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.

Notes

[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: https://www4.uwm.edu/celtic/ekeltoi/volumes/vol6/6_6/marco_simon_6_6.html

[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.

Notes

[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: ftp://tesis.bbtk.ull.es/ccssyhum/cs177.pdf

[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.

 

Notes

[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 https://zoetropic.wordpress.com/2012/02/20/carnival-in-pau-france-the-bear-hunt/.

[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]

 

Notes

[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: http://www.etymonline.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[xvii] This is briefly discussed in Chapter Five.

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

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

Article 25 – The Mythology of Giants in the Pyrenees

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

Beginning with two of the most well-known examples, that of the Jentilak and Mairuak, these Basque figures are deeply ingrained in the landscape of the Basque Country and the Navarre. Basajaun is without a doubt the most famous representative of this gigantic race, and can be seen as a Wild Man figure, as covered in a previous article (https://perennialpyrenees.com/2018/01/16/article-21-the-wild-men-of-the-pyrenees/). 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 https://perennialpyrenees.com/2017/12/19/article-20-christmas-customs-in-the-pyrenees/). 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.

Jentilak

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.

Becut

A charming depiction of the Bécut, artist unknown. Taken from: http://cfmradio.fr/podcast/le-becut/

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.

Ferragut.jpg

Various representations of Ferragut in Medieval manuscripts. Taken from: https://www.sasua.net/estella/articulo.asp?f=roldan&n=Roldán%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.

 

Les_Falles_d'Isil_-_Sant_Joan_2008

Sant Joan celebrations in the Alt Aneu region. Taken from https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/21/Les_Falles_d%27Isil_-_Sant_Joan_2008.JPG

 

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).

alins_pallars_sobira_baixada_de_falles_foto_ajuntament_d_alins_web_full_gallery

A vision of the fiery serpent making its way down the mountainside in the Catalan Pyrenees. Taken from: https://media-edg.barcelona.cat/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/alins_pallars_sobira_baixada_de_falles_foto_ajuntament_d_alins_web_full_gallery.jpg

 

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!

fullsizeoutput_a7.jpeg

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.

Cathars_expelled.jpg

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 https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/e4/Cathars_expelled.JPG

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.

fullsizeoutput_a8

The Basilica emerging into view through the Medieval streets.

 

fullsizeoutput_a9

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.

fullsizeoutput_ac

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 (https://perennialpyrenees.com/2017/08/11/field-report-ariege-tour/), 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.

20180418_194024.jpg

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!

References:

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 https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/01/ 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/cueva-de-mari.jp

 

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!

References:

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.

http://www.buber.net/Basque/Folklore/aunamendi.mythology.php

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.

 

Llers

(Castle Llers, photo taken from: https://upload.wikimedia.org)

 

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.

 

inquisition

(The Inquisition following Count Estruch’s example many years later. Photo taken from: http://journal.jitt.travel)

 

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?