The yawning caves near the town of Zugarramurdi in northern Spain may not be covered in impressive rock formations, but the cavernous space has long been rumored to have been home to witchcraft and other pagan practices that were once the focus of the largest single witch trial in history.
According to popular belief, during the 17th century (and before) these wide rock enclosures were witness to bonfires, wild parties, and other generally pagan festivities staged by the town locals.
The caves themselves were carved by the Olabidea stream which is said to originate in Hell itself, which may be where the stories of witchcraft began. However the haunting space could easily be taken for a hotbed of black magic via its atmosphere alone.
Whether true or not, the caves and the town of Zugarramurdi caught the attention of the Spanish Inquisition’s witch hunters who investigated the area and identified a number of citizens who were tried at the largest witch trial in history (over 7,000 cases were seen).
A number of the accused were put to death and the town and its large caves were forever associated with the dark arts.
Today the town embraces this legacy and in addition to establishing a Witch Museum, the town holds a raucous yearly feast in the Cave of Zugarramurdi.
Every year, around the time of the summer solstice (a pagan holiday) scores of lamb are roasted on spits in the traditional manner and bonfires are lit in and around the cave.
Hundreds of people flock to the event to celebrate the area’s supposed occult history, and thankfully not one of them is burned at the stake.
Whilst in Barcelona recently, Kaiser Noir--historian, tour guide and co-organizer for the Barcelona Congress of Curious Peoples, and director of Kriminal Kabarett–took me on a special visit to the grim and fabulous Basilica of Saints Justus and Pastor.
I asked Kaiser to write a brief post about the church and its entrancing shrine dedicated to the souls in purgatory; his text follows, and the above images are my own:
The most fascinating church in Barcelona, the Basilica of saints Justus and Pastor, has a long history related to martyrdom, funerary rites and the supernatural world.
The temple is unique because its preservation is exceptional (surviving wars, looting and religious persecution) and it is perhaps the oldest Christian sanctuary in the city.
The pagan roots of this church are still discussed. Although archeological evidences are unclear, this might have been the place where the temple of Castor and Pollux, two Graeco-Roman divinized heroes, once stood.
Their names were Christianized and changed, and they became the saints Justus and Pastor, two christian boys killed near Madrid in the times of the emperor Diocletian.
The first Christians from “Barcino” (the name of Barcelona in the Roman times) also suffered these persecutions in the beginning of the IV century A.D. The most famous victim was saint Eulalia, patron of the city.
The surroundings of the church were used as a cemetery for these martyrs, whose relics were greatly appreciated. This fact consecrated the place as one of the holiest in the city.
When the Germanic invaders, the Goths, conquered Spain, Barcelona became the court of the king Ataulf and the first version of this church was built. Since then, the temple enjoyed royal protection, only interrupted by the Muslim invasion, when it is said that the church was used as a mosque.
Louis the Pious (son of Charlemagne) retook the city in the year 801 and confered an unusual privilege to this church: it was the sacramental testament.
In the chapel of Saint Felix it was possible to declare and confirm the last will before dying, a tradition absolutely legal until 1991.