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One of the most recurrent and universal themes in folklore related to death is that of the apparitions, the spirits of the departed that appear in this life, with their same body or in a different form, and recount their suffering[1].

References to apparitions have been found in the Basque Country since ancient times. José Miguel de Barandiarán considered that the belief in the dead remained even after an animist view of the world had traditionally been accepted. Leaving on one side the etiological narratives explaining the imps of the stars, the earth, meteors and other natural phenomena, there are also popular devotions and contemporary beliefs, such as those that consider different images of the Virgin Mary as sisters. The ancient beliefs constructed around stones or funerary steles are often explained by legends related to the dead[2]. Barandiarán also indicated that certain characters of the apparitions (in the form of shadows or ghost, etc.) seem to reveal an influence of the beliefs in Ancient Rome regarding the souls.

The continuity of the animist view of the world in current ethnographic descriptions are mere remnants of a fabric that was undoubtedly richer and more colourful in the past. Therefore, and as the new generations stop believing in those visitors from beyond the grave, the line will often become blurred between ghost stories and other myths or legends.

When compiling the folk narratives, and during recent surveys (1980s), numerous cases were found where those facts were confused with the work of evil demons (parte txarrekoak, gaiztokoak, beste mundukoak,...) and many of the characteristics and activities of the apparitions are very similar to those of other mythological beings jentils, lamias (similar to nymphs etc.). Night time is also when most of them are active. On more than one occasion, those spirits would say the typical expression of those nocturnal numens: gauba gaubezkoentzat eta eguna egunezkoentzat, the night for the beings of the night and the day for the beings of the day.

To a certain extent, that also explains the different regard that those apparitions have in folk tales. The extent can range from the case of a witness of the apparition that accepts the fact as it was totally normally and addresses the deceased as if nothing extraordinary would have happened, to the cases where the malice and depravity of the ghost cause exacerbated fear and even result in the death of the witness.

As regards the cult of the dead, the great importance of the homestead and, particularly, the household fire in these series of accounts of spirits that appear.

The family home and the surrounding areas is precisely where most of the apparitions are said to occur. That is particularly the case of the homestead’s rooms, such as the kitchen, granary, bedrooms or the inside staircase.

As Barandiarán noted there are many overlaps between the ghost stories and the accounts of nocturnal visitors to the family home, often harmless imps (saindi-maindiak, etxajaunak, etc.), who express their disgust if the embers go out in the fire or if the dinner dishes have not been washed up or put away. Many of the rituals of piling up the ashes and embers of the dying fire or of cleaning up the kitchen are topically related to the dead’s return to the household. Furthermore, they usually come into the house down the chimney.

Other important settings are the locations that, along with the house, are considered the resting place of the dead. Both churches and cemeteries are therefore also frequent places of apparitions or supranatural actions.

In turn, and as is the case in other myths, their usual frameworks such as the forest, paths or crossroads are also the setting for many spirit appearances at night.

As regards the continued existence of those tales, we should point out that it is in line with other aspects of the narrative imaginary of the traditional culture being kept.

Curiously, ghost stories, as the spiritual link with them has faded, have acquired a humorous aspect and on more than one occasions lead to pranks, particularly by children or adolescents.

  1. The universality of the motifs included in the stories of apparitions compiled in the Basque Country reveals the coincidence of many aspects of our tales with this in compilations of folklore motifs. We will use the text of Stith THOMPSON. Motif-lndex of Folk­Literature. Bloomington & London: 1966, 2nd ed. throughout our study.
  2. José Miguel de BARANDIARAN. Estelas funerarias del País Vasco. San Sebastián: 1970, p. 63.