400 years of witchcraft: still more questions than answers

The theatre group "Sorgin Haizeak" performed in the village square

The theatre group "Sorgin Haizeak" performed in the village square

Before I went to Zugarramurdi, I had consigned witches to history.

When I was a child, every time I went to bed I jumped in as quickly as possible. I was convinced that the witch which lived in the cupboard underneath would grab my legs. But I stopped believing in God when I was fourteen, and with him, the devil, witches, fairies, hobgoblins, and other charlatans.

Witches, I thought, might genuinely believe that they had exceptional powers or, more likely, pretend in order to gain money or prestige. But true witches had never existed. And clearly fakes were of no interest. Witchcraft was too cutesy for a 14-year-old boy. Too full of clichés for a grown-up man.

Even when I walked the GR10 and passed within a frog’s leap of Zugarramurdi, I didn’t make the detour. Then last Saturday I went there and changed my mind.

I only went because it  was the first fine day for a week, and we needed to get out. “There’s a midsummer Witch Day,” I said to Veronica. “Let’s go.”

III Día de las brujas en Zugarramurdi [3rd Zugarramurdi Witch Day]

Barrenetxea: Graziana de Barrenetxea "the queen of the coven" lived here. She died in prison

Barrenetxea: Graziana de Barrenetxea "the queen of the coven" lived here. She died in prison

When we arrived a witch was unpacking her broomstick from the boot of her car. Later we saw her selling her wares at a stall in the street market (sorry, no toads today). There were people who could interpret Tarot cards and a man who could read your palm – incongruously dressed in a Chinese kimono and hat. A shop selling pottery witches – old hags on broomsticks. The usual meaningless commercialism, I thought. And then we went to a lecture followed by a tour of the museum, and entered a different world.

A visit to the Witch Museum in Zugarramurdi is essential if you want to understand what happened in the village

A visit to the Witch Museum in Zugarramurdi is essential if you want to understand what happened in the village

Although the museum has only existed for three years, the village has been famed for witchcraft for centuries. Four centuries to be exact. In November 1610 a costly show trial was held in distant Logroño at the Inquisition headquarters. Over forty inhabitants of Zugarramurdi were investigated on suspicion of witchcraft after an impressionable young girl had reworked wild stories from Ciboure on the coast. Confessions were often extracted by torture.

By the time of the trial, after nearly two years of investigations, thirteen of the accused had already died in prison, but that didn’t deter the Inquisitors. Effigies were made and the bones of the dead disinterred, put into boxes, and brought to the dock. Thirty-six of the accused were found guilty. Twelve were burned at the stake. Although five of them had already died in prison, that didn’t deter the Inquisitors either. There were twelve people condemned to death, and twelve would be burned.

The confessions were sometimes ridiculous:

María de Jureteguía, aged 22, said that when she went to the Sabbat, her aunt rubbed her with “flying unguent”. Once, she came out of a small hole in the wall and she realised that she had shrunk. When she asked about it her aunt said not to worry, now that she was back to normal.

Another woman confessed that she had been to bed with the devil on several occasions and had subsequently given birth to twins and triplets – all of them toads, all marked with the sign of the devil.

The implausibility of the confessions didn’t deter the Inquisition either. Witchcraft was being practised in Zugarramurdi and it had to be stamped out.

One motivation for the Inquisitors was simply money. They were career-minded, and the more convictions they obtained the more they advanced. They also supplemented their incomes from the fines and confiscations. And for neighbours seeking revenge for some real or imagined slight, it was a good opportunity. Accusations of witchcraft had a great advantage over other false claims. In the law of the time, if an accusation was rejected the complainant could be punished as if he had committed the crime. Not so for accusations of witchcraft.

A modern witch in the grocery shop in Zugarramurdi

A modern witch in the grocery shop in Zugarramurdi

We left the museum heads full of questions. Why were witchcraft trials a phenomenon from 1450 to 1650? Why not before, nor after? How did the late medieval representation of a witch as the naked temptress, complete with broomstick between her thighs, become the modern old crone? Why has the hysteria recurred so frequently? Take Jews in Nazi Germany in the 1930s; communists in America in the 1950s, to quote only two modern examples. Eleven of the 36 found guilty were men, including the “King of the coven”. The men seem to have disappeared from our collective consciousness. Why? Most importantly, how did one man, Alonso Salazar Frias, a junior Inquisitor, manage to put a stop to the trials? I will have to do some research…

By the time we had listened to the lecture and gone round the museum, we were convinced that there had never been any witches – not even silly women pretending to be witches – at Zugarramurdi. If we hadn’t gone to the museum we would have been none the wiser. All around were stalls touting happy please-take-me-home witches, complete with hats, cats and bats, and of course miniature broomsticks – cashing in on the lies which had led to innocent people being tortured and burned at the stake. Truth and money make uneasy bedfellows in Zugarramurdi.

Then, in the evening we went to the “witches” cavern just outside the village for a different kind of experience. The cavern is huge – well, cavernous – and a perfect setting when you have an audience of at least a thousand to fill it. Dimly lit, it was magic. If there had only been a few participants in some occult ceremony it would have been sinister, but this evening it was enchanting.

A tame Black Sabbath

A tame Black Sabbath

We saw, first, Oskorri, an electric-folk group playing whirling dance tunes with a distinctly Celtic tinge. They were followed by a prudish re-enactment of a witches’ coven by villagers – instead of kissing the devil’s arse, the traditional sign of allegiance, they blow him a kiss.

The factoría Alter Zinema

Finally, the cave was filled with a much more daring multimedia performance based on sex, drugs and rock and roll – or at least as near to rock-and-roll as traditional Basque folk dancing gets. A brew of primeval grunts and erotic heavy breathing from extensively painted but near-naked dancers running around the cave, was interspersed with laughably twee dance routines that could have graced an open-air tourist spectacle. I liked it. Veronica didn’t.


Not quite Basque rock-and-roll

In swirling midnight mist as we drove home, the air was full of witches. I still don’t believe in them, but I am interested in them, now. It was a good day: we came away with questions, not answers.

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