The cult of witchcraft has a long history in Italy, the signs are all around us, if we know where to look. The second in a series of four articles about witchcraft in Italy.
During the Roman Inquisition in 16th century hundreds were burnt alive for following the 'Old Religion' and practicing the dark arts while many, many more languished in jail for the rest of their lives. The reign of terror spread from its centre in Alpine Italy through Germany and Poland to the North and France in the West. In all, some 30,000 to 50,000 people were burnt alive as heretics throughout Europe.
Most often the charge brought to the so-called witches was not that of worshiping a false deity but of being in league with the devil and the practice of magic. It was not that the 'Old Religion' was persecuted as such, but rather that the practice of it had become subverted for hundreds of years and this allowed a distorted image of the faith to propagate. The continent was gripped by fear of real witches who were believed to fly on broomsticks and cast spells. The modern stereotype of the witch with the pointed hat survives almost unaltered from that time. The belief in the malevolent witch who could cast spells from a distance and cause evil deeds was a very real fear of an uneducated and ignorant people.
Dancing under he moon, 15th century woodcut
Bear in mind that the witch hunts peaked during the 17th century coinciding with the Descartes' age of Rationalism. Primitive though it sounds now, we need only look to Western Africa to see how, without universal education, a belief system can be built up around the witch. In Europe at this time it was the poorest and weakest in society who suffered at the hands of the witch-hunters, anyone who was different or had a special condition was particularly at risk. The Church's witch-hunters would be called to a village were typically an epidemic of panic would have broken out. Ignorant local people blaming others for misfortune or the failure of crops and often, entire villages were enveloped in hysteria.
Although the general assumption is that those persecuted fell firmly into the category of the 'evil' witch, there is evidence to suggest that, in Italy at least, the witches were divided into to opposing types and that there were also 'good' witches.
Depiction in 15th century woodcut of satanists
Many recordings of the use of magic date back to these times exist most prominently the 'Benandanti', who were revived to popularity in the 60's by Carlo Ginzburg's account 'The Night Battles'. The Benadanti (good walkers) were an agrarian fertility cult operating in the region of Friuli in the 16th and 17th centuries, who believed that at certain times of the year they would fall into a trance and ride off 'in spirit' on the backs of hares, cats and other animals to do battles with witches, warlocks and other malevolent entities to ensure good crops for the season to come. Armed with fennel branches while the witches or 'malandenti' were armed with soghurn stalks, (the kind that make up witch's brooms), the outcome of their battles would affect the harvest as well as the health of the population and protection against plagues and pestilences.
Whether the Benandanti qualified as witches is debatable, although they did battle with evil spirits they would often accompany them on their night travels, while the women of the Benandanti were tasked with travelling to great spiritual feasts with faeries, spirits and animals. The Roman Inquisition eventually tried and punished them as heretics and outlawed the practice but there are many accounts of how the tradition continued even up to modern times.
One of the most notorious witch burnings took place in Val Camonica, an extensive area in Eastern Lombardy, which is the seat of some of the earliest and most ancient traditions in Italy, in 1518 when 60 people were convicted and burned at the stake for using powder supposedly provided by Satan himself, to cause a plague in the area, resulting in the death of more than 200 people. Val Camonica remains even today an area deeply connected to the old traditions and a hotbed of occultism.
The notorious witch burning at Val Camonica 1508
What many modern scholars have come to believe is that the 'witch' or the cult of witchcraft represented the struggle between the civilisation and a pre-existing wilderness through the folkloric tradition. In Medieval times and beyond, civilisation and progress depended on living within the city walls. To join society and partake in the bountifulness and security it offered, one had to conform to the religious and societal institutions that prevailed in the city. Outside the walls, lawlessness prevailed, bandits roamed and people of the forests still worshipped the old gods, sacrificed animals and danced under the moon.
Remains of two 'witches' uncovered in Lucca, Tuscany
A truly terrifying time in Italy and Europe existed for over two centuries, (an beyond!) and uncountable atrocities occurred. The evidence continues to be unearthed today and in 2008 a grave was excavated in Tuscany. The female remains of 800-year-old women were discovered in what is believed to be a witch's graveyard. One skull had seven nails driven into her jawbone while another was buried surrounded by seventeen dice, game women were forbidden to play. The women who were aged between 25 and 30 were buried without shrouds or coffins and lay in shallow graves. The first victim was surrounded by thirteen nails that had been used to pin her clothes to the ground. Archeologist Alfonso Forgione said: This indicates to me that it was an attempt to make sure the woman even though she was dead did not rise from the dead and unnerve the locals who were no doubt convinced she was a witch with evil powers."
By Hugo Mc Cafferty