Heather Conn Blogs

spoutin’ about by the sea

Witches on The Way: Remember the Camino’s tarnished halo

While tromping through mud and rain near Burguete on day three of the Camino, I came across an official-looking historical sign near an old stone cross. Expecting to read something about a local church or landmark, I was surprised to learn that there had once been a witch’s coven in the area in the sixteenth century. The surrounding forested region, part of the province of Navarre, was known as the Wood of Sorginaritzaga or Oak Grove of the Witches.


The historical marker, one of the few along The Way that included an English translation, said that medieval people had believed that the presence of a white cross would save them from such evil.

white crosses low-res

White crosses in a church cemetery on the Camino


When I looked at the stone cross beside the sign, it gave me no sense of reassurance or protection at all. Instead, I thought of the many innocent women who had died brutally at the hands of Christians simply because God-fearing people viewed their practices of natural healing and using herbs as the devil’s work. I knew which side my modern sensibilities favoured.


My guidebook made no mention of Spain’s regional witch history. Once back in Canada, I learned that Spain had repressed witchcraft in this Auritz-Burguete area and eastward around Roncesvalles more fiercely than anywhere else in the country. Long before the Spanish Inquisition began in 1478, a major raid against witches took place here in 1329. This resulted in the burning of five alleged witches in a village square.


Then, in the sixteenth century, a Spanish grand inquisitor named Licenciado Balanza started his investigation into alleged devil worship in this same region. As a result, at least nine people were persecuted and burned at the stake. That’s when the Catholic church erected a white cross or cruz blanca, as symbolic divine protection, near where today’s historical sign stands.


About five hours after reading the sign about the oak grove, I discovered a witch figurine on top of a bathroom shelf in my fifth-floor accommodations in a private building in Zubiri. When I tried, in Spanish, to ask our kind, middle-aged female host about it, she thought I wanted to use a hair dryer or there was something wrong with the plumbing. Only when I finally showed her the figure did I learn the word for “witch”: bruja.

with ad in pamplona store low-res 290

This ad for some type of alcohol appeared in a shop window in Pamplona, complete with a dead fly. A mandragora is the plant mandrake from the deadly nightshade family, which is supposed to have hallucinogenic qualities. It’s known as “Satan’s apple” in Arab culture. Because the plant’s tubers can look human, it was associated with witchcraft.



In Spanish, the woman told me about the witch museum in Zugarramurdi in the Pyrenees and its nearby cave. Until the seventeenth century, this area is where witches’ pagan rituals occurred, along with “wild parties, dancing around bonfires and holding orgies by moonlight,” according to the Kingdom of Navarre government tourism website. Sounds like juicy Burning Man material to me. Today, people still gather every year in the cave at summer solstice, with tall, flaming torches as their only light.


But as in the Oak Grove of the Witches, women did not fare well, historically, in the Zugarramurdi region. In 1611, the Spanish Inquisition received instructions to go to this cave and neighbouring countryside to hunt down so-called witches and heretics. During this rash of persecution, 2,000 people in the area confessed under torture; of these, more than 1,300 were aged seven to fourteen.


This demonization of women and children is an important, not-to-be-forgotten shadow side of today’s Camino de Santiago. The churches and cathedrals along the route easily herald the Madonna in statues, paintings, and prayer as the embodiment of divine, sacred woman. But beneath that glowing halo of Christianity lies unimaginable darkness: the horrific deaths of “lesser” females, branded as witches, whose lives did not conform to official holy doctrine. This signifies, in extreme form, what Simone de Beauvoir called the long-held cultural view of “women as Other” in her insightful book The Second Sex.

witch trash can low-res 918

This creative garbage can, designed to look like a witch’s hut, appeared in O’Cebreiro.


It is difficult to find accurate figures for how many women died as witches in Spain and elsewhere in Europe. Numbers range from tens of thousands in some countries to millions as a whole. One Internet source says that the last legal witch-burning in Spain occurred in Galicia in 1936, but I can’t find any further verification of this.


Nowadays, residents in some communities in Spain honour the powers of benevolent women known as “white witches.” They are believed to have the ability to cure ailments from sunstroke, eczema, and stomach aches and to remove the mal de ojo or “evil eye.”

A common form of protection against the evil eye is to wear a cruz de Caravaca or double cross, one with two horizontal, parallel bars.


Today, like so many aspects of the Camino, witches have become commodities, sold as cute or comical souvenirs in tourist shops; I confess to buying a few myself. Spain’s Navarre tourist board even offers three separate “Witch Routes” in the areas where the most persecution and murder of witches occurred centuries ago. As a historian, I am grateful that such activities in Spain draw public attention to what medieval and pre-medieval abuses occurred in that nation, but I would prefer to see witches treated as honoured symbols of female wisdom rather than trivialized baubles.

NEXT WEEK: Creating community on the Camino

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
September 21, 2013 at 11:52 am Comments (3)