Marks of Cain: the Witches of Navarre
The infamous Witches’ Cave in the mountains of the Basque Navarre is an important location for the book: tying in several vital themes.
The history of the place (which I went to see in 2008) is described in this article, which I wrote for a splendid British magazine, the Fortean Times.
Fortean Traveller: The Witches’ Cave of Zugarramurdi
It’s a strange place, the Navarrese Pyrenees – somehow neglected by tourists, even though it sits between many of the most popular vacation destinations in western Europe: like Biarritz and San Sebastian, or the alluring towns of Le Pays Basque, like St Jean de Pied de Port.
The lack of visitors to these lonely green valleys, close by the French border – which runs right along the crest of the mountains – can hardly be ascribed to a lack of beauty. Some of these green Spanish dales, like the Baztan valley, are positively Edenic: adorned with whitewashed Basque farmhouses, studded with medieval villages, and surrounded by the majestic blue peaks of the Pyrenees, which are often talced with glittering snow, even in high summer.
So what is it that puts people off? Perhaps vacationers detect a subconscious hint of dismay: a lingering hauntedness. Certainly, when the mountain mist rolls down from the great summit of La Rhune, like a sheepskin coat falling from the shoulders of a goatherd, these valleys and foothills assume a very melancholy air.
Nowhere is that mournfulness more intense than Zugarramurdi. This minuscule village was made notorious by its role in “The Burning Times” – or the “Basque Dream Epidemic” – a frenzied witch craze which was practically unparalleled in Europe, and whose bloody wounds are still visible in Basque society today: in the sense of ongoing Basque victimhood.
To get a measure of the horror that engulfed these lonely purlieus, four hundred years ago, and which lives on in modern Basque politics – you have to visit Zugarramurdi itself.
Unfortunately, that ain’t so easy: the place is remote. Yes you can theoretically drive, in a couple of hours, from Saint Jean de Luz on the sunny French coast, but the slender road is fiendishly labyrinthine, and it’s easy to get lost, as the road climbs through fortified towns like Ainhoa and Ascain, and snakes through solitary, enigmatic, Basque-speaking villages like Sare.
Eventually the route heads for the pass – and a lurid bunch of hypermarkets, doing a roaring trade selling cut-price beer and tobacco to overtaxed French families. This is the sign you’re over the border: in Basque Navarre.
From there the valley road slips right, just a few miles, down some of the narrowest roads in Spain. At last it emerges into a tiny and typical Basque mountain village: with its pelota court, and its whitewashed church, and some ancient medieval townhouses adorned by their owners with sun-thistles, to ward off evil. The only sign of life is a single cafe with a waitress, who curtseys politely, as she says thankyou in impenetrable Basque.
From the village square, a cobbled and rickety path heads northwest and downhill from the church. A few hundred yards beyond the last straggling village house, with its curvilinear swastika carved into the lintel (it’s the Basque solar symbol called the “lauburu”), squats a wooden shed – selling a selection of tourist tat: including garish posters of naked witches, dancing around flames.
Beyond the shed a slippy wet footpath descends into a dank hollow – eventually emerging into a natural forecourt, which fronts a huge cave, open at either end: making it more of a tunnel. Down one side of the booming cavern a little stream runs, bouncing eerie reflections of the roof.
This is the infamous Witches’ Cave of Zugarramurdi. This is where, theoretically, it all happened.
The terrible story of the Basque Witch Craze begins in 1610, when a young Basque woman named Maria de Ximildegui returned to her home village: of Zugarramurdi.
Maria was in her late teens, and she had been working as a servant across the border. During her years in France, the lands of the French Basques had themselves been roiled by the beginnings of a witch-craze, initiated by a zealous judge called Pierre de Lancre: a man convinced that all Basques were essentially untrustworthy, essentially Other, essentially witches.
De Lancre had already begun his inquisitions by the time Maria returned to Zugarramurdi: towns like Ciboure, where Maria worked, were already envenomed by fear and hysteria. Presumably Maria has been affected by this poisoned atmosphere. Certainly, when she got back home, she was full of wild stories.
Unprompted, she began to tell her family, friends and neighbours that in Ciboure she had forsaken the Faith and become a witch. For three years she had apparently attended sabbats with co-conspirators against the cross. Then, she said, she had enjoyed a kind of revelation, which persuaded her to return to the church: this in turn had brought the wrath of her fellow witches on her head – who vengefully hexed her, into a deathly illness. Recovered from this magical sickness, and absolved by a senior priest, Maria had then fled home to Zugarramurdi.
The story Maria told was sensational and titillating to the credulous peasantry of the isolated rural settlement. Perhaps Maria began to enjoy the attention created by her vivid tales of sabbat-going: her stories assuredly became more elaborate. Finally she crossed the line, and told her astonished neighbours that, not only were there witches in Ciboure, but they existed in Zugarramurdi, too. And she could name them.
This inflammatory accusation divided the village. Some believed the girl, others called her a liar. In particular, a local farmer named Esteve de Navarcorena, was enraged by Maria’s slanders against his wife: Maria de Jureteguia. The two Marias were at loggerheads: the young servant girl was adamant that the farmer’s wife was a witch. And the servant girl said she could prove it.
Accompanied by a goggling mob of villagers, the servant Maria went to Esteve’s farm. In front of the assembled crowd, Maria de Ximildegui called out Maria de Jureteguia, and accused her to her face: claiming that the young farmer’s wife had joined her in bacchanalian sabbats with the Evil One.
The farmer’s wife strenuously protested her innocence. But eventually she began to crack. Maria de Ximeldigui just seemed so convincing: her details so precise, her stories so elaborate: surely no one could contrive such complex lies?
At this point, with the baying crowd growing more menacing, Maria de Jureteguia fainted. When she came round, she made the fatal confession. She was indeed a witch. She had attended the sabbats with Maria de Ximeldigui. Many times she had been down to the big cave near the village, with the green meadow in front: and there she danced naked in the moonlight; there she had kissed the Devil’s anus, and let him penetrate her with his icy black penis.
From this moment on, the meadow in front of the Witches’ Cave was known as the “akelarre” – which means, in Basque, the “place of the he-goat”: because the Devil was said to appear as a billygoat, in his orgiastic night masses.
The confession of the farmer’s wife was the spark that ignited the Burning Times. Maria de Ximeldigui, now regarded as oracular, seized the chance to make more accusations. Priests were called in; the denunciations widened. Neighbour accused neighbour, sobbing children were questioned about their parents, sworn enemies took the chance to take revenge - with more ghastly accusations.
From Zugarramurdi the witch craze spread down the Baztan valley, to villages like Elizondo, Lesaka and Etxalar, and thence into the wider Basque Country. Everywhere the priests went, they found people willing to point a finger, to accuse an old crone, to take out a rival farmer. More and more “akelarres” were discovered. Men, women and children were captured for questioning. Inquisitors plundered farmhouses, searching for familiars – especially speaking toads. Children told of horrible dreams, where they had flown through the night on bare broomsticks, behind men and women smeared with hallucinogenic grease.
The end result was a minor holocaust. The Basque Dream Epidemic which had begun in 1610 lasted fully four years. By the end five witches had been publicly burned in Logrono. Several more had died in prison. Maria de Jureteguia narrowly escaped execution (and was later freed). Maybe 2000 had confessed to witchery, often under torture; an astonishing 7000 had been accused. Plenty of “witches” had been secretly lynched by angry villagers – sometimes literally nailed to trees.
Across in France, Pierre de Lancre had been even more efficient. Hundreds of French Basques were brutally executed, as he sought to smoke out the unholy ones.
The craze ended in 1614, when a hero of rationality – a man called Salazar Frias, ironically an agent of the Spanish Inquisition – called time on the lunacy. He questioned the credulity of the witchfinders, he undermined the rulings of the courts, he rejected the use of uncorroborated accusation. The Burning Times were done.
These days Zugarramurdi gleans a meagre business off its notoriety. A few intrepid tourists visit the cave and the akelarre; they hold “wicca” parties at midsummer. In the lonely village there is a small but excellent museum dedicated to the Dream Epidemic – spooky and educational all at once. It’s well worth a visit, if you can find this remote spot.
And what about Maria de Ximelguidi? No one is quite sure, but it seems she lived out the rest of her days in relative quiet. But it must have been a strange life: sitting there in her little house, high in the quiet green mountains, staring across a land she had helped to tear apart.