Basque ethnography at a glance

Illustration from the work Euskalerriaren Yakintza.

There are two appropriate dates in the calendar for miraculous solutions: the solstices of the year.

On this occasion we shall refer to the summer solstice, or what is the same, the night before St. John’s Day, associated to having great potential for extraordinary solutions which exceeded all natural logic and order.

One of the usual rites of that night aimed at curing herniated children. They were kids whose guts were partially eviscerated by a tear of the peritoneal membrane. They usually had a lump in the lower abdomen, often in the groin, where the thigh joins the lower belly. This injury could bring very serious consequences, including the possibility of death.

To cure that problem there was a specific ritual that is widely known in Europe, and that also had, with its local variants, great popularity in all the territories of the Basque Country, as we can appreciate in the Ethnographic Atlas of the Basque Country. Azkue, in his well-known treatises, he summarizes it like this:

‘To cure a herniated child, on the eve of St. John, in the middle of the night, in some places two Juanes (John) have to take him up to the top of an oak; in others, three Juanes; elsewhere, Juan and Pedro (Peter). Whilst the twelve bells of the clock are heard, the child is moved from hand to hand between the exclamations of tori (take him) and har zak (receive him), har zak (receive him) and tori (take him)’ (Euskalerriaren Yakintza I).

In other verified cases a branch of oak or laurel was chosen, and a cleft was made with an axe. After opening it with the arms, the child was passed through the hole three times. After doing so, the officiant of the ceremony joined the two parts of the open branch together with a piece of cloth and mud. With another piece of the same cloth he made a sash with which he wrapped the child, holding the herniated part.

After forty days, if the damaged branch had healed, the internal wound (hernia) was thought to have healed as well.

One variant of this ritual was reported in Laudio (Araba) in 1935, thanks to the young seminarian Daniel Isusi Elorrieta (1915-1989). Coincidentally, he was the brother of my mother’s late grandmother, and due to the whims of love, he never became a priest. He tells like this [Original note in Spanish]:

‘A resident from Laudio named Jorge de Ibarrondo, told me a story about what happened near his farm.

He says that Juan Ibarra, Juan Zubiaurre and Juan Larrazabal took an insane child (apparently the cure also works against insanity) and carried out the ritual using a laurel tree of Julian Zubiaur. He was the neighbor of the narrator (Jorge de Ibarrondo) and the other three Juanes. “June 24th. Saint John´s Day. 1º If a herniated child is to be cured this day, they say that a laurel trunk has to be opened with an axe, and three Juanes have to pass the child through the opening, while the clock strikes twelve o’clock. For the ritual to be successful, the laurel that has been opened must not dry out.

The words they said while carrying out the operation are: «take it Juan the 1st, receive it Juan the 2nd and take it Juan the 3rd (I don’t know if they said it in Basque, but I may have been told in Spanish, as I know little Basque)».

The laurel still exists, and it says the child got well too.’

No more naivety can be required in those popular beliefs. But they were deeply rooted, and served as a practical measure; since, apparently, prayers had no effect on that almighty god who had no time to waste with his subjects.

And perhaps the strangest and most disturbing thing about all of this is that, only a century later, no one remembers those strange customs which became so popular. It hurts as much or even more than one of those peritoneal tears.

Felix Mugurutza – Researcher

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