Mediterranean Mysteries: The Iberian Peninsula

“If our purpose is to come to a genuine understanding of the lives of our ancestors and the cultural and spiritual legacy left us by them, we may find it necessary to reevaluate our understanding of the terms religion, myth, and folklore.”

Michael Everson, Tenacity in religion, myth, and folklore
Horseman from Iberian Pottery, Alicante (Wikimedia)

Roman Catholicism, Islam, and Judaism are the first three religions we might associate with the lands and peoples of Spain, Basque, and Portugal today. While their impacts on the region cannot be ignored, these belief systems are extraordinarily young when we look at the full scope of Iberia’s history. Catholicism has only been documented here to the first century CE when it arrived with the Apostle Paul in the year 62. By 460, the Germanic Visigoths were responsible for the country’s full-scale adoption of Christianity. And by the early 700s until 1492, Islam was the dominant religion under the Moors, who had arrived by way of Northwest Africa, Egypt, and Syria. Needless to say, the spiritual history of the Iberian Peninsula did not begin with the first century as we know it. Much like the ancient peoples of the British Isles, those of the Iberian Peninsula had long observed regional chthonic gods (deities relating to the underworld or earth as opposed to the celestial realm), and Druidism was widespread among the Celtic tribes of the area.

Iberia before Carthaginian conquests c. 300 BC (Wikimedia)

Before the region was invaded by the Carthaginians and Romans around 206 BC, there were several cultural groups or tribal confederations living throughout Iberia. Some of the major groups outside of the Celts were the Aquitani, Iberians, Celtiberi, Tartessi, and Turdetani. Of course, each of these groups was made up of many smaller clans. Today, I’ll be highlighting some of the beliefs and stories of my Aquitani and Iberian ancestors of present-day Basque and Spain.

Tracing of “The Dance of Cogul” (Wikimedia)

Underworld Deities of the Aquitani 

Ancestors to the Basques, the Aquitani tribes of the 1st century BC lived in the area nestled between the Pyrenees Mountains, the Atlantic Ocean, and Garona (Garrone) River, making up the southwestern France and northeastern Spain today. Most of what we know about Aquitani beliefs comes directly from Roman, Christian, and Islamic sources, ancient altar remnants, as well as through Basque mythology. The Aquitani kept crucial relationships with the natural world, and continued to steward them even after Rome’s deities were introduced to them in the early 200s BC. Naturally, many people were able to maintain their beliefs under the guise of Romano-Aquitanian practices. For example, places like mountains, caves, rivers, and forests were considered sacred places associated with gods, ancestors, and spirits of the land, and we find Latin-language inscriptions of Aquitani gods in those places.  

“Vasco-Aquitanian religion is documented primarily through the epigraphic remains of votive dedications, inscribed contractual obligations and gifts establishing a relationship with a deity, erected by private and public individuals…the bulk of these dedications to local deities occurred in the first two centuries CE…the greatest concentration of Vasco-Aquitanian deities occurs in the territory of the town of Lugdunum Convenarum (mod. Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges). That town, said to be founded in 72 BCE by Pompey, features few Vasco-Aquitanian gods but primarily Roman deities. 

By contrast the hinterland of the town, where most of the industrial operations of the Convenae occurred, features the bulk of votive dedications to local deities with Vasco-Aquitanian deities or Latin-named deities clearly masking local gods. Several of these deities, such as Fagus “Beech Tree”, Sex Arbores “The Six Trees”, Arixo (“oak”, cf. Basque hartiz “oak”), Artehe (“Holm Oak”, cf. Basque arte), Leherennus (“Pine”, cf. Basque leher), Erriapus (“The Stone One”, cf. Basque harri “stone”), and Ageio are linked to sites of industry or traditional economic activities, such as silvopastoralism, pitch production, iron mining, and marble quarrying.”

David Wallace-Hare, The Database of Religious History
Modern rendering of Mari by Josu Goñi (Wikimedia)

When we look to Basque mythology today, we find many more clues that reveal the beliefs of ancient Aquitani ancestors. Immediately we are introduced to the creator goddess Mari, and her consort Sugaar. Mari, also known as Mari Urraca, Anbotoko Mari or Lady of Anboto, and Murumendiko Dama or Lady of Murumendi, is a primordial earth deity and shapeshifter known to dwell within the deepest caves of the tallest Pyrenese mountains. She is able to control the moon and tides, weather, the element of fire, and she oversees agriculture. Mari can appear to mortals in the form of animals, a woman combing her hair, a woman with the feet of a vulture or bird of prey, or as a lightning bolt. It is said that her caves are filled with precious gems, treasures, and gold that turn to coal or wood if removed without her permission. Her husband Sugaar, believed to be a dragon or serpent, controls mighty storms and the rolling thunder. He and Mari meet each Friday to bring fertile rains to the land.

“In Cegama it is said that in the cave of Aketegi there are beds of gold. A legend of Cenaruzza tells that Mari gave to one of her Captives a piece of coal, which, later, when taken from the cave, was transformed into purist gold. On the other hand, in Zarauz it is said that in the cave of Anboto there are many objects which appear to be of gold; but when taken outside, they become rotten pieces of wood. Here the Goddess is shown with the power to give or withhold abundance. Her power is both of herself, and of her realm, the Earth. The Basques tell that the Earth is immensely vast and limitless, a plane extending in all directions. The surface of the Earth is alive, and mountains are believed to grow just as living beings do.”

Michael Everson, Tenacity in religion, myth, and folklore
Deities and Beings of the Basque/Euskal Pantheon via Mr. P’s Mythopedia (Facebook)

There seem to be no strict hierarchies between any of the Basque deities, but Mari features most prominently in the stories. Basque mythology also prominently features supernatural beings or hidden nature spirits called lamiñak, equivalent to the fae or little folk seen throughout the world, with the exception that most were believed to be feminine beings. In Portugal and Gallecia these beings are known as the mouros encantados. Some believe them to be deities in their own right, while others believe them to be manifestations of the land and/or returned ancestors who serve goddess Mari. It is also believed that one specific group, the jentilak, or giants were the builders of ancient megalithic structures, and hidden underground cave networks. It is said there are vast districts beneath the earth where these ancient beings began to live after the arrival of Christianity. The mairuak are a hidden people believed to have built dolmens and menhirs. Other prominent Basque deities, or lamiñak include Basajaun, Lord of the Woods, Basaandre the land-mermaid, Amalur the earth mother, and Gaueko, spirit of the night.

“The Lamiñak are true fairies, and do not differ more from the general run of Keltic fairies than the Scotch, Irish, Welsh, and Cornish fairies do from each other. In fact, the legends are often identical. The Lamiñak were described to us by one who evidently believed in, and dreaded them, as little people who lived underground. Another informant stated that they were little people who came down the chimney. They long to get possession of human beings, and change and carry off infants unbaptized, but they do not seem to injure them otherwise. They bring good luck to the houses which they frequent; they are fond of cleanliness, but always speak and give their orders in words exactly the opposite of their meaning. In common with Basa-Jaun and Basa-Andre they hate church bells, and though not actively hostile to Christianity, are driven away as it advances.”

Webster Wentworth, Basque Legends with an Essay on the Basque Language (1879) 

Pantheons of the Iberians 

The Iberians were another civilization made up of several tribes living along the eastern and southern coast of the Iberian Peninsula since the 6th century BC, extending as far north as France. They had strong trading ties with and were heavily influenced by the Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Kemetians, and Amazighs among others.  Like the Aquitani, most of our knowledge about Iberian beliefs today comes from ancient altar remnants, the interpretations of the Greeks and Romans, and from studying the pantheons of the cultures they traded and regularly interacted with. For example, the iconic limestone bust, or funerary urn known as the Lady of Elche, dates back to the 4th century BC, and is thought to be an Iberian interpretation of the Punic goddess Tanit, or Tnt

“Lady of Elche” via Museo Arqueológico Nacional

“The complex headdress features two large coils known as “rodetes” on either side of the head and face. It is thought that this was a ceremonial headdress, and that the woman may be a priestess. The headdress runs across the forehead, with a pattern of raised marble-shaped bumps. Tassle-like pieces hang in front of the ears, and elaborate necklaces grace her chest. The woman’s face contains an expressionless gaze, and when it was found, contained traces of red, white, and blue decorative paint. The composition of the stone indicates that it was carved at L’Alcúdia.”

Ancient Origins.net

Tanit was the patron goddess of Carthage alongside her consort Baal-Hammon, and is believed to be closely linked to the Amazigh/Kemetian goddess Neith, Phoenician goddess Astarte, and Akkadian goddess Ishtar, though Tanit developed her own distinct following around the 5th century BC in Carthage. She was known to govern over war, hunting, healing, fertility, and sexuality, and is often depicted with the head of a lion. Baal-Hammon, often depicted with the horns of a ram, is Tanit’s masculine counterpart who reigns over the weather, and he is closely linked to the Kemetian god Amun-Ra. Another significant deity, Melqart, patron god of Tyre, oversees naval activities, the sea, trade, and colonization. He came directly from the Phoenician pantheon, but lost his prominence in Carthage to Tanit over time.  

Major Deities of Ancient Egypt via Mr. P’s Mythopedia (Facebook)

It must be noted that Carthaginians were heavily influenced by surrounding Mediterranean cultures, and they were known to have adopted the Greek goddesses Demeter and Kore, as well as Auset (Isis) from Kemet into their pantheon. Daily religious customs of Carthaginians would have most likely included prayers, offerings/tribute to ancestral patron deities, and ritual sacrifices with a hierarchy of religious bureaucracy to facilitate those processes on behalf of the public. This hierarchy involved a Chief of Priests called the Rab Kohanim, a Head Priest/Temple Leader, Acolytes, as well as support staff who assisted priests throughout the year. To understand more about the beliefs of the Carthaginians and the Iberian cultures they influenced, we also need to look further towards the pantheons of ancient Libya, Egypt, and Phoenicia. 

“No temples survive, no texts on the Punic mythology have come down to us, and we are left only with a number of inscribed stelae and certain art objects to piece together the details. Tombs have been a vital source of such objects, and the presence of votive offerings, day-to-day utensils, amulets, and masks to ward off evil spirits would suggest that the Carthaginians did believe in some sort of after-life. As with many other aspects of the Carthaginian religion, though, we do not know any precise details and we are left wondering what that life entailed or how a person could assure they ever got there. More certain is that the Carthaginian religion continued, beyond the Roman destruction of the city, to be practised, sometimes under different names, perhaps more clandestinely than previously, but very often at the same temple sites as before.”

Mark Cartwright, Carthaginian Religion
Deptiction of Neith in the tomb of Nefertari

In ancient Libya, the Amazigh people maintained their own pantheon, believed to have influenced and been influenced by the Kemetians, Greeks, and Phoenicians, with a number of overlapping deities known between the cultures. Ammon, for example, “King of Gods,” and Amazigh god of wind, may have been adopted by the Kemetians as Amun-Ra, and the Phoenicians/Carthaginians as Baal-Amon/Baal-Hammon. The most famous temple for Ammon was located at the famous augural temple in Siwa, Kemet, an oasis the Amazigh people have lived in for centuries. Neith, the goddess of creation, hunting, weaving, wisdom, and war, is believed by many to have influenced Tanit in Phoenicia, as well as Athena in Greece, and she is known as the mother of Ra in Kemet. 

“It should be less surprising that goddess Neith could have been adopted by the Greeks at a distance of 1,800 km from Libya’s Lake Tritonus than that she had been adopted by the Egyptians of the Upper Niles some 2,700 km distance. The date of Neith’s incorporation into the incipient Egyptian pantheon was the Predynastic of the later 4th millennium BC. A putative date for Neith-Athena entering the pre-Hellenistic Greek pantheon is the early to mid-3rd millennium BC. ”

Patricia Rovik, Mediterranean Archaeology Vol.15 
Pyramid of Madghacen

Ancestor veneration and ancestor cults are also believed to have played a key role in religious customs, as large monolithic monuments and tombs are commonly found throughout Amazigh lands.  By learning more about their history and worldviews it could one day help us to better understand the spiritual beliefs and religious contexts of the ancient Iberians who were clearly influenced by their deities and cosmological knowledge.  

Sources & Further Reading

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