Being Benandante — a good walkers

I saw this on LRB and then searched some more on it….here’s what told me…

Witchcraft in Italy

 Carlo Ginzburg, Night Battles , and the Benandanti

In the 1960’s, Carlo Ginzburg made the discovery that many historians dream of, In the Archepiscopal archives of Udine, in the north eastern Italian province of Udine, He found a series of trials dating from the late 16th and early 17th century that documented the existence of an agrarian fertility cult.

In his book, Night Battles , published in 1966, the members of this cult called themselves and were known by others as benandanti (“well-farers,”” do-gooders.”).Born with the caul, the male benandanti believed that four times a year-on Ember days- they would fall into a trance and then ride off “in spirit,” astride hares, cats, and other animals, to do battle against witches and warlocks. They armed themselves with branches of fennel, while the witches were armed with stalks of sorghum.

Their goal was to protect the fertility of their crops and their communities.

The female benandanti, by contrast, rode off to participate in the processions of the dead. Their purpose was to serve as intermediaries between their fellow villagers and the deceased ancestors of their neighbors and friends. When these undoubtedly interrelated sets of beliefs came to the attention of the local officers of the Roman Inquisition, the authorities were more than a little puzzled.

“What does this word ‘benandante’ mean?” one of the inquisitors asked a suspect in 1580. Despite the repeated efforts of the benandanti to convince their ecclesiastical judges not only of their innocence but also of their own efforts to impede, as good Christians, the malevolent actions of witches, the inquisitors could not help but superimpose their own interpretation on the cult.

In the eyes of the Franciscan fathers who investigated these beliefs, the benandanti, with their accounts of night-flying, metamorphoses into animals, and secret gatherings, fitted only too easily into the learned stereotype of witches and, in particular, into the image of the witches’ sabbath as it had been elaborated and codified in demonological treatises and inquisitorial manuals over the course of the previous three centuries. Gradually, under the suggestive pressure of the trials held against them, the benandanti themselves would come to see and define themselves as witches, assimilating the learned stereotype as their own.

The fame of Night Battles  has long preceded its translation. For many years, historians of witchcraft and popular culture have cited, discussed, criticized, and, most of all, admired this book, which first appeared under the title of I Benandanti (Turin, 1966). Ginzburg has also won recognition throughout the world for his subsequent historical work, most notably for his exploration of the intellectual world of a sixteenth-century.

Thanks to the researches of Carlo Ginzburg, we know now that a cult of specifically popular structure was progressively modified under the pressure of the Inquisition and ended by resembling the traditional witchcraft.

On March 21, 1575, the vicario generale and the Inquisitor of the provinces of Aquilea and Concordia were first told that in certain villages there were wizards who called themselves benan-danti and who declared that they were “good” wizards because they fight against sorcerers (stregoni).

The investigations of the first benandanti brought out the following facts: They met in secret, at night, four times a year (i.e., the four ember weeks); they reached their meeting place riding on hares, cats, or other animals; the assembly did not present any of the well-known “satanic” traits of the witch covens there was no abjuration of the faith, no vituperation of the sacraments or the cross, no homage to the devil.

The central ritual is rather enigmatic. The benandanti, provided with fennel branches, fight the sorcerers (strighe and stregoni) who are armed with broomlike reeds. The benandanti claimed that they opposed witches’ evil deeds and that they cured the victims of their spells. If they were victorious in the combats of the four ember weeks, then the crops of the year would be abundant; if not, there would be scarcity and famine

.Further investigations brought to light some details concerning the recruitment of the benandanti and the pattern of their nocturnal assemblies. According to them, they were requested to join the company by an “angel from heaven” and were initiated into the secret group when they were between twenty and twenty-eight years old.

The company was organized in military fashion under a captain, and the company gathered together when they heard the captain beating a drum. The members were bound by a tie of secrecy, and at their meetings sometimes as many as 5,000 benandanti were present, some from their own region but most of them unknown. They had a flag of white gilded ermine, while the sorcerers’ flag was yellow with four devils depicted on it.

All the benandanti had this trait in common: They were born “with the shirt,” that is, enveloped in a caul. (i.e. 1. a portion of the amniotic sac sometimes covering a child’s head at birth ).  When the Inquisition following their stereotyped model of the Sabbath asked if the “angel” promised them delicious courses, women, and other salacious entertainments, the defendants proudly denied such insinuations.

===Just wild.  Well I’ll post the book review next but I thought getting some of the background was important.  How I found this…well let’s call it serendipity.

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