Basque Fact of the Week: Argizaiolak, the Basque Funerary Candles

In many parts of the world, it is common to light a candle in remembrance of those who have died. In the Basque Country, this kind of tradition has taken its own special form. The argizaiola, literally translated as candle-board (from argizari — candle or wax and ohol — board), is a wooden board around which a thin wax candle is wrapped. The argizaiola was placed on the family tomb and lit, on all Sundays but particularly on All Saints Day, to give a light to show souls the way and chase away the darkness.

  • The use of argizaiolak probably began in the 15th or 16th centuries, when parishioners gained the right to be buried inside the church, and was common until the middle of the 20th century, when the introduction of benches by the Second Vatican Council hindered the ability to access the family tombs. In reality, by that time, the tombs were no longer in the churches themselves, having been moved to cemeteries by the end of the 18th centuries, but symbolic tombs were still present. Today, there are very few places where the argizaiola is still used, with the church in Amezketa standing out in continuing the practice.
  • The argizaiola was lit by the etxekoandrea, or woman of the house, or the eldest daughter, and placed on the family tomb in the church. This rite was so important that, when the women of wealthy houses could not attend the trades, they hired a maid or another woman to keep the fire in their place.
  • An argizaiola can be smooth or decorated, and comes in a variety of shapes, but characteristically it has a handle to turn it as the candle burns, a smooth central part where the wax is coiled (white or yellow, depending on whether the dead is single or married), and the two ends that are decorated and outlined. Its shape is often anthropomorphic, with decorative motifs such as rosettes, helices, crosses, vegetables, leaves, curved sutures, leaves, and notches.

Primary sources: Otermin, Joxe Mari; Argizaiolas de Amezketa. Enciclopedia Auñamendi, 2019. Available at: http://aunamendi.eusko-ikaskuntza.eus/es/argizaiolas-de-amezketa/ar-3576/; KeixArt; Los Viajes de Aspasia

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