Basque ethnography at a glance

Parhelion. Josu Larrinaga Zugadi

Parhelion. Josu Larrinaga Zugadi.

The eve and the feast day of St John (24 June) are well known to encompass a large amalgam of symbolic rituals associated to earth (people, animals, harvests and protective vegetables), water (beliefs about cleansing, regeneration and healing), air (magic moment for purging from nocturnal and malignant beings) or fire (purifying or renewing element). As regards the latter, we are familiar with the custom of climbing certain highlands in the early hours of St John’s Day to observe the dance performed by the king star or dancing sun (optical effect of the scientifically so-called sun dog, parhelion or fake sun).

The sun indeed dances, and it is at this time of the year that the daily duration of the light interval is the greatest. It would be therefore not uncommon for traditional societies to place emphasis on these seasonal phenomena and imitate or emulate by means of ritual dancing the spectacular power of the beloved main star, collective dances and dances with a marked level of rituality or meaning being customarily performed in squares, both on the night, in front of the community fire, and the day of St John.

St John’s ritual in Urdiain (Navarra). Josu Larrinaga Zugadi

St John’s ritual in Urdiain (Navarra). Josu Larrinaga Zugadi.

Based on a simplified classification of dances in the Basque Country, also valid for this festive time at the beginning of the summer solstice, we shall highlight the structured dances performed by groups of specialized dancers, with dancer formations united by different objects (swords, batons or sticks), such as the Bordon-dantza ‘Dance with batons’ of Tolosa (Gipuzkoa). And the elitist formations of an established number of dancers led, or not, by a figure who either guides or penalizes (captains or buruzagiak, sergeants, bobos, masters of batons or cachimorros) the evolving participants. Cycles of ritual dances present in the Dantzari-dantza ‘Dance of dancers’ traditionally danced in the neighbourhood of Momoito in Garai (Bizkaia), the ensemble of the Azeri-dantza ‘Dance of the fox’ of Andoain (Gipuzkoa), the itinerant dances of Laguardia (Álava), the quasi-danced conjuration of the women of Urdiain (Navarre), and curiously enough, the San Juan iantzak ‘St John’s dances’ of Berastegi (Gipuzkoa), typical of St Lawrence’s Day (10 August).

Secondly, let us focus attention on community dances that try to seek social cohesion from a section of the population (mutil-dantzak ‘men’s dances’ or jauziak ‘jumps’, specific rituals…) or from the whole (mixed coral dances) through participation in sokadantza ‘chain dancing’. With these ritual dances come, many a time, peculiar social dances executed in the square, in front of St John’s tree or fire (Andoain and Donostia in Gipuzkoa, Arantza and Iribas in Navarre, Garai in Bizkaia…). Noteworthy for its distinct symbolism is the aurresku or Eguzki-dantza ‘Dance of the sun’, executed three times (at dawn, after mass, and at dusk, after the rosary) by the women of Lekeitio (Bizkaia).

Dance of the sun in Lekeitio (Bizkaia). Josu Larrinaga Zugadi

Dance of the sun in Lekeitio (Bizkaia). Josu Larrinaga Zugadi.

And finally, there are enjoyment dances and other dances, ritual or not, which do not fall under the preceding groups. Among them, the Maskuri-dantza ‘Dance of the inflated animal bladders’ of Hernani (Gipuzkoa) or the unique St John’s celebrations and individual dance of Torralba del Río (Navarre).

Josu Larrinaga Zugadi – Sociologist

Translated by Jaione Bilbao – Ethnography Department – Labayru Fundazioa

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