Routes of mystery: Zugarramurdi Caves, witchcraft and legend
Do witches exist? What about their magic powers and their spells?
The truth is only known to history, but there is a place in Spain that sheds some light on the mystery. Virtually on the border with France, the village of Zugarramurdi in Navarre (in the north of the peninsula) has been witness to one of the most enigmatic chapters of the past.
The story says that the enormous caves around the village were the scene of witchcraft meetings during the 17th century. People talk of rituals in which men and women lit bonfires, danced and drank drinks with hallucinogenic effects. These meetings took the name of Akelarres (‘aker’ = male goat; ‘larre’= country, in Basque).
Beyond the legend the caves offer a true natural spectacle; the size and symmetry of the grotto of the main path makes it unforgettable, cut throughout centuries by the so-called ‘river of hell’. With a length of 120 metres and 22 to 26 metres wide, this is a karstic complex (lime earth) not to be missed by lovers of underground grottos.
To reveal more about the legend, we find the Witches Museum, “A place of suffering and memory, a place for interesting stories with its tones of light and darkness, rigorous but at the same time warm and thrilling”, say the museum’s directors.
The akelarre, 500 years later. The caves become an immense tunnel of time on the Night of St John (23 June). The summer solstice has been celebrated since 2007 with a ritual of offerings, fires and a staging of the akelarre for visitors of all ages.
Long gone is the giant ‘dawn’ festival (‘gaupasa’) held on the Eve of St John since 1984. In a single day, Zugarramurdi, a village of 230 inhabitants, gathered more than 6,000 people from different parts of Spain and France. The meeting became a gigantic party lit up with torches to the sound of live percussion. The massive affluence of people led the Basque Government to close down the festival in 2006 “because of the problems of space, environmental damage and physical risk to the visitors”.
With or without witches, the walls of Zugarramurdi caves still hold secrets and scenes that history will never tell.
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