Paganism is a part of the long history of religious practices in the Basque Country. Sorginak – a term for the assistants of the goddess Mari as well as the Basque name for witches – held witches’ sabbaths – called akelarre – on Friday nights, when the goddess Mari and her consort Sugaar were said to meet in caves to create storms.
The Sorginak are said to be able to shape-shift into cats, and are said to have bothered pious (Christian) women and poisoned crops. The witches were said to perform most of their rituals and akelarres in caves, one of the most famous of these being the Zugarramurdi cave.
With the rise of the Spanish Inquisition in the 16th and 17th centuries, the Basque Country experienced many inquisitorial attacks, sometimes on Basque Sorginak. The witch panic took hold in the Basque region and accusations of witchcraft began appearing rapidly before the Spanish Inquisition itself took control of the situation and began the trial of the Basque witches at Logroño in 1609. This is said to be the largest witch hunt of its time.
Over 7,000 cases were examined by the Inquisition. Not all of them were women; some were also children or men, including several priests who had used healing amulets in the names of Christian saints. These people were accused of practicing witchcraft at Olabidea or Infernuko erreka, “Hell’s stream.”
The first phase of these trials ended in 1610, when 31 of the accused people were sentenced. 12 or 11 of these people were burnt at the stake (though 5 of these burnings were symbolic, as the victims had been previously tortured to death).
The Catholic Church’s aim at suppressing pagan culture and religion was of particular difficulty in the Basque region, as the language provided a sort of guard for keeping old, pagan traditions alive and the people held traditional Basque midwives and healers in esteem.
Even today, the aftereffects of the Basque witch trials remain. In fact, the word for “black sabbath” (a witch gathering) in Spanish is aquelarre. The town of Zugarramurdi maintains the cave of Zugarramurdi as a popular tourist destination, where recreations of witch rituals can be observed. Zugarramurdi also has a Witchcraft Museum, where there are exhibits on the witch hunt and trials, and where the victims of the trials are dignified.