The Benandanti: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults between 16th and 17th centuries in Italy

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History & Facts of the Benandanti, The Good Walkers

A trial for heresy of two peasants reveals a pagan-shamanic peasant cult based on the fertility of the land widespread in Friuli, northern Italy, around the 16th-17th centuries. 

Related articles: The Cosmogony of a Sixteenth-Century Italian Miller, Demons, Monsters, and Ghosts of the Italian Folklore


An ancient system of folk beliefs emerges through an Inquisition trial.

The trials are told in the book “I Benandanti” by Carlo Ginzburg.

The Benandanti was an agrarian cult with shamanic characteristics that gradually transformed under the pressure of the inquisitors to assume the features of traditional Italian witchcraft

In any case, the documentation of the process gives access to a layer of popular beliefs, then deformed by the lens of the inquisitors. The Benandanti trials constitute a precious testimony for the reconstruction of the peasant folklore of this era. The research allows us to understand the significance of nature in popular witchcraft, different from the intellectual schemes of inquisitorial origin. 

The first trial: Gasparutto and Moduco

On March 25, 1575 in the convent of San Francesco in Cividale del Friuli, the vicar general Monsignor Jacopo Maracco and the inquisitor friar Giulio d’Assisi in the dioceses of Aquileia and Concordia questioned as a witness don Bartolomeo Sgabarizza, the parish priest of a nearby village, Brazzano. The parish priest reported that a miller, Pietro Rotaro, who had a seriously ill son, told him that not far away lived a certain Paolo Gasparutto, who cured the bewitched and claimed to “go wandering at night with sorcerers”. The priest, intrigued by the miller’s words, had called Gasparutto. Gasparutto told the boy’s father that his son had been enchanted by witches and that for this reason “the Good Walkers would have to go and snatch him from the witches” in order to heal him. Incited by the priest’s questions, the man recounted that on specific Thursdays he would go with the sorcerers into the countryside to fight, play, jump and ride various animals. The women would beat the men with sorghum rods, while the men held bunches of fennel. Unsettled by these speeches, the parish priest immediately went to report with the inquisitor and the patriarchal vicar. He led Gasparutto to the inquisitor father so that he could be interrogated, and he confirmed the story without any hesitation, adding new details about the mysterious nocturnal gatherings: the witches, the wizards, and the vagabonds returning from these games tired and fatigued, entered the houses to quench their thirst. Generally, they were satisfied with freshwater, however, if they could not find it, they went to the cellars and stole wine. For this reason, it was always necessary to keep clean water in the house.

Gasparutto offered to make the dubious priests take part in the night meetings. Others who took part in the gatherings were found in all the villages of the area, but their names could not be revealed. The parish priest, trying to make sense of Gasparutto’s confused tale had concluded that there were good sorcerers, who were called vagabonds, the benandanti, who fought other sorcerers who instead procured evil.

After a few days, the parish priest went to the village of Iassico to say mass. Here he met Gasparutto again, as a commissioner. Gasparutto in fact must have been wealthy, and in another passage, he mentioned his servants. Gasparutto had told him about the exploits of the party the night before. 

The substance of these depositions of the priest was confirmed by Pietro Rotaro, the father of the sick child, and treated, in vain, by Paolo Gasparutto. Suspecting that the child had been bewitched, he had turned to Paolo, since he was a Good Walker. Rotaro said that in Cividale there was one of these sorcerers, a public crier, Battista Moduco, who had claimed to be a Good Walker and to go out on specific Thursday nights between the ember days, quarterly periods of prayer and fasting in the liturgical calendar of Western Christian churches.

Troiano de’ Attimis, a nobleman from Cividale, was called to testify. He said that he was aware of these stories but he considered them as fantasies or lies. Both the vicar and the inquisitor evidently agreed with the conclusions of the nobleman of Cividale and interrupted the interrogations. 

These first testimonies confirmed the existence in the area between the half and the end of ‘500 of a complex of popular beliefs mixed with known traditions. If in fact the witches and sorcerers who met on Thursday night evoked the image of the sabbath, there were substantial differences. The benandanti did not worship the devil (during the trials he was never even mentioned in the stories of the Goof Walkers), they did not abjure the faith, and they did not damage religious symbols. At the center of these meetings, however, there was an obscure rite, namely the fighting of the Good Walkers against the witches.

Five years later, on June 27, 1580, the inquisitor, Friar Felice da Montefalco resumed the cause left by his predecessor, and began to interrogate Paolo Gasparutto. At first, Gasparutto showed surprise at the inquisitor’s questions. Fra’ Felice then asked him if he knew any sorcerers or Good Walker. Gasparutto denied it and started laughing. The inquisitor then insisted and asked him if he had tried to cure Pietro Rotaro’s son. Gasparutto replied that he told Rotaro that he knew nothing about it and could not help him. The inquisitor asked him if he had talked about benandanti with the previous inquisitor. Gaspurutto denied it again, but then said, laughing, that he had dreamed of fighting with sorcerers. The friar pressed him and Gasparutto, still laughing, continued to deny it. The inquisitor asked him why he was laughing and Gasparutto replied that he was laughing because “these are not things in which to linger, because they go against the will of God. The inquisitor then asked him: “Why do you go against God’s will?”. Gasparutto then realized he had said too much and replied that these were things he knew nothing about. He said that he had never spoken of night fights with sorcerers, he had never invited the parish priest to these meetings. He said he didn’t remember anything. The friar tried to make him speak, promised clemency and forgiveness, but Gasparutto continued to remain silent. The inquisitor had him imprisoned. 

The same day was interrogated the other Good Walker, the auctioneer Battista Moduco, called “Gamba Secura”. It does not appear that Moduco and Gasparutto knew each other, or had ever met before this occasion. Moduco said he was a good Christian and went to confession regularly. When asked by the inquisitor if he knew any sorcerers or benandante, he candidly said that he did not know any sorcerer, but he knew only one Good Walker: himself. The inquisitor then asked him what the word ‘benandante’ meant, Moduco seemed to regret the incautious answer and tried to pass it off as a joke. However, he admitted that he had told several people that he was a Good Walker. Then, he explained:

“I am a benandante because I go with the others to fight four times a year, in the nights between the ember days, invisibly with the spirit. We go in favor of Christ, and the sorcerers of the devil. We fight with each other, we fight with decks of fennel and they with rods of sorghum. If we are victorious then that year will be one of abundance, if we lose then there will be famine”. 

Later, he said that each season requires different vegetable weapons: wheat, vines, etc. At the heart of the nocturnal gatherings of the benandanti emerges a fertility rite, which is modeled on the main dates of the agricultural calendar.

Moduco said he had not been part of the benandanti fellowship for at least eight years. He explained that all those who were born with a caul were part of the company. The amniotic sack was one of the distinctive marks of the Good Walkers and Moduco said that he always wore it around his neck when he went to the night meetings until he lost it and then he stopped going to the meetings.

When they turned twenty, they were gathered to the sound of a drum, which called the soldiers together to go into battle. Then, the spirit would separate from the body and fly to the conventions. The inquisitor asked him if the drum was played by a man, an angel, or a demon. Moduco answered that it was a man. Sometimes the gatherings were attended by up to five thousand souls, some knew each other, others did not. The friar asked who put this man at the head of the group. Moduco replied that he did not know, perhaps God, because they were fighting united in faith in Christ. He said that the man was the captain and that he remained in charge of the company until he was forty. At that time the captain was a man of twenty-eight, large in stature, with a red beard, noble. His insignia was of white, golden silk, with a lion, while the warlocks banner was red depicting four black devils. Their captain had a black beard, was big and fat, and was of German origin. 

The inquisitor asked the names of the other Good Walkers, but Moduco refused, saying that he would be beaten if he did. The inquisitor insisted, but Moduco said that he could not reveal any names, neither of the benandanti nor of the sorcerers because he had promised to do so. This oath was taken by the captains of both sides. But the inquisitor pointed out that he was no longer a benandante and could therefore reveal the names. Moduco gave in and said the names of two sorcerers, including that of a woman. The inquisitor set the man free.

On June 28 Paolo Gasparutto was interrogated for the second time and declared to have entered the company of the benandanti when he was twenty-eight years old, called by the leader of the Good Walkers of Verona. He had been a benandante for ten years and had left the company four years before. The inquisitor asked him why he had not told the truth the previous day; Gasparutto replied that he was afraid of the sorcerers, who would have killed him. The friar asked him if the first time he had gone with the benandanti, he knew who he was going with. Gasparutto said that a benandante from Vicenza, named Baptista Visentino, 35 years old, tall, with a black beard, had shown up in December at night in his sleep and told him that he had to go and fight. The friar asked him how he could have answered if he was asleep. Gasparutto said that he had responded through his spirit, which had left his body.

The friar asked him if he had ever known this Vicentino Baptista before he appeared that night. Gasparutto replied that he had not. At this point, Gasparutto began to describe the company of the Good Walkers to which he belonged. There were six of them, they fought with a stick, and they had a white silk flag all golden, while the sorcerers had a yellow one, with four devils. They were fighting in the countryside of Verona and Gradisca. He said that the captain of the benandanti was a man from Verona, with a red beard, about thirty years old. He did not know how he had become a captain.

Gasparutto also denounced two sorcerers, one from Gorizia and the other from a village near Caposistria. The inquisitor, satisfied, freed Gasparutto, enjoining him to return within twenty days to Udine, in the convent of San Francesco.

On 24 September the inquisitor had Gasparotto brought to Udine, who had not respected his commitment and had him incarcerated. Two days later he resumed the interrogation. 

Up to this point, the confessions of Moduco and Gasparutto coincided. Gasparutto, however, introduced a new element. He said that before Battista Vicentino materialized to him in his dreams, a golden angel had appeared while he was sleeping and told him that he would send him a good walker to fight for the crops. Gasparutto obeyed. At first glance, it might seem that Gasparutto had introduced a Christian element to try to extricate himself from the meshes of the inquisition, without actually realizing that he was aggravating his position. However, the detail of the angel reappears in two trials in 1618 and 1621. Back in prison Gasparutto confided the detail of the angel to Moduco. It is likely that Gasparotto had kept silent about this detail because he sensed its danger.

The inquisitor asked him what the angel had promised them: “Women? Food? Feasts? What?” The mention of the angel convinced the inquisitor of the diabolical character of the nocturnal meetings of the benandanti, and identified the nocturnal meetings with the Sabbath. Gasparutto denied decisively and defended himself by saying that they were fighting the sorcerers. 

The inquisitor then attacked another point of Gasparutto’s narration, asking where the spirit went when the angel called him. Gasparutto replied that the angel had told him to leave his body. He saw him every time he went to battles. The angel stayed close to their flag. 

The inquisitor, baffled by Gasparutto’s reports, tried to decipher the confessions according to the only interpretative model at his disposal, that of the sabbath. He first tried to ask if the angel frightened him. Gasparutto answered, that he did not scare him at all and that he gave him the blessing before going to battle. He then asked him if the angel made himself adored. Gasparutto replied that they worshipped him in the name of Jesus Christ. Gasparutto seemed offended by being identified with the sorcerers, his arch enemies. 

The trial was drawing to a close. The inquisitor had managed to bring Gasparutto’s bizarre confessions within his own theological framework, namely, that the good walkers’ meetings were nothing more than a sabbath. 

Terrified by the interrogators, Gasparutto declared a few days later that he believed that the apparition of the angel was due to demonic temptation. Also Modulo, on October 2, said that the apparition of the angel was a diabolic work. The friar repeatedly tried again to bring the tales of the benandanti back into the more traditional sphere of the sabbath, looking for similarities between the two groups. But Moduco insisted that the only thing the Good Walkers did was fight the sorcerers with bunches of fennel. Moduco added that sorcerers submit to their infernal masters, while the Good Walkers did not even kneel in front of their captain. He said proudly that they gave the military salute to their captain, just as soldiers do.

The inquisitor at one point seemed to explode with anger, asking how separating one’s spirit from one’s body and becoming invisible could ever be considered as a work of God. Moduco said that after consulting with Gasparutto who had told him that he had seen the angel, it was likely that the man who appeared to him in his dreams, Baptist, was also a diabolic apparition.

In any case, Moduco continued to narrate. He said that the man had taken his hand, and asked him if he would be a good servant. He promised nothing but said that by accepting, he would do God’s work and that when he died he would go to heaven. He never heard anyone speak of Christ, Our Lady, or any saint, nor did he see anyone make the sign of the cross.

He then said that once the night meetings were over, they entered through the cracks in the cellars of the houses, stood on the barrels of wine, and drank. The wizards also did the same, but then they pissed in the barrels. 

The two Good Walkers were released with the injunction to come back when they were called by the Holy Office. The sentence was delayed for a year. Some points are reported as worthy of disapproval: the certainty of going to heaven, Gasparutto’s idolatry by worshipping the false angel, the sin of reticence.

Both were absolved from the major ex-communication in which they had incurred as heretics, and sentenced to six months in prison; moreover, prayers and penances were imposed on them to be performed on various days of the year. Later, the sentence was remitted to both.

Organization of the cult of the Good Walkers

In this period the Good Walkers formed, according to their confessions, a real sect, militarily organized around a captain, and bound by secrecy. The bond, however, was quite weak, since both Gasparutto and Moduco continually broke it. The adepts of this sect were scattered all over Friuli, especially in the eastern part, and they were all linked by a common element, the caul, to which various superstitions were attributed: it protected soldiers from blows, it kept away the enemies, it even helped lawyers to win cases. It was an object of magical virtues. Moduco said he always carried the amniotic sac with him. He had been baptized with it and had more than thirty masses celebrated to strengthen it. Gasparutto said to have received the amniotic sac from his mother, the year before the angel appeared to him, telling him to have it blessed and to have celebrated nine masses.

According to many Italian folk traditions, those who were born with the amniotic sac were predestined to become sorcerers. 

Although their ceremonies appear to us as purely oneiric, the benandanti did not doubt the reality of those gatherings to which they went in spirit. As in another trial held against a witch in Modena in 1532, before going to the meetings, they claimed to fall into a state of deep prostration, of catalepsy. The interpretations put forward for these states of catalepsy are basically of two types: either it was supposed that witches and sorcerers were individuals affected by epilepsy or other nervous diseases not identified; or they were attributed to loss of consciousness accompanied by hallucinations, caused by ointments composed of soporific or narcotic substances. 

Indeed, in the 15th century the Spanish theologian Alfonso Tostado, commenting on “Genesis”, incidentally noted that Spanish witches, after having pronounced certain words, smeared themselves with ointments and fell into a deep sleep, which made them insensitive even to fire or wounds; but, once awakened, they claimed to have gone to various places, even very far away, to meet with other companions, feasting and making love. It seems reasonable to suppose that if not all, at least a part of the confessed witches used ointments capable of provoking states of hallucinatory delirium.

However, neither Gasparutto nor Moduco ever spoke of ointments or other substances. 

The presumed hallucinations occurred in a well-circumscribed period of the year, that is the night of the Thursday of the four ember days. As a matter of fact, only one benandante, a woman, Maria Panzona, prosecuted in Latisana and then in Venice by the Holy Office in 1618, turned out to be epileptic. In her case, the seizures seized her continuously, even during an interrogation. Therefore, the nature of the catalepsy of the Good Walkers remains obscure. 

This condition of unconsciousness is interpreted as a separation of the spirit from the body and is a recurrent phenomenon in the tales of both witches and benandanti. In the tales, the separation of the spirit from the body is felt like an actual separation, a dangerous event, almost a death. If for some reason the spirit was not able to re-enter the body, the person would have risked dying. The soul, once it had left the body, went to the conventions in the form of an animal. In a trial, an old peasant woman accused of witchcraft said that she had seen a mouse come out of the mouth of another witch when she had fallen asleep. 

The wife of Gasparutto, questioned by the inquisitor said that she did not know if her husband was a good walker or not. Anyway, one winter night, waking up scared, she had tried to wake up her husband in every way while he was sleeping face up. She said that according to the benandanti their spirits came out of their bodies in the form of mice. In a 1648 trial against a child who claimed to be a benandante this belief returned again. 

At this point, we could see the complexity of the cult of which these rites are the expression. The benandanti came out on the night of the Thursday of the four ember days, during a festivity coming from an ancient agrarian calendar and belatedly becoming part of the Christian calendar, which symbolized the seasonal crisis, the transition from the old to the new season, marked by the sowing, the harvest, the reaping or the grape harvest. On these occasions, the benandanti went out to protect the fruits of the earth, fought for the prosperity of the community against witches and sorcerers, who symbolized the adversity that threatened the crops.

It is unclear why the witches used sorghum branches. Maybe it could recall the so-called “sorghum broom”, which is the traditional symbol associated with witches. Fennel, instead, was used by the good walkers because according to popular medicine it had the power to keep witches away. In fact, according to Moduco, benandanti ate garlic and fennel because they were ingredients adverse to witches. 

A tradition of Christian origin overlapped in the confessions of the benandanti on this agrarian rite. It is not clear why it was grafted onto the agricultural model. Perhaps this happened because in a remote time Christianization was adopted as a sort of mask, to hide an unorthodox rite from the eyes of the Church. Or perhaps because the objectives of the good walkers were identified with the Christian cause. Or perhaps both hypotheses are partially true. In any case, the attempt at Christianization was not welcomed by the Inquisition and within a few decades, this trait disappeared from the rites. The cult of the benandanti was therefore composed of two fundamental cores: an agrarian cult and a Christian cult, plus a certain number of elements similar to witchcraft. The inquisitors did not understand the first nucleus, they categorically rejected the second. Inevitably, all that remained was the third direction, namely witchcraft. 

Witches and Sorcerers

Witches and sorcerers emerged from the tales of the first benandanti mainly as antagonists. According to Gasparutto and Maduco, witches and sorcerers danced and jumped in their meetings, and their flag was made of red silk with four black devils. In the descriptions, there is no trace of the devil, nor of the profanation of the sacraments or the apostasy of the faith. However, some elements do emerge, such as the devils depicted on the flag and Moduco’s statement that they were fighting for satan. But they were isolated elements and perhaps added late. They were identified as sorcerers because they destroyed crops and cast curses on children, not because of an alleged affiliation with the devil. 

The task of the benandanti was to defend the children. The son of the miller Pietro Rotaro, according to his story, had in fact been enchanted by witches and the good walkers had fought for him. The benandanti immediately recognized the victims of a curse: one of the symptoms of a curse was in fact the consumption of the body. If one arrived in time, one could try to save the child by weighing him for three consecutive Thursdays, and while the child was being weighed, the captain of the benandanti fought the sorcerer who had cast the curse. 

The role of witches and sorcerers changed considerably. Initially, the belief in the diabolic sabbath was something alien to the popular mentality. A similar case happened in the province of Modena, almost a century before, where we assist in the slow transformation of a popular cult around a mysterious feminine divinity, Diana, because of the unaware pressure of the inquisitors. This cult, present in Northern Italy at least since the end of 1300, acquired demonic characteristics during the trials. Initially, it was a harmless magical cult. During a trial, a witch described the Sabbath as a quiet nocturnal meeting where the gathered guests ate until dawn. Only in 1532 were descriptions of profanations of the cross and the host, couplings with demons, etc., recounted. But all these elements were added by the distorting lens of the interpretative grid used by the inquisitors. 

The cult of the good walkers remained confined to Friuli, at that time a remote and isolated region in Northern Italy. The fights narrated by the benandanti do not recur in other European traditions, if not for an extraordinary exception, that is the trial against a Lithuanian werewolf, which took place in Jurgensburg in 1692. The accused, Thiess, an old man in his eighties, openly confessed to the judges who questioned him that he was a werewolf (“wahrwolff”). His account differed from the image of lycanthropy prevalent in northern Germany and the Baltic countries. The old man said that a long-dead peasant from Lemburg, Skeistan, had broken his nose in the past. Together with his fellows, he had stolen the wheat sprouts and brought them to hell so that the crops would not grow. Thiess, along with other werewolves, had gone to hell and fought with Skeistan. Skeistan, armed with a broomstick (the traditional attribute of witches), had hit the old man in the nose. Three times a year, on the nights of St. Lucy before Christmas, Pentecost and St. John, werewolves would walk, in the form of wolves, to a place located “at the end of the sea”: hell. There, they would fight with the devil and the sorcerers, beating them with long iron whips and chasing them like dogs. Thiess explained that the werewolves went to hell to bring back what the sorcerers had stolen. If they didn’t succeed there would be famine, as it had happened the previous year. That year, however, things went differently. Thanks to the victory of the werewolves, the barley and rye harvest would have been very good. The judges asked in amazement where the souls of the werewolves went once they died. Thiess replied that their souls would go to heaven, while those of the sorcerers would be taken by the devil. The inquisitors asked why the souls of werewolves, who serve the devil, should ever have gone to heaven. Thiess, annoyed, replied that werewolves served god, not the devil. The devil was their enemy, and werewolves were the dogs of god who served to protect the crops of the earth and the livestock. According to Thiess, there would be companies of werewolves everywhere, in Germany, in Russia, but each company went to a particular hell. At the insistence of the inquisitors who wanted him to confess that he had made a pact with the devil, Thiess replied that he and his companions were “dogs of god” and enemies of the devil. Thiess refused to retract his beliefs and was sentenced to ten lashes.

The Encyclopedia of Witches and Witchcraft, by Rosemary Ellen Guiley, Checkmark Book, 1989, source

Thiess’ werewolf worship is essentially identical to that of the good walkers. We are dealing with a single agrarian cult, which, judging from these survivals so far apart – Lithuania, Friuli – must have been spread anciently over a much wider area, perhaps the whole of central Europe. These beliefs survived in these contexts perhaps because of the geographical marginality of both regions, or with an influence of myths and traditions of Slavic origin. The reactions of the inquisitors were very similar to the revelations of the persecuted. At that time werewolves were associated with ferocious creatures. From the stories of Thiess, however, emerged a positive image of the werewolf, defender of crops and livestock. 

In the middle of ‘500, the German doctor, mathematician, and astronomer Kaspar Peucer, in his book “Commentarius de praecipuis generibus divinationum”, speaking about werewolves and their extraordinary feats, included an anecdote about a young man from Riga, who, during a boarding school, had suddenly fallen supine on the floor. One of those present immediately recognized him as a werewolf. The next day the young man told that he had fought with a witch who was wandering around in the form of a fiery butterfly. Werewolves, in fact, prided themselves on keeping witches away, according to Peucer’s account.

Over the years and through the trials of the Inquisition, the positive characteristics of werewolves faded, to become the horrific image of the devastating wolf-man. There are numerous similarities between the two cults: the ecstasies, the travels in the beyond on horseback or in the form of animals to ensure the fertility of the fields, the participation in the processions of the dead, which provided the good walkers with prophetic and visionary virtues, immediately recalling the cults of shamans. 

The witch attacking the devil, Engraving, Jacob Binck, 1528, source

The processions of the dead

In 1581, a woman from Udine, Anna, widow of Domenico Artichi, was denounced to the inquisitor of Aquileia and Concordia, fra’ Felice da Montefalco. The woman claimed to see the dead and talk to them. The accusation was widely confirmed during the interrogation of the witnesses. According to the testimony, Anna had gone to visit a woman of Gemona, Lucia Peltrara, in the hospital where she was hospitalized, telling her to have “seen” at the sanctuary of Santa Maria della Bella a dead daughter of the same Peltrara, wrapped in a sheet and with bare feet. The dead woman had asked her to tell her mother of her wishes: to donate a shirt to a certain Paola, and to make pilgrimages to some nearby sanctuaries. Initially, Lucia Peltrara was in doubt, but later, due to remorse and driven by the exhortations of her friends and the insistence of Anna, she had fulfilled the wishes of her dead daughter. Another witness confirmed the extraordinary powers of Anna, who had been able to report the details of a quarrel between two brothers, declaring to have learned them from the dead mother of the two contenders, who, present at the argument, tried, uselessly, to make peace, since she was invisible to everyone. Initially, Anna evaded the inquisitor’s questions, then she admitted that many people had asked her if she had seen their dead, but she had chased them away in a bad way. The next day the interrogation resumed. The woman gave in and confirmed that she had told Lucia Peltrara about her daughter’s apparition in exchange for some money, to support her husband and children. The inquisitor was not satisfied with the woman’s excuses and wanted to continue the interrogation. He asked how she had known what happens in the houses of others, when, after being threatened to be accused of witchcraft, Anna burst into tears and said that she was not a witch and that she did not make medicines, adding, among the insistence of the inquisitor, that the details were invented. Anna was let go, but on March 7 Lucia Peltrara was called again to testify. The woman gave new details of Anna’s abilities, adding that she was able to show the dead, but she was afraid that it could be a source of misfortune.

Aurelia of Gemona, interrogated again on March 7, declared that Anna knew many things, but that she would be beaten by the dead with sorghum rods if she spoke. According to Aurelia, Anna said that on Fridays and Saturdays, the beds had to be tidy to accommodate the dead who came to sleep in their house. Sometimes her husband had found her as dead and had tried in vain to wake her up. Her spirit was gone and her body was as if dead. For this reason, Anna told her husband not to worry if he found her in this condition. 

Anna most likely was not a benandante, but just like them, or like the witches, she fell into a state of ecstasy. Also a woman from Lucca accused of witchcraft, Polissena di San Macario, subject to sudden and deep fainting spells, had warned her mother-in-law not to find her. Other elements also recur in these stories.

As in the tales of the benandanti, the antagonists, in this case, the dead, brandish rods of sorghum. Like the sorcerers described by the good walkers, the dead enter homes on certain days to refresh themselves.

The connection between the benandanti and those who, like Anna, claim to see the dead, becomes more and more clear during a trial started in 1582 against the wife of a tailor, Aquilina, who lived in Udine. Everyone knew that the woman cured diseases with superstitious remedies. Many people came to her and there were those who said that the woman earned a hundred or two hundred ducats a year from these cures. Aquilina managed to escape to Latisana. According to the testimonies, however, it was learned that once a sick woman had turned to Aquilina. Like her, she saw the dead, to which Aquilina replied that the woman must have been born in the amniotic sac. Eventually, the inquisitor managed to track down Aquilina who appeared to be terrified. 

On October 27 Aquilina was interrogated. She denied knowing any witches or benandanti and the other accusations.

In the same year 1582, Fra’ Felice da Montefalco investigated the account of a woman of Cividale, Caterina, widow of Andrea da Orsaria, accused of practicing evil arts. During the interrogation of September 14, the woman declared that she was a spinner and seamstress, but that she also knew how to cure children’s diseases by pronouncing certain words, which she did not consider to be superstitious. The friar suddenly asked her if she was a good walker. The woman denied it but admitted that her husband was and that he went in procession with the dead. 

Whoever sees the dead, that is, goes with them, is a benandante. Catherine’s husband also fell into a kind of ecstasy. He also added that the man would be able to make other people see the dead, but that if he did, he would be punished by the dead. Catherine repeated that she was not a benandante, and that she had not received that gift from god.

There is a connection between the benandanti who go out at night “in spirit” to see the dead, and the good walkers who go out “in spirit” to fight with sorcerers over crops. These are two ramifications, not independent that reveal the same belief that had its roots far back in time.

In his instructions to the bishops, the abbot of the monastery of Prüm, who died in 915, condemned, along with various superstitious beliefs, that of the women who, deceived by the devil, believed to ride on certain nights with Diana, goddess of the pagans, and her procession of women, going to remote places.

This belief in night rides had a remarkable diffusion, testified by the ancient German penitentials. In the German tradition the name of Diana is sometimes substituted by that of popular Germanic divinities, such as Holda or Perchta, who are at the same time goddesses of vegetation, and therefore of fertility, and guides of the “wild hunt”, the army of the prematurely dead, who ride at night, implacable and terrible, through the streets of the villages, while the inhabitants bar the doors in search of protection.

The nocturnal rides of the women followers of Diana are a variant of the “wild hunt”. Diana-Hecate, in fact, is also followed in her nocturnal wanderings by a host of the dead who find no peace: the prematurely dead, the dead children, the victims of a violent end.

The French theologian Guillaume d’Auvergne, who died in 1249, wrote that according to a popular tradition, a mysterious deity, a demon according to the prelate, called Abundia or Satia, went around houses and cellars at night, accompanied by her followers, eating and drinking what she found. If she found food and drink, she brought prosperity to the house and its inhabitants.

In the medieval poem “The Romance of the Rose”, the followers of Abundia are alluded to: the third-born was forced to go three times a week in the form of a spirit, in the company of Dame Abonde in the houses of neighbors. These accounts have similarities with the tales of the benandanti. There are numerous variations of this belief in various parts of Europe.

These testimonies reveal the existence of a link between this popular divinity with multiple names, Abundìa, Satia, Diana, Perchta, and the core of beliefs of the good walkers. 

In the book “Praeceptorium divinae legis”, the Dominican J. Nider cited individuals who believed they were transported to the convents of Herodias, and women who during the four ember days saw in spirit the souls of purgatory, stolen or lost objects, and more. According to Nider, the women were deceived by the devil. They did not even feel the burning of a candle flame, because, according to the Dominican, the devil possessed them to such an extent that they could not notice anything, like epilepsy patients. The Dominican, however, while recognizing the demonic character of these hallucinations, compared them to the visions of those who claimed to go to the meetings of Herodias, Herodias, or Venus, synonyms of the female deity who was believed to wander the night followed by a procession of women. 

The connection between the world of the dead and the fertility of the fields returns in another trial held in Hesse in 1630 against an enchanter, Diel Breull. Breull recounted that eight years earlier, during a period of profound prostration because his wife and children had died, he had fallen asleep and found himself waking up on the Venusberg. The divinity of the place, “fraw Holt” – the Germanic Holle, considered synonymous with Venus – had shown him, reflected in a basin full of water, the strangest things: splendid horses, men intent on feasting, or sitting in the middle of the flames, and, among the latter, long-dead familiar people, who were there for their misdeeds. Diel Breull had learned that he was a member of the nocturnal host, a “nachtfahr” . Afterward he had gone to the Venusberg four times a year, during the ember days: and in that year the harvests had been abundant. According to this belief, people who, during the ember days, after a mysterious hibernation, access to the afterlife populated by the dead and presided over by Holle-Venus, guarantee fertility. In 1632 Diel Breull was executed because even in this case this cult was assimilated to witchcraft.

The myth of the benandanti is linked to a larger set of traditions that are widespread in Alsace and the Eastern Alps. 

In the Tyrolean rites known as “Percktenlaufen”, two groups of peasants, one disguised as the “beautiful” Perchte, the other as the “ugly” Perchte, chase each other waving whips and wooden sticks, a remnant of ancient ritual battles. Again, the purpose of the ceremony is the fertility of the fields.

Traces of these ritual skirmishes have also been found in the Balkan peninsula. 

In conclusion, the Germanic origin of the myth of the processions of the dead is almost certain; as far as the battles for fertility are concerned, the problem remains open. The presence of this second myth in Lithuania and among the Slovenes would suggest a link with the Slavic world. In Friuli, where Germanic and Slavic traditions converged, the two myths would have been amalgamated and merged into the overall myth of the benandanti. 

There is a deep bond that unites the two groups of benandanti, the “agrarian” and the “funerary” ones. 

In both cases, ecstasy is a fictitious death. Lethargy was provoked by the use of soporific ointments or by catalepsy of unknown nature and was considered as a means to reach the unreachable lands of the dead, of the spirits that wander tormented on earth. The dead, or the sorcerers depending on the tradition, punish the good walkers who break the secret of their night processions. What emerges is the envy of the dead for the living, envy attributed to people who died before their time, who therefore destroy crops and enchant children. The terror of being persecuted by the souls of the dead before time was widespread throughout Italy, as is testified by other trials. The “shadows”, the lost souls and the victims of violent death, wandered around cursing the living. 

But who was destined to become a Good Walker? According to the testimonies given to the inquisitors, the good walkers all had one characteristic in common: they were all been born with a caul. In some popular traditions, not only European, the amniotic sac was considered as the center of the “external soul”. It was therefore linked to the world of wandering souls. It was a bridge of passage, a conduit between their world and the world of the living. 

The peasant of the time who was born with the amniotic sac thus learned from family, friends, and the entire community that he was born with a special condition. The amniotic sac, sometimes worn around the neck and blessed by a priest, bound this person to a destiny from which he could not escape.

Sources: I Benandanti by Carlo Ginzburg


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