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The animals considered in this study belong to the household, to the circle of the domestic fire controlled by man, to the sphere in which he exercises his beliefs and practices his rites. Therefore, the blessings of the human group are also extended to the domesticated animals. When in Sara (L) on Candlemas Day (2 February) the wife returned home with the candles blessed in the church, she blessed all the members of the family; she would do so by dropping a few drops of wax from the blessed candle on their heads or on their shoulders. The following day, the fest day of Saint Blaise, the man of the house took the same candle and went to the barn to bless one by one his stabled livestock – cows, steers, pigs, donkeys – by dropping a little blessed wax on their nape.

Our ethnologists place this protection rite in the last phase of spiritual evolution; there were previously other symbols “such as the hawthorn, hazelnut, ash, black sheep, nanny coat, the young goat, the hautsak (autsak) (or spirits of the ancestors) and the Basajaun (or jinn of the mountains) considered to be items and spirits that protect the livestock”[1].

The research carried out for this Ethnographic Atlas revealed there are two special moments throughout the year when rites are practiced to protect domesticated animals. On the one hand, there is the winter festivity of St. Anthony the Abbot (17 January), invoked to protect cows, horses and pigs; along with the feast day of St. Blaise (3 February). On the other hand, there are numerous rites that, using different symbols, are practiced during the summer solstice to protect the livestock; the solstice coincides with the important festivity of St. John the Baptist, considered to be the protector of shepherds and flocks of sheep in some places; those rites also have to include the blessings of the bay, olive or hazelnut on Palm Sunday and the Feast of the Holy Cross in May.

St. anthony abbot, patron saint of livestock

The communities in areas where livestock has been the fundamental basis of their way of life consider St. Anthony Abbot, popularly known as St. Tantony, as the main protector of the health and fertility of animals, of their stables and of the flocks. His feast day, 17 January, has always had great religious importance.

Feast day for animals

The most important fact of St. Tantony’s Day is that the domesticated animals did not have to work on that day; no type of livestock was put to work; it was forbidden to yoke the oxen or other draught animals as they had to respect the festivity. In the Valle de Urraúl Alto (N), horses were not even saddled (the salma) and the livestock in other areas were let out to graze freely throughout the day of their Patron Saint. Consequently, the millers did not work on that day as the donkeys could not take the sacks of grain to the mill. In Lanzasagudas-Carranza (B), the animals received a larger portion of food on that day. The custom of not working the livestock on St. Tantony’s Day, or on St. Blaise’s Day, was found more explicitly in the Navarra and Álava villages of Agurain, Apellániz, Apodaca, Okariz, Onraita, Otazu abd Treviño, in Arraioz-Baztan, Aristu, San Martín de Améscoa, in the Bizkaia area of Carranza and in Labort, in Sara.

Symbols to protect against lightning

Thunderstorms, and particular lightning, is a cause for concern for the shepherd looking after the flock. Some people surveyed said that the worst usually occurs in June. When it rains heavily, the flock looks for shelter under the trees; they attract the lightning, which can cause injuries to and losses of the livestock.

The branches and flowers are placed on the morning of St. John’s Day at the doors of the stables and pens to prevent lightning strikes, but not exclusively for that purpose. But apart from this specific rite, resorting to the use of protective symbols is ongoing. In the Atlantic side of the watershed, the hawthorn and bay are the main symbols.

The hawthorn is attributed with a special power to keep the houses and fields safe from the storms and lightning. The bay has to be blessed on Palm Sunday. Both symbols protect against the danger of lightning.

The other protective symbols reported include hazel crosses blessed on the Feast of the Holy Cross in May (3rd day of that month) and the Candlemas candles (2 February).


Cowbells, in the same way as chimes, have been attributed with the power to protect the livestock from spells. Their use to protect against the evil eye was very widespread in the past. According to Barandiaran in the Bronze Age, small bells were used as charms to protect the animals[2].

Barandiaran suggests that the custom of blessing the bells that the animals have to wear, as still occurs at the Urkiola Shrine, probably reflects the Church wanting to show the faithful that the animals were protected by God through St. Anthony and not due to any magical forces of the bells.

  1. José Miguel de BARANDIARAN. The term “Oneztarri” in Diccionario Ilustrado de Mitología Vasca. OO.CC. Voulme I. Bilbao: 1972.
  2. José Miguel de BARANDIARAN. “Creencias y cultos megalíticos” in EF. Mat. and Quest., XLVII (1924) p. 42.