Basajaun – the Lord of the Forest

On my first visit to the Basque Country, I stayed in Zubieta, a small village in Navarre. The town is famous for the yearly carnival when the Joaldunak march to the neighbouring village, swinging huge cowbells to wake the world up from winter.  Zubieta is in a quiet river valley, and is surrounded by hills and mountains. On the slopes there are woods and pastures where sheep and cows graze.


Zubieta street scene

Bells in the Night

At night all is quiet, and very dark except for the occasional street light in the village itself. Every now and then you can hear the bells worn by the grazing animals on the slopes surrounding the village. Most of the time, the bells ring just occasionally, but sometimes there is an outburst of bells ringing. Something is happening up on the hill! Nothing can be seen in the dark, but the bells ring out. I was told that when this happens, it’s because Basajaun, the Lord of the forest, is walking among the animals.


Zubieta at night.

Baxajaun Legends

José Miguel de Barandiarán writes about Baxajaun (the x is used in Basque instead of an s) in his book on Basque Myths and Legends: [1]

“Baxajaun, lord of the forest, is the spirit that dwells in the deepest part of the forests or in caves situated in prominent places. It has a tall body in human form, covered with hair. Its long hair falls forward down to the knees, covering the face, chest, and stomach. It is the guardian spirit of flocks. It cries out in the mountains when a storm approaches so that the shepherds can move their flock into the fold. When Baxajaun is in the vicinity of the fold, there is no danger of the wolf approaching. Its presence is announced by the sheep with a simultaneous shaking and jingling of their bells. Then the shepherds can fall asleep peacefully, knowing that during that night or day the wolf, the great enemy of flocks, will not come around to bother them.”

Barandiarán goes on to say that although Baxajaun is sometimes represented as a frightening creature, of evil character, endowed with colossal strength and extraordinary agility, in other stories he is the first farmer from whom men learned the cultivation of grains and the first blacksmith and the first miller from whom man stole the secret of the making of the saw, the axle for the mill, and the working of metals. He retells some stories on this theme:

The Seeds of Wheat

“In Ataun, they say that the baxajaun grew wheat on Muskia mountain, situated in that town. A brave man—San Martinico—went to visit them in their cavern. Arguing with those spirits, he deliberately fell onto a pile of wheat that was there, filling his albarcas or Basque shoes with grains of wheat. Thus, on returning to his town, he carried in his shoes the seeds of the precious cereal. On discovering this, the baxajaun threw his axe at San Martinico, but he missed and could not prevent the growing of wheat from spreading throughout the world.”

San Martinico (or San Martin Txiki in Basque) mean “Little Saint Martin, and he is a trickster figure, like Prometheus, in Basque Mythology.

There’s a sequel to the story, that although Martin Txiki obtained the seeds of wheat, the villagers didn’t know when to plant them, so Martin went again to the cave of the basajaun, and heard them singing a song:

“Gizakiok balekite abestitxoa
aterako liokete etekin ederra.
Hostoa sortzean erein artoa,
hostoa erortzean erein garia
San Lorentzo garaian erein arbia”

“It simply came to our notice then
they would reap a beautiful return.
Sow corn in the leaf,
sow wheat when the leaf falls
Sowing turnips in the time of St. Lawrence “

So he knew that wheat was to be planted in the autumn, at leaf-fall.

You can listen to someone telling the story of Martin Txiki and the basajaun from a children’s book in Basque:

Making a saw

According to a legend from the region of Oiartzun, San Martin Txiki didn’t know how to make a saw, but he knew that the baxajaun had the secret. So he decided to trick the secret out of the baxajaun. He sent a servant to announce in the town that San Martin Txiko had indeed managed to construct a saw. On hearing this, the baxajaun asked the servant, “Has your master seen the leaf of the chestnut tree?”

“He hasn’t seen it but he will,” answered the servant, who later told San Martin Txiki what had happened. This is how the technique for making the saw was spread throughout the world.


Chestnut (image from Wikimedia commons)

The Secret of Soldering Iron

With the same trick, San Martin Txiki succeeded in learning how the baxajaun soldered two pieces of iron together, according to a legend from Kortezubi. He ordered the herald to announce that he had discovered the process for soldering iron. The baxajaun asked the herald, “Did he sprinkle the pieces of iron with water from potter’s clay?”

“He didn’t, but he will,” was the reply. And as a consequence of this new secret, the technique of soldering iron was spread throughout the world.”

The Mill Axle

A legend from Sara explains that the axle for St. Martin’s mill was made of oak and that when it was used to turn the wheel it burned up. But the axle of the baxajaun’s mill lasted for a long time. San Martín had it announced that his mill now functioned without any interruption.

“That means that he has used an axle made from an alder tree,” replied the baxajaun.

“He is going to use one,” replied the herald. And thus, thanks to San Martin Txiki’s trick, men were able to benefit from the use of the mill all over the world.

Listen in Basque

You can hear about Baxajaun in Basque here.

Who is Basajaun?

Some people see Basajaun as a Basque version of the Yeti or Bigfoot. There are theories that he might depict a Neanderthal man from tens of thousands of years ago when modern man and both Neanderthals lived in the area. [2]

Another possible connection is to the legends of the bears. Basajaun is wild and hairy, like a bear, and in another blog article, there’s a suggestion that there was a time when bears ruled men. Perhaps this was linked to the idea that men obtained the secrets of agriculture and metalwork from a more skilled race.

One other interesting connection is through the Cave of San Juan Xar, an old sanctuary near the village of Igantzi, in the Bidasoa river valley. [3] The sanctuary hosts three springs of healing water. According to Barandiarán, it was Basajaun who first presided over the cave, but today Basajaun is accompanied by a sculpture of a Saint Juan (St John) bearing a cross, turning the cave into a chapel. Every San Juan (23rd June), on midsummer’s night, locals gather here for an evening ceremony. St John the Baptist was a bit of a wild man himself, living in the wilderness, wearing clothes made of camel’s hair, and eating locusts and honey.  He was the archetypal ascetic, and he was sometimes called the forerunner, who prepared the world for the coming of Christ.

Modern Legends

Today it seems that Basajaun has taken on a role as a guardian figure for the countryside. There are films showing him sneaking up on littering visitors to the woods, and an interesting modern short film depicts him as a green man figure, defending the woods against exploiters:

Basajaun y las lindes de los Bosques (Basajaun and the borders of the forest).



[1] Mitología Vasca, José Miguel de Barandiarán (Txertoa), in Spanish. An English translation is available as part of Selected Writings of José Miguel de Barandiarán: Basque Prehistory and Ethnography. [available as a PDF file here: ]

[2] Article about Basajaun, and theories that he might originate from the proto-Basque interaction with Neanderthals over 40,000 years ago.

[3] Article about the cave of San Juan Xar

Basque Folklore

According to the Basques there is a duality of beings and of worlds: on the one side the natural world (berezko), on the other the supernatural one (aideko); to operate in the first, one has to use natural instruments, one enters the second through magic. The magical means are many but they are all based on the ADUR, or magical virtue, that links things with their representations. Curses or birao are transmitted thanks to adur, to the person or thing which is signalled: a symbolic action towards an image emits its adur, that operates at a distance. Names are sound images of things. According to a popular Basque saying all that has a name exists “izena duen gutzia omen da”.

From Subterranean Mythology and primordial religion of the Basque People by Carlo Barbera.

Link to the full article:

The Legend of Mari

Extract from Jose Miguel de Barandiaran’s
“Dictionnaire Illustre de Mythologie Basque”

Translation by Byron Zeliotis  (translator’s additions bracketed in italics)

The Legend of Mari

Mari is a female deity. She ended up fulfilling the many functions that were those of the various spirits of Vasconie and elsewhere. She is considered as the chief of all the other spirits. Among the many variants of her name Mari seems to be the most ancient form. In certain localities this name which means ‘lady’ is accompanied by the name of the mountain or of the cave in that area where it is believed that she appears frequently.

‘Txindoki’ko Mari’: Mari of Txindoki is her name in Amezketa;

in Ataun it is ‘Marimunduko’: ‘Mari of Mundu or Muru’.

Here are some other names:

Mari Muruko –‘Mari from Muru or Buru’ in Elduain.

Mariburute in Udabe (Navarra)

Aldureko Mari in Gorriti

Marie Labako “Mari of the oven or kiln” in Ispaster

Marije Kobako “Mari of the cave” in Markina

Marimur in Leitza

Mariarroka in Olazagutia

Mariarraka in Abadiano

Mariburrika in Garai and Berriz

Puyako Maya –“Maya of Puya”- in Oiartzun

Andre Mari Munoko –“Lady Mari of Muno”- in Oiartzun

Andre Mari Muiroko –“Lady Mari of Mugurio”- in Arano

Muruko Damea – “the Lady of Muru- in Ataun

Aralarko Damea-“The Lady of Aralar” in Amezketa

Putteriko Damea “the Lady of Putteri” in Arbizu

Illunbetagaineko Dama –“The Lady of Illunbetagaine” –n Lakuntza

Aketegiko Dama –“The Lady of Aketegui”

Anbotoko Dama –“The Lady of Anboto” in Zarautz

Amuteko Damie –“The Lady of Amute” in Azkoitia

Arribibeltzeko Andra –“The Lady of Arrobibeltz” in Azkaine

Anbotoko Senora –“Lady of Anboto” in Aia, Aretxabaleta and also in many other villages of Guipuzcoa and Biscaye.

Anbotoko Sorguina “the sorceress of  Anboto” in Durango

Aketeguiko Sorguine“the sorceress of  Aketegui” in Zegama

Arpeko Saindua “the Saint of the cave” in Bidarrai also in many villages near Labourd and Navar.

Damatxo “ young lady” in Lizarraga

Gaizto “Horrible” in Onate

Yona-gorri “the one with the red judge” in Lescun

Dama and Hechicera referred to in “the books of Linhagens” of Count Don Pedro (sixteenth century).

We shall simply call her Mari as did the shepherds of Urquiola when showing me a cave in a mountainside near the field of  Zabalaundi at the foot of the peak of Anboto, saying: “ara or Marijen kobia” : “down there is Mari’s cave”.

It is possible that Mari’s name derives from the Christian name ‘Mary’; however one should not completely exclude other origins out of hand. This name could have some connection with Mairi, Maide, Maindi, names assigned to other legendary figures of Basque mythology, even though the meanings that are associated with these divinities are different.

The Mairi are makers of dolmens; the Maide are male mountain spirits who constructed the cromlechs, while their female counterparts the Lamin are the spiits of streams, rivers and caves; the Maindi are perhaps the souls of the ancestors who came at night to visit their old haunts, as it is believed in the region of Mendibe.

Maya seems to be closely connected with Maju who is considered to be Mari’s husband; it should be Lope Garcia de Salazar himself (fifteenth century), named Serpent, the father of Jaune Zuria; in Ataun they call him Sugaar, in Dima Sugoi, which means the same thing.

Mari’s aspects

Legends attribute the female gender to this divinity. She often presents herself in the guise of a lady who is dressed in an elegant manner; that is what we are told in the Durango accounts where she also appeared carrying in her hands a golden palace. In the tales of Elorrio, Bedona, azpeitia, Zegama, Renteria, Azkaine and Lescun she is represented in the same manner –but without the golden palace-. In the last of these localities (Lescun) one sees her wearing a red gown.

She equally manifests herself in the form of a lady seated in a chariot which is drawn by four horses crossing the skies. (Amezketa).

In the form of a lady throwing flames; that are how they have seen her in Zaldibia.

In Bedona she is a woman enveloped in flames hovering above ground as she goes to and fro across the horizon. She can also have the appearance of a woman throwing flames and who sometimes carries a broom, or sometimes chains.(it is in fact only the actual sound of chains with which she is associated). (Errezil).

In the legends of Onati and Zegama she is a woman riding a sheep.

In Azkoitia she was recognised under the guise of a woman whose head was illuminated in the glow of the full moon.

She was seen in the form of a half moon tossing flames.(Eskoriaza).

She could be a woman with bird’s feet, they say in Garagarza.

She is a woman with goat’s feet as it is written in “Livro dos Linhagens” by Conte don Pedro.

In a cave of  mountain Auza (Baztan) she appeared in the form of a billy goat.

In the form of a horse in the legends of Arano.

She allowed herself to be seen in the form of a bull in Onate.

Many of the inhabitants of the Zegama region saw her in the form of a black raven in the cave in Akategi.

According to beliefs in Orozko she and her companions take on the form of vultures in the great cave of Supelegor or that of Supelaur.

In one of the legends from Onati she appeared in the shape of a tree whose posterior part resembled that of a woman; in another legend she radiates flames from all sides.

In Eskoriaza it is said that Mari manifests in the form a gust of wind.

In certain cases she takes on the form of a white cloud (Durango, Ipazter).

Sometimes one could see her in the form of a bow in the sky. In Zerain rumour has it that a young girl from the house of Eguskitza (Mutiloa) managed to reach the bow in the sky and that she was transformed into Mari.

In Onate , Segura and Orozko they claim to have seen her as a fiery ball.

She frequently adopts the aspect of a fiery sickle. That is how they saw her cross the skies in Ataun, Zegama, Zuazo de Gamboa.

In the cave of Zeharburu (Bidarrai), they saw her petrified in a form evoking the human torso.

Despite this polymorphism described in the mythic accounts, all the testimonies agree that this is a female deity.

In her underground travels Mari often takes on the aspect of animals; her other forms appear when she is sojourning the earth when she is criss-crossing the skies.

The animal forms, like those of the bull the lamb, the billy-goat, the horse, the snake, the vulture etc which the mythical accounts make allusion to, and which are related to the underground kingdom, therefore represent Mari and her subordinates- in other words the earthly spirits or the earth elementals to which people attribute cosmic phenomena-. The changes in aspect mentioned by many myths confirm this idea.

The haunts, residences, homes of Mari

The underground world, is the habitual stay of Mari. And these regions communicate with the earth surface thanks to various routes or conduits such as caves and chasms. That is why Mari appears in such places more often than not. In connection to this, many remember plenty of occasions during which the genie of Mari appeared in many animal dens, notably the caves and chasms of Balzola (Dima), Spelaur(Orozko), Anboto, Atxorrotz (Eskoriza), Zaldiaran, Akategi, Agamunda (Ataun), Murumendi (Beasain), Marizulo (Amezketa), Obantzun (Berastegi), Odabe (Alsasua), Akelarre (Zugarramurdi), Leize (Sara), Zelharburu (Bidarrai), Azalegi (Alzai), Ostibarre, etc.

It is generally believed that Mari’s haunts are richly decorated and that precious stones and gold abound there. In the cave in Akategui, the beds are golden. (Zegama).

In one of the legends from Zenarruza it is said that Mari gave a handful of charcoal to one of her captives; outside the cave she found that it had turned into the purest of golds.

In the cave of Otsabio there is a golden bull (Lizarza). In Zarautz it is said that Mari spins thread with a golden spinet.

In Amezketa they also say that Mari owns a similar spinet.

The lady of the cave or Lazeko Anderea that lives in Arrobibeltz (Azkaine) is seated on a golden armchair.

In the front of the cave of Ostibarre (gamere) a basket of gold was found; they believe that it belongs to a lady who appeared there in the form of a young red bullock.

On the other hand, according to what they told me in Zarautz, there is in the cave of Anboto at the spot where Mari frequently appeared objects that resemble gold; but if one removes them from there they turn into rotten shavings of wood.

Mari changed her habitats (Manaria): she spent seven years in Anboto, seven years in Oiz, seven years in Mugarra.

According to the beliefs of the folk in Amezketa, she sometimes stays in Aralar and at other times she stays in Aizkorri or Murumendi.

Mari’s Family

In many Basque myths Mari is considered as the chief or the queen of all the divinities that populate the world.

In one legend in Azkoitia it is said that Mari has a husband named Maju , who appeared in a form similar to hers. When the two meet they unleash a furious tempest of rain and hailstorms. The entity they call  Sugaar, “serpent, in the area of Goiherri, has to be the same entity as that of Maju. It is a figure that doesn’t occupy an important place in Basque mythology proper.

In a legend from Zumaya it is said that he visits Mari on Thursday at two o’clock in the afternoon; he comes to comb her hair.

Sugaar, or serpent could have been the Basque devil of the fifteenth century described in the chronicles of the seven houses of Viscaya and Castilla (Cronica de siete casas de Vizcaya y Catilla -1454-).

It concerns a young princess that lived in Mundaka; she cave birth to an infant that went on to become the first noble lord of Biscaye. Indeed, in the work which we quote from Garcia de Salazar, the story goes that a daughter of a Scottish king went to Mundaka with her servants; “ they settled here, and in these parts a devil whom they call serpent in Biscaye, would visit her in her dreams. It was the master of the house who impregnated her and…her womb became huge, she gave birth to a boy – he grew to become a gentleman with a very beautiful body. They named him don Zuria, which in the Castillian language means don Blanco…”**

** This lord “ Blanc” (White or Zuria) is the hero of a medieval tale that Lope Garcia narrates in his chronicle, and in a subsequent work too. Specifically he describes how the Basques and the Castellans confronted each other in the heart of Toledo. The battle caused such carnage that the place went on to be named Arrigorriaga (stone stained in blood). Jaun Zuria was the conqueror; before the battle he had seen two wolves each carrying a sheep in its mouth, he judged that this was an auspicious omen. Since then these wolves figure in the Basque escutcheon (emblem).


Sugoi is the serpent of the cave in Balzola (Dima); he is referred to in a legend which describes the origins of the noble lords of Biscaye. It is one of the genies closely linked to the cycle of Mari. Certain aspects associate him strongly with Sugaar or Maju, her husband. Others associate him with Mikelats and Atarrabi, the sons of Mari and companions of Axular in a cave in Sare. He is the  master of the lamin (or lamiako) and he tried to punish those whom he considered as his enemies with a magical girdle (belt).

Many of the legends from Ataun, ordizia, Arazio, etc.. allude to a marriage between Mari and a mortal. In the Ataun version of the tale it is said that she had seven sons following her marriage to a young man from the house Burugoena of Beasain. As she wasn’t Christian they (the sons) were not baptised. One day however her husband tried to go to the local church accompanied by his seven sons. Then Mari quickly ran away all covered in flames; she arrived at the tops of Murumendi saying: “nee umeek zeruako, ta ni oain muruako, “my sons for heaven and me now for Muru”, she entered into her old abode in Murumendi.

In some legends they make reference to Mari’s two daughters; in others they talk of only one who accompanies her home; finally in others  they say that she only has two sons: Atarrabi and Mikelats, the first one is handsome, the other ugly.

The above mentioned account is a variant on the legend told by the count Don Pedro de Barcelos cited around the beginning of the fourteenth century, in his “Livro dos Linhagens” and which concerns itself with the origins of the Lords of Biscaye.

In reference to don Diego Lopez de Haro he says the following: “Don Diego was a very good mountaineer; one day he had gone to hunt wild boar when he heard from above a woman singing in a very high pitched voice. He got closer, saw that she was very beautiful and very well dressed, he fell head over heels in love with her and asked her whom she was: she told him that she was from a very high lineage. He said to her that since that was the case he would marry her if she wished because he was the lord of these lands. She accepted but on condition that he promises to her to never make the sign of the cross; he promised her that and so she left with him. She was a very beautiful woman, with a beautiful body except that she had one leg that resembled that of a goat. They lived together for a long time and had two children a boy and a girl. The boy was named Inigo Guerra.

Then adds Conte don Padro, one day Don Diego Lopez de Hora crossed himself whilst eating on the family table. At that very instant, his wife threw her self out of the building through the palace window taking her daughter with her and ran away through the mountains so that no-one ever saw neither her nor her daughter ever again.”

There are stories in many areas in which Mari is not depicted as a single goddess or mythic entity, but as many sister deities. This is what they say in Markina.

Marije-Kobako “Mari of the cave”, appeared in the cave in Kanterazar; here one can observe in her the same attributes as those of her sister in Anboto; from time to time the two women visit each other.

Given the plethora of these localisations, this type of multiple personality answers a fundamental tendency that seems to play equally in the case of the virgin Mary and the places which are placed under her invocation. In fact, there are certain popular tales which present the Virgin of Arantzazu, the one in Lierna, the ancient one of Zumarraga, etc., as if they were sisters and not as if they were referring to the sole same person. One often hears it said that the virgins are seven sisters: zazpi aizpatzo dira euskaldun Birjinak “the Basque virgins are seven sisters”.

It follows therefore from the preceding beliefs and myths that Mari and her husband Maju or Sugaar form the ancestor’s party, they are from the house of the Lords of Biscaye.

The captives of Mari

Out of the innumerable spirits that are her servants, Mari often keeps in her den a young female captive. Some of the  legends say that it  was a girl from the house of Irabi (Amezketa), other tales  say it was  from the house of Iturriotz or maybe that of Euzkitza (in Mutiloa), or Muntxaraz (in Abadiano), or Bixinaga ( in Aramaiona).

The captive girl was also named Mari. Various motives had brought her to that state. Occasionally it is by being held to a promise or an obligation from her mother’s part. So, a woman from the neighbourhood Sarri (in Berriz) had promised to the lady of Anboto to give her daughter and to execute her promise she sent her (daughter) to graze cows in the Sarrimendi fields, near the cave of the genie. That is how Mari got hold of her and led her to her den.

On other occasions, she is captured following a curse by her mother. There was a young girl from the house Irabi in Amezketa. One day she lost a red calf. Mari was asked by her mother to go find it; but she refused. So her mother cursed her saying “the devil take you if you don’t bring it back!”. The young left to find it. A red cow appeared to her in the fields. Mari thought it was hers and getting closer she grabbed it by the tail. The supposed cow was the devil or Mari of Merizulo; she led her towards the cave of Txindoki –in Marizulo- in the rocky heights of Larrunarri (the mountain chain of Aralar).

A girl from the house Cegama would pass her time combing her hair, which annoyed her mother to distraction. So this one time she cursed her saying “May God transport you on a thousand beams of light!” Immediately the daughter disappeared. Later she appeared as a skeleton, to a shepherd who was near the cave in Aizkorri. She explained to him how she had become a prisoner, following her mother’s curse.

In Mutiloa they also say that a young girl became confined in similar circumstances. A shepherd saw a flash of light enter into a cave; it was the young girl that had disappeared.

In other legends the theme of the curse did not feature nor did that of the promise. Mari simply captures a young girl that approaches her cave. That is how a young girl was driven to the cave of Gabaro, near Markina. Mari took care of her for a few years during which she used her to do her spinning work. She gave her a good education and finally ( let her go )and gave her a fistful of gold.

A young girl from Bidarrai was grazing her flock of ewes on the mountain Iuskai (Iuskadi, Iduskimendi). One day she disappeared. Her parents and neighbours looked for her in vain: they knew nothing of her. At night, all around Iuskai one could hear over and over a voice which would say : ago!ago! “Wait! Wait!”.*

Everyone was stupefied. One night they saw a light cross the sky, it was like a star which headed for the mountain chain in Zelharburu; she introduced herself in one of the caves. The following day, people in the area went to explore the cavity and there, in the depths, they saw the young shepherdess petrified. Today they give her the name Harpeko Saindua, “the Saint of the cave”.



*(ago is a suffix which means more and more of something –as in blackER and blackER- or something getting more and more distant)


Attributes and functions of Mari.

In Zegama they say that they often see Mari in the kitchen of her residence (in Akategi), sitting near the fire and tidying her long hair. In Onati they saw her whilst she was spinning. In other places they saw her combing her hair in the sun, whilst seated at the entrance of her cave (in Murumendi). In Goiaz they say she is busy disentangling the thread at the entrance to her house in Muru, especially when there is sunshine and one can see the heavy clouds of a storm approaching.

Riding a lamb, she combs her hair near her cave in Muru, is what witnesses have said in Albistur. She washed her body with her left foot. They asked her why she was behaving in that manner. She replied: it is because today I have to go and cut the wheat in Navarre”. (aur Naparrora nua iitara). That very afternoon, a hale storm devastated the wheat crops of Navarre.

In Zuazo de Gamboa they say that Mari makes cotton balls inside her cave in Anboto, by hanging the (hank), loosely bound ball of wool around the horns of a sheep that serve her as rollers. In Akategi, on Thursdays, she does her washing and she bakes her bread: there is a little cloud, near the opening to the cave that indicates her operations.

When the folk of Ipaster see a cloud on mount Otoyo, they say that Mari’s furnace has been lit.

Acoording to accounts in Aretxabaleta and in Onati, when Mari is in Anbotot rains continuously, but when she is in Alona, the weather is dry. In Orozko they declare having had an abundant harvest when Mari is in Supelaur.

Mari creates tempests. According to what they told me in Albistur, in Muru  many trees are destroyed by lightning. When this Lady is in Akategi, it is the day of tempests (Zerain). She creates them in Aralar and in Trinidade-mendi, as they seem to think in Oiartzun. In Zegama, as in other villages of the Goiherri area, it is held that she unleashes them from the cave in Aketegi as well as from the one in Murumendi. In Arano they say that she sends the tempests from a chasm in Mugiro and that she then travels all over the skies in the shape of a horse. In Gorriti the people believe that Mari draws the tempest clouds from a ravine in Aralar. In Leitza they believe that  it is from a pit situated near the peak of Maimur that  she extracts gusts of winds. In many villages of the territory of Alava these winds and clouds came out of the ravine of Okina.

In Kuartango  they assured me that they came out of the lake in Arreo. One frequently hears it said that they originate from a watery hole in Urbion. In the region of Lescun  they say that Yonagorri-Mari- inhabits the peak of Anie and sends tempests from her haunt. In Tolosa they say that during the storms, Mari is riding a horse driven chariot; that is how she crosses the skies riding clouds. The only thing that this genie allows you to see is the sign of a storm approaching.

Mari knows how to reward those who have faith in her. There were travellers who wanted to climb over the mountain of Atxorrotx to reach Eskoriaza; in the blink of an eye they reached their destination, for them this was possible because they believed in this supernatural entity.

Mari is attentive to those who call on her. If someone calls her three times in succession  saying “Aketegiko dama”,-Lady of Aketegui-, she appears (to stand on her head). That is what they say today in the region of Zegama.

On certain occasions they ask Mari for advice; her oracles have been proved to be truthful and profitable. That is how the blacksmith of Iraeta, seeing that his metal work business was not working, went to see Mari in her cave in Anboto. She informed him as to the causes of his problem and the way in which to fix them; he then was able to get his iron works working again.

A similar case occurred in the metal works in Zubillaga; it is thanks to the Anboto oracle that the work was able to start again.

According to the book “Livro dos Linhagens”, which raised many questions, in the fourteenth century one had to consult her (Mari) in difficult situations.  One reads here the following:

“Finally after a certain period of time this Diego Lopez went to persecute the Moors; they captured him and took him prisoner in Toledo. His son Inigo Guerra was deeply affected by this, he consulted the people of his country about what steps he should take to set him free. They told him that they couldn’t see a solution unless he went to the mountain to find his mother (the mysterious lady of the mountain with whom Diego Lopez de Haro had been married), in order to ask her advice. This is what he did, alone on horse-back ; he found her on top of a rock; she said to him: “Son Inigo Guerra, come here, because I know very well why you have come”. He went to her and she said to him: “You come to ask me how you should set about freeing your father from prison”. There was a horse there which was roaming alone through the mountain, she called it by its name saying Pardal, she placed a bit between its teeth. She advised her son not to constrain the horse in any such way that would require him to remove the saddle or the bit from it, to water, to feed  and to shoe it; she told him that this horse would accompany him now for the rest of his life, that he would never leave a battle without being victorious, that he is going to ride it now and that the same day he will be in Toledo in front of his father’s  prison door; he would then climb down from his mount, and meeting his father in a courtyard he would take him by the hand and pretending to be talking to him he would lead him to the door where the horse was held and once there, they would both mount it, and before the night was over they would be in their own land. And that is exactly how it came to pass”.

The story of the mysterious transportation of Don Diego Lopez de Haro from the prison in Toledo to Biscay, thanks to Mari’s horse, can be traced today  to Dima. Here, a soldier from the house Iturriondobeitia who found himself in Moorish territory, was transported in an instant across these distant lands and this thanks to Sugoi, the snake from the cave in Balzola.

Mari’s cult

He who makes a present to Mari each year will not see his harvest destroyed by hale.(Kortez\ubi).

In this connection, what one can do to be sure of success, is to go to one’s animal pen in order to make her (Mari) the offering of a sheep. In many of the legends this animal figures as her favourite species.

In one legend from Aia there is talk of troublesome incidents taking place during a procession of shepherds whilst going to Mari’s cave in order to ensure that no hail showers or any other gusts of wind capable of causing harm to their flocks would fall upon them.

In the past, for the May procession of the cross (Santa Cruz de Mayo), the shepherds from Regil would go to the cave of Murumend during the feast of the ascension .

Now, if Mari was in her cave then no hail would fall in that region for the space of one year; but if she was ever absent, then hailstones would come to destroy the harvests and to badly injure the livestock that was grazing in the mountains.

According to information collected by G.Bahr in Asteasu (in 1926)the Etxekoandrere or mistress of Semeola (house of Aia) asked Mari of Muru to protect her neighbourhood from the hail. (Semeola).

Another legend says that the people of Muguiro in former times used to go in procession., to one of Mari’s caves; on the 3d of May; this cave was not far away from their homes and the priest would celebrate the sacrifice of the mass at its entrance. The legend adds that if Mari was in the entrance to the cave at that moment, there would be no hailstorms the following year.

It is also said that the priest of  Itsasondo would climb Murumendi mountain once every seven years to celebrate there the sacrifice of the mass at the entrance of the cave where Mari lived.

It is in Gaoiztozulo- another of Mari’s dens situated in Alona- where the brothers of the monastery in Arantzazu would congregate, in order to invoke this spirit. That is what the legends of Zegama say.

Every year, on the day of the Trinity, they celebrate a ‘Romeria’ (a night vigil that takes place from the 7th  to the  8th of September) in the cave of Arpeko Saindua (Bidarrai). The young petrified girl that they venerate here is invoked in the cases of allergies of the skin and the eyes. She heals with the water that drips down from the surface of that stalagmite. The devotees offer her candles (that they alight in front of what they say is the effigy of the Saint) , money, crosses are placed on the clothes worn by the sick and are left in that same cave.(Arpeko Saindia)

The practice which consists of placing money or other objects in the caves, as a way of making offerings to the genie that lives there, was very widespread in ancient times before Christianity. As far as the Basque country is concerned, they have found roman coins in the caves of Izturitze, Santimamine, Sagastigorri, Kobairada, Solacueva, etc. Today what the devotees in Zelharburu (Arpeko-saindua- or Saindia) are doing reminds one of an ancient practice, those of the gentiles that is to say of pagans.

In other areas of the country one rediscovers similar practices; these are not necessarily  connected to caves, they can take place in the open air. So, in the mountain chain of Aralar when a shepherd loses a ewe he offers a donation of money which he deposits on the stone named Amabirgina- arri “ stone of the Virgin mother, next to the meadow of Igaratza.

They did the same on the stone of Igoin (Amezketa). The offerings of stones in certain caves, on the dolmen of Obioneta as well as those made  to the genie in Arkaitz (Oskia), seem to be inspired by similar ideas.

In the fourteenth century, as a way of making an offering to their ancestor Mari, the lords of Biscaye would place the entrails of a cow on a rock in Busturia. That is what the count don Pedro de Barcellos assures us of in his work that we have already mentioned.(“Livro dos Linhagens”).  It reads : “In Biscaye they used to say, and they still say today, that Inigo Guerra’s mother is the witch or the enchantress of Biscaye. And in order to make an offering to her, each time that the lord of Biscaye is in a region with the name Vusturio, he demands that, the entrails of all the cows that have been slaughtered in his household are placed on a rock, far away from the village. The next day they find nothing and they say that if they hadn’t perform this act they would have had to suffer in some part of their household on that very day and night damage of some sort , or some other painful event. That is what the lords of Biscaye always used to do until the death of D.Juan el Tuerto; some tried to contravene this practice but they run into a lot of mishaps”.

How to behave in Mari’s abode

He who goes to consult Mari or goes to visit her, should heed some formalities. So:

1.  Address her in familiar terms.

2.  One must exit the cave in the same way that one entered it.  In other words, if one enters looking straight ahead, one also has to leave backwards, always looking straight ahead towards the cave. We come across this same constraint in the traditional conduct that one needs to observe when confronted by a lost soul; that is to say: to always keep it in front of oneself. Let us see what they told me in Errezil in this connection:

Mendicote ‘n Damia eoten omentzan. Bat sartu omentzan Damien leizean, eta zertan zegon galdetu.

-Ementxe egon. Nai al-dek sagardoa?

-Bai. Zeekin egindako sagardoa dezu?

-Ezak emandako sagarrekin.

Gizon ua atzeaka erten omentzan. Eta Damiak: “Obe dek bai atzeaka erten aizan, bestela emen geldituko itzan.

 ( In Mendikote –the ruins of an ancient fortress and cave- lived the Lady –Mari-. Someone entered the cave of the Lady and asked her what she was doing.

-I am here. Do you want cider?

-Yes. What’s it made of?

-With apples given in ‘the negative’.

This man left by walking backwards. The Lady said to him: “You did well by leaving backwards, otherwise you would have had to stay here (forever)”.

3. One must not sit down in the cave whilst one is Mari’s presence.

Mari’s commandments

This supernatural being condemns:  lying and stealing, arrogance and pompousness, breaking one’s word, disrespect for others

as well as not helping each other. The delinquents are punished by the privation or loss of that which had been the object of their deceit or theft, of their unjustified arrogance.etc… According to popular beliefs one hears it said that Mari is ill disposed to those who deny what is or those who accept what is not: ezagaz eta baiagaz. “by negation or by acceptance”.

A shepherd was grazing his sheep in Murumendi. He became thirsty and went looking for the source in the vicinity. He was approaching the opening of one of the caves and there, he saw a young lady who was dressed in a very elegant manner.

She asked him: “What do you want young man?”

–“I am looking for water miss, to quench my thirst.”

-“You mean cider”. At that very moment the young lady handed him a beautiful jar full of cider which she gave him to drink. After he had tasted it he said: “Excellent cider, with what kind of apples is it made”?

–“ With those that his lordship the Monte de Ikazteguita never gave (literally ‘gave ‘in negation’) answered the young girl.

In this way she wanted to be understood as meaning:  apples the existence of which had been denied (her) by his proprietor.

There is a proverb which says: Ezai emana ezak eaman “what is not given will take you away”.(literally: what is given in the negative will take you away)

Ezai emana “ to give in the negative” is to be lacking in sincerity  and performance of duties which are implicitly expected as mutual help of one to another.


The inviolability of Mari’s places of abode

He who enters Mari’s without having been invited into it and anyone who removes an object which doesn’t belong to him in an unduly manner, will be punished, hounded or castigated. A youth stole a golden vase which was at the entrance of the cave at Amboto; he was grabbed from his house that very night and never seen again.

Hunters threw stones in the cave in Gaiztozulo (Alona), a haunt of Mari. They were knocked over some time after by a  violent gust of wind which was accompanied by a cloud which arose out of an abyss.

A woman stole a golden comb in the cave of Ostibarre (Gamere), the same night one of her fields was completely covered in stones.

The  punishments and conspiracies of Mari

Very frequently Mari punishes mistakes. She creates situations which trouble us inside. Equally she punishes the culprits by taking their things away from them. If her victims are shepherds, she will confiscate some sheep. The most resounding punishment that she inflicts onto villagers is a hale storm.  It is herself, or her son Mikelats, who expedites the heavy dark clouds of storms from the underworld; it is either herself or another secondary spirit, among those:  Odei, Eate and Eluauso, which drive them ( the storms) from valley to valley, mountain to mountain.

According to numerous legends, in order to avoid the hail storms and other evils, in bygone ages they used to resort to celebrating masses and conjuring the spirits in front of the entrance of certain caves.

If one is unsuccessful in avoiding the formation of a storm, there is always the possibility of abating its force by the use of gestures and magical formulas.

A man from Ipinizar (Zeanuri) seeing that storm clouds were approaching, he wrapped around the fist of his left hand a plant named uztai-bedar “herb of the heavenly rainbow” (Rumex crispus) while his right hand indicated to him which direction he should take. He was thus able to steer clear this gust from his neighbourhood. Others who also conspired in this way, obtained similar success.

Others yet believe that they are endowed with similar magical powers. They invoke the spirit of the storm (Mari or her subordinates Odei, Eate, etc.) by the use of tried and tested magical incantations, and also use hand gestures to indicate the place where the rain should fall and the areas which should be hit by the hail.

Lightning and thunderbolts are manifestations attributed to Mari or her envoys. In order for a house to escape from falling thunderbolts it is customary to place on the doorstep an axe with its edge facing upwards…It is believed that a thunderbolt is a polished stone axe (prehistoric axe) or a fragment of flint tossed by the spirit of the tempest.

The term oneztarri “lightning stone” corresponds to this type of belief; this is how they represent lightning in the area of Gernika. This stone or prehistoric axe is considered to be the symbol of the thunderbolt; it protects the house in which it is placed against the perils of the fearsome meteor. However, because the stone axe is not well known, in our times, as protection they now use a steel axe instead.

The sickle is a symbol of Mari. It is known how she crosses the skies appearing in the shape of a flaming sickle, as the legends reiterate. Perhaps that is why in certain areas of the Basque country they believe that this tool protects against lightning; in relation to this, on stormy days they hang it from a post in front of the house, to steer the lightning away from there. In the same manner they also use a scythe.

Considering what we are going to report on the subject of Mari, one can think that this supernatural being forms a central core or focus; a place of convergence of mythic themes from diverse sources: the indo-European ones, others that have come to us from ancestral origins which are probably pre-Indo-European. Keeping in mind some of her attributes (as mistress of tempests, having power over spirits of the underground, associated with various earthly phenomena or these which one would think of as deriving from the bowels of the Earth),  we could regard her as a symbol- and maybe as a personification – of Earth.


(The theme of MARI) is of great complexity, the curious reader would be interested by two strands developed by:

“Sur les differents types de “Pedauques” G.maillet, and “Les themes initiatiques dans les romans de Melusine”, G.Pillard, in Melanges de Mytrhologie francaise offerts a H.Dontenville.

Maisoneuve et larose. Ed. 1980 (N.D.T)





















Bears Ancestors in the Pyrenees

“Lehenagoko eüskaldünek gizona hartzetik jiten zela sinhesten zizien.

Basques used to believe that humans descended from bears.” 

This interesting quotation sets the scene for a study of bear lore in the Basque areas of the Spanish and French Pyrenees. [1]

As late as the 18th century, hundreds of bears lived in the mountains of Europe, but by 1920 only about 200 were left, in the Pyrenean mountains. The last bear of this Pyrenean strain of brown bears was shot by a hunter in November 2004.  [2]


Female Brown Bear and Cubs

The bear is represented in the rich Carnival tradition of the Basque villages of Ituren and Zubieta, which are usually held around the end of January. In the carnival, a bear figure joins the  bell-carrying Joaldunak, and the author of the study suggests that even the style of motion and sounds made by the Joaldunak are reminiscent of a bear.


The chained bear (hartza) and the Joaldunak in the Carnivals of Ituren & Zubieta.
Photo from Pyrenean Experience

The author of the study, Emeritus Professor Roslyn Frank of the University of Iowa, explains how she first came across the idea of the Bear Ancestor:

“When I first decided to do fieldwork in Euskal Herria it was evident to me that I would need to learn Euskara (Basque). Soon after I had gained enough proficiency in the language to carry on a basic conversation, a strange thing began to happen to me. People would take me aside and tell me the following in a low voice, as if they were sharing a very important yet almost secretive piece of knowledge: “We Basques used to believe we descended from bears.” The first time someone told me this, I had no idea what I should say in response. I found the statement totally amazing. Yet over and over again the same thing happened to me. People, who didn’t know each other, who had no contact with each other, ended up telling me the same thing.” [1, p.19]

She later came across similar comments documented in historical interviews of bear hunters. The hunters talked about how killing bears could bring bad luck, and protective prayers were needed. They also explained how bear paws were used as protective amulets (in common with Siberian and Native American bear hunters). At the beginning of the 20th Century, even badger paws were used in this fashion (the Basque name for a badger means ‘little bear’). They also talked about the disturbing way a bear looks like a human figure “once its fur coat is removed”.

The Bear as Shaman

Professor Frank comments that “outside Europe we also find that many hunting tribes thought of bears as the shamans of the animal world and believed the animals’ hairy skin, paws and long claws possessed therapeutic virtues. According to Yavapai myth, at the dawn of time the first great shaman was Bear. Coexisting with these mythic narratives was a universal belief among northern hunters that bears possessed powers analogous to those possessed by shamans. Many said that bears changed their form to become humans, other animals, or even inanimate objects.”

One characteristic of the bear which would have appeared special to early man was the bear’s ability to hibernate through winter, taking refuge in a cave where it could avoid the hardship of winter. This could have been seen as evidence of visiting the underworld, or a kind of death and resurrection, with the bears reappearing from the earth at winter’s end, when the carnivals now take place.

When Bears Ruled Men

Professor Frank quotes an article from the English journal Folk-Lore in 1891, which was based on an interview with a Basque couple exhibiting a bear in Biarritz. The interviewer writes:

“They told me that their bear, when they were not travelling about, lived with them in their hut in the mountains, and that they were always careful to treat him kindly and feed him well. For example, if they had not enough of fish (which they looked upon as a luxury) for themselves and the bear, the latter must be fed and satisfied first. They declared that the animal understands all that is said about him, and observes and comprehends any household work, trade or occupation which may be going on; “and that is the reason that a bear who has lived with men should never be allowed to return to the forest and mountains, for he will tell the other bears of what he has seen and learnt, and they, being very cunning, will come down into the valleys, and by means of their great strength, added to the knowledge they have thus gained, will be able to rule men as they did before!” [1, p. 30]

The Bear Son

Professor Frank goes on to discuss the legends of the bear son, Hamalau, whose father is a Great Bear while his mother is a human being. The word hamalau in Basque literally means fourteen, but is also used, curiously, to mean infinite, omnipotent or the best. She suggests that this may be because Hamalau was a pre-christian deity.

The bear son legend is widespread in Europe and Professor Frank suggests that this is due to its roots in an archaic European cosmology.  Furthermore, there is reason to suspect that in this cosmology, the Bear Ancestor, progenitor of humans, was linked symbolically to the Great Bear (Ursa Major) constellation. An example of the bear son legend is the French Basque tales of Jean de l’Ours

Ultimately, the celebration of bear-ancestry seems to ally the human with the strong, mysterious and otherworldy bear through relationships of kinship, respect, death and resurrection:

“The Bear Festivals appear to be reenactments of real bear hunts that took place in times past: a ritual celebration of them. In other words they are performances that could be interpreted as portrayals of the hunting, death and resurrection of the earthly bear who, in turn, was seen as an ancestor. Earthly bears needed to be treated with great respect since the primordial bear (ancestor) was also seen as the “keeper of souls”. There is a Pyrenean belief that in the Fall of the year the bear gathers up the souls of all creatures of nature, and puts them in its belly (womb) where they are kept until Spring when they emerge once again. If properly treated, the bear releases the animal and plant souls so that its human offspring can live abundantly.” [1, p. 43]

Thanks to Byron Zeliotis for drawing my attention to this study.


[1] Shamanism in Europe? Three ritual healers: The Basque salutariyua, the French marcou and the Italian maramao. Roslyn M. Frank.

[2] Bear of the Pyrenees (French language)