In the mountainous district of Friuli in Northern Italy there were good witches and bad, 'good walkers' (benandanti) and evil ones. On certain nights of the year during the Ember Days, in the valley of Josaphat, the two met and did battle for the crops. The benandanti came armed with stalks of fennell, the witches and warlocks with sorghum and sometimes the wooden palettes used for cleaning ovens. Ranged like armies with their captains and their banners, they fought all night long. If the benandanti won, then the harvest would be safe, but if the witches won then there would be famine. The benandanti could also on occasion cure the bewitched and protect people's homes from the vandalism of the witches: as one of them explained, the witches 'go into the cellars and spoil the wine with certain things, throwing filth into the bungholes'. Unlike the witches, who had sold themselves to Satan in exchange for their supernatural powers, the benandanti, who fought only for 'Christ's faith', were born to their profession. Every man whose mother had preserved the caul (the placenta) in which he was born and wore it about his neck was compelled to 'go forth' when called to defend the crops. These night battles did not, however, take place in this world but 'in the spirit'. The soul alone 'went out', sometimes in the form of some small animal, leaving the body behind inert and as if dead. In the morning, before dawn, the spirit returned, but if someone should attempt to turn the body or 'come and look for a long time at it', the spirit would never again be able to re-enter its former home and would be compelled to join the horde of those who had died 'before their time'. Being a benandante was clearly a risky business.
LRB 2 February 1984 | PDF Download