Gods, Bears, Stones, and Stars
Client: Iowa Alumni Magazine — December 2000
Sample: Gods, Bears, Stones, and Stars
Spanish professor Roslyn Frank has spent the last 30 years chasing them across the centuries and across the European continent- behaving much like the main character of the work that first inspired her: Don Quijote.
“I was teaching Don Quixote,” Roslyn Frank explained recently. “There’s a great deal in that book about the Spanish Inquisition-it’s a hidden text that’s not all the hidden. I wanted to know what Cervantes was doing. What kind of risks was he taking?”
Within moments, Frank began to tell an ageless tale of stars and shamans, of power struggles and punishment. Incredible as her story first sounded, she didn’t seem to be tilting at windmills.
Imagine what it might mean to discover in the heart of Europe a living fossil of an entire civilization, where rituals, customs, and certain aspects of the economic system have changed little (or, at least, not so much) during the last two millennia. Looking at that culture would help us piece together a past about which we’re naturally curious. In fact, that’s what Frank has done through her love of language and her detective work into the society of the people who inhabit Euskal Herria, the Basque region in Spain and France.
Studying Don Quijote (published by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra in 1605 in Madrid) led Frank to the study of collectives organized by women, known as Beguines as early as the 12th century. That, in turn, led her to bears, jesters, stone octagons, archaic measuring systems, and the stars. In the end, Frank accumulated hundreds of clues that together suggest that, in times past, Basque culture was far more sophisticated and far less isolated than investigators have hitherto assumed. Furthermore, the Basques seem to have kept their distant history alive by actively passing down the old traditions and beliefs even into the 20th century.
Frank begins her story with the Beguines. These groups of women healers, educators, and seers had spread across much of Europe by the early 1300s, a period that coincided in time with the increasing movement of people from rural areas into the cities. While the prevalence of the movement is difficult to gauge continent-wide, Frank says that in medieval Strasburg statistical evidence from archival sources suggests that as many as one in three women were Beguines.
Think of these collectives as the manifestation of an early women’s movement. Although the Beguines worked with the poor and wrote in the vernaculars of the common people, they were often financed by members of the upper class. When a wealthy person died, it was one of these women -not a priest- who was called to offer the last rites. Inside the church, the Beguines were in charge of women’s rituals-many of which were later taken over by male sacristans- lighting the candles for the dead and making the bread offerings. Elder Beguines had helpers, whom they paid, thus making the women’s collectives an integral part of the economic as well as the belief system.
Frank says that she was intrigued by the name “Beguine,” a word that has no known etymology in any Indo-European language, and she researched it for some fifteen years. Finally, as she dug into the archives of the church of Bayonne in the Basque country, she uprooted the etymology of the term. It springs from an expression in Basque meaning “herb worker,” a term still used in Euskal Herria today.
How had these women’s organizations spread across Europe, penetrating different cultures and employing different languages? And why did the Inquisitors eventually target their members as heretics?
“It takes a bit of extrapolation,” Frank explains. “My suspicion is that this women’s movement goes deep in time, and that these Beguines were originally connected to other groups, like the traditional bear trainers and the jesters, or fools. The Beguines were probably too friendly with the Jesters’ Guild,” she says wryly. “All of these early medieval theater troupes were really an anathema for the church.” They threatened its authority.
When the church leaders struck out against their foes, the women healers fell victim to the same investigative methods the Inquisition applied to so many others: guilt by association.
In the Middle Ages urban culture was most often expressed in the streets, where the common people spent much of their lives. In those relatively trying times of hard labor, untreatable diseases, and often inescapable filth, life could be tedious. What a relief it must have been for common women and men, when the jesters, bards and musicians strolled into town to stage their entertainments. It’s at those performances that we discover bears are part of the complex puzzle of ancient culture that Frank has been working to piece together.
“It’s as if the values of your society are written in the sky. Imagine how powerful that can be.”
To tell their stories, the jesters sometimes used bears, animals credited with healing powers, along with sacred clowns whose job it was to poke fun at authority. “There were singers, bards, religious practitioners,” Frank says. “They were all people who kept the old belief system going, even though individually they might not have understood it completely. In one zone, these practices were seen as traditional; in another, as heretical.
According to Frank, it is very likely that over the centuries these bands of performers reinforced the common belief that bears held special powers, that humans descended from bears, and that animals and humans lived together in a symbiotic relationship on earth. Such ideas were most certainly pagan, a threat to all those Inquisitors who demanded loyalty to one all-powerful god and one all-controlling church.
European bear legends are “very old stuff,” Frank says. “These are remnants of belief from a hunter-gatherer culture.” She explains that the cognitive roots of the legends, which may go back as far as 12,000 BC, attribute to bears the desirable qualities of a sense of time, excellent hearing, and unsurpassed hunting and fishing skills, not to mention the magic of sleeping for an entire winter before waking again. At a time when hunters and gatherers shared the same basic diet and natural resources as bears, it wouldn’t be a stretch of the imagination to think that humans would revere these animals, creatures that were bigger, stronger, and savvier at hunting than they were.
The Basque version of the legend tells of Little Bear (Hartz-Kume), born of a human woman and a mythical Great Bear, who is teased as a child because he’s different.
“This is a very modern, very 21st century story about multiculturalism,” Frank adds during her rapid-fire description of the tale. Little Bear puts up with the mockery for a while, “but he’s no pacifist” and he finally “lays out his scoffers.” Then he goes on a vision quest, meets up with other animals, is put to a test, and passes it by distributing the carcass of a dead animal fairly among all the other animals. When Little Bear needs to, he can shape-shift and take on the qualities of his helper animals and so the story continues.
Across Europe and to the northeast, the bear stories are remarkably consistent, remaining almost identical in areas hundreds of miles apart. Frank and her colleagues have speculated that the consistency and resilience of the bear stories could have been caused by migrations of the ursine belief system as the itinerant troupes of jesters and their dancing bears influenced one another, or by shared ecosystems -similar natural resources, diets, animals, and weather patterns. But there was another possible way to explain the transmission of the stories, one that the team of researchers didn’t recognize until relatively recently-the infinite and ageless sky above.
Frank believes that the folktales and related performance pieces staged by the jester-shamans and their trained bears hearken back to an astrally coded text that would explain why Europeans see the constellations of a Great Bear and a Little Bear rotating around the North Star. Some of the helper animals found in the folktales also appear to show up in the sky above -the Grey Mare killing the Black Wolf (Centaurus and Lupus) along with the Female Eagle (Aquila flying along the Milky Way).
The bears are the key across Europe for people once believed that they were descended from bears: that bears are our ancestors. No wonder so many European folktales and related performances tell the story of a half-bear, half-human being.
If her theory proves correct, it’s a sky-shattering (others might say quixotic) discovery that as early as 4,000 BC people were looking up, making shapes out of the stars, and using those constellations to retell their stories, validate their current realities, and justify their troubles-not to mention find their way around.
“It’s as if the values of society are written in the sky,” Frank explains. “Imagine how powerful that can be.”
But how on earth could the unschooled people of times past have used the sky as a tablet on which to record their folk stories?
Once again, Frank’s hypothesis is rooted in Basque culture and history. More than twenty-five years ago, she discovered some mysterious, almost perfect circles on the rocky slopes and plunging mountainsides of the Basques’ Pyrenean homeland. Mapped by a center stone and eight outlying stones-four aligned with each of the directions of the compass and four more marking the intercardinal points on the perimeter of the figure- these stone octagons have been built by the Basques for thousands of years.
The measurements used in creating the stone octagons only confirm Frank’s understanding of a culture’s ability to bring the stars down to earth and put them to practical use. The stones are not plopped down anywhere, but positioned precisely to mark the geographic north, south, east, and west. Most of us today even with a compass in hand, would fail to achieve the accuracy that the Basques managed to achieve with their rudimentary measuring tools.
“There is reason to believe,” Frank explains, “that the shape of these octagons actually reflects a coordinate system-they are a ritual manifestation of the system that they used in mapping and navigation. Conceptually the center stone is analogous to the North Star.”
Chronicled in the early Basque law codes, the history of the stone octagons illustrates how these simple structures permeated the culture of the region. They established legal and social boundaries and at times were useful as lawful evidence to settle disputes. Here again, the people of the Basque region held onto practices that their neighbors across Europe seem to have relinquished much earlier. For example, Frank notes that, as recently as ten years ago, collectives of Basque shepherds still used these stone octagons to map the territory they would use for winter and summer grazing.
As further argument for the astronomical connections she sees so clearly, Frank points out the unusual shape and size of these octagons. With a diameter spanning nearly a thousand feet, the octagons are laid out across some of the toughest terrain in the mountains. Of the octagons Frank and her colleagues have documented, the stones extend no more than a meter above the ground. These aren’t monoliths, but rather modest markers that, nonetheless, in many cases are located only meters away from what are indeed megalithic monuments.
“Yet the placement of the stones did not correspond to some practical purpose,” Frank says. Then she laughs. “Well, what is practical? The stones certainly weren’t going to keep the sheep in!” But the stones did outline for the shepherds those areas where they had to bed down their sheep and make their cheeses.
Clearly, the ancient Basques were connected to the earth and to the sky with an uncommon understanding.
In the Middle Ages, hundreds of years before the invention of the decimal metric system, the Basques measured things in units called gizabetes and performed mathematical calculations using multiples of seven. Skilled mariners, they employed a special navigational system which, like the stone octagons, utilized septarian units of measurement such as the septarian league. And their numbers worked out pretty well.
Historians know that the Basques were superb seamen, handling more than fifty percent of the traffic between the Old World and the New by the late 1500s. Frank believes Basque calculations were probably used three hundred years earlier to plot maps for sailing in the Mediterranean. Why does she think these people had the ability to chart the seas?
Once again, the writings of Basque authors tell the story. When other European cultures were seeking to determine the correct length of a nautical league, they were unsuccessful. Only the Basques retained the septarian value for the league, a value that fits precisely with the earlier coordinate system used in navigation and mapping, a value repeated over and over again in the works of Basque mariners.
Gods, bears, stones and stars…, they’ve propelled Frank through decades of detective work in a lifetime of scholarly adventure. Lured by the Basque language and curious about culture, she’s devoted herself to investigating cognitive systems that suggest that ancient Basques were far more than simple shepherds. At the least, they’ve managed to retain a cultural memory that sheds a little more light on our human history.