Basque mythology

The mythology of the ancient Basques largely did not survive the arrival of Christianity in the Basque Country between the 4th and 12th century AD. Most of what is known about elements of this original belief system is based on the analysis of legends, the study of place names and scant historical references to pagan rituals practised by the Basques.

One main figure of this belief system was the female goddess Mari. According to legends collected in the area of Ataun, the other main figure was her consort Sugaar. However, due to the scarcity of the material it is difficult to say if this would have been the "central pair" of the Basque pantheon. Based on the attributes ascribed to these mythological creatures, this would be considered a chthonic religion as all its characters dwell on earth or below it, with the sky seen mostly as an empty corridor through which the divinities pass.

A reproduction of a Hilarri, a Basque gravestone, from 1736 with commonly found symbols. Tombstone in English: Maria Arros Sagaray died on the 19th day of April, 1736

Christianity in the Basque Country

Basque laminak.

The Christianization of the Basque Country has been the topic of some discussion. Broadly speaking there are two views: either Christianity arrived in the Basque Country during the 4th and 5th century, or this did not occur until the 12th and 13th century.[1] The main issue lies in the different interpretations of what is considered Christianization. Early traces of Christianity can be found in the major urban areas from the 4th century onwards, a bishopric from 589 in Pamplona and three hermit cave concentrations (two in Álava, one in Navarre) were in use from the 6th century onwards.[1] In this sense, Christianity arrived "early".

At the same time, various historical sources and research directly or indirectly bear witness to the fact that large-scale conversion did not begin to take place until the 10th and 11th century:

  • the bishops of Pamplona were frequently absent from the Synods of Toledo during the Visigoth period[1]
  • reports of a failed mission by Bishop Amandus around 640 AD[1]
  • Arab authors from the time of the Umayyad conquest of Hispania labeled the Basques as being mağūs or "wizards, pagans"[1]
  • the famous cemetery of Argiñeta in Biscay from around 880 AD with Basque gravestones totally devoid of any Christian symbols[1]
  • the comparatively low density of religious centers in the Atlantic Basque Country until the 15th century[1]

Most Vasconists broadly agree that Christianity thus arrived some time in the 4th/5th century. Serious missionary and religious activity only began in the 9th century from the kingdom of Asturias and Franks, and continued after the Reconquista with famous monastic foundations (Monastery of Leyre, San Millán de la Cogolla) and the diocese of Bayonne in the 11th century. Thus Christian and non-Christian beliefs lived side by side past the 10th and 11th century. Various traditions connected to this ancient belief system have survived partly by adapting a Christian veneer or by turning into folk traditions, as happened elsewhere in Europe.

However, in spite of the process of Christianization being completed late, the process was thorough and very little direct evidence remains of pre-Christian beliefs. For this reason research into the matter tends to be putative as it has to rely on the analysis of folklore, folk traditions, sketchy references and place-name evidence.[2][3][4][5]

Historical sources

The main sources for information about non-Christian Basque beliefs are:[1]

  • Strabo who mentions the sacrifice of male goats and humans.
  • Arab writers from the time of the Umayyad conquest of Hispania
  • The 12th century diary of the pilgrim Aymeric Picaud
  • Various medieval sources making references to pagan rituals, including the records of the Inquisition
  • 19th and 20th century collections of myths and folk-tales, for example by José Miguel Barandiaran. This is by far the largest body of material relating to non-Christian beliefs and practices
  • Basque Mythology: History of the myths and deities of the Basque mythological universe by Patxi Xabier Lezama Perier. This is an Ebook that provides a global vision of Basque mythology.
  • the modern study of place-names in the Basque Country

The Urtzi controversy

Urtzi may or may not have been a Basque mythological figure. There is evidence that can be read as either supporting or contradicting the existence of such a deity. To date neither theory has been able to convince fully.[6]

Influencing other religions

The Iberian Peninsula's Indo-European cultures like the Lusitanians and Celtiberians seem to have a significant Basque substrate in their mythologies. This includes the concept of the Enchanted Mouras, which may be based on the Mairu,[7] and the god Endovelicus, whose name may come from proto-Basque words.[8]

Myths of the historical period

After Christianization, the Basques kept producing and importing myths.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h Kasper, M. Baskische Geschichte (1997) Primus ISBN 3-89678-039-5
  2. ^ Trask, L. The History of Basque Routledge: 1997
  3. ^ Collins, R. The Basques Blackwell: 1986
  4. ^ Gimbutas, M. The Living Goddesses University of California Press: 2001
  5. ^ Kasper, M. Baskische Geschichte Primus: 1997
  6. ^ Trask, L. The History of Basque Routledge: 1997
  7. ^ Anuntxi Arana: Mari, mairu eta beste - 1996 - Bulletin du musée basque n°146.
  8. ^ Encarnação, José d’. 2015. Divindades indígenas sob o domínio romano em Portugal. Second edition. Coimbra: Universidade de Coimbra.


  • Ortíz-Osés, A. Antropología simbólica vasca Anthropos, 1985. El matriarcalismo vasco Universidad de Deusto, 1988. El inconsciente colectivo vasco, 1982.
  • Barandiaran, J.M. Mitologia Vasca Txertoa, 1996
  • Patxi Xabier Lezama Perier. Basque Mythology: History of the myths and deities of the Basque mythological universe. /Euskadi Public Reading Network / Bilbao-Mediateka BBK Library of Azkuna Zentroa. 2018
  • Hartsuaga, J.I. Euskal Mitologia Konparatua, Kriseilu, 1987.
  • La Paglia, Antonio. Beyond Greece and Rome: Faith and Worship in Ancient Europe, Black Mountain Press, 2004.
  • Everson, M. Tenacity in religion, myth, and folklore: the Neolithic Goddess of Old Europe preserved in a non-Indo-European setting, Journal of Indo-European Studies 17, 277 (1989). [1]
  • Satrústegi, J (1996). "Haitzuloetako euskal mitologia". Euskal Mitologia. 68: 165–174.
  • Arriaga, J. (1984). "Euskal mitologia". Gero.
  • Baroja, Caro (1995). "Lamiak, sorginak eta jainkosak". Gaiak (Euskal mitologia).

Aatxe ([a.atʃe]) is a spirit in the folk mythology of the Basque people. His name is literally translated as "Young Bull", and he is sometimes known as Etsai. He is a cave-dwelling spirit who adopts the form of a young red bull, but being a shapeshifter, sometimes takes the shape of a man. At night, more so in stormy weather, he arises from the hollow which is his lair. He attacks criminals and other malevolent people. He also protects people by making them stay home when danger is near.

He is theorized to be a representative of the goddess Mari, or may be an enforcer of her will, punishing people who cheat her. Another name for him is Aatxegorri which means "young red bull". It is believed Aatxe inhabited caves and hollows; in many (Isturits, Sare, Errenteria, among others) engravings and paintings depicting aurochs, bulls, and oxen have been found; which implies that this Basque myth has its origins in the Paleolithic.


Akelarre is the Basque term meaning Witches' Sabbath (the place where witches hold their meetings). Akerra means male goat in the Basque language. Witches' sabbaths were envisioned as presided over by a goat.

The word has been loaned to Castilian Spanish (which uses the spelling Aquelarre). It has been used in Castilian Spanish since the witch trials of the 17th century.

The word is most famous as the title of the witchcraft painting by Goya in the Museo del Prado, which depicts witches in the company of a huge male goat.


In Basque mythology, Basajaun ("Lord of the Woods", plural: basajaunak) is a huge, hairy hominid dwelling in the woods. They were thought to build megaliths, protect flocks of livestock, and teach skills such as agriculture and ironworking to humans.


In Basque mythology, Gaueko is the spirit of the night. He does not allow humans to do certain works outside the house during the night. He especially punishes all those who try to show off as brave in the night, boasting of not fearing the darkness. He is considered to be a devil in some accounts, a jentil or gentilic divinity in others. In some cases he makes his presence felt as a gust of wind, as he pronounces these words: Gaua Gauekoarentzat, eguna egunezkoarentzat ("the night for Gaueko (the one of the night), the day for the one of the day"). Sometimes he appears in the shape of a cow, sometimes in that of a monster.In Basque, Gaueko literally means "of the night".


Herensuge is the name for a mythical dragon in Basque language. In Basque mythology, dragons appear sparingly, sometimes with seven heads. Herensuge often also appear in the form of a snake serpent. The seven heads were believed to be the off spring of the Herensuge dragon. When the little dragons were fully grown, they would fall off their mother's head. Only the god Sugaar is associated with this creature but more often with a serpent.

Yet there is a Christian legend in which certain Navarrese knight, Teodosio de Goñi, while making penance for double parricide in the Aralar Range has to rescue a woman that had been given as ransom to the dragon. When the chains that tie his ankles have been bitten by the dragon and he sees no way of defeating it, the knight prays to Saint Michael to save him. In Heaven, the archangel is notified: "Michael, they call you in Earth" but he replies: "My Lord, I won't go to that fight without You". Finally, the archangel, with God over his head appears and cuts the head of the dragon, liberating Teodosio from his chains and ending his penance.

This legend is specifically associated to the monastery of San Miguel de Aralar. It has been interpreted in the sense of justifying the break away with the religion and customs of Pagan Basques and adopting Christianity and, specifically, the veneration for St. Michael. Otherwise, it is very similar to other European legends of knights and dragons, which likely had a significant influence on it.


Iratxoak (sing.: iratxo) are the imps of Basque mythology. Usually benevolent, they help with farming labors in the night if given presents of food. Galtxagorriak are a specific kind of iratxoak. Their name means the red-pants.


The jentil (or Jentilak with the Basque plural), are a race of giants in the Basque mythology. This word meaning gentile, from Latin gentilis, was used to refer to pre-Christian civilizations and in particular to the builders of megalithic monuments, to which the other Basque mythical legend the Mairuak are involved too.

A Jentil stands more than 12 feet tall and weighs about 1600 pounds.

The jentil were believed to have lived alongside the Basque people. They were hairy and so tall that they could walk in the sea and threw rocks from one mountain to another. This stone throwing has led to several tales and explanations for ancient stone buildings and large isolated rocks. Even the Basque ball game, pilota, is ascribed to these stone-throwers. The tradition lives on in the Basque power games of stone lifting and throwing. Some attributed to the jentil the defeat of Roland in the Battle of Roncevaux, where the Basques defeated the Frankish army by throwing rocks on them. The giants were believed to have created the neolithic monuments, such as dolmens, found around the Basque Country.

They also were said to have invented metallurgy and the saw and first grew wheat, teaching humans to farm. However, they were unwilling to move to the valleys from the mountains, with a certain unwillingness to progress. They disappeared into the earth under a dolmen in the Arratzaren valley in Navarra when a portentous luminous cloud – perhaps a star – appeared, said to have heralded the birth of Christ (Kixmi) and the end of the jentil age. Other stories say jentil threw themselves from a mountain. Only Olentzero remained, a giant who appears at Christmas and is reproduced as straw dolls.

There are many structures and places around the Basque Country with jentil in their name, generally referring to pagan or ancient places, supposedly built by the jentil. Dolmens are jentilarri or jentiletxe, harrespil are jentilbaratz, caves can be jentilzulo or jentilkoba.

Lamia (Basque mythology)

The lamia (plural: lamiak) is a siren- or nereid-like creature in Basque mythology. Lamiak, laminak or amilamiak live in the river. They are very beautiful, and stay at the shore combing their long hair with a golden comb; they easily charm men. They have duck feet.

In coastal areas, some believed that there were itsaslamiak in the sea, who had fish tails—a kind of mermaid.

List of Basque mythological figures

The following is a list of gods, goddesses and many other divine and semi-divine figures and creatures from ancient Basque mythology.

List of fire gods

This is a list of deities in fire worship.

List of wind deities

A wind god is a god who controls the wind(s). Air deities may also be considered here as wind is nothing more than moving air. Many polytheistic religions have one or more wind gods. They may also have a separate air god or a wind god may double as an air god. Sometimes even a water god.


In Basque mythology, Odei, also known as Hodei is a spirit of thunder and the personification of storm clouds.

San Martin Txiki

San Martin Txiki ("Little Saint Martin") is the Trickster figure from Basque mythology. "Txiki" (pronounced "cheeky") means "little" in an affectionate sense. San Martin is often called simply "Martintxiki" or "Samartitxiki". He stole the secrets of planting, sowing, and harvesting from the Basajaunak (lords of the woods). He also invented the first saws, modeling them after the edges of the chestnut leaf.

San Martin Txiki also exists in Aragonese mythology in the valleys of Tena, Ansó and Broto (places where local toponimia derives from basque) under the name San Martinico.


Sorginak (root form: sorgin, absolutive case (singular): sorgina) are the assistants of the goddess Mari in Basque mythology. It is also the Basque name for witches or pagan priestesses (though they could also be male), it being difficult to distinguish between the mythological and real ones.

Sometimes sorginak are confused with lamiak (similar to nymphs). Along with them, and specially with Jentilak, sorginak are said often to have built the local megaliths.

Sorginak, like other European witches, used to participate in the sabbat, called akelarre locally. These mysteries happened on Friday nights, when Mari and Sugaar are said to meet in the locally sacred cave to engender storms.

Spanish mythology

Spanish mythology refers to the sacred myths of the cultures of Spain. They include Galician mythology, Asturian mythology, Cantabrian mythology, Catalan mythology, Lusitanian mythology and Basque mythology. They also include the myths and religions of the Celts, Celtiberians, Iberians, Milesians, Carthaginians, Suebi, Visigoths, Spaniards, Moors of Spain, and some Roman and Greek mythology.


In Basque mythology, Sugaar (also Sugar, Sugoi, Suarra, Maju) is the male half of a pre-Christian Basque deity associated with storms and thunder. He is normally imagined as a dragon or serpent. Unlike his female consort, Mari, there are very few remaining legends about Sugaar. The basic purpose of his existence is to periodically join with Mari in the mountains to generate the storms.

In one myth Sugaar seduces a Scottish princess in the village of Mundaka to father the mythical first Lord of Biscay, Jaun Zuria. This legend is believed to be a fabrication made to legitimize the Lordship of Biscay as a separate state from Navarre, because there is no historical account of such a lord. Only the fact that the delegates of Mundaka were attributed with the formal privilege of being the first to vote in the Biltzar (Parliament) of the province may look as unlikely indication of the partial veracity of this legend.


Tartaro, Tartalo, or Torto in Basque mythology, is an enormously strong one-eyed giant very similar to the Greek Cyclops that Ulysses faced in Homer's Odyssey. He is said to live in caves in the mountains and catches young people in order to eat them; in some accounts he eats sheep also.

Alarabi is another name for the creature. Anxo (or Ancho) may also be equivalent, but some sources say this is another name for the Basajaun.


Tubal, (Hebrew: תובל or תבל‎ [tuˈbal]) in Genesis 10 (the "Table of Nations"), was the name of a son of Japheth, son of Noah.

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