Tag: Basque mythology

On Anboto

 

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The distinctive limestone peaks of the Urkiola Range, Anboto is the peak farthest on the right. From the hamlet of Urkiola.

It’s December again and I can’t believe it has been a whole year since I was last in the Basque Country! Since I wasn’t able to go this year, I’ve been fondly remembering my last time there, especially my last day there, a Sunday when my coworker and his partner offered to take me on a long-desired visit to Anboto. The mountain dominates the skyline of Durango and, just as a hiker looking up at it on breaks from the Azoka Stand, I’ve always wanted to make a shot at it, so I jumped at the chance. Although Anboto is actually lower in elevation than Reno at around 4,370 feet (Reno stands, according to Google, at 4,500 feet), it stands out from the landscape as an overpowering juggernaut. It is an immense mass of limestone, with cliff faces of 1,000 meters (roughly 3,000 feet) over Atxondo Valley. Anboto is one of the most known and most characteristic summits of the Basque Country.

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Looking south from Urkiolamendi Pass at the beginning of the true peak ascent. It is easy to understand the grip the mountain has had on the Basque imagination.

With its distinctive shape, Anboto is not only easily recognizable but it has always played a role in Basque mythology, most famously as the home of Mari, the Basque goddess who is said to control the weather. She is said to live in a cave on the front face of the mountain. She is also known as Anbotoko Mari (“the Lady of Anboto”), She and the god Sugaar were (also known as Sugoi or Maju) connected her to the weather. When she traveled with Sugaar hail would fall. And in general her tos and fros across the sky brought storms or droughts.

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Mari was said to control the weather from her cavern on Anboto.

We left the car at the hamlet of Urkiola, in the Parque Natural de Urkiola, alongside the Sanctuary of Urkiola, a Roman Catholic temple that famously celebrates the Day of Saint Anthony of Padua on June 13. This saint helps those looking for lost objects and for love, but we needed nothing as we started off on a crisp December morning with mountains dotting in and out of thick fog. The walk is a popular one and we passed many other strollers and even some Basque ponies or pottoka.

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A wild Basque pony, clearly used to passersby and photo opportunities, similar to Reno’s local mustangs.

It was so pleasant walking and talking with my coworker and his companion, who have also become my good friends over my years working as your Basque Books Editor. Once we get past the fog layer the day is clear and bright, an anomaly for the Basque Country in this time of year and we soak it in. At Urkiolamendi Pass my companions, having been here many times before, decided that they would forsake a summit attempt and they sent me on alone. Now the trail became braided into various use trails and, with the beautiful day and with the Basques’ love for the outdoors, hiking, and mountain climbing, there were many people on the pass. Climbing up through steep limestone, at first the trail remained in the treeline, but it was truly stunning when it emerged and you could see how very steep this mountain really is.

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That is a long way down!

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The peak in sight now, sharing the trail with lots of visitors

I emerged onto the top of the ridge to a sublime panorama of what seemed to be the entire Basque Country. Durango in the valley below me, farther away toward the coast where Gernika was, and then, over there, even where Bilbao would be although it remained out of sight.

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Emerging onto the highest ridge, looking toward Durango and Bilbao.

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The last climb to the summit, dotted with people.

I started climbing the last, narrow, very steep climb to the summit. I think that maybe Mari go to me, or Sugaar, because I started to get really nervous. My more or less street shoes didn’t seem to be finding the traction they should on the still dew wet grass and the number of people (in Nevada it is much more common to hike alone) made me feel claustrophobic. Particularly one couple, with the man convincing an increasingly reluctant woman that she should continue while younger, fitter people clambered all about us. I was probably only meters from the summit when I realized that it didn’t matter so much, that I had done what I had set out to do and that it was time for me to get off of the mountain without officially having stood on its summit. My companions, a txakoli, and lunch would be awaiting me down at the bottom, while there was only the wind and myth and fate left on the summit. So I retraced my steps. Rejoined my companions for an excellent lunch in Urkiola, and left Anboto behind for another year. I’ll be back!!!

Happy holidays and New Year to all of our blog readers. Thanks so much for following along with us and for staying abreast of what is happening at the Center and in Basque culture. Here’s looking forward to 2017!

Agur!

Your Basque Books Editor

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.

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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).

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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.

 

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.

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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.

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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!

 

 

 

Race to save wild Basque cattle in Iparralde

A report (in French) in Sud-Ouest on October 24 notes that the Iparraldeko Betizuak association, an organization dedicated to protecting the remaining wild Basque cattle or betizuak in Iparralde, has been officially dissolved by its head, Iban Seiliez, in an attempt to “make the state and [different] bodies face up to their responsibilities.”

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A betizu on Mount Xoldokogaina, Biriatu, Lapurdi. Photo by Seiliez, via Wikimedia Commons

The betizu–from the Basque behi izua or “elusive cow”–is a breed that still inhabits parts of the Basque Country, mainly in Iparralde and Navarre, numbering perhaps 600 in total truly wild cattle (there are domesticated betizuak throughout the Basque Country). In Iparralde, where there are around 100, they are to be found mainly on the slopes surrounding  Mount Larrun (or Larhun; La Rhûne in French), the Ibardin Pass and Mount Arranomendi (Mondarrain in French), two areas of southern and southastern Lapurdi. According to Seiliez, “it’s one of the oldest breeds in Europe. It was almost made extinct in the 1920s because wild cattle were slaughtered during construction of the Larrun train.” Its characteristics are described here.

For Seiliez, “I think the objective of the association’s goal, which was to promote coexistence between the betizu and other mountain users, has not been achieved. Instead, we have disempowered the authorities.” He thus found it necessary to dissolve the association as a means of forcing more involvement from the authorities. “The betizu is unique in Europe,” he concludes,  which “needs a sustainable management plan and a proper status . . . the authorities must assume this responsibility.” The provincial government of Navarre, for example, established a conservation plan for the breed, ceding land from an abandoned farm in the Urraulgoiti Valley for 45 animals to live in at least “semi-freedom.”

Betizu cattle, known alternately as behigorri (red cow), zezengorri (red bull), and txahalgorri (red calf), were important in Basque mythology as spirits that took animal form in order guard important caves. There are theories, moreover, that link this breed to those cattle represented in the parietal art or cave paintings of Europe’s most famous sites (though many of these paintings actually depict a now extinct type of bison, in some sites there are representations of bulls portrayed in a noticeably reddish color reminiscent of the betizuak). Regarding this mythological status of the betizuak, as noted in the Selected Writings of José Miguel de Barandiarán: Basque Prehistory and Ethnography:

They did not allow anyone to enter their dwelling place. In certain cases they kidnap young people who have been the target of some curse and hold them captive in their underground dens . . . It is useful to recall that the same figures that are situated by Basque mythology in caverns also appear painted or engraved by men of the Magdalenian period and earlier on the walls of some of the caves of our country.

In short, these are animals that have been extremely important in Basque culture for thousands of years. One can only hope that a solution is found to help them survive in what is their land as well.