In the year 1611, supernatural events took place
in a small, isolated seafaring community in the Basque country, on the Spanish
side of the Pyrenees, that would thoroughly shock the population.
It all began when thirteen-year old, Isabel Garcia told people that
while she had been washing clothes in a stream one day, an old woman
named Maria de Illara offered to pay her to do some errands. The
girl agreed, and the old woman said she'd call for her later.
But the woman didn't return for Isabel that afternoon as they'd agreed. Instead,
she came at night. Isabel, who was sharing a bed with her mother, was quite
shocked to see the old woman, and terrified when the woman dragged her to the
window, rubbing some ointment under Isabel's arms. Then, with Maria's hands
firmly on the woman's shoulders, the two flew out the window, over
rooftops, and landed on Jaizquibel Hill, near the Santa Barbara
They weren't alone. There were many others on the hill who were involved
in some kind of strange sabbat. There was a long table at the
head of which sat the Devil on a golden throne. He looked like a
man except that he had three horns and a tail.
While the members of the gathering danced to the tune of drums, fifes
and flutes, the old woman brought Isabel before the Devil and gave
her to him; wherein the Devil asked Isabel to renounce her love
for Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, the holy fathers of the church,
and her parents.
It's not certain how Isabel answered, but she did say that she
recognized many of the dancers though they wore masks. She also
said that she'd witnessed the Devil having sex with both males
and females alike.
Whether he had sex with Isabel is also unknown. But he did give
her an apple which she ate. Shortly afterward, she was returned
to her home.
Her mother, still asleep, had not noticed her absence.
The story might have ended, might have possibly been chucked up to a
bad dream or indigestion, but soon, another young lady, Maria de Alzueta,
reported that she too had been abducted and witnessed the same
As a result, an investigation was launched and the two girls
came before the town council where they each gave their sworn
testimony. Shortly afterward, an arrest warrant was issued for
the old woman, Maria de Illara and for three other people whom
the girls had recognized at the sabbat.
All denied the charges, except for sixty-nine-year old Maria de Illara, who
confessed to practicing witchcraft for the past forty-eight years. She
claimed that she became a witch while she served an employer
named Joan de Tapia.
She also confessed to bewitching several of the town children,
including Isabel, and to having sex with the Devil many times.
After this news reached the townspeople, many other children also came forward, accusing her and her
three accomplices of witchcraft. One of them, Ines de
Gaxen, had previously been accused of witchcraft in France, but
had been found not guilty.
Two of the women broke down and confessed, except
for Ines de Gaxen, who insisted on her innocence.
Shocked and horrified by this turn of events, the council
called for Salazar de Frias, Inquisitor of the church who routinely
carried out investigations of witchcraft in the Navarre area.
The man had a reputation for being zealous in his determination
to purge the area of witchcraft and typically dealt with
such matters severely.
But amazingly, de Frias didn't seem too concerned
about the case or the confessions. He wrote the council
a note, telling them to free the ladies and to return
their belongings to them. And the council was reluctantly forced to free the four women, but
on one condition: they were forced to leave Fuenterrabia forever.
Perhaps de Frias had simply seen enough blood shed.
Only a year earlier, in 1610, he had been involved in
a massive witch hunt in Zugarramurid, not too far from this small community, in
northwest Navarre, which was one of the leading areas of witchcraft in this
area, and possibly the largest area
where witchcraft was practiced in Europe, and so the
people were understandably terrified of even the slightest whispering of
In a place called "Field of the He-goat," there was
a small cave that was renowned for its supernatural happenings. A stream
ran through the cave called the "Stream of Hell," and above it was a ledge called
"Devil's Throne." Here witches held rituals every Friday night
and the Black Mass on nights before certain Christian festivals
and holidays, speaking in the Basque language, the oldest
known language in Europe, the origin of which is unknown.
Some reported that the Devil attended many of these celebrations,
and that many of the crimes that were committed in the area
were done by him or his acolytes. This coven was also accused
of conjuring wicked storms along the Bay of Biscay, claiming
the life of many a sailor. The southerly "Egoa," a storm which still strikes
this area in the early fall is known as the "Wind of Witches." These storms were
dreaded, because they ruined crops.
The people thought that pronouncing the name of Jesus could stop the spell, but
it apparently did not.
At any rate, these witches were soon arrested and a big trial ensued.
Eighteen repented and were, amazingly, allowed to reenter society
and were even reinstated in the church. Seven others were
less fortunate and were either burned at the stake or died
One of the judges from the proceedings, Frenchman, Pierre de Lancre, a professional
witch hunter and historian, recorded many of his experiences in
He firmly believed that the Devil came to this isolated area, because
it stood apart from all other areas of Europe. No one else in
Europe spoke the Basque language, including him, and the country
was separated from the main political and religious centers of Europe.
Then too, he thought that he Basque's very lifestyle of being
restless, wild, and superstitious had attracted the Devil. And since
the men were often at sea, the Devil would have no problem
influencing the women while their husbands were away.
Therefore, he thought that people in the area should be dealt
with severely. Fearing him more than the Devil, many of these
people fled when he arrived in Basque. Unsurprisingly, he
executed many a person by burning them at the stake, including
one old, and probably senile, priest.
In fact, like other European witch hunters from this time period,
de Lancre and his men, accepted accusations made by children, the senile, and
those who held a grudge against someone. He also employed doctors who were said
to be expert at finding "witch marks" on a suspect's body or the "mark of the
toad" in one's eyes. As a result, he put no fewer than 3,000 people to
death. As sadistic as this sounds, it's
assumed that the man genuinely thought these people were
Yet even after the wide scale eradication during de Lancre's time,
witchcraft continued in the Basque area and is still practiced there
today, and many still think of this place as the witch capital of
The people are nearly as afraid of witchcraft now as they
were in earlier times and are very superstitious. Rarely
will they even go near a cave at night, since this is
typically the area where covens meet. They also steer
clear of water and springs, because they believe that
ceremonies are only practiced near water--this superstition
is common throughout the world.
After all, this is the area of Europe where the "Evil Eye"
originated. In case you don't know what the Evil Eye is, it's a curse that's transmitted
by a mere stare from a witch. It's said that a witch walked down
a street one day, glaring at the children she saw. Later, these
children all became ill.
Due to this fear, the people have come up with many ways
to spot a witch. All strangers
who speak Basque fluently are instantly assumed to
be a witch. They might also believe someone is a witch because
of the "way" a person speaks. They also believe that someone will
become a witch by merely possessing something that belonged to
a witch. You can even become a witch if you walk around a church
three times. And of course, the touch of a dying witch transmits
the power from the witch to another.
Besides these witch-detecting methods, they believe that a witch
is near if a cock crows at an unusual time. When this happens, one should toss
salt in the fire or make the sign of the cross. Sometimes,
when a witch has cast a more serious spell on someone, a whole
mattress must be burned.
Whether any of these stories or beliefs about witchcraft are true
might be subject to debate. But at any rate, the Basque people are an ancient
and mysterious breed, and it seems only fitting that they'd uphold these
superstitions and traditions, which have become
part of their everyday life.