Benandanti, (a term roughly translated into 'good walkers,' 'those who go well' or 'good-doers') were participants in the lingering remnants of an ancient agrarian cult in northern Italy, which came to the attention of inquisitors in the late 16th century because of the cult's nocturnal battles with witches over the fertility of the crops and livestock. Many Benandanti were followers of Diana. The Benandanti were members of a fertility cult who were basically anti-witches and practicers of white magic. Nonetheless, they were tortured by the Inquisitors just the same as practitioners of the black arts.
In the Friuli region of Italy, Slavic, Germanic, and Italian traditions combined to form the Benandanti cult. But perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Benandanti was the method by which they were chosen. One did not decide to be Benandanti, the calling was forced on certain people as an accident of birth. Women and men born with a 'caul' (inner fetal membrane still covering the body, especially the head) were believed to have mysterious healing powers and the ability to see witches. Cauls were sometimes saved by these Benandanti and worn about their necks as amulets.
To avoid confusion about the caul or veil I offer the following. After the child is born the veil is spead somewhere to dry out of the sun. It becomes almost like a tissue-thin, untanned leather and the color turns first to a creamy grey Then as it gets older to an old ivory color though not so yellow. Because tthe caul is special, it is treated carefully and with great repect. It is kept folded impossibly small and usually tucked into a red case that has a ribbon on it so it can be worn about the neck. Humidity might soften the caul a little but, not enough to harm it. It never gets slimy or smells any more than a piece of real parchment gets, though real parchment is much thicker.
The Benandanti were thought to have the ability to contact the world of the dead and to exercise control over the powers of nature for the benefit of society. In their role as protectors of agricultural fertility, they entered into catatonic states, during which they envisioned themselves armed with fennel stalks and astride cats, goats, and horses, engaging in fierce nocturnal forays with witches. It was believed that on certain particular nights the soul of the Benandanti gets out of the body to participate in meetings with other Benandanti . The soul upon his return must find the body in the same conditions in which he had left it, or would not be been able to reenter the body.
Four times a year, on holidays associated with the planting and harvesting of crops, the Benandanti were called to Gatherings. It was at these Gatherings that the major battles with 'Malandanti' (loosely translates to 'evil-doers) or 'Strigoni' were fought. The Benandanti fought with fennel stalks, the Malandanti with sorghum. These Gatherings, in spite of their evident seriousness, had a kind of festive air about them. They were to become, along with the Equinoxes and Solstices, the basis of the 'Pagan' year.
Ember Days (corruption from Lat. Quatuor Tempora, four times) are the days at the beginning of the seasons ordered by the Church as days of fast and abstinence. They were definitely arranged and prescribed for the entire Church by Pope Gregory VII (1073-1085) for the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday after December 13; after Ash Wednesday; after Whitsunday; and after September 14. The purpose of their introduction, besides the general one intended by all prayer and fasting, was to thank God for the gifts of nature, to teach men to make use of them in moderation, and to assist the needy. The immediate occasion was the practice of the heathens (pagans) of Rome. At the beginning of the time for seeding and harvesting religious ceremonies were performed to implore the help of their deities: in June for a bountiful harvest, in September for a rich vintage, and in December for the seeding. The Church, when converting heathen nations, has always tried to sanctify any practices which could be utilized for a good purpose. This is why so many of the Christian holidays are actually Pagan holidays, made over to please the Church.
The 'doers of good' retained their anti-witchcraft stance until around the year 1610. Shortly afterward, they came under persecution by the Inquisition, and were identified as witches. They maintained that they were an army for Christ in the war against evil. As a result the local beliefs underwent a profound transformation, and by 1640 the Benandanti themselves were acknowleging that they were in fact 'witches'.
Carlo Ginzburg, in 'Night Battles' wrote:
'The present research now establishes...the positive existence at a relatively late date (from c. 1570) of a fertility cult whose participants, the Benandanti, represented themsleves as defenders of harvests and the fertility of fields...This belief is tied to a larger complex of traditions (connected, in turn, with the myth of nocturnal gatherings over which female deities...presided)...In the span of a century, as we shall see, the Benandanti were transformed into witches and their nocturnal gatherings, intended to induce fertility, became the devil's sabbat, with the resulting storms and destruction.'
What we can learn from Ginzburg is still interesting, altho interpreted thru the eyes of the Christian Church. The Benandanti testified they left their bodies at night, (what we call astral projection) sometimes shape shifting into animal form , sometimes riding animals or household tools. While 'out' they performed work which, we now know from modern research, was typical of shamans around the world. They healed and protected people of the village, they kept the paths of the dead from this world to the next secure, and they fought to protect the village from 'Malandanti'.
Night Battles, by Carlo Ginzburg
The Encyclopedia of Witches and Witchcraft, by Rosemary Guiley
Catholic Encyclopedia, copyright 1913 by the Encyclopedia Press, Inc.
Witchcraft The Old Religion, by Dr. Leo Louis Martello, 1991
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