The Mystery of the Basque Witches
In 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’d 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 Maria didn’t return for Isabel that afternoon. Instead, she came at night. Isabel, who shared a bed with her mother, was quite shocked to see the old woman, and terrified when Maria 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 chapel.
They weren’t alone. Many others on the hill were involved in some kind of strange sabbat. During the ceremony, people gathered at 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 Illara 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.
No one knows how Isabel answered, but later reported 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 there.
Whether he had sex with Isabel is also unknown. But he 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 thing scene.
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 Maria and for three other people whom the girls had recognized at the sabbat.
All denied the charges, except for sixty-nine-year old Maria, 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–or perhaps someone put a spell on him.
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 the 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 witchcraft.
In a place called the “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 stating Jesus’s name could stop the spell, but it apparently failed.
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 from torture.
One of the judges from the proceedings, Frenchman, Pierre de Lancre, a professional witch hunter and historian, recorded many of his experiences in witch hunting.
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 the 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 fled when he arrived in Basque. Unsurprisingly, he executed many by burning them at the stake, including an 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 witches.
Yet even after the wide scale eradication during de Lancre’s time, witchcraft continued in the Basque area and is still practiced there today. Many still refer to the area as the witch capital of the world.
The people are nearly as afraid of witchcraft now as they were in earlier times and are very superstitious. Rarely will they 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 some will become a witch by merely possessing something that belonged to a witch. One can even become a witch by walking around a church three times. And of course, the touch of a dying witch transmits their power 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 are 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.
© 1998 Bobette Bryan