Guest Post: Begona Echeverria on The Hammer of Witches

HammerCoverI’m thrilled to have as my guest today author Begona Echeverria, whose book, The Hammer of Witches, is one of my favorites I’ve reviewed this year. To give you some context, here is my review, which originally appeared in the June 2015 issue of Historical Novels Review

The Hammer of Witches is the story of two very different, but connected characters in a small Basque town during the witch hunt of 1610: Maria, a young girl grieving the death of her mother and struggling to assume the role of woman of the house while secretly learning to read, and Father Salvador Zabaleta, who was once in love with Maria’s mother before becoming a priest and who is now charged with guarding her safety amid an increasingly suspicious environment. As the hysteria over witches grips the village, both fall under the shadow of suspicion of the Inquisition and find their faith tested in very different ways.

This book is a gripping, pager turner of horrific historical events. While the beginning and end may seem slow in comparison to the lightning -paced middle, the entire novel is a strong portrayal of a time period in which superstition and blind faith in the edicts of the Catholic Church reigned over logic, reason and humanity. This is the first book I’ve ever read that made me feel what it must have been like to be a victim of unfounded suspicion, forced to rely on personal faith or recant all one holds true. It also shows the other side of the story, what it is like to be faced with judging guilt or innocence when the expectation of superiors and neighbors is clear.

In addition to being a riveting story, this book is important as a cultural resource in that it preserves many of the traditional stories of the Basque people about witches. It also serves as a reminder that such blind hatred is possible even today if we allow ourselves to be swayed to anger without deep thought and consideration for the humanity of all involved. Highly recommended.

Begonia is here with us today to talk about the historical and familial ties that led her to write this harrowing tale:

I am an NPR junkie. One of my favorite shows is Ira Glass’ “This American Life,” which (to quote its website) has a theme each week and tells “a variety of stories on that theme.”  Many years ago, the theme was “Reenactments,” one of which focused on the Underground Railroad: people paid to pretend to be escaped slaves who encountered actors pretending to be either slave-catchers or engineers on the Underground Railroad. The trick for the “escaped slaves” was to figure out whom to trust and from whom to flee. When interviewed before the re-enactment, participants were all bluster and bravado—they would brook no ill treatment, fight recapture, lead a “slave rebellion.” But when the “slave-catchers” ordered them to drop and give them ten push-ups to punish them for escaping (as they could not inflict any real harm) they dropped and gave them ten.

Yet, afterwards, they insisted that had the situation been real, they would have been brave: they would have brooked no ill treatment, fought recapture, led a slave rebellion.

This episode made me ponder questions that eventually led to my historical novel, The Hammer of Witches, based loosely on the persecution of Basque “witches” in 1610. That is the event in my family history most likely to have called for my bravery.  On November 8, eleven Basque “witches” were burned at the stake  — six alive, five in effigy – in front of 30,000 people.  Another eighteen were  “reconciled” with the Church after confessing to being witches but showing penitence and receiving their penance. But the confessions they made were false, as were the charges against those who burned; they included “crimes” such as concocting poisons against their enemies, participating in cannibalistic feasts and engaging in sexual escapades with the devil. While the burning itself took place in Logroño, Spain, the “witches” came from the Valley of Baztan, five miles from the French border, from which my family hails. The farmhouse where my mother grew up is within walking distance from the cave where the witches allegedly held their satanic rituals.

Yet somehow I knew almost nothing about these events. Chances are that my ancestors were involved one way or another, as victims or accomplices – or both. For my surnames are eerily similar to those on the Inquisitors’ ledgers. One infamous “witch family” was named “Arburu” – add an “a” at the end and that’s my grandmother’s surname. A priest and a monk from that family only escaped the stake at Logroño because they denied charges of witchcraft even under torture – the only proof the Spanish Inquisition would accept of innocence.  After the trial was over, vigilantes forced suspected witches who had escaped the Inquisition’s clutches to “walk the ladder” in the dead of night: they were tied between the rungs of a long ladder and forced to drag it behind them; the trailing end would be lifted up and slammed down, hurling the accused on their faces. Holding torches aloft, a crowd would parade their victims through the town, calling those they awakened to their windows to throw things on their heads.

Two of the women tortured this way were named Echeverria.

I have no way of knowing for certain if these Arburus and Echeverrias were my own ancestors; I have not been able to trace my genealogy back that far. And both surnames are quite common—Arburu means “top part of a rock or stone” and Echeverria means “new house.” But the possibility makes me wonder: what would I have done had I been among the accused? I would like to believe that I would have been brave, that I would have been able to stand up to the Inquisition and prevail. At the very least, I would like to believe that my ancestors were on the right side of this history, if they were indeed involved.

FOTOBut the converse is equally possible — that “my” people were the accusers, the cowards, the torturers. Or merely the falsely accused unable to keep up the fight. For it was almost impossible to win.  The “witches” were never told the names of their accusers so they did not know whom to trust. Their choices were to risk the stake by speaking the truth that they were not witches, or to make false confessions and “only” have their property confiscated and hope to be left alone. In the historical case, some of the “witches” walked over a hundred miles from the Baztan Valley to Logroño to recant their false confessions, explaining that they were procured through violence and threats. But the Inquisitors took this as a sign that the devil was at work and threw them into prison for months. The eleven who maintained their innocence were burned that day in Logroño, either alive or in effigy.

A high price to pay for telling the truth. Who among us is willing to pay it?

You may purchase Begonia’s book on Amazon.

If you have any questions or comments for Begonia, please leave them below. She’ll be popping by to check in from time to time.