I mentioned in my essay about Erditze and how to honor her in modern Gaulish praxis that she and I work heavily in visualizations. As a goddess who guides between states, she excels at facilitating this liminal space to do work. I usually end up in a cave with her, and lately, there’s been a theme: I’ve not been human when with her. I look down at where my hands would be and they are paws with long claws.
I’ve been brainstorming what animal I might be. Sometimes I can hear other animals around me, but I could not tell much about myself, except for the fur and the paws. I immediately went to bears, knowing that there are bear deities already out there like Artio, but it didn’t fit quite right. I considered Eurasian lynx, but the feeling was a hard no. What was I?
I started looking into bears anyways in hopes of finding a connection with Basque folklore (in following Erditze’s Basque etymology) that could inform why this was and found more than I bargained for, including a lingering belief that Basque peoples had descended from bears, and that bear paws had protective properties against the evil eye.
But the thing that excited me immediately was the discovery of the etymology of the word for badger in Basque, breaking down to “little bear.” I do get audible phrases occasionally during my visualization work, and I’d recently received the phrase “little cave bear” from Erditze. I’ve also in the last few years been spiraling in closer and closer to badgers in my life. It started with my best friend’s trivia team I joined called the Money Badgers, and most recently, I picked up a badger plushie in September that goes everywhere with me (I cope with stress by cuddling plushies in lieu of not having a dog, and man, 2020 is stress). So when I found bears, then subsequently badgers, to hold some significance in Basque folklore, I was over the moon.
The next visualization I entered into with her, I went in knowing I was a badger, and the world opened up to me so much more than it already had. I left the cave, I went foraging, and it was like feeding my soul. I figured a part of me had shapeshifted into a badger; there is a thread of shapeshifting within Basque mythology and folklore. Mari, one of the main figures in Basque mythology, is reported to shapeshift into underground spirits and animals because she is the personification of Nature, for example.
With all this in mind, let’s explore the history of bears and badgers in Basque folklore and see how this can further our understanding of Erditze.
Bears in Basque folklore
One of the first results that came up on my query about bears and Basque mythology was a paper regarding European ritual bear hunts, and bear ceremonialism in relation to ritual healers from three cultures, including Basque.
Disclaimer: The primary papers by Roslyn Frank cited in this essay do look for a tradition or continuation of Paleolithic shamanistic practice taken forward through history by this bear ceremonialism. While I do believe through linguistics and the etymological history of words we can trace a continued importance, I personally am not one to apply today’s language or paradigm to what this would’ve coalesced as regarding a practice for people from the past. There were likely more facets to any ritualized practice, and I do not want to assume the overall importance of these connections with the bear or badger in said practice when many aspects may not have survived to the modern day.
The paper Shamanism in Europe? Three ritual healers: The Basque salutariyua, the French marcou and the Italian maramao (referred to in the footnotes as Part 1) opens with author Roslyn M. Frank taking a look at ritual performers, in Basque called Mamozaurre, Momotxorro, etc. which shows linguistic variants on a root mamu-. This root also shows up in a term from Sardinia referring to similar performers called Mamutzones. Frank also mentions two other Basque terms, Joaldunak ‘those who possess bells’ and Zanpantzarrak, sometimes rendered as ‘St. Pantzars,’ both performers from carnivals in Navarre who wear large sheep bells on their back.
If you watch footage of Joaldunak performers, they walk with a peculiar rocking gait like an upright bear. In areas north east of Madrid, this festival activity takes place on February 2nd, known as Candlemas or as Bear Day, and the performers are accompanied by another performer, Hartza, ‘bear.’
Holding these performances during the day sets up a style of interaction between performer and audience, where the performer is active and the participants passive, however the Hartza does not respect these set interactions, running after spectators to engage them. This kind of engagement aligns with how these performances once included “good luck visits,” where the actors and their bear went around paying visits to farmsteads, usually asking for food contributions. Often, they would creep up on the farmstead in the middle of the night to scare families, in contrast to the performances of today in the daylight, planned in city streets.
Bear Festivals, involving these ursine actors, still take place today at various times in the winter season, including commonly, Candlemas, what Americans may know best as Groundhog’s Day, on February 2nd. Daniel Capper, in his 2015 article Groundhog Oracles and their Forebears, discusses how humans have forgone the sacred connection with nature, missing that connection entirely, and how the celebration of Groundhog Day is a monument to such a loss with nature, re-presenting past events and carrying our memory back to that past event so we can render its loss less stressful.
Capper discusses the potential of this February 2nd date being associated with the first time the bear awakens and remains awake before the spring snow melt, placing significance on humans who desperately need to replenish food after winter, and could easily track a bear’s footprints in the remaining snow. This leads to ritual bear hunting, giving reverence to the bear, which we will discuss further shortly.
Hedgehogs and badgers are also referenced as hibernating animals that are honored as well, especially in Germany. When the Pennsylvania Dutch arrived from southwest Germany with their Candlemas hedgehog and badger oracle folk traditions, their traditions already been secularized and stripped of any religious roots, leading to a freer atmosphere in interpretation of which animal should be the weather oracle. With groundhogs more plentiful in Pennsylvania than badgers, the symbolism transferred.
Bear festivals today in Cantabria and in the Pyrenees respect the hunt, death, and resurrection of the earthly bear, which is seen as an ancestor, the keeper of souls. There is a Pyrenean belief that the bear gathers up the souls of all creatures in the autumn to keep them in its belly until spring. If the bear is treated with respect, the creatures will thrive when released. This can be seen as a guardian spirit role, for animals and the natural world. This earthly bear ancestor may report to a Celestial Bear figure regarding the behavior of humans as well, with the report reflecting the outcome of humanity’s health and well-being.
Ritual bear hunts and descendants of the bear
An interview conducted in 1986 with one of the last Basque-speaking bear hunters in the Pyrenees sheds light on some of the beliefs surrounding the brown bear. The hunter mentions that killing a bear brings bad luck, though hunters from the past knew a special prayer that would mitigate this bad luck. While he had witnessed the generation before him performing this prayer, the Hartz otoitzia, ‘Bear Prayer,’ was lost.
Later on after the tape-recorder was turned off, the bear hunter’s father, a former bear hunter himself confided in the author of that 1986 paper that “Basques used to believe that humans descended from bears” and that humans were created by the bear. This shows the remnants of an ursine cosmology that can be found in other areas as well. For example, the Finno-Ugrians believe that when you remove the fur coat from a female bear, it has the shape of a young woman.
Commentary received from two bear guardians in Biarritz in 1891 also emphasizes the intelligence of the bear and their potential ancestry from bears, when they mention that the bear understands all they say, comprehends what is going on around them, and that a bear who has lived among humans must not be allowed to go back to the mountains, for they will tell the other bears what they have seen and learnt, and the bears will come down into the valleys and will be able to rule men as they did before. This perspective shows a reverence and respect for the bears, and the line about ruling men as they did before is particularly intriguing with its wording. This interview was conducted with two native Basque speakers, speaking in Spanish to an Englishman who acknowledges that Spanish was difficult for them to speak, so we should take that translation with a grain of salt, but it does echo well the sentiments of the bear hunters a hundred years later. The guardians later state that bears ruled humans “before, in other times.”
Prophylactic medicine: bear paws and bear contact
A bear’s paw was reputed to bring good luck, acting to protect one from the evil eye. Here we catch a glimpse of the importance of badgers as well, as badger paws were hung around the neck of small children to protect them from the evil eye.
Contact with a bear was also seen as a way of obtaining curative powers, where as late as fifty years ago in the Pyrenees bears and their trainers made their way around to villages where parents placed their children on the bear’s back, who would then take exactly nine steps. This measure would protect children from physical ailments and ensure they were well-behaved, perhaps in line with the Hamalau stories.
Hamalau: the Bear Son
Finally, there is in Basque storytelling a bear-being that goes by the name Hamalau, a compound of hama(r) ‘ten’ and lau ‘four.’ This character plays a central part in Basque belief and performances, variants of this term being used to refer to a creature that is called upon children who misbehave (mamalo, mamarrao, mamarro, mamarrua, marrau, mamu, etc., which we get to from Hamalau because in many Basque dialects the letter /h/ is silent). We can see these words echoing the root mamu-, thus tying this character into the characteristics from the Mamozaurre. This primarily is looking at the linguistic artifact, which continues on in the performance component of the Mamozaurre.
In interviews with Basque people cited later in Frank’s paper, Hamalau’s origin is explored further, looking into the idea of Hamalau as half-bear, half-human; his father being a Great Bear, and his mother being a human. Socio-culturally, the word hamalau also comprises a title for a judicial official, the Hamalau-zaingo, who watches over their community keeping track of those who misbehave. This echoes Hamalau being invoked upon children who misbehave, certainly an interesting parallel.
This linguistic and anecdotal evidence does coalesce as a potential interpretation of Hamalau as a sort of demi-god, working to make sure the community stays in line; the author uses the phrase Bear Son. There are Bear Son stories documented across European folklore from various cultures as well, a potential avenue to explore for storytelling later on in building Pyrenean Gaulish praxis.
Badgers in Basque folklore
Frank’s paper also discusses the etymology for the Basque term for badger, which goes back to the term hartz ‘bear.’ It is the diminutive form of the word, (h)artzko, a compound term for ‘little bear.’ Not only were badger paws hung around children’s necks to protect from the evil eye, there was a custom of placing badger furs over the necks of oxen displayed in public, to protect them from the evil eye as well.
This is where it clicked for me that what I was when I was meditating with Erditze was a badger, with the smaller stature and previous badger associations in my life. With the Basque term for badger meaning ‘little bear,’ it seemed logical to me that some of the importance of the bear should translate for the badger, as shown by this connection of the badger paw also protecting from the evil eye, just for children. It was time to take a look for other evidence of the badger’s importance in Basque folklore, and see not only what we could take away from it, but how it might relate to my work with Erditze.
Frank has another paper, Shamanism in Europe? Part 2. An Essay in Collective Memory and Cognition: Bears and Badgers, Basque and Celtic (referred to in the footnotes as Part 2). Here, badger and bear parallels can be initially drawn from a few physical similarities – they have claws similar to a bear; they spend the winter mostly underground, like a bear; and they are highly intelligent, showing they can work cooperatively towards a goal, and taking meticulously care of their setts by replacing bedding at regular intervals and using latrines to keep the sett clean.
Furthermore, badgers have been known to use limestone cave systems for their setts, as attested in the Mendip Hills in Somerset. Cave systems could potentially overlap with bear living quarters, adding to the justification of associating badgers with bears.
Etymological artifact: Azkonarro
Frank discusses how the most common name used for badgers in the Basque language today is azkonarro. Azkonarro is also a term to describe the fabric that hangs down over oxen’s eyes to protect them from the effects of the evil eye. These are now a skeuomorph; the actual fabric used these days is no longer made from badger furs like they once were. Etymologically speaking, the word azkonarro likely evolved out of a compound of hartzko ‘little bear’ and narru/larru ‘skin.’ These phonologically reduced to azko-narro¸ which obscures the root word for badger, hartzko. This was likely hand-in-hand with the partial loss of the cultural understanding of the powers and the relationship between bear and consequently the ‘little bear’ or badger, and shows how the remnants of older beliefs may remain in these eroded terms – that the badger paws could protect children from the evil eye.
Today, usage of the azkonarro in ox-pulling contests is something regarded as a tradition, but it has lost that original meaning tied to the potential magic of the badger furs.
Badger paw and the evil eye
In Basque, the concept of the evil eye associates with a taboo on a way of speaking that involves praise, and thus might be associated with envy. One needed to be careful about praising children or acknowledging the good luck of others as it could result in their misfortune.
Children wearing a badger paw to protect from the evil eye might have been a practical decision besides the association of badgers as ‘little bears.’ Hanging a bear paw around a child or infant’s neck would’ve been excessive. A badger paw, on the other hand, was more child-sized, and trapping badgers would’ve been more practical as well than hunting bears.
We can see the practical usage of a badger paw to ward off the evil eye in the rastra de bautizar, a device used in baptismal ceremonies that allowed amulets and religious symbols to be connected to a belt placed around the chest of a child. There is an example of a badger paw mounted in silver from Sotomotano de Barbastro, in the eastern part of Aragon dating from the end of the 16th or beginning of the 17th century that has a clasp allowing it to connect to a rastra or chain as an amulet. Research in the 1980’s in Sotomotano de Barbastro showed that badger paw amulet continuing to be used during christenings, a remarkable length of time.
Badger paw amulets are also present in portraiture of Prince Philip Prospero, son of Philip IV of Spain and Maria Ana of Austria, done in 1659. We also spot a badger paw amulet that looks very similar to Prince Philip’s in three portraits of daughters of Philip III: Infanta Ana Mauricia in 1602; Maria Ana is 1607; and Margarita Francisca in 1610. While there is certainly artistic license to consider, this may also indicate a specific amulet being passed down through the family, showing the same artifact being used in protective capacity over and over again.
The Celtic word for badger
Also potentially of note for anyone with Gaulish praxis and an interest in badgers, Frank also includes a discussion behind the Celtic word for badger.
Until 1982, tadg was understood as ‘poet.’ But Mac an Bhaird’s 1982 article Tadhg mac Cein and the Badgers analyzed a story about Cormac, the son of Tadhg mac Cein and badgers. The story spoke of a taboo on eating one’s namesake, in the story understood to be a badger, therefore implying Tadhg’s namesake was a badger.
By 1992, tasgo was cited as the Gallo-Brittonic word for badger, and there have been further discussions now about whether such names as Tasc(i)o-uanos ‘Badger-Slayer,’ has a secondary set of associations regarding a poet, in regards to satirizing. Delmarre notes “Old Irish has a proper noun Tadg <*tazgos, the name of a king who had a badger for a totem, and a common noun tadg glossed as ‘poet’ (? pt ê ‘badger’ = bad poet or satirical poet, see Tasco-uanus ‘badger killer’, i.e., someone who killed a bard who perpetrated an unfair or false satire against him.” Frank points out that the term “badgering” which is suggestive of this satirical origin, is a more modern phenomena with badger baiting, though they find the potential connection between badger and poet interesting if lacking at this point a bridge between the concepts.
European Badgers: a brief overview
European badgers appear across most of Europe and parts of Asia. They are part of the Mustelidae family, which also includes skunks, otters, weasels, and stoats. Males are known as boars and females as sows.
Their dens are known as setts, which can be very extensive. They meticulously maintain their setts by regularly changing their bedding and using latrines to keep the sett clean. They live in groups that average six to eight, though as many as 35 individuals have been recorded in one sett at a time.
There is no consistent pattern observed with badger dispersal from their sett – individuals may disperse as young as seven or eight months, but most dispersal is from sexually mature animals. Dispersal isn’t even guaranteed, at least in some studied populations, where 35% of individuals never dispersed from their home sett.
European badgers are primarily nocturnal, with some crepuscular tendencies. While they go into torpor in winter, they do not truly hibernate. Post-winter emergence is generally in late-February or early March, although they may venture out to forage, even in the snow. By midsummer, they are ranging farther away from their sett, even spending time sleeping out in deep bedding piles.
Badgers in some examples have been shown to use external cues as an alarm clock to commence their nightly activities, including the first hoot of a resident tawny owl, the last train of the day, and the call of a male pheasant going to roost.
A heavily anecdotal essay in 2005 outlaid one researcher noting that badgers scent marked and mated more frequently and were more aggressive when the moon was new, perhaps as a way to reduce the risk of being noticed, even though they have no natural predators.
In another article, a cycle of the year is laid out more clearly, regarding expected badger behavior in the UK. While not continental, this does provide a succinct outline which could help inform yearly cycles and expectations for badger cultus in Pyrenean Gaulish praxis. Badger activity is noted as irregular in January, as they live mostly off fat reserves. February is commonly when cubs are born. March signals more activity with a peak in road kills as adults begin to move around outside the sett to forage, and April is when cubs may appear above ground for the first time. In May, cubs begin to accompany adults on feeding excursions, and most cubs are weaned by the end of June. This is a time where badgers may be seen during the day time. July is marked by exploration from the cubs, and adults forage at greater distances from the sett. August can be tough if the weather is dry, and cub mortality increases. September marks the most dispersal and a peak in general mortality from road kills, and there also is an increase in digging and collecting bedding. October stimulates a peak of mating, and badgers feed heavily to lay down winter fat. November is less active, though digging and bedding collection continues. December is spent mostly underground, where the fertilized eggs implant around the second half of the month.
Individuals forage solitarily thought clan members often use the same feeding sites throughout the night. They do become more social with feeding as the year progresses. Earthworms are a large part of their diet, though they are omnivorous.
Badgers undergo embryonic diapause, where the fertilized embryo can remain suspected in the uterus for three to 15 months before implanting. They also exhibit superfetation, where two fetuses fertilized at different times are present in the uterus at the same time. This does mean sows can mate with multiple boars. Gestation is six to eight weeks once implantation occurs, and most cubs are born January through March.
No studies have been done on badger senses specifically, though it is noted that the olfactory lobes in the brain are comparatively large, suggesting a good sense of smell. The areas of the brain that process visual and audio signals are small, however. These small eyes and small ears suit their fossorial lifestyle, where they spend substantial amounts of time underground in the sett. Large eyes would be a liability for dirt while digging or moving around underground; likewise, a badger’s small ears don’t get in the way of movement through tunnels or while digging, though they do appear to be able to hear earthworms under the ground.
Interpretation: Badgers and Erditze in praxis
There’s a lot to unpack regarding how badgers can fall into an association with Erditze, goddess who guides between. As noted in my last article, her name has Basque etymological roots; erdi- means ‘middle, center, half,’ erditu possibly means to give birth, ertze possible means giving birth. The –tza/tze ending on her name creates nouns of abundance or abstract nouns relating to activity, and when you take Erditze into Google Translate, it translates as ‘childbirth.’ This etymology, along with the Basque mythological importance of the interior of the Earth as the place where deities reside and the Sun and Moon return to be born from it again, led to our interpretation of Erditze as a sort of midwife, taking us through and residing in-between states of being. While this could be in a literal sense of birth and death, in modern praxis I believe it best interpreted as guiding between states of being in a meditative or spiritual working sense. She can facilitate a meditative state, a place outside of our physical selves where we could be renewed by spirit, or take us from a spiritual state perhaps we spend too much time in and gently re-seat us within the physical to ground and experience our humanity.
Protection of children and the birth of new ideas
With all this in mind, the history behind using a badger’s paw as a device to protect children from the evil eye ties in well with Erditze. If this midwife role is interpreted in the literal sense, she would have a vested interest in children during their birth, and would seek to protect them when they are young. This protection aspect lines up well too with badger behavior to stand their ground against threats.
In relation to badger’s unique superfetation and embryonic diapause, here too we can go back to the childbirth and midwifery aspects of Erditze. You can carry seeds of projects within you if the timing is not right. You can carry multiple ideas, hopes, and dreams within you, just waiting to come into the world. In this sense, I believe it would be worth exploring work with Erditze and badger as facilitators or incubators to bring these projects forth into the world, in any aspect of your life.
- If you need encouragement, work with Erditze on gaining that confidence to bring forth your ideas like the badger emerges from the sett to take advantage of foraging opportunities.
- If you need to ruminate on your ideas further or aren’t ready to bring them into real life, enter work with Erditze and badger to build, or ruminate, or rest on ideas in the comfort of your own sett, underground. There’s no lack of activity or creative block here; life underground can be as fruitful or as restful as you need it to be, and Erditze and badger can be there to support that work.
Protection within liminal spaces
With the azkonarro from oxen pulling contests protecting from the evil eye, we can also take a look at protection on a scale besides children too.
- Pull the badger’s pelt over your eyes if you need to remain protected and vigilant in a situation – or, if you’re astounded by your good luck lately, and you don’t want anyone else to come along and mess it up.
- If you’re in a situation where being observant and unnoticed behooves you, feel the badger energy holding you in that space between the light and dark. Here, the liminal aspect of badger’s existence, going between the ‘underworld’ of their sett and the world above to replenish food stores marries well with Erditze’s in-between facilitating role. Take advantage of that in-between and the mysterious nature of it to add to your protective routine when necessary.
The care and keeping of you
Badger and Erditze can remind us of the cyclical nature of life as well. Ebbs and flows are natural. One stays awake for a period of time, and one sleeps for a period of time (I hope) each day. You don’t have to be perpetually productive every day of each year. The rest period, the time spent in the darkness, the time spent investing in your internal or your spiritual work is a necessary process.
- Let Erditze and badger remind you that it’s okay to come into the cave and work or rest on you. Watch badger go below ground for the birthing of their cubs, and know that away from prying eyes, you can bring your own ideas forth or let them lie as you rest. You don’t have to be all on, all the time. Don’t forget the underground, the ebb.
Changing of the seasons: a day in celebration of the badger and Erditze
A day one might look to honor Erditze and the badger could be on that February 2nd day cited earlier in this essay as Bear Day. It has of course in the United States become Groundhog Day, with emphasis placed on the groundhog as seeing his shadow or not to predict the end of winter. If you’re comfortable with the idea of a liminal period between winter and spring, where the weather will do what weather does and cause whatever mess it would like regardless of a small mammal’s shadow, I’d said honoring badger (and bear!) as harbingers of the changing season and the inevitability of spring would be a great practice, which of course can tie in again to Erditze’s role of guiding in-between.
- While I do not advocate dressing up as a bear and chasing civilians down your city streets, yelling that spring is coming, perhaps good luck text messages with bear and badger emojis, or greeting cards with bears and badgers to those you wish luck upon this coming year could be a substitute to the bear’s traditional ‘good luck visits.’ In the depths of winter, everyone enjoys a reminder that better weather is on the way, right? (Disclaimer: I’m in Michigan, and this is something I would greatly appreciate each year!)
Badger poetics: the efficacy and power of the written word
Finally, outside of Erditze, there is the interesting take on the Celtic word for badger. With the interpretation of the word tadg as ‘poet’ shifting with analysis of a medieval Irish tale, and the applied interpretation of it being taboo to eat your namesake, with Tadhg in the story being unable to eat badgers, how are these connected now and are they even connected? While Frank disagrees with the interpretation of the badgering poet as satirical due to the modern origin of the term ‘badgering,’ I can still see where the behavior of the badger might apply to the poet or writer.
- Explore calling on badger energy when one needs to use words resourcefully and powerfully. When words need to convey bravery, courage, or confidence, remember badger’s strength and determination. When one needs to make a point efficiently, as a poet needs to choose their words wisely to convey their imagery without losing their readers, spend time with badger working on what you want to say and how to best to present it.
One last thought on bears
While bears were the vehicle that got me to badgers, and I largely provide discourse on them in this essay to outlay how revered they were and how some of that association could come down to badgers through the Basque word for badger hartzko meaning ‘little bear,’ this glimpse into bears in Basque mythology was just as fascinating as the badgers. The continuation of festivals today, the recent documentation of bear hunts that suggest within the early 20th century hunters still offered prayers to the bear to offset the bad luck of killing a bear, the largely anecdotal but repeatedly mentioned bear ancestry of humans, the folklore of Hamalau the Bear Son from a bear father and human mother; this vein of bear reverence runs deep. I hope anyone who reads this and has an interest in bear work or bear deities, such as Artio, is inspired to explore deeper across European cultures for more remnants and folklore regarding bears.
Having taken a look at the role of badgers in Basque folklore, I believe the association of Erditze with badgers can be considered reasonable by association. With the knowledge of badger behavior today, combined with folkloric belief of the badger paw related to protection of children from the evil eye, we can straightforwardly draw associations between the badger and the proposed interpretation of Erditze given in my last essay.
My intent with these exercises is not to overwrite or even recreate exactly what the goddess Erditze was the people living in Toulouse who erected her votive altar sometime around the 1st or 2nd century CE. It is to take a look at the context we can discover in the history, the language, and the modern day that we have access to, and try to reach out and have a dialogue with her, to do work with her. I hope with the essays written so far, and potentially more to come, whoever resonates with what I’ve written has a symbolic language now to approach Erditze and see what she has to offer them.