Basque Fact of the Week: The Sun in the Basque Cosmos

As the brightest object in the heavens, the sun has always captured the fascination of those humans who gazed upon it. The Basques, of course, were no different. As the source of warmth, and thus its connection to nature and growth, it is central to several myths and stories. Much of what we know about what those pre-Christian Basques thought about the cosmos and the sun in particular comes from the work of Jose Migel Barandiarán.

Gigantic Rolling Wave Captured on the Sun, from the NASA website.
  • As the sun set, Basques thought that the sun was entering the bosom of the earth. While the sun was called grandmother, the earth was the sun’s mother. At sunset, Basques would say “Eguzki amandrea badoia bere amangana [Grandmother sun goes to her mother]” or “Eguzki santu bedeinkatue, zoaz zeure amagana [Holy and blessed sun, go to your mother].”
  • At least one story suggests that, at night, the sun travels underground. A brother, who had a rooster, saw a group of men hitting a rock with a stick. When he asked what they were doing, they said “Opening the day so that the sun can warm the world.” The brother responded “Go to sleep. This animal that I bring will be in charge of opening the day. When I sing kikiriki, get up and you will see how it is daytime.” They did so and indeed, when the rooster crowed kikiriki, the day had already dawned.
  • While eguzki is a wide-spread name for the sun, in some regions of the Basque Country they used iguzki, and related names such as iruzki and iluski. This leads to an interpretation that, originally, these words meant something like “hole of fire” and “hole of the celestial vault,” respectively, suggesting another view of the cosmos, one where the sun wasn’t an object but a hole through which sunlight came through the heavens and reached the earth.
  • As in many parts of the world, sunlight is a ward against evil, and many creatures, not just evil ones, flee in its presence. In the Basque Country, a number of symbols have arisen to represent the sun and help ward off evil: the thistle flower (the eguzkilore, the flower of the sun), the lauburu, and the fact that many tombs and houses were oriented to the east, toward the rising sun.

Primary source: Hartsuaga Uranga, Juan Inazio. Sol. Enciclopedia Auñamendi, 2020. Available at: http://aunamendi.eusko-ikaskuntza.eus/es/sol/ar-109005/

Buber’s Basque Story:
Part 3

As they got closer to Aulesti, they found the road-side packed with cars. Every little nook and cranny had been taken and the road itself barely had enough room for Maite’s little car to squeeze through. People lined the road, walking toward the plaza. Even though Aulesti was a small town, it attracted a large crowd during the fiesta of San Juan, the patron of the village. But, Maite drove past all of the cars and all of the people toward the plaza. “I know a special place,” she said, winking at Kepa. Just before the plaza, she turned to the left down a narrow street, and then swung the car through a hole in a fence frame by some large trees and parked the car on the yard next to a large baserri. “My cousin lives in that house,” she said as she turned off the car and opened her door. “He said I could park here any time. The plaza is just a ten minute walk from here.”

She led Kepa through the thickening throng of people toward the plaza. “Goazen!” she yelled at him over the din of the crowd. “Let’s go find the stage!”

Weaving through the crowd like a snake, Maite and Kepa reached the stage in no time. They found Koldo behind the stage with his bandmates, getting their gear ready for the performance. When Koldo saw them, he cried out. “Kepa! Maite! I thought you wouldn’t make it!” 

Buber’s Basque Story is a weekly serial. While it is a work of fiction, it has elements from both my own experiences and stories I’ve heard from various people. The characters, while in some cases inspired by real people, aren’t directly modeled on anyone in particular. I expect there will be inconsistencies and factual errors. I don’t know where it is going, and I’ll probably forget where it’s been. Why am I doing this? To give me an excuse and a deadline for some creative writing and because I thought people might enjoy it. Gozatu!

“We would have been here sooner if…” started Kepa but Maite elbowed him in the ribs.

“And miss your inaugural show?” asked Maite. “Never!”

Koldo just smiled. “Let me introduce you to the band. Meet Tximistak Ta Trumoiak!” he said with pride. He pointed to a young woman with long blond hair who was unpacking a guitar. “Idoia is lead guitar.” Idoia nodded in recognition as she started strumming the strings. “That is Unai, he’s the drummer.” A young man with short hair, tattoos running up and down his arms, and a large hoop earring in one ear lifted his hand in a half-wave of acknowledgement. “Ainhoa plays bass.” Another young woman, this one with short black hair spiked with dark red dye and a small hoop piercing her lip smiled at them. “And, I’m the lead singer,” said Koldo, wrapping up the introductions. 

“He sometimes plays tambourine, too” said Ainhoa with a mischievous grin. 

Maite smiled. “Nice to meet you all,” she said. “We’ve been looking forward to today for a while.”

Kepa nodded. “Koldo has said a lot of great things about you guys!”

Idoia looked up from her guitar. “I hope you like it loud and heavy!” she said with her own devious grin.

“Bai, horixe!” exclaimed Maite. “You bet we do!”

They heard the announcer say something about “one of the newest bands” and “Tximistak Ta Trumoiak.” 

“We better get on stage,” said Koldo. “Find you after?”

“We’ll be out there!” replied Kepa. 

Basque Fact of the Week: Unique Basque Drinks

Whenever I visit the Basque Country, my entire time ends up being centered around dinner tables abounding with food and drink. I swear I always find 10 pounds that I never manage to lose after each visit. Food and drink are such central parts of Basque life that it is hard to imagine a Basque fiesta or gathering without them. And while Basque cuisine has a justified world-renowned reputation for its excellence, no Basque meal would be complete without the accompanying drink. Fortunately, the Basque menu also has a number of unique beverage choices to offer.

Photo from La Guía Repsol.
  • Basque sagardoa, or hard cider, is dry and still, in contrast to the sweeter and sparkling versions found in many other places. Cider has been made in the Basque Country since at least 1014, when an envoy of Sancho III of Nafarroa mentions it. Cider and apples were such a pervasive part of Basque life that, in the 16th century, the infamous witch persecutor Pierre de Lancre called the Basque Country “the land of the apple.” Cider was such an integral part of life that the fueros of Gipuzkoa banned the import of foreign cider, unless all of the native cider had been drunk.
  • Maybe the most controversial Basque drink is kalimotxo. This half-and-half mixture of red wine and coke always brings an initial shudder of revulsion to anyone I mention it to, but most who try it are pleasantly surprised. Though mixing wine and coke has a long history, it wasn’t until 1972 when a group of friends in charge of the drinks at a fiesta in Getxo coined the word kalimotxo that it really took off. They had 2000 liters of bad wine they had to sell and they found mixing it with coke worked wonders. And today, we have kalimotxo!
  • Txakolin is a “somewhat sour light wine” according to the Royal Academy. Until the 1980s, txakolin was primarily made for personal consumption. It wasn’t until 1989, when it received a denominación de origen, that its production and popularity grew. Three Basque varieties have been recognized: Getariako txakolina, Bizkaiko txakolina, and Arabako txakolina.
  • Picon punch is almost synonymous with Basques in the US West. Created by Basque immigrants, it has made its way back to the Basque Country, though it isn’t common there. Traditionally made with Amer Picon, this orange-based liquor is hard (impossible?) to get in the United States, so other liquors are often used. There is even a guy in Seattle, Jamie Boudreau, who makes his own version of Amer Picon.
  • Patxaran is a drink from Nafarroa made by soaking sloe barriers, a cinnamon pod, and coffee beans in anisette. While patxaran has been made and drunk since at least the Middle Ages (when it was often used for medicinal purposes), it was only in the 1950s that it became commercialized and widely available.
  • Izarra is another Basque liquor, from Baiona. It is a complex combination of many herbs and plants, at least 13-16 different varieties. The liquor’s slogan is “the sun and the snow of the Pyrenees.” While based on a traditional Basque recipe, Izarra itself was created in 1906 by botanist Joseph Grattau.

Buber’s Basque Story:
Part 2

“Hemen da!” yelled Kepa over the telenovela blaring from the TV. “Agur ama! I will see you tomorrow!”

“Segura egon!” he heard his ama yell as he dashed out of the door of the baserri. Maite was there, waiting, in her little white Fiat. She smiled at him as he opened the passenger side door and climbed in.

Buber’s Basque Story is a weekly serial. While it is a work of fiction, it has elements from both my own experiences and stories I’ve heard from various people. The characters, while in some cases inspired by real people, aren’t directly modeled on anyone in particular. I expect there will be inconsistencies and factual errors. I don’t know where it is going, and I’ll probably forget where it’s been. Why am I doing this? To give me an excuse and a deadline for some creative writing and because I thought people might enjoy it. Gozatu!

“About time!” he said. “If I miss Koldo’s performance…”

“Lasai, mutil,” she replied as she put the little car into gear and took off down the winding road that led to town. “He isn’t scheduled to get on stage for at least an hour, and you know how these things are always behind schedule. Besides, I just got a text from Itxaso — she said they are running late too. We’ll be the first ones there, I bet.”

Kepa was still steaming, but he started to calm down. There wasn’t much he could do about any of it now anyways. He looked over Maite as she shifted gears. Her dark curls fell across her shoulders. They had been in the same cuadrilla since elementary school and Maite was a sister to him, but he had started wishing that she were something more. He shook his head and sighed. 

“Fine,” he replied. “I’m calming down. But, what took you so long anyways?”

Maite flashed that glorious smile at him that made his heart skip a beat as she maneuvered the car onto the main highway. “I had to finish my physics assignment for the uni,” she said. “It is due on Monday, but I figured I wouldn’t be in any condition to work on it this weekend, so I just wanted to get it done.”

“Beautiful and smart,” Kepa thought to himself as he held on to the door handle. Maite was taking the corners just a bit faster than normal. Fortunately, growing up in these mountains, he was used to the curves, but still, he always got a little nervous around some of the blind spots. 

“I don’t know how you do it,” he said. “Taking care of your parents, getting a degree in physics, and still with time to hang with us.”

Maite smiled again. “Ah, it’s nothing,” she said. “Especially compared to what ama and aita had to go through. This is a breeze.”

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.

Joanes 4: Traganarroo’s Revenge by Guillermo Zubiaga

The cover to Joanes or the Basque Whaler chapter 4: Traganarroo’s Revenge, by Guillermo Zubiaga

Episode IV, Traganarroo’s Revenge: It is a period of civil war. Rebel ships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil British Empire. Joanes, aided by Rebel spies, managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon. Pursued by the Empire’s sinister agents, Joanes races home aboard his magic txalupa, custodian of the stolen plans that can save his people and restore freedom to the Basque Country….

Oops! Sorry, wrong Episode IV! Actually, I had the honor and privilege of writing the recap for Joanes 4. I got it right in print!

Joanes 4, Traganarroo’s Revenge, by Guillermo Zubiaga, continues the adventures of Joanes, a Basque mariner who, in past adventures, had made a deal with a Basque sea-demon, the Traganarroo, in exchange for a magic txalupa, or whaleboat. Having gained wealth and fame, at least with his countrymen, he confronted the demon and seemingly defeated him. When we last saw Joanes, he was presumed dead, with a forgotten headstone on Newfoundland. But neither Joanes nor the Traganarroo could be silenced for long…

In the fourth installment of the Joanes saga, Zubiaga reveals that while the Traganarroo has been locked within ice in the Arctic, Joanes has been living a quiet life with a lamia, a beautiful woman with the feet of a duck. This latest installment follows the adventures of Joanes as the Traganarroo tries to extract his revenge for his imprisonment and Joanes’ escape from his fate.

This issue is filled with the gorgeous art that is a hallmark of the Joanes saga. The attention to detail that Zubiaga gives his characters, his landscapes, and in particular his ships is always marvelous. A lot happens in this chapter of the story and sometimes it feels like almost too much is happening, that Zubiaga could have used twice as many pages and still not had enough space to tell his story. But, the action is fast paced and the story filled with various twists and turns to keep one engrossed. This is a fitting continuation of the adventures of our hero. One can only hope that, somehow, the adventures of Joanes continue.

Joanes’ adventures are based in large part on the encounters that Basque whalers had with the now Canadian eastern coast. A lot of what we know about that part of Basque history is due to the efforts of Selma Huxley. Through her research, she rediscovered the 16th century Basque whaling industry that existed in Labrador and Quebec. In a recent interview appearing on About Basque Country, Zubiaga discusses how Huxley’s discoveries inspired him to focus his Basque saga on Basque whalers and their adventures. Sadly, Huxley died on May 3, 2020, after a long and influential career examining the combined histories of the Basque Country and Canada.

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