So far so close – “Sorginak”: rediscovering the witches of the Basque Country

Published on :

Between the south-west of France and the north of Spain, a whirlwind witch hunt took place in the 17th century, which will mark the spirits. And today, the Basque Country claims the memory of its “Sorginak”, far from folk clichés. Tremble, the witches are back!

For nearly 300 years, in Europe and elsewhere in the world, men, reason in one hand and the cross in the other, have led a tireless witch hunt since the 15th century, imagining mock trials, torture unspeakable acts and mass murders, especially of women. In the 17th century, in the Basque Country, when the men went fishing off the Canadian coast, it was said that black masses were held in the forest, in caves, at the top of the Rhune, in the Jaizkibel mountain or on the Hendaye beaches. And during the reign of Henry IV, important witchcraft trials took place in the region, in particular in 1609.

This date remains engraved in the memory of the Basques, as it is in the monuments that pay tribute to the victims of these trials. And on both sides of the border, in Spain and France, cultural guides, local historians and museums endeavor to recall the context which presided over these murderous expeditions, targeting women who were too freed but also a region and a Basque culture too rebellious to the established order and royal power.

More broadly, this part of the story, once misunderstood or even despised, is now widely apprehended and deconstructed in a salutary genre reading. And in Europe, finally blows a wind of justice and rehabilitation of these women wrongly accused of being evil in a factory of evil and barely believable domination. The figure of the witch, toothless and with a hooked nose, then became a feminist icon in the West. Because it says a lot about the fate reserved for women through the centuries and our relationship to the invisible and pagan world. And that’s what we discover in the Basque Country, following in the wake of the “Sorgin”…

A report by Inès Edel-Garcia.

To discover :

the witch museum in Zugarramurdi opened in 2007 in a former hospital. On the first floor, we discover how the myth of the witch was born. It presents the 33 people from the valley, accused of witchcraft and sentenced to the Logroño trial organized by the Spanish Inquisition in 1610. The second floor is devoted to Basque mythology, rites and the figure of the herbalist.

– In Saint-Pée-sur-Nivelle, on the square renamed “Place 1609” by the Lapurdi 1609 association, the sculpture Oroit Mina (In memory of the pain) of Nestor Basterretxa was erected in 2009 on the occasion of the commemorations of the 400 years of the Labourd trials. Behind, you can make out the castle of Saint-Pée-sur-Nivelle, now in ruins. This is where the secular court of Judge Pierre de Lancre was established.

– Since 2020, the guide Julien Gaüzère offers the walk of the witches, a cross-border hike of 8 km (3h30) starting from the caves of Sare. The walk ends in the village of Zugarramurdi with the visit of the cave. Today, it is a paying tourist site, but until the early 2000s, the cave hosted a major Witches’ Festival every summer, which brought together around 15,000 people.

– The Sorgin Gaua (Night of the witch) is organized each year in Ciboure by the Donibane Ziburuko Ihauteriak association. On the program: parade in traditional clothes to the rhythm of the bells and dance around the fire in memory of the akelarre.

– The project “dowser» of the artist duo -Y-was born in 2019. During two years of artistic residency within the COOP structure, visual artists Julie Laymond and Ilazki de Portuondo conducted an investigation into the imprint of magic on Basque territory following in the footsteps of Inessa de Gaxen, a woman sentenced to exile after the trial in Logroño. This work gave rise to a first exhibition in Orthez in September 2021.

To read :

On witch hunts and the figure of the witch in the world :

Silvia Federici, Caliban and the WitchEntremonde and Senonevero Editions, 2014

Mona Cholet, Witches, the undefeated power of womenEditions La Découverte, Zones, 2018

Celine Du Chene, The Witches – A Women’s StoryEditions Michel Lafon, 2019

Catherine Clement, the witch museum, Editions Albin Michel, 2020.

On witch hunts and mythology in the Basque Country :

Jacques Ospital, The witch hunt in the Basque Country in 1609Piperrak-Pimientos Editions, 2009

Claude Labat, Witchcraft? : what hides the smoke from the pyres of 1609Elkar Editions, 2009

Jose Miguel Barandiaran Ayerbe, Brujeria y brujas. Testimonials recorded in el País Vasco, Txertoa, 2008

Toti Martinez de Lezea, Leyendas of Euskal HerriaErin, 2004.

The entrance to the caves of Zugarramurdi where the Spanish Inquisition saw in the Basque festivals of Akelarre black masses.
The entrance to the caves of Zugarramurdi where the Spanish Inquisition saw in the Basque festivals of Akelarre black masses. © Inès Edel-Garcia

We want to give thanks to the writer of this write-up for this remarkable content

So far so close – “Sorginak”: rediscovering the witches of the Basque Country

Our social media pages here and other pages related to them here.