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Rites when starting to build the house

Our surveys have shown that the rite of laying the cornerstone and its blessing have been more closely linked to the start of construction on public buildings and works of a certain calibre. In those cases, the presence of leading figures and authorities gives the ceremony a certain importance. The most senior figure generally lays the cornerstone. An urn containing documents referring to the ceremony, some legal tender and a copy of a newspaper of that day are placed under the cornerstone[1].

Rites when finishing the roof

When the construction of a house ends with the roof being built — popularly known as “laying a roof”—, a branch, a bunch of flowers or a flab is placed at the top of the ridge or gallur. This ceremony was conducted with greater or less solemnity depending on the status of the family and was usually celebrated with a meal. The tradition is common throughout the Basque Country.

Blessing of the house

Once finished, furnished and regularly inhabited, the house and its rooms were blessed. Our surveys gathered some accounts of this very widespread custom. According to them, relatives and the officiating priest would be invited to a meal on the day of the blessing of the home in Beasain (G). In Aoiz (N) and in Agurain (A), the people who have worked on building the house currently take part in the family meal. The same occurs in Aintzioa and Orondritz (N), where local residents involved in the building of the house sit down to eat with the family on the day of the blessing.

Rites against thunderstorms and lightning

During past centuries, lightning bolts were feared as a threat to the house and a possible cause of its destruction. When the people surveyed recalled its damage, they referred to it as if it had been caused by a superhuman and sudden wrongdoer.

The old belief that lightning bolt is a stone thrown by the thunder cloud is contained in the Basque word oinaztarri (de oinaztu, relámpago, y arri, piedra). The noun oneztarri used for lightning bolts in Gernika-Lumo (B) may reflect a very old myth that was very common in European countries. The myth goes that the lightning bolt was a special stone (thunderstones) which, when it struck the earth, it plunged seven fathoms deep in the ground. It would then rise one fathom every year until the end of seven years, it would reach the surface again; from then onwards those thunderstones were able to protect the house against lightning bolts[2].

However, the belief in some places was that the lightning bolt was a bronze object and it was said to be of iron in others. The custom described in the following section of placing steel axes with the sharp edge pointing upwards on the thresholds during thunderstorms in order to protect houses against lightning bolts, is the result of the old veneration of the stone axe and the belief in its supernatural virtues. Before steel axes, bronze ones must have had the same role: a Bronze Age axe head driven into the earth with the sharp edge looking upwards was found at the entrance to the Zabalaitz cave in the Aizkorri mountains[3].

Religious rites to protect the house

Holy water

Holy water has protected the home and its residents in the Christian tradition. The very blessing of the home, when happening when it was ready for its occupants, was conducted by the priest saying the prayers of the ritual and sprinkling holy water in all its rooms.

Apart from this initial ceremony, a small bottle with holy water would be kept in the homes throughout the year. During the Easter vigil, the water in the parish’s baptismal font was blessed on Easter Saturday. That water was used for the baptisms that would take place during the year. During Easter, the parishioners would collect that water to take to their homes. The practice of taking holy water to homes on Easter Saturday has widespread throughout the Basque Country.

Religious symbols and images


The cross has been the quintessential sign of protection in the Christian culture. This sign can be found incorporated in the actually building of a house in very different forms.

It is not unusual to find a wrought iron cross with decorations and ornaments and with a weathervane added on the top of roof overlooking the frontage.

Particularly in some coastal towns of Bizkaia, stone crosses can also be found at the top of the back wall of farmsteads with gabled roofs. In those cases, the wall is blind and rises up above the roof lacking a canopy or dovetail protecting the roof against the force of the wind[4].

Crosses and anagrams (JHS), Jesus hominum Salvator, Jesus Saviour of men, are frequently found on the keystones of the stone arches of the doorways (Astigarraga-G; Sangüesa-N) or crossed painted in white on the lintel of the threshold (Moreda-A) or over the kitchen window of many farmsteads.

  1. On 26 May 2010, the cornerstone was laid for the new San Mamés football stadium in Bilbao; an urn with a piece of turf and a stone from the outside wall next to the VIP box from the current ground, a team shirt and badges of the different Athletic supporters’ groups.
  2. José Miguel de BARANDIARAN. Diccionario Ilustrado de Mitología Vasca. Obras Completas. Volume I. Bilbao: 1972
  3. José Miguel de BARANDIARAN. “Contribución al estudio de la mitología vasca” in Homenaje a Fritz Kruger Volume I. Mendoza: p. 134.
  4. Ernesto Nolte provides a detailed catalogue of these stone crosses: “Cruces y monolitos de piedra en tejados (parte zaguera) de caseríos vizcaínos y sus paradigmas” in Kobie. (Ethnographic Series). Issue. 1. Bilbao: 1984, pp. 17-67. “Nuevos ejemplos de cruces de piedra en tejados (parte zaguera) de caseríos guipuzcoanos y vizcaínos” in Munibe. Issue 42. San Sebastián: 1990, pp. 469-472. Also see Michel DUVERT. “Etxe et croix en Iparralde” in Kobie. Antropología cultural. Issue 12. (2006/2007) p. 535.