If at one time these legends were viewed with contempt by superficial minds that could not perceive behind the simplicity of their form the great lessons which they inculcated, and the lofty sentiments they
enclosed, these very tales and legends are in our day becoming the objects of the attention and study of deep thinkers who, by the meagre light which these tales alone afford them, are able to penetrate the shadows left by those ancient societies that have disappeared from the face of the globe, carrying along with them the secrets of their ideas, civilization, and life, because these traditions constitute the archives of the people, the treasures of their science and of their beliefs; they are the records of the lives of their forefathers, the landmarks of the grandeur of their past history.
The Basques, like all primitive races, separated from the common paternal family, and holding similar beliefs and customs, must necessarily possess many analogous points in common, independent of the effects due to difference of climate, mode of living, religion, and other physical and moral causes. Yet the Basques are singular in this, that, in the midst of the great revolutions which have agitated the whole of Europe, causing radical changes, levelling to the ground or converting into ruins great empires, powerful nationalities, monuments; sweeping away languages, and even the very races themselves--the Basques have known how to pass unscathed through the many storms of devastation, preserving intact their nationality, institutions, laws, language, and customs.
Impelled by their singularly energetic activity, and by
the strength of their warlike spirit, they have fought on land, they have triumphed by sea, they have explored and conquered unknown regions; and, by the light of their unassuming but practical intelligence, have succeeded in consolidating with admirable harmony the elements of a wise rule which perhaps has no equal in the world. But following that traditional spirit which is the characteristic mark of the race, and trusting to that spirit for the preservation of their institutions and history, they have never sought to transmit in writing to their descendants the narrative of their great deeds, nor the keystone of their robust organization, nor, indeed, in one word, the secret of that immense sovereignty to which they attained, and which is scarcely comprehensible in our day if we take into account the now limited conditions of their territory and wealth.
What interest and importance must be attached to collecting, in view of all these circumstances, the thousands of scattered fragments of a nation's traditions and beliefs which, shining like vivid flashes of lightning amid dark shadows, rend the dense veils which conceal the mysterious secrets of the glorious history of the Basque people?
There are some who would fain put down all popular beliefs on the plea that they perpetuate superstition in the heart of the people. That the masses are superstitious is unfortunately a truth which cannot be denied;
but, at the same time, it is true to say that the greatest men and the most illustrious people of the world have yielded to that weakness. Yet this fact does not prove that it is only in traditional beliefs where the origin of the evil is to be sought for. So long as we are unable to define the limits which separate truth from error in space and time, in the physical and moral worlds, man will ever allow himself to be carried away by the irresistible yearning for that which is unknown and incomprehensible, to seek in the mysterious regions of fancy for abundant food to satisfy his curiosity, and some explanation for that which he cannot understand.
By no other means is it comprehensible how superstition has always subsisted in every race, whatever be the religious profession or degree of culture it may have reached, or age in which it existed. The object may have changed, the form may have varied, as it has always done under the various influences exercised by religion, climate, customs, and other causes; nevertheless superstition has not ceased to pervade and dominate the spirit as powerfully now as it has ever done.
It is true that in our days the belief in witches is gone by, but, on the other hand, a world of spirits have risen up, or rather been discovered, as many spiritualists assert, who assume to live in perfect union with them.
We have among us mediums who have, so they tell us, legions of the dead at their command ever ready to
appear at their evocation to fill with wonder and dread the most cultured city of Europe. And if all the world laughs at divination and the magic arts, there are few who do not shudder when some somnambulist, with brow bathed in perspiration and frame quivering in forced sleep, assures them that he can perceive through his closed eyelids the beginning of tubercule in the lungs of a patient, or some latent disease in the heart.
Ancient beliefs as a rule sprang from faith or some moral sentiment in such a manner that across their gross fictions there shone some great truth or deeply rooted virtue. Hence they always left behind some moral teaching or called forth some wholesome emotion. And in proof that the beliefs of our forefathers tended to inspire the noblest instincts in man, we have but to take any of the simplest of them. Who, for instance, has not heard hundreds of times in the Basque Provinces, in one form or another, the tales of the Arguiduna?
"The day has fled, and the poor cottager trudges sadly up the mountain path which leads to her house. She is weeping, her heart is torn asunder by grief, for she has lost her only child, who was the sunshine of her life.
"The shades of twilight, the silence which surrounds her, the sad mystery of night renew the wounds of her heart! She thinks of her child, she weeps, looks up to heaven and goes on her way!
"She proceeds, and reaches the graveyard where but
a few days since she had laid the loved remains, and the poor mother on beholding the grave puts both her hands to her beating heart, feeling as though it must needs burst in twain under that wave of sorrow and bitterness which the recollection of her loss has raised.
"Suddenly a weird light, mysterious, leaps over the low wall of the cemetery and approaches to meet her, flickering in fantastic movements amid the shades. On beholding that light the mother falls on her knees, puts out her hands towards the flame, and, forgetful of her own pain, she asks in a faltering voice
"'Child of my heart, are you happy?'
"And the light, as though wishful of replying to her, becomes agitated and moves rapidly, and approaches nearer and closer to her, and stands still above her head. The woman, enraptured by an undefinable emotion, closes her eyes. Who knows? Perchance her ears have caught the sweet murmur of the words of her son--perchance she has felt on her lips the loving kiss of that idolized child of her heart!
"But the light begins to ascend and continues rising towards heaven until it becomes lost amid the shadows. The woman stands for a moment, her eyes fixed with fond looks on the spot where the light has vanished. She then directs to heaven a prayer, and starts on her way home, weeping still; but the tears she sheds are tears of resignation which comfort her. That night, sleep
does not desert her eyelids as on previous nights, nor is she troubled by visions or phantoms. She sleeps calmly, awakes with peace of soul. And this is due to her having seen the spirit of her child; it is because she knows that the child so beloved and wept for has not forgotten his poor mother; it is that she feels that the soul of the child of her affections has gone to be reunited with its kindred spirits, the angels of heaven!"
What has all this been? If you question science it will tell you that it is due to a very simple phenomenon. Some gases emanating from the organic bodies of that graveyard have become inflamed on coming into contact with the air, and produced that flame which in its turn has caused an hallucination in the overwrought spirit of the poor mother.
The explanation is correct and exact, and science is quite right. But how much more consoling is it for that hapless mother, the hallucination which brought peace to the soul, than the cold explanation which would leave her in all the bitterness of sorrow!
Let us state another example. Above the heights of Amboto appears a heavy dark cloud presaging a storm. On its appearance the fishermen return precipitately to port; the field labourers, the traveller, and the shepherds all fly terrified back to their dwellings, and as they do so murmur, amid words of prayer, the strange words, The lady of Amboto! the lady of Amboto!
And who is this lady?
The wandering soul of a woman bereft of faith and conscience, who, after sacrificing to her ambition the love of a wife, that of a daughter, and even her hope of eternal salvation, commits the last and greatest crime--that of self-destruction--by casting herself down a precipice, and her spirit, in just expiation of so much sin, finds itself condemned to wail and wander for ever a victim to remorse among the peaks of Amboto. Her apparition is always followed by some great misfortune. The traces of her footprints are always marked with tears and blood, and, like to the birds of prey which are only aroused by the smell of blood, she foretells also the hour of calamity, and quits her haunts to revel in tears and wails.
On the other hand, a white lovely mist is seen to rise and hover over the top of Morumendi, and this mist becomes lost in space like a soft vapour. If on beholding this mist some become alarmed, this is soon succeeded by gleams of hope springing up in their hearts, and they hail the beneficent lady who comes to announce to them that, although the hours of trial are at hand, she will help them to surmount them. Here comes the good lady! Here comes the good lady! is heard from every lip blessing the spirit of the chaste and heroic maiden who sacrificing for her aged father her own happiness and affections and her very life, ended her lonely days in prayer on the rugged peaks of Morumendi.
The soul of the proud, unnatural daughter comes always accompanied by black clouds presaging disaster.
The apparition of the innocent maiden ever comes amid vapourous mists, white like her spotless soul, and announcing hope and peace.
The lady of Amboto symbolizes ingratitude, ambition, and crime, and her spirit dwells in the midst of general execration, and is received with curses.
The lady of Morumendi symbolizes abnegation, virtue, innocence, and lives amid the blessings of the grateful hearts of all the people.
All this is fantastic and absurd, there is no doubt. But to the Basque it has been during twenty generations a moral lesson written with clouds upon the gigantic peaks of Amboto and Morumendi.
And similarly in all the other traditions which have been preserved, there is always discovered in their origin either a principle of morality, or the sacred cultus of the paternal hearth, or the passionate love of their mountains. That is to say, the three greatest and purest sentiments of humanity--the love of God, the love of home, and the love of the country--the three great virtues which the Romans admired in the Basques some twenty centuries ago These virtues have distinguished the race throughout that immense space of time, and these very virtues will still shine in the coming generations, although unfortunately without the vigorous energy of their forefathers.
And perchance--can it be doubted?--these popular legends have had no small share in preserving the character of the Basque race so distinctly, that at the present day they stand alone and unique amid the ruin and desolation which have befallen all other primitive races, retaining its language, customs, beliefs, and the same spirit which so eminently distinguished them in the midst of all those opulent ancient empires, the remembrance of which is fast becoming obliterated from the memory of the people.
Entone at the present day the song of Hanibal which our forefathers sang thirty centuries ago, or that of Lekovide in the time of Augustus Octavius, or that of Altabiscar during the epoch of Charlemagne, and the humblest shepherd of the mountains will understand it as though it had been composed for him. On the other hand, what people or race understands the Sagas of the SCALDOS, the poem of the Nibelung, the chants of Ossian, and the hymns of the Armenians? Only a few learned men who have made the languages which no longer exist objects of study. And this is not due solely to the fact that the language of those days is still preserved as that the spirit which distinguished the race has been perpetuated, and the people at the present day judge and feel and live in the same manner as they did in the ancient days of their glory.
By what other means but by tradition do we know
the names of the heroic chieftains of that race of warriors which carried terror and dismay into the very centre of proud Rome--the Lekovides, Uchines, and Lartaunes?
What history has preserved the glorious names of Hernio, Gurutzeta, Oro-vioc, Betzaide, and others too numerous to mention?
By what explanation could we be able to comprehend better than by the Canto of Alos the imposing solemnity and the deep sentiment of the funeral ceremony of Gau-illa?
Truly, then, can it be said, that the nation which more completely gathers together the largest collection of traditions, ballads, and popular legends, must be the one possessing the most complete history.
For this reason throughout the German States has the prosecution of this branch of study been followed with interest and assiduity, and in France also with national spirit.
Hence, if this study is held to be one of such great importance by the two great nations which are at the head of the literary movements of the world, and that, moreover, possesses beautiful and multiplied histories written by the finest intellects with all the philosophical conditions which modern criticism exact--what interest must not a nation such as the Basque inspire, which has no chronicles or archives, inscriptions or any other of the indispensable elements required for forming such a vast work as this?
There remains, therefore, to us but one path open--the memory of the people.
Let us hasten to collect, each on his part, the materials necessary for this important object, and the day may dawn when some privileged genius shall bring to a conclusion the imperfect work which I have commenced of bringing forward before an enlightened English public the vast array of not only Basque legends, but the legends of many other provinces of Spain.
And let us hasten with all speed, for the gods are departing. Through an irreparable misfortune, which is not sufficiently deplored, this hapless nation or race is suffering in its depths a deep and laboured transformation. The levelling breath of the age is wresting from the heart of the Basques on a par with the superstitions in which they lived, their lofty sentiments and partriarchal customs; and the people, on apprehending by the light of new ideas the simple paucity of their beliefs experience a sad humiliation on perceiving their credulity and ignorance. In our day it is sad to say, even the most rustic husbandman appears ashamed to recount those tales which at one time he listened to with enthusiasm and with implicit faith; and on asking for any narrative he will look askance, suspecting that the interrogator may sneer at his simplicity.
Let it not be thought, however, that because we are enthusiastic for all ancient lore we cease to acknowledge
the immense benefits humanity owes to illustration and the progress of modern times; but in this especial point, uniting ourselves for a moment to the ideas of the Basque people, let me ask, with what ideas and sentiments could the space be filled up in their history were we to tear down and scorn the beliefs and traditions, ideas and customs of that race which so largely contributed to their well-being for more than twenty centuries, imprinting on the character of the Basque that seal of wonderful originality which has always distinguished the race? That is to say, the admirable harmony which unites in them the most peaceful instincts with an heroic valour in dangers; of spontaneous submission to authority with an indomitable spirit of liberty; and lastly, a modest simplicity with an energetic aspiration for all that is grand.
But apart from all this the sad truth must be told the Basque of the present day, especially the generation that is rising up, does not feel the love and yearning for home and hearth felt by their elders, and those traditions and tales of their forefathers no longer satisfy his spirit. It is urgent, therefore, to gather together these legends from the generation which is fast passing away, else if we wait much longer we know not whether even a trace of their footprints will be in existence. Many traditions have already disappeared, losing along with them part of the precious treasures of our beloved country's history;
but as this cannot now be remedied, let us repair the loss by collecting what remains, and preserve them with religious veneration, since they are the relics of the greatness, the virtues, and faith of our forefathers.
It is a recognized fact that the people inhabiting mountainous countries are all, more or less, given to believe in the marvellous or the supernatural, because nature presents herself in those lands under forms of greater beauty and grandeur, and thus offers to the imagination of the simple dwellers a more free scope for the marvellous. Such are the rugged shores of the Rhine strewn with the weird ruins of feudal castles; the mountains and lakes of Scotland; the broken rocks of the Hebrides, as well as the vast wild tracts of land of Emerald Erin, covered with an evergreen underwood. In some may be found gnomes or ghosts; in others, white ladies riding fantastic steeds; or Peri, or again Will-o'-the-wisps--but in all are found innumerable multitudes of mysterious beings whose cries or dances, games and aërial cavalcades, have been seen beneath the pale light of the moon, or among the mists, or the froth of waterfall, or torrent, or mountain stream, which, as it dashes and splashes up, form supposed canopies for the spirits inhabiting the waters, or hovering under the branches of the huge ancient trees of the forest.
Should any enlightened traveller sit down at the hospitable hearth of one of the dwellers of these countries and
listen to the marvellous adventures narrated in perfect faith by the patriarch of the family, and listened to with the greatest respect and in deep silence by all his family and retainers; and should the said traveller interrupt the narrative by any movement or sign of incredulity, he would see the whole family rise up together and protest against such an act, not because of its discourtesy, but because it casts an injurious doubt, and such a doubt would lessen the importance of that district or village, should they not be able to boast of the existence of some of these mysterious beings, undefined it is true, but supposed ever to exert some direct influence on all the important events of their simple, monotonous life. And, to convince the traveller of the truth of what is advanced, some stalwart shepherd will assert that he has been awakened on a certain night by the light kiss of a white Will-o'-the-wisp which has dragged him out of his straw bed and carried him to a neighbouring wood, sore and tossed by the rapid whirls of some wild dance. The old man will add that he remembers how in his youth he saw the While Lady of the neighbouring castle pass on horseback across the wood, with a falcon fastened to her wrist, and accompanied by a retinue of hunters with bugle-horns, and leading hunting dogs.
After these asseverations, follow the tales of the aged mistress of the house, who will relate how she saw with her own eyes a wilful imp spilling the salt, turning over
the pots and kettles, and even carrying its audacity to the point of fastening an old rag to the tail of the most venerable cat of the house.
In view of, to them, such unimpeachable proofs the visitor is bound to agree with them, that in truth ghosts and peri, white ladies and Will-o'-the-wisps do exist, and in this manner he will once more win the good opinion of his hosts.
I am of opinion that it is better to allow these good people to live in peace with their superstitions, which do no harm to any one, leaving to time the work of undeceiving them, than to put ourselves forward as reformers among them by endeavouring to root up their simple beliefs. Moreover, the people that from their simplicity believe in all these things are found as a rule to be more virtuous, peaceful, and honest, better disposed to observe religious duties and precepts, and more obedient to the laws of their respective governments, because these simple beliefs prepare them in a certain manner to accept other beliefs which are of greater importance and interest.
And I go further than this: how would they pass the long evenings of winter were they deprived of the marvellous stories which they narrate in peace and good fellowship, sitting around the fire, and that serve them as food for their imagination and of repose and relaxation after their hard day's rough work in the fields?
Let us bear in mind that, at least during the time they narrate these marvellous fables and stories, they are happy and contented. Therefore let us not embitter with our scepticism the pleasure these people enjoy.
The tract or range of land and mountains which comprises the Basque Provinces contains mountains similar to those of Scotland, hills as green as may be found in Ireland, rivers with shores as rugged as are those of Germany, with bleak coasts as huge and inhospitable as are the coasts of the Hebrides. This country, topographically so similar to the above-mentioned nations, possesses a people dowered with an imagination as vivid as theirs, inclined to create fantastic beings known under the name of Lamiæ, inhabiting their tempestuous coasts; Bassa-jaon, or jauna, dwelling in their interminable woods; Mailagarrys amid the luxuriant forests; and Sorguiñas on the solitary plains and in the fissures opened by the force of the mountain torrents,
The legends and historical traditions of a people sui generis, possessing a language at once magnificent, original, and similar to none, a brilliant poetic imagination, fired with a love which amounts almost to idolatry for their mountains, a deeply-rooted religious faith, simple patriarchal habits, extraordinary progress, undoubted virtues, and an admirable administration worthy of being imitated, must, I feel assured, prove of
interest to the English public, which is ever ready to recognize and acknowledge the grandeur and virtues of foreign nations, and take an interest even in their fairy and popular stories.