In Basque mythology, the basajaun (plural: basajaunak, fem: basajere) were an ancient human race of stout, hairy giants who were megalith builders and became known as rural genies.
Basajaun means “Lord of the Woods” in Basque. The basajaun also exists in Aragonese mythology in the valleys of Tena, Ansó, and Broto under the names Basajarau, Bonjarau, or Bosnerau.
The Basajaun was heavily built and about 2 to 3 meters tall. He is represented at times as being horrific, gifted with colossal strength and extraordinary agility. He has a tall body, of human form, which is covered in dark reddish hair. His long mane falls before him to his knees, covering his face, chest and stomach.
They once dwelled in the mountains of the Basque Pyrenees of northern Spain and southern France. The Basajaun is usually the spirit that inhabits the deepest forests or caves situated in prominent places.
- The Basajaun is the protective spirit of forests and all most animals including wild creatures and flocks. He gives shouts in the mountains, when a storm approaches, so that the shepherds may withdraw their sheep. By lurking around a pen or its surroundings, he keeps the wolves from approaching. His presence is announced by the sheep who, shaking, and ring the bells around their necks. Thus the shepherds can go to sleep in peace, knowing that during that night or that day the wolves, great enemies of the flocks, will not come to bother them.
- They are the first to have cultivated the earth. Human beings obtained the right to cultivate the earth when a man won a bet with a Basajaun. In other popular stories, he is known as the first farmer from whom man learned about the cultivation of cereals and as the first blacksmith and the first miller, from whom man stole the secret of making the saw, the axis of the mill and how to weld the metals. He is also a powerful magician.
Long ago, only the basajauns (lords of the woods) knew how to plant, harvest and mill wheat to make flour. The basajauns kept this knowledge to themselves, but a Basque man worked out a plan to steal the secret and give it to the human race. The Basque man made a bet with the basajauns to see who could jump over the heaps of wheat they had harvested.
The basajauns laughed at the Basque man, because they knew that a mere human would be no competition for them, and they laughed at his big floppy shoes. They all jumped over the wheat easily, but when the Basque man tried, he landed on top of one of the heaps, and the basajauns laughed again.
Then the Basque man laughed, and he laughed last and best, but quietly, because his trick had worked. Now, the basajauns are big and slow-witted, but when they saw the Basque man walking away home, with his big, floppy shoes full of grains of their wheat, they realised that they had been tricked. When they stopped laughing, the Basque man began to run for his life, and it's a good thing that he did. He was already a far away when one of the basajauns threw a hatchet. The lords of the woods may be slow, but they are strong.
The Basque man saw the hatchet coming, and he ducked behind a chestnut tree just in time, because the hatchet struck the tree and split it in half. Now the Basque man had the seeds, but he didn't know when was the right time of the year to sow them. Fortunately, a man was passing by the cave of one of the basajauns, and he heard him singing:
- "If the humans knew this song
- They'd be well informed.
- When the leaf is in the bud
- Then you sow the corn.
- When the leaf falls off the trees
- Then you sow the wheat.
- When the February feast comes round
- Sow the turnip in the ground."
The man told the Basque man what he heard, and the Basque man told all the humans, and that is how cultivation spread through the world.
Depictions In Art
Fifteenth-century carvings depicting the baxajaunak can be seen in Burgos Cathedral, and in the monastery of Santa María la Real in Najera.
Given the arrival of the first Basques (circa 40,000 b.c.) and the overlap of the then-indigenous people, the Neanderthals (circa 200,000 to 40,000), some speculation has been given whether the Basajuanak stories originated out of proto-Basque interaction with the soon-to-be extinct Neanderthals, particularly given the close similarity in Neanderthal/Basajuanak physical characteristics. But alas, this remains a subject left to the forgotten pages of oral history.
- Reference: Vinson, Folklore du Pays Basque (1883), p. 43. J. M. of Barandiaran, Eusko-Folklore (1922); Basque Mythology (1960), pp. 75-76.