Basque ethnography at a glance

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On the feast of St Isidore. Lezama (Bizkaia), 1944.

On 15 May we celebrate the feast of St Isidore, or Isidore the Farmer, widely venerated as patron saint of farmers. As it happens, farm folks have customarily interceded with him to ask for protection of their crops.

More than a handful of towns and villages in Bizkaia (Derio, Getxo, Zeanuri, Murueta…) hold their patron saint festivities around this time. In Getxo and Zeanuri, for instance, livestock fairs and competitions, as well as oxen tests, have a centuries-long tradition and continue to attract large crowds.

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Flag waving before the image of St James. Garai (Bizkaia), 2013. Photo credit: Emilio Xabier Dueñas.

Nothing but simple rags with a lost function for some, unique rewards for impressive feats accomplished for others, and a symbol of identity for an important part of society. Be that as it might, the banner, the standard, the flag… are often insignia and fabrics loaded with devotion, fanaticism or honour, straddling boundaries —sports, religion, politics, patriotism, or folklore—, and even seeking to differentiate social status.

On more than one occasion we have been able to observe how in some European countries, as well as in territories close to Euskal Herria, in sumptuous or festive acts, flags are waved: whether defending a military origin or as a ritual with historic roots in the uprising of the people against the oppressive feudal power.

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Regarding the term kuarta tenpora, most commonly used among us to designate these four sets of three days, and contrary to what it might seem, it does not allude to the fact that such celebrations took place four times a year, but comes from Latin feria quarta. In origin, that is to say, in Roman times, and from a religious point of view, ember days —the mentioned kuarta tenporak in Basque— were quarterly periods prescribed by the Church for fasting and prayer. As for the name feria quarta, it provided a means to designate a certain day of the week in Latin: starting from Sunday, Monday would be the feria secunda; Tuesday the feria tertia, feria quarta thus being the denomination of Wednesday received by the Church in Latin. On Epiphany, 6 January, from the pulpit of the parish church, the proclamation of the most important religious feasts of the liturgical year would be read. And quatuor tempora days were also announced, specifying the initial day, Wednesday, beginning with the opening formula Feria quarta tempora erit…, and subsequently giving the dates for each fasting and prayer day.

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Maize husking. Maruri-Jatabe (Bizkaia), 2008. Labayru Fundazioa Photographic Archive.

There are several proverbs in Basque which remind us that maize is sown in April, according to the agricultural calendar: San Jurgi, artoak ereiteko goizegi; San Markos, artoak ereinda balegoz ‘St George’s Day −23 April− is still early for sowing the maize fields, but for St Mark’s Day −25 April− they should be already sown’; or this other one: San Markos astea, atzekoa baino aurrekoa artoa ereiteko hobea ‘St Mark’s festivities, the week before is better than the week after for maize sowing’.

Despite its deep cultural roots in our land, maize originated in America, and its introduction marked a before and an after. Possibly cultivated as early as the 16th century, its expansion began in the mid-17th century and generalized by the 18th, to the detriment of millet.

Maize imported from America would be known as mijo mayor ‘larger millet’, mijo de las Indias ‘millet from the Indies’ or simply maíz, in Spanish, and arto handia ‘large millet’, in Basque, artatxikia ‘small millet’ designating autochthonous small-grain millet.

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