Pyrenees mythology – The intoxicating nature of outstanding beauty

Classical mythology attributes the name of the Pyrenees to Pyrene, the virginal daughter of Bebryx (the king of Mediterranean Gaul). Bebryx hosted Hercules while on his quest to steal the cattle of Geryon, one of his 12 labours.

According to the myth, Hercules took advantage of Pyrene’s beauty thus violating the sacred code of hospitality by raping her. Pyrene, after giving birth to a serpent, ran away to the woods in shame and in fear of her father’s anger. Her cries of woe attracted wild beasts who tore her to pieces.

Having succeeded in his quest, Hercules passed back through Berbyx’s kingdom. During his return journey, he found Pyrene’s lacerated remains. Remorseful and heartbroken, Hercules laid Pyrene to rest demanding that the mountains join in his sorrow and preserve her name. In response the mountains shuddered at the ridges and echoed the name Pyrene for eternity.

An area of prehistoric importance

There is evidence of early human habitation in the Pyrenees dating back to prehistoric times.

The Arago Cave, one of the largest “karstic” caves the in Southern Corbieres region high overlooking the Tantavel valley, was occupied periodically between 35,000 and 690,000 years ago. Bones and stone tools attest to some 40 periods of occupation in the cave.

The Tantavel man, whose skull and bones belonging to the  homo-erectus species were  discovered  by Henry de Lumley and his team in 1971 in the cave (Pyrenees Orientale) has been dated back to 450 000 years. The Tantavel man is reputed to have been 1.65m tall weighing 44-55kg and to be the oldest man in Europe. Visit the Prehistory Museum at Tautavel.

One of the most famous decorated caves in Europe is sited in Niaux, Tarascon-sur-Ariege. Visited since the XVII, but not studied until 1906, the Grottes de Niaux is 2km long, at 678m in altitude and offers 70 exceptional prehistoric paintings dating back to around 13 000 years ago. Nearby is the Prehistoric Art Park.

Around 100 dolmen (burial grounds and megaliths) can be found in the area and seen when walking. Famous is the Dolmen de Sem and the Dolmen St Helena, remnants of the Verana Culture (3 000-2 000 BC) Fortified villages appeared in the Pyrenees before the Bronze Age.

History of invasions: from the Celts to the Moors

The history of the Pyrenees from this time till the expulsion of the Moors from Spain is a history of invasions.

Around 1000BC the Celtic, Urnfield people settled in Catalonia and later mingled with south Iberians.  They were known as Celtiberians, practised Hallstatt culture dominant in Central Europe from the 8th to the 6th centuries BC.

The Basque country was occupied even earlier by the Vascones.  The Basque language and culture directly descend from the Vascones.

It appears certain that the Greeks were trading in the Pyrenees by 550BC, Roses on the Spanish Catalan coast was one of their posts.

The Carthaginians held control of Catalonia subsequently.   Famously it was Hannibal who marched towards Rome crossing the Pyrenees with his elephants in 214BC.   Having defeated the Carthaginians in 201BC after the 2nd Punic war, the Romans held their lands. They also defeated the Celtiberians but never managed to conquer the Vascones who appeared to remain free traders with would be invaders.

The Pyrenees with Gaul to the north and Iberia to the south became key part of the Roman Empire.  Roman roads were built, villas, garrison towns and bridges.  The Roman legacy is open for all to see and still modern roads follow their ancient routes. The disintegration of the Roman Empire opened the way to raids from Franks and Suevi: by 262 and 276 AD they had overrun the Romans.

It was then the turn of the Alans and Vandals, but it was the Visigoth who became the main force two centuries later.  In 378 AD they defeated the Romans on the way to sack Rome in 410 AD.  By 500 AD they had established their capital in Toulouse.

Barcelona became second capital in 531 AD. By the end of the 6th century southern France, the Pyrenees, the Iberian peninsula as far as modern Portugal was under the Visigoths with the exception of the lands belonging to the Vascones.

However the Visigoth empire was not to last: to the north the Frankish Roman Catholic king Clovis I had designs on the province of Gaul at that time under king Alaric who, being Arian Christian had an uneasy relationship with Catholic Christians.  Clovis with a pretext invaded Gaul, defeated the Goths in 507 at the battle of Vouille near Poitiers: the Franks now ruled over most of Gaul and the Pyrenees. The Visigoths’ legacy remains in a few artefacts (belts, buckles, glassware, bronzes and many name places ending in “ens”- Boussens, Gratens, Mouzens).

Behind the scenes, in readiness were the Moors, sweeping from the South and North Africa across the Iberian peninsula.  Fierce bloody battles were fought by the Franks against them in the 8th century: the Moors’ advance was halted at Poitiers in 732 AD.

The Sacred Roman Empire and the conflict with the Cathars

For a few centuries the history of the Pyrenees was bound to that of the Sacred Roman Empire. In the 13th century the Cathars (meaning “pure” in Greek) set up a Christian religion outside Catholicism therefore regarded as heretical by the ruling church.

The religious group were based around modern day Langue d’Oc (Foix, AudeValley, Corbieres), they formed an antisacerdotal party in opposition to the Catholic Church.  They were opposed to the perceived moral, spiritual and political corruption of the Church who tried to contain and stop their popularity at first, then continued the persecution of Cathars to their suppression and eventual extinction.

Cathar heritage can be found in Carcassone, Montsegur, Queribus, Peyerepertuse in the form of poems and songs of the troubadours and in the Occitan linguistic and artistic heritage. In subsequent times the Pyrenees were theatre of important historical events: treaties were signed there, because of their geographical position they were both considered haven and obstacle, depending on which side one was stood, their history was inevitably determined by the people who inhabited them and fought over possession of them.

Their magnificence has not diminished in the course of the centuries, despite human intervention at times detrimental to the environment and the habitats inherent to them. Their appeal, their invitation to explore, challenge and enjoy remains one of the great pleasures for all to experience.