Basque mythology

The mythology of the ancient Basques largely did not survive the, albeit late, arrival of Christianity in the Basque Country between the 4th and 12th century AD. Most of what is known about elements of this original belief system is based on the analysis of legends, the study of place names and scant historical references to pagan rituals practised by the Basques.

One main figure of this belief system was the female character of Mari. According to legends collected in the area of Ataun, the other main figure was her consort Sugaar. However, due to the scarcity of the material it is difficult to say if this would have been the "central pair" of the Basque pantheon. Based on the attributes ascribed to these mythological creatures, this would be considered a chthonic religion as all its characters dwell on earth or below it, with the sky seen mostly as an empty corridor through which the divinities pass.

Christianity in the Basque Country

The Christianisation of the Basque Country has been the topic of some discussion. There are broadly speaking two views. According to one, Christianity arrived in the Basque Country during the 4th and 5th century but according to the other, it did not take place until the 12th and 13th century. The main issue lies in the different interpretations of what is considered Christianisation. Early traces of Christianity can be found in the major urban areas from the 4th century onwards, a bishopric from 589 in Pamplona and three hermit cave concentrations (two in Álava, one in Navarre) were in use from the 6th century onwards. In this sense, Christianity arrived "early".

At the same time various historical sources and research directly or indirectly bear witness to the fact that large-scale conversion did not begin to take place until the 10th and 11th century:
*the bishops of Pamplona were frequently absent from the Synods of Toledo during the Visigoth period
*reports of a failed mission by Bishop Amandus around 640 AD
*Arab authors from the time of the Umayyad conquest of Hispania labelled the Basques as being "mağūs" or "wizards, pagans"
*the famous cemetery of Argiñeta in Biscay from around 880 AD with Basque gravestones totally devoid of any Christian symbols
*the comparatively low density of religious centres in the Atlantic Basque Country until the 15th century

Although the Inquisition by its very nature accused people of mostly imaginary crimes, the fact that some inquisitors make references to pagan rituals commonly associated with the Basques (such as the witch trial of Durango in 1500) could be seen as a sign that at least from an external point of view, the Basques were somehow seen as more pagan than others. Alternatively this could simply have been an attempt to make a charge seem more credible.

Most Vasconists broadly agree that Christianity thus arrived some time in the 4th/5th century but that serious missionary and religious activity only began in the 9th century from the kingdom of Asturias and Franks, then after the Reconquista with famous monastic foundations (Monastery of Leyre, San Millán de la Cogolla) and the diocese of Bayonne in the 11th century. Thus Christian and non-Christian beliefs lived side by side past the 10th and 11th century. Various traditions connected to this ancient belief system have survived partly by adapting a Christian veneer or by turning into folk traditions, as happened elsewhere in Europe.

However, in spite of the process of Christianisation being completed late, the process was thorough and very little direct evidence remains of pre-Christian beliefs. For this reason research into the matter tends to be putative as it has to rely on the analysis of folklore, folk traditions, sketchy references and place-name evidence.Trask, L. "The History of Basque" Routledge: 1997] Collins, R. "The Basques" Blackwell: 1986] Gimbutas, M. "The Living Goddesses" University of California Press: 2001] [Kasper, M. "Baskische Geschichte" Primus: 1997]


The main sources for information about non-Christian Basque beliefs are:
*Strabo who mentions the sacrifice of male goats and humans [Kasper, M. "Baskische Geschichte" Primus 1997]
*Arab writers from the time of the Umayyad conquest of Hispania
*the 12th century diary of the pilgrim Aymeric Picaud
*various medieval sources making references to pagan rituals, including the records of the inquisition
*19th and 20th century collections of myths and folk-tales, for example by José Miguel Barandiaran. This is by far the largest body of material relating to non-Christian beliefs and practices
*the modern study of place-names in the Basque Country

Mythological creatures and characters

* Adur is not a character but the abstraction of luck, destiny or magic. It's said to be the power of soothsayers ("aztiak"). In common language it also means saliva. It's also the name of a river (vide Adour).
*Ama Lur: Mother Earth. It may be a modern creation or may be another name of Mari.
*Atxular and Mikelatz are said to be sons of Mari, among others.
*Basajaun: the wild man of the woods and his female version: basandere.
*Eguzki or Eki is the known name of the Sun, considered a daughter of Ama Lur.
*Galtzagorriak are a specific type of "iratxoak" (imps).
*Gaueko is an evil character of the night.
*Herensuge is the name of a dragon who plays an important role in a few legends.
*Erge is an evil spirit that takes men's lives.
*Ilargi or "Ile" are the known names of the Moon, also a daughter of Ama Lur.
*Iratxoak: imps.
*Jentilak (gentiles): giants, sometimes portrayed throwing rocks at churches. They are believed to be Pagan Basques themselves, seen from a partly Christianized viewpoint. A surviving jentil is Olentzero, the Basque equivalent of Santa Claus.
*Lamiak or laminak: a type of nymphs with bird-feet that dwelled in rivers and springs.
*Mairuak or Intxisuak are the male equivalent of lamiak in the Pyrenean region, where they are said to have built up the cromlechs.
*Mari is considered the supreme goddess, and her consort Sugaar the supreme god. Mari is depicted in many different forms: sometimes as various women, as different red animals, as the black he-goat, etc. Sugaar, however, appears only as a man or a serpent/dragon. Mari is said to be served by the sorginak, semi-mythical creatures impossible to differentiate from actual witches or pagan priestesses. The nucleus of witches near Zugarramurdi met at the Akelarre field and were the target of a process in Logroño that was the major action of the Spanish Inquisition against witchcraft. As a result, "akelarre" in Basque and "aquelarre" in Spanish are still today the local names of the sabbat.
*Odei is a personification of storm clouds.
*San Martin Txiki, a popular local Christian character, is a trickster.
*Sorginak are both mythological beings that travel with Mari and real witches.
*Tartalo: the Basque version of the Greco-Roman Cyclops.

The Urtzi controversy

The question of whether there was a figure called "Urtzi" has created much discussion. The argument for "Urtzi" being a Basque sky god is based on two main arguments.

The first main argument is that Basque has numerous calendaric and meteorological terms which contain forms of the root "ortzi" (with the variants "urtz", "ortz", "orz" and "ost"), for example:
*"ortzadar" "rainbow" ("ortzi" + "adar" "horn")
*"ortzi" "sky, thunder"
*"orzgorri" "red sky" ("ortzi" + "gorri" "red")
*"ostargi" "daylight" ("ortzi" + 'argi" "light")
*"ostegun" "Thursday" ("ortzi" + "egun" "day")

This has led to a popular modern interpretation of Urtzi as a sky god. It should also be mentioned that the modern Basque word for sky, "zeru", is a loanword from Latin "caelum" and that the word "urtzi" or "ortzi" is not productive anymore.

The second argument is based on the 12th century account, the Codex Calixtinus, of Aymeric Picaud, a French pilgrim, who recorded a number of Basque words and expression, saying about Urtzi: "et Deus uocant Urcia" ("and they name God as Urcia". Since the remaining material Picaud recorded appears to be very accurate, this bears some weight.

However, there are no legends at all related to such a god and Picaud remains the only explicit reference to date. This had led to the alternative theory that this may have been a generic term for "sky" and that Picaud may have simply "pointed at the sky" looking for the word for God and been supplied the word for "sky". This explanation is to some degree supported by the unexpected absolutive case ending "-a" in "Urcia", which neither in Proto-Basque or modern Basque appears on proper nouns. To date neither theory has been able to convince fully. [Trask, L. "The History of Basque" Routledge: 1997]

Myths of the historical period

After Christianization, the Basques kept producing and importing myths.
*Jaun Zuria is the mythical first Lord of Biscay, said to be born of a Scottish princess who had an encounter with the god Sugaar in the village of Mundaka.
*The battle of Roncesvalles was mythified in the cycle of the Matter of France.
*In the Aralar Range, Saint Michael was said to appear to assist a local noble turned hermit.
*The coat of arms of Navarre was said to come from a feat in the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa.
*The battle of Amaiur was the battle where Navarre lost its independence to the Crown of Castile.

Modern myths

Besides the religious beliefs of ancient Basques, we can understand mythology to include other stories of emotional, cultural, moral or ethical value to a nation. Taken broadly, then, Basque mythology can include any narrative which has contributed to the shaping of Basque values and belief systems.

Some modern myths were created in the 19th century, as Basque national consciousness arose.Spanish historians and apologists placed the Iberians and Basques in the Babel narrative as descendants of Tubal.
Biscayne apologists argued that unlike the rest of Spain, Basque blood had not been polluted by miscegenation with Moors or Jews and, under the system of "limpieza de sangre", they were natural born nobles, free of the Castilian taxes and authorities.In the 19th century, Souletin writer Augustin Chaho created Tubal's descendant Aitor to be the forefather of all Basques. Chaho also twisted the name of herensuge (dragon) to create Leherensuge a semi-divine creature that was present at the origins ("lehen") and will be present also in the future or end ("heren") of the Basque people. In this sense Leherensuge can somehow be associated with Sugaar.

The Tree of Gernika also became a symbol of the Basque freedoms. Another tree, the Tree of Malato marked the limit of the Basque armies and was used as an argument to refuse Basque involvement in the Spanish army.

External links

* [ Buber's Basque page on mythology]
* [ Arcadia on Basque mythology]
* [ MythHome: Basque Summary]
* [, Basque New Mythology, Paintings, Books, Movies, Music, Sculptures... of the Basque Author Irene Alexandra]


*Ortíz-Osés, A. "Antropología simbólica vasca" Anthropos, 1985. "El matriarcalismo vasco" Universidad de Deusto, 1988. "El inconsciente colectivo vasco", 1982.
*Barandiaran, J.M. "Mitologia Vasca" Txertoa, 1996
*Hartsuaga, J.I. "Euskal Mitologia Konparatua", Kriseilu, 1987.
*Everson, M. "Tenacity in religion, myth, and folklore: the Neolithic Goddess of Old Europe preserved in a non-Indo-European setting", Journal of Indo-European Studies 17, 277 (1989). []

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