The Basque people or culture occupied Europe before the spread of Indo-European languages to Europe. Analysis of Basque genetic patterns has shown that Basque genetic uniqueness predates the arrival of agriculture in the Iberian Peninsula, 7,000 years ago.
The mythology of the ancient Basques largely did not survive the arrival of Christianity in the 4th century AD. Most of what is known about this original belief system is based on legends, the study of place names and scant historical references to pagan rituals practised by the Basques.
The main figure was the female character of Mari. The other main figure was her consort Sugaar. Mari is depicted in many different forms: sometimes as various women, as different red animals, as the black he-goat, etc. Her consort 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 cadre of witches near Zugarramurdi met at Akelarre field and were the target of the Spanish Inquisition’s largest witch hunt at Logroño. As a result, akelarre in
Basque and aquelarre in Spanish are today still the local names of the Sabbath.
Mari, also called Mari Urraca, Anbotoko Mari (“the lady of Anboto”), and Murumendiko Dama (“lady of Murumendi”) was a goddess—a lamia—of the Basques. She was married to the god Sugaar (also known as Sugoi or Maju). Legends connect her to the weather: when she and Maju travelled together hail would fall, her departures from her cave would be accompanied by storms or droughts, and which cave she lived in at different times would determine dry or wet weather: wet when she was in Anboto; dry when she was elsewhere (the details vary). Other places where she was said to dwell include the chasm of Murumendi, the cave of Gurutzegorri (Ataun), Aizkorri and Aralar, although it is not always possible to be certain which Basque legends should be considered to pertain to the same lamia.
In one myth Sugaar seduces a Scottish princess in the village of Mundaka to father the mythical first Lord of Biscay, Jaun Zuria. This legend is believed to be a fabrication made to legitimize the Lordship of Biscay as a separate state from Navarre, because there is no historical account of such a lord. Only the fact that the delegates of Mundaka were attributed with the formal privilege of being the first to vote in the Biltzar (Parliament) of the province may look as unlikely indication of the partial veracity of this legend.
The Basque religious worship, of prehistoric origin and with a matriarchal profile, had many similarities with the one of the Minoan Crete (of prehistoric origin as well) and represented a subterranean deity as a supreme goddess, as opposed to the Indo-European gods that were mostly celestial and with a patriarchal profile. This cult that was progressively enriched by the influence of Iberians and Celts over the centuries, would finally impose on the other Basque gods of Celtic, Roman or Iberian origin during the Frankish-Visigothic period (5th century), and even on the Indo-European Ortzi (celestial deity), although this god would not disappear completely: the Codex Calixtinus, written by the Gaul cleric Aumeric Picaud in the 12th century during his pilgrimage to Santiago, shows a passage in which the writer indicated that the Basques he met on his way referred to God as Urcia.
Ilargia and Eguzkia
According to the ancient Basque religion, when Darkness reigned in the Earth, the humans prayed to Mari that she help them in their fight against the bad spirits that were lying in wait for them. Mari heard their prayers and decided to give life to her daughter Ilargia (the Moon). The humans thanked for her light, but this was not enough to face the Evil. The humans prayed again to Mari that she could give them something brighter and with which they could defeat the Darkness. The highest mountains of the Basque Country were dwellings of the goddess Mari, and Mari created her other daughter Eguzkia (the Sun in Basque culture) and this way day was born. Since then, none of the bad spirits harassed humans anymore during the daylight
Egunekoak and Gauekoak
Mari divided the world into two: the world of the people that live during the daylight (egunekoak), and the world of the people that live at night (gauekoak) or spirits and the souls of the dead that were enlightened by the Moon. According to the old beliefs in Heaven the stars move, and when they set in the west, they submerge themselves in the ‘Reddish Seas’ (Itsasgorrieta) to continue across the Underground World. Therefore, the Sun that illuminates the surface of the world during a part of its journey, also enlightens the Underground World during the rest of the voyage. The Sun as well as the Moon are feminine deities and daughters of the Earth (Mari), to whose bosom they return every day after their course across the sky.
The meaning of death was not so dismal for the ancient Basquese. When someone died, he just became part of a different existential status. In those times, the following expression was used: ‘Eguna egunekoentzat eta gauga gauekoentzat’ (the day is for those who live during the daylight = the livings, and the night is for those who live at night = the dead). In order to ensure the balance between both worlds, there was the spirit called Gaueko (the Guardian of the Night), who was responsible for the compliance with this rule that was accepted by the ancient Basques. If any person prowled at night, the spirit took him away from the livings and led him to the world of those who live at night (the spirits).
The Basque religion is of a clear prehistoric origin since the cave is considered a peaceful area, a protective and welcoming place. In essence, the best place where one can live eternally. This belief comes from a remote past in which the Proto-Basques had to look for a shelter in the caves during the glaciation to avoid the cold temperatures and in this way, to survive. The fear of prowling in the darkness (the purgatory and the hell) has its origin in the cold glacial nights: if anyone did not find the path to the cave where the tribe lived just before dusk, he was likely to die of cold. The fight for survival was certainly reflected in the Basque religion even though the Basques no longer needed to shelter in caves to survive for thousands of years.
Even though the official religion was the Christian one during the Late Middle Ages and the early modern period, both religions remain coexisting, what led to a mixture process that was similar to what happened in other areas of Europe. Due to this process, the Christian worship was enriched with the local pre-Christian rites.
Mythology & Religion
Basques that remained practising the religion of Mari instead of the Christian faith, as well as hundreds of ‘sorginas’ were charged with witchcraft and condemned to die at the stake. Since then, ‘sorgina’, which meant ‘midwife’ in ancient Euskara, came to mean ‘witch’.
The only rite of the ancestral religion that still remains today, although greatly influenced by Christianity and the Western traditions, is the celebration of ‘Olentzaro’, also known as ‘Olentzero’. Olentzero was a spirit that was sent by Mari to all the humans to announce the arrival of the solstices of summer and winter. The Basques should make offerings to him so that both seasons were mild for the harvest and hunting. Formerly, the Basques had only two seasons in the calendar: Negua (winter) and Uda (summer). The two remaining seasons, ‘Udazkena’ (autumn) and ‘Udaberria’ (spring) were later included by Indo-European influences. The Basque week (called ‘aste’, that means ‘the lunation beginning’) was also different due to the lunar cycle, so that it had only three days.
The existence of the ancestral religion has been preserved to the present thanks to the oral transmission of parables and tales imbued with the old beliefs from generation to generation, the stories that grandfathers tell their sons and grandchildren.
Myth, Spirituality, and Religion
In recent centuries Basques have been mostly Roman Catholics. In the 19th century, and well into the 20th century, Basques as a group, remained notably devout and churchgoing. The region has been a source of missionaries like Francis Xavier and Michel Garicoïts. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus. California Franciscan Fermín Lasuén was born in Vitoria. Lasuén was the successor to Franciscan Padre Junípero Serra and founded 9 of the 21 surviving California Missions along the coast.
A sprout of Protestantism in the continental Basque Country produced the first translation of the New Testament into Basque by Joanes Leizarraga. After Henry III of Navarre converted to Catholicism to become king of France, Protestantism almost disappeared. Bayonne held a Jewish community composed mainly of Sephardi Jews fleeing from the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions. There were also important Jewish and Muslim communities in Navarre before the Castilian invasion of 1512-21.
Pre-Christian belief focused on the goddess Mari. A number of place-names contain her name and would suggest these places were related to worship of her such as Anbotoko Mari who appears to have been related to the weather. One of her names, Mari Urraca possibly ties her to an historical Navarrese princess of the 11th and 12th century, with other legends giving her a brother or cousin who was a Roman Catholic priest. So far the discussions about whether the name Mari is original and just happened to coincide closely with the Christian name María or if Mari is an early Basque attempt to give a Christian veneer to pagan worship have remained speculative. At any rate, Mari (Andramari) is one of the oldest worshipped Christian icons in Basque territories. Mari’s consort is Sugaar. This chthonic couple seem to bear superior ethical power and also the power of creation and destruction.
Legends speak of many and abundant genies, like jentilak (equivalent to giants), lamiak (equivalent to nymphs), mairuak (builders of the cromlechs or stone circles, literally Moors), iratxoak (imps), sorginak (witches, priestess of Mari), and so on. Basajaun is a Basque version of the Woodwose. This character is probably an anthropomorphism of the bear. There is a trickster named San Martin Txiki (“St Martin the Lesser”).
Dolmens and Cromlechs
It has been shown that some of these stories entered Basque culture as part of Roman superstition. It is unclear whether Neolithic stone structures called dolmens have a religious significance or were built to house animals or resting shepherds. Some of the dolmens and cromlechs are burial sites serving as well as border markers.
The jentilak (‘Giants’), are a legendary people which explains the disappearance of a people of Stone Age culture that used to live in the high lands with no knowledge of iron. They were pagans, but one of them, Olentzero, accepted Christianity and became a sort of Basque Santa Claus. They gave name to several toponyms, as Jentilbaratza.
Genetics is helping trace the migration of the Basque people that originated in East Africa tens of thousands of years ago. By first tracking the female gene back 150,000 years to East Africa, scientists then followed the male Y chromosome to determine human whereabouts. This explains why some Middle Eastern cities have names that could be Basque in origin, like Ur, Uruk, and Mari, the name of a Basque goddess.
Linguists have long suspected such an idea since an old—now dead—language from Central Asia, Burushaski, “looks suspiciously like Basque”. Genetic research is proving the linguists right.
After inhabiting Central Asia for about 10,000 years, Basque ancestors migrated to both the Americas and Western Europe, where they settled—and still live—in France and Spain. The cave paintings in southern France and northern Spain were likely painted by Basque ancestors 10,000 to 30,000 years ago, and “fits perfectly” the timeline of their migration. DNA research has also shown that the Celtic people’s genes are almost identical to the Basque’s; it is believed they may have migrated together to Western Europe 30,000 years ago.
Basque nationalists see Irish nationalism as sharing with them the struggle of national liberation against big states, Spain and Great Britain. There are no religious divisions in the Basque country. The Basques have been fighting to protect their language and culture for thousands of years. They have been occupying their corner of Europe, since well before Roman times.
Throughout history, Basques have developed a reputation as fierce defenders of their territory – against Romans, Vikings, Visigoths, Muslims and others. Many invaders have chosen to by-pass the region. When they have managed to put down roots, the Basques have negotiated and learned from them, but have never mixed too much or risked becoming integrated.
From the Middle Ages onwards, they developed a reputation as formidable fishermen and have built boats which have taken them great distances in search of whales and cod. There is some evidence that Basques landed in North America hundreds of years before Christopher Columbus. It was Basque sailors who made up the bulk of Columbus’s crew.
Spiritual Pays Basque
Gernika is famous for the 1937 bombing when Hitler (allied with Franco) used the marketplace as a practice run for Luftwaffe. Much of the city was reduced to a destructive firebomb. It inspired the painting Guernica by Pablo Picasso. According to the official Basque figures, 1,654 civilians were killed in the bombing.
The raid was requested by Francisco Franco to overthrow the Basque Government and the Spanish Republican government. The town was devastated, though the Biscayan assembly and the Oak of Guernica survived. Pablo Picasso painted his famous Guernica painting to commemorate the horrors of the bombing and René Iché made a violent sculpture the day after the bombing. The bombing went on continuously for three hours
Bayonne – Pays Basque Spiritual Capital
St Mary’s Cathedral is gothic in style and built using locally-sourced white and red stone on the site of a Romanesque cathedral which was destroyed by fire in 1258. Situated in the heart of the historic centre of Bayonne on a mound overlooking the Nive and Adour rivers, the cathedral contains relics of St Leo (St Léon in French), a 9th century Bishop of Bayonne and was listed as a World Heritage Site in 1998 as part of the French Pilgrim Routes of Santiago de Compostela. The adjoining cloister dates back to 1240.
Constructed in stages between the 13th and 16th centuries, it was not until a major operation led by Boeswillwald a pupil of Viollet-Le-Duc that the 85m high spires were completed in the 19th century giving the cathedral the elegant outline it retains today. The chapels are decorated with 14th century style paintings by Steinhel and the stained glass windows are in the style of Chartres Cathedral.
A visit to the Basque city of Bayonne in the southwest of France is not complete without a stop at the Gothic Bayonne Cathedral. Construction of the cathedral began in the early thirteenth century but wasn’t completed until the seventeenth. The cathedral is on a little known route of the Camino de Santiago, la Voie de la Côte, or the Way of the Coast, which joins the Camino del Norte in Irún, Spain.
The Gothic cathedral and cloister are modelled on the northern France cathedrals. A compact but worthwhile Fine Arts Museum (Musée Bonnat) is in Petit Bayonne, with its picturesque narrow streets filled with Basque handicraft shops and some great dining, elegant old whalers’ mansions lining the quais, more chocolate shops that you can imagine (Bayonne’s chocolate making tradition dates from the early 17th century), a chateau and fortifications by Vauban.
The nearby villages of Ascain, Sare, Ainhoa, Itxassou and Espellette are famed for ewe’s milk cheeses, red peppers, black cherries and their distinctive pink pelote basque courts, their whitewash fortress-looking churches, all sporting triple-tiered, polished wooden balconies (men sat in the galleries, “closer to God”, ladies below in the nave guarding the tombs) and adjacent cemeteries filled with lauburu (discoidal) crosses-the lauburu being an ancient Basque symbol.
St. Vincent de Paul was a French Roman Catholic priest who dedicated himself to serving the poor. He is venerated as a saint in the Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion. He was canonized in 1737. He was renowned for his compassion, humility and generosity and is known as the “Great Apostle of Trumpets”. The St. Vincent de Paul Society helps those in need with material, moral, and spiritual support.
Religious Cathedrals and Churches
The Russian Orthodox Church (Biarritz) was built thanks to the intervention of Czar Alexander III and the dedication of Father Herodium. It was inaugurated in September 1892 in the presence of members of the Russian imperial family. September to November was the Russian season. A classified historical monument, the church is one of the symbols of Biarritz.
The Imperial Chapel (Biarritz): was built in 1865 on demand by Eugénie de Montijo, wife of Napoleon III. This charming chapel is a perfect combination of Romano-Byzantine and Moorish architectural styles. It is dedicated to the black Mexican virgin, Our Lady of Guadalupe. It was classified as a historic monument in 1981.
The Church of Saint Eugénie (Biarritz) is a splendid Roman-Byzantine style edifice dedicated to Sainte Eugenie, patron saint of Eugenie Empress of France. The entrance is through a large carved door and inside you will notice, among other things of interest, the statue of Our Lady of Good Help, patron of the church, and of Saint Martin the patron of Biarritz, as well as the fonts made with sea shells, the white marble altar, the organ (honorary award at the Universal Exhibition of 1900) and the podium with stained glass representing biblical scenes.
St Leon Church (Anglet) is located in Anglet centre in front of the Town Hall Square. The Church is dedicated to St Leon, patron saint of Bayonne. Its interior is typical of the Labourdine churches. Its galleries and balustrades date from the 17th and 18th centuries.
Ste Marie Church (Bidart) dates from the 16th century. It has wooden galleries overlooking the nave, an 18th century altar and a beautiful statue of St Jacques in pilgrim’s costume. The stunning Oriental-style baptismal font was given by Queen Natalie of Serbia, who retired in Bidart during her conversion to Catholicism. The church often hosts choral Basque songs.
The Chapel Saint Joseph (Bidart) overlooks the ocean on the cliff above Parlementia beach. Under the porch is a font that was reserved for bigots, outcasts among outcasts.
Saint Nicolas Church (Guethary) a 17th century Church in Guethary is dedicated to St. Nicolas, patron of fishermen, children and pilgrims. His statue adorns the top of the covered porch. Inside there is a 18th century model sailboat.
Saint Jean Baptiste Church (Saint Jean de Luz) is the biggest in the Basque Country; it is dedicated to Saint Jean Baptiste, patron of the city. Following the signing of the Treaty of the Pyrenees, it was in this church that celebrated the marriage of Louis XIV and the Infanta Maria Teresa in 1660. The Saint Jean baptiste Church has an extraordinary acoustics and hosts many concerts and other musical performances.