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Aatxe, also known as Etsai or Zezengorri

Updated on June 30, 2015
By Henri Breuil (1877–1961) & Émile Cartailhac (1845–1921) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
By Henri Breuil (1877–1961) & Émile Cartailhac (1845–1921) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. | Source

Overview and History

The aatxe is also called the Etsai or the Zezengorri, and is a creature of Basque mythology. The aatxe is a shapeshifter who predominately utilized the form of a bull, or a young man. He has a multiplicity of purposes in the mythology, and is seen as both a malevolent and a benign spirit. The roles the aatxe commonly finds itself in include: teacher, protector of “good people”, an attacker of criminals, general troubler of travelers, guardian of a cave, and a representative of Mari.

Its role as a teacher is not considered to be one of its beneficial roles, interestingly enough. It may also not be one of its roles, or come from a separate mythology. More on all of these roles will be described in greater detail under the “purpose” section below.

Etymology

As the aatxe has three names to look into, all three will be elaborated on here.

Aatxe itself means simply “Young Bull”. Considering this is one of the primary forms of the aatxe, the name makes sense.

Etsai has the more malevolent meaning, equating itself to “enemy” or “devil”. The aatxe’s reputation for causing harm to travelers may have earned it this name.

Zezengorri is akin to aatxe, and translates to “Red Bull”. Its inclination towards the bull is clear, and the hue “red” may also explain its connection to the term Etsai, as red is a color often associated with demonic entities.

Reproduction of a bison of the cave of Altamira.
Reproduction of a bison of the cave of Altamira. | Source

Appearance

The aatxe is a shapeshifter, so by definition the aatxe could look like anything. However, the aatxe is noted for having two main forms. One of them is the form of a bull, and the other one is the form of a man.

As a bull, the form has been described as “young”, but it is likely this is meant to imply that the aatxe is in the prime of its youth, and thus, the prime of its power. This bull form, whenever it is described, is described as being red. In some instances, it is believed that the aatxe can breathe fire out of its nostrils and mouth. This form is also at times depicted as having flaming horns and a flaming tail, which makes it quite visible within its cave and outside its cave.

The other main form of the aatxe is of a young man. This form is not described any further, so it is not clear if there is any way to tell an aatxe from a regular man. Nor is it known if the aatxe favors appearing with a certain hair color or eye color. All that is noted is that the other major form of the aatxe is that of a young man.

By Josu Goñi Etxabe, a modern rendition of the goddess Mari.
By Josu Goñi Etxabe, a modern rendition of the goddess Mari. | Source

Purpose

The aatxe has a multiplicity of purposes, and they will all be elaborated on here. The only questionable purpose of the aatxe is in its role as teacher. Only one reference has been found to this, under the name etsai. However, for the sake of having all possible purposes here, it will be elaborated on though it should be taken with a grain of salt.

The aatxe’s main purpose appears to be to serve Mari’s will. Mari, in sum, is a goddess of the Basque who was known to dwell in the mountains and caves. She was also thought to be behind storms, and was considered both as an Earth goddess because of her dwelling, and as a lunar goddess because the Basque people associated fire with the moon. Mari, thus, had ties to fire which can be seen in the aatxe. She was also considered to be a law-giver, which ties into the purpose of the aatxe.

The major purpose of the aatxe seemed to be to deliver justice. The aatxe took human form in order to go into towns and punish criminals there. Some variants tell that it punished those who offended it, and thus was called Etsai. The people were not necessarily criminal, but they had disturbed its peace in some way.

The aatxe supposedly only emerged on stormy nights to do this, which adds to its connection with Mari, the storm goddess. It is uncertain if the aatxe caused the storm, or if it was only allowed to leave when a storm was raging. It is likely that the aatxe was believed to cause the storms, since some believe that the aatxe would protect good people by not allowing them to leave their homes. It may have done this by causing storms to keep people indoors.

The aatxe was also thought to cause harm to travelers in its bull form, so it did not need to shapeshift into a man. One story tells of a priest who ran into aatxe on his way home. The priest was described as arrogant, which may be the “criminal sin” the aatxe intended to punish him for, but the priest managed to escape unharmed.

The storms were also its way of delivering justice or wreaking havoc, depending on whether or not one wished to view it as benign or malevolent.

The aatxe may have also been a teacher under the name etsai. It was believed that it taught what arts and sciences it knew to others. However, considering the name this is under, this was not necessarily a good thing. One source notes that the etsai would want to keep one of its students permanently when the teaching was over. This was not considered a good thing, though it is unclear why, as the student tried (and succeeded) to escape etsai’s cave.

Weaknesses

The aatxe may be required to stay in its cave unless it is storming. This was not clear through the stories, and it is unclear if the aatxe is capable of causing storms.

The aatxe can be kept at bay if one has a dog, according to the priest story. The priest sought a dog and cornbread (it seems the cornbread was to keep the dog present) in order to travel. He knew that he would be harmed otherwise, because he had been behaving badly. So long as the dog stayed by his side, the aatxe in bull form could not harm him. When he ran out of cornbread, he had to run for the nearest town, as the dog left him.

It may be possible to appease the aatxe with Roman coins, as evidence of coins being thrown into caves for this purpose has been attested to.

Strengths

The aatxe is known for being fiery. This extends to its ability to breathe fire out of its nose and mouth.

The aatxe is a shapeshifter, capable of at least two forms: a human man and a red bull. The human form of the aatxe does not seem to have any flaws to its design.

The aatxe causes unease in cattle, inspiring them to attack each other when it is near.

The aatxe may be able to create storms.

The aatxe is very knowledgeable, and may be immortal or long-lived, at the very least.

A picture of a ceiling from the Altamira cave.
A picture of a ceiling from the Altamira cave. | Source

Location

The aatxe was known for living in caves near or on mountains. The particular area of aatxe myths springs up in the area of Basque, known to us more as southwestern France and northwestern Spain.

The caves that it was thought to dwell in often had depictions of bulls in them from prehistoric times. Some have theorized that the idea of the aatxe stretches all the way back to those prehistorical times and has grown out of ancient beliefs.

Numbers

It is probable that there was more than one aatxe, considering how many caves there were, and how many local tales seem to have existed about the aatxe.

However, it is also quite possible that there was only one aatxe and this creature roamed from cave to cave. The story of the teacher implies that there was just one.

Modern Day Uses

  • A restaurant that specializes in Basque cuisine has named itself Aatxe. This restaurant can be found in San Francisco, California.
  • Aatxe is used as a horned shadow monster in the game Guild Wars II.
  • The Aatxe are also found in the game Disco Zoo, and they are depicted as a red bull with a golden nose ring.

Sources

“Aatxe is a Basque Mythological Figure Spirit”. Mythology Feels Tumblr. 19 August 2012. Web.

Aatxe. Chef: Ryan Pollnow. Located: 2174 Market Street, San Francisco, CA, 94114.

“Aatxe”. Guild Wars Official Wiki. Last Updated 11 June 2015. Web.

“Aatxe”. Disco Zoo Wiki. Last Updated 6 March 2015. Web.

Bordagarai, Koldo Alijostes. “Zezengorri”. Euskal Mitologiaren Ataria. Amaroa. 2011. Web.

Gomez, Olga. “Etsai”. Encyclopedia Mythica. Pantheon.org. Last updated 17 February 2003. Web.

José Miguel de Barandiaran Ayerbe. “Aatxe”. Auñamendi Eusko Entziklopedia Fondo Bernardo Estornés Lasa. Euskomedia. Web.

Krishanna. “Subterranean Goddess: Mari of the Basques”. Witchvox.com. 11 November 2007. Web.

Matthews, John, and Matthews, Caitlin. The Elemental Encyclopedia of Magical Creatures. China: Barnes & Noble Inc, 2008. Print.

Rose, Carol. Spirits, Fairies, Leprechauns, and Goblins: An Encyclopedia. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1998. Print.

Special Thanks

Special thanks to my friend, Robert U., who can read Spanish and was willing to assist in this endeavor.

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