"Basque" is both a region in the north of Spain and the fiercely independent people who have lived there for centuries. While traditionally Roman Catholics, during World War II many Basques fled Spain and Francisco Franco's oppressive regime, landing in North America and other parts of Europe where they take part in many of the world's religions. The Basque people are also marked by a rich history of pagan gods and folklore, and claim the founder of the Jesuit religion as one of their ethnicity.
Most Basques consider themselves Roman Catholics, taking First Communion, baptizing their children and following the word of the Holy Bible. Basque Catholicism is also strongly aligned with the Virgin Mary, as it is in much of northern Spain. Saint Giles is a Catholic saint particularly revered by Basques, enshrined in Basque tradition by autumnal festivals in celebration of the Basque shepherds bringing their flocks down from the Pyrenees mountains to worship St. Giles.
Before the incursion of Christianity into Basque culture, a rich pagan religion thrived in the harsh yet beautiful mountainous Basque region. Mari was the supreme female goddess of pagan Basques, taking the form of a beautiful woman who lived both underground and in high mountain caves. Basque scholar Thomas V. Millington notes that Mari is variously interpreted as a protector, a witch or a fallen woman, and may have some relation to Catholicism's Virgin Mary.
Society of Jesus
The founder of the Jesuit religion, Ignatius Loyola, was also a Basque. In 1534, Loyola founded the Society of Jesus, or Jesuits, after intense religious study of the teachings of Jesus and the saints. Originally a missionary order within the Catholic Church, the Jesuit religion became known for its sometimes violent defense of its gospel. Today the Society of Jesus has roughly 20,000 members worldwide.
With its own language and a history of violent resistance during Franco's reign, many Basques fiercely support a modern movement to establish their own homeland apart from Spain. Some Catholic Basque clergy even promote a departure from the Vatican. The movement for a Basque National Church claims to answer "only to God, not someone attempting to convey the image of authority, such as the Pope," says Basque scholar Thomas V. Millington. Still, today's Basque identity remains largely entwined with Spain and Roman Catholicism.