("Good Walkers") were an agrarian fertility cult
in the Friuli
district of Northern Italy
in the 16th and 17th centuries. Between 1575 and 1675 the Benandanti were tried as heretics under the Roman Inquisition
, and their witchcraft
assimilated to Satanism
. The Benandanti claimed to travel while asleep to struggle against evil witches (streghe
) in order to insure good crops for the seasons to come. Under pressure by the Inquisition, these nocturnal spirit travels
(which often included sleep paralysis
) were assimilated to the witches' Sabbath
, leading to the extinction of the Benandanti cult. According to historian Carlo Ginzburg
, the Friuli probably has known the same history that in the region of Modena
: "a slow and progressive transformation, under the unconscious pressure of Inquisitors, of the popular beliefs
which finally cristallized themselves in the preexisting model of the diabolic Sabbath."
The Benandanti, which included both male and female members, were a small group of anti-witches that ensured the protection of the crops and villagers. Unlike most other occult organizations, the Benandanti were born, not made: only children born with "the caul
," or the amniotic sac
partially covering their face were destined to join the ranks of the Benandanti.
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 (wolves
in the Friuli). The spirits of the men would go to the fields to fight evil witches (malandanti
). The Benandanti men fought with fennel
stalks, while the dark 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 meet a Goddess, who was known by a variety of names, such as Abundia, Irodiana, or simply "the Abbess". Thus, the Benandanti were related to the cult of Diana, the Roman goddess of the hunt, and her Wild Hunt. The cult of Diana was present in septentrional Italy since at least the end of the 14th century There 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.
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 the armiers
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
, Hungarian táltos
, Romanian căluşari
and Ossetian burkudzauta
Many of the tasks the Benandanti performed were typical of shamans around the world, including healing people of the village, keeping the paths of the dead from this world to the next secure, ecstasy, protection of their villages from evil spirits. The selection of members by a personal characteristic (the caul) rather than by application, initiation, or study, is similar to the way in which individuals become shamans or priests because they have a "calling," an internal quality that self-selects them. Thus, the historian Carlo Ginzburg detects a true relationship between the Benandanti cult and the shamanism of the Baltic or/and Slavic cultures. 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
Treatment by the church
Between 1575 and 1675 the Benandanti were tried as heretics under the Roman Inquisition
. The Inquisitors were perplexed by their stories, and struggled to reconcile them with the witches' Sabbath
stereotype. Accused Benandanti tried to draw sharp distinctions between their actions and the actions of the malevolent witches, claiming that they fought "for the faith of Christ," and that only the Benandanti could save the people from the evils that the witches inflicted upon the villagers and their crops. Drawing this distinction was difficult, however, since so many of their actions were similar to those of the evil witches they purported to oppose. According to one Inquisition account...
"On the one hand, they declared that they were opposed to witches and warlocks, and their evil designs and that they healed the victims of injurious deeds of witches, on the other, like their presumed adversaries, they attended mysterious nocturnal reunions (about which they could not utter a word under pain of being beaten) riding hares, cats, and other animals."
The Benandanti denied using the same practices as witches as well as going to Sabbath. They claimed that they did not use flying ointments, as did witches.
To avoid persecution the Benandanti even began to accuse other villagers of witchcraft. This proved futile and only served to destroy their reputation in the village.
In the late 16th century, however, the Inquisitors were less concerned with witchcraft, and more concerned with heresy. The actions of the Benandanti were, according to the church, idolatrous, and therefore heretical. Slowly but surely they were grouped with those targeted by the Inquisition; their opposition to witches notwithstanding, the Benandanti were made to "realize" after serious persuasive work that they themselves were indeed witches. By the 17th century they had almost completely died out. None of the trials ended in execution, however.
Benandanti in popular culture
Although the vast majority of the information to date about the Benandanti has come from two books written by Italian folklorist and historian Carlo Ginzburg
(see "References" below), the concept has evidently struck a chord with many people today.
- The Benandanti are a major force in Elizabeth Hand's urban fantasy ''Waking the Moon."
- "The Amazing Benandanti" was the name of a sideshow escape artist (
- A concept very similar to the Benandanti, and based upon them, appears in Guy Gavriel Kay's historic fantasy Tigana. (
- Hector Plasm is a comic book character published occasionally through Image Comics who is a modern portrayal of a benandanti
- The Benandanti are a secret society of individuals in the old World of Darkness, part of the Wraith: The Oblivion game line, who cross the wall between the lands of the living and the dead while in trances.
- The Benandanti are also featured in a haunted attraction in Mesa, Arizona, called Shadowlands.
- Carlo Ginzburg. The Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Translated by Anne and John Tedeschi. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983 (original edition Giulio Einaudi, 1966)
- Carlo Ginzburg. Ecstasies: Deciphering the witches' sabbath. Transl. Raymond Rosenthal. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.