Historical figures

Barandiaran & Zumalacárregui

Aita Barandiaran


Who is the Olentzero? Who is eguzkilore? Why bats live at night?

It all started here, in Goierri, in Ataun’s neighbourhood of San Gregorio, when on December 31st 1889, José Miguel Barandiaran was born.

We are at the foot of Sierra de Aralar, an area loaded with magical memories and myths, and one of the main dwellings of witches, giants and some other Basque heroic characters. The Barandiaran Museum is a cultural treasure, yet undiscovered by tourists. Aita -euskera for father- Barandiaran collected tales, myths, stories, proverbs and his own knowledge of traditional Basque culture that, otherwise, would have gotten lost in time. Barandiaran changed dramatically the understanding of Basque prehistory and got back Euskadi’s mythology.

No one interested in the Basque topic can disregard Don José Miguel’s work.

Julio Caro Baroja, great anthropologist and Pío Baroja’s nephew.

José Miguel Barandiaran was a priest, living for 102 years and publishing 575 works about the Basque people. More than ten thousand pages of books, articles and collaborations. He used to say I’d go to hell if I were to discourse upon the Basque culture. The study of this intangible heritage that he linked to other fields, particularly the Archaeology, allows to consider him the founder of Basque ethnography. Thanks to Barandiaran, we know the age-old past of Euskal Herria.

During Barandiaran’s childhood, Euskera was the only language spoken in his town -Ataun-. His parents were truly concerned about culture but did not have the chance to learn how to write or read. José Miguel de Barandiaran was able to speak six languages: Euskera, Spanish, Latin, English, French and German. Being 100 years old, he could still recite Spanish verses from Don Quixote learnt as a kid, by heart. Since those verses were in Spanish, he did not really understand them until he was older.

Barandiaran’s first archaeological finding happened by chance, when he was trying to find the exact place where gentiles lived (giant pagans from Basque mythology). Throughout his long life he never stopped digging megaliths and caves, studying them and publishing breakthroughs. His work created a whole tradition towards Archaeology. He founded the Etniker groups, that today still work in the Basque Country’s Geographic Atlas, and they are a source of information on old Basques’ nutrition, funeral rites, grazing and children games.

Barandiaran founded the intellectual threesome specialised in Basque prehistory. Together with two other scientists -Enrique de Eguren and Telesforo de Aranzadi (Unamuno’s cousin)- they were known as “the three musketeers” or “the three sad troglodytes”. Some shepherds that went with them through Basque mountains as workers in caves or dolmens explorations couldn’t believe that these three gentlemen “wasted time in recovering bones, stones and broken vessels” and that they actually thought they were going after “treasures hidden by gentiles in the past”, according to Luis, one of Barandiaran nephews.

*Source: Barandiaran Museum. Book: Jose Miguel de Barandiaran, by Luis de Barandiaran Irizar.


Gentiles were playing in the mount when they saw a bright cloud coming from the East. According to an old gentile, that was Christ -in their words, Kixmi the monkey- and he would bring the end of the world and the beginning of a new era, so he asked them to push him down the slope. The rest of the gentiles fell down a dolmen -Jentilarri-. Only one was still alive, Olentzero, a collier that each December 24th comes down from the woods to the valley to announce Christ is born. This myth of an idyllic world that comes to an end, presaged by an old man reacting to an atmospheric phenomenon never seen before, and the later descent to the valley, is very popular in the Alps and the Pyrenees, and it seems to be B.C.

After a war between birds and land animals, peace finally came they decided to divide up the universe. Half of them would get sky and trees, the other half, the ground. But the bat, that couldn’t decide to which half he wanted to belong to, was left apart and condemned to live in caves, leaving his cave only at night.

A shepherd fed a snake with milk until he left the place with his flock of sheep looking for new ground. When he came back the year after, the snake had amazingly grown, choking the shepherd to death. One of the interpretations of this myth is, those who practice grazing, when leaving a place for a while, lose any kind of previous rights against those who settle and do farming.

A big, strong, cocky gentile came down from the mountain, challenging a Christian who was working in Beasain’s foundry. This one, with his tools, pulls up his nose. This reveals the superiority of an industry that, from late Middle Ages until 19th century, marked Guipúzcoa’s economy.


What were Basque fueros? And Carlist Wars? A battle against two worlds!

Tomás de Zumalacárregui was a powerful historical figure, one of those who never back down. He was born in 1788 in Ormaiztegi, being the next-to-last in a ton of 14 brothers and sisters. His dad was a scribe in Idiazabal -yes, the town of the famous cheese!- and he was also going to become a scribe. The Napoleonic invasion changed his fate and nothing was quite the same after it!

You can visit Iriarte-Erdikoa House, nowadays Zumalakarregi Museum, in Ormaiztegi. You will find a traditional caserío from the 18th century where Tomás de Zumalacárregui lived. Currenty, it helds the tourist office. You will be shocked with some of the events of the beginning of Modernity and the end of the Ancient Regime!

Tomás de Zumalacárregi became the Carlist General, Victoria’s Duke and Count of Zumalacárregui -known as the wolf of Amezcoas-, building an army from nothing, with no base of operations, weapons or money. He saved the Carlist revolt, compacting it and making it stronger. He finally got the help of 22 infantry battalions and three cavalry squadrons. His career path was short because he got hurt in Bilbao in 1835, coming back to Goierri to die.


At the end of the 18th century started the confrontation between those who defended the Ancient Regime and those leaning towards Liberalism. That confrontation lasts all Zumalacárregui lifetime. Carlism brings to Liberalism the novelties of the French Revolution and speaks out in favour of Religion, the Church and the defense of fueros.

Basque farmers became the allies of the lesser nobility and the clergy against liberal bourgeoisie, according to the renowned historian Palacio Atard. The farmers had enjoyed some advantages with the system of fueros but were suffering liberalisation measures like customs movement, the rise of commodity prices, the tax increases and loss of common lands.

Liberalism disrupted the already meagre social, political and economic balance. The change was too abrupt to be peaceful and the lesser nobility split. That was the case of Zumalacárregui’s family. Some of them tried to stay with tradition while the others tried to break it.

The Zumalacárregui family belong to the establishment of noblemen, very common in the Basque Country. They would give their daughters a generous dowry and send their sons to serve in Church or the Military. Miguel Zumalacárregui, the oldest brother, became a jurist and an active liberal, while Tomás became the Field Commander of Carlist troops. Both brothers were a good example of two opposite views of the world.

Source: Zumalakarregi Museum. Book: “La España del siglo XIX”, Vicente Palacio Atard.


Zumalacárregui Museum is always surprising. One of its treasures is a watercolour painted 360º landscape of San Sebastián, attributed to Mayor Thomas Staunton St. Clair.

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