Basque Fact of the Week: Zugarramurdi, the Town of Witches

The year is 1609 in a small village at the very northern border of Nafarroa. The Inquisition has just descended on the quiet village, upending it as accusations of witchcraft fly about. Children describe strange rituals that involved Satan, cannibalism, and orgies. Primarily women, some in their eighties, but also men, including priests, are accused of being part of these dark happenings. Maybe these stories grew out of the activities of healers. In any case, the Inquisition interrogates and tortures many during the Basque witch trials, condemning several to death. At the heart of all of this resided the small town of Zugarramurdi.

A modern Akelarre in the Caves of Zugarramurdi, photo from Turismo Verde Navarra.
  • Zugarramurdi is another very small Basque village that has an outsized reputation. In 1800 Zugarramurdi had a population of 413. By 1900, that had grown to 582, but in 1998 had declined again to 239.
  • Zugarramurdi’s recorded history began in 1154, when it was under the lordship of the monastery of San Salvador de Urdax. It continued as essentially a farm associated with Urdax until 1667, when it became an exempt village and began its own development. However, up until 1834, the abbot of Urdax appointed the mayor. It wasn’t until then that Zugarramurdi became independent of their neighbors completely.
  • However, it was in the early 1600s when Zuagarramurdi became infamous. On January 12, 1609, the Inquisition of Logroño received complaints of wizards and witches in Zugarramurdi. Inquisitors were sent to the village, finding nearly 300 people involved in witchcraft. Forty were taken to Logroño to be tried and judged by the Inquisition. Despite the efforts of Inquisitor Alonso de Salazar y Frías, who was an advocate for the accused and doubted the claims of witchcraft, seven of the accused never recanted and were burned at the stake during the auto de fe in November, 1610, while five others died during their imprisonment. Eighteen confessed their guilt and were “reconciled.” The condemned were accused of demonic possession, celebrating black masses, causing storms, cursing fields and animals, and practicing vampirism and necrophagy.
  • Zugarramurdi’s association with witches came, in part, from the caves of Zugarramurdi and a nearby akelarre. Akelarre, literally meaning the pasture of the he-goat, was a place where witches congregated with Satan in the form of a he-goat, the akerbeltz. Akelarre now also means “witches’ Sabbath.”
  • The witches were also said to congregate in the caves, the Sorginen Leizea, or witches’ caves. A stream, named Olabidea but also known as Infernuko Erreka — the Stream of Hell — passes through the middle. The caves hosted pagan celebrations which may have inspired the accusations of witchcraft. Today, on the summer solstice, the town recreates the akelarre, the celebration of the witches.
  • Today, the town has embraced their legacy and association with witches. Thousands of visitors come to visit the “Town of the Witches.” In 2007, the Museum of the Witches opened, highlighting the way of life of those that lived in Zugarramurdi at the time of the Inquisition.
  • In the early 1900s, a number of prehistoric sites were discovered in the area. The Bidartia and the Akelarren-lezea caves contain Neolithic pottery and ceramics while the Lexotoa cave has carved flint dating to the Upper Paleolithic.

Primary sources: Arozamena Ayala, Ainhoa; García Nieto, Fernando. Zugarramurdi. Auñamendi Encyclopedia. Available at: https://aunamendi.eusko-ikaskuntza.eus/en/zugarramurdi/ar-152430/; Cuevas de Zugarramurdi, Wikipedia; Zugarramurdi, Pueblo of the Witches

2 thoughts on “Basque Fact of the Week: Zugarramurdi, the Town of Witches”

  1. Greetings, Paul Tillac, did many illustrations of the witches and the rituals. I saw them at the Cambo les Bains museum last time I was home.
    I don’t remember if the illustrations were on loan or the property of the museum. It is not for every taste but worth seeing.
    Monique

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