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As the shepherd group was made up exclusively of adult or young men, it is reasonable to think that the repertory of games reported are an extension, on the one hand, of the children’s recreational activities considered to be “for boys’” in traditional society and, on the other hand, a series of competitions to show off their agility, strength or bravery based on the activities that were part work.

Some of the shepherds’ recreational activities, particularly the individual ones or those that did not require many resources or open spaces (boardgames, etc.), have been timeless. However, the period after shearing was usually mentioned as the most appropriate to play other types of group games and competitions, as it was quieter because the shepherd no longer had to milk the ewes. Those days were used to play games such as botu luzea and urdanka.

Shepherds would gather on the Toloño (A) common upland in Peñalarga to raise “el mayo” (a peeled tree trunk with items on the end to protect the crops) on the Day of the Holy Cross and remove it on the festivity of 24 September. On both days, the shepherds would take part in bowls competitions after a meal together.

There were many young shepherds on the Gorbea (B) high pastureland and they would gather together after work and play games such as throwing the crook.

In Aralar in Gipukzoa, the shepherds usually met up (except Wednesday, market day) for a few hours every morning. It was also an ideal opportunity to play some competitive games.

In Pays de Soule, there were special regular shepherds’ meetings, called junta, on both sides of the border. They were an ideal time for communal meals and competitions between the shepherds.

Venues for the games

Many of the games did not require a special place or venue. They were played in the shepherd’s hut, in the surrounding area, or out in the countryside, wherever they were at the time. Yet there were some games, particularly those between several shepherds or between groups of shepherds, which seem to have been played on land especially prepared or suitable for them. It has been reported that there were, for example, some places called pelotalekuak where competitive ball games were held, with accounts of matches played by the forefathers of the people surveyed, but which seem not to have been used for many years. They are now only mere place name references.

Information was gathered about special stones (remains of menhirs or rocks now related to legendary tales) used, according to the accounts, for tests of extraordinary strength or agility (Probarri or Saltarri in Aralar), but which have not been used for a long time. There are also many places names such as Palankaleku, which indicate that there was possibly a place to test metal bar throwing skills.

Ball games


There is much information from the Sirerra de Aralar[1] that describes the ball games organised by the shepherds. In the past, they were played, it would seem, in special areas called pelotalekuak, in other words, high pasture land on flat grassy, ordekak, areas which the sheep kept short and it was easier to play with the ball.

The ball used would be made by the shepherds from a piece of rubber, that they rounded with a knife and then wound wool from an old garment around it. They thus made it into the desired size (rather larger than the balls used to play on the Basque Pelota courts). They used a hoe to mark out the playing area in the form of a rectangular court with a central furrow dividing the two areas.

It was a type of basic tennis, played with their hands and no equipment. The matches were played to the best of 16 and the loser had to give the winner some food or a little wine.

Each shepherd, or pair of shepherds, stood of their side of the court and had to throw the ball to the opposite end and making it bounce in their area. This was sometimes not possible due to the grass and they therefore tried to keep it in the air for most of the time.

Throwing games

Makilak zeharkatzea

The shepherd’s typical implement, his staff or crook, would also be used for games wherever they were working.

One of the games described in the Aralar area of Gipuzkoa was called makillak zeharkatzea. It consisted of a competition between two shepherds, who would stand next to each other. One would throw his crook as far as possible over the pastureland. The other one would then throw his and try to get to cross over the first one. That was the aim of the game; the shepherds took turns to throw their crook forward, if they were walking, or in one direction or another, if they were staying put. They played until they managed to cross the crooks or until they decided the game was over.

Strength games

Shepherds are known to have competed against each other to test their strength by lifting large stones, called proba-harriak, as entertainment.

In Aralar in Gipuzkoa, there was a stone of four arrobas (around 50 kg) on the Alotza plain and which some of the shepherds would try to lift. The test consisted of grasping it with both hands and lifting it to shoulder level, with supporting it against the body at any time. Mention was also made of another stone in Goroskintxo, of around 11 arrobas (nearly 150 kg) that they also had to try and lift up to their shoulders.

  1. José ZUFIAURRE. “Sierra de Aralar” in Pyrenaica. Nº 110 (1978) pp. 12-13.