Italy’s Ancient Benandanti: Harvest Rites and Ghostly Battles
In the Friuli region of Italy in 1580, during the peak of the Roman Inquisition’s foray into witchcraft, an inquisitorial examination of a local town crier produced the following eerie testimony: “…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.”
A nocturnal spiritual battle between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ witches among vast fields of crops at seasonal markers throughout the year is an especially enticing image as the autumn season approaches us, but its deep origins in pre-Christian folk practice are perhaps even more intriguing. The disturbed inquisitors’ curiosity was kindled when later witnesses claimed to see and communicate with spirits on behalf of their living relatives.
Women testified to have ridden through the night in a great horde with the goddess Diana, and others claimed the ability to transform into animals like cats and mice, or ride astride them during their excursions. These professed nightly deeds, some aimed at ensuring crop fertility, were far more than simple harvest lore or peasant superstition.
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Modern-day Cividale del Friuli, where many of the first benandanti proceedings took place (Bernd Thaller / CC BY 2.0 )
Indeed, the peasant folk who believed that they went forth in procession to ceremonial battles called themselves benandanti, the “Good Walkers,” as leading Roman Inquisition scholar Carlo Ginzburg first described in detail in his famed and controversial 1966 book, The Night Battles , which provides the trial record above.
The beliefs of the benandanti , as Dr. Ginzburg has argued, reflect a wider web of European traditions. As an agrarian cult of Christians still intimately bound to pagan culture , the benandanti were not especially unique. Their customs were among a remnant of ancestral pagan practices preserved throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance, but one in particular would become an integral part of later Halloween tradition: the procession of the dead.
Fertility Ritual or Christian Duty?
While the claims that the benandanti made under inquisitorial examination were sometimes unclear and diverse, there existed a few core beliefs within their agrarian tradition. The original purpose of the mock battles conducted within the crops was, on one hand, to ensure crop fertility and a plentiful harvest. The benandanti, as the town crier claimed, fought against evil witches ( malandanti) four times throughout the year “over all the fruits of the earth and for those things won by the benandanti that year there is abundance.”
On the other hand, the agricultural purpose of the rites was often merged with a decidedly Christian one: to fight “for the faith of Christ.” The benandanti, many of whom believed themselves to be specially chosen by God, emphasized that protecting the crops through these agrarian rituals was done in the service of God.
In his 1966 study, Ginzburg speculated that perhaps the Christianization of the rites developed in order to preserve an unorthodox tradition from the scrutiny of the Church, or it was the final result of many years of participation by honest Christian peasants desiring to serve God by safeguarding the harvest.
‘A Witches’ Sabbath’ by Saftleven, ca. 1650. ( Public Domain )
Some witnesses in the benandanti proceedings claimed that participants in these fertility rites, both men and women, were all born “with the caul,” or with a piece of the amniotic membrane still enwrapping the head. In Friuli, and indeed beyond, superstition suggested that those born with the caul were destined to become witches. Again, it would seem an apparent contradiction, then, that the benandanti went forth in the service of God, but cauled births were viewed by the benandanti as a sign of election by God. The benandanti were said to wear their cauls to the battles, and Masses were sometimes celebrated over the cauls in order to increase their power.
Others investigated as benandanti, particularly women , took part in further practices such as folk medicine and spirit communication. In 1582, one Aquilina of Udine was interrogated following reports that she practiced both healing arts and the “profession of seeing.” Aquilina, however, fervently denied being either a benandante or a witch, but the inquisitors persisted in their investigations.
Another woman of Cividale, Caterina la Guercia, was accused of practicing witchcraft and asked if she were, too, a benandante. Caterina’s answer provided inquisitors a definite link between the benandanti and the Church’s notion of witchcraft: “No sir, not I, I am not one of the benandanti, but my deceased husband was; he used to go in procession with the dead.”
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Some benandanti maintained that they attended the rituals in spirit, sometimes in the form of an animal , leaving their body unresponsive at home. One woman stated that she awoke in the night beside her benandante husband, testifying, “And even though I called him ten times and shook him, I could not manage to wake him.” For inquisitors, the repeated suggestions of spirit procession turned the benandanti activity into something far more ominous than simple folk practice.
The benandanti, consequently, presented a dilemma. Were they servants of God, as they claimed, or were they witches? Ultimately, it was the nocturnal gatherings themselves that resulted in accusations of witchcraft by representatives of the Church. The witches’ sabbath had been a long-standing motif of the witch lore gathered during the Inquisition, and certain elements of the benandanti rituals, particularly the allusions to spirit flights to the night rituals, were familiar to inquisitors who were determined to connect them to witchcraft.
The descriptions given of the ritual battles in the fields, however, bore little resemblance to the witches’ sabbath, and indeed the benandanti claimed to fight against witches for God and for the crops. Despite these facts, the inquisitors felt that they had enough reason, as noted by Ginzburg, to stamp these early bendandanti trials with the label ‘ Processus haeresis contra quosdam strigones ,’ or ‘heresy trial against certain witches.’
‘El Aquelarre’ by Francisco de Goya, 1823. ( Public Domain )
Processions of the Dead in European Folklore
As the inquisitors were well aware, spiritual excursions were not unique to the benandanti. Several hundred years prior to the benandanti trials, a similar folkloric motif describing spectral processions and accounts of “mysterious journeys by women during the nights of the Ember seasons,” in the words of Dr. Ginzburg, had grown from ancient roots and spread across Europe.
To modern folklorists like Ginzburg, who first connected it to the benandanti tradition, it is known as the Wild Hunt : a clamorous parade of spirits through a desolate wooded countryside or across the night sky in autumn and winter. In Germanic folklore of the Middle Ages, the “Furious Horde” or “Raging Host,” as it was sometimes known, could be a troop of soldiers slain in battle, a group of hunters, or the unrestful spirits of “Sabbath-breakers” foretelling or actively inducing catastrophe by their appearance alone.
On Ember Days, the same sacred days of the benandanti, they were said to sweep through the countryside accompanied by spectral horses and baying hounds, sometimes headed by a pagan figure like Herodias or Diana, who would eventually become the Devil under Church influence. As with the women of the benandanti, it was Herodias and Diana-Hecate who were said to lead hordes of witches in spirit form through the night sky as far back as the fifth century, attesting to the antiquity of the procession of the Wild Hunt and its essential folkloric elements.
’Wild Hunt of Odin’ by Peter Nicolai Arbo, 1872. ( Public Domain )
Britain, Ireland, and Iberia also had their fair share of ghostly cavalcades. In 12th-century England, the Wild Hunt was known as the Herlething, an army of horses, hounds, and huntsmen led by the legendary king Herla (or occasionally Arthur). Herla is closely connected to the Teutonic god Woden, or Odin, one of the ghostly leaders of the Wild Hunt in both Germanic and Norse mythology.
In Phantom Armies of the Night , French historian Claude Lecouteaux links the Wild Hunt to the Celtic myth of the Sluagh Sidhe , the host of fairies or the dead who roam Ireland during the Celtic festival of Samhain. 19th-century collector of Gaelic folklore Alexander Carmichael once wrote of a particular sighting of the Sluagh on the Scottish island of Benbecula that a “multitudinous host of spirits” passed by with “hounds on leash and hawks on hand.”
Though some sources like Carmichael’s affix the Sluagh with various hunting motifs, in Christianized Ireland the spirits tended to be viewed as unforgiven sinners thirsting for new souls to steal away through the western windows of their cottages. Comparable are the less sinister Santa Compaña legends of medieval Galicia that tell of somber marches of lost ancestral spirits sometimes called the ‘Night Ones.’
Though dropping some motifs of the Wild Hunt legends, these stories retain essential elements of wider European folkloric traditions of spectral processions, eventually passing in these forms into the premodern and modern eras.
Is Ancestor Veneration at the Root of Fertility Cults and Ghostly Processions?
Before the imagination conjures images shaped by the likes of the monumental classic film Night of the Living Dead , let us attempt to look at the tradition of spectral procession through the eyes of those who lived it. 19th-century antiquarian and folklorist Sabine Baring-Gould wrote that the legends of the Wild Hunt were derived from the natural world: the night migration of honking bean geese in winter across northern Europe. Yet even a cursory examination of these myths reveals a meaning beyond a trivial case of mistaken natural phenomena.
Migration of Bean Geese through Estonia. (Alastair Rae / CC BY-SA 2.0 )
Some conceptions of the nightly parades were quite obviously a source of dread among the local populace. The Welsh myth of Gabriel’s Hounds, or the Cŵn Annwn , for instance, holds that a sighting of the spectral dogs means future calamity for its witness. Among many of these cultures, however, a procession of the dead was not meant solely to strike fear into the hearts of its people but instead to act as a reminder—or a stern warning— to remember one’s ancestors and roots, much like the Celtic festival of Samhain before its eventual transformation into our modern candy-laden and mischief-filled Halloween night.
It is not surprising that Dr. Lecouteaux, who draws a strong connection between agricultural fertility and processions of dead ancestors, places the Wild Hunt within northern European ancestor worship and fertility traditions, nor is it difficult to miss the small but unmistakable thread of ancestor veneration that runs throughout the frayed fabric of the agrarian benandanti lore.
To fully grasp the nature of these myths of spiritual processions, therefore, one must consider the powerful place that ancestor veneration and related crop fertility held among pre-Christian, Indo-European religion and culture. Bound up in harvest rites , tales of terror, rituals for the dead, and witch lore in Christian Europe are hundreds if not thousands of years of ancestral devotion, and this devotion, perhaps, remains at the root of the surviving fertility practices that were so troubling to the Church’s inquisitors.
Etching depicting preparation for the witches’ sabbath. ( Public Domain )
The End of the Benandanti
As for Italy’s benandanti, their gradual end came following several decades of inquisitorial activity. The pressure by inquisitors to assimilate their beliefs with the Church’s notion of witchcraft resulted in eventual abandonment of the original cult rituals. Though a few people claiming to be benandanti made sporadic appearances in later records, the original purpose of the agricultural rite had disappeared by the latter half of the 17th century.
“I heard the dogs howl in the moonlight night;
I went to the window to see the sight;
All the Dead that I ever knew
Going one by one and two by two.”
-William Allingham, ‘The Dream’
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Though Allingham penned his poem in the 19th century, he was drawing upon hundreds of years of enduring European folk belief describing nightly processions. The poem ends on a melancholy note as Allingham laments forgetting the song that his loved ones among the dead were singing, mirroring the same sort of longing for the departed that seems to underpin many of the aforementioned legends of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance .
The stories of the dead walking seem to reflect an innate desire in humans to appreciate and understand the dead who have gone before us. They are a dark reminder not only of our own ultimate fate, but of the unending life-and-death cycles of the earth and its fruits.
And so as we enter the longer nights of autumn, perhaps it would be wise to remember the lonely autumns of years past when the whistling of the cool breeze or shaking of dry leaves might be mistaken for the grim, restless sounds of passing spirits, ancient gods, or the Good Walkers marching to the fields, bundling their fennel stalks and readying for battle.
Top Image: Mysterious Monk Walking Alone During Sunset. Source: Igor Ovsyannykov / CC BY 2.0
By Morgan Smith
Baring-Gould, S. 1913. A Book of Folk-Lore . Collins’ Clear-Type Press: London. Available at: https://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/bof/
Carmichael, A. 1900. Carmina Gadelica , Vol. 2. T and A Constable: Edinburgh. Available at: https://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/cg2/
Ginzburg, C. 1983. The Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries . Johns Hopkins University Press: Baltimore.
Lecouteaux, C. 2011. Phantom Armies of the Night: The Wild Hunt and the Ghostly Processions of the Undead . Simon and Schuster: New York.
Towrie, S. 2019. “The Wild Hunt.” Orkneyjar: the Heritage of the Orkney Islands. Available at: http://www.orkneyjar.com/tradition/hunt.htm