Thirteen-year-old Isabel Garcia had a strange story to tell. According to her, she was washing her clothes in a stream one day when she was approached by an old woman named Maria de Illara, who had offered her money if she would do some errands for her that afternoon. The girl agreed, and Maria de Illara said that she would call for her.
But the woman had not returned in the afternoon. It was night when she came, when Isabel was in bed with her mother. The girl told how Maria had dragged her out of the bed and over to the window, where some strange ointment had been rubbed under her armpits; the next moment, with Maria’s hands firmly on her shoulders, she had flown out of the window and away across the rooftops until finally she came to a hill called Jaizquibel, near the chapel of Santa Barbara.
There were others there, too. It had been obvious, the girl said, that a Sabbat was being held, and went onto describe the meeting.
The Devil, in the form of a man but with three horns and a tail, was sitting on a golden throne; the girl was presented to him by Maria, and the Devil urged her to renounce Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, the Holy Fathers of the Church and her godparents.
The members of the coven had then begun to dance to the accompaniment of drums, fifes and flutes. All the dancers wore masks, but Isabel recognized several of them. She also said that she had seen the Devil having sexual intercourse with women, girls and young men, and he had given her an apple which she had eaten. Two hours later. Maria de Illara had taken her home again. Her mother was still asleep and had not noticed her absence.
Another 13-year-old girl, Maria de Alzueta, also testified that she had been kidnapped and taken to a Sabbat in much the same manner as Isabel. In fact, her story was very nearly identical.
The year was 1611. The place: Fuenterrabia, a town in the heart of the mysterious Basque country on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees. The two girls made their sworn statements in front of the town council, who gave orders for the women mentioned in the girls’ accounts to be arrested.
There were four of them, and they promptly denied all the charges. One of them, Ines de Caxen, had already been tried for witchcraft in France, but had been found not guilty. Soon after the four had denied the charge, however, 69-year-old Maria de Illara asked to make a further statement – and this time she confessed to being a witch. She admitted that she had become a witch 48 years earlier, while in the service of one Joan de Tapia.
Maria confessed that she had bewitched several children, including Isabel Garcia, and that she had had intercourse with the Devil scores of times. After her statement, more children came forward and laid accusations against the four women. Two more subsequently confessed; the sole exception was Ines de Gaxen.
All four witches were imprisoned, while the town council sent full details of the affair to Salazar de Frias, an Inquisitor of the Church, who was carrying out investigations into the alleged activities of witches in the mountainous areas of Navarre. Surprisingly, de Frias didn’t seem to be interested. He wrote a long letter to the council, giving permission for the witches’ belongings to be returned to them – and that was all. The council had no alternative but to release the four women, on condition that they left Fuenterrabia and never returned.
Salazar de Frias’s lenient attitude was surprising, because in the previous year he had been a leading figure in a great purge of witches that had taken place at Zugarramurdi, in the north-western region of Navarre. This was one of the leading centers of witch-craft in the Basque country, and Sabbaths were held in a place known as the ‘Field of the He-Goat’ just outside the town. There was a sheer cliff at one end of the field, and in it was a large cave, which the Satanists used as their temple. A river known as the Stream of Hell ran through this cave, and above it, on a ledge, stood the Devil’s throne.
The witches held ordinary ritual meetings every Friday night throughout the year, but Black Mass was celebrated on the night before certain Christian festivals such as Christmas, Easter and Whitsun. The Devil himself was said to officiate on these occasions, assisted by his acolytes, and the Black Mass was said in the Basque language instead of Latin.
Contemporary accounts attribute a great variety of crimes to the Basque witches and the ‘Devil’, or high priest, who presided over their gatherings. Zugarramurdi was not very far from the coast, and the witches were frequently accused of conjuring up the terrible storms that swept the Bay of Biscay, sending many a sailor to his death. They were also accused of producing freak storms to ruin the harvest, but these could be silenced simply by pronouncing the name of Jesus. In the early autumn, when a southerly wind called the Egoa was blowing, the witches were also said to use poisonous powders to ruin the crops. Even today, the Egoa is known as the Sorguill Aizia, or ‘Wind of the Witches’.
The Zugarramurdi witch trial ended on 8 November, 1610, and the witches heard their sentences, which were characteristically harsh. Eighteen repented and were reinstated in the Church, but seven others were burned at the stake, as were the effigies of five more who had died under torture.
A seventeenth-century historian who recorded the alleged activities of witches in the Basque country, Frenchman Pierre de Lancre, acted as chief judge in a series of trials in the Labourd region of the Pyrenees. He was a harsh judge, but nevertheless he was a talented and intelligent chronicler – and his works contain valuable descriptions of satanic ceremonies.
The ancient standing stones of Carnac and the surrounding area seem to symbolize the mysterious past of the Basque people.
De Lancre believed that Satan had chosen the Basque region to be the center of witchcraft in Europe because it stood apart from the political and religious influences of the rest of Europe. Even the language spoken by the people, a language that bore no comparison to any other – and whose origin is still unknown today – helped to increase the isolation. The Basques were turbulent and restless, fond of magic and wild dancing – and were very superstitious into the bargain. Apart from that, the great majority of the menfolk were seafarers, absent from home for lengthy periods – and while they were away the Devil found it an easy matter to sow the seeds of evil among the women.
When de Lancre and his ‘witchhnders’ arrived in the Basque country from the French side of the frontier, thousands of people fled southwards into Spain to escape the persecution. They were the lucky ones. De Lancre described how, when he arrived in one parish, the local witches asked the Devil for special protection against the bonfires that were being lit all over the country by de Lancre and his men for burning witches. The bonfires, at least, were real enough.
During his investigations, de Lancre was scandalized by the number of priests who confessed to being implicated in satanic activities. One old priest – so old, in fact, that he probably didn’t know what he was saying – stated that he had worshiped the Devil until 15 or 16 years earlier, when he had decided to abandon Satan ism and return to the fold of Christianity.
The priest admitted to have taken part in the foul and evil rituals of the Sabbath, and signed three confessions. As de Lancre revealed that he had been tortured, the poor old man would probably have confessed to anything if only it meant that his agony would be at an end. The confession was his death-warrant; he was defrocked and then burnt to death in his own town as ‘an example to good Christians’.
After the execution, many priests joined the ranks of those who were already on the run from de Lancre’s witch-hunting activities. Nevertheless, de Lancre succeeded in catching seven of the leading priests of the Labourd region. Three of these were found guilty of celebrating the Black Mass and were executed. One of the men, an independent chronicler notes, had not celebrated anything for years because he was completely mad – but it seems that neither de Lancre nor his associates noticed this fact. Or if they did, they ignored it.
De Lancre’s ‘commission’ employed the same techniques as witch finders elsewhere in Europe. Their accusations and trials were based on denunciations made by children, senile people, those who harbored grudges against individuals and suspects who had been tortured until they were insane. The information de Lancre gathered in this way must have been made even more suspect by the fact that he spoke no Basque.
Among de Lancre’s accomplices were several quack doctors who claimed to be expert at discovering ‘witch-marks’ on the bodies of their unfortunate victims. With the assistance of people such as these, de Lancre managed to ‘prove’ that more than 3,000 people in Labourd had the witch’s mark – in other words, an insensitive spot on the body that registered no pain when a needle was plunged into it. Yet although he referred to it frequently, de Lancre was unable to prove that the ‘mark of the toad’ existed in the alleged witches’ eyes, either. Yet this lack of firm evidence did nothing to prevent him from sending his unfortunate victims to the flames, witch-marks or not.
Witch finders such as England’s notorious Mathew Hopkins were commonplace in seventeenth-century Europe. Those of the Basque country were as cruel as any.
Despite the havoc he wrought, and the innocent people he condemned to death, de Lancre was without doubt one of the most ludicrous witch finders in Europe. Even the brutal and ignorant Matthew Hopkins, England’s Witch finder General, was motivated by greed; he received a fixed sum for every witch he convicted. De Lancre, on the other hand, had no such motive. He sowed a trail of terror and bloodshed throughout the Basque country because he genuinely believed that every dark shadow concealed a witch.
Whether the Basque country was in fact the hotbed of witch- craft that de Lancre and the others claimed it to be is a matter for conjecture. The fact remains, however, that witchcraft continued to be practiced long after the seventeenth-century witch trials, and is still practiced in many a Pyrenean village today. Some parts of the Basque country are said to produce more witches than others.
Superstition still holds the Basque peasants in fear of witchcraft, and strangers – particularly if they speak Basque fluently – are looked upon with suspicion in many of the more remote areas, for it is believed that a witch can be detected by the manner in which he or she speaks.
Another belief is that a person can become a witch simply by possessing something that has belonged to a known sorcerer, or by performing certain acts – such as walking round a church three times. In addition, if a dying witch touches a person, the witch’s powers are transmitted to that person.Many witch jars have been found, containing such things as urine, nail clippings and other personal objects used in magical enchantments.
The power of the witch that is most feared in the Basque country is the Evil Eye, and Basque folklore is rich in stories about this belief. One story, dating from the early part of this century, tells how several children living in a street in Fuenterrabia fell sick. An old woman who walked along the street every morning was blamed for putting the Evil Eye on them. The angry mothers of the children caught the old woman and were about to burn her when she was saved in the nick of time by some men who happened to be passing.
According to Basque tradition, the best way to lift a spell is to make a careful inspection of mattresses in the house where the spell is working, since spells are thought to be carried in little tufts of wool taken from the stuffing of a mattress and fashioned into the shapes of animals. If the spell is a relatively unimportant one, a pair of scissors placed on the mattress in the shape of a cross will ward it off; if it is a powerful one, the whole mattress must be burnt to a cinder.
According to the Basques, there are various ways in which one can tell whether a witch is near at hand; when a cock crows at an unusual time, for example. When that happens, the best thing to do is throw a handful of salt on the fire, or cross the fingers of both hands. Many Basques will never go near a cave at night, because caves are the traditional meeting-places of witches. Other meeting- places are dolmens – stone monuments erected by the country’s ancient inhabitants – freshwater springs and steep hillsides where streams flow. The idea that the ceremonies of witchcraft must be practiced near water is not just a Basque superstition; it extends throughout the world.
Throughout the centuries, witchcraft has been the strongest among peoples who are devoutly religious. This is true of the Basques, and there can be little doubt that as long as the Basques retain their old traditions and some measure of independence, witchcraft will continue to be practiced in the Pyrenees.
But the witchcraft of the Basques is unique in Europe, for it is not confined to a particular cult. There is magic behind every tree, in every stream – and it is in the hearts of the people themselves, no matter how hard they might try to suppress it. For the Basques are an old and mysterious race, and it is perhaps fitting that the old Religion still finds a place in their ancient culture.