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File:Goya le sabbat des sorcières.jpg

Francisco de Goya's Witches Sabbat, 1798

The Basque witch trials of the 17th century represent the most ambitious attempt at rooting out witchcraft ever undertaken by the Spanish Inquisition. The trial of the Basque witches at Logroño, near Navarre, in northern Spain, which began in January 1609, against the background of similar persecutions conducted in Labourd by Pierre de Lancre, was almost certainly the biggest single event of its kind in history. By the end some 7,000 cases had been examined by the Inquisition.


Although Logroño is not a Basque city, it was the setting for an Inquisition tribunal responsible for the Kingdom of Navarre, Alava, Gipuzkoa, Biscay, La Rioja and the North of Burgos and Soria[1]. Among the accused were not only women (although they predominated), but also children and men, including priests guilty of healing with nóminas,[1] amulets with names of saints.[2] The first phase ended in 1610, with a declaration of auto de fé against thirty-one of the accused, twelve or eleven of whom were burned to death (five of them symbolically, as they had died before auto da fé).

Thereafter proceedings were suspended until the inquisitors had a chance to gather further evidence, on what they believed to be a widespread witch cult in the Basque region. Alonso Salazar Frias, the junior inquisitor and a lawyer by training, was delegated to examine the matter at length. Armed with an Edict of Grace, promising pardon to all those who voluntarily reported themselves and denounced their accomplices, he traveled across the countryside during the year 1611, mainly in the vicinity of Zugarramurdi, near the French border, where a cave and a water stream (Olabidea or Infernuko erreka, "Hell's stream") were said to be the meeting place of the witches.

As was usual in cases of this kind, denunciations flowed in. Frías finally returned to Logroño with "confessions" from close on 2,000 people, 1,384 of whom were children between the ages of seven and fourteen, implicating a further 5,000 named individuals.[1] Most of 1,802 people[3] witnesses retracted their statements before Salazar, attributing their confessions to torture. The evidence gathered covered 11,000 pages in all. Only six people out of 1,802 maintained their confessions and claimed to have returned to sabbaths.

In the stir of the events, proceedings were started in Hondarribia too (1611), some 10 km away from Zugarramurdi, against presumable female witches accused of casting spells on living creatures and meeting in Jaizkibel in akelarres led by a he-goat shaped Devil. Interestingly, according to evidence given by a witness as a attested in the document, "the Devil summoned in the Gascon language those from San Sebastian and Pasaia, and in Basque those from Irun and Hendaye, addressing a few words to them..."[4]


Although the belief in Basque witches was widespread among the Spanish populace, the Spanish Inquisition of the Basque Region was more inclined to persecute Protestants, Conversos (baptized descendants of Jews and Moors), and those who illegally smuggled banned books into Spain. As far back as 1538 the Council of Inquisition had warned judges not to believe all that they read in Malleus Maleficarum, the infamous witch-finding text. In March 1610, Antonio Venegas de Figueroa, the Bishop of Pamplona, sent a letter to the Inquisition in which he claimed that the witch hunt was based "on lies and self-delusion"[5] and that there had been little knowledge of witchcraft in the region before the outset of the trials.

Contrary to the usual picture of the Inquisition, ready to believe all and every confession of wrongdoing, Salazar, the youngest judge in a panel of three, was also skeptical about the whole thing, saying that he had found no substantive proof of witchcraft on his travels, in spite of the manifold confessions. More than that, he questioned the whole basis of the trials. Because of this disagreement on how to proceed, the matter had to be referred to the Inquisitor-General in Madrid. The senior judges, Alonso Becerra y Holquin and Juan del Valle Alvarado, even went so far as to accuse their colleague of being "in league with the Devil". Some of Salazar's objections are remarkable, considering the atmosphere of the times, and are therefore worth quoting:

The real question is: are we to believe that witchcraft occurred in a given situation simply because of what the witches claim? No: it is clear that the witches are not to be believed, and the judges should not pass sentence on anyone, unless the case can be proven with external and objective evidence sufficient to convince everyone who hears it. And who can accept the following: that a person can frequently fly through the air and travel a hundred leagues in an hour; that a woman can get through a space not big enough for a fly; that a person can make himself invisible; that he can be in a river or the open sea and not get wet; or that he can be in bed at the sabbath at the same time... and that a witch can turn herself into any shape she fancies, be it housefly or raven? Indeed, these claims go beyond all human reason and may even pass the limits permitted by the Devil.

The Inquisitor-General appeared to share his view that confession and accusation on their own were not enough. For some time the central office of the Inquisition had been sceptical about claims of magic and witchcraft, and had only sanctioned the earlier burnings with considerable reluctance, and only because of the reported mood of panic from Logroño. In August 1614 it ruled that all of the trials pending at Logroño should be dismissed. At the same time it issued new and more rigorous rules of evidence, that brought witch-burning in Spain to an end, long before the Protestant North.


The background and circumstances leading to the events unleashed are not unknown to us, dismissing for the most part esoteric and magical approaches. In a wider context of religious persecution and conflict in the whole Europe, Catholic Church aimed at suppressing old popular customs and ways that could contend and question official ideology and manners. In the Basque Country, where the language provided a stronger shelter for old semi-pagan believes and against Church's authority and control, midwives and herbalist played an important role, besides holding a social status and carrying a popular wisdom that didn't go down well with the authorities.

The so-called sabbaths and akelarres may have been meetings out of reach of the official religious and civil authorities. The punters to the meetings would eat, drink, talk and dance, namely party, sometimes all night long in the forest or caves, at times taking to consuming mind and spirit altering herbs and ointments.[6]


File:Zugarramurdi cueva.jpg

The "Cave of the Witches" near Akelarre in Zugarramurdi.

It was reported that the witches of Zugarramurdi met at the meadow of Akelarre (Basque for "meadow of the he-goat"). Even today aquelarre[7] is the Spanish word for a black sabbath. The village of Zugarramurdi holds the Witchcraft Museum highlighting the appalling events of the early 17th century, where the memory of the victim villagers is dignified.

Akelarre was a 1984 Spanish film by Pedro Olea, about these trials. Zugarramurdi now celebrates the witches with a feast by the cave on Midsummer's eve, June 23, the folk date for the summer solstice.


  • Henningsen, Gustav (November 1980). "The Greatest Witch-Trial of All: Navarre, 1609-14". History Today 30 (11): 36–39.
  • Henningsen, Gustav (1980). The Witches' Advocate: Basque Witchcraft and the Spanish Inquisition (1609-1614). Reno: University of Nevada Press. ISBN 0-87417-056-7.

External links

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