Basque Fact of the Week: Mari, the Basque Mother Earth

In the pre-Christian religion of the Basques, there wasn’t a strict hierarchy of beings, no Zeus or Odin who ruled over the rest of the gods. There were many wild spirts, such as the basajaunak, the lamiak, and the jentilak. And there were more powerful beings, including Sugaar and the vague sky-god Ortzi. However, Mari tends to preside over all of them. The Lady of Amboto is the Basque conceptualization of Mother Earth and, as such, she is the most revered figure in Basque mythology and folklore.

A rendering of Mari flying through the sky by Igor Mugerza.
  • Mari is often described as living underground, deep caverns she can reach through caves and chasms in the mountains. Her dwelling is filled with gold and golden objects. She herself is a beautiful woman dressed most elegantly. She jumps from one mountain dwelling to another by flying across the sky like a sickle of fire, a peal of thunder announcing her arrival.
  • Mari sustains herself by taking that which is denied. Whenever anyone denies having something, she takes the part that was denied. That is, if I have ten apples but I only tell you I have six, Mari will take the other four. She thus sustains herself with ezagaz eta baiagaz, “with denial and with affirmation”
  • Mari is unusual as a powerful supernatural being. If we take the gods of Greece or Scandinavia as examples, they often meddle in human affairs, often trying to impose their will on the humans that surround them. Mari doesn’t. She doesn’t have a distinct will or plan. She just is. She causes storms and good weather by her mere presence, but she isn’t directing those events. They happen simply because she is.
  • This leads to the ability of people to potentially control her and, by extension, the weather. Particularly in a Christian context where Mari is recast as “simply” a witch, priests would say prayers to trap her in her cave, as that would ensure good weather. Mari is more a force of nature that can, in some circumstances, be controlled.
  • In Basque mythology, Mari isn’t a really well defined figure. In fact, Mari is a name extracted out of some stories by José Miguel de Barandiarán that he gave to the concept of this mother-Earth-like figure. Some authors have argued this is an artificial construction. However, there is enough evidence for a female force of nature in Basque mythology to give her some concrete identity. In many legends, she is the “Dame” or “Lady” of Amboto, of Murumendi, of Arrobibeltz…
  • Mari can take many forms. She is often a beautiful woman, engulfed in flame, particularly when traveling through the sky. She can take the form of an animal, such as a goat, a horse, a cow, or a crow. In some places, she is a gust of wind, a white cloud, or even a rainbow.
  • Though Mari is often portrayed as a force of nature, there are stories in which she interacts with humans. She is known to keep humans captive, often the result of a curse, made in a fit of anger, from the captive’s own parents. Mari is often seen combing her hair or spinning balls of golden thread. If one found themselves in Mari’s cave, they had to leave facing the same way they entered and had to be sure not to sit down. People also asked Mari to intercede on their behalf, often giving her a ram or leaving coins in exchange for protecting them from hail.

Primary sources: Hartsuaga Uranga, Juan Inazio. Mari. Enciclopedia Auñamendi, 2020. Available at: http://aunamendi.eusko-ikaskuntza.eus/es/mari/ar-77955/; Wikipedia.

2 thoughts on “Basque Fact of the Week: Mari, the Basque Mother Earth”

  1. Even if one is not into mythology, hiking the Amboto one gets an energy that is primordial.

    1. That is something I’ve yet to do, Pilar. Some day (though I need to get in a bit better shape to enjoy it!).

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