20 July 2007
Basques had mythology? Huh. Who knew?
First off, a little World Geography 101. Find Europe. Find France. Find Spain. Then, right in between them, from the western Pyrenees down to the Bay of Biscay, you’ll find the Basque Country. Although it’s not technically a country on its own, it’s defined as an “autonomous community” as well as a historical region.
The Basque Country, or as they call it, Euskal Herria or Euskadi, is unique in western Europe. It possesses a language and culture unlike any other surrounding it. In fact, let me go language geek on y’all for a moment and say that Basque (euskara) is known as a “language isolate.” There is no other language like it. In fact, the roots of their language were in place when the Romans came, but it was not subsumed to Roman culture. Therefore it’s no surprise that it’s mythology is unique.
The Basques came to Christianity fairly late in the game, as Europeans go, but when they did, they left behind their pagan roots so completely, that it’s difficult to find much information on it. This is probably due to the Catholic Inquisition of the 15th century. Thousands of so-called witches and heretics were tortured and burned at a placed called Logrono – an ancient ritual site.
But historically, Basque mythology seems to be less pantheonic than many other cultures we’ve discussed. There are few actual gods in it, but many spirits and creatures. This seems to be common among chthonic mythologies. Seriously. Chthonic. I just had to get that word in there. It means “earth-based.” As opposed to many of our other studies, where gods live in the heavens or in the specter of death, Basque mythology is very centered on what’s in front of them, what’s part of their land.
Their sprites and spirits populate the earth in caves, in forests and in rivers. The sky is a way for them to travel, referred to generally as Osti. The moon is called Ilazki, neither good nor evil, but she plays a role in guiding the spirits of the deceased.
The highest god in the Basque pantheon, such as it is, is actually a goddess called Mari. She is benign and helpful, protecting travelers and herds and giving good council to those who need it. The goddess of thunder and wind, she is the personification of the earth, similar to the Greek Gaia. Mari drives a chariot of four white horses across the sky and when she appears, she is a beautiful woman adorned with rainbows.
Her counterpart and consort is Maju/Sugaar. I give both names because they’re so tightly linked, it’s difficult to tell whether they are two separate gods or whether they are interchangeable. In any case, Maju is no fluffy bunny and he doesn’t seem to get on very well with his wife. Their encounters are often heralded by terrible storms. Maju/Sugaar are divine thunder and lightning – the destructive kind. Sugaar appears as a serpent or dragon, living in subterranean caves.
Their son, Atarrabi, takes after his mother. He is connected to a star and when it shines, it’s said that good fortune will come to the Basque.
Their other child, however, Mikelats, (stories differ on whether it’s a son or a daughter) brings landslides, and crushing rock falls. Her star brings evil times to the Basque people.
Mari is served by genie-witches called Sorgin. They manipulate the Adur, the mystical force that links things with their representation. A symbolic action towards an image has a corresponding real impact on the actual thing. A name is even a sound image of a tangible object, therefore, by saying a name with intent, you influence its Adur.
Lamia in Greek mythology are horrible, man-eating creatures. In Basque stories, however, they are lovely water nymphs. In typical mythological form, however, they are also Sirens who can either lure men to their deaths in the water or give them gifts. The Laminak, likewise, are fairies who live in beautiful underground castles.
The Basajun is a Wild Lord or a sort of wild man of the woods. He’s another earth spirit who protects the flocks.
As always, the Encyclopedia Mythica was a very helpful resource.
The Wikipedia entry on Basque Mythology provided a useful jumping-off point.
MythHome has an entry about Basque spirits.
Arcadia Esoterica had a fascinating article concerning not only the Basque pantheon, but also the regions religious and arcane history.
Finally, Buber’s Basque Page had a lengthy entry on “Basque Astronymy [sic].” It’s a unique look at Basque mythology through linguistics. Serious language geek stuff.