Participants in the lingering remnants of
an ancient agrarian cult in northern Italy, which came to
the attention of the Inquisition in the late 16th century
because of the cult’s nocturnal battles with witches and
warlocks over the fertility of the crops and livestock.
The term benandanti means “good walkers.” The cult
flourished in the Friuli region of Italy, an isolated area
where Italian, German and Slavic traditions met and mingled.
The benandanti were comprised of men and women
born of the caul, that is, with the inner fetal membrane
still covering the body, especially the head. This was a
sign not only of the benandanti but of supernatural powers
of healing the bewitched and the power to see witches.
Some benandanti saved their cauls and wore them about
their necks as amulets or talismans.
The benandanti were compelled to serve their villages
during the Ember Days, the changing of the seasons
marked by the solstices and equinoxes. At midnight, usually
on Thursday but sometimes on Friday or Saturday
of the Ember Days, they were summoned, sometimes by
drums or, tradition has it, by angels. If they did not respond
promptly and were late, they were severely beaten.
They left their bodies, and their spirits assumed the shapes
of butterflies, mice, cats and hares (see metamorphosis).
They went to the valley of Josaphat in the center of the
world, where they met the army of witches and warlocks,
also in spirit guises. The benandanti would be armed with
stalks of fennel, renowned for its healing properties; the
witches would be armed with sorghum stalks, a type of
millet perhaps identified with brooms.
For an hour or several hours, the opposing spirit armies
engaged in battle, beating each other with their stalks. If
the benandanti won, the year’s crops would be abundant.
If the witches won, storms would plague the growing and
harvesting seasons, and famine would ensue. After the
“games,” as the battles were called, the benandanti and
the witches passed by houses looking for clean water to
drink. If they found none, the witches entered the cellars
and either overturned the wine casks, or drank the wine
and urinated in the casks.
The spirits had to return to their bodies by cock’s crow.
If they did not, or if their bodies had been turned over
onto their stomachs while their spirits were gone, they either
had great difficulty re-entering them, or could not get
back in at all. The spirits then were forced to wander the
earth until their bodies’ destined time of death arrived.
The origins of the benandanti cult are unknown; the
roots are probably ancient. The leaving of the body and
doing battle in spirit, in the guise of animals, is shamanic
in nature. The benandanti may be an offshoot of the cult
of Diana, which was known in Italy from the end of the
14th century. Followers of Diana held peaceful sabbats
at night and were not associated with diabolical rites until
later by the church. The rites of the benandanti had
no similarities to the celebrated witches’ sabbat but were
entirely agricultural in intent, and were emotionally intense.
The benandanti considered themselves soldiers of
the good fight, preserving their crops and protecting their
villages from the evildoing of witches. The cult persisted
in spite of the magical/holy measures provided by the
church to protect crops, such as the sprinkling of holy
water over the fields, the erection of a cross and the processions
and prayers on Rogation Days. Apparently, the
benandanti believed their ways were more effective.
Though pagan, the cult had acquired Christian elements
by the late 16th century. The benandanti went out
in the service of Christ and God, to battle the agents of
The benandanti came to the attention of the church in
1575, when a priest in Brazzano heard rumors of a man
in Civdale, Paolo Gasparutto, who could cure bewitched
persons and who “roamed about at night with witches and
goblins.” Summoned and questioned by the priest, Gasparutto
admitted the Ember Days’ outings, adding that in
addition to fighting, there was leaping about, dancing and
riding on animals. To the priest, this sounded ominously
like a witches’ sabbat, and he involved the inquisitors.
Various interrogations and trials of benandanti were
conducted in the region from 1575 to 1644. The church
inquisitors made efforts to associate the benandanti with
witches and to get them to confess that they participated
in witches’ sabbats (said to occur every Thursday night,
not just during the Ember Days), and were forced to abjure
Christ and gave their souls to the Devil.
With few exceptions, the benandanti staunchly deflected
these efforts. They also insisted that being benandanti
did not at all interfere with their regular churchgoing and
Christian prayers. They said they were forced to go out in
service because they had been born with the caul. They
were initiated at maturity, and after some 10 or 20 years
in service, were relieved of their obligations. While some
benandanti claimed to go out during each of the Embers
Days, others said they went out only once every few years.
Still others said they were called out whenever witches
“did evil.” Some said they knew who were other benandanti
and who were witches, while others said they did
not know anyone but recognized the spirit forms as one
side or the other. Most protested that they could not reveal
names or even details about the battles, lest they be
severely beaten in punishment. The inquisitors, however,
often succeeded in eliciting names of members of both
One aspect of the benandanti’s nocturnal travels that
puzzled inquisitors the most was the leaving behind of
the body. By the late 16th century, inquisitors and demonologists
were beginning to question the actuality of the
witches’ sabbat, contending instead that it was all hallucinatory.
But the benandanti insisted that their spirit battles
were very real; that they did leave the body and travel in
spirit, and could assume the shapes of animals. They did
not feel pain in the fighting, they said. Some said they
left the body after rubbing on an ointment or oil, while
others fell into a faint that resembled a cataleptic state.
Beyond that, the peasants were at a loss to explain. One
description of the spirit travel to the valley of Josaphat,
offered in 1591 by Menechino della Nota as a dream in order
to dodge the inquisitors, is described in Night Battles
by Carlo Ginzburg:
. . . I had the impression there were many of us together
as though in a haze but we did not know one another,
and it felt as if we moved through the air like smoke
and that we crossed over water like smoke . . . everyone
returned home as smoke . . .
No inquisitors could accept that the soul could leave
the body while it was living and return. That the benandanti
took the shapes of animals led the inquisitors to
believe that they were physically led off on animals, and
they tried to ascertain that the Devil did the leading.
Until the Inquisition, little had been known about the
secretive benandanti, even in their own villages. Some
who were known for their healing and spell-breaking
abilities were sought out. The public attention, plus the
persistent efforts of the church to ally the benandanti with
witches, eventually did lead to increasing association of
the benandanti with witches. By 1623 the church had obtained
confessions from benandanti that they participated
in witches’ sabbats. This led to more damning confessions
of Devil’s pacts, desecration of the cross, vampirism
and abjuration of the Christian faith. What had once
been a purely agricultural rite became transformed into a
rite of Devil worship.
Despite its success, the church put little effort into
prosecuting the benandanti. Many trials were never concluded,
and torture was not used. Punishment, when
meted out, was mild—prison sentences or banishment.
The benandanti apparently came to light when skepticism
about witches was gaining ground in parts of Europe. The
last major benandanti trial took place in 1644. A few scattered
inquisitional efforts occurred into the late 1600s,
but trials were abandoned.
Participants in the lingering remnants of