Article 25 – The Mythology of Giants in the Pyrenees

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

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


A sketch of a mythical Jentil by Christian St Pierre.


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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



Sant Joan celebrations in the Alt Aneu region. Taken from


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

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


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


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

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

Article 23 – Pyrenean Pastoral Lore

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

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


Rosa Bonheur Shepherd 2

Berger des Pyrénées by Rosa Bonheur, 1864.


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

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

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

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

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


Rosa Bonheur Shepherd Pyrenees.jpg

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


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

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

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

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

Field Report – Carcassonne & Mirepoix

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

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


Carcassonne today, peeping above the treetops.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


The Basilica emerging into view through the Medieval streets.



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

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


A very fine bedroom view!

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


An excellent tipple.

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


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

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

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

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


Article 22 – The Cthonic Cult of Mari

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

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

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

(de Barandiarán Irízar, 1999, 75)

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

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

(de Barandiarán Irízar, 1999, 89)

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

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

(de Barandiarán Irízar, 1991, 36)

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


Mari 1

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


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

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

(Urbeltz, 2014, 36)


Mari cave amboto

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

Article 18 – Count Estruch

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

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

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



(Castle Llers, photo taken from:


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



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


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

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

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

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

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

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


The Retreat of the Glaciers

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


(Balma de la Margineda, taken from

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

From Bronze to Iron

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

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

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

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

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

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

March of the Visigoths

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

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

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

Weekly Article #3 – The Mythical Origins of the Pyrenees


(The Tears of Pyrene)

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

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

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

(Italicus, 1961, Vol. 1, p145 – 147).

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

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

(Soler, 1991, p12)

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

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


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

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


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

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

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