Basque Legends | Annotated Tale

COMPLETE! Entered into SurLaLune Database in October 2018 with all known ATU Classifications. Two sections, "An Essay on the Basque Language" and "Basque Poetry," are not included in this database.

Legends of the Tartaro


WHO, or what is the Tartaro? "Oh! you mean the man with one eye in the middle of his forehead," is the prompt and universal answer. The Tartaro is the Cyclops, the sun's round eye, κύκλωψ. But the word Tartaro has apparently nothing to do with this. M. Cerquand, in his "Legendes et Récits Populaires du Pays Basque," derives the word from Tartare, Tartar, in the same way as the French word Ogre is said to be derived from Hongrois, Ugri. The only objection to this highly probable derivation (made still more probable by a Souletin variation, Moiriak) is the comparatively late date (the 13th century) of the first appearance of the Tartars in Europe. [1] It is besides perfectly true that in many tales the Tartaro replaces, and is identical with the giant or ogre; but this does not appear to us to be the original conception of this mythological monster, nor have we ever heard from an unlettered Basque such a description of him. To them he is simply a Cyclops--a huge man, with an eye in the centre of his forehead.

               It is an interesting question--Is there any connection between the Basque Tartaro and the Cyclops of the Odyssey and of the classics? First, we must remark that the Cyclops legend is not peculiar either to the Greek and Latin writers, or even to the Aryan nations; e.g., in his communication of the Tartaro legends to the Société des Sciences de Bayonne, M. d'Abaddie relates how he heard the tale told in June, 1843, in Eastern Africa, in Lat. N. 9.2, E. Lon. 34.48, by a man who had never before quitted the country. It is then only the special form of the legend, and not the primary idea, that the Greeks may have borrowed from the Basques. But there is this to observe--that, with both Greeks and Latins, the Cyclops myth is an occidental and not an oriental one, and is more strictly localised than almost any other. This may be accounted for by saying that the sun's great fiery eye is rather that of the setting than of the rising sun; that the red-hot stake is the ruddy mountain peak, or the tall fir-trunk, seen against the western horizon, and illumined by his descending rays. But in the stories of Theocritus and Ovid, where the sun-myth is not so apparent, the home of the Cyclops is still Sicily. Our first Tartaro legend reads very like a rough outline of Ovid's story of "Acis and Galatea." Now, W. Von Humboldt in his "Prüfung der Untersuchung über die Urbewohner Hispaniens vermittelst der Vaskischen Sprache" (Berlin, 1821), in cap. xlv., p. 167, and, again, con. vii., p. 178, arguing on quite different grounds, places Sicily as the most easterly habitation of the Basques within historic times. [2] We leave it then to classical scholars to consider whether the Italic races in Magna Græcia and Sicily may not have come in contact with the Basques there, and from them have adopted their special form of the Cyclops legend.

               As we said above, the Tartaro sometimes replaces the giant or the ogre; at other times we find him as Basa-Jaun, or even as an animal, substituted for Acheria, the fox. He is, in his proper form, a huge one-eyed giant, occasionally a cannibal, but not without a rough "bonhomie" when satiated with food and drink. Intellectually far below the feebler race of mankind, he is invariably beaten in his contests with them, notwithstanding his enormous strength; he loses all his wagers, and is generally lured on to commit involuntary suicide. In some aspects he reminds one of Milton's "Lubbar Fiend," and in his constant defeats and being constantly outwitted, recals one of the types of the Devil in mediæval story. At times he appears in gentler guise, as when he aids the young prince to his rights, and supplies Petit Yorge with the means of victory over the Heren-Suge. What the talking ring is which appears in so many of these stories we confess ourselves unable to interpret; it is found in the Keltic, but, as far as we are aware, not in the classic legends.

               One peculiarity of the Basque, and especially of the Tartaro legends, is that the hero of them is so often a madman, an idiot, or a fool. If we can trust our memory, the case is the same in the Slavonic representatives of Odysseus. [3] But the Basques seem to dwell upon and to repeat the idea in a peculiar way; they ring the changes on all states, from the wild madman, like the Scandinavian Berserker, through the idiot and fool, to the mere blockhead and ninny. Errua, Enuchenta, Ergela, Sosua, Tontua, are terms employed to designate the heroes who have sometimes, to our modern apprehension, little of the idiot or fool, except the name. Can it be that the power which put out the sun's fiery eye was looked upon as a beneficent being in a burning tropic land, while, as the legend travelled northward, the act seemed more like that of madness, or of senseless stupidity?

               One type of these Tartaro tales will at once recal Grimm's "Valiant Little Tailor," and some of the more modern versions of "Jack the Giant-Killer." But though the incidents are identical, it is hardly possible that they can be thus borrowed. Several of our narrators were utterly ignorant of French, and learnt the tale as children from old people, who died a few years since at upwards of 80. The first translation of Grimm's Tales into French was published in the year 1845.



[1] There seems to be a Basque root “Tar,” which appears in the words, “Tarro, Tarrotu, v., devenir un peu grand. Tarrapataka, adv., marchant avec précipitation et en faisant du bruit.”—Salaberry’s “Vocabulaire Bas-Navarrais,” sub voce. Cf. Campbell’s “Tales of the Western Highlands,” Vol. II., 94:—“He heard a great Tartar noise,” Tartar being printed as if it were a Gaelic word.

[2] Cf. also Müller’s “Fragmenta Historicorum Græcorum” (Didot, Paris, 1841), Vol. I., p. 246. “Ephori Fragmenta,” 51, with the references there given.

[3] Cf. also the Gaelic, “The Story and the Lay of the Great Fool,” Campbell, Vol. III., pp. 146–154.

Bibliographic Information

Tale Title: Legends of the Tartaro
Tale Author/Editor: Webster, Wentworth
Book Title: Basque Legends
Book Author/Editor: Webster, Wentworth
Publisher: Griffith and Farran
Publication City: London
Year of Publication: 1879
Country of Origin: France (Basque)
Classification: Introduction

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