Subterrean Goddess: Mari of the Basques

“There was an old woman

Lived under a hill;

And if she’s not gone,

She lives there still.”

Mother Goose

Tbp27_1I am a patron of the Goddess. I observe and acknowledge holy days, lunar phases and other celebrations in my way, alone. This in and of itself is not an unusual circumstance. Some by choice or chance or fate, many women worship the Goddess on their own and so in that way we really aren’t alone. We are all an intrinsic part of an ages-old tradition of wisewomen, flamekeepers, kitchen witches and spiritweavers—a tradition that continues to infuse the Goddess tradition with our individual flames and points of light and illuminate Her to even greater brilliance.

So, it is not surprising that my experiences with the Goddess have been intense and deeply personal. Over the years I have developed a solitary relationship with the Goddess in her many guises that sustains me through all the upheavals and changes around me, and the passages of people in and out of my life. Knowing the Goddess has enabled me to know who and where I am spiritually and that has knowledge has only served to help me know where I fit in Her world.

Nearly fifteen years ago, I was recovering from alcoholism and drug addiction, and healing a childhood of abuse and mistreatment and like many newly sober women, I was disconnected from my feelings, emotions, intuitions and my Self. During this time, Mari came to me in a dream and in working with her energy she helped
me to connect with some of my lost emotions and feelings. Although, I purchased a pewter and crystal chalice to honor her and placed it on my altar, I was not ready to dig deep within; it wasn’t time. I was still far too young and angry and frightened to allow myself the luxury of vulnerability and softness. There were still far too
many demons to do battle with. There were many more battles before I was ready for Mari’s teachings.

So for much of the last 10 years, Mari has been mostly silent. Occasionally, I’d feel her pulls like gentle tugs, just under the surface while I was growing and waxing into independence and strength, daring to shape and sculpt a life of my choosing with the guidance of goddesses like Artemis, Pelé, and Lillith under the ever present gaze of my Patroness Athena. There on my altar Mari has remained all these years. Through the changes my life has seen, the cross country moves, the loves, the disappointments, the joys, She has always come out of her wrappings unscathed, to take up her place on my altar, another patient sentinel, waiting. And so Mari’s sudden and strong pull still caught me off guard as I was reading Shekhinah Mountainwater’s article, Rise of the Dark Maiden, in issue 26 of The Beltane Papers.

Suddenly so much of the nameless change I had been struggling with for months, was now contained, in perspective; it made sense. I had been walking the Bright Maiden’s path for so many years, learning how to care for and protect myself, doing battle with the demons, blazing a trail for other women to follow my footfalls and showing them the way if they so chose. But now it was time to learn the ways of the Dark Maiden, to find a new balance as my life again took on a new shape. As I looked at the events of the preceding months, everything fell into place. No longer was it necessary to take up every gauntlet thrown in my direction or wear my battle scars like armor. It was time to look deeper and risk more. It was time to learn how to be strong and gentle, independent and compassionate, creative, imaginative and free, supportive and powerful, intuitive, magical and whole. I began to see how each event fit with the next, leading me to where I sat that day. There seemed little left to do but learn more about the goddess who had risen once again in my life with such startling brilliance, after such a long, silent vigil.

For years there has been very little known about the Basque Goddess Mari, primarily because so little has been known about the Basque people and because their history is steeped in oral tradition. Thanks to the tireless work of Marija Gimbutas we now know the Basque country, situated on the western end of the Pyrenees Mountains on the Iberian Peninsula, down to the Bay of Biscay, is considered to be one of the few cultures, if not the only the European culture to preserve it’s Old European Great Goddess roots which descend directly from Neolithic times. Despite Christianity’s influence and although the Inquisition mercilessly persecuted devotees of the goddess as witches, Mari somehow eluded destruction and merely retreated into the caves and mountains of the Pyreneeswhere her power and mystery had always been great.

The Basque country is roughly divided into seven largely wild and mountainous provinces, marked with caves, caverns and chasms. It is generally believed that Mari resides in each province for seven years, which would explain why She is known by so many names among the Basque people. In Ispáster she is known as Marie Labako ‘Mari of the Oven’, in Marquina, Marije Kobako ‘Mari of the Cave’, in Oyarzun, Andre Mari Munoko ‘Madam Mari of Muno’, in Atáun Muruko Damea ‘the Lady of Muru’, in Zarauz, Anbotoko Dama ‘Lady of Anboto’, in Durango, Anbotoko Sorgina ‘the witch of Anboto’ and in Cegama, Aketegiko Sorgine ‘the witch of Aketegi’. Other accounts have her spending time in Oiz, Mugarra, Aralar, Aiztorri and Murumendi, There are
other numerous places named after her: Marizulo ‘Mari’s cavern’ on Larrunarri Mountain and Marijenkobia “Mari’s cave’ found in Anboto are examples of just a few.

Mari’s caves and caverns richly adorned with gold and precious stones are by and large, mostly subterranean. One legend tells that Mari gave one of her captives a piece of coal, which later, when taken from the cave, became a piece of purist gold. Another says that in Mari’s cave at Aketegi house beds of gold. One must never damage or vandalize Mari’s cavern in any way, enter it without invitation nor take from it. Punishment in these cases is quick and definite. There is a story of a woman who stole a golden comb from Mari’s cave and that same night a valuable piece land belonging to her was completely covered with stones. In Zarauz it is said that in the cave of Anboto there are many objects that appear to be made of gold; but when taken outside they become
rotten pieces of wood.

It is often said that Mari can be seen seated by the fire in her kitchen, arranging her long hair, in Cegama. She has been seen combing her hair while mounted on a ram and seated in the sun at the threshold of the cave at Murumendi. She spins thread outside her home in at Muru and Onate, especially when it is sunny and there are storm clouds about. It is said that Mari spins skeins of golden thread with a golden spindle in her cave at Anboto, gathering the hanks on the horns of a ram that serve as her bobbins

 Mari is the oldest and supreme goddess of the Basques, ruling over many spirits and deities, many of who are female and found throughout Basque mythology. Among these spirits are references to the laminak who are beings with human form but have the feet of a chicken, duck or goat. They are said to be very much like the faeryfolk of England, Scotland and Ireland, the nisser of Scandinavia, the domovye of Russia and the kaukai
of  Lithuania and other mostly benevolent little folk of Europe. The laminak are known to be quite helpful with chores if fed but can make life very difficult if ignored and a number of stories exist about human midwives who are gifted with spindles or distaffs of gold for helping the laminak through labor pains. The laminak possess tombs of gold, and many of the mythological poems and songs of the Basque tell a story in which a woman (rarely a man) has stolen this comb; at night the laminak approach the home of that person, demanding the stolen comb back and threatening punishment of all kinds.

Mari has many manifestations and takes on many appearances. She is sometimes described as an Earth goddess because she is said to live in the deepest caves and stones circles where she is worshipped, though her attributes seem to be primarily lunar. The Basques associate the Moon with fire and the color red so it follows
that Mari has fire symbolism and is often depicted riding through the sky in a chariot of fire pulled by four horses or in the form of a sickle or crescent engulfed in flames or astride a broomstick in a ball of fire. She has even been seen enveloped by fire, lying down horizontally, and moving through the air and has appeared in the figure of a full moon emitting flames.

Mari’s manifestations throughout Basque country serve to strengthen her connection with the Goddess’ regenerative and death-bringing functions. The Basques respect Mari greatly, timing woodcutting, sowing, and reaping by her travels with lunar phases. Basque mythos reveals that the Earth is seen as immensely vast and limitless, her surface alive, extending in all directions. The mountains are believed to grow just as living beings do and inside the Earth there are immense districts, with flowing rivers of milk. While these areas are inaccessible to humans while they live on the surface, there are certain shafts, caverns and chasms that provide access to this domain; the caves of Anboto being among them. Basque belief holds that most storm clouds and hurricanes originate from these subterranean areas and that Mari is the deviser of many storms. It is said she destroys trees by lightning and that her appearance at Aketegi causes days of storms. It is also widely believed that Mari hurls storms from the caves at Murimendi or Aketegi. The appearance of Mari’s husband, Maju (also known as Sugaar or Sugoi, which mean snake) can often signal a storm, although Maju visits Mari each Friday merely to comb her hair, according to legend.

Most of the Basque folklore, language, legal code and customs are completely matrilineal. Basque laws and codes show that women and men are treated equally and that such laws afford women status as inheritor, arbitrator and judge. Revered as a prophetess and oracle, legend allots this goddess the power to control human greed and she rules over communal life. Mari is a lawgiver and upholds laws and codes, carefully watching to see that her commandments are followed she is shown to hold the power to give or withhold abundance.

Mari is strong and just, sometimes quick-tempered but never malignant. She judges humankind severely but justly, abhorring lies, thievery, arrogance and pride, the failure to respect others, the failure to help others, and breaking one’s word. Those who transgress are usually punished appropriately. She has also been known to send torrential hail and rains or horrendous droughts, inner troubles or restlessness to punish the disobedient. It is said that Mari lends mutual assistance between the human world and the other world: if you have a dozen apples but claim you only have six, the other six you did not mention are taken to feed the laminak. In the same vain, if a friend asks to borrow some money and pretend you only have 1,000 dollars when you really have 2,000, Mari will see to it you lose the 1,000 you lied about.

Mari is the patroness of all witches, and a witch herself, with oracular and magical powers. She often appears as an elegantly dressed woman with the feet of a bird (like her laminak), she has appeared in the form of a vulture with her companions and she has been seen in the form of a crow. She is a gust of wind, a tree, a ball of fire, a white cloud or a rainbow. She is the goddess of thunder and wind and the personification of earth. She also rides a ram and her other totem animals are the heifer, horse, crow or raven. Mari’s many forms remind us of the many forms we know the Goddess takes shape all over the world. Like her sister goddesses all over the globe, the form that She takes depends on the realm in which she manifests.

Mari teaches us that we have the power to respond rather than react. She is a Dark Maiden because she is associated with descent, introspection and the subterranean and lunar world. She is Priestess and Sorceress. She is both receptive and sensitive, showing that she is as vulnerable as she is protective, tender as she is strong. She shows me we have the wisdom to respond rather than react and aids us in gaining the power to draw to us all that we require.

Mari shows me that all life comes from the Goddess, all life is sacred and every act is a sacred act and as I start on the newest path of my journey she gently reminds me to follow my path wisely, remember that we are all of us always learning, to respect those people whose paths I wish to learn from and most importantly that I am a priestess of the Goddess. And when I need strengthening or find my resolve waning, all I need to do I speak her name and feel her warm cheek on the wind.


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 Originally Published in The Beltane
Papers: A Journal of Women’s Mysteries
. Issue 27, Spring 2002