Witch Trials in Europe: The Basque Witches of Spain and France

Witch Trials in Europe: The Basque Witch Cult of Spain & France

The most searched-for Witch Trials on the internet is the Salem Witch Trials. Most of us have heard the story or seen a movie about the Salem Witch Trials. But did you know Europe had its own Witch Trials long before and during Salem? One of the most interesting and well-documented of the Witch Trials in Europe raged in the Basque region of Spain and France. The Basque witches were accused of worshiping a goat-god, keeping toads as familiars, and meeting each other by Hell’s Stream.

Witch Trials in Europe: A Brief History of The Basque Witch Trials

The Basque Witch Trials began in the fifteenth century, potentially fueling the Spanish Inquisition, when the Basques were accused of witchcraft and causing harm in Northern Spain. Subsequently, King Ferdinand granted a law to try and execute the accused without the right to an appeal. A documented thirty people were executed in 1509 in the first series of Basque Witch Trials in Europe. Then more tried and executed in 1517 and 1527.

Cometh The Witch Hunters

The Witch Trials in Spain calmed down for a short period of time, then fired up again in the early seventeenth century. This time it was on the French side. The French Parlement of Bordeaux got word and sent Pierre de Lancre, a lawyer and witch hunter, to investigate. Witch Trials in this area of Europe sparked up in 1609 when De Lancre found the rumors to be true. Under Pierre De Lancre, nearly eighty people were executed for witchcraft in the French Basque region. This included men, women and children. The typical method of execution was burning at the stake in front of the entire town.

Frias and the Zugarramurdi Witches

In 1610, the Spanish Basques met their witch hunter – a lawyer named Alonso Salazar Frias. Frias began investigating the city of Zugarramurdi in the Basque region of Spain which was believed to be full of witches. There were rumors of witches who gathered where a cave met a stream called Hell’s Stream. Within the Pyrenees Mountains. There were also rumors of priests who not only allowed witchcraft to thrive but participated in it.

Frias hunted furiously for these witches. He invaded their homes, looking specifically for ointments, poisons and toads dressed in robes. The toads he never did find. Two thousand Basques were accused – approximately thirteen hundred were children between the ages of 7 and 14. They were told if they confessed, they would be pardoned. Nearly eighteen hundred of the accused later retracted their confessions claiming they had confessed under torture. Two priests were accused of allowing witchcraft to go on within the church AND offering saint amulets for healing to those who were ill.

Some sources claim nearly seven thousand people were accused but only eleven were executed. The further I’ve researched, the more inconsistencies I find with numbers of accused versus executed, etc. I would suspect the number is on the higher side, given that these witch trials in Europe began in the fourteen hundreds and ended in the sixteen hundreds in Spain and France.

The Cuevas de las Brujas in Zugarramurdi, Spain where the Basque witches met.
Cuevas de las Brujas (cave of the witches) in Zugarramurdi, Spain

The Goat God, Wild Sabbats and Toad Familiars

What we know of the Basque Witches comes from the documented witch trials, mostly written by witch hunters, courts, and Church officials. So, we have to assume much of it has been either embellished or flat-out fabricated.

The Basques had an old (Probably ancient) magical tradition that they passed down to their children and grandchildren. There was a hierarchy, of sorts, with the elder women sitting at the top. Women were held in equal and high regard among the Basque people. The elders were called Kings and Queens instead of priests and priestesses.

Children were passed down knowledge from the elders and given the job of “herding toads” at the sabbats. As mentioned previously, Basque witches particularly loved their toad familiars. The witch hunters claimed the Basques “dressed” toads in little robes and vehemently searched for evidence of this. To no avail.

Popular meeting places for Basque witch sabbats were caves, streams, meadows and wild places in general. In Zugarramurdi, the witches met at a cave now called the Cuevas de las Brujas (Cave of the witches) and at a stream that ran through it called Hell’s Stream. The akhallare was the name for a meadow where the French Basques met for sabbats which translates to he-goat meadow. A meeting place that was named after the Basques patron god.

Janicot, The Devil

One of the key accusations (Popular throughout witch trials in Europe) was the Basques worshiped “the Devil”. The correlation comes from the Basques’ main god who was a goat-like god they called Janicot. The witch hunter De Lancre claimed to have found a Basque rhyme about Janicot:

“In nomine patrica,
Aragueaco petrica,
Gastellaco Janicot,
Equidae ipordian pot.”

Which translates to, “In the name of the Father, the father of Aragon, Janicot of Castile, give me a kiss on the backside.” A common accusation in European witch trials involved promiscuity and unspeakable acts with the devil and other witches. Which is where this rhyme undoubtedly originates (probably falsified by De Lancre as “evidence”).

Francisco Goya’s “The Witches Sabbath” no doubt inspired by the goat-god of the Witch Trials

Janicot or Janus: Roman Fertility God

The Basque god Janicot seems to have been a continuation of the Roman god Janus. Doreen Valiente speaks at length of this theory in An ABC of Witchcraft. The Roman God Janus was the consort to the witch goddess Diana, of whom many Italian witches were denounced for worshiping. Janus was the god of doors, opening doors, and fertility. Obviously to open the doors of reproduction constitutes opening a doorway to allow souls to be born into the world. And the fertility aspect directly relates to woodland gods with goat features like Pan and Dianus, as well as Greek Satyrs and Roman fauns.

Handfasting and Marrying the Earth

It’s interesting to note the Basque people performed weddings at large gatherings that would eventually be called devil-worshiping black masses. The Basque people were accused of giving over their virgins to “the devil” before the girls were married off. This is a distorted image of what was once an old pagan custom where a maiden was symbolically married to the “earth” or the “god of fertility” before marrying a man. Similar to how Catholic nuns take a vow to “Marry God”.

Why Did The Basque Witch Trials Happen? The Truth…

The Basque people were a proud people who undoubtedly bucked against the Church’s expectations. Their women were held in high status – strike number one. Their local church officials allowed for old pagan customs to intertwine with the new religion – strike two. And the Basques gathered together often for large pagan parties in wild places – strike three. Although, these practices were common elsewhere too.

The Basques weren’t afraid to carry on their traditions, despite what the new religion and authorities said. It put them in direct opposition to the Church and therefore they had to be changed or destroyed. In addition, the Church seized assets of those who were executed in the Witch Trials in Europe (Similar to how the government can seize assets now if a person dies and their assets aren’t accounted for). It’s no wonder the Church accrued such a large amount of wealth over the centuries.

Sources Used:

  • An ABC of Witchcraft by Doreen Valiente
  • Witch Hunts in Europe and America: An Encyclopedia by William E. Burns

More on Historical Witches and Trials:

Witch Trials in Europe: The Basque Witch Cult of Spain and France

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