In northern Spain lies the town of Zugarramurdi, home to just under 250 people. This small town, situated next to the border of France and Spain, and nestled in the foothills of the Pyrenees, is famous for being a major part of the Basque Witch Trials of the 17th century, the biggest witch hunt ever undertaken by the Spanish Inquisition. It began in the year 1609 and by the end around 7000 suspected cases of witchcraft had been examined.
Basque witches, or priestesses also known as Sorginak, are the assistants of the Goddess Mari in Basque Mythology. Before the arrival of Christianity, the indigenous people of the area that is located around north-central Spain and south -west France had a belief system focussing around Mari and her consort Sugaar. Most of what we know about it today is based on the analysis of legends and the few historical references to Pagan rituals practised by the Basques.
Zugarramurdi was a Basque town. Isolated, and mainly inhabited by women, while the men worked away on whaling boats for months at a time. It had been given a pretty negative reputation from as early as 1140, when Aymeric Picaud wrote the Codex Calixtinus, a “tourist’s guide” to the Camino de Santiago, a pilgrimage route to the shrine of the apostle St James the Great. He described the Basque people as “fierce-faced men who terrorize people with their barbarian tongues, full of evil, dark of complexion, of aberrant appearance, wicked, treacherous, disloyal and false”… not exactly painting a pleasant picture was he? It was also common practise amongst the town folk, to make remedies, creams and brews from the wide variety of vegetation found on the mountains, added to the fact there was a very high percentage of stillborn babies amongst the population, the suggestion these people were cursed by God, as pagan worshipers was not entirely unbelievable to the Christian people of Spain. Modern day research has suggested the large number of stillborn babies may have been caused by the high percentage of Basque women with Rhesus Negative blood.
In 1608 a 20 year old girl named Maria de Ximildegui returned to Zugarramurdi after several years living in Cibourne in France. She claimed to have been a witch for 18 months, and during that time had taken part in Akelarres, or witches Sabbaths, in Zugarramurdi, and that another local woman; named Maria de Jureteguia had participated as well. Ximildegui claimed she had been saved by a priest through confession, after a struggle to break away from the Devil which had resulted in weeks of illness. She was extremely convincing. The townspeople began to believe her, and urged the terrified Maria de Jureteguia to confess. Overtaken with fear she fainted, after which she believed she could only save herself by confessing and asking for mercy. She stated that she had been led into witchcraft by her 52 year old aunt, Maria Chipia Barrenechea.
Hysteria gripped the town, a string of denunciations followed, the village comradery unravelled, as neighbour turned on neighbour, family member on family member. Searches were carried out to locate toads and other necessary companions of witches, which eventually led to Graciana, the 80 something year old sister of Barrenechea, who would go on to confess to being the queen witch of Zugarramurdi. Ten witches confessed in total, describing between them a crime spree which included murdering children to suckle their blood, using powders and spells to kill a total of 29 people, ruin crops, and kill livestock. The town somehow managed to resolve the entire event without bloodshed, using local Basque law, the confessed witches were pardoned. It would have ended there, if someone, who to this day remains anonymous, hadn’t reported the matter to the Inquisition.
In 1609 the Inquisition seized four of the confessed witches from the town, and further horrifying details were reported. Cannibalism, infanticide, defiling of tombs, incest, and vampirism were admitted to; an initiation ceremony involving sexual intercourse in a variety of ways including homosexual intercourse were described, all apparently supervised by Graciana Barrenechea. One witch even confessed to poisoning her own grandchild.
y the time the famous Logrono trials began in 1610, just 21 of the witches who had been imprisoned remained alive. 13 had died in prison, and 6 had already been burned. Only 9 of those left had confessed. Sentences were handed out by the Inquisition at an elaborate public ritual known as an Auto de fe, an Act of Faith. Those who had not confessed were sentenced to be burned alive, alongside 25 heretics. In March 1611 the population of Zugarramurdi was 390, the Inquistion had discovered that 158 were witches, and 124 were under suspicion. In all, 1590 witches were discovered in Navarra, and more than 30000 people had witnessed the trials.
Today, Zugarramurdi is not ashamed of it’s past. There is a museum dedicated to recreating the lives these victims of the largest witch trial in history lived. Every year the people celebrate the witches with a feast by the “Cave of the Witches” where the rituals were said to have taken place, on Midsummers eve, for the Summer Solstice, they light spectacular fires, and they remember…