Christianity was first introduced to the Basques via Roman missionaries, but previous to this they held other religious beliefs. This selection provides an overview of these pre-Christian Basque beliefs.
Originally posted online and reproduced here in case it is re/moved: http://alkman1.blogspot.com/2006/08/basque-paganism.html
hile many populations of Europe can be traced back to an original homeland through historical accounts of conquest and the archeological evidence of early migrations, the origins of the Basque are more mysterious. About 2.5 million Basque people live along the western Pyrenees Mountains of Europe. The Euskal Herria (Basque Country) is made up of seven provinces: Bizkoia, Gipuzkoa, Araba, and Navarre in Spain, Lapurdi, Low Navarre, and Zuberoa in France. These provinces are recognized as a cultural and political state that may lie within the boundaries of other countries, but retain a surprising autonomy. The Basque people believe themselves to be the original prehistoric occupants of what is now largely Spain. Some scholars find evidence that the Basque may, indeed, be the descendants of the Cro-Magnan people who occupied the area and produced the famous cave paintings in France and Spain. Anthropologists have found that the modern Basque and the ancient Cro-Magnan have many physical similarities.
The origin of their language (Euskara) also is unknown. It is a unique pre-Indo European language with only slight similarities to Caucasian and Berber. The Basque name themselves Euskaldun (from euskara "Basque language" and dun "one who has, i.e. speaks", Basque.) Modern linguists find indications of the age of this language from its root words. For instance, the word for ax, haizkolari, comes from the root word haitz which means "stone" or "rock" which leads many to believe that it refers to Stone-Age tools.
Most studies of Basque culture emphasize how remote and isolated from other cultures the people have been. However, a closer look at history shows this has not always been true. In ancient times the Basque were known to the Greeks, who called them the Ouaskonous (goat people), because of their custom of sacrificing goats to the Gods. Later, as the Roman army moved north through Iberia (Spain), they reported meeting the Vascones.
Due to the mountainous terrain the Romans, followed later by the Arabs, Spanish and French, were never able to fully control this region. They could occupy some of it and make laws to rule it to some extent, but they could never subjugate the Basque people. The Basque seem to have taken very few foreign customs or words into their culture. They were the last population in Western Europe to be converted to Christianity. For centuries missionaries were rejected in favor of the traditional magical religion. A few Basque were converted in the 1400's, but even by 1600 the area was not strongly Christian.
In 1609 an investigator was sent from Bordeaux to check on the churches in the French-held Basque regions. His written report stated that the Witches' Sabbat was often held in the church with the consent and often the participation of the priests. He was scandalized at how sympathetic the Basque priests were towards the Old Religion. Most of the population was still practicing a dual religion of Paganism and Christianity. This report and many more from Spanish investigators led to the greatest destruction of Basque religion and culture in their entire history--the Spanish Inquisition had taken notice of the Basque Witches. Now the Catholic Church was able to achieve something that the Romans and Arabs never had: the complete domination of the Basque people.
In all, about 2,000 accused were brought to trial, and an estimated 50,000 attended the proceedings that were held outside to accommodate the spectators. Up to this time Witches were a part of many communities, the distinction between them and many other Basque was that they usually did not attend the Christian church and that they practiced magic. If their magic was used against an enemy and it was known who had done this, then the Witch was sometimes paid to stop if the enemy would agree to cease their actions. Or the neighbors might all protest if they felt magic was misused against someone, and in order to keep peace within the village, the Witch would make reparations for any damages. It must be remembered that this was a different era. Survival and protection of one's family were the utmost concerns. When in danger one used whatever means were at hand to stop the threat. This was true of both the Pagans and the Christians. The Spanish Inquisition ended this way of handling disputes. Neighbors accused each other of Witchcraft -- some were Witches and others simply people who had an enemy. If they would confess to Witchcraft, renounce their Pagan beliefs, and attend mass then they were forgiven and no further punishment was given out by the Church. Unfortunately, the Church would then hand over documents of these cases to the government which could invoke the death penalty. This way the church itself could claim that it did not kill the witches. They just handed them over to the Catholic monarchy, knowing what would follow.
From the 1600's up to the 1970's the people have been known as devout Catholics with an especially strong devotion to Mary. Underlying this has remained an equally strong spiritual tie to their Pagan roots. Within the past 20 years church attendance has dropped more than 80%. Will some of the Basque people begin to fill their spiritual needs with the rebirth of the Old Religion?
With the arrival of Christianity came the destruction of much knowledge of the actual rituals and magical craft that were common in the mountains and valleys. Fortunately, the Basque have a strong oral tradition which is celebrated even today with song and storytelling contests. A vast collection of ancient myths and legends still exists, though many of them have never been translated from Euskara. It is very difficult, therefore, for non-Basque seekers to learn about them. Hopefully, they will become more widely available as interest in pre-Christian beliefs becomes more widespread in this region.
Sacred sites exist throughout the Pyrenees Mountains. These include caves, springs, and wells as well as mountain peaks. Perhaps the best-known site is a plain in the province of Navarre called Akelarre. The name comes from aker (he-goat) and larre (pasture or meadow). It has been strongly connected to witchcraft for hundreds of years and was probably the site of many ancient sacrificial ceremonies. Thanks to the Church, information about Basque Paganism has been suppressed and garbled, and some have denied that such rituals ever took place. However, accounts of Spain by the Greek geographer Strabo definitely state that the sacrifice of rams was important in the religion of the Ouaskonous.
The best known deities are Ortzi, a sun God, Ilargia, the moon Goddess, Mari, an Earth goddess, and Sugaar, a God with ties to both the sky and the sea. Ortzi, also called Ost or Eguzki, is the God of sun, sky, and thunder who is often compared to Jupiter, Zeus, and Thor. An interesting similarity is that the Basque name for Thursday is Ortzegun or Ostegun (gun means "day"). Thursday, of course, is named after the local thunder god in Norse and Roman regions. Ortzi and its western variant Osti are the first element in dozens of words such as "storm cloud," "thunder," and "daylight." For example, "rainbow" is Ortzadar (adar meaning "horn") and "daylight" is Orzargi (argi meaning "light"). Ortzi ruled the sun and the earth as well, since it was from the earth that the sun rose every morning and back to the earth that it returned every evening. Unfortunately, little else remains of the God Ortzi as far as myth and knowledge of any rituals about him.
The moon Goddess, Ilargia, appears in many myths and legends. The Basque are very close to the moons cycles because of their agricultural background. Ilargia is the guardian of the dead; she leads their way to the otherworld. She also rules the world of hidden knowledge, divination, and magic.
The most well-known deity is Mari. She usually appears as a beautiful woman dressed in fine clothing adorned with jewels. Mari also is associated with storms and lightening. She often travels across the sky as a fireball or a blazing crescent going from one mountain peak to another. Sometimes Mari drives her chariot across the sky pulled by four white horses, or she rides a white ram. She has many homes both on the high mountain summits and deep within the caves below. The mountains of Anboto, Gorbea, Aketegi and Aralar all have models of a "Mari mansion," placed there by the people to honor her.
Mari is also a shape-shifter, appearing not only as any animal, but also as a rainbow, a white cloud, or a burning tree. Even as a woman she will sometimes have cloven hooves or claws. She also rules sorcery, divination, water, and justice. She is known to punish anyone guilty of lying or stealing. Her symbol is the sickle which is still used today to ward off evil. Mari's husband is Maju or Sugaar, who often takes the shape of a serpent and is also associated with storms and thunder. They apparently live apart, Mari on the land and Maju/Sugaar in the sea, and for good reason. When Maju and Mari meet there are severe storms of rain and hail and thunder and lightening.
Between the worlds of gods and man is the Lord of the Woods, the Basajaun. He seems to be similar to the Green Man and is semi-divine, a strong shaggy being with animal characteristics. Basajaun guards the forest and all the wild creatures within it. It was he who first farmed the land. Humans obtained the right to cultivate the land when a man won a bet with Basajaun. He seized the seeds that Basajaun was planting and returned to his people to teach them how to grow food.
Another interesting entity, and one which shows that the Basque at one time hadassociated with the Greeks, is the Lamiak. The name comes from the Greek Lamia. These were female vampires which appeared as half human and half animal; often, from the waist down they were snakes. They not only drank blood, but also ate the flesh of their victims. In Basque folklore they are beautiful, but malevolent women, who lure young men to their death. They are usually found near streams or along the seashore, combing their long hair with golden combs. They sometimes resemble mermaids, or they may have bird's legs.
Some other deities, spirits, and semi-divine beings include Intxitxu, the invisible spirit who builds cromlechs such as the many stone circles in the mountains surrounding Oiartzun. Irelu is an underground spirit who will abduct anyone who bothers him. His strange footprints can be seen near the caves of Armontaitz and Malkorburu. If you climb the mountain called Ubedi you may hear his song mingled with the sound of the wind.
Near the caves of Balzola and Montecristo lives Erensuge a terrible snake who attracts people with his breath (?!) only to devour them. In the area of Albistur and Zegama you may be startled by an echo of strange cries and any sheep nearby will suddenly bolt. This is Basajaun announcing his presence and warning the shepherds that a storm is approaching.
Near the caves of Santimamine, Sagastigorri and Covairadea, look for a completely red cow, calf, or bull with a fierce expression in its eyes. This is Beigorri, the guardian of Mari's many houses. This animal is shown in many of the well-known prehistoric cave paintings in this region.
Although the Catholic Church did its best to destroy all Pagan religion in the Pyrenees, a strong undercurrent of belief remains today. For over 300 years these people have been considered some of the most devout Catholics in all of Europe. However, their devotion has always focused on Mary. No doubt the similarity of names with their Goddess Mari helped since they could worship them both--one at the church and the second by building "Mary/Mari shrines" on the mountain-tops without fear of reprisal from church officials.
Many traditional beliefs of the Basque which are reflected in Modern Wicca. This should come as no surprise since both Margaret Murray and Gerald Gardner used Basque sources as a basis for some of their writings. The Basque are very much in touch with the land, nature, and seasonal changes. Even though an increasing number of them reside in several large cities along the northern coast, a large number of families still live a more traditional agriculture-centered lifestyle.
The traditional country house (the baserri or borda) has a ground level which shelters the animals, a second floor for the family, and a large attic which is used to store food supplies for both. The etxe (house or household) always has a name which is well-known to all in the neighborhood. In fact it can be used by itself as a postal address. If someone does not know the family name of the occupants, it is considered correct to call them by the etxe name. This name may only be conferred on the house by the neighbors never by the owners.
The organization of the family is highly formalized. The etxekojaun (lord of the house) and the etxekoandre (lady of the house) have precise roles and make all decisions affecting the household. When they retire these titles are formally given to the child (male or female) who is deemed the most suitable to take over. Women and men have an equal chance to inherit the farm since they work together at the same tasks in cultivating it. This equality in work extends to the more urban areas where women often own shops or work at other jobs outside the home.
Formality and ritual are important in many of the customs and celebrations in this region. Perhaps the best examples of this are the traditions following a death in the family. The funeral itself is the usual Catholic mass. During the next year a series of ceremonies is held by the family. At intervals dictated by centuries of custom, groups of relatives and friends gather with the family to remember the departed one. Certain items that belonged to the deceased are given to the guests as their inheritance. There is a strict order to when these rituals are held, which people must attend, and what items may be given to each person depending on their relationship to the deceased. It is believed that failure to abide by these rules will compromise the dead person's transition to the afterlife.
The Basque love to sing and dance and celebrate many festivals throughout the year. Although many have a Christianized theme, a closer look confirms their pre-Christian roots.
According to tradition, death does not break family ties. The memory of the departed lives on in the magical rite of lighting the argizaiolak, thin candles wound around shaped pieces of wood. November 1st is the start of the winter festivals. In places such as Amezketa in Gipuzkoa the argizaiolak light up the tombs during the main mass keeping alive the spirits of the dead.
Winter solstice celebration has become just another part of the long Christmas festivities. A character named Olentzero heralds this season and seems to have his basis in some pre-Christian ritual. He is depicted as a simple charcoal-burner who was the first to hear the good news. Perhaps he is a relic of a character that had something to do with a fire-lighting ceremony of the distant past.
One interesting custom is "beating the Yule log". The log is brought into the house under a cloth cover. The parents and children all say a prayer over the log, then they each strike it three times with a stick. When the cloth is removed, the Yule log is revealed along with candles and cakes.
The most important winter festival is Carnival. In many towns this festival is announced by strange parades in which people dress as Gypsies, a reminder of long ago when large bands of Gypsies would arrive to take part in Carnival. In the province of Gipuzkoa the children of the two villages of Amezketa and Abaltzisketa dance around all the houses to awaken the goodwill and generosity of their neighbors. In the town of Lasarte-Oria the Sorgin Dantza, "dance of the witches," is performed on Carnival Sunday.
While the ancient rites of the winter solstice have been almost completely absorbed by Christmas, the summer solstice traditions have always remained strong. The celebrations emphasize purification, and the exaltation of summer and the sun. On the night of the solstice virtually every village, town, and farm lights a bonfire.
In the countryside they can be seen on the mountains and in front of farmhouses. In town they are lit in the plaza or a nearby field. Fire leaping is very popular. On the farms burning branches are pulled from the bonfire and dragged around the fields to drive out any evil. On the day after summer solstice the town market features "lucky twigs" bits of wood that were not consumed by the flames. These are considered a protection against lightening.