The Witches of Benevento: From Pagan Rites to Witchcraft

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The Witch Trials of Benevento: the Mysterious World of the Janare and Their Magic

The city of Benevento, located in Italy, has a reputation in folklore as being the “city of witches”.

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In ancient times, the city now known as Benevento was referred to as Malies or Malocis, then changed in Maloenton, and later Latinized to Maleventum. This name was considered ominous and is believed to have originated from a Samnite root that combined with Latin to form a word dating back to before the Neolithic period. In Maloenton, the original name for Benevento, people worshipped Bolla, a child god who, according to legend, created the river of the same name in the area corresponding today to Volla/Casalnuovo, whose waters fed the ancient Neapolitan aqueducts for centuries. During the imperial period, the ancient Samnite cults related to Italian witchcraft were maintained and Augustus permitted the construction of a temple dedicated to the goddess Isis. These traces can still be found in the city, where the Samnite rituals merged with those of the Goths, and Lombard peoples.

Related article: Demons, Monsters, and Ghosts of the Italian Folklore, The Benandanti: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults between 16th and 17th centuries in Italy

Obelisco_di_Piazza_Papiniano_11

The Egyptian Obelisks in Benevento: Detail of the Hieroglyphs. Commissioned by Roman Emperor Domitian, two obelisks were created between 88 and 89 AD to stand at the entrance of the new temple of Isis in Beneventum colony. These unique structures are adorned with intricate hieroglyphic inscriptions (source)

The ancient city was settled by the Samnite people, who lived at the junction of the Sabato and Calore rivers and were known for their wool processing and clay product trade. In the Battle of the Caudine Forks, the Samnites, led by Gaius Pontius, emerged victorious against the Romans and inflicted a humbling defeat by making them pass under the yokes. After a series of wars, the city was eventually conquered by the Romans, who renamed it from Maleventum (an unfortunate event) to Beneventum (a fortunate event) after their victory over Pyrrhus in 275 BC. Today, the city is known as Benevento.

The label “city of the witches”, which is more accurately referred to as “janare“, stems from the book “De nuce maga beneventana” written by Pietro Piperno.

The Janara Witch

The Janara is a witch figure deeply rooted in the folklore of southern Italy, particularly in the regions of Benevento and Irpinia. The name of this mythical being is believed to have originated from either the term “priestess of Diana,” a reference to Diana, the Roman goddess of the moon, or from the Latin word “ianua,” meaning “door.” According to tradition, it was customary to place a broom or a bag filled with salt grains in front of the door to prevent the janara from entering the home. If the witch happened to cross the threshold, she would be forced to spend the night counting the threads of the broom or the grains of salt until the sun rose. The sun’s light was seen as the janara’s mortal enemy, as it would render her powerless. The janara was associated with the rural and peasant community, and her presence was believed to be linked to sickness, famine, and death. In addition, the janara was thought to possess the ability to cast spells, cause supernatural occurrences, and manipulate the minds of humans. This fearsome figure was deeply entrenched in the beliefs and rituals of the local population, who often invoked her name to ward off evil and ensure a safe and prosperous future. Despite the fear she inspired, the janara was a significant part of the cultural heritage of southern Italy, and her legacy continues to be an important aspect of the region’s folklore to this day.

The Witches and the Sacred Tree of the Lombards 

Benevento is believed to be related to pagan rites performed by the Lombards near the Sabato River, where women were seen jumping around a walnut tree filled with snakes, or warriors on horseback stabbing a goat skin hanging from a tree. These rituals, which appeared demonic to the Catholic Beneventans, were likely interpreted as evidence of witchcraft and the celebration of Sabbaths.

Related articles: Ancient Rome’s Sacred Plants: History and Symbolism

The Romans believed that walnuts from Benevento possessed magical properties and should be used with caution, as consuming too many would bring bad luck. This idea was later incorporated into the principles of the Salerno Medical School, a Medieval medical school, the first and most important of its kind, which stated that “one nut is good for you, two are bad for you, three lead to death.” According to some rural beliefs, even simply sleeping or resting under a walnut tree could cause fever and headache. Keeping an animal shelter near a walnut tree was believed to drive the animals insane.

The first recorded historical account of the Benevento Walnut Tree is by the preacher St. Bernardine of Siena, who visited the city on a pastoral mission. According to Bernardino, as he traveled down the road, he observed hundreds of people and animals dancing around a tree surrounded by flames. This is the earliest known historical evidence of a sabbath. Bernardino was reportedly frightened and attempted to approach these people.

The beliefs and stories about witches that were passed down orally and recorded in inquisition trials were compiled by the Beneventan physician Pietro Piperno, who wrote an extensive book that contains a wealth of anecdotes. This book remains a significant source of information for reconstructing the history of the Benevento Walnut Tree. According to Piperno, the roots of witchcraft in Benevento can be traced back to the Lombard people,  an early Germanic people who settled in Italy. However, these Lombards were soon converted to Catholicism through the efforts of the Bishop Barbatus, who served in the area from 663 to 682. Here, the Lombards worshipped a tree that was believed to have special powers. This tree was adorned with a large golden serpent, reminiscent of the Jörmungandr, the Midgard serpent of Norse mythology. Trees held a special significance in paganism and were considered as portals to communicate with the divine. Similarly, waterways were believed to be imbued with mystical and magical powers. Women along the Sabato River bank collected medicinal herbs and also potentially dangerous plants like aconite and belladonna. The Lombards conducted intense rituals which these women could observe, join in, or even participate in with the conquerors. The Vita Barbati, which details the life of St Barbatus, mentions a “nefanda arbor” which was likely one of the plants used in worship of Isis and perhaps in sexual unions. No mention of a walnut tree is made. The first recorded reference to a walnut tree can be traced back to Matteuccia da Todi. Pietro Piperno claims that the location of the tree was on the lands of noble lord Francesco di Gennaro, while others believe it was situated in a gorge called Stretto di Barba, home to a small forest.

The walnut of Benevento

The Lombards were devotees of the god Odin and held numerous sacrifices in his honor. These rituals, which were performed near the banks of the Sabato River, were connected to the practices of the Janare, creatures known for their sinister nature. It was said that the Janare were often seen near the Sabbath, chanting incantation-like refrains, dirges, and litanies, and dancing around trees. They were also believed to be immune to snakes and held the power to dominate evil and darkness. The rituals included striking ramekins hanging from the branches with spears and arrows while riding backwards on horses, as well as chanting incantations and dancing around trees and the hymning of animal sacrifices as well. The witches would also prepare themselves by anointing certain parts of their bodies, calling upon Lucifer in the form of a goat to participate in their macabre rituals. The place where the witches gathered to perform their magical rituals was called Ripa di Janara, and here they would come together in a circle, surrounding the ancient Benevento Walnut.

According to legends, the witches had the ability to cause harm and spread fear by causing miscarriages, creating deformed and crippled infants, and sneaking into stables to ride mares to exhaustion. They would leave a trace of their presence by braiding the manes of the mares. Women of the barbarian society were also involved, shouting and inciting the men to partake in the ritualistic consumption of the offerings.

In 662, during the Byzantine siege of Benevento, St. Barbatus successfully convinced the Lombards to embrace Catholicism. This conversion ensured stability and prosperity for the city and its rulers, and led to the destruction of the sacred tree by St. Barbatus, who then built the Santa Maria in Voto temple on the site. Despite this conversion, the legends surrounding the Benevento Walnut Tree lived on and became deeply ingrained in the folklore and cultural heritage of the city. The historical significance of the tree and its connection to the pagan beliefs of the Lombards continue to be an important aspect of Benevento’s history.

Another theory is that the fame of Benevento as the “city of witches” originated from the rituals of the Samentes tribe, who were forest worshippers that celebrated their religious festivals and rites at night. The individuals who presided over these ceremonies were priestesses, who were believed to possess magical and divinatory powers. This led to the creation of legends about the city, which ultimately resulted in persecution and executions during the time of the Holy Inquisition.

The belief in witches and the city of Benevento as a hub for witchcraft continued to persist and grow over the centuries. According to popular superstition, witches from all over would gather under the walnut tree to hold banquets, orgies, and cast spells with the devil’s participation. These women, labeled as witches, were often traditional healers who possessed knowledge of herbal remedies and used them to cure illnesses, induce abortions, or exorcise demonic possession.

Matteuccia di Francesco da Todi, the Witch of Ripabianca

The earliest recorded instance of the elements associated with the “Witches of Benevento” can be traced back to the trial of Matteuccia di Francesco da Todi in 1428. Matteuccia was condemned as a “woman of very bad reputation, lifestyle, and fame, public enchantress, sorceress, mischief-maker, and witch.” Despite the negative connotations associated with witchcraft, many people, including those of high social standing, such as the condottiere Braccio di Montone, sought her services. 

However, their methods and ingredients, as recorded in the trial documents, raised suspicions. Matteuccia’s ingredients included consecrated objects and animal and human bones, as well as human fat, which was used in soap making. The most shocking admission made by Matteuccia was the consumption of infant blood, which was a commonly discussed topic in dark inquisitorial scenarios. Five specific murders were mentioned in the trial documents, with details such as the names of the parents of the infants and the location of the alleged crimes. Despite the Church’s tendency to attribute these accounts to hallucinations induced by evil, the judges at the time did not seem to question the veracity of these claims.

St. Bernardine of Siena also participated in the prosecution of Matteuccia. While St. Bernardine believed that the heinous acts attributed to Matteuccia were a result of demonic illusions, the lay tribunal led by Lorenzo de Surdis, along with other jurists, had no doubt about the veracity of the crimes and acts confessed by Matteuccia.

The documents referred to the woman as a “charmer,” “sorceress,” and “mischief-maker,” and this was linked to the realm of sexuality, which was often the target of accusations against women deemed dangerous. It’s likely that these accusations were made for a variety of reasons, including social, personal, and private matters. Behind these prosecutions often lay underlying political interests, revealing how the witch hunts were often politically motivated.

The court viewed Matteuccia’s profession as a “striga” (witch) to be a grave matter. According to court records, she not only cast spells but also carried out many other rituals. For example, to cure a paralyzed person, she would wash them with a medicinal brew and then discard the water in the street, with the intent of the spell affecting the next unsuspecting person who walked by. One of the spells attributed to Matteuccia has gained notoriety:

Unguento, Unguento
Mandame a la noce de Beniviento.
Supra aqua e supra ad vento
et supra ad omne maltempo
Ointment, Ointment
Carry me to the walnut of Benevento
Over water, over wind
Over all bad weather

The trial records suggest that Matteuccia, hailing from Todi in the province of Perugia, had attended the Benevento Sabbaths. This information was later echoed by other individuals who had undergone inquisition and faced similar charges of witchcraft. The same details, with slight variations, were also mentioned in another trial held in Perugia in 1456, where a woman named Mariana repeated the information with slight modifications (Unguento, menace a la noce de Menavento sopra l’acqua et sopra al vento).

The city of Benevento was often mentioned as a destination for witches’ Sabbaths in numerous inquisition trials, earning it a notoriety for being associated with such activities. This reputation can be attributed to certain historical events and circumstances that took place in Benevento.

Matteuccia was burned at the stake on March 20, 1428. Not much is known about her, but there is a depiction of her on the sentencing document, showing a woman with disheveled hair and holding a wand while casting a spell on a small animal. This depiction is a typical representation of witches, including Janare.

Sources: wikipedia, Vanilla Magazine, Storie Napoli, Movery

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