Basque ethnography at a glance

Photo: Nasapunta at the Carmen festivity; Armintza, 2012. Author: Akaitze Kamiruaga, Labayru Foundation Photo Archive.

In traditional agricultural societies, plants and trees have had an extensive and recurring presence. In particular, trees with a significant character and a strong community or prophylactic load that, during the spring period will protect the potential harvest. During summer, they can also commemorate a satisfactory harvest, evidenced or materialized in their unique presence. In these contexts, the so-called maypoles (maiatzeko zuhaitzak) or festive trees (tree or poplar of Saint Joan, Donienatxa, etc.) have been, and still are a common practice.

They also stand as symbolic elements of the community (American independence tree, French freedom tree, the Tree of Gernika, the Malato Tree, etc.) or its customary organizational structure. They act as indicators of territorial or communal limits, festive or commemorative signs, honorary visual gifts, youthful resource of “courtly love” and eminent announcement of marital bonds or even sanctioning signs of marginal behaviors. Trees chosen for their width or height, cut and carried ritually by young people, and planted on a strategic hillock or in the public space of the local square.

Photo: Young people from Iurreta the Saint Joan poplar tree; 2013. Author: Igone Etxebarria, Labayru Foundation Photo Archive.

Also, choreographic trees appear in ribbon dances (zinta-dantza) and tree dances. These variations have evolved from this totemic trunk, which was common in the traditional context of the European Old Regime; and, in some cases, they were also exported to America. Braids, associated nowadays with the cycles of structured ritual dances that appear in specific festivities (Carnivals, Corpus Christi, patronal festivities, etc.), and where the dancers tie and untie the pole, to the rhythm of a specific melody. Usually they put decorative plant elements at the top (flowers, garden products or green branches) that remind their initial origin; and also dolls or effigies that move in unison with the dance, or mechanical gadgets that open as a culmination of the dance feat (flying doves or other stage effects). Ancient plant life, associated with its roots in the bosom of the earth, its magnificence on the surface and the proximity of its branches to the celestial sphere.

At the same time, one can observe the widespread social fact of the use as greasy poles on a bare tree or vertical and terrestrial post that is chosen, cut and moved with great ostentation. The trunk, once placed in the public square, is greased and at its upper end an element is placed (flag or handkerchief, a cross, plant or floral decorations, various victuals) that the agile youth must reach by climbing to obtain the coveted prize.

Photo: Decorating the Donienatxa, Iurreta, 2013. Author: Igone Etxebarria, Labayru Foundation Photo Archive.

In coastal areas, horizontal greasy poles are customary, which consist on a long post or old mast that, placed at the mouth of the port, on a boat or on the banks of estuaries of adequate draft, appear over the liquid element. At its farthest end a flag is placed that, walking along the slippery cylinder, the spirited participants must catch, avoiding the possibility of a resounding dip in the water. There have also been horizontal wedges of sophisticated construction (wheel or rotating greasy poles) that are driven on a central rotating axis and while they rotate, the participants must advance standing from one end of the moving axis to the other and without falling, reach the object (flag or handkerchief) that will make them winners of the game.

Josu Larrinaga Zugadi – Sociologist

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