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A curse, biraoa, as the cause of the disease

There were, and still persist, beliefs throughout and outside the Basque Country that certain spells and hexes that could cause diseases and other ills. The people who had the power to harm using curses and spells or other intentional acts were said “to jinx someone” (Améscoa-N). Leaving on one side exceptional cases such as those related with witchcraft, it was common in the past to believe that being cursed by an enemy could lead to an unfortunate outcome. There were many people who lived in fear of being cursed.


Curses also are called malquerer (Agurain, Bernedo-A) and it is an intentional act that does not come out of the mouth, but is also desired or heartfelt. Barandiaran found in Donoztiri (BN) the belief that the biraoa put certain evil spirits known as gaixtoak, wicked, into the body of the person being cursed.

It was a widespread belief that there was a point during the day when the curse would be effective (Liginaga-Z, Oiartzun-G). In some communities, they said that that time was at midday. Azkue explained that the curse made at noon was usually effective, but for that to be true, the person making the curse did not have to know the time (Lekeitio-B, Oiartzun-G)[1].

The curse could involve imprecations, gestures or symbols[2]. In Lekeitio (B), women making the curse, to give her curses greater strength, use to say them looking towards Mount Calvario, whose traditional name is Lumentxa, and down on bare knees[3]. For it to be even more effective, the person would to be kneeling, make a cross in the floor and kiss it[4].

The curse could be put on a person on their enemy; however, as we found in our surveys, the most commonly feared curses were those from gypsies and beggars.

The evil eye, begizkoa, and its impact on health

According to a very widespread belief in the past, certain people could cast a look with mysterious energy that could harm other people and even animals. In his Mythology Dictionary[5], Barandiaran included the term betadurra used in Basque for that energy. It literally means ocular (begi>bet) force (adur) and alludes to the curse that the hexer casts with their look on the object. Until a few decades ago, rural people lived in real feat of the impact on those uncontrolled forces on their health.


Many of our surveys found that children crying excessively and furiously was attributed to curses or hexes. Furthermore, the delicate state of health of a child was also considered by the begizkoa cast by someone wishing the child evil (Bernedo-A; Abadiano, Bermeo, Durango, Nabarniz, Orozko-B; Arrasate, Bidegoian, Elgoibar, Zerain-G).

It was not easy to know the symptoms of the hex; it was difficult to diagnose and was greatly feared by the population, particularly in the case of small children. The most striking effect of the begizkoa was when children lost a lot of weight for no apparent reason.

The people surveyed in Zerain (G) recalled these symptoms of the begizkoa: listlessness and general sadness, loss of appetite and becoming more and more lifeless whose outcome could even be death. The people interviewed in Orozko (B) and Bidegoian (G) explained that the evil eye could cause illness and even death and those in Busturia (B) said that if a child was hexed, it could become good-for-nothing

Barandiaran pointed out that the illness contracted by the begizkoa was known as xarmazionea. According to the same author, when an ill person was constantly sad and depressed, drowsy, nauseous, found not joy in entertainment, got weaker and thinner, and, in general, when the patient suffered from a lengthy internal illness, it was said that someone had cast the begizkoa[6].

Protective remedies

Evil eye, particularly when it was cast on children, was a constant worry for mothers. There were different protections, rites and formulas used to protect them from that curse.

Kutuna. Gospels

The most common protection against the evil eye was the kutun; it was considered to be an efficient talisman. In that past, that charm was considered to an essential part of children’s attire; a safety pin was used to attach it to the folds of the swaddling band wrapped around the new-borns, it was hung round their necks; when the children were older, they were stitched into their undergarments.

Older people also wore kutunes.

The kutunes were made by cloister nuns and came in a great variety. There was, above all, a common model that consisted of a 2 x 2 or 3 x 3 cm square bag with a strong fabric flap or clear inner band; there were two small square inside, lined with coarse cloth or undercoat, which contained a piece of paper on which the first words of the Gospel of St. John were written. This small bag was usually embroidered or hand painted with flowers, religious motifs, initials of the child, ect. The flap was kept closed with a button and had a loop or cord to wear it.

The so-called “Gospels” were larger: 5.5 x 4 cm and there were pages glued together as a book with the initial text of the four gospels in Latin (Zerain, Elgoibar-G).

  1. Resurrección Mª de AZKUE. Euskalerriaren Yakintza. Tomo I. Madrid: 1935-1947, p. 127.
  2. José Miguel de BARANDIARAN. Diccionario Ilustrado de Mitología Vasca. Obras Completas. Volume I. Bilbao: 1972
  3. Resurrección Mª de AZKUE. Euskalerriaren Yakintza. Volume I. Madrid: 1935-1947, pp. 127-128.
  4. Noun sakre in José Miguel de BARANDIARAN. Diccionario Ilustrado de Mitología Vasca. Obras Completas. Volume I. Bilbao: 1972.
  5. Noun betadur (adur: magical power in the eyes) in José Miguel de BARANDIARAN. Diccionario Ilustrado de Mitología Vasca. Obras Completas. Volume I. Bilbao: 1972.
  6. Noun begizko in José Miguel de BARANDIARAN. Diccionario Ilustrado de Mitología Vasca. Obras Completas. Volume I. Bilbao: 1972.