Officially known as the Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition, the Spanish Inquisition was established to maintain Catholic orthodoxy in rural regions throughout Spain. In the latter half of 1500s, it came to the attention of the church and Queen Isabella I that some of their citizens were practicing unconventional religious ceremonies, rituals, and customs. In a massive effort to stamp this “witchcraft” out, cardinals and bishops were dispatched to the farthest reaches and the most rural villages to exterminate those ideas and people. The region of Navarre was a hotbed of this kind of activity.
You may ask, what exactly is witchcraft? Well, I’d like to begin by telling you what it isn’t. Nowadays, people think of witches as they have been depicted in popular culture films, television, cartoons, and literature. In The Wizard of Oz, the wicked witch of the west has green skin and wears a pointy black hat while she flies around on her broomstick. More recently, the wizarding world of Harry Potter depicts witches and wizards wearing long flowing robes (also flying around on broomsticks), making potions in cauldrons, and playing with magical creatures such as unicorns, hippogriffs, and dragons. In reality, witches were nothing of the sort.
Prior to modern medicine and science, little was known about common ailments of the human body. The genome hadn’t been mapped and people didn’t even know what blood cells were. A group of people, typically rural country folk, used home remedies to cure these afflictions. Ever heard of homeopathy? They had a vast knowledge of plant life because they were farmers and the daughters and wives of farmers. They understood certain plants had healing properties and would use them to create salves and drinks that helped with a variety of symptoms including headaches, stomach aches, and skin disorders. These salves and drinks worked on both animals and humans.
Unfortunately, there were many who didn’t understand these natural methods of healing. Those who didn’t get it grew scared and believed these women (and some men) to be worshiping the devil. Their weird rituals and symbols were distinctly non–Christian and therefore considered evil. Something had to be done about them and their primitive beliefs. In Basque (the oldest language in Europe), the word for witch is sorgin (the origin of the word is sortze: to be born, and egin: to do – or she who makes born, ie a midwife).
Midwives were the precursors to modern day doctors and they used the resources at their disposal to help new mothers bring their children into the world. They were revered themselves, as they should have been for being the bearers of new life. But what they themselves worshiped was the natural order of the world (not what they felt was just some guy on a cross who had been dead for six hundred years).
These same sorginak (pl.) closely resembled people who are today known as Wiccans. They are a group of people who worship Mother Earth and love all things natural. They pay attention to the stars and positions of the planets and they pay homage to the cycle of birth, life, and death that can be found in all walks of nature from plants to animals to humans ourselves. But four centuries ago, the Holy Catholic Church didn’t see it this way. These women weren’t going to church and they weren’t practicing Christianity. You couldn’t find crosses or palm branches in their homes. And since they were different, they were deemed bad.
Last weekend, we took a trip to the small village of Zugarramurdi, which was a hotbed of witchcraft and Inquisitorial punishments. The locals performed orgiastic rituals and festivals in nearby caves that celebrated life and the seasons. They had secret knowledge of how medicinal herbs could heal the body. And for this, they were hunted down and murdered, burned at the stake. Anybody could be accused of witchcraft and that threat would have been taken very seriously.
The equivalent nowadays to the rampant fear that accompanied the Inquisition is terrorism (but the witches were healers, not harmers). Muslims the world over are being persecuted for their beliefs, and only a small minority are doing anything wrong. In Europe during the 17th century, people who believed anything different from what the Holy Church deemed appropriate were destroyed. The goat, their symbol of fertility was rebranded by the church into an image of the devil and demonic worship. Imagine how they must have felt though? If you had stumbled into a Catholic Mass for the first time, never having heard of Christianity before, the rituals would freak you out too.
What is the biggest shame is that the fear that took control so many years ago can still be found today. People are scared of anything different from what they know. Any cultural people, customs, language, food, style of dress… is looked down upon by those outside, who don’t understand its importance. Can’t we please learn from the mistakes of our ancestors? Stop the witch hunts. Stop the killing. And enjoy the video below.
Hasta La Promixa…