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Despite persistent theories about where the Basques came from (everything from a lost tribe of Israel to refugees from Atlantis), there is no evidence that the Basques of ancient times lived anywhere other than where they are now, in the Pyrenees Mountains of northern Spain and southern France. The evidence available suggests that the Basques are the descendents of prehistoric man dating from the Lower Palaeolithic. Evolving from the Cro-Magnon man, the Basques developed as a distinct group sometime between 40,000 BC and 7,000 BC.

cave paintings
(Discovered in 1994 at Vallon-Pont-d'Arc, Ardeche, France)
Prehistoric cave paintings have been discovered
in several mountain caves in the Basque homeland.

Dolmen de Mazerlegos near Burgos, Spain

Menag in Malaga, Spain -- the largest dolmen in Europe

Thousands of megalithic sites remain throughout areas of early Basque occupation in Spain, France and Portugal.
The Basques are known to have had their distinctive language as early as 7,000 BC, and they have the last remaining non-IndoEuropean language in the area. Their language, Euskara, is the oldest surviving language in all of Europe; many of their words for tools still incorporate the word for stone. From about the 6th century BC, the Indo-European culltures wiped out all of the pre-Indo-European languages in Europe except for Basque. Attempts to link the Basque language with others, such as the Berbers of northern Africa, the Mayans and Old Sanscrit have not worked out. Basque has not been shown to be related to any other language on earth. Those used to European languages found Basque very difficult to learn. There was an old story that the devil spent seven years among the Basques to learn their language, but only managed to learn three words; when he crossed a bridge to leave the land of the Basques, he forgot those. Many Basque words have entered other European languages. For example, laranga ('that which was first eaten') is the origin of the word orange (one of the few words in the English language that no other word rhymes with), and Basque sailors swearing 'by Janicot' gave rise to the British 'by jingo.'
Despite having the oldest language in Europe, no writing was known among the Basques until the Romans, when attempts were made to write Basque in Latin; however, it wasn't until the Christian missionaries arrived en masse in the 10th century that someone developed a phonetic form of writing to represent the language itself. Writings are known from other nearby peoples, such as the now assimilated Iberians of southeastern Spain. The Iberians also had a non-IndoEuropean language, which has so far defied translation. Some of the oldest tombstones of the Basques were said to contain some kind of writing, but the Christian missionaries destroyed them.

(National Geographic, 1967, By William Albert Allard)
The Basques are mountain people.

The Basques live on the western end of the Pyrenees Mountains on the Iberian Peninsula, down to the Bay of Biscay. For as long as anyone can remember, they have had seven provinces; the oldest is called Gipuzkoa (Gu-iz-puzk-ko-ak), which means 'we whose language was broken.'

A typical Basque house
(livestock often lived on the first floor)
Those in the mountains raised sheep, while those along the water were fishermen and traders. Every Basque meal was accompanied by bread (ogi) and cider (sagardo), and cider-houses were common in the countryside. Basques are normally dark-haired, small to medium statue, with broad chests (developed from living in the thin air on mountains). Most Basques have type O blood, with a high incidence of RH negative.
mountain town
The mountain town of Tolosa in Gipuzkoa

The Basque Domingo de Carnaval in the seaport of Mundaka
The Basques worshipped Djaun-Giokkoak (Janicot), the All-Father All-Mother who created the three forms of light: Egia (truth), the light of the soul, Begia (eye), the light of the body and Etchia (sun), the light of the earthly day. The divine light manifested on Earth as three powers: Erditze (the Fruitful), of the high pastures, Beigorri (the Passionate), of the red earth and Alherbeltze (the Crusher), of the black rocks. Alherbeltze (later shortened to Bel) ruled the stone circles erected throughout what is modern day France and Spain by the Basques, and the three manifestations of divine light in human affairs celebrated therein: birth, marriage and death. The stones were often carved with representations of the fact that here the veil between the physical and spiritual worlds was thin: two circles connected by concentric circles, representing Bel, ruler of the bright world, and Leheren Suge (three-horned dragon), ruler of the dark world . The two worlds are inhabited equally by men and are therefore equal themselves. Bel's reign was celebrated on May 1 (usually with a Maypole Dance), while Leheren's reign was celebrated November 1; of course, in the days before mechanical clocks, each day started at sunset the day before.
Basque Maypole Dance
The 3X3 manifestations of the divine were represented by the Circle of Nine, a circle with nine stones; sometimes the ninth stone was horizontal, with two uprights flanking.
The Path of the Three-fold Light is followed by Basque mystics, but Basque Witches follow more down-to-earth hierarchies. Mari is the oldest and supreme goddess of the Basques. She is the goddess of thunder and wind, the personification of the earth. The Dragon Maju (also called Sugaar), lord of thunder, is her husband, and her twin sons are one good (Atarrabi), one evil (Mikelats). Encounters between Mari and Maju result in terible thunderstorms. Mari protects travelers and the herds and gives good council to humans. She rides through the sky on a chariot of fire, and sometimes assumes the shape of the rainbow. Mari ("queen") is represented as a woman with a full moon behind her head, or in an animal shape. Her symbol is the sickle. Although Mari is said to live in the deepest caves, stone circles where she is worshipped are typically erected on the summits of many mountains.

Sant Pere de Rodes in Cataluna, Spain

La Cottoria near Burgos, Spain
In a later pantheon, Mari became the earth goddess Lur, whose husband was the sky god Ortzi (also called Ost) and whose children were twin girls, Ekhi (the Sun) (also called Eguzki) and Ilazki (the Moon) (also called Illargui or Iretargui). One beam of Ekhi's light destroys the spells of evil wizards, while Ilazki's light guides the souls of the dead. Lesser spirits are the Laminak (fairies), the Lamiak (water nymphs or mermaids) and Basajaun (satyrs of the forests). The Basajauns are an ancient race who taught man many of the arts of civilization (or alternately, were tricked out of the knowledge by humans). They typically warn shepards that a storm is coming by whistling. Additionally, ancient stone circles on mountains are said to have been built by the Intxitxu, invisible spirits of the ancestors.
(From the cemetary at Argineta, Ellorio, Bizkaia)
Basque tombstone
Both the Greeks and the Basques of ancient times believed that the first people were centaurs. The very word centaur is derived from the Basque word Zalzaval (horse-man).

Cave art from Ekain (Deba - Guipuzcoa), 25,000 B.C.

Cave art from Lagarma (Cantabria), 15,000 B.C.

Cave art from Santimamine (Kortezubi-Vizcaya), 17,000 B.C.
Many prehistoric cave paintings in the Pyrenees depict the horse, and one of the oldest Basque festivals (the Rigodon dance, from erri-goi-doi, meaning "City of Heaven") features a man in the horse costume (zamalzain, the horse-man) dancing around a cup, variously referred to as the Grail or the entrance to the spirit world. Today, this is a glass of wine.
The zamalzain, in his dance, plays the part of a shaman in instructing the watchers how to gain entrance to Errigodoi. The Basques used to refer to themselves as the descendents of the Centaurs (Cantavres), who came to earth on the mountain ridge at Oca (today, Demanda) in the center of an ancient island. In ancient times, the Basque area of Europe was indeed an island. In the 9th century, Beato de Liebana of the Monastery of Liebana wrote a manuscript called 'Comentarios al Apocalipsis' which included a Mapa Mundi showing the Basque region as an island; he copied this map from ancient documents preserved in the monastery.

Basques in Britain
When a group of Basques settled in Britain between 9,000 and 5,000 BC, they took with them the worship of Bel, his Holy Day of May 1, and the building of stone circles. Later, the Beaker People arrived and mixed with the Basques, bringing their innovations, such as working silver and gold. When the Greek geographer Pytheas sailed around Britain in 325 BC, he called them the Pretanic Isles because the inhabitants called themselves the Priteni. This evolved into Prytani (Prytaini, Prydaini), and later became Britanni. In 297 AD the Roman, Emmenius, referred to the people of northern Britain as the 'Picti.' Most researchers believe this to refer to the Latin word 'pictus,' meaning 'painted.' Some, however, believe it may be a latinized version of Priteni, after the Norse 'Pettr,' old English 'Peohta,' and old Scots 'Pecht.'
The Prytani built many stone structures, including stone circles, standing stones, dolmens and stone chambers in earthworks. The inner chambers of these structures were used for ritualistic purposes, and the Prytani buried their dead in a fetal position so they would be ready for rebirth. At Belteine, the rebirth of summer was celebrated with bonfires atop many hills, where cattle were driven through the flames to ensure their fertility for the coming year (and the people also jumped through the flames). The Prytani also worshipped the Old Serpent, who was thought to travel across the countryside on straight paths at certain times of the year. The old straight tracks (called ley lines today) that criss-cross Britain between standing stones have been dated to between 4000 BC and 2000 BC.

Pict carved stones from Scotland

carved stonecarved stonecarved stone

cup and ringrunning cross
Left, a cup and ring Pict carving from Scotland. Right, a Pict running cross (lauburu) from northern England; this is the oldest and most extensive design in Basque art.

Pict Stone Circles
nine maidens
The Nine Maidens

circle of nine
The Circle of Nine

The Prytani were masters of brewing a special ale from heather flowers that was so good, the Celts who came later greatly coveted the secret of the brew. Neolithic shards dated to 2000 BC show traces of the fermented heather ale, so we know this was one of the oldest drinks of the Prytani. It was from this ale that the Celts later made the first whiskey. The story goes that a clan of Celts was brewing heather ale one cool night when the vapor from the brew condensed on their stone roof and ran into a drinking cup. When one of the Celts drank it, he thought he had discovered the fabled 'water of life,' uisge-beatha. When the English later conquered the Celts and ordered the making of heather ale stopped, the Celts replied, "Pog mo thon!" (kiss my arse!)

When the Celts swept through the lowland empire of the Basques in Gaul (the Basques retreated to the safety of their seven mountain strongholds), the Celts adopted the Basque short sword (later borrowed by the Romans) and the worship of Bel. Thus, when the Celts entered Britain in force to face a thousand years of warfare against almost a million Prytani, both sides worshipped Bel, held May 1 as a Holy Day, and had chiefs named Bel. The seven royal houses of the Prytani were descended from the seven sons of a great Prytani king, and each ruled its own province. The Celts called them 'Cruithni,' which meant 'tribe of the designs,' after the tatoos they sported.
The Celts originated somewhere in central Europe and expanded their empire in all directions. Around 400 BC, they suddenly appeared and destroyed the Etruscans and then sacked Rome. The Romans noted that the Celts were tall and muscular, with hair they bleached blonde, and often went naked into battle. When the Romans protested the Celts armed incursion into the area, the Celts told the Romans that anything they could take by force of arms was rightfully theirs.
However, when Rome rallied after a few hundred years, it took over much of the empire the Celts had carved out. In 55 B.C., Julius Caesar ordered the invasion of Britain, and under the Emperor Vespasian, Julius Agricola attacked the Caledonians at Mons Grampius, where the lowlands met the highlands, in 84 AD. The Caledonians were a mix of Prytani and Celts, who had come from Ireland, and although Agricola killed 30,000 of them, he paid a high price himself. As a result, after building a series of forts, the Romans withdrew and the Caledonians returned. When the Romans returned, they concentrated on subduing the Celts in the south, where they met less resistance. As the Romans expanded their territory northward, they came into conflict with the Prytani, whom they called the Picts (painted people). Although the Roman soldier was, one on one, probably the best warrior around, the Prytani had huge numbers and were fierce fighters. They wiped out the fabled Roman Ninth Legion, which had subdued the Celts in Gaul. The Prytani were expert horsemen and on the water, the large Prytani fleet proved more than a match for the Roman galleys. The Roman Emperor Hadrian ordered the building of Hadrian's Wall across Britain in 122 A.D. to keep the Prytani away from his troops. This didn't work, and in 139 AD, Emperor Antoninus Pius ordered the Antoinine Wall built across Britain to protect his troops from the Prytani. This wall was 37 miles long and nine feet tall, with forts every two miles and many signal towers in between. On the northern side, it had a 36 foot wide ditch, while a road ran along the protected southern side. Even this did not protect the Romans from the Prytani warriors.
A joke of the time goes like this:
The Romans were marching north when a Prytani warrior leaped out from behind a hillock and said, "So you're Romans, are ye? Give me your ten best men, then!" Ten legionnaires were dispatched. Bang, crash, wallop! None returned. A hundred Roman soldiers were sent up. Five minutes later a lone survivor stumbles back and drops dead before he can say anything. In a fury, the Roman commander sends his entire army up the hill. The sounds of battle ensue, followed by one Roman officer appearing on the hill. "Sir! Sir! They cheated! They lied! There were two of them all the time!"
In 208 A.D., the Roman Emperor Severus landed in Britain with 40,000 seasoned Roman troops. Not giving the Picts time to mass their numbers, the Romans swiftly destroyed many Pict towns and armies, killing 10,000 a day at the height of their campaign. The campaign lasted for two years, until the Roman Emperor died at York in 211 AD. Afterward, the Prytani decided they could live with staying north of Hadrian's Wall. The Romans withdrew from Britain after a few hundred years, and when they left the Celts took over in the south and the west.
In the west, the Celts had mixed with the Prytani they found there when they arrived and created a distinct group called the Cymry (Welsh). The Welsh Chieftain Owain Ddantgwyn, son of the Head Dragon Enniaun Girt and grandson of Cunedda, took the title 'Arthur' (great bear), after his personal totem. He ruled the kingdoms of Gwynedd and Powys, put down several rebellions and defeated the withdrawing Romans at the Battle of Badon. Finally, his nephew, Maglocunus, son of Cadwallon Lawhir, pushed aside Arthur's son Cuneglasus (charioteer of the Bear's stronghold) and defeated Arthur at the Battle of Camlan, a border area between Gwynedd and Powys.
A force of the Clan Dal Riata in Ireland raided the west coast of Britain in 360 AD. Niall of the Nine Hostages, High King of Ireland, returned to Ireland with captured fellow Celts as slaves, while some of his men settled in parts of the north and formed alliances with the Prytani. They called their new settlement among the Prytani 'Dalriada' and here they deposited the Stone of Destiny (later to be called the Stone of Scone) which they had brought with them from Ireland. These Celts called themselves 'Scottii,' and they intermarried with the Prytani royalty and fought alongside them against both the Romans and the Celts in the south and west.
In the south of Britain, the Celts had turned back an invasion of the West Saxons in 495 A.D., but they then descended into inter-tribal warfare. The weakened Celts were thus easily defeated by an invasion of Anglo-Saxons in 685 A.D. When the Anglo-Saxons met the Prytani, however, a much smaller army of Prytani completely wiped them out.
The Celtic Bard Taleisin spoke of the conflict with the Prytani in his "Cad Godeu" (Battle of the Trees):

Am I not he who will sing
Of beauty in what is small;
Beauty in the battle of the Tree-tops
Against the country of the Prydein."

When St. Columba converted the Prytani to Celtic Christianity, he needed an interpreter to converse with the Prytani King; even though Columba was fluent in all the Celtic dialects, the Prytani tongue was unknown to him. Shortly after their conversion, the Prytani embarked on a massive project of carving crosses everywhere. Many of the stone crosses discovered in Britain and called Celtic are in fact Pict.
In 741 AD, the Prytani King Oengus launched a campaign that nearly wiped out the Celts in the south. He even crossed to Ireland to fight Celts there, and was only persuaded to stop fighting by an offer from the Celts to give the Prytani all the women descendents of the Tuatha de Danann held in bondage by the Celts. These descendents of the Tuantha de Dannan had been kept in captivity because of a plea by the Egyptian Princess Scotus, originally the wife of the great Celtic warrior Milesius, who died in Spain before the Celts invaded Ireland. Scotus had come to Ireland as the third wife of Eremon, who was one of the eight sons of Milesius, and the first ruler of the Celts in Ireland (after he killed his brother Eber and the Druid Amergin). Scotus had pleaded for the lives of the conquered Tuatha de Dannan, so Eremon had spared a few of them and kept them in perpetual bondage. A thousand years of fighting invaders had left the Prytani with a diminished population, so Oengus accepted. Oengus returned to Britain, where he declared himself the King of the Prytani and the Celts.
For centuries, the Prytani had resisted constant invasions by the Vikings. However, in 839 A.D., while the Prytani King Eoghann was fighting a rebellious Celtic chieftain named Elfin (later historians changed it to Alpin) who called himself King of the Scots, an army of invading Vikings came upon the scene. The Prytani had just won the battle with the Celts and put Elfin's head on a pike, when the Vikings attacked and killed the King of the Prytani, his successor, and the leaders of all seven royal houses. Two years later, the seven Earls of Dalraida who had replaced the ruling body of the Prytani were lured to a treacherous death at Scone by Kenneth MacElfin, son of the slain Celtic chieftain and a Prytani Princess mother. Already having declared himself the King of the Scots, he now declared himself the King of the Prytani, swearing it on the Stone of Scone. Of the remaining Prytani, some were massacred, some were driven north, and the remainder intermarried with the Scotts. By this time, the Prytani constituted only about ten per cent of the population of northern Britain. The Prytani had had 69 recorded kings in their kingdom, and the most enduring legacy they left was the naming of their island after themselves: Britain, after Ynis Prydain.
Those left in the far north intermarried with Vikings, who could now settle there without much opposition. These mixed bloods were called Gaileys (foreigners) by the Celts, who made them a Sept of the Clan Gunn. My wife is a Gailey.

Back in Europe
Meanwhile, the Romans in Gaul had not conquered the Basques, but lived with them peacefully. Iruna ('the city' in Basque), the first urban creation of the Basques, was taken over by the Romans and renamed Pampaelo after Pompey; it was later to be known as Pamplona.
Roman wall
A Roman-built wall in Zaragoza
Although there were Basque soldiers in the army of Hannibal, they did not not take part in the conflict between Carthage and Rome, except to defend Sertorius, the Roman general who had shown respect for them.
When the power of Rome waned, the Basques defended themselves against the barbarians who invaded the Iberian Peninsula, including the Germanic Swabian tribes and the Visigoths (the latter did beat the Basques in several battles). Later, the Basques defeated invading armies of both the Berbers and Goths. When the Frankish King, Charlemagne, ravaged the Basque city of Pamplona while retreating from combat with the Arabs in 778 AD, the Basque army caught up with him at the Orreaga mountain pass (called Rencesvaux in French) and the resulting massacre of the Franks was immortalized in the Song of Roland. Although the Song claimed Charlemagne was defeated by a superior Muslim army, it was really the Basques (who show up in the Song as the demons who aided the Arabs) who wiped out Charlemagne's army. In 824 AD, the Basque army crushed a second Frankish army in the same mountain pass where Charlemagne was caught, and the Basques founded the Kingdom of Pamplona (later called the Kingdom of Navarre) to fight against the Franks in the north and the Arabs in the south. The Basque kingdom began with the Basque king, Eneko (Inigo) de Aritza, and ended four centuries later with Sancho VII the Strong.
In 1212 AD, a band (koadrilla) of Basques helped the Christian alliance (including the Templars) of Alphonso VII defeat the Moors at the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa. Subsequently, Alphonso formed three Basque territories into the Kingdom of Castille. As a result of political maneuvers, the seven provinces of the Basques were divided between the Kingdoms of Navarre and Castille many times over the next few hundred years. In 1394, an agreement between the Castillian monarchy and the Basques of Guernica allowed the Basque councils to meet annually under a tree called the Oak of Guernica to formulate local laws. This tree came to represent liberty and independence to the Basques, and a song called Guernikako Arbola (Oak of Guernica) became the Basque national anthem. By the mid-1500's, the Basque territories were being fought over by France and Spain, and the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659 divided the land between them. Over a period of several hundred years, many French and Spanish monarchs were persuaded to guarantee the Basques the right to autonomy, making the journey to so swear beneath the Oak of Guernica.
When Napoleon was unable to conquer the Basques, he came up with an ingenious plan: he had also been unable to conquer the Sicilians, so he hired Basque mercenaries to fight the Sicilians! Within three days of landing, the Basques had conquered Sicily; however, Napoleon had tricked the Basques. As soon as they were gone from their farms and villages, Napoleon sent in his men to kill the women and children left behind. The Basques in Sicily found out about this, and turned and sided with the Sicilians. Thus, Napoleon never got Sicily, and the Basques who settled there added words of their language to the already mixed speech of the Sicilians. In the 1800's, the Basques fought two wars against Spanish oppression, called the Carlist Wars. They ceased fighting the first war when they were promised their independence would remain; however, this promise was broken, so they went to war again. They lost the second war, and for the first time since their inception, the autonomous rights of the Basques were legally dismissed.
Throughout the 1900's, the Basques have formed many organizations and provisional governments to fight for their freedom. After a Basque army attacked the French in 1936, the Spanish Dictator Franco had his friends, the Nazis, conduct the first aircraft bombardment of the war against the Basques in Guernika; the Liberty Tree survived, but over a thousand Basques were killed. During WWII, the Basque leader escaped the Nazis and fled to New York, where he setup the Basque government in exile in 1942. After the war, the Basques continued their struggle for freedom in their home territory. Beginning in 1968, several Basque organizations resorted to terrorist acts against Spanish officials. With the death of Franco in 1975, the new Spanish king, Juan Carlos I, promised reforms for the Basques. On the local level among Spanish police, however, cruel suppression of the Basques continued, making the reforms slow in coming. Finally, in 1979, the Basques were granted a measure of autonomy, and in 1980, the new Basque president took his oath under the Tree of Guernica as dictated by tradition.
The current Oak of Guernica

The most well-known Basque was probably St. Ignatius of Loyola. Actually, he wasn't from Loyola, but a small town made infamous by the Holy Inquisition. Since Ignatius led a group of Kabbalists who after several attempts managed to become an order of the Roman Church (originally called the Companions or Company of Jesus, they eventually became the Jesuits), he probably thought it wise not to advertize exactly where he grew up. Basques were great seafarers, and they sailed with many explorers, including Columbus and Magellan (Magellan's Basque lieutenant, Sebastian Elkano, completed the first voyage around the world after Magellan died during the trip; other Basque sailors on this journey brought corn to Europe). The Basques have given us the beret (txapela) and the game of pilota (called Jai-Alai by everyone else). The Roman soldiers brought their cult of Mithras, with its ritual killing of a bull, and the Basque town of Pamplona is well-known for its bullfights and the annual running of the bulls through city streets.

The strong tradition of oral wisdom among the Basques is replete with dozens of well-used proverbs. Here are three:
1. "Gaua, gogapenen ama." -- 'The night is the mother of thought.'
2. "Izena duen guztiak izatea ere badauje." -- 'Everything with a name exists.'
3. "Nola soinu, hala dautza." -- 'Each kind of music calls for its own kind of dance.'
Many Basques have emigrated to other mountainous lands, such as South America and the United States. Keeping their language and customs intact have been difficult for the Basques, in light of French and Spanish attempts to limit their independent nature. The Basques have another popular saying: "A free man I was born, and a free man I will die."

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