Tag: Basque folklore

Wentworth Webster: An Englishman in Lapurdi

Wentworth Webster (1828-1907), one of the forerunners of Basque Studies in English.

Wentworth Webster was one of the discrete forerunners of our very own discipline here at the Center: Basque Studies in English. Born in 1828, Webster studied at Oxford University and, after a spell of ill health, was ordained as an Anglican clergyman in 1861. Following his ordination, and posts that took him to both Egypt and Bagnères-de-Bigorre (Banhèras de Bigòrra) in Occitania, France, he accepted a post as chaplain of the newly established Anglican church of Donibane Lohizune (Saint-Jean-de-Luz), where he would serve between 1869 and 1882. During this time he and his wife had five children, who all grew up speaking Basque among their languages, and he took a keen interest in Basque culture. He was especially interested in the Basque language and traditional stories and folk tales, which he enthusiastically gathered with the help of fellow scholar Jules Vinson. The result of this initial research was the publication of Basque Legends (London: Griffith and Farran, 1877).

He later resigned his post and moved to Sara, from where he continued to research and write on many Basque-related topics, frequently publishing his findings in British journals of the period, as well as reprinting Pierre d’Urte’s 1712 Basque grammar (1900) and publishing a memoir, Les Loisirs d’un étranger au Pays basque (Châlons-sur-Saöne: Imprimerie française et orientale E. Bertrand, 1901).  In March 1907, the visiting King of England, Edward VII, attended a game of pelota in Sara in Webster’s honor, but the elderly clergyman was too weak to attend the game, eventually dying a month later.

The flower of the sun in Basque culture

In a previous post we discussed the importance of the solstice festival, St. John’s Eve, and today we’re going to talk about the seemingly humble sunflower–eguzki-lore (flower of the sun) or ekilore (flower of the east) in Basque. This is an important symbol in traditional Basque culture that, like the St.John’s Eve festivities, is rooted in a more general solar mythology that once extended across Europe as a whole.


Carlina acaulis. Image by Bernd Haynold, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Clearly, as its name in English also suggests, the sunflower resembles the sun, but why is it so important in traditional Basque culture? First of all, it is important to comprehend just how important the sun was. Understandably, people venerated the rising sun as a giver of light, and life, the very means to their daily survival. Prehistoric dolmens generally face East, toward the rising sun, as do (where possible) most traditional houses and old tombs in the Basque Country. In the latter case, there is also a practical dimension to this because typically the cold and rain come from the North and West respectively.

So the sun is in general an important symbol, but more particularly, according to the old Basque beliefs, and as José Miguel de Barandiarán notes in his Selected Writings (p.79), “the Sun and the Moon are feminine divinities, daughters of Earth, to whose womb they return every day after their journey through the sky.” So much so, in fact, that people used to greet and bid farewell to the sun every day. In The Basques, Julio Caro Baroja observes that (p. 275):

there seem to exist affinities reflected in the language among the ideas of light, sun, and fire. All of this may have had a religious meaning that is lost today. However, the custom of greeting the sun (and the moon) both at their rising and at their setting has been conserved until the present by children and even by adults in some towns. These greetings are notable because in them the star of the day is treated as a grandmother and is therefore female, which also occurs among many Indo-Germanic peoples. Some old stories (particularly one from Errigoiti [Rigoitia]) seem to suggest that some people believed the earth to be the mother of the sun.

Specifically, in Errigoiti (Bizkaia), Barandiarán tells us, they used to say “Eguzki santa bedeinkatue, zoaz zure amagana” (Holy, blessed sun, go to your mother).


Dried sunflower nailed to the front door of a farmhouse in Senpere, Lapurdi. Photo by Garuna bor-bor, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

With the sun being so important, then, it should come as no surprise that the sunflower came to represent this potent natural symbol. It is still not uncommon to see dried sunflowers nailed to the front doors of Basque farmhouses. Barandiarán (p. 112) says that this flower “performs the same mysterious functions attributed to the sun. It is believed, for example, that the sun frightens away evil spirits . . . That is why the flower is nailed above the door: to prevent the intrusion of evil spirits, witches, and the numina of disease, storm, and lightning.” This would bear out Caro Baroja’s words (p. 326), which  suggest that in traditional Basque culture “the sun may be a sort of God’s eye, protector from evils and purifier.”

If you’re interested in traditional Basque mythology, be sure to check out the abovementioned works: Julio Caro Baroja, The Basques, and José Miguel de Barandiarán, Selected Writings of José Miguel de Barandiarán: Basque Prehistory and Ethnography.


Maskarada season begins in Zuberoa

The Maskarada–wild carnivalesque outdoor public theater combining song and dance and performed by regular people all from the same community–kicked off on Sunday, January 10 in the Basque province of Zuberoa (also known as Xiberoa).  This year, residents of the village of Sohüta-Hoki (Chéraute-Hoquy) will be performing the Maskarada all over Zuberoa, over a series of Sundays, between January 10 and April 10.

The Maskarada performance follows an established pattern, with performers representing different characters that are defined as either “Reds” or “Blacks.” The Reds include characters like zamaltzaina (the hobbyhorse) and the marexalak (blacksmiths) while the Blacks include buhame jauna (the gypsy king) and pitxu (the fox). The Reds are well behaved, formal, and elegant, performing specific dances and songs, but the Blacks move in a wilder, untamed, and more spontaneous way, grunting and shouting in joyful abandon. The Reds, then, support the central narrative of the performance; they give meaning to the story, while the Blacks attempt to subvert and undermine that meaning. The video below, shot in Atharratze (Tardets) in 2013, shows the introductory sequence of the Maskarada: the breaking of the barrikada (barricade) and introduction of the principal characters, with the Reds first and then the Blacks.

The following video, meanwhile, also shot in Atharratze (though this time in 2014), shows several sequences and demonstrates just how much this performance is rooted in these local communities. Note how close audience and performers are, the very public outdoor setting, and the unaffected nature of the performance (as well as the famous godalet dantza, the wine glass dance, from approximately 9m 25s onward).

This is not for the faint hearted! It involves bawdy renditions and representations, most of which are intended to cast a critical eye on anyone with pretenses to “authority.”  It is, without doubt, one of the most unique and beguiling events on the Basque cultural calendar, as well as being a living, breathing testament to the persistence of strong community values in the culturally rich province of Zuberoa. The Maskarada is folk theater in its most popular form, with people spending months rehearsing and performing as a means of cementing community ties and maintaining their language and culture.

For general information from the Basque Cultural Institute on the Maskarada click here.

If you’re interested in this topic, check out “The Folk Arts of the Maskarada Performance” by Kepa Fernandez de Larrinoa, a chapter in Voicing the Moment: Improvised Oral Poetry and Basque Tradition, edited by Samuel G. Armistead and Joseba Zulaika.

For Fernandez de Larrinoa, the Maskarada represents much more than just a “dance-event”–the term most commonly used to describe this performance in most studies of the phenomenon that tend to focus on its dance aspects. He sees it as more a kind of “storytelling-event” more broadly speaking, interpreting the Maskarada in the wider terms of a folk performance combining music, dance, song, spoken word, free movement, carnivalesque performance, playfulness, subversion, and so on.

Shop for the book here or download it for free here.

End-of-year traditions in Basque culture

With the holiday season almost upon us, I’d like to mention a few traditional Basque customs at this time of year. Thanks in advance to the book Orhipean: The Country of Basque by Xamar (Juan Carlos Etxegoien Juanarena), a charming and beautifully illustrated general introduction to Basque culture from which the information for this post is taken.


An old picture of an effigy of Olentzero being carried through the streets of Oiartzun, Gipuzkoa. Photo by Bernardo Oñatibia,  courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The main folk custom that has become increasingly important during the Christmas season is that of Olentzero. This is a Santa Claus/Father Christmas-type figure, a plump jolly mountain charcoal burner in traditional Basque dress who visits the towns and villages of the Basque Country on December 24. The origins of the name Olentzero are disputed. It could be a derivative of onentz-aro (a time of good will), but Xamar favors the notion of olentz-aro (collection time or alms season) when charitable donations or alms were collected from house to house.


Olentzero and Mari Domingi in Tolosa, Gipuzkoa. Photo at Wikimedia Commons.

The Olentzero custom differs from town to town. Typically, an Olentzero effigy was made, carried through the streets of a particular village, and subsequently burned. This custom continues to this day in, for example, Lesaka, Nafarroa. However, it is becoming increasingly typical for people to dress up as Olentzero and distribute gifts, more in the style of a Basque Santa Claus. Olentzero has even been joined by a female counterpart, Mari Domingi, the protagonist of a traditional Basque folk song.

Another custom with a certain resonance for many of us is that of the yule log, which in Basque tradition was known generically as the bazterreko (literally, from/of the corner or side), but also many other variants such as Olentzero emborra, Xubilau atseko egurra, or Gabon subil, for example. This was a special log set aside to be burned on the home fire during the Christmas season. If the log was big enough, the hope was that it would burn right through the season, from Christmas Eve through the New Year. In other homes, however, each family member would have their own special log to put on the fire. The log and even its embers were considered a good luck charm (for example, it was believed that no untimely accident would befall any of the domestic animals that passed over it).

The evenings of both Christmas Eve (Gabon gaua) and New Year’s Eve (Gabon zaharra or Urte zaharra) are a time of song, with groups of people going from house to house–as in the above videos from Zaldibia and Ataun (both in Gipuzkoa)–or even bar to bar, singing koplak or traditional Basque songs (not unlike carol singers in some respects). Traditionally, in some places such as Elgoibar, Gipuzkoa and Larrauri, a hamlet of Mungia, Bizkaia, as well as many villages in Zuberoa, young women and men would also gather in the main square to dance. Meanwhile, in Bera, Nafarroa, there is a New Year’s Eve custom whereby children go from house doing glin-glanka–a version of trick or treating in which if people don’t give them something (typically walnuts or chestnuts) some mishap will befall them.

Finally, and perhaps most distinctively, the new water custom was observed (and still is in some places today). At the stroke of midnight on New Year’s, groups of young people would gather with empty jugs at village wells, ready to collect the “new water” that they would then take around the village offering to people as a symbol of peace and health for the coming year.

In the words of a traditional verse from Baztan, Nafarroa:

Urte berri, berri                      New, new year

zer dakartzu berri?               what new do you bring?

Uraren gañean                        On the water

bakia ta osasuna.                   peace and health.

Urtets, Urtets!                         A New Year gift, a New Year gift!

We couldn’t agree more!

Zorionak eta urte berri on!