for ever from this world. If, however, a mortal releases a fairy from a spell, she sometimes lends him her magic wand, with which he can obtain whatever he desires. In the Barège valley the fairies inhabit the interior of the Pic de Bergons, and flax placed at the foot of their abode is instantly spun into the finest thread. In the valley of Barousse they go from house to house on New Year’s night, carrying happiness in their right hands, and sorrow in their left, under the form of two children, the one crowned with flowers, the other weeping. To propitiate them a repast is spread in a room with open doors and windows, and on the morrow the master of the house distributes the food among his family and servants, with good wishes for the New Year. Occasionally, however, tricks may be played upon female fairies with impunity, as when one was caught in a pair of trousers left in a garden for this purpose’.[1]

Also discovered from much rootling around is a list of several different types of fairy attested as living around French Pyrenees. It should be mentioned that no sources can be found for this list, attributed as it is to a local within the Hautes-Pyrénées, however oral history is a vital part of ethnographic research and as such it deserves to be included:

Balandrou (Hautes-Pyrénées) – This creature allegedly cultivated an apple tree whose golden fruit would bestow immortality.

Dames Blanches (Aude & Hautes-Pyrénées) – These live within the castles of Puivert and Mauvezin.

Encantadas (Vaucluse) – These fairies dwell around Rousillon near caves, rivers and waterfalls, and also deep within the woods, and they dream of being human.

Fada (Ariège) – Similarly these fairies wish to be human, and protect hordes of gold.

Goga (Catalonia) – This fairy lives in Gariotxes beside a river, where she washes her clothes. Anyone who manages to steal these clothes by moonlight is said to become prosperous in the future.

Hada (Gascony) – These creatures have webbed feet and live near water or in caves. They have been known to help farmers, and also in the Ariège they are said to advise on crops.

Nore (Aude) – This fairy was said to live atop the peak of Bugarach.

Outasuna-Maithagarria (Basque) – Linked to hunting, she appears riding a deer and resembles the goddess Diana.

Sarrasine (Ariège) – Dwelling in the rivers of the Salat valley, they have webbed feet.

Parques de la Lune (Ariège) – These nocturnal fairies dwell at crossroads in the Arize Massif, and are said to hold the destiny of both the living and the dead.

Romula (Ariège) – This fairy is said to live in the Grotte du Camaillot near St-Jean-de-Verges, and she charms both humans and animals with her singing. She crosses the river of the dead and was the deity of that river (more about this creature below).

Roneca (Aude) – A terror of children, she is said to haunt various valleys in the Aude with a candle and a large sack on her back to collect infants who are bad.

Saurimonda (Aude) – Dwelling in the valleys of this area and also around the Montagne Noire, she is said to be beautiful with blonde hair and is popularly linked to both gold and the sun. Nuggets of gold in rivers are attributed to her dropping her comb in the waters.[2]


The legend of Romula is tied to a large stone head near the Roc d’Huile, seen when crossing the river at Saint-Jean-de-Verges (whether it is still there I cannot verify). The head is so large that it would take a dozen wine barrels to fill it where it hollow. In order to find out the name of this alleged ‘giant’, one has to ask Romula, who lives in the Grotte du Camaillot. She is in charge of checking the ‘passports’ of those who cross the river in Death’s boat, and has long golden hair and silver eyes. The head is said to date from the Roman era, and the legend linking Romula to this monument runs this:

At a time when the Romans had pitched their tents at the Massif du Plantaurel, Romula (whose name is eerily similar to Romulus, one of the twin founders of Rome) was awaiting Death’s boat on the landing stage at the Roc d’Huile. Within the boat were two people, Fortunatus and Infortunatus. Fortunatus had all his papers in good order and was allowed to pass, however Inforunatus was not so lucky, as his passport lacked the appropriate signature. Additionally, he was an infamous bandit and had been a cruel man during his lifetime, making the lives of local people wretched. Romula reproached him, showing him all that he had done badly in life, his robberies, bluster and injustices and condemned him to remain standing where he was. The water around him turned to oil, which became alight, the flames melting the rock around the man. By the time that the water had put the flames out, the man had become stone, and his enlarged form that had fused with the rock stood stolidly in the earth, his legs sunken into the soil, and only his head remained above ground… [3]


There are more fairy stories to follow in Part III, which will arrive in good time.





[1] Dickens, Charles, ‘Superstitions of the Pyrenees’ in All the Year Round, Vo. 3, No. 23, January Ist, 1870, p. 113.

[2] Translated from the French from this source:

[3] Anon, Almanac Patoues of the Ariejo (Fouix: Imprimario de Gadrat Ainat), 1909.


Fairy-Lore of the Pyrenees: Part I.

Fairy-lore, at least as understood within the 18th/19th century romantic context as so popularised by works such as those of the Grimm brothers within ethnographic literature, is curiously rare within the Pyrenees, at least within the character seen within mainland France and as recorded by Thomas Keightley.[1] Some examples do however exist, hidden away within caves, forests and mountain peaks, and there are presented below (Part I) three of these scarce examples, as recorded within travelogues and legendariums from this period. In Part II, further examples will be presented and dissected in relation to broader European fairy-lore.

It may be worth briefly qualifying what constitutes a ‘fairy’ or ‘sprite’ within ‘traditional’ European folklore. Generally (and this term is used advisably), this refers to some manner of natural spirit (usually small in stature) that personifies some manner of genius loci, and can be said to reach back to a reflection of pre-Christian belief in a spirit of place, minor ‘Pagan’ deity, or associated household spirit that could be both puckish, malign or benign, as so-whether it willed. Typically, they are etymologically linked to the concept of ‘small-folk’ in various ethnographic contexts, they inhabited the margins of human/natural interaction, both aiding, abetting and harming, in the manner of the ‘elves’ of folk belief, and within the 19th century they became transformed into the winged creatures so beloved of folklorists today. It is of course, within the space of a short article, impossible to trace back into the dim past the origins (in a Pyrenean context at least, although this may be the subject of a future volume) of the various and curiously scarce ‘fairy’ motifs within the Pyrenees, but it is worth recording some of the most interesting examples below. It is also worth noting that, within the French context at least, these beliefs have all but been eradicated.

Beginning within the French cultural regions of the Pyrenees, Les Blanquettes is a local term in the Haute Pyrenees for fairies, who are attributed with the power to raise storms, bring luck or misfortune to people, and are said to live in the interior of the Pic de Bergons, where they spin flax into fine thread.

The peasantry have been careful to prepare in a clean and empty chamber, the repast which they wish to offer to their guests. A white cloth covers the table upon which is placed a loaf, a knife, a jug of water, or of wine, with a cup and a candle in the midst. They believe that those who offer the best food, may hope to have their herds increased, their harvests abundant, and that marriage will crown their dearest hopes; but those who fail in these attentions to the fairies, and who neglect to make preparations worthy of the spirits who come to visit them, may expect the greatest misfortunes; fire will consume their dwellings, wild animals devour their flocks, hail will destroy their harvests, or their infants die in the cradle. Upon the first day of the year, the father, the eldest person, or the master of each house, takes the bread which has been offered to the fairies, breaks it, and after having dipped it in the water or the wine, contained in the jug, distributes it among the family, and also among the servants; after this they wish each other a good year, and breakfast upon the bread.[2]

Additionally, in the Bearn valleys, Les Blanquettes are also said to dwell in cavern mouths, mountain peaks, dress in white and often appear in a circular formation. Sadly, when asked at the time that this was reported, the local consulted said that he believed that these were only shadows, and thus that fairy-lore in that area was almost dead.[3]

There also exists a very specific legend from this region, pertaining to the Abadies family of Adast in Cauterets (Hautes-Pyrenees) with a domestic fairy, the fairy Abacia:

In the days when the fairy Urganda (one day old, another young) had her favourite among certain knights-errant whom she especially protected; when the fairy Monto, foundress of the city of Mantua [Lombardy, Italy], changed herself into an adder once a week, and Melusina, from the highest tower of the ancient castle of the Lusignans, announced with mournful and piercing shrieks their destruction and the ruin of the royal house; beneatha  hillock to the south of Adast, in the valley of Lavedan, the fairy Abacia remained enchanted in a fountain, which is no longer on, being at this day dry.

Tradition has not told us whether she was of the first, the second, or the third order of fairies; but Desinty, more powerful than the all, had carefully assigned to each the part she had to perform on earth, and it was written in her immutable decrees, that the fairy Abacia could only be disenchanted by a man not married, who was fasting, and yet had eaten. How many years elapsed before any one thus qualified appeared to release the imprisoned fairy, tradition has also forgotten to inform us.

However, it so happened that, towards reaping tie the youngest heir of the house of Abadie of Adast went abroad into his harvest fields, having for his companion the heir of Vignaux and Natala; and going in to the one where the fountain was with the fairy Abacia hidden under its waters, took an ear of corn, and breaking a grain between his teeth, cast it away without swallowing it.

At the same instant a young and beautiful woman stood before him, who, fixing on him the look which especially belongs to fairies, said in the sweetest of voices, “You have disenchanted me, and ought now to take me as your wife. Do you consent?” The young man, enamoured of her beauty, readily agreed. “My fate (she added) still depends on another engagement. Promise that you will never call me ‘lady’, or ‘lady of the water.’” He promised.

Two children, beautiful as angels, were the fruits of this union; every thing prospered in their happy home; but at an epoch, of whose date there exists no trace, it happened that the husband went up to see his hay cut on the summit of the mountain neighbouring to Cauteretz. As he returned in the evening with his servants, he saw with astonishment and anger, that the unripe grain of his fields had been cut down and piled in shocks; and his wrath redoubled  on arriving at his house he learned that it had been done by his wife’s command. He refused to listen to the gentle explanations which she would have given him; and at once to humiliate and punish her, cried out, “Lady – lady of the water!” The fairy instantly disappeared.

Then did he weep, groan, and utter bitter cries; but he was destined never to behold her more. Sometimes, when he was absent, she would come and embrace her children, combing their hair, and always with a golden comb.

One evening when she was alone with then, she said, and her tears fell as she spoke, “It is owing to your father’s perjury that I have not done for you all that my power as a fairy might have enabled me to undertake, and now my destiny calls me into another region; but from thence I shall watch over you. Love virtue, walk in the paths of honour, and learn what I am permitted to disclose to you of the secrets of futurity. Know, that one of your descendants will have much renown, and that a war-like and illustrious nation of the north will call him to reign over their nation”.

Having thus spoken, the fairy Abacia disappeared – and for ever![4]

Within this we can identify a few key themes that emerge in various ‘fairy’ tales across Western Europe, namely the disenchanting of a fairy via a man, the marriage that ensues, the bearing of children from the union, the ‘profane name(s)’ that must not be uttered, the subsequent uttering and the disappearance thereupon by the fairy wife. An additional note of interest is the mention of a golden comb – again, a typical feature of fairy-lore.

Moving across the granite Pyrenean spine, into the Basque Country, we find several examples of ‘Fairy’-lore, as recorded in the excellent Rev. Wentworth Webster’s ‘Basque Legends’.[5] Particularly of note is the legend of ‘The Lady Pigeon and Her Comb’, accompanied as it is with an interpretation:[6]

A mother and her son scratch a meagre existence, so much so that the son decides to venture off to make a living, and comes across a forest that lies a considerable distance away. Within the forest he finds a castle and, knocking upon the door, he is answered by a Tartaro.[7] Upon revealing the nature of his wretched state, the boy is spared by the giant, and given a very specific task, whose nature is strangely charitable. He is to leave the area in a few days and lie in wait for three young ladies who bathe in the giant’s garden. The boy is charged with stealing the middle of the three ‘pigeon cloaks’ that are discarded by the ladies whilst they bathe, upon which the lady whose cloak is stolen will be forced to remain in the water and promise to help the boy always. The boy thus does as he is told to, and the outcome is that the boy ventures, with an assurance of employment, to the father of the lady’s house the next day.

The father informs him that there is much work to do, much of it manual, and indeed much of it overwhelming: to pull up oaks by their roots, cut them into lengths, sort branches from trunks and roots. After he must plough, harrow and sow the land with wheat, finally creating a small cake of the self-same wheat by midday, lest he be killed.

The boy agrees, yet goes back to the forest to muse, pensively, upon which the fairy lady appears to him assuring him of her help. In order to do so she throws her comb into the air, utter various incantations which will mimic the workload of the boy, including the creation of the cake. By noon the cake is ready, which he races to take to the father. The father however is suspicious, and says to the mother ‘Be careful he is not in league with your daughter!’. I now defer to the legend itself:

His wife says to him, “Take care that he is not in league with your daughter.”

The husband says to her, “What do you mean? They have never seen each other.”

This husband was a devil. The young lady told our lad that her father is going to send him to fetch a ring in a river far away. “He will tell you to choose a sword from the midst of ever so many others, but you will take an old sabre and leave the others.”

The next day his wife told him that he ought to send him to fetch a ring which he had lost in the bed of a river. He sends him then, and tells him that he must choose a sword; that he will have quantities of evil fish to conquer. The lad says to him that he will not have those fine swords, that he has enough with this old sabre, which was used to scrape off the dirt.

When he arrived at the bank of the river he sat there weeping, not knowing what to do. The young lady comes to him, and says:

“What! You are weeping! Did not I tell you that I would always help you?”

It was eleven o’clock. The young lady says to him

“You must cut me in pieces with this sabre, and throw all the pieces into the water.”

The lad will not do it by any means. He says to her:

“I prefer to die here on the spot than to make you suffer.”

The lady says to him, “It is nothing at all what I shall suffer, and you must do it directly–the favourable moment is passing by like this, like this.”

The lad, trembling all over, begins with his sabre. He throws all the pieces into the river; but, lo I a part of the lady’s little finger sticks to a nail in his shoe. The young lady comes out of the water and says to him:

“You have not thrown everything into the water. My little finger is wanting.” 1

After having looked for it, he sees that he has it under his foot, hooked on to a nail. The young lady gives him the ring. She tells him to go without losing a moment, for he must give it to the king at noon. He arrives happily (in time). The young lady, as she goes into the house, bangs the door with all her might and begins to cry out:

“Ay! ay! ay! I have crushed my little finger.”

And she makes believe that she has done it there. The king was pleased. He tells him that on the morrow he must tame a horse and three young fillies. 2 The lad says to him:

“I will try.”

The master gives him a terrible club. The young lady says to him in the evening:

“The horse which my father has spoken to you about will be himself. You will strike him with all your might with your terrible club on the nose, and he will yield and be conquered. The first filly will be my eldest sister. You will strike her on the chest with all your force, and she also will yield and will be conquered. I shall come the last. You will make a show of beating me too, and you will hit the ground with your stick, and I too will yield, and I shall be conquered.”

The next day the lad does as the young lady has told him. The horse comes. He was very high-spirited, but our lad strikes him on the nose, he yields, and is conquered. He does the same thing with the fillies. He beats them with his terrible club, they yield, and are conquered; and when the third comes he makes a show of hitting her, and strikes the earth. She yields, and all go off..

The next day he sees the master with his lips swollen, and with all his face as black as soot. The young ladies had also pain in the chest. The youngest also gets up very late indeed in order to do as the others.

The master says to him that he sees he is a valuable servant, and very clever, and that he will give him one of his daughters for wife, but that he must choose her with his eyes shut. And the young lady says to him:

“You will choose the one that will give you her hand twice, and in any way you will recognise me, because you will find that my little finger is wanting. I will always put that in front.”

The next day the master said to him:

“We are here now; you shall now choose the one you wish for, always keeping your eyes shut.”

He shuts them then; and the eldest daughter approaches, and gives him her hand. He says to the king:

“It is very heavy, (this hand); too heavy for me. I will not have this one.”

The second one approaches, she gives him her hand, and he immediately recognises that the little finger is wanting. He says to the king:

“This is the one I must have.”

They are married immediately. They pass some days like that. His wife says to him;

“It is better for us to be off from here, and to flee, otherwise my father will kill us.”

They set off, then, that evening at ten o’clock, and the young lady spits before the door of her room, saying:

“Spittle, with thy power, you shall speak in my place.” 2 And they go off a long way. At midnight, the father goes to the door of the lad and his wife, and knocks at the door.; they do not answer. He knocks harder, and then the spittle says to him:

“Just now nobody can come into this room.”

The father says, “It is I. I must come in.”

“It is impossible,” says the spittle again.

The father grows more and more angry; the spittle makes him stop an hour like that at the door. At last, not being able to do anything else, he smashes the door, and goes inside. What is his terrible rage when he sees the room empty. He goes off to his wife, and says to her:

“You were not mistaken; they were well acquainted, and they were really in league with one another, and they have both escaped together; but I will not leave them like that. I will go off after them, and I shall find them sooner or later.”

He starts off. Our gentleman and lady had gone very far, but the young lady was still afraid. She said to her husband:

“He might overtake us even now. I–I cannot turn my head; but (look) if you can see something.”

The husband says to her: “Yes, something terrible is coming after us; I have never seen a monster like this.”

The young lady throws up a comb, and says:

“Comb, with thy power, let there be formed before my father hedges and thorns, and before me a good road.”

It is done as she wished. They go a good way, and she says again:

“Look, I beg you, if you see anything again.”

The husband looks back, and sees nothing; but in the clouds he sees something terrible, and tells so to his wife. And his wife says, taking her comb:

“Comb, with thy power, let there be formed where he is a fog, and hail, and a terrific storm.”

It happens as they wish. They go a little way farther, and his wife says to him:

“Look behind you, then, if you see anything.”

The husband says to her: “Now it is all over with us. We have him here after us; he is on us. Use all your power.”

She throws again a comb immediately, and says:

“Comb, with thy power, form between my father and me a terrible river, and let him be drowned there for ever.”

As soon as she has said that, they see a mighty water, and there their father and enemy drowns himself.

The young lady says, “Now we have no more fear of him, we shall live in peace.”

They go a good distance, and arrive at a country into which the young lady could not enter. She says to her husband:

“I can go no farther. It is the land of the Christians there; I cannot enter into it. You must go there the first. You must fetch a priest. He must baptize me, and afterwards I will come with you; but you must take great care that nobody kisses you. If so, you will forget me altogether. Mind and pay great attention to it; and you, too, do not you kiss anyone.”

He promises his wife that he will not. He goes, then, on, and on, and on. He arrives in his own country, and as he is entering it an old aunt recognises him, and comes behind him, and gives him two kisses. 2 It is all over with him. He forgets his wife, as if he had never seen her, and he stays there amusing himself, and taking his pleasure.

The young lady, seeing that her husband never returned, that something had happened to him, and that she could no longer count upon him, she takes a little stick, and striking the earth, she says:

“I will that here, in this very spot, is built a beautiful hotel, with all that is necessary, servants, and all the rest.”

There was a beautiful garden, too, in front, and she had put over the door:

“Here they give to eat without payment.”

One day the young man goes out hunting with two comrades, and while they were in the forest they said one to the other:

“We never knew of this hotel here before. We must go there too. One can eat without payment.”

They go off then. The young lady recognises her husband very well, but he does not recognise her at all. She receives them very well. These gentlemen are so pleased with her, that one of them asks her if she will not let him pass the night with her. 1 The young lady says to him, “Yes.” The other asks also, “I, too, was wishing it.” The young lady says to him:

“To-morrow then, you, if you wish it, certainly.”

And her husband says to her: “And I after to-morrow then.”

The young lady says to him, “Yes.” One of the young men remains then. He passes the evening in great delight, and when the hour comes for going to bed, the young lady says to him:

“When you were small you were a choir-boy, and they used to powder you; this smell displeases me in bed. Before coming there you must comb yourself. Here is a comb, and when you have got all the powder out, you may come to bed.”

Our lad begins then to comb his hair, but never could he get all the powder out, such quantities came out, and were still coming out of his head; and he was still at it when the young lady rose. The lad said to her:

“What! you are getting up before I come.”

“And do you not see that it is day? I cannot stop there any longer. People will come.”

Our young man goes off home without saying a word more. He meets his comrade who was to pass the night with this young lady. He says to him:

“You are satisfied? You amused yourself well?”

“Yes, certainly, very well. If the time flies as fast with you as it did with me you will amuse yourself well.”

He goes off then to this house. The young lady says to him, after he had had a good supper:

“Before going to bed you must wash your feet. The water will be here in this big copper; when you have them quite clean you may come to bed.”

Accordingly he washes one, and when he has finished washing the other, the first washed is still black and dirty. He washes it again, and finds the foot that he has just well washed very dirty again. He kept doing like that for such a long time. When the young lady gets up, the gentleman says to her:

“What! You are getting up already, without me coming?”

“Why did you not then come before day? I cannot stay any longer in bed. It is daylight, and the people will begin (to come).”

Our young man withdraws as the other had done. Now it is the turn of her husband. She serves him still better than the others; nothing was wanting at his supper. When the hour for going to bed arrives, they go to the young lady’s room; when they are ready to get into bed, the young lady says to him:

“Put out the light.”

He puts it out, and it lights again directly. He puts it out again, and it lights again as soon as it is put out. He passes all the night like that in his shirt, never being able to put out that light. When daylight is come, the young lady says to him:

“You do not know me then? You do not remember how you left your wife to go and fetch a priest?”

As soon as she had said that he strikes his head, and says to her:

“Only now I remember all that–up to this moment I was as if I had never had a wife at all–how sorry I am; but indeed it is not my fault, not at all. I never wished it like that, and it is my old aunt who kissed me twice without my knowing it.”

“It is all the same now. You are here now. You have done penance enough; your friends have done it too. One passed the whole night getting powder out of his head, and the other in washing his feet, and they have not slept with me any more than you have. At present you must go into your country, and you must get a priest. He shall baptize me, and then we will go into your country.”

The husband goes off and returns with the priest, and she is baptized, and they set out for his country. When they have arrived there, she touched the earth with her stick, and says to it:

“Let there be a beautiful palace, with everything that is needed inside it, and a beautiful garden before the house.”

As soon as it is said, it is done. They lived there very rich and very happy with the old mother of the lad, and as they lived well they died well too.

It has been suggested that this myth relates to the age-old cycle of weather and fertility. Webster (1879) writes that the opening of the story represents man in misery, without the knowledge or aid of cultivation and agriculture. The old king is Winter personified, and his daughter is Spring, her golden comb being the sun. The young man ‘who, without her aid, can effect nothing, is man in relation to the frozen ground, which needs her aid to quicken it into fertility. It is the old Sun-god, the Cyclops, who tells him where to find, and how to woo, his fairy bride.’[8] However, in order to be married, he must acquire the skills of managing the forest, sowing and reaping corn, and creating the cake, all of which are only learned with the help of the lady: ‘The taming of the horses shows the need and help of domestic animals in agriculture. These things are necessary to be known ere spring can free herself from winter’s dominion and marry her chosen lover.’[9] Ultimately after the escape from her father (Winter) and the conjuring of vegetation, it is the swollen river and rains of Spring that sweep Winter away, however she is unable to enter the Christian land. This has been interpreted by Webster as the need of the natural powers for the civilizing effect of agriculture for their potential to be reached, and the man, scared by the prospect of such work, it lured back to nomadic, hunter-gatherer ways. He forgets his bride in the pleasure of the chase and spends the rest of the Winter hunting. However, the lure of the Spring, with her food in abundance draws man back into the world of agriculture, and he submits to her, the wedding of earth and husbandry ensues, and the warm glow of Summer can be looked forward to.

In Part II we will explore more fairy tales from the Pyrenees and delve deeper into their interpretations…



[1] Keightley, Thomas, The Fairy Mythology : Illustrative of the Romance and Superstition of Various Countries (London: H.G. Bon, 1870).

[2] Murray, James, A Summer in the Pyrenees Vol. II (London: John Macrone, 1837), p. 173.

[3] Costello, Louisa Stuart, Béarn and the Pyrenees, Volume 2 (London: Richard Bentley, 1844), p. 335.

[4] Chatterton, Lady Georgina, The Pyrenees: With Excursions into Spain, Volume 2 (London: Saunders & Otley, 1843), pp. 208 – 211.

[5] Webster, Wentworth, Basque Legends (London: Walbrook & Co., 1879).

[6] Webster, 1879, pp. 120 – 132.

[7] This is a cyclopean giant frequently found within Basque mythology.

[8] Webster, 1879, p. 131.

[9] Ibid.

Book Extract #6

Here is the final extract from the forthcoming book ‘Tears of Pyrene’. In this we examine some of the Medieval and Early Modern events that shaped the cultures and peoples of the Pyrenees:


Pilgrims and Bandits

During the Middle Ages, the Kingdom of Navarre straddled the Pyrenees, and passed between several dynasties, all of which left their influence on the territory.[1] Originating as one of the ‘buffer states’ formed by Charlemagne, mentioned above, to protect the Pyrenees from Moorish attacks, the Navarre as a kingdom and a region has centred around Pamplona since its inception. Its borders ebbed and flowed from the 10th to the 20th centuries, being controlled by Basques, the Crown of Aragon, the Counts of Champagne, the dynasties of Foix and Albret variously, until the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659, which at least placed it beyond the reach of French claims.[2] [3] Despite changing rulers and territorial shifts, one aspect remained constant for much of the Medieval period in the Navarrese Pyrenees, and that was the flow of pilgrims following the ‘French Route’ towards Santiago de Compostela, and the relics of St James.

By the 12th century, the cult of St James at Santiago de Compostela was drawing between half a million and two million people each year.[4] Roughly five primary routes had come into favour during the Middle Ages, at least three of which converged at Roncesvalles before plunging down into the Pyrenean foothills towards Pamplona, generating a steady stream of human traffic over the Pyrenean pass between St-Jean-Pied-de-Port (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) and Roncesvalles (Navarre). So popular was the route, that one of the first examples of a tourist guidebook originates from the 12th century and addresses the best routes to take when travelling to Santiago de Compostela. The Liber Sancti Jacobi [5] was likely written between 1140 and 1150, and is filled with advice on the routes, landscapes, hostelries and peoples encountered along the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. One lengthy extract in particular is worth quoting, due to its description of the landscapes and dangers awaiting pilgrims in the Pyrenees from unscrupulous toll-collectors in the various passes that brought people to Roncesvalles:

Then, round the pass of Cize, is the Basque country, with the town of Bayonne on the coast to the north. Here a barbarous tongue is spoken; the country is wooded and hilly, short of bread, wine and all other foodstuffs, except only apples, cider and milk. In this country there are wicked toll-collectors – near the pass of Cize and at Ostabat and Saint-Jean and Saint-Michael-Pied-de-Port – may they be accursed! They come out to meet pilgrims with two or three cudgels to exact tribute by improper use of force; and if any traveller refuses to give the money they demand they strike him with their cudgels and take his money, abusing him and rummaging in his very breeches. They are ruthless people, and their country is no less hostile, with its forests and wildness; the ferocity of their aspect and the barbarousness of their language strike terror into the hearts of those who encounter them. Although they should levy tribute only on merchants they exact it unjustly from pilgrims and all travellers […] Still in the Basque country, the road to St James goes over a most lofty mountain known as Portus Cisere [Pass of Cize], so called either because it is the gateway of Spain or because necessary goods are transported over the pass from one country to another […] From the summit can be seen the Sea of Brittany and the Western Sea, and the bounds of the three countries of Castile, Aragon and France […] On this mountain, before Christianity was fully established in Spain, the impious Navarrese and the Basques were accustomed not only to rob pilgrims going to St James but to ride them like asses and kill them. [6]

Summer was an especially popular time for people to travel, due to the weather which would have been a major concern for those crossing the Pyrenees, and also due to the July vigil held in honour of St James in Santiago de Compostela. At this time, many pilgrims would have been walking among the high pastures containing livestock, watched over by shepherds and cowherds, in the tradition of transhumance.[7] [8] An indication of the level of traffic that flowed largely over the Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela was the reconsecration of the cathedral in 1207, as the fabric of the building had been destroyed by the crush of people around the altar, which had also led to bloodshed.[9] With both France and Spain remaining Catholic throughout the ensuing centuries, particularly from the 13th to late-18th centuries,[10] this steady stream of pilgrims crossing the Pyrenees, staying in local inns or purpose built pilgrim hospices, the area of Roncesvalles Pass has become synonymous with the tradition of pilgrimage, not least due to the impressive hospice, ossuary,[11] and collegiate church established there.[12] [13]

In the mid-14th century, the Black Death devastated Europe. The regions that surround and encompass the Pyrenees however were strongly affected; the Basque Country and Aragon lost up to two thirds of their populations, the Navarre lost roughly half, and Catalonia lost over a third. Huesca (Aragon) was particularly affected, as was the Bigorre region, and Urgell (Catalonia), where the Bishop of Seu d’Urgell died from the pandemic on 1st May, 1348. Several areas of the Pyrenees appear to have been spared however, likely due to their sparse populations and distance between settlements, which prevented the plague from spreading as effectively as in urban environments.[14]

Moving forward to the early-17th century, one figure emerges across the mountains in the Labourd (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) who would have a significant cultural and demographic impact in the Pyrenees, Pierre de Rosteguy de Lancre.[15] King Henry IV of France sent Pierre de Lancre, of the Parliament of Bordeaux, to pursue and eradicate witchcraft in the region, leading to dramatic hysteria and persecutions in Gascony. This had to dual effect of sending many local innocents to the stake, and also driving a wave of refugees from de Lancre’s witch hunts over into the Basque Country, many of which brought their own tales of Sabbaths and Inquisition ‘witch-lore’, that would have a lasting effect on how witchcraft was perceived in the region.[16] A further aspect of this was that the new arrivals, combined with existing fears and the European climate of malefic hysteria, formed the basis of what are now popularly known as the Basque Witch Trials, during which some seven thousand cases were investigated.[17]

Borders & Battles

The other event which shaped the Pyrenees in the 17th century was the Treaty of the Pyrenees, a document which in 1659 ended the war between France and Spain that had run from 1635.[18] The majority of the document was concerned with non-territorial matters, such as ‘princely alliances, commercial agreements, and the cession of jurisdictions along the French frontier of the Spanish Netherlands[19] and the Franche-Compté,[20] where the major battles in the Bourbon-Habsburg phase of the Thirty Years War had been fought.’[21] However it also finally demarcated the French and Spanish territories along the Pyrenean border, as the medieval states that preceded the Treaty rarely saw the Pyrenees as a boundary, often spanning the range and encompassing parts of what would become both France and Spain. Certain areas were contentious, such as the plains between Cerdanya and Roussillon and the area of Conflent, however the agreement was reached that these should be termed as French territories. However, it should be noted that the formally Catalan territories that extended into what are now the Ariège, Aude and the Pyrénées-Orientales (such as northern Cerdanya) are also frequently referred to as ‘Northern Catalonia’,[22] proving that the Pyrenean cultural memory is long indeed, and there are many examples of toponyms that hold Catalan signifiers. The final act to define several aspects of the Pyrenean Franco-Spanish border (particularly villages and townships on the border itself) would be signed in the Bayonne Treaties between 1856 and 1868. Thus, for the first time in its history, the Pyrenees found itself enshrined in law as a geographical territorial border between two nation states.[23]

The French Revolution in the late-18th century is well known for the violent social, political and economic upheavals that it wrought on the French population and the country’s institutions.[24] It is beyond the scope of this chapter (and indeed this book) to address this era in the detail it deserves, however there are elements that relate specifically to the Pyrenean populations that are of interest, crucially those relating to territory and autonomy. Broadly speaking, the system of provinces that existed under the ancien regime in which districts such as Languedoc, Béarn, Foix and Rousillon[25] enjoyed their own traditions, courts, taxation rights and a level of autonomy, thus making central French governance nearly impossible, was extinguished during the early years of the French Revolution.[26] Instead, the system of départements was introduced, forming along the Pyrenees the Pyrénées-Orientales, the Ariège, the Aude, the Haute-Garonne, the Hautes-Pyrénées and the Pyrénées-Atlantiques. The latter had a particular impact on the French Basque population, who had practised a system of foruak/fueros or ‘home rule’ in Labourd region for centuries,[27] and the new Jacobin state refused to recognise these liberties, suppressing the native government and declaring a new département, the Basse-Pyrénées (now the Pyrénées-Atlantiques) in 1790. The Lower Navarre also became amalgamated into this new territory, and the National Assembly decreed that French law superseded any prior autonomy in the area, despite Basque being the most commonly spoken language there.[28] This forced restructuring of Pyrenean territories, politics and national identities was followed in 1793 by the War of the Pyrenees, which saw the French First Republic fighting against the kingdom of Spain, itself allied with Portugal, in both the western and eastern Pyrenees until 1795. Already at war with Austria, Prussia and Sardinia-Piedmont, France occupied the Netherlands and declared its annexation, forcing a diplomatic break with Great Britain and, subsequently declaring war on Britain and the Dutch Republic, and then Spain; the battleground was to be the length and breadth of the Pyrenees. The French army was comprised of veterans, national guardsmen, and those conscripts that had been gained from the levée en masse which demanded all able-bodied men between eighteen and twenty-five to report for duty.[29] In Spain, the Army of Catalonia was deployed to the eastern Pyrenees, and on 17th April, 1793 it crossed the border[30] and captured St. Laurent-de-Cerdens (Pyrénées-Orientales). The Spanish forces advanced further over the next few months, winning the majority of their engagements, until they were defeated in the Battle of Peyrestortes (Pyrénées-Orientales) on the 17th September, which marked the Spanish army’s furthest incursion into French territory along the eastern Pyrenees. Various skirmishes, battles and repulsions followed in the Tech Valley, Villelongue-dels-Monts and Collioure, largely in Spain’s favour until the death of the commander of the Army of Catalonia, General Ricardos, on 13th March, 1974. After this, under the command of General Duggomier, the Spanish forces’ luck began to turn, culminating in the four-day Battle of the Black Mountain (Camany, Catalonia), 17th – 20th November, in which both the French and Spanish commanders were killed, followed by the French winning the Siege of Roses (Girona, Catalonia) in February 1975. After peace was signed, but before the frontline had heard the news, the Spanish recaptured Puigcerdà and Bellver. This would be the last act of the campaign in the eastern Pyrenees.[31]

Simultaneously to this campaign, battles between French and Spanish forces were also taking place in the western Pyrenees between 1793 and 1796. Following a small series of skirmishes by both forces in 1793, French forces seized both the Izpegi Pass and the Izpegi Bridge (Basque Country) on 3rd June 1794, with minimal losses. July saw the Armée des Pyrénées Occidentales[32]under Generals Moncey, Delaborde and Frégaville, attack and capture several positions in the northern Basque Country, culminating in San Sebastien on 30th July. Moncey then launched a series of offences from the Baztan Valley and Roncesvalles Pass towards Pamplona over the next year. By June 1795, Moncey had captured Vitoria and Bilbao, and when the Peace of Basel was finally signed on 22nd July and news reached the Armée des Pyrénées Occidentales, Moncey was preparing to cross the Ebro and take Pamplona.[33] Under the peace treaty, all areas in the Basque Country occupied by the French would be returned to Spain, which the Spanish Basques feared would bring to an end their self-government, much like their French counterparts under Jacobin rule.[34] In a twist of diplomatic fate, France and Spain would go on to create an alliance in 1796 with the Second Treaty of San Ildefonso, against the British Empire.[35]


[1] It should be mentioned that for the purposes of convenience, in Chapter Four the Navarre is grouped under the title of the Basque Country in terms of a cultural territory, despite being a separate modern region. The reasons for this are laid out in Chapter Four.

[2] The Treaty of the Pyrenees is outlined below due to its 17th-century chronology.

[3] Space in this chapter sadly limits the discussion and explanation of this fascinating kingdom, however for a detailed history of the Navarre, see: Bard, Rachel, Navarra: The Durable Kingdom (Reno, NV: University of Nevada Press, 1982).

[4] Rahtz, Phillip, and Watts, Lorna, ‘The Archaeologist on the Road to Lourdes and Santiago de Compostela’, in The Anglo-Saxon Church: Papers on History, Architecture and Archaeology in Honour of Dr H. M. Taylor, Lawrence Butler (ed.) (London: Council for British Archaeology, 1986), pp. 51 – 73.

[5] ‘The Book of Saint James’.

[6] Hogarth, James, (trans.), The Pilgrim’s Guide: A 12th Century Guide for the Pilgrim to St James of Compostella (London: Confraternity of St James, 1992), pp. 19 – 25.

[7] See Chapter Six for a detailed discussion of transhumance in the Pyrenees.

[8] Travel in the Medieval period was far more extensive than is commonly thought, for a thorough analysis of this subject, see: Ohler, Norbert, The Medieval Traveller, Caroline Hillier (trans.) (London: Boydell & Brewer, 2010).

[9] Gitlitz, David, and Davidson, Linda, The Pilgrimage Road to Santiago: The Complete Cultural Handbook (New York, NY: St Martin’s Griffin, 2000), p. 344.

[10] The author would suggest that the French Revolution (1789) very likely had an impact on the visibility of pilgrims along the ‘French Route’ to and over the Pyrenees, due to its systematic and institutional anti-clericalism, in much the same way that the Reformation in England (1529 – 1537) resulted in pilgrimage being seen as a ‘Papist’ activity, combined with the destruction of many shrines and pilgrimage centres throughout England.

[11] This ossuary allegedly contains bones from the Battle of Roncesvalles Pass in 778, between Basque forces and Charlemagne’s army, including, as myth would have it, those of the infamous Roland.

[12] As well as with Roland, Charlemagne, and the later Battle of Roncesvalles between Wellington and Bonaparte’s forces in 1813, discussed later in this chapter.

[13] For a detailed examination of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela from an archaeological perspective, see: Candy, Julie, The Archaeology of Pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela: A Landscape Perspective (Oxford: Archaeopress Archaeology, 2009). For an examination of pilgrimage, especially in Britain, that focusses on the issues of travel and experience, see: Locker, Martin, Landscapes of Pilgrimage in Medieval Britain (Oxford: Archaeopress Archaeology, 2015).

[14] Benedictow, Ole, The Black Death, 1346 – 1353: The Complete History (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2006).

[15] This character is discussed at length in Chapter Four with regards to witchcraft in the Pyrenees, and so will be discussed only briefly here, however his importance prohibits his exclusion from this historical discussion.

[16] See Chapter Four for a fulsome discussion on this topic, and a gazetteer of Pyrenean sites associated with witchcraft in folklore and legend.

[17] Henningsen, Gustav, The Witches’ Advocate: Basque Witchcraft and the Spanish Inquisition (1609-1614) (Reno, NV: University of Nevada Press, 1980).

[18] This information was taken from the following publication, which should be consulted for a detailed examination of the Treaty of the Pyrenees: Sahlins, Peter, Boundaries: The Making of France and Spain in the Pyrenees (Berkley, CA: University of California Press, 1989).

[19] This territory was held by the Spanish Crown from 1556 to 1714, containing large swathes of modern Belgium and Luxembourg, as well as areas in the southern Netherlands, northern France and western Germany, with Brussels as the capital. For more information see: Parker, Geoffrey, Spain and the Netherlands, 1559 – 1659: Ten Studies (Berkley Heights, NJ: Enslow Publishers, 1979).

[20] This is an historical region in eastern France that borders Switzerland, comprised of the modern Doubs, Jura, Haute-Saône and Belfort départements. A succinct history of the region is provided in: Rougebief, Eugène, Histoire de la Franche-Comté, Ancienne et Moderne (Paris: Ch. Stèvenard, 1851).

[21] Sahlins, 1989, p. 29.

[22] See: Collier, Basil, Catalan France (London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1939).

[23] The degree to which this immediately affected the identities held by the various villages and towns in this liminal zone is debatable, forged as they were in hyper-local events and the rhythm of the rural Pyrenean year (see Chapter Six).

[24] For an overview of this period and the various ramifications of the Revolution, see: Andress, David, (ed.) The Oxford Handbook of the French Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015); Shusterman, Noah, The French Revolution. Faith, Desire, and Politics (London: Routledge, 2015).

[25] These examples are chosen for their Pyrenean geography.

[26] This was in an attempt both to centralize administration, and break the influence of the nobility, who had shaped the boundaries of the provinces over the preceding centuries.

[27] Although in truth these rights had been steadily eroded for the past two centuries.

[28] See: Barrero García, Ana María, and Alonso Martín, María Luz, Textos de Derecho local español en la Edad Media. Catálogo de Fueros y Costums municipals (Madrid: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas. Instituto de Ciencias Jurídicas, 1989).

[29] The following information is taken from: Fremont-Barnes, Gregory, The French Revolutionary Wars (London: Routledge, 2013).

[30] As defined by the aforementioned Treaty of the Pyrenees signed in 1659.

[31] Fremont-Barnes, 2013.

[32] The Armée des Pyrénées was one of the French Revolutionary armies, created on 1st October, 1972, and following the outbreak of war with Spain in 1973, it was divided into the Armée des Pyrénées Orientales (Army of the Eastern Pyrenees) and the Armée des Pyrénées Occidentales (Army of the Western Pyrenees).

[33] Fremont-Barnes, 2013.

[34] The terms Spanish Basques and French Basques are used here purely for convenience to delineate the two ‘new’ territories following the hard border between the two nations and the formation of the new départements.

[35] Fremont-Barnes, 2013.

Extract #5 – The Pyrenean Iron Age

Below is an extract from Chapter 1 of the forthcoming ‘Tears of Pyrene’ book. This chapter deals with the prehistory of the Pyrenees, ranging from Palaeolithic hunter-gathere communities to the latter Iberian tribes and the Roman presence. As always, endnotes here are presented as footnotes within the book itself!

The Iron Age


Pre-Roman Iron Age Iberia was a maelstrom of tribes from various cultural backgrounds, from Indo-European and ‘Celts’ to Basque, Aquitanians, Lusitanians, Iberians and a smattering of Greek and Phoenician settlements. From a miasma of proto-Celtic, Celtic (Celtiberian, Celitici and Gallaeci), proto-Basque/Aquitanian/Vasconic and Indo-European peoples that inhabited the Iberian Peninsula during the Bronze Age, those along the eastern and southern coasts begun to form a more cohesively identifiable culture (albeit within separate tribes) from the 6th century B.C., however the various developments and cultural evolutions that typify the Iberian peoples had begun during the Bronze Age. By this point, Phoenician and Greek influences had also crept in, due to the establishment of coastal settlements by these cultures in the 9th and 8th centuries B.C. respectively, due to trading links with Iberian populations.

During the Iron Age, the Pyrenees held a number of tribes which, although holding individual identities and varied gods, could be broadly divided into two linguistic camps; Iberian and Vasconic or Proto-Basque. The Pyrenean tribes whose languages can be broadly grouped under the Vasconic banner were the Vardulli, Vascones (the largest Vasconic tribe), and the Iacetani, and Iberian derived dialects were spoken by the Indigetes, Ceretani, Andosini, Ilergetes (the largest Iberian tribe in the area) and the Bergistani. Those within what is now Aragon and Castile mingled with Celtic groups, becoming what are now known as Celtiberians. The Vasconic linguistic group also include Aquitanian, a language that was spoken in what is now the Gascony area and parts of the northern Pyrenees, and together with Basque they represent the remnants of pre-Indo-European languages spoken in Western Europe.[1]  From here onwards in this chapter, the tribes of the Pyrenees will be described under the umbrella term of ‘Iberian’, with references to ‘proto-Basque’ cultures or tribes where appropriate.

Broadly, the lives of these Pyrenean tribes revolved around a reliance on agro-pastoralism, use of metallurgy and war-like exchanges with neighbouring tribes provided a common cultural base, heightened through trade and contact with Celtiberian/Celtic influences from further west in the Peninsula. Typically, these Iron Age Pyreneans would have lived within fortified settlements and villages, with tribal societal structures, and cremation was often the preferred method of disposing of the dead placing the ashes within urns that were in turn placed in stone tombs (many of which survive with inscriptions), under tumuli or beneath stone slabs, the latter especially within the proto-Basque context.[2] Society was largely structured and maintained through vassalage, which gave rise to a strongly martial culture amidst the various Iberian tribes, and it is reasonable to assume that the Pyrenees was no exception in this regard. Two main Palaeohispanic script types emerged, broadly categorized into the north-eastern and south-eastern variants, both with regional nuances, and evidence for the latter is heavily outweighed by the presence of the former on pottery sherds, coins, plaques, spindle-whorls, mosaics etc.[3]

The Iberians had long been trading with various Mediterranean cultures, as evidenced by the range of Iberian pottery found at archaeological sites in Italy, North Africa and France, demonstrated the adoption of Greek artistic techniques in some examples of statuary,[4] and aside from tin and copper, the Iberians around the Ebro valley opened large iron mines. Around the peninsula various locations become known for their artisan output such as Cabezo de Alcalá at Azaila, and the fortified city of Edeta, now Llíria, in Valencia.

The Proto-Basques during the Iron Age, prior to Romanisation, had also been developing complex societies along similar lines, cremating their dead, constructing villages and towns with comprehensive street patterns and fortifications, using metallurgy extensively in producing not only household objects but decorative items too, such as the bracelets, buttons and bowls.[5] One difference between these peoples and the Iberians was that although they cremated their dead, within the Pyrenean contexts they tended towards placing the ashes within tumuli, or a hollow encircled by stones, rather than a ceramic urn within a stone tomb.

A crucial influence within this period was that of the Romans, whose marks can be seen (amongst many areas) in the shifting and amalgamating of Pyrenean gods into a Classical mould or equivalency, the syncreticism of gods performing similar functions, as seen on numerous altar inscriptions, and this will be explored shortly, following an exceptionally brief sketch of the Carthaginian and Roman presence in Iberia.

Having established a presence in southern Iberia during the early-3rd century B.C., the Carthaginians further subjugated much of the eastern tribes through dominance and coercion, eventually reaching north of the Ebro River, furthering their trading power and the flow of Iberian mercenaries to Carthage. This dominance was abruptly brought to an end by the Second Punic War in the late-3rd century (sparked by the irrepressible Hannibal, of Alpine and elephant fame), in which the Roman Empire began to swiftly invade and dominate southern Iberian territories from the Carthaginians in reprisal. By 201 B.C. the Carthaginians had left the peninsula, and the Romans began establishing two major territories in Hispania: Citerior (Valencia, Catalonia and Aragon) and Ulterior (Andalusia). Between 220 and roughly 44 B.C., the Romans had laid claim to the majority of the Pyrenees, and their influence had been largely established in the daily lives of the tribes who lived there, not least in the gradual establishment of fortified Roman barracks through the range.[6]

For these tribes, the veneration of Pyrenean gods prior to the Roman presence (the Carthaginian aspect in the Pyrenes being, broadly speaking, minimal) occurred within open spaces, groves, caves, at springs etc., in a manner recognisable to many familiar with European pre-Christian practices. Greek and Phoenician influences can be identified within certain deities, due to trading contact with and settlements of these groups along the eastern Iberian coast. Picking apart the various deities and rites from Classical sources and archaeological sites is an unending task, not to mention the Hellenistic, Phoenician, Carthaginian and later Roman influences, and it is not the purpose of this book to provide an exhaustive account of Iberian and proto-Basque society, ritual and religion.[7] However, an summation of their known gods will be useful in establishing both the spiritual climate during Roman arrival, primarily identified (ironically) from Latin altar inscriptions, and the degree to which a synchronicity with Roman deities can be identified after the Empire’s domination of the area.

These Pyreneans mixed their prayers between their native Iberian Gods and the newly arrived Roman ones, in order to ensure their own protection, a spiritual hedging of bets was followed. It is important to note that throughout all Roman territories one of the fundamental (and indeed obligatory) cults was that of the Imperial Cult. The Imperial Cult was not exactly the deification of the reigning emperor, but rather the joint celebration of both Rome and the emperor. The latter was responsible for a perfect world, personified by Rome, where he reigned while peace existed both within the Empire and between gods and men. This allowed the Imperial Cult to exist (and be enforced) alongside local pantheons and imported Roman pantheons without excluding the veneration of other, native divinities.[8]

This contact between the local Pyrenean Gods and the Roman Pantheon brought about a mixing of divinities and a sort of assimilation. Local Pyrenean divinities, of which little is concretely known prior to the Roman presence, became hidden or amalgamated with their Roman counterparts under a Latin name. For example, the war god Leherennus became known as Leherennus Mars, particularly around the Ardiège commune (Haute-Garonne) where all inscriptions mention Leherennus in connection with Mars. Other gods emerged out of this melting pot, such as Fagus, a god of Beech trees, known from four inscriptions found in the Hautes-Pyrénées where there are numerous beech forests. Interestingly, this area’s language has been described as Proto-Basque rather than Celtic, whereas Fagus is the Latin term for Beech, indicating that he was likely renamed under a Latin term rather than his previous (currently unknown) indigenous epithet.

Sacaze was convinced that the Pyrenean being Tantugou held a similar role to the forest guardians of Roman myth.[9] In Luchonaisse (Haute-Garonne) mythology, Tantugou appears as a tall bearded old man, dressed in a hooded tunic with animal skins, and armed with a club – similar to the Aragonese Silvan figure across the border, whose name bears more than a hint of Latin influence. His role was typically to protect crops, flocks, and the secrets of nature, ensuring that no thieves of these things go unpunished. Tantugou is associated with the Gallo-Celtic god Sucellos, himself a bearded pastoral god who roams the land, cloaked in a hood.[10]

From inscriptions found across the Pyrenees, we know of at least forty-five names of Pyrenean deities that are present in the archaeological record, typically on funerary monuments and, most commonly, votive stone altars. A few, such as Xuban (found on an altar near Comminges and Arbas in Gascon territory in an inscription which refers to him as ‘God Xuban’) and Edelat (found in a single inscription on a votive altar in Benque, in the Haute-Garonne department, possibly a Latin name for a local god) occur only once. It has been suggested that Xuban may have been associated with a local mountain.[11] An inscription referring to ‘Dianae et Horolati et Garre deo’ has been found at the foot of the Gar mountain, with ‘Horolati’ possibly referring to an eponymous god of the Ore village, and ‘Garre’ referring possibly to a god of the local Gar mountain.[12] The village of Saint-Pe-d’Ardat has an inscription ‘Artehe deo’, which forms an interesting picture of the village’s name, which combines both its new patron St Pierre and its former, Arteh, another local god.

At Escugnau, in the Val d’Aran, one can find an inscription which is dedicated to Iluberrixo, whose name resembles many other Pyrenean deities (Iluro, Ilumber etc.) and some Pyrenean Roman towns (Illiberis which became Elne, Eliberis or Elimberris Auscorum which became Auch, etc.)[13] Does this point towards a broader Pyrenean divinity whose name adapted to local dialects yet fulfilled the same role, sharing the same etymological root? In this vein, we find more frequently represented deities in inscriptions, such as Baicorrix (otherwise known as Baigorisco, Baigorix or Buaioris, and possibly relating to a Behigorri, an underground Basque spirit or guardian), Ilun (again, possibly deriving from a Basque etymological construct relating to the evening, the moon or darkness), and Abellion (a deity related to sun worship and assimilated into the cult of Apollo with no less than eight recorded inscriptions). With regard to the latter, a carved ‘Cross of Beliou’ exists in the valley of Lesponne (Hautes-Pyrénées), and this stone altar is seen to be the most visible vestige of the cult. Another figure of note in the Pyrenean pantheon seems to be Ageio (or Ageion/Egeion), found in the Baronnies valley in the Hautes-Pyrénées. The inscription on his altar references the mountains, suggesting a strong link between the local peaks and his cult.[14]

The ‘Mask of Montserie’ is an excellent high end example of the material culture associated with these Pyrenean gods. Crafted from a single sheet of bronze, this mask found in the sanctuary of Montserie (Hautes-Pyrénées) portrays a bearded male deity. Dating is controversial, ranging from the 3rd century B.C. to the 2nd century A.D., and could represent either a votive offering or a standing representation of the divinity in question. At the same site (protohistoric & Gallo-Roman) were found statues of a wild cockerel, a boar, coins and votive stelae, the latter being dedicated to the god Erge. Dolmens still stand on the site, and allegedly the situation of the site (high altitude with impeccable views) allowed for the observation of the stars.

Some deities will no doubt exist to whom the votive altars must wish them to remain anonymous, being dedicated as many are to Montibus (the mountains) or fontibus (springs). Interestingly it seems that latter appears more frequently than the former, possibly influenced by the imported Roman cult of the nymphs, or possibly simply reflecting that age-old impulse to venerate the source of water, that gifts the ability to live.

Having examined some of the concretely pre-Christian elements of the Pyrenean peoples, from their Palaeolithic animist foundations through to more specified, named and divergent Iberian, Celtiberian and proto-Basque manifestations, it is now time to turn to the post-conversion landscape of the Pyrenees, with Christianity’s materialization and amalgamation with extant Pyrenean practices, and the turbulent histories of this mountain range. The Roman fall, Germanic tribes, Medieval crowns, witch crazes and the toll of ‘Enlightened’ belief await, heavily veined by rural practices and folklore that reaches back to the peoples explored in these previous pages. It is time to explore the years of anno Domini Pyrenees.


[1] Trask, Lawrence, The History of Basque (London: Routledge, 1997).

[2] Zapatero, 1997.

[3]  Rodríguez Ramos, Jesús, Análisis de Epigrafía Ibera (Vitoria-Gasteiz: Universidad del País Vasco, 2004).

[4] The Greek coined the term Iberians, writing in the 6th century B.C. when they referred to those tribes who lived south of the Ebro River as such. See: Harrison, Richard, Spain at the Dawn of History: Iberians, Phoenecians and Greeks (London: Thames & Hudson, 1988).

[5] An example of the latter was found in Eskoriatza, embossed in gold and dating from the 8th/7th centuries B.C. See: Ibabe, Enrike, Zemarika Herrikoia Gipuzkoan, Bertan Vol. 19, 2002.

[6] Cleary, Simon, Rome in the Pyrenees (London: Routledge, 2007).

[7] See: Ruiz, Arturo, and Moinos, Manuel, The Archaeology of the Iberians, Mary Turton (trans.) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998); Arribas, Antonio, The Iberians (London: Thames & Hudson, 1964). An excellent article on Romano-Celtic deities in the Iberian Peninsula (outside of the Pyrenees and the remit of this volume), can be found in: Simón, Francisco, Religion and Religious Practises of the Ancient Celts of the Iberian Peninsula, E-Keltoi, Vol. 6. Available here:

[8] For an analysis of the Imperial Cult, see: Brodd, Jeffrey, and Reed, Johnathon, Rome and Religion: A Cross-Disciplinary Dialogue on the Imperial Cult (Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 2011).

[9] Sacaze, Julien, Les Anciens Dieux des Pyrenees: Nomenclature et Distribution (Saint-Gaudens: Imprimerie et Librairie Abadie, 1885).

[10] de Marliave, Olivier & Pertuze, Jean-Claude, Pantheon Pyrénéen (Carbonne: Éditions Loubatieres, 1990).

[11] de Marliave, Olivier. Dictionnaire de Mythologies Basque et Pyrénéenne (Paris: Éditions Entente, 1993).

[12] Sacaze, 1885.

[13] Sacaze, 1885.

[14] Sacaze, 1885.

Book Extract #3 – Carnival in the Pyrenees

Carnival sees various costumes, processions and indulgences being acted out across Europe, and the Pyrenees is no exception. Various rites and rituals that celebrate Spring are woven into the more usual parades, many of which recall potentially pre-Christian celebrations and invocations of fertility and the emerging season of new growth. These often involve dances, and sometimes centre on players dressing up as livestock (although this is discouraged by the Church), and (historically) the slaying of animals. At Ax-les-Thermes (Ariège) during the early-20th century a folkloric tale emerged of a man wearing a calfskin for the Carnival dances, and this was such an impious gesture that the hide stuck to him, and only prayers would remove it.[1] Numerous bestial examples occur within Carnival in the traditions of Catalonia and the Pyrénées-Orientales, such as the Bou Rouch (‘Red Bull’) in Vallespir, a hobby horse-type figure made from a frame over which a scarlet cloth is draped. At the end of the Carnival celebrations he is led around the streets pursuing a female figure known as Trésine,[2] frequently charging into shops and terrorising the towns-folk, before being ritually killed by men dressed as bull fighters.[3] Balls or dances mark the advent of Spring in Catalonia, such as the Ball de la Primera in Valls,[4] which is also accompanied by that most typically Catalan formation, the Castells, a human tower forming up to six or even seven levels. These towers are formidable to witness, in which the heavier members form a base and successively lighter and agile members climb on their colleagues backs to form higher levels, and are frequently accompanied by grallers i timbaler (pipers and a drummer).[5]

One of the most impressive Carnival celebrations is that of the Basque Maskarada, found within the Soule region of the Northern Basque Country (Pyrénées-Atlantiques), and its extensive cast of characters warrants a full description.[6] Two primary groups of players form the troupe; Les Beaux and Les Noirs. The former arrives first, headed by Tcherrero who wears a red tunic, bejewelled spats, sheep-bells and a horse-tail, used to brush the ground in front of the hobby-horse. Following him we have the Gathuzain, wearing a jewelled shirt and carrying an extendable tong-like implement which is used to snatch hats from the crowd. Alford describes this character as ‘the Cat Man’, and suggests that the tongs originate from an ancient symbolic representation of lightening, similar to the instrument carried by Carnival players in Biscay which are called ‘Witches’ Scissors’.[7] Then comes the Zamalzain, the rider of the Hobby Horse, who also wears a jewelled shirt as well as bells on his legs and a crown fashioned from flowers, ribbons, mirrors and feathers, and who sways the horse to and fro with each forward step. Behind him walks the Kantiniersa, a man dressed in a short skirt and apron who pirouettes, which replaced the older figure of a gypsy who would feed the horse and make ribald jokes with the crowd.[8] Finally there comes the flag-bearing Enseñaria, the smiths and the Kulkulleros who carry ribbon-tied rods that the strike together. The second group, Les Noirs, are led by the Gentleman, the Lady and the Peasant, and are dominated by figures which are dressed to demonstrate that they are not local, as well as speaking Béarnais rather than Basque. The company consists of Kauterak (‘tinkers’) with lambs’ tails, Tchorochak (‘knife-grinders’), Buhame Jaunak (‘gypsies’) and Kherestuak (‘gelders’). Obstacles are placed by the townsfolk across the road and both parties attempt to negotiate these in various humorous ways, eventually ending up in the main square where a series of traditional dances are performed, including one in which the horse and its rider balance themselves upon a (presumably sturdy) wine glass. Each character type has its role to play in a series of ritualised actions, including the gelding of the horse and its being hoisted upon the shoulders of the dancers, and it has been suggested that the figures of both the horse and his rider (representing a knight) and Les Noirs (representing serfs) can be traced back to the 15th– and 16th-century Sociétés Joyeuses.[9] [10] Further north, in the Labourd commune (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) a similar carnival dance is played out, with additional characters such as the Basa Andreak ‘Wild Ladies) with veiled faces and long black hair, and the Sapurak, men wearing huge sheep skins and aprons, carrying axes.[11]

Huesca too hosts carnival celebrations that seem to carry a strong whiff of the archaic, particularly in Bielsa, which in combination with the costumes and traditions suggests it is strongly tied to the emergence of Spring rather than pre-Lent celebrations. The main characters in this celebration is the Trangas, single men with goat horns and a hide mounted atop their soot or oil blackened faces,[12] carrying large bells on their belt who chase the Madamas (single women) and dance with them. The ubiquitous bears are also in attendance, represented by men wearing hides over straw-stuffed sacks and led by their ‘handlers’, and on the first night a large well-endowed doll is created from old clothes stuffed with straw, and hung from the window of the town hall. At the end of the carnival he is taken down, ‘judged’ for various misdeeds, beaten and burnt. It has been suggested by scholars that Bielsa’s carnival is in reality a seasonal fertility rite, as exemplified by the immolation of Cornelio, it being potentially a sacrifice that sustains the cattle, crops and society for yet another year.[13]

Other examples can be found in the Navarre, with the bear-like Hartza[14] featuring in the Carnival of Arizkun, in which he stops a wedding procession, is led around the town by his ‘handler’ or shepherd (the Hartzazain) and is clad in sheepskins. In Pamplona, too, one finds the Zezengorri (‘Red Bull’) in attendance at Carnival, and whilst this tradition seems fairly recent (the carnival here being founded in 1977), the figure of Zezengorri is an ancient one, being a feature of Basque mythology that dwells in caves and who can throw fire from his mouth and nostrils. In the carnival of Alsasua (Navarre) the Momotxorroak can be seen; half-man, half-bull characters armed with huge horns, wooden pitchforks and bloodstained clothes. These fearsome creatures chase townsfolk, attempt to enter houses, and it has been suggested that they may have a link to the sacrifice of animals at this time of year. In the evening of Shrove Tuesday hundreds of them process down the streets, accompanied by Juantramposos (humanoid characters with great oversized sackcloth costumes stuffed with straw) and Mascaritas (female figures in red hooded shawls with lace veils).[15]

Across the border in the Haute-Garonne, Shrove Tuesday also saw a unique event in the village of Poubeau. A locally revered boulder named Cailhaeo d’Arriba-Pardin would be approached by a procession of young men from the village, who would then light a fire on the rock accompanied by ludicrous and obscene gestures. The fire lit, they would then dance joyfully around the rock, singing lustily. This was known as the Fête des Gagnolis, and still occurs despite numerous attempts by local clergy to discourage the practise.[16] Further to the southwest, at Arles-sur-Tech (Pyrénées-Orientales), a figure known sometimes as Gregoire (an effigy representing the spirit of Carnival) was paraded around the streets in an ox cart loaded with fresh greenery – that night, men dressed in their wives’ chemises with bundles of paper attached to the hem like a tail, would make their way with torches down lanes into the town’s main square, during which time they would attempt to set alight the paper ‘tail’ of the man in front! Gregoire was then ‘tried’ in villages up and down the valleys, before being burnt in a main square, during which the townsfolk would sing:

Al Carnabal es mort                           Carnival is dead,

Tire ballanes, tire ballanes;                Throw nuts, throw nuts;

Al Carnabal es mort,                          Carnival is dead,

Tire ballanes din dal clot.                   Throw nuts in his grave.[17]

Ash Wednesday marks the end of the Carnival season, a time of excess and pageantry and start of Lent, a far more sombre (and lean) affair. One custom that marks this transition is the burial of the sardine (Entiero de la Sardine), a tradition found across Spain and the Catalan Pyrenees (and Andorra) is no exception. This tradition is said to originate in Madrid in the 18th century, and features a large mock funeral procession climaxing in the burial of a sardine (either real or replica) in a coffin, or its burning. The burning of the sardine has been suggested) to represent the purifying and purging of vices and chaos indulged in during the Carnival, restoring order for the start of penitence during Lent, and the burial of the sardine symbolises the start of a period of reflection.[18] There are claims that this festival has its origins in pagan custom, however if it does indeed originate to the 18th century then this seems unlikely, even if it continues a now lost folkloric motif, possibly relating to the advent of Spring with the sardine representing the last of the Winter stores being given in thanks.[19] [20]

This day was a particularly entertaining one in Andorra, during which the stuffed effigies of Carnestoltes (the spirit of Carnival) were taken down from where they hung, and, in some parishes, they were publically burnt. Men would then go into their houses to ‘seize a woman there, lift her skirts and throw a handful of flour or ashes between her legs’, and others would daube their faces with flour or ash a parade through the village with knives in their hand, as if they were shaving.[21] Carnival in Catalonia was also associated heavily with the slaughter of pigs, and in Urgell a song entitled El Funerals del Porc is sung during this period.[22]

Another remarkable custom that occurred at the start of Lent in Catalan villages was the hanging up of a paper doll with seven legs, or a salted cod from which seven dried herring hang. None of these are local species, all having been caught further to the north. The doll was typically hung from the tympanum of a chimney or the kitchen door, and every Sunday when returning from Mass the household would cut one leg from the doll, thus marking the passing of each week of Lent. The paper from which the doll was made would either be from the diary of the previous year, or in some cases Amades claims that it could be fashioned from a papal bull saved from the previous Lent. In some parishes, the doll would be framed by sardines, onions and garlic, as if it were an icon in a chapel. The custom was still being practised in Barcelona and Tarragona during the 1950s,[23] however it is possible that this tradition survives in the more rural parts of Catalonia and the Pyrenees. The hanging salted cod is another method of counting down the weeks of Lent. The cod would be hung from the ceiling in the centre of the household’s or village’s store, with seven dried herring hanging from its tail. Each Saturday evening one of the herring would be cut down from the cod, marking another week of Lent. In the district of Sant Marti de Provencals in Barcelona, this still occurred in some establishments up to the late 1950s.[24]

In Ripoll (Catalonia) the recently revived Ball dels Cornuts sees an extraordinary and seemingly archaic dance take place in the town square, in which young men don horns and various animal hides, charging at each other and feigning to gore their opponent, and a lone figure dressed in a mule mask with a halter and covered in bells pursues the girls of the town who are watching in the square.[25] Within the Aude region a similar expression can be found in the Bail dals Cornuts, which traditionally sees only married men dancing, led by the most freshly wed man in the village wearing rams horns.


[1] Alford, Violet, Pyrenean Festivals: Calendar Customs, Magic & Music, Drama & Dance (London: Catto & Windus, 1937), p. 26. It should be clarified here that this book is a treasure-trove for celebrations within the Pyrenean year, albeit divided into a rather binary Summer/Winter construct, however Alford has produced an incredible compendium especially in relation to dances and fêtes that were still enacted in the early-20th century.

[2] This is much like the figure of Rosetta in the various ‘bear dances’; see Chapter Three for details.

[3] Alford, 1937, p. 26.

[4] Amades, Joan, Guia de Festes Tradicionals de Catalunya (Barcelona: Editorial Aedos, 1958), p. 20.

[5] The tradition of these towers is said to originate in Valencia, first being mentioned in 1712, and frequently appear in all manner of Catalan street celebrations throughout the year.

[6] See Alford’s 1937 description of the Maskarada, pp. 142 – 149.

[7] Alford, 1937, p. 142.

[8] It has been suggested that the increasingly coarse nature of the jokes led to the figure’s replacement by the Kantiniersa in the late-19th century.

[9] The Sociétés Joyeuses were a Medieval French phenomenon consisting of various troupes who would perform satirical and farcical plays and performances, and which flourished under the reign of King Louis XII (1498 – 1515). For more information see: Janik, Vicki (ed.), Fools and Jesters in Literature, Art and History: A Bio-bibliographical Sourcebook (Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1998).

[10] Badé, Jean ‘Le Carnaval chez les Basques de la Soule’, in Le Théâtre Comique, Georges Hérelle (ed.) (Paris: Librairie Ancienne Honoré Champion, 1925), p. 46.

[11] Alford, 1937, p. 150.

[12] In this respect, they are very similar to the bear characters discussed in Chapter Three.

[13] Harris, Max, Carnival and Other Christian Festivals: Folk Theology and Folk Performance (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2003), p. 247.

[14] See Chapter Three for details.

[15] Fréger, Charles, Wilder Mann: The Image of the Savage (Stockport: Demi Lewis Publishing, 2012), p. 266.

[16] Alford, 1937, p. 91

[17] Alford, 1937, p. 37.

[18]Barreto Vargas, Carmen, El Carnaval de Santa Cruz de Tenerife: Un Estudio Antropológico.  Servicio de Publicaciones de la Universidad de La Laguna, 1993. pp. 254–261. Doctoral Thesis. Available here:

[19] It should be emphasized here that this is purely conjecture.

[20] It possibly fulfils a similar function to the Lenten herring tradition in the north of Europe.

[21] Hadden, Alan, ‘Lent, Holy Week and Easter’ in Andorra: Festivals, Traditions and Folklore. (Escaldes: Andorra Writers Circle, 1998), pp. 39 – 43.

[22] Amades, 1958, p. 33.

[23] As recorded by Amades.

[24] Amades, 1958, p. 35.

[25] Alford, 1937, p. 26.

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.