Given the importance of the oral tradition in Basque culture, we thought it would be a great idea to examine Basque history through the words of ordinary people whose lives and experiences make up that history.
Today we share a cautionary tale of witches, devils, the evil eye, and seafaring superstitions in general, as recounted by Xan Alzate in his marvelous Paroles de pêcheur: Mémoires d’un mousse dans les années 1940 (A fisherman’s words: Memoirs of a cabin boy in the 1940s, 2008). Xan was born in Donibane Lohizune (Saint-Jean-de-Luz), Lapurdi, in 1928. His father, Pantxoa Alzate, was a mechanic at a local fish-canning factory and a sailor while his mother, Maria Chauvel, was a Breton from Morbihan who had come to the town at age sixteen to work in a fish canning factory there.
In his own words, when he first to sea (p.26),
I was thirteen and one-half years old, I weighed no more than ninety pounds on rainy days, and if I made it to five feet tall it would have been a big deal. Nevertheless, I did have some assets: indefatigable, a hard worker, sturdy despite my tiny frame, my father had taught me to work hard, [and] I didn’t want to disappoint him.
On meeting his future boss for the first time, the skipper told him he’d be known as Aña, like all cabin boys until they turned twenty (he wouldn’t be called Xan again until after he completed his military service). And once at sea, he began to learn something about this strange other world, the world of fishermen. According to Xan (pp. 165-66):
They were superstitious. The first or second day—I don’t remember exactly—of my time at sea, I was happily whistling, when someone took my by the ear, shook it slightly, and whispered into it that the wind was big enough to whistle at sea, that it didn’t need any help from me. Don’t whistle anything that may bring on a storm.
I also learned about a few things that brought bad luck, which were forbidden. No rabbit in the billycan. The word “rabbit” was banned on board, replaced by “big ears.” Aña, do you keep any “big ears”? But “rabbit” banned.
Also banned, chestnuts, walnuts. With such nuts on board, we were sure to come back empty-handed, tear the fishing net, or encounter all manner of trouble. It would never occur to them to set sail for the first time on a Friday. Beginning the fishing season on such a day, we could expect the worst kinds of disasters.
I listened, I believed, I trusted them, I respected the traditions. When no fishing was done, when a day unfolded full of incident, they looked at me in strange way, saying loudly: “There’s someone here who sleeps with his mother!” Of course, they said that to have a good laugh.
They loved stories about witches, mysterious tales, they loved anything whimsical. My favorite osaba [uncle] used to tell me dozens of stories; he kept me in suspense right till the end. To finish up, he used to say: “These are true stories, it isn’t fiction, it’s from real life in the old times, people don’t remember any more, my great-amatxi [grandmother] saw all this, it was she who told me.” I wasn’t going to question the word of his great-amatxi.
Those sailors used to see the devil everywhere, they mistrusted the evil eye. Yet they weren’t afraid of anything, they faced up to the elements with a flawless courage, they laughed at life’s ups and downs, they got really angry about any kind of injustice; they forgave, but they didn’t forget.
Basque Culture: Anthropological Perspectives, by William Douglass and Joseba Zulaika, is a great introduction for anyone seeking to understand this world. Chapters 13 and 15 deal with Basque fishing while chapters 18 and 19 deal with folklore and mythology, on the one hand, and witchcraft, on the other. This book available free to download here.
This work points out just how important “chance” is to fishermen and how this shapes their worldview. As they observe (pp. 237-38):
there is no cause-and-effect relationship between willingness to work and outcome. Fishermen also believe that there is a gap between the human and the natural orders that cannot be bridged by sheer effort alone. Rather, much depends on chance, a probability that is categorized as luck—“good” or “bad.” Thus, there is a sense that it is the fisherman who, by means of his luck, rather than his dedication, mediates between the two otherwise unbridgeable orders.
In short, they conclude, in the event of the worst eventuality of all, “no luck,” then “superstitious beliefs and practices are the antidotes to the absence of luck. There is an imperative to search out the hidden causes of this void.”
Note: Here the words of one of the great twentieth-century travel writers, Patrick Leigh Fermor, in his classic Roumeli: Travels in Northern Greece (1966), spring to mind. He is speaking about Greek fishermen, but I think the description is equally applicable to fishermen the world over (pp.118-19):
Humorous, sardonic, self-reliant men live there, lean from their war with the elements, ready to share their wine with any stranger . . . Their life is rigorous to the point of austerity and sometimes of hardship; but there are a hundred things to make it worth wile. There is no trace of depression or wage-slavery in the brine-cured and weather-beaten faces under those threadbare caps. The expression is wary, energetic amused and friendly and their demenour is a marine compound of masculinity, independence and easy-going dignity.