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Basque mythology on screen

Written by Gaizka Izagirre 02 May 2024
‘Akelarre’ (2020, Pablo Agüero)
‘Akelarre’ (2020, Pablo Agüero)
‘Errementari’ (2017, Paul Urkijo)
‘Errementari’ (2017, Paul Urkijo)
‘Irati’(2022, Paul Urkijo)
‘Irati’(2022, Paul Urkijo)
´Anderea´ (2020, Yolanda Mazkiaran Zelaia)
´Anderea´ (2020, Yolanda Mazkiaran Zelaia)
´Zerua hautsi zen gaua´ (2020, Maria Fontaner)
´Zerua hautsi zen gaua´ (2020, Maria Fontaner)

Every culture has myths and legends which reflect its own values and beliefs. For centuries, mythology has served as a source of inspiration for folk cultures around the world. Legends have found their way into literature, film, television, music and video games, with stories of heroes, criminals, gods and fantastic creatures.

In European mythologies, the principal deities are celestial (Zeus, Jupiter, Thor...), but in Basque mythology the earth is at the centre of everything. Basque mythology has some unique characteristics. According to anthropologist José Miguel Barandiaran, Basque mythology is associated with a paganism prior to the arrival of Christianity. The same goes for the Basque language, Euskara, which predates the arrival of Indo-European languages. Moreover, Mari is the central figure in Basque mythology, revered as one of the oldest goddesses from the matriarchal cultures of ancient Europe. According to popular belief, she is the queen of nature and all its elements.

Oral tradition has been instrumental in preserving Basque mythology, ensuring its transmission from generation to generation to the present day through tales rooted in ancient beliefs. The main drivers of this transmission can be attributed to art and literature. In the field of sculpture, for example, Nestor Basterretxea created a series of sculptures entitled ´Basque Cosmogony Series´ based on mythological characters, forces of nature and traditional objects from Basque culture. As for the influence of literature, countless books of all styles have been written that address the mythological question.

Cinema, an effective tool for reaching a broader audience, has also learned to draw from mythology. In 1980, for example, a series of traditional Basque tales for children was completed, entitled ´Cuentos sorprendentes´ (Surprising Tales). These tales, compiled by Barandiaran, feature characters such as ´Dar-dar´ and ´Patxi Errementaria´, who were later adapted for the big screen by Paul Urkijo. The transmission of all these legends through the seventh art has proved to be a very valuable tool. As spectators, we are drawn to these stories because they resonate with our fears, desires, and aspirations. Basque mythology is being brought to life on screen through several essential titles:

‘Errementari’ (2017, Paul Urkijo)

Numerous tales from oral tradition have been preserved to this day. One of the best-known stories is that of Patxi Errementaria, a character from Basque mythology. The film offers a fantastic adaptation of the tale, providing a more mature perspective. Paul Urkijo´s debut feature film, backed by filmmaker Alex de la Iglesia, promises to leave a lasting impression. Set in a small village in Alava ten years after the First Carlist War of 1833, a government commissioner named Alfredo investigates an event that leads to a sinister blacksmith deep in the forest. The villagers in the area recount dark stories about him, involving robberies, murders, and demonic pacts. This is the story of the wickedly clever blacksmith who outwits the devil himself. The narrative unfolds seamlessly, drawing the audience into its captivating world from the outset and holding our full attention.

The technical aspects are particularly striking: the cinematography, the music, the sound design, and the attention to detail in the setting are all exceptional. The tone used to adapt the story to the screen is also impressive, mixing horror and fear with humour and satire. Thanks to this combination of elements, the film garnered positive reviews from audiences and has received acclaim at various film festivals. Among other accolades, the film earned the Audience Award at the Horror and Fantasy Film Festival and the award for Best Special Effects at the Goya Awards.

‘Errementari’ is a linguistic gem, offering insight into the Alava variant of Euskara, which has since vanished. Koldo Zuazo, a linguist and lecturer at the University of the Basque Country, worked as a consultant to ensure that the film´s language accurately reflects the old Basque variant. Gorka Lazkano undertook the task of translating the screenplay into Basque.

‘Akelarre’ (2020, Pablo Agüero)

This film vindicates the figure of witches, drawing inspiration from the witch-hunt conducted in Zugarramurdi, Navarra, in 1610. The book La Sorcière ignited the flame of Akelarre and guided Argentinian director Pablo Agüero in his quest to debunk all clichés about witches. Agüero delves into Basque mythology and a real historical event: the witchcraft trial led by French judge Pierre de Lancre on the order of Henry IV to eradicate witchcraft in the Basque Country. Produced in the Basque Country, Argentina and France, this film offers a much-needed feminist revision of the theme. Filmed in the Euskal Herria in both Basque and Spanish, the technical and artistic quality of ‘Akelarre’ is elegant, and Alex Brendemuhl and Amaia Aberasturi deliver exceptional performances. The film received five Goya awards: Best Art Direction, Best Sound, Best Costume Design, Best Makeup and Hairstyles, and Best Special Effects.

To lend credibility to the story, it was essential to shoot in locations where the events took place, such as Zarautz, Ibarrangelu, Lesaka and Sara. As a curiosity, the famous cliffs featured in the Game of Thrones series can also be seen in this movie, along the so-called ‘Flysch route’, the coastal path that connects Zumaia and Deba, specifically, Sakoneta beach at the western end of the Basque Coast Geopark.

‘Irati’(2022, Paul Urkijo)

Based on the mythological comic Ciclo Irati by Joxean Muñoz and Juan Luis Landa, Irati is a highly appropriate example of the confluence of mythology and cinema discussed in this article. Paul Urkijo crafts a stunning film that pays homage to the sub-genre of witchcraft and swords, complete with battles, adventures, monsters, and all manner of unique creatures. It is a beautiful love letter to Basque nature and mythology. Set in the Basque Pyrenees in the 8th century, the film delves into this dark yet captivating medieval era, where dominant religions like Christianity and Islam clash, eradicating pagan beliefs and the occult entities tied to nature. The protagonist, a young nobleman called Eneko, must prove himself worthy of being lord of the valley. To accomplish this, he immerses himself in a peculiar and enigmatic realm inhabited by ancient mythological creatures, aided by Irati, a young pagan. While drawing inspiration from the Ciclo Irati comic, Urjiko took artistic liberties with the screenplay, taking into account the presence of mythological beings. The character of Mari, who is not particularly prominent in the comic book, plays a major role in the film. She is the supreme personification of Mother Earth, and, in anthropological terms, represents the imprint of a matriarchal religion that predates the Indo-European era. Akerbeltz, Sugaar, Jentilak, Tartalo, Zezengorri, Lamiak... These mythological characters, among others, give us a closer look at Basque mythology, highlighting the relationship between Basque society, nature and ancient beliefs.

Irati stands out among films shot in Euskara for several reasons: on the one hand, it is the largest Basque production, with a budget of 4.3 million euros. It also holds the record for the best premiere in the history of Basque cinema and the widest release, a position previously held by Handia. In addition to the Grand Audience Award and awards for best special effects, visual effects and makeup at the Sitges Film Festival, ‘Akelarre’ clinched five Goya nominations (costumes, best song, sound, special effects and screenplay). The film was shot in distinctive locations including the Irati forest, the Aralar mountain range, the Loarre castle, and the Mendukilo cave.

Short films and documentaries

It seems extremely logical to opt for fictional feature films when visualising mythological stories, perhaps because they can offer the best way to of representing fantastical worlds, developing scenes with numerous characters, and constructing scripts around them. However, there are also those who have opted for the path of documentary production and short films.

In 2019, for example, filmmaker and photographer Xanti Rodríguez from Azpeitia made the short film Ospel, drawing inspiration from Basque mythology. Night, silver thistles, legends, and the Basque language play significant roles in the film. This time, we dive into the night, the land of mysterious beings, and delve into the tragic tales that have unfolded in Euskal Herria.

Yolanda Mazkiaran Zelaia´s realistic yet dreamlike documentary Anderea was released in 2020, based on the main character of Basque mythology: Mari, Amari, Andere, Señoria or the lady of Anboto. Mari symbolises the essence of the ancient Basque world, and thankfully, she not only persists but also offers valuable lessons to tackle the issues of today. The same year saw the premiere of María Fontán’s Zerua Hautsi zen gaua, a short film that won the creative initiative Oihu! Donostia Kultura, the San Sebastian-Gipuzkoa Film Commission and Gaztea collaborated on this project to promote the creation of fantasy genres in Basque culture. While the film is set in the present day, it draws on mythological characters and situations, treating them metaphorically. It also incorporates stories that director María Fontán heard when she was a little girl. On the one hand, reference is made to the figure of Urtzi, a character from ancient Basque mythology, related to the sky. One aspect of the film refers to Urtzi, a figure from ancient Basque mythology associated with the sky. Additionally, Basque myths and beliefs incorporate silver thistle flowers as significant symbols. According to tradition, these flowers are placed in the atriums of Basque farmhouses to ward off witches, evil spirits, or other malevolent evil creatures. The silver thistle is believed to fulfil the same mystical purposes attributed to the sun and is therefore a symbol representing peace and development.

Finally, we have the documentary Amari (2021) by Iosu del Moral from San Sebastian. With the help of author Toti Martínez de Lezea and anthropologist Anuntxi Arana, this documentary on Basque mythology introduces us to a universe full of legends and supernatural creatures that form part of the collective imagination of the Basque people. It delves into the ancient beliefs of its inhabitants, exploring several myths and legends and attempts to provide contemporary perspectives.

Gaizka Izagirre is a film critic and director of the magazine Gaztezulo. He is a contributor to various media outlets (ETB, Gaztea, Gara, Berria, Euskadi Irratia...) and is a member of the Asociación de Informadores Cinematográficos de España, in charge of the Feroz Awards.

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