Demons, Monsters, and Ghosts of the Italian Folklore

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Italian folklore: monsters, ghosts, and demons of the traditional Italian culture

Creatures of Italian folklore. The history of Italian folklore has its roots in different cultural traditions that have left cultural legacies after their passage. Some stories have Christian origins, especially those concerning demons, which are sometimes recognized by Christian demonology, while others come from Roman and pagan mythologies. In the world of art, animals and fantastic creatures have been used with symbolic or allegorical value. Many creatures of Italian folklore were used to explain unexplainable natural phenomena such as bad harvests or sleep paralysis or were used for educational purposes, for example, to keep children away from dangerous places or animals.

Let’s see below some main demons of Italian mythology.

Hell

In religion and mythology, Hell is a realm in the hereafter where evil souls are subjected to punitive torment, most commonly by torture, as permanent punishment after death. Hell is mentioned in many mythology and beliefs. Tartarus, or Tartaros (Greek, deep place), is the region under heaven, Earth, and Pontus in classical Greek mythology. Tartarus is the hellish component of Hades (the entire underworld). It is either a deep, dark region, a pit, or an abyss used as a dungeon of agony and misery. Plato (about 400 BC) said in the Gorgias that the souls of the departed were judged after they paid to pass the river of the dead, and those who suffered punishment were consigned to Tartarus. On the other hand, the traditional Hades is more like the Old Testament Sheol. The Romans eventually adopted these ideas. Hell is taught as the final destination of those who are not found worthy after the general resurrection and last judgment in the Roman Catholic Church, many other Christian churches, such as the Methodists, Baptists, and Episcopalians, and some Greek Orthodox churches, where they will be eternally punished for sin and permanently separated from God.

Related article: Gustave Doré’s depictions of Dante’s Inferno

inferno images

Nightmares: Incubi and Succubi

According to mythical and legendary traditions, an incubus is a male demon who lies upon sleeping women to engage in sexual intercourse with them. A succubus is its feminine counterpart. Incubi and succubi stories have been told for millennia in ancient communities. According to certain legends, repeated sexual interaction with an incubus or succubus can lead to health problems, mental impairment, or even death. Many of the characteristics of this creature were then assimilated by other supernatural beings of the Italian popular tradition. In legend, a succubus is a female demon or supernatural being who appears in dreams to entice men, generally via sexual activities. Repeated sexual interaction with a succubus, according to religious traditions, can lead to poor physical or mental health, and even death. A succubus is typically shown as a lovely seductress or enchantress in modern depictions, rather than as a demonic or dangerous being.

Incubus. Dream of Hecuba, fresco by Giulio Romano, 16th century
Incubus, Dream of Hecuba, fresco by Giulio Romano, 16th century

Aamon

Aamon (or Amon) is a demon mentioned often in Christian demonology. In demonology, Aamon is one of Astaroth’s aides. He knows the past and the future. He can provoke love. He creates confusion in the minds of its enemies. According to some authors, he possesses forty legions of demons, thus having the title of “prince”. Demonologists have associated his name with that of the Egyptian god Amun or the Carthaginian god Ba’al Hammon. Aamon is also known as Nahum, whose name means “He who induces greed”. Aamon has the head of an owl, the front of the body with two wolf (or lion’s) legs, and the back that ends in a worm-snake tail.

The demon Aamon
The demon Aamon. This picture was originally drawn in 1863 for an edition of the Dictionnaire Infernal

Amphisbaena

The Amphisbaena is a mythical snake with two heads, one at each end of the body, and eyes that shine like lamps. According to the Greek myth, the amphisbaena was generated by the blood dripped from the head of the gorgon Medusa when Perseus flew over the Libyan desert.

Ammuntadòre

The ammuntadòre (from the Sardinian ammuntare / -ai “to have nightmares”) is a creature of Sardinian mythology that attacks people in their sleep through nightmares (in Sardinian called ammuntadùras). In some ways, this creature is an interpretation of the Romans’ Incubus. For some scholars, this belief mainly originated after 241 BC, or after the capture of the island by the Romans following the victory over the Carthaginians, but for others, Sardinia developed these superstitions much earlier.

The Nymph Anguana

Anguana or Agana or Longana is an aquatic nymph belonging to Alpine mythology, widespread also in Umbria, Abruzzo, Emilia Romagna, Veneto, and Tuscany. She lives only in fresh waters, such as lakes, rivers, waterfalls, and streams. Generally, the anguane are represented as nature spirits similar to the nymphs of the Greek-Roman world (probable original model of the myth), whose characters very often merge with those of the undines and other figures of Germanic and Slavic mythology (the rusalki in particular). In many areas of Friuli, their myth overlaps and merges with that of the Krivapete, with which they share numerous legends. Some stories affirm that anguane, like other mythical creatures, were women who died in childbirth, or even young dead girls, or the souls of stillborn children, or even women born wrapped in the amniotic sac, like the benandanti. According to other traditions they were women of the woods, dedicated to a pagan cult, but they were mostly considered non-human creatures belonging to the spirit world. They are frequently described as young women, often very attractive and able to seduce men; at other times, however, they appear as beings that are half girls and half reptiles or fish, capable of shouting. In other stories, they are thin and ghostly old women or nocturnal creatures who always vanish before anyone can see their faces. The legends about anguane have in common the presence, in these creatures, of one or more non-human traits: hen, duck, goat feet, etc. The other common element is they live near springs and streams and are protectors of the waters. Many stories tell of how they taught men traditional crafts, such as spinning wool or cheese making. Such stories generally end with men breaking the pact and offending the anguana.

The Anguana (the term ‘Anguana’ probably comes from Anguis, snake, grass snake) is a variant of the many female entities with reptilian or pisciform features. These traditions have their roots in Indo-European mythology. These female semi deities, always linked to water, have some common traits: they have an at least partially or temporarily anthropomorphic appearance but keep a profound animality, so much to dominate the animal world and to be identified with a totemic animal. They are sexualized: men can have an erotic relationship with them. They can make use of magic and control time. They often show themselves as a triad of beautiful maidens. They always live in a distant and often inaccessible dimension. They are connected to the sun and life, or, in contrast, to darkness and the chthonic world and death. More strictly, the anguane has many points of contact with the French Melusine.

Babau

The babau, the Bogeyman, (more rarely babao, barabao, or bobo) is in Italian folklore and other European regions, a mythical monster that is traditionally invoked to scare children.

Badalisc

The Badalisc (also Badalisk or Badelisc) is a mythological figure from the Camonica Valley, in Lombardy. According to tradition, it is a mythological being who lives in the woods. Every year, during the period of the epiphany (5-6 January), the animal is captured by young people and brought to the village. Here is held the speech of the Badalisc, in which the animal reveals some goliardic news about the community. On the second day, the Badalisc dinner is served, and in the evening the monster is released and allowed to return to the woods.

Badalisc mythical creature
Badalisc. Author: Luca Giarelli, fonte

Badalischio

The badalischio was a legendary creature of the Casentino valley, Province of Arezzo. This monster, similar to the basilisk, is said to have been born in the Black Gorga, a small lake near the Fonte del Borbotto. One of the badalischio’s hiding places was the wood next to the Fornace di Marena, in a place called “Fosso del Diavolo”. The creature was a kind of bizarre snake the size of a man, wrapped in a newborn’s linen bandages, with red eyes capable of paralyzing the unfortunate prey. Some legends state that its breath was extremely poisonous, even deadly. The badalischio was often depicted with a crown or diadem, which sometimes covers his eyes. In other cases, it was described with cartilaginous wings and a bird’s head, or with the appearance of a feline.

Basilisk

A basilisk is a mythological reptile thought to be a snake king who can induce death with a single glance in European bestiaries and folklore. According to Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia, the basilisk of Cyrene is a small snake “not more than twelve fingers in length” that is so poisonous that it leaves a vast track of fatal venom in its wake, and its stare is also lethal. The basilisk, like other ancient legendary creatures, is the prototype of many monsters in Italian and European folklore.

Befana

The Befana, lexical corruption of Epiphany, is a popular folkloric character linked to the Christmas holidays, typical of some Italian regions, and then spread throughout the rest of the country. According to tradition, it is a very old woman who flies a broom, to visit the children on the night between 5 and 6 January (the night of the Epiphany) to fill the socks left by them hung on the fireplace or near a window; generally, children who have behaved well throughout the year will receive sweets, candies, nuts, or small toys. Conversely, those who have misbehaved will find the socks filled with charcoal or garlic. The origin of the Befana is perhaps connected to a set of pagan propitiatory rites, dating back to the 10th-6th century BC, linked to the seasonal cycles linked to agriculture in northern, central, and southern Italy. The ancient Romans inherited these rites, associating them with the Roman calendar, and celebrating the temporal interregnum between the end of the solar year, the winter solstice, and the recurrence of Sol Invictus. On the twelfth night after the winter solstice, the death and rebirth of nature were celebrated through Mother Nature. The Romans believed that in these twelve nights female figures flew over the cultivated fields, to propitiate the fertility of future crops, hence the myth of the “flying” character. According to some, this female deity was first identified in Diana, while according to others she was associated with a minor deity called Sàtia (goddess of satiety), or Abùndia (goddess of abundance ). Another hypothesis connects the Befana with an ancient Roman festival, which always took place in winter, in honor of Janus and Strenua and during which gifts were exchanged. The Befana, according to widely accepted interpretations in central and northern Europe, refers to the Celtic goddess of Perchta.

Bella ‘mbriana

La Bella ‘mbriana is invoked in all difficult situations that compromise family serenity in the traditional folklore of Naples. She is generally a good spirit, but don’t be offended because she can cause the death of one of her family members. According to popular tradition, she manifests herself in the form of a gecko.

The Benandanti

The benandanti were associated with a pagan-shamanic peasant religion focused on earth fertility in Friuli between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The benendanti were small congregations that protected villages and crops against witchcraft.

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

Biddrina

The biddrina is a legendary animal that, according to folklore, dwells in the marshes of the Caltanissetta area. This reptile is a green or blue snake, with red eyes and a mouth huge enough to devour children, lambs, and newborns. It is frequently characterized as a massive serpent, a hydra, or a mix between a dragon and a crocodile. It has a strong armor of glowing scales that renders it nearly invulnerable.

Sculpture of a biddrina on a fountain in Mussomeli (Caltanissetta)

Bisso Galeto

The Bisso Galeto is a legendary creature of the Veronese valleys. It has the body and head of a rooster, with a large red crest, wings full of spines, and a snake’s tail. Its normal size is quite small, making it similar to a small snake, but the Bisso Galeto can increase and decrease the length of its body at will. It is a very poisonous animal. It hatches from an egg laid by an old rooster and hatched by a snake or toad for nine years.

Bombasin

The Bombasin is a mythic creature from the Polesine and the Venetian Lagoon traditions. The figure has the appearance of an enraged bull and represents the most fierce and savage part of human nature, and is traditionally associated with the festivities of Brusavecia and Carnival. Peasants often accompany him in parades, holding him with a chain, while the Bombasin frightens people and children along his way. His name is derived from the term ‘bambagia’, which is derived from the Greek word for cotton, which is used to make the black cloak worn by the Bombasin. More modern legends link him to the mythological creature of King Hadrian and the Gnomes of Polesine. 

Bonnacon

The bonnacon (also known as the bonaco) is a mythical beast depicted as a bull with inward-curving horns and a horse-like mane. Its fur is typically depicted in medieval bestiaries as reddish-brown or black. Because its horns were worthless for self-defense, it was said that the bonnacon discharged vast volumes of caustic excrement from its anus at its pursuers, burning them and securing its escape. 

Borda

The Borda is a legendary creature that belongs to the tradition of Emilia-Romagna and other areas of the Po Valley. She is a witch who appears blindfolded, both at night and on foggy days, and kills anyone who has the misfortune to meet her. She is a personification of fear related to swampy areas, ponds, and canals, invoked by adults to scare children and keep them away from these dangerous places. Some scholars say that the etymology of the term Borda derives from the root “bor-” which should be traced back to Borvo (Dian Cecht), a Celtic divinity who presided over the thermal and spring waters.

Buffardello

The buffardello is an elf present in the popular tradition of the province of Lucca and Massa-Carrara. The buffardello is generally described as a small anthropomorphic being dressed in red clothing.

Caddos birdes

In Sardinian folklore, the caddos birdes (“green horses”) were mythical creatures, which appeared in the form of small horses with green fur. They were very rare and very difficult to spot. Impossible to tame, they have never been mounted by anyone.

Catoblepas

The catoblepas is a legendary creature described by Pliny the Elder and Claudius Eliano. In ancient Greek and Roman mythology, it was an “African quadruped, depicted with his heavy head always lowered to the ground”. Pomponius Mela reprises Pliny the Elder’s account but adds that the creature is quiet and has not been known to physically harm anyone. According to Timotheus of Gaza, the catoblepas releases fire from its nostrils. 

Cogas or Bruxas

The cogas or bruxas, in Sardinian traditions, are witches with the appearance of an old woman, having the ability to assume any shape and size, both animal and vegetable or even of people. During the night, in groups, they sneaked into the houses kill male babies. To protect their children, the parents placed a cane rod and a blessed rosary on the baby’s cradle. When the witches arrived next to the cradle, they began to count the beads of the rosary, without ever being able to count them all before dawn, when they were forced to flee so as not to be hit by the sunlight. The Cogas looked like old women but they recognized each other mainly because they had a small piece of tail since they were born and could take on any shape.

The Confined

Confined or confined souls are mythical creatures widespread in the popular traditions of north-eastern Lombardy. They were the souls of unsatisfied dead people, who had been sent into exile through an exorcism, in such a way that they could not harm the living.

Dipsa

The dipsa is a tiny, extremely venomous snake found in medieval bestiaries. It was said to be so poisonous that its victims would die before they became aware that they had been bitten.

Erchitu

Su Boe Erchitu is a legendary creature of Sardinian folk tradition. According to local legends, a man who has committed a serious crime can be transformed by a spell, during the nights of the full moon, into a white ox with two large steel-coated horns, which wander the streets of the town, escorted from a mob of devils. Generally, the Erchitu automatically regained his human form at dawn, but according to other versions for this to happen he had to roll around in front of three churches or in front of a cemetery; it seems that this rite was a kind of tribute to the divinity, so that it would allow the damned to resume human form. His large steel horns must be cut to free the victim from the spell ( according to popular tradition the horns can heal ailments of the spleen).

Faun

The faun is a legendary creature that is half-human and half-goat that appears in Greek and Roman mythology. Fauns are bipedal beings having the horns, legs, and tail of a goat and the head, torso, and arms of a human, and are sometimes represented with pointed ears. They are more usually associated with the satyrs of Greek mythology than the fauns of Roman mythology. These legendary creatures derived their appearance from the satyrs, shaped as the Greek pantheon’s deity Pan. They were emblems of peace and fertility, and their ruler, Silenus, was a Greek mythological minor deity. Ancient Roman mythology also included a divinity named Faunus, who was commonly linked with magical forests, as well as the Greek god Pan and goddess Fauna, who were goat people. 

The Death of Procris. Piero di Cosimo, 1495 circa
The Death of Procris. Piero di Cosimo, 1495 circa

Gata Carogna

In the folklore of Lombardy, the Gata Carogna is a monstrous animal analogous to the Mammone Cat, which infests the dark alleys of the cities. She looks like a big red cat, with shaggy fur and angry eyes, who attack children to steal their souls.

Gatto Mammone

The Gatto Mammone (Mammon Cat) or gattomammone is a magical creature of popular tradition, with the characteristics of a huge terrifying-looking cat. Its name derives from the encounter of the term cat (animal in the Middle Ages associated with the devil) with maimūn (which in Arabic means “monkey”) or Mammon, a word with an uncertain etymology which in Aramaic is an attribute of the devil. This cat frightened the grazing herds and had demonic movements and expressions. In other descriptions, it has a protective function and is a positive spirit, immune to the harmful effects of the spells of other spirits. According to some studies, the tradition of the mammon cat has its roots in the Phoenician or Egyptian civilization: the god Maimone, or the sacred cats of the ancient Egyptian traditions, symbols of fertility and linked to the god Amon. With the advent of Christianity, these ancient pagan rituals were first demonized and then confined to the Carnival, and their symbols transformed into masks. The mammon cat appears frequently in traditional Italian fairy tales, for example in the Pentamerone by Giambattista Basile, and is often mentioned to frighten children (similar to the babau in this case).

gatto mammone
Mammone Cat in Matkhandouch, Lybia

Gigat

The Gigat (Gigiàt or Gigiàtt) is, in Lombard Alpine folklore traditions, a monster of enormous proportions, similar to a goat or a chamois, with very long hair. It is a vegetarian animal, but it sometimes attacks lone travelers or hikers.

Gigat
The Gigat

Giubiana the Witch

Giubiana is a thin witch with very long legs and red stockings. She lives in the woods and thanks to her long legs, she never sets foot on the ground but moves from tree to tree. She watches everyone who enters the woods and scares the children. The name “Giubiana” seems to be connected to the Roman god Jupiter: the adjective “joviana”, or “Jovia” (which has become “Giobia”, in other parts of Lombardy and some areas of Piedmont) comes from the Roman god. Other possible reference figures are Juno, Giano, and Diana. With the spread of the Christian religion, references to pagan gods were set aside, but the original name of Giubiana has been preserved over time. In the medieval centuries, the popular narration has originated various legends and numerous folk tales, in which Giubiana has thus become a female figure that alludes to the Great Mother. Sometimes she is an old woman, other times a witch, a variant of the Befana. The most characterizing element of the traditional festival dedicated to her in Piedmont and Lombardy is the great bonfire, which is still perceived today as a symbol of renewal and restart of the new year.

The 2014 Giöbia festival of the Bustocca family in Busto Arsizio
The 2014 Giöbia festival in Busto Arsizio

Gnefro

The gnefro or gnèfru is, in the popular culture of Umbria, a legendary creature that usually lives in groups near the Marmore waterfall and along the Nera river between the waterfall and the end of the Valnerina. The gnerfo is a sort of small elf or gnome who enjoys bothering travelers with little jokes or teasing.

Griffin

The griffin is a legendary creature with the body of a lion and the head of an eagle. The greater frequency of representation of this hybrid creature is found in Minoan / Mycenaean and Greek art, however, there are some archetypal figures in various civilizations of the Mediterranean and Middle East Asia. The griffin was in ancient times a symbol of divine power and a guardian of divinity. It was used in medieval Christianity as a symbol of Jesus Christ, who was both human and divine.

Trapezophoros with two griffins tearing a doe apart, Ascoli Satriano (Foggia)
Trapezophoros with two griffins tearing a doe apart, Ascoli Satriano (Foggia)

The Laùro

The Lauro, Laurieddhu, or Scazzamurrieddhru is a mischievous elf from southern Italian folklore. These creatures lived in the woods or within the domestic walls of country houses, barns, or in the city. According to some legends, Lauro was the spirit of an unbaptized child. The vision of one of them would generate a kind of infinite terror. The benign Lauro helped farmers in rural work, for example by looking after animals at night and, in some cases, milking or grooming them or giving gold coins or keeping wild animals away from the fields. The malignant Lauro, on the other hand, could torment their victims, in some cases even sitting on people’s chests during sleep making them lose their breath. In some cases, they inextricably intertwine the manes of horses. The only solution was to cut the mane to save the animal’s life.

Linchetto

The linchetto is not a bad but spiteful spirit, who goes at night, and enters the rooms, disturbing people. The name derives from the Latin incubus with the agglutination of the article. In some cases, the linchetto is identified with the buffardello, however, the linchetto is more malignant and it is also assimilated to the devil or an evil spirit. Unlike the buffardello, the linchetto is described as a being that has nothing human: an animal similar to a dog or a cat or a bird, or a hybrid of different species (mouse, bird, and man). According to one description, it was a black beast wrapped in a cloud of fire. The linchetto can be frightened with a blessed candle. To keep it away from houses and stables, a juniper branch can be hung behind the door. The linchetto will be forced to count all the leaves without being able to do the desired spite.

Jaculo

The iaculo, also known as the javelin snake, is a snake described by various ancient scholars. According to the descriptions made of it, the iaculus has a particular hunting method: it lurks on a tree and waits for prey to pass under it, and then launches as fast as an arrow and pierces it from side to side, killing it instantly.

The Janare witches

The janara is one of the many species of witches belonging to the tradition of the rural and peasant world, widespread in southern Italy and in particular in the Benevento area. The name could derive from Dianara, “priestess of Diana”, the Roman goddess of the Moon, or from the Latin ianua, ‘door’: according to tradition to defeat the witch it was necessary to place in front of a door, a broom or a bag with grains of salt. The janara go out at night and sneak into the horse stables to get a mare and ride it through the night. She also had the habit of braiding the mane of the kidnapped young mare, thus leaving a sign of her presence. It happened at times that the mare exhausted by the long ride could not bear the immense effort, dying of fatigue. To avoid the kidnapping of the mares, it was customary to place a sack of salt or a broom in front of the doors of the stables since the janara could not resist the temptation to count the grains of salt or the strings of the broom and while she was busy counting, the sun would forcing her to flee. The janara was lonely and many times, even in everyday life, she had an aggressive character. According to tradition, it was possible to catch the janara, grabbing her by her hair. She offered her wards for seven generations to anyone who managed to capture her once she was freed.

Illustration taken from: Enrico Isernia, History of the city of Benevento from its origin until 1894
Janare Witches. Enrico Isernia, History of the city of Benevento from its origin until 1894

The Janas

The Janas were the fairies of Sardinian folklore. They lived in the ‘Domus de Janas’, which were rock-cut tombs. According to some legends, however, they lived on top of the nuraghe (https://weirditaly.com/2021/05/02/facts-history-pictures-of-the-ancient-megalithic-nuraghes-in-sardinia/) and spent their time weaving with a gold loom. They were benevolent creatures and gave free aid to anyone who asked for it. It is also said that if someone had found one of the looms abandoned by these fairies he would have found luck. An invaluable treasure could be hidden under it.

Krampus

The Krampus is a demonic being that accompanies the religious-folkloristic version of Saint Nicholas, being represented by a traditional masked parade along the streets of the town. This tradition is linked to Christian mythology, San Nicola and his servant called Krampus, where the latter is a demon defeated by the saint and therefore forced to serve him. The Krampus (from the Bavarian krampn, meaning “dead”, “putrefied”, or from the term kramp, which in German means “claw”) are demons with monstrous and animalistic features, unleashed and very disturbing, which roam the streets searching for evil children. Their faces are covered in frightening diabolical masks, their clothes are tattered, dirty, and worn. The Krampus, wandering through the streets of the villages, cause noises obtained by cowbells or horns, which accompany them on their journey, while they hit people with whips. The origin of this tradition, maintained with pride in many municipalities that are part of the former Austro-Hungarian area, dates back to the pre-Christian period and is attested at least from the 6th-7th century AD. This event is linked to the winter solstice.

Krampus in Dobbiaco
Krampus in Dobbiaco

Maciara

According to the popular culture of southern Italy, the maciara (or masciara) is a person with magical powers. The term masciara means witch. There are numerous legends related to this character, such as the ‘Gatta Masciara‘ of the Apulian folklore. Even today the masciara is invoked and consulted by people who face difficult situations in daily life, difficulties attributed to the evil eye (the malocchio), a supernatural belief in a curse, brought about by a malevolent glare, usually given to a person when one is unaware. 

Maimone or Mamuthone

Maimone or Mamuthone is a divinity of nature current in the mythology and culture of Sardinia. He was transformed, with the advent of Christianity, into a devil. According to some researchers, Maimone corresponds to the ancient Phoenician deity of rain. According to the archaeologist Giovanni Lilliu Maimone he was a demonic being invoked as a rainmaker in Cagliari and Ghilarza while in Iglesias he was the spirit of a still existing city well, called Su Maimoni. The cult of Maimone is still present today in Ogliastra and some centers of Barbagia.

Marranghino

The Marranghino is a fictional character in Lucanian folklore. The myth of him shares common traits with that of Monachicchio, and is particularly widespread in the province of Matera. According to traditional legends, the Marranghino has a clumsy appearance: particularly short in stature, with mustaches, a large belly, and a large head. The Marranghino is not described as an evil being, but rather as a spirit who enjoys joking, laughing, and playing with people, without causing harm. In traditional legends and fairy tales, he especially enjoys hiding peasant tools during agricultural work.

Marroca

The marròca is a mythological animal that, according to peasant traditions, lives essentially in the wetlands of the Val di Chiana countryside. It is a repulsive animal, a cross between a large snail and a water snake. Sometimes of indefinite shape, which loves to live in pools of stagnant water, and in the sewers. It would make a hoarse sound, especially in the presence of swirls. In the province of Viterbo, on the other hand, Marroca is a witch or an ugly and evil woman.

Masca

The Masca is a female creature of the Piedmontese folklore. The tradition attributes to her supernatural faculties. Generally, they are normal women but endowed with supernatural faculties handed down from mother to daughter or grandmother to granddaughter, or by voluntary bequest to a young woman. According to tradition, the powers of the maschas include immortality but not eternal youth or health: they are therefore vulnerable and prone to disease and aging. When they decide that they have had enough of this life, to die they must transmit the powers to another living creature, which is often a young person in the family, but sometimes it can be an animal or a vegetable. The maschas have the power of bilocation and transformation into animals, plants, or objects. Since during their magical flight the body remains unattended and inanimate, the activity of the maschas is almost exclusively nocturnal. They are not evil, but the maschas are often vengeful and spiteful.

Maskinganna

The maskinganna (also known as S’Ingannadore), literally “master of deceptions”, was a legendary character of Sardinian folklore who enjoyed making fun of sleeping people making them awaken in terror. Its appearance was that of a sylvan devil, but its peculiarity is that it can assume any shape; sometimes he took on the appearance of a crying child or sometimes of a beautiful boy (or girl) who appeared briefly and disappeared immediately afterward. The character Maskinganna could be compared to the sileni and satyrs of the Roman era.

Mazapégul

Mazapégul is an elf of the folkloric tradition of Romagna, in particular of the Forlì Apennines. It is a very small creature, a hybrid between a cat and a monkey, with gray fur, and wears a red cap on its head. Being one of the many incubi he is a true master in causing horrible dreams. The Mazapegul are a small family of night elves made up of different tribes such as the Mazapedar, the Mazapegul, the Mazapigur, and the Calcarel, spread throughout Romagna. The Mazapégul is responsible for the sense of suffocation and paralysis that sometimes oppresses the sleepers. They try to seduce the women they are in love with. If their requests are granted, they will help the woman with the housework. If the woman pushes them away, or worse, then they will torment her with teasing, scratching, or other spite. They seduce the animals of the stable, especially the horses, to which they adorn their manes and tails with braids. Women can get rid of Mazapegul by being seen in the evening while they eat a piece of bread while pretending to louse. The offended Mazapegol will go away believing that the protected person is very unclean.

Mazaròl

The Mazaròl is a fantastic creature typical of the folklore of the Dolomites. He has the features of an old man of robust build, dressed in red, with a large hat, and a black cape. His nature is usually benevolent, but fierce and savage, being moreover sensitive and vindictive towards those who betray his trust (he hid disobedient children under his cloak). Whoever stepped on a footprint he left was forced by a spell to follow its footprints until he reached his cave. There, the traveler drank the milk of a black goat and immediately forgot everything about himself. According to a legend, the Mazaròl sometimes kidnaps people to turn them into his slaves, as in the legend of the Girl from Primiero.

Mazzamurello

The mazzamurello is a mythical creature of the folkloric tradition of most of the central-southern regions of Italy. The mazzamurello is a mountain elf. The mazzamurello is similar to the domestic and nature sprite Welsh Puck (Robin Goodfellow), made famous by William Shakespeare in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Mommotti or Mobbotti

The mommotti or mobbotti in the Sardinian tradition represent an imaginary figure used to frighten children. Sometimes they are associated with the Bogeyman or with an evil ogre and their job is to abduct children who do not behave well.

Monachicchio

The origin of the myth is to be found in the Roman religious traditions, which attributed to the Lares and Penates the protection of the dead and the house. With the advent of Christianity, these pagan figures were gradually assimilated, into the popular imagination, with that of the Incubus spirit, of which some manifestations of the Lucanian Monachicchio inherit most of their attributes. The description of Monachicchio and its supernatural abilities varies from area to area in ​​Basilicata. According to the tradition of Grassano, in the province of Matera, Monachicchio is the spirit of a child who died before receiving baptism. Good-looking and kind-tempered, he wears a red cap on his head, called u cuppulicchi (“the hood”). He usually appears to children, both during the day and at night, and with them, he spends a lot of time joking, playing, and chasing each other. With adults he enjoys removing the blankets from the bed, tickling people’s feet, perching on them while they sleep (like a nightmare) and tying the hairs of the donkeys, mules, and horses, and then waiting until dawn, when the peasants get out of bed, looking from under the bellies of the animals and beginning to laugh out loud at the sight of the peasants’ vain attempts to undo the knots made with their hair. With women, he enjoys whispering sweet words into the ears of pretty girls and licking the cheeks of chubby ones. Then when he is satisfied with his jokes, clapping his hands disappears into his fantasy world, where he dwells in a cave full of treasures.

Munaciello

The munaciello is a legendary sprite of Neapolitan folklore. A spirit of both beneficial and spiteful nature, he is usually represented as a deformed boy or a short person, dressed in a robe and silver buckles on his shoes. The munaciello legend has centuries-old origins, and scholars of popular traditions credit two main hypotheses. According to the first, the munaciello was a real person. The origin should be traced back to 1445, during the reign of Alfonso V of Aragon, when the love between Caterinella Frezza, daughter of a rich cloth merchant, and the apprentice Stefano Mariconda, was opposed by her family. Stefano was attacked and thrown into the void, under the eyes of his fiancée while he was walking along a dangerous path over the rooftops of Naples. After the young man’s body was interred, Catherine, pregnant, asked and obtained permission to lock herself up in a convent in the area, where she gave birth to a small and deformed child. His mother began to dress him in a black and white monk’s suit, hoping for a miracle, and this fact was the origin of the nickname munaciello. His appearance aroused disgust and suspicion, which soon became insults and rude toward him. He was therefore attributed benevolent or malevolent supernatural powers. In particular, good luck was associated with the red hood and bad luck with the black hood. After his mother’s death, the situation worsened. All sorts of unfavorable events were attributed to him, from illnesses to new taxes. Eventually, the munaciello mysteriously disappeared, and the popular rumor was that he had been taken away by the devil. According to another legend, the munaciello was the ancient custodian of water wells (the “pozzaro”), who was able (due to his small stature) to enter the houses by passing through the canals that were used to lower the bucket. Since the pozzari were often not paid by their clients, they took revenge by entering the homes of the Lords and stealing precious objects. The same precious objects, sometimes, were then donated by the pozzari to their lovers. For this reason, legend has it that the munaciello sometimes steals, sometimes gives. Tradition does not indicate precisely the place where the munaciello lives, but it is supposed that it dwells among the ruins of some of the abbeys and monasteries in the hills surrounding the city of Naples.

Orcolat

The orcolat is a mythic creature that popular tradition indicates as the cause of the earthquakes in Friuli. The Orcolat is a recurring figure, especially in the tales of the popular tradition. He lives locked up in the mountains of Carnia: his every sudden agitation causes an earthquake.

Ozaena

Ozena (in Latin Ozaena) is a legendary octopus described by Pliny the Elder and its name means “stinking octopus” due to its unpleasant smell. Most of the ozenas were small in size and remained at the bottom of the sea. In rare cases, some larger species attacked humans and drowned them.

Pantafica

The pantafica is a specter of Abruzzo and Marche folklore, a personification of the nightmare. She often has the appearance of an old witch who materializes in the sleeper’s room and prevents him from breathing. In some cases, she assumes the appearance of a large black cat instead. The legend of the pantafica originates from the phenomenon of sleep paralysis. The inability to move and the anxiety to shout can sometimes be associated with vivid and frightening hallucinations (hypnagogic illusion), which folklore has personified in human or animal features (witch, goblin, gnome, black cat) and explained in paranormal terms. The pantafica is sometimes considered the soul of a suicide who returns to the place of his death. Popular tradition suggests, as a remedy for the apparition, to sleep in a supine position or to keep the entity at bay by placing brooms, bags of legumes, or sand near the bed, believing that the supernatural being is irresistibly tempted to count the objects and she is thus distracted from her purpose of disturbing the sleeper.

Pantàsema

The Pantàsema (Pantàsima, Fantàsima, Mammoccia, Signoraccia) is an ancient female creature linked to the agricultural rites of the pagan culture of central Italy, particularly present in the Lazio and Abruzzo territories.

Pettenedda

The Pettenedda is a mythical creature of the Sardinian tradition that would live in wells. The legend was probably invented by mothers to scare children and keep them away from wells. The pettenedda was a very old woman who spent her life combing her messy hair (hence her name) with her very long nails, without ever being able to put them in order, which is why it is always said to be very angry.

Salamander 

The legendary salamander is frequently shown as a regular salamander with a lizard-like appearance, although it is generally attributed to an affinity with fire, sometimes especially elemental fire. After the Classical period, images of the salamander became increasingly fanciful and stylized, bearing little similarity to the animal described by ancient authors. Salamanders gave their name to a category of the fairy people already known from Celtic mythology, the elementals of fire. In the Christian Middle Ages, the salamander was loaded even more with symbolic meanings, linked to the image of Christ itself, due to the ability of the homonymous amphibian to rise again after death, like the phoenix from her ashes.

Sa Mama ‘e su Sole

Sa Mama ‘e su Sole (the Mother of the Sun) is a mythical creature of Sardinian folklore, used to scare children who did not want to go to sleep on summer afternoons when the sun was too strong. According to the legend, if Mama ‘e su Sole had met a child on the street playing disobeying his parents, she would have chased him until touching his forehead, leaving a mark on him. The child would suffer from a fever (halentura), which lasts a few days.

Scultone

In Sardinian folklore, the Scultone was a mythical animal, with reptilian features, similar to a dragon that killed men and animals. Since the gaze of the Scultone had the power to kill, Peter the apostle looked at it through a small mirror, neutralizing this power.

Snake regolo

The regolo (regolo means ruler) is a mythical animal of the Tuscan, Umbrian, Abruzzese, Sabine, and Marche traditions. It’s a large snake, with a head “as big as that of a child”, which lives in the scrublands, fields, and ravines of the mountains. According to tradition, a viper cut in half becomes a ruler. The ruler is very vindictive and persecutes all those who have the misfortune to meet him and pronounce his name, as well as towards the one who attacked and mutilated her. According to other versions, a viper that has exceeded 100 years of age becomes a ruler. The name regolo refers to “little king” and is a connection with the Mediterranean tradition of the basilisk.

Su Ammuntadore

Su Ammuntadore or Ammuntadori is a mythical creature of Sardinian mythology that attack people in their sleep through nightmares. It is very recurrent, and not accepted within Christian demonology, as it is probably of popular origin.

Strego

The strego is a character of the popular tradition of Garfagnana, Province of Lucca, similar to a witch. The strego seems to have a more ambiguous attitude as he is usually not interested in other human beings preferring to gather in groups to perform non-religious ceremonies.

Strix

In later folklore, the Strix was a bird that squirted milk upon newborns’ lips. Pliny disregarded this as folly in his Natural History, stating that it was hard to determine what bird was meant by this. Titinius mentions a similar practice, in which the Strix lactates foul-smelling milk onto a newborn’s lips, noting that the putting of garlic on the infant was the recommended amulet to guard against it. They were reported to disembowel a child and suck on its blood, according to Ovid. Ovid allows for the Striges to be natural birds, magical goods, or transformations by witches employing magical incantations. The Italian word for witch is Striga (derived from the Latin striga). This phrase inspired the term stregheria, which is frequently used in English to describe a type of witchcraft. 

Tarantasio

According to popular legends, Lake Gerundo was inhabited by a dragon called Tarànto or more commonly known as Tarantasio, who fed mainly on children. Numerous legends have arisen about the dragon, all of which are united by the concomitance between the killing of Tarànto and the drying up of the lake. A popular legend tells that the dragon was born from the rotting flesh of the leader Ezzelino III da Romano, who died in those lands. Some popular sources attribute the draining and reclamation of the lake to San Cristoforo, who allegedly defeated the dragon, others to San Colombano (slayer of the dragon of the hermitage of San Colombano) or Federico Barbarossa

Drawing depicting the dragon of Lake Gerundo made by Ulisse Aldrovandi.
Drawing depicting the dragon of Lake Gerundo made by Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605)

Tatzelwurm

In the folklore of the Alpine region of south-central Europe, the Tatzelwurm or Stollenwurm, Stollwurm is a lizard-like creature, often described as having the face of a cat, with a serpent-like body which may be slender or stubby, with four short legs or two forelegs. The alleged creature is sometimes said to be venomous, or to attack with poisonous breath, and to make a high-pitched or hissing sound. Anecdotes describing encounters with the creature or briefly describing lore about them can be found in several areas of Europe, including the Austrian, Bavarian, French, Italian and Swiss Alps.

Depiction of the cat-faced Tatzelwurm, "mountain dragon" of the Swiss Alps claimed to have been encountered in Sarganserland, c. 1660
Depiction of the cat-faced Tatzelwurm, “mountain dragon” of the Swiss Alps claimed to have been encountered in Sarganserland, c. 1660

Thyrus 

Thyrus is a legendary dragon that infested the marshes of Terni in 1200. The inhabitants died suffocated by the pestiferous breath of the monster. A brave young man of a noble family, of Germanic origin, the Citizens, killed the beast after a bitter fight, freeing the citizens of Terni from death. 

Trud 

Trud is a Tyrolean folklore witch who enters bedrooms at night through the keyhole, sits on people’s chests, and prevents them from breathing. In this case, to defend oneself is enough to make the sign of the cross, which is difficult in a situation of paralysis. 

Unicorn

Since antiquity, the unicorn has been described as a beast with a single huge, pointed, spiraling horn emerging from its forehead. For the last thousand years or so, the unicorn has been shown in European literature and art as a white horse-like or goat-like animal with a long straight horn with swirling grooves, cloven hooves, and sometimes a goat’s beard. It was widely characterized in the Middle Ages and Renaissance as a highly wild forest creature, a symbol of purity and elegance that could only be captured by a virgin. Its horn was mentioned in encyclopedias as having the ability to make poisoned water drinkable and to heal disease. The unicorn was a widely used symbol in medieval Italian heraldry.

Unicorn carved in the marble of the portal of Palazzo Schifanoia, Ferrara, 15th century.
Unicorn carved in the marble of the portal of Palazzo Schifanoia, Ferrara, 15th century.

The wild man

The wild man, or woodwose/wodewose is a mythical figure that appears in the art and literature of medieval Europe, comparable to the satyr or faun type in classical mythology and Silvanus, the Roman god of the woodlands. In Italy, the tradition relating to wild man has developed throughout the Alps and pre-Alps and the northern Apennines, while it is almost absent in the South. The legends concerning him generally describe him as a man who lives outside the civilized society, in the woods, where he creates his house in a cave, in an abandoned cabin, or in other similar places. Emerged from the woods, the wild man taught men the art of dairy farming (or, in other versions, beekeeping or mining techniques). However, mocked, snubbed, deceived, or frightened, he would return to the forest, depriving man of the possibility of knowing other secrets. This tale shares some similarities with the anguane. In the various Italian traditions, the wild man has different names: Basadonne, Bilmon, Bregostèna, Gigant, Irsat, Krivopeta, Omm salvädag, Pàntogan, etc.

Homo salvadego, Sacco in Valtellina
Homo salvadego, Sacco in Valtellina

The Witches of Valcamonica

The witches of Valcamonica were persecuted between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in the area. It is one of the largest and most intense series of witch trials in Italy.

Sources: Wikipedia, 2, 3, 4

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