Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904), an Englishman who studied all his life the ancient culture of Japan, used to say that all the religions, at the beginning, were a cult of the ancestors, and later, those worshiped beings where grouped in categories until reach the highest one: the Supreme Being. To Carl Gustav Jung, (1875-1961), a Swiss psychologist, we already are born with the printing of God as a program in our brains, as a universal archetype for the entire humane race. What is true is that since long time ago, all the ancient civilizations have had this kind of cultural beliefs. The main idea is that the deceased ancestor never goes away from the familiar house; his spirit will keep dwelling on there because that is his place. Then, the family has to give him assistance, acknowledge, rendering him affection and filial piety. And that spirit will influence the living's life; if they take care of him, offering him permanently homage, his influence will be a benefit for his descendants. That's the central idea of that cult. They make small domestic shrines, they offer them food (and the spirits will only eat the invisible essence of the aliments), they light candles to give them illumination on their world of shadows. Although, according with all traditions, they don't really require of that physical assistance: but they take special account of the act of homage and memory.

All the civilizations and real ancient cultures, have had -and some of them, like the Japanese, still conserve the custom today-, that form of domestic worship. And the Basques either. The Basques, that people arrived from we don't know where, a people more united by their unique language than by their physical features; (there's not only one physiognomical type of Basques, but at least two of them: one is the type with blond hair and light eyes, and the other, of black hair, dark eyebrows and aquiline noses). This people, with his pronounced tendency to not carry up factor RH in their blood, what in ancient times shaped them as pretty endogamics. But their tongue is a crucial factor in their identity. The euskera, a language spoken only by them in the world, also vanishes its origins among the mist of the centuries.

The Basques bring along with them a strong concept of belonging to the place where they live. "Etxe" is the house, and we need to understand as "house'', not only the place where they live, but a familiar institution inherited throughout generations, and not divisible in lots or fractions. This patrimony must remain untouchable along successive generations; it's an almost sacred patrimony, the familiar "temple". It's like a small "homeland", their "patria", or "land of the parents". This idea, transferred into their society, had contributed to strength their nationalist feelings.

The dead family always had remained, then, in body and soul, into the familiar house. It was frequent -and obligatory- until the arrival of Christianity, around the 5th century. They had their dead relatives or ancestors buried in some place into the property; they never used the communal cemeteries. Catholic Church will encourage, later, to bury them on cemeteries, but...then, the road walked from the house to the grave, will have for them, a magic special signification of belonging.


Basques were ruled by a lunar calendar. A lunar calendar is a calendar that starts in the new moon and its length is approximately 29 days and a half (exactly 29 days, 12 hours, 44 minutes and 28 seconds). A special day, in their traditions, was dedicated to the moon: the Friday. On Fridays witches used to meet them on the akelarres, and it was not allowed to get married, to pasture, or to cultivate, on Friday. In euskera, the word "hil" is used for "moon" and also means "month". In the ancestors worship, different phases of the moon had significance for them: full moon gave the souls light at the nighttime; the meaning of "moon" in euskera is "the light of the dead" ("hil-argia"). But under the new moon they had to help them to get illuminated. From this custom are created the argizaiolas.


The Argizaiolas (from argizai, wax, and ola, table) are wooden tables, artistically hewn and wrapped into a wax rope, which are lighted and remain lightning by several hours, used to give the souls the warm of the household. Also it could be assumed as a way to give them light in their world of shadows, and in their way to the heaven. Originally is assumed that they were made of stone. Actually it's a quite disappeared custom, except in Amezketa, Guipuzkoa, where still traditions are conserved. In Amezketa, the nave of the church symbolizes a cemetery, with tombs at both sides of the central hallway. There are aligned around 150 tombs and, in the All Souls' Day, kneeling-stools are installed and argizaiolas on each one of them. Observed by the Catholic Church as a pagan symbol, really their use was extended at the Christian Age, when there were established ceremonies using wax candles. The rite of illumination of the dead, however, is a very old tradition between Basques.



This word means "the lord of the house". It's used to designate the most ancient ancestor, who, by consequence, is the main guardian of the homeland. Families must have a common ancestor, the ancient one known by them. In general, it was not only one but several of them, that's why they call them "Etxekojaunak" ("lords of the houses"). Their spirits are always going around, watching the house, and they could give benefits to the family, provided that the offerings and homage were correctly given to them.


These are disc-shaped funerary steles, built in stone. They have graved symbols of a very ancient tradition. It's believed that they come from a solar cult. They are pretty spread specially in Navarra. The presence of the sun in the dead world is another symbol of illumination, and the protection of a powerful being. Most of them are decorated with symbols of the Basque mythology. Some of them are decorated with crosses: along their encounter with the Christianity, discoidal steles have adopted different expressions, shaping a blend of Christian symbols and Basque mythology. Discoidal steles are present in several countries (North Africa, Turkey, Russia, etc.) but those of the Basques are, and they are adapted to, their own culture, according with their own beliefs.




When somebody dies in the family, the Basques' funerary rites are wealth and opulent. In Basse-Navarre, the town's carpenter is the one who presides the funerary rite. He builds tables and installs decorations for the funeral. He is who, when the death arrives, will open the house windows "so the soul could fly in freedom".

The elder woman in the family, the etxekoandre, will be the one who rules periodically the homage to the deceased. She will light the candles and the argizaiolas, and she will say the prayers. According with different costumes of some areas of the Basque country, sometimes this rite is offered by who has the right of primogeniture, the first-born, either be them male or female.

The dead will never be abandoned. That's what affirms the continuity of the household, despite their temporary inhabitants could be physically disappeared.

But, how the etxekoandre justify all these pagan rites before the Church? Very simple, they inscribe them into the "Communion of Saints ", which means that all Christians, past, present and futures are part of the "mystical body of Christ ", and we are consubstantially united with him in the heaven. But the old euskera cultural tradition think about the dead as the "arima erratiak" (errant souls). It's not a coincidence that the most important Basque religious holyday is the All Saints Day.






By means of their ancestor-worship, the Basques, as other peoples who have adopted it, reinforce the bows of blood of their families. The whole system, by which they are ruled, socially, is shaped by the same idea of the familiar house solidity. A house is a material property, but also, is an intangible asset: apart from the physical construction, it's everything what exists inside, all the spiritual and abstract, what human beings install into the home: the intention of joining people in a family, the common projects, the hope to be able to enjoy the fruits of the common sacrifice. In the Basque system of inheritances, like in all the Pyrenees, properties are conserved untouched by generations. The indivisibility of the familiar ground was achieved leaving the inheritance only to the first-born, son or daughter: only the elder son or the elder daughter could inherit the entire property, and they were the managers of its administration until the next inheritor arrives. The other siblings only were heirs of the personal property: clothes, furniture, jewels, and tools for work. And they had three options: to remain under the custody of the elder sibling, to marry with someone who had inherited something, or, finally, the emigration. During the 19th century, the emigration of all these young siblings was frequent and important, especially towards America. In spite of the fact that the Spanish and French laws already had changed this regime of successions, they were fixing them up to find legal ways to continue orchestrating it. In fact nowadays already there are not many vestiges of this inheritances' system, it is practically forgotten.

But by means of this system during many generations this people managed to support a cultural firm tradition; in the same household, were coexisting not only the inhabitants of the present, but those of the past (by means of the Asaben Gurtza, their ancestor-worship) and those of the future, who before being born, already had their place and their mission insured in the world.

Maybe, it might be another explanation about "why the genealogy".

Amid the majestic scenery of the Pyrenees, arises that question of the very ancient Basque cultural tradition:


Errant to do to not become one of them ?..

A very difficult question, no doubt .





Pablo Briand, April 2010.

Sources: José Miguel Barandiarán- Vestiges Artistiques et Religieux des Pyrénées Basques", 1935.- " Données etnographiques sur le vecú traditionnel de la mort en Pays Basque-Nord". Michel Duvert. - El inconsciente colectivo vasco, Andrés Ortiz-Osés, Txertoa, 1982. -Sobre la religión antigua y el calendario del pueblo vasco (1984), Julio Caro Baroja, Editorial Txertoa. Music: Txalaparta, The Chieftans.

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