Salem, Massachusetts had nothing on the folks of Zugarramurdi, a tiny bucolic Basque village nestled in the foothills of the western Pyrenees Mountains. The town’s name translates to the gentle sounding “hill of elm trees,” although today it is far better known for its witches than for its hills and elms. Regardless of the town’s quaint houses and verdant hillsides, Zugarramundi was the site of a most brutal witch hunt during the Spanish Inquisition, famously known as the Basque Witch Trials.
Way back, a full 500 years before the Zugarramurdi witch trials even began, the Basques developed a somewhat unflattering reputation throughout Europe. Described by a French writer as being “full of evil, dark in complexion, of aberrant appearance, wicked, treacherous, disloyal and false,” the people of the region were often viewed as “other.” With this type of universal image, it’s no surprise the pilgrims arriving from the French border would have been terrified of these unusual people living in misty, rugged terrain and speaking in a harsh-sounding language.
During the 16th century when the Spanish Inquisition was in full swing, the local people were used to doing things that could easily have been interpreted by the fearful as being witch-like and suspicious. Because the men were often working at sea, villages like Zugarramurdi were predominantly filled with women who relied on home remedies, mushrooms, and plants for medicine. This manner of living began to draw the attention of inquisitors who were hungry to find and expel infidels from Spain and needed very little encouragement to destroy that which they did not understand.
Sometimes considered the most ambitious attempt to ever root out witchcraft in Europe, the Basque Witch Trials began earnestly in 1609 when the examiners managed to find 7,000 suspicious cases of occult activity in the region, generating over 11,000 pages of written evidence. Although the majority of the accused were women, some children, men, and even priests were also involved for various seeming misdeeds.
The “Act of Faith” in 1610 was the most memorable incident in the trials, as it determined the fate of many innocent souls. It began with a procession composed of a 1,000 people—family of the condemned, spectators, commissioners, notaries of the Inquisition, and members of various religious orders were present. Further back in the line were penitents carrying candles and wearing heavy ropes around their necks, a sign they were to be flogged. After these were the forgiven who wore pointed hats, and behind them were people carrying five statuettes of those who died while being tortured, accompanied by the coffins with their remains. And last in the procession were four women and two men who wore the black pointed hats of those condemned to be burned alive for their heresy. Once everyone had arrived and taken their respective places, a stern sermon was given before the reading of the sentences, but the process took so long, the whole affair had to be extended into the following day. (Pause for Monte Python moment…) Once it was finally over and all were condemned already, the severity of the penalties resonated through the territory as being the most brutal course of action ever taken against those accused of anything involving witchcraft.
Perhaps because the witch trials were based on fear, it was fear that propelled citizens to turn themselves in and subsequently implicate others. When the inquisitors came to town, they offered a pardon to anyone who came forward, as long as they identified the guilty. 1,802 people immediately came forward in an effort to save themselves and perhaps throw some other poor soul under the heel of the Inquisition’s brutal boot. 1,384 of those confessors were, in fact, children between the ages of seven and fourteen years old. Their confessions led to the implication of 5,000 more people, many of whom were sentenced to death.
When the Inquisitors first traveled to Zugarramurdi in pursuit of the occult, they heard about a cave located in the middle of the village known as “Hell’s Stream” because of its running water and spooky nighttime appearance. There were some ancient steps leading up to the hidden cave, and the legend had been circulating for many years that it seemed like the perfect place for witches. Although surrounded by lush green landscape and a quiet town, the cave of Zugarramurdi seems to have some dark history. The cave is typically referred to as Sorginen Leizea which literally means “the cave of the witches,” and the main gallery with the most vaulted ceiling is called “the gutter of hell.” As if this were not strange enough, the meadow beside the cave is known as the “Field of the Goat,” a symbol that has long been associated with a witch’s coven. However, back in the 16th century, it was a scene of pagan rites and natural healing practices, deeply rooted in local culture, not Satanism.
Established in 2007, the Zugarramundi Witch Museum is a place where visitors can get up close and personal with the dark history of the area. Dedicated to telling the stories of the Inquisition and the people it condemned, it organizes guided visits to the famous cave and plans an annual festival for the locals known as the “Day of the Witches.” The museum, albeit dark, provides people with the chance to reflect on history and honor the memories of the men and women who suffered there.
Although historically regarded as malevolent, Zugarramurdi is now a popular tourist attraction that draws thousands of visitors each summer solstice when a great fire is built in the famous cave—with music and dancing through the night—to fittingly commemorate its pagan history.
And the rest is history.