Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Twilight Saga and the Benandanti: Part 1

Today is the long-anticipated release date for the third installment of the "Twilight Saga" movies, based on the novels of the same name. I don't think that I need to put any links, since the media blitz has probably made the name recognizable to almost everyone already.

The particulars of this saga reminds me of "the Benandanti," a pagan society from the Middle Ages Fruili region. The Benandanti, although a big part of Fruilian folklore, were not a myth. They were a genuine agrarian and fertility pagan religion, who were persecuted out of existence by the church.

Since this movie series is so popular, it seems appropriate to look at some of the folklore from our culture which it is partly based on. Naturally it would fall under the larger category of "European forklore" or "European witchcraft." Perhaps it may stimulate further study into this history.


Benandanti (from Wikipedia)

The Benandanti ("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 or witches under the Roman Inquisition, and their beliefs assimilated to Satanism. The Benandanti claimed to travel out of their bodies while asleep to struggle against evil witches (streghe) in order to ensure good crops for the season to come. Under pressure by the Inquisition, these nocturnal spirit travels (which often included sleep paralysis) were assimilated to the diabolised stereotype of the witches' Sabbath, leading to the extinction of the Benandanti cult. According to historian Carlo Ginzburg, the Friuli has probably known the same history as the region of Modena: "a slow and progressive transformation, under the unconscious pressure of Inquisitors, of the popular beliefs which finally crystallized themselves in the preexisting model of the diabolic Sabbath."


Members

The Benandanti, who included both males and females, were individuals who believed that they ensured the protection of their community and its crops. They believed themselves to have been marked from birth to join the ranks of the Benandanti, by being born with a caul (the amniotic sac) covering their face. The Benandanti reported leaving their bodies in the shape of mice, cats, rabbits, or butterflies. The men mostly reported flying into the clouds battling against witches to secure fertility for their community; the women more often reported attending great feasts.


Functions

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. The spirits of the men would go to the fields to fight evil witches (malandanti). The Benandanti men fought with fennel stalks, while the 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 a great feast, where 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. In one account, this feast was presided over by a woman, "the abbess", who sat in splendour on the edge of a well. Carlo Ginzburg has compared these spirit assemblies with others reported by similar groups elsewhere in Italy and Sicily, which were also presided over by a goddess-figure who taught magic and divination.


Related traditions

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.

Historian Carlo Ginzburg posits a relationship between the Benandanti cult and the shamanism of the Baltic and Slavic cultures, a result of diffusion from a central Eurasian origin, possibly 6,000 years ago. 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. One Inquisition account stated that

"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.


Sources

* 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.


Benandanti in popular culture

* 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.

* There is a similar 'Hound of God' character in Neil Gaiman's fantasy novel The Graveyard Book.

* The Benandanti are also featured in a haunted attraction in Mesa, Arizona, called Shadowlands.

* The Nightwalkers chapter of the 5th Edition Ars Magica supplement "Hedge Magic Revised Edition" details the benedanti and related traditions as playable magic traditions.

.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

I like how you talk about the Benandanti and I love the Twilight Saga. I am supposively a descendant of the Benandanti.

Camun said...

That's very interesting, especially since you tie both together in that way. Feel free to send any information or study you have for the blog.