The Benandanti (“Good Walkers”) were an agrarian fertility cult in the Friuli district of NorthernItaly in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Benandanti claimed to travel out of their bodies while asleep to struggle against evil witches (streghe) in order to ensure good crops for the season to come. Between 1575 and 1675, in the midst of the Early Modern witch trials, the Benandanti were tried as heretics or witches under the Roman Inquisition, and their beliefs assimilated to Satanism.
According to Early Modern records, benandanta were believed to have been born with a caul on their head, which gave them the ability to take part in nocturnal visionary traditions that occured on specific Thursdays during the year. During these visions, it was believed that their spirits rode upon various animals into the sky and off to places in the countryside. Here they would take part in various games and other activities with other benandanti, and battle malevolent witches who threatened both their crops and their communities using sticks of sorghum. When not taking part in these visionary journeys, benandanti were also believed to have magical powers that could be used for healing.
In 1575, the benandanti first came to the attention of the Friulian Church authorities when a village priest, Don Bartolomeo Sgabarizza, began investigating the claims made by the benandante Paolo Gaspurotto. Although Sgabarizza soon abandoned his investigations, in 1580 the case was reopened by the inquisitor Fra Felice de Montefalco, who interrogated not only Gaspurotto but also a variety of other local benandanti and spirit mediums, ultimately condemning some of them for the crime of heresy. Under pressure by the Inquisition, these nocturnal spirit travels (which often included sleep paralysis) were assimilated to the diabolised stereotype of the witches’ Sabbath, leading to the extinction of the Benandanti cult. The Inquisition’s denounciation of the visionary tradition led to the term “benandante” becoming synonymous with the term “stregha” (meaning “witch”) in Friulian folklore right through to the 20th century.
The first historian to study the benandanti tradition was the Italian Carlo Ginzburg (1939–), who began an examination of the surviving trial records from the period in the early 1960s, culminating in the publication of his book The Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (1966, English translation 1983). In Ginzburg’s interpretation of the evidence, the benandanti was a “fertility cult” whose members were “defenders of harvests and the fertility of fields.” He furthermore argued that it was only one surviving part of a much wider European tradition of visionary experiences that had its origins in the pre-Christian period, identifying similarities with Livonianwerewolf beliefs. Various historians have alternately built on or challenged aspects of Ginzburg’s interpretation.
The Benandanti, who included both males and females, were individuals who believed that they ensured the protection of their community and its crops. They believed themselves to have been marked from birth to join the ranks of the Benandanti, by being born with a caul (the amniotic sac) covering their face. The Benandanti reported leaving their bodies in the shape of mice, cats, rabbits, or butterflies. The men mostly reported flying into the clouds battling against witches to secure fertility for their community; the women more often reported attending great feasts.
On Thursdays during the Ember days, periods of fasting for the Catholic Church, the Benandanti claimed their spirits would leave their bodies at night in the form of small animals. The spirits of the men would go to the fields to fight evil witches (malandanti). The Benandanti men fought with fennelstalks, while the witches were armed with sorghum stalks (sorghum was used for witches’ brooms, and the “brooms’ sorghum” was one of the most current type of sorghum). If the men prevailed, the harvest would be plentiful.
The female Benandanti performed other sacred tasks. When they left their bodies they traveled to a great feast, where they danced, ate and drank with a procession of spirits, animals and faeries, and learned who amongst the villagers would die in the next year. In one account, this feast was presided over by a woman, “the abbess”, who sat in splendour on the edge of a well. Carlo Ginzburg has compared these spirit assemblies with others reported by similar groups elsewhere in Italy and Sicily, which were also presided over by a goddess-figure who taught magic and divination.
The earliest accounts of the benandanti’s journeys, dating from 1575, did not contain any of the elements then associated with the diabolic witches’ sabbat; there was no worshipping of the Devil (a figure whom was not even present), no renunciation of Christianity, no trampling of crucifixes and no defilement of sacraments.
Relationship with witches
Ginzburg noted that whether the benandanti were themselves witches or not was an area of confusion in the earliest records. Whilst they combated the malevolent witches and helped heal those who were believed to have been harmed through witchcraft, they also joined the witches on their nocturnal journeys, and the miller Pietro Rotaro was recorded as referring to them as “benandanti witches”; for this reason the priest Don Bartolomeo Sgabarizza, who recorded Rotaro’s testimony, believed that while the benandanti were witches, they were ‘good’ witches who tried to protect their communities from the bad witches who would harm children. Ginzburg remarked that it was this contradiction in the relationship between the benandanti and the malevolent witches that ultimately heavily influenced their persecution at the hands of the Inquisition.
Inquisition and persecution
Sgabarizza’s investigation: 1575
“Sometimes they go out to one country region and sometimes to another, perhaps to Gradisca or even as far away as Verona, and they appear together jousting and playing games; and… the men and women who are the evil-doers carry and use the sorgham stalks which grow in the fields, and the men and women who are benandanti use fennel storks; and they go now one day and now another, but always on Thursdays, and… when they make their great displays they go to the biggest farms, and they have days fixed for this; and when the warlocks and witches set out it is to do evil, and they must be pursued by the benandanti to thwart them, and also to stop them entering the houses, because if they do not find clear water in the pails they go into the cellars and spoil the wine with certain things, throwing filth in the bungholes.”
Sgabarizza’s record of what Gaspurotto informed him, 1575.
In early 1575, Paolo Gaspurotto, a male benandante who lived in the village ofIassico, gave a charm to a miller from Brazzano named Pietro Rotaro, in the hope of healing his son, who had fallen sick from some unknown illness. This event came to the attention of the local priest, Don Bartolomeo Sgabarizza, who was intrigued by the use of such folk magic, and called Gaspurotto to him to learn more. The benandante told the priest that the sick child had “been possessed by witches” but that he had been saved from certain death by the benandanti, or “vagabonds” as they were also known. He went on to reveal more about his benandanti brethren, relating that “on Thursdays during the Ember Days of the year [they] were forced to go with these witches to many places, such as Cormons, in front of the church at Iassico, and even into the countryside around Verona,” where they “fought, played, leaped about, and rode various animals”, as well as taking part in an activity during which “the women beat the men who were with them with sorghum stalks, while the men had only bunches of fennel.”
Don Sgabarizza was concerned with such talk of witchcraft, and on 21 March 1575, he appeared as a witness before both the vicar general, Monsignor Jacopo Maracco, and the Inquisitor Fra Giulio d’Assis, a member of the Order of the Minor Conventuals, at the monastery of San Francesco di Cividale in Friuli, in the hope that they could offer him guidance in how to proceed in this situation. He brought Gaspurotto with him, who readily furnished more information in front of the Inquisitor, relating that after taking part in their games, “the witches, warlocks and vagabonds” would pass in front of people’s houses, looking for “clean, clear water” that they would then drink. According to Gaspurotto, if the witches could not find any clean water to drink, they would “go into the cellars and overturn all the wine.”
Sgabarizza did not initially believe Gaspurotto’s claim that these events had actually occured. In response to the priest’s disbelief, Gaspurotto invited both him and the Inquisitor to join the benandanti on their next journey, although refused to provide the names of any other members of the brethren, stating that he would be “badly beaten by the witches” should he do so. Not long after, on the Monday following Easter, Sgabarizza visited Iassico in order to say Mass to the assembled congregation, and following the ritual stayed among the locals for a feast held in his honour. During and after the meal, Sgabarizza once more discussed the journeys of the benandanti with both Gaspurotto and the miller Pietro Rotaro, and later learned of another self-professed benandante, the public crier Battista Moduco of Cividale, who offered more information on what occured during their nocturnal visions. Ultimately, Sgabarizza and the inquisitor Giulio d’Assisi decided to abandon their investigations into the benandanti, something the later historian Carlo Ginzburg believed was probably because they came to believe that their stories of nocturnal flights and battling witches were “tall tales and nothing more.”
Montefalco’s investigation: 1580–1582
Gaspurotto and Moduco
Five years after Sgabarizza’s original investigation, on 27 June 1580, the inquisitor Fra Felice da Montefalco decided to revive the case of the benandanti. To do so he ordered Gaspurotto to be brought in for questioning; under interrogation, Gaspurotto repeatedly denied having ever been a benandante and asserted that involvement in such things were against God, contradicting the former claims that he had made to Sgabarizza several years before. The questioning over, Gaspurotto was subsequently imprisoned. That same day, the public crier ofCividale, Battista Moduco, who was also known locally to be a benandante, was also rounded up and interrogated at Cividale, but unlike Gaspurotto, he openly admitted to Montefalco that he was a benandante, and went on to describe his visionary journeys, in which he battled witches in order to protect the community’s crops. Vehemently denouncing the actions of the witches, he claimed that the benandanti were fighting “in service of Christ”, and ultimately Montefalco decided to let him go.
“I am a benandante because I go with the others to fight four times a year, that is during the Ember Days, at night; I go invisibly in spirit and the body remains behind; we go forth in the service of Christ, and the witches of the devil; we fight each other, we with bundles of fennel and they with sorghum stalks.”
Montefalco’s record of what Moduco informed him, 1580.
On 28 June, Gaspurotto was brought in for interrogation again. This time he admitted to being a benandante, claiming that he had been too scared to do so in the previous interrogation lest the witches beat him in punishment. Gaspurotto went on to accuse two individuals, one from Gorizia and the other from Chiana, of being witches, and was subsequently released by Montefalco on the proviso that he return for further questioning at a later date. This eventially came about on 26 September, taking place at the monastery of San Francesco in Udine. This time, Gaspurotto added an extra element to his tale, claiming that an angel had summoned him to join the benandanti. For Montefalco, the introduction of this element led him to suspect that the actions of Gaspurotto were themselves heretical and satanic, and his method of interrogation became openly suggestive, putting forward the idea that the angel was actually a demon in disguise.
As historian Carlo Ginzburg related, Montefalco had begun to warp Gaspurotto’s testimony of the benandanti journey to fit the established clerical image of the diabolical witches’ sabbat, while under the stress of interrogation and imprisonment, Gaspurotto himself was losing his self-assurance and beginning to question “the reality of his beliefs”. Several days later, Gaspurotto openly told Montefalco that he believed that “the apparition of that angel was really the devil tempting me, since you have told me he can transform himself into an angel.” When Moduco was also summoned to Montefalco, on 2 October 1580, he went on to announce the same thing, proclaiming that the Devil must have deceived him into going on the nocturnal journey which he believed was performed for good. Having both confessed to Montefalco that their nocturnal journeying had been caused by the Devil, both Gaspurotto and Moduco were released, pending sentencing for their crime at a later date. Due to a jurisdictional conflict between the Cividale commissioner and the patriarch’s vicar, the pronouncement of Gaspurotto and Moduco’s punishment was postponed until 26 November 1581. Both denounced as heretics, they were spared from excommunication but condemned to six months imprisonment, and furthermore ordered to offer prayers and penances to God on certain days of the year, including the Ember Days, in order that he might forgive their sins. However, their penalties were soon remitted, on the condition that they remain within the city of Cividale for a fortnight.
Anna la Rossa and Donna Aquilina
Gaspurotto and Moduco would not be the only victims of Montefalco’s investigations however, for during late 1581 he had heard of a widow living in Urdine named Anna la Rossa. While she did not claim to be a benandante, she did claim that she could see and communicate with the spirits of the dead, and so Montefalco had her brought in for questioning on 1 January 1582. Initially denying that she had such an ability to the inquisitor, she eventually relented and told him of how she believed that she could see the dead, and how she sold their messages to members of the local community willing to pay, using the money in order to alleviate the poverty of her family. Although Montefalco intended to interrogate her again at a later date, the trial ultimately remained permanently unfinished.
That year, Montefalco also took an interest in the claims regarding the wife of a tailor living in Udine who allegedly had the power to see the dead and to cure diseases with the use of spells and potions. Known among locals as Donna Aquilina, she was said to have become relatively rich through offering her services as a professional healer, but when she learned that she was under suspicion from the Holy Inquisition, she fled the city, and Montefalco did not initially set out to locate her. Later, on 26 August 1583, Montefalco traveled to Aquilina’s home in order to interrogate her, but she fled and hid in a neighbouring house. She was finally brought in for interrogation on 27 October, in which she defended her practices, but claimed that she was neither a benandanti nor a witch.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Italian folklorists – such as G. Marcotti, E. Fabris Bellavitis, V. Ostermann, A. Lazzarini and G. Vidossi – who were engaged in the study of Friulian oral traditions, noted that the term benandante had become synonymous with the term “witch”, a result of the original Church persecutions of the benandanti.
The themes associated with the Benandanti (leaving the body in spirit, possibly in the form of an animal; fighting for the fertility of the land; banqueting with a queen or goddess; drinking from and soiling wine casks in cellars) are found repeated in other testimonies: from thearmiers of the Pyrenees, from the followers of Signora Oriente in 14th century Milan and the followers of Richella and ‘the wise Sibillia’ in 15th century Northern Italy, and much further afield, from Livonian werewolves, Dalmatian kresniki, Serbian zduhaćs,Hungarian táltos, Romaniancăluşari and Ossetian burkudzauta.
Historian Carlo Ginzburg posits a relationship between the Benandanti cult and the shamanism of the Baltic and Slavic cultures, a result of diffusion from a central Eurasian origin, possibly 6,000 years ago. This explains, according to him, the similarities between the Benandanti cult in the Friuli and a distant case in Livonia concerning a benevolent werewolf.
Indeed, in 1692 in Jurgenburg, Livonia, an area near the Baltic Sea, an old man named Theiss was tried for being a werewolf; his defense was that his spirit (and that of others) transformed into werewolves in order to fight demons and prevent them from stealing grain from the village. Historian Carlo Ginzburg has shown that his arguments, and his denial of belonging to a Satanic cult, corresponded to those used by the Benandanti. On 10 October 1692, Theiss was sentenced to ten whip strikes on charges of superstition and idolatry.