The Hidden History of Spain’s Witch Hunts

In the 1600s, five thousand women were interrogated and tortured in the dungeons of Logroño*. It was the largest-ever documented witch hunt in Europe. Today, the battle is far from over.

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On a warm and sunny Sunday morning in late March, the Basque mountain village of Zugarramurdi is buzzing with tourists.

“Mommy, is this the water of the witches?” a small boy asks, waving a bottle of water from a small shop down the road. “Is it true that there are still witches in the caves?”

Situated close to the border with France and inhabited by just 224 people, Zugarramurdi carries the nickname of the “Spanish Salem.” In 1610, it was at the heart of the only witch trial conducted during the Spanish Inquisition—and the largest ever to be documented. Almost 7000 people were taken from Zugarramurdi and interrogated and tortured in the dungeons of Logroño, a town in northern Spain that was the main seat of the Basque Witch trials between 1609 and 1610. But only five out of the 53 who were accused of witchcraft were burnt at stake—a modest number compared to purges that took place in other European regions.

Witch hunts came in waves during the early modern period in Europe. A substantial number took place between the 15th and early 16th centuries. Then they subsided and again reemerged in the 17th century, during the Thirty Years War. This second wave of civil trials took place between 1560-1680 and resulted in what historians and sociologists today agree was essentially mass murder.

Tourists from across the world flock to visit Zugarramurdi’s Witch Museum and the Cuevas de las Brujas (The Witch Caves), where the annual summer solstice festival takes place to mark the Day of the Witch.

The museum opened in 2007, and is housed in the building of a former hospital. Among the artefacts on display are floating dresses and goat heads. The visitors can read stories of herbalists, who for centuries were associated with witchcraft, and then head to the gift shop to buy t-shirts, mugs, books and, of course, witch dolls wearing black pointy hats and riding brooms.

On the morning of March 24, 2019, a group of about 40 feminist academics and writers from across Spain, South America and the United States got out of a big bus and made their way to the gift shop. They weren’t regular visitors, but protesters wanting to stop the sale of witch dolls. They claimed the dolls perpetuate the myth of the ugly old witch, when in fact the victims of Navarra’s witch hunts were peasant women of flesh and blood, with nothing supernatural about them.

“There are no witches, there are only women,” a protester said on her way to the museum.

Among the protesters was a slender and petite, grey-haired woman in her late 70s—the feminist Italian-American scholar Silvia Federici. In her books and essays, she famously argued that the early Modern witch hunts, which claimed tens of thousands of victims across Europe and its colonies, were fundamental to the birth and success of capitalism.

According to Federici, history books blame violence against women on pre-capitalist irrational hysteria, when, in fact, it was the creation of a violent social order that made capitalism possible by subduing women into the labour force.

“When one says ‘witch’ today, they use the language of the witch hunts,” says Federici. “People don’t realize that these women were not mythical. During the hunts, real women were persecuted, tortured and killed. There is a question that doesn’t yet have an answer: why was all this history concealed? We do not learn about it in school. We need to reclaim it, because it had serious consequences for the social position of women. Our project is to recover this political meaning.”

The Witches of Navarra

Amaia Nausía Pimoulier, a historian who studied witch hunts in Navarra “case by case” rather than examining the statistics, as is common practice, claims that, although the trial was initiated during the Inquisition, it was the civil courts in Navarra that perpetrated the cruellest murders. In fact, the Inquisition itself put an end to the witch trials in Spain in 1614.

“The reasons that led women to be persecuted were diverse, but one idea was present in all cases: the idea of the woman as a temptation for the man,” Pimoulier claims, pointing out that it’s difficult to overlook the large number of widows among those accused. “Under the Navarra laws, a single woman had autonomy in handling the defunct husband’s wealth, which creates uneasiness among both the authorities and in the community. Navarra was a patriarchal society.”

Although the time of the witch trials is long gone, the folkloric caricatures of old hags dressed in black and riding brooms remain widespread across Navarra. “The witch was never, absolutely never part of our mythology. Our mythological feminine figures were not associated with the diabolical. And yet today children dress as ‘witches’ during the carnivals. It’s a myth that is very difficult to dismantle,” Pimoulier stressed.

But at the peak of the European witch hunts in the 1600s, the pre-Christian cult of Mari—a local goddess of the earth—managed to survive in the western part of the Zugarramurdi region, close to the Atlantic coast. Another cult, that of the Lamias, celebrated half women, half animal-like creatures. It was probably the festivals dedicated to Mari that attracted the initial attention of the Inquisition, Pimoulier explained.

According to historians, there is a strong movement among Navarra’s academics and civic activists to recover the memory of the victims of witch hunts. “We feel the need to get closer to the history of the witches,” says Pimoulier. “We are the granddaughters of the witches you couldn’t burn,” she says, using the adopted slogan of the feminist movement in Navarra.

The pointy hat and crooked nose conquers the world

“When you look at Zugarramurdi, you see where it could go 30 years from now and that’s Salem, US. On this year’s Halloween, Salem was packed with tourists celebrating the spooky and the magical,” Alice Markham-Cantor, a New York-based anthropologist who researches witch hunts, explained.

Cantor’s ancestor (eleven generations back) was hanged for practicing witchcraft in Salem in 1692, eight decades after the mass trial in Logrono.

“Perpetuating the belief in ‘witches’ is problematic because it covers up the brutal history,” Markham-Cantor pointed out. “All these commercial artefacts—souvenirs, hats, posters—they assign magic to places of murder.”

Markham—Cantor believes young people are especially allured by the mystery of magic. “When talking about Salem, I hear them saying, ‘but maybe they were really doing magic’. People simply want to believe in magic. It is consistently seductive, but it’s not right.”

Historians and anthropologists alike agree that across Europe heretics of all sorts were the victims of stereotypes constructed by clerics at the institutional level. The image of the “enemies of faith” had to be dark and sinister. That is why almost everywhere in Europe and its colonies, so-called witches were tried for infanticide, cannibalism, ritual murders or sexual intercourse with the devil. This campaign incited social friction which often led to psychotic episodes and mass murder, experts say.

The cliché of the evil witch, who entered into a pact with the devil in order to hurt others, also gained traction in popular folklore through Malleus Maleficarum—1487 treatise written by discredited Catholic cleric Heinrich Kramer—which endorsed the mass extermination of witches.

A place of memory, a place of tourism

Helena Xurio Arburua, one of the three employees of the Zugarramurdi museum, stood on a small podium next to scholar Silvia Federici and read her speech in Euskera, the ancient Basque language. The room was packed with feminist protesters holding printed Spanish translations of her speech.

“Four hundred years ago, the Spanish Inquisition arrived in this village to impose the Spanish language on us. We have the same feeling now: once again, outsiders command us in foreign languages,” she said, alluding to the fact that the feminist group wrote used the Spanish language when calling for the meeting.

Traficantes de Suenos (Spanish for Smugglers of Dreams), a left-wing NGO based in Pamplona/La Iruna, gathered feminist activists and scholars from across the world for a campaign to recover the memory of the women killed under the pretext of witchcraft.

“We demand that all places where the historical persecution took place in Spain should be focused on emphasizing its memory and not on making profit from selling dolls that reproduce the monstrous image created by the hunters,” the manifesto of the campaign reads. “This representation is not innocent. It conceals a bloody reality which should not be forgotten. It also perpetuates to new generations an image that is degrading, especially to older women.”

The campaigners sent several emails requesting the museum management to stop the sale of the dolls, but until Federici’s arrival in Spain they received no answer. We also tried to contact the museum via e-mails in English and Spanish, asking for an interview for Are We Europe, also without success.

In the packed cinema room of the Zugarramurdi museum, Arburua explained that it was the way in which the appeal was phrased that had led them to ignore the correspondence. “We partially agree with your manifesto. When we decide to make changes in the museum, we will take your opinions into consideration,” she declared. “Unfortunately, what failed here were manners. Your manners.”

According to Arburua, the museum is a small village public enterprise run by four women, all over 40 and from the countryside. “This museum gives us the chance to keep living here. We want to take part in telling the story of the witch hunts,” she explained.

The protesters left the village that afternoon without actually staging their protest. However, many felt confident that at least they had sowed the seeds for future dialogue. They went on to visit the caves of Zugarramurdi, paying four euros per person, before returning to Pamplona.

“Maybe we didn’t think about this properly. Maybe we need to change the way we approach this issue,” Federici said before heading back to Pamplona.

About Ana-Maria Luca

Witch dolls on display

Photography by

Ana Valiente

Reporting for this story was enabled by a Reporters in the Field grant