The Salem Witch Trials are the best-known witch hunts, but they were prominent throughout Europe during the Catholic Revival. While most witch hunts were terrible tragedies involving the execution of innocent women and other vulnerable people, not all witch hunters did that. The Italian tradition of the Benandanti fought a different kind of witch: malignant spirits who threatened crops and communities via the dream realm.
The Good Walkers
The Benandanti were the bane of European witch hunters who abused their power to maintain the status quo. Benandanti could be any gender, and it was said that they were born with a caul over their head. They truly had their communities’ best interests in heart and took it upon themselves to protect crops and livestock.
Benandanti achieved this by allegedly transforming their spirits into animals (like wolves) while they slept and battled evil witches. They were also said to possess healing abilities in the waking world. The Benandanti honestly believed these experiences to be real, calling them “vision journeys”.
In these vision journeys, the men would use fennel stalks to fight witches, who used sorghum (associated with witches’ brooms). These battles would determine the outcome of the crops in the coming year. While the men fought, the women learnt magic and divination at a magnificent feast surrounded by spirits, animals, and fairies. These women learned who in the community would die in the next year.
Connections to Witches
Because of their supernatural abilities and their battles in the dream world, the Benandanti become closely associated with witches. While they eventually came to be seen as “good” witches, this connection was enough for them to be persecuted in the 1500s. It didn’t matter that their journeys had nothing in common with “witches’ sabbath”; they used magic, and that was enough.
Eventually the Benandanti became synonymous with witches, Satanists, and heathens. To be called one was an accusation of witchcraft or worse. The Roman inquisition began interrogating anyone claiming to have healing or divinatory powers, and it gave spiteful people a way to vilify anyone they didn’t like. Unfortunately, this also led to Bendandanti accusing each other of being witches, to save their own skins. It was a vicious cycle, and entirely unnecessary.
This was such an interesting topic to read into. I really think the Benandanti should be a common feature of fantasy media, and I’m surprised they aren’t more popular. A group of benevolent, shape-shifting witch hunters who come to be seen as the very thing they fight against … doesn’t that sound just perfect for a young adult book series?
There’s so much more to learn about the Benandanti than I’ve covered here. If you want more information about their complex history, check out this article!
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