The Basque death cult

The cult of death is strongly rooted in the culture Basque.

Cult of death

Death cult since the prehistory.

The dolmens and cromlechs are burials used in certain periods of prehistoric times including after. The ashes of corpses were buried in the interior of the cromlechs after having placed them in urns or vases.

The bodies were buried in the dolmens. Frequently, we find in them the remains of food and utensils. In the sierra of Aralar (Gipuzkoa and Navarre), still in the 19th century, shepherds keep the habit of uncovering themselves and reciting prayers in front of certain dolmens. According to them, the Jentil (see beliefs and rites) buried their dead here.

The names of these sepulchral stones are very significant: Tartaloetxe (house of Tartalo) Zegama (Gipuzkoa), Sorginexte (house of the witches) Arrizala (Alaba), Mairetxe (house of the Moors) Mendive (Lower Navarre), Jentilexte (house of the Jentils ) Ataun (Gipuzkoa)… regarding the dolmens; mairubaratza (Garden of the Moors) Oiartzun (Gipuzkoa), Jentilbaratza (Garden of the Jentils) Arano (Navarre), Mairuilarri (Sepulchral stone of the Moors) Zugarramurdi (Navarre)… for the cromlechs.

The stele funeral.

One of its names is Harrigizona (human stone) and refers to its human form. Funeral stelae (hilarriak) are widespread throughout Europe but it is here that we find a notable diversity. They reached their peak in the 17th century to disappear during the 19th century. At the end of the 19th century, practically no one used them anymore. Today they are coming back. Of those which have a date, the oldest dates from the 16th century, but most of them have no indications. It was customary to represent the tools of the trade of the deceased, also with animals, crosses, stars, suns etc. The name of the house appears on some of them, but usually only one design is carved.

the bench (Jarleku).

The sepulcher (jarleku) inside the church was a burial pit and, at the same time, a place to sit for the hostess. It was the place where women made offerings to deceased servants. In addition to the light, they deposited food (generally breads - OLATAK -).
In some places, these were specialty breads that had three or four tips. Meat was also deposited as in Vera and Lekaroz (Navarre), and in earlier times, animals.

In some villages of Gipuzkoa, in the 18th century, during the mass for the dead, an ox had to be left at the entrance of the church. In Oiartzun (Gipuzkoa), still in the 20th century, a calf was taken under the porch.
In Licq (Soule) it was believed that the breads that were on the bench could lose their nutritional powers and in Aretxabaleta (Gipuzkoa) that these breads were lighter after the celebration.

In some villages it was not easy to admit the burial outside the church. When the Bishop of Bayonne ordained it in 1786, he had a lot of opposition. In Ziburu (Labourd), the women threatened to set fire to the convent in which the bishop was located. Months later, authorities forcibly buried the dead families were holding in their homes, rejecting doing so outside the sacred grounds.

Despite everything, the jarleku followed, fulfilling its mission as a place of offerings until the 20th century. Then the duties and preeminence of women were lost as churches began to set pews as we know them today.

Argizaiola (the board to provide the light).

Among the offerings made to the dead, that of light was the most important. This widely held belief was that in the world of darkness it was indispensable. Torches, candles, and tall, stocky candles were used for this. These last bear the name of Ezkozigor (wax rod) in Sare (Labourd), Bildumena (stocky) (coast of Bizkaye) etc.

The candle frequently appears rolled up in a special board. This board is called ARGIZAIOLA (wax board).

Said board schematically represents a human figure and, sometimes, it is very elaborate. In the same way as the offerings (which we saw above), these were deposited on the seats / burials of the church. On the need for light for the dead, this is told in Berastegi (Gipuzkoa).

“It was not long ago that in a mine shaft, a group of miners got stuck. During this time, the mother of one of them lit the candle every day in the church and then, one day, she was unable to do so. After a few days, the miner was taken out of the basement alive and he told them that only one day he was without food, drink and light. By calculating, it turned out that it was precisely the day when his mother had not lit the candle in the church ”.