More on the Basques (Chap. 9)

THE BASQUES: a brief description for folk dancers

Basque children and parents dressed in their traditional costumes, waiting to perform dances at annual Labor Day festival; Bellevue, Idaho, Sept. 1960.

Ay-yayaya-yah-ha-ha-ha-i!”—the shrill irrintzina of the Basque sheep-herders rang out across the hills. But not, in this case, in the Pyrenees, homeland of the Basques. We were in the backwoods of southern Idaho some 65 years ago, where with great gusto my parents’ Basque friends were teaching me, a ten-year-old, their dances and other customs.

I still have the old 78s and later 45s onto which their musicians, led by an accordionist, recorded the dance music. The favorites of these immigrants were a Jota in ¾ time, quite similar to the Castilian version, and a dance called Porrusalda (literally, they said, “leek soup”), which had the same choreography as the Jota but was danced in 2/4 time, giving it a much earthier style than the lightly leaping Jota. They taught these and more to their children to perform, all dressed up in red and white Basque costumes, at the annual Labor Day festival.

Basque heritage:

But who are the Basques? Their geographical homeland, known collectively as “the Basque country” or Euskal Herria, curves around the Atlantic Bay of Biscay, occupying the western part of the Pyrenees Mountains as well as the slopes spreading down both north into France and south into Spain (see Map). Their traditional occupation has long been herding sheep in the high mountain pastures—hence the all-important irrintzina, producing cries so piercing that the shepherds could locate each other and communicate across great distances. Modern technology has made such things obsolete, but the Basques, proud of their long heritage, still have contests to determine whose cry carries the best (you can hear several winners on YouTube).


And it is a long heritage indeed. The Basque language (Euskera or Euskara in Basque) has been there so long that it is not even relatable to any other language of Europe. To the Basques, all others are newcomers, immigrants: among them the ancient Romans, who pushed this still more antique populace back and back, up into the high Pyrenees. In fact, the Romans wrote about these indigenous Vascones (whence both the Spanish name Vascos and French Basques), while coins minted somewhere near Pamplona around 200 BC spell the name as barscunes. The language itself has long suggested that the Basques lived there not only before the Romans came but all the way back to the Stone Age, before the use of metal started to spread from the Near East around 3000 BC, since the Basque names for basic tools like the knife, axe, hoe, and chisel contain a root for “stone.” (The Basque language is also unusual in the way its fundamental grammar is structured—radically differently from the Indo-European and Uralic languages that the rest of Europe speaks.) Even more convincingly, recent studies of Basque DNA have shown that the Basque genetic pattern predates even the arrival of agriculture in the Iberian Peninsula, about 5000 BC! So they have held their corner of Earth not just from the New Stone Age onwards, but from the Old Stone Age, the Palaeolithic.


Basque culture is tightly tied to one’s house, called etxe (pronounced roughly et-CHEH), which was traditionally the center of a self-sufficient farm, passed down undivided to the eldest child (male or female, though more conveniently male). As such, it included not only shelter, sustenance, and the religious center, but also the entire clan, living and dead alike (the latter still providing help to the living). The man of the house herded the flocks, and so was away for long periods; the woman of the house (whether by inheritance or marriage) worked the fields at home and functioned as the religious and emotional core of the household, often making the key decisions. Various taboos suggest that dead family members were originally buried under the eaves, although now they are buried in family plots in the churchyard—plots viewed as miniature but crucial extensions of the etxe. Householders venturing beyond the realm of the etxe at night, itself protected by the fire on the hearth, were no longer protected from malevolent forces. (These traditions are very similar to those found in the central Balkans, and seem to have spread with agriculture itself.)


Because the sacred Household had to be inherited as a unit, younger brothers had little choice but to emigrate. As a result, Basque communities have sprung up in many parts of the world, especially where there was sheepherding to be done: for example, in Australia, South and Central America, and the American West. Ranchers prized the Basque sheepherders—yes, in Idaho, at least, the Basques were always sheepherders, not shepherds—for their honesty and their ability to live alone, off in the wilds with their woolly charges, for very long periods of time. In the USA, the largest groups are in southern Idaho (Boise has a Basque Museum and Cultural Center, and an annual festival), in Nevada (Reno has a Center for Basque Studies and Elko an annual festival), and in California, both around Chino (two annual festivals) and in the San Joachin Valley between Stockton, Fresno, and Bakersfield.

Festivals and Dances:

It is clear that elements of Basque folk tradition are exceedingly old and match in interesting ways some of the oldest undercurrents of other European cultures, in areas where the ancient agrarian beliefs were not obliterated by Roman Catholicism.


For example, one of the chief festivals in much of Europe is St. John’s Day, originally the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. On that day people lit bonfires all over, including in the Balkans, Russia, Scandinavia, and Britain. (Our word bonfire comes from “bone fire”: bones were often used for such fires because they burn easily and wood was needed for other purposes.) Basques traditionally built these bonfires at the crossroads as well as in front of each etxe; then they would walk clockwise (the sun’s direction) single file around each fire while praying.


Perhaps their most famous festival, especially in terms of dance, is one leading up to Lent, when the male dancers form into two teams, the handsome “reds” and the raggle-taggle, sooty “blacks”, to do battle for the year’s fertility (a custom with ancient midwinter roots, found over much of rural Europe). The most remarkable parts of the dancing are the prodigious jumps or capers and high kicks performed by the men (Sketches 1, 2). But to onlookers widely versed in European folk dance, perhaps the most surprising is the close resemblance of many of the steps and customs to English Morris dancing, including clashing sticks or swords and wearing bell-pads around the calves (visible in these sketches). One dancer is even provided with a hobbyhorse, as among Morris men.

The hobbyhorse, or Zamaltzain, in fact, dances the most virtuoso dance of all. A short glass tumbler half full of red wine is set out for all the “reds” to dance around and to jump over with numerous fast kicks. Finally the Zamaltzain (whose hobbyhorse frame prevents him from seeing his own feet) contrives to land on one foot atop the glass (Sketch 3), delineates a cross with the other foot, then leaps high off the glass without spilling it.

Traditionally most Basque dances seem to have been done by men, but today many are done by both men and women, so it is easy to join in. Their word for “dance”, dantza (plural dantzak), was borrowed from their French and Spanish neighbors in the early Middle Ages. But long before that, the Basques were busy dancing with their characteristic prodigious leaps: the Roman author Strabo, writing in the first century BC, already remarks that the Basques “danced after drinking, alone or in groups, competing…as to who should leap the highest and fall on his knees with the most grace!” One is reminded here of the dances even today of Georgian men, another hardy mountaineering group.


Useful sources:

Alford, Violet: Pyrenean Festivals (London, 1937)

Alford, V. and R. Gallop: The Traditional Dance (London, 1935)

Barandiarán, José: Basque Prehistory and Ethnography (Reno, 2007)

Barber, Elizabeth W., The Dancing Goddesses (New York, 2013)

Gallop, Rodney: A Book of the Basques (Reno, 1970)


[Written originally for Folk Dance Scene, Nov. 1917]