Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Twilight Saga and the Benandanti: Part 2

It should be pointed out that the Benandanti were not part of Stregheria, which is largely of Etruscan/Tuscan origin. Carlo Ginzburg seems to have been the only author to really dig into the history of this group. In 'The Night Battles' and 'Ecstasies', he traced a complex path from certain European witch persecutions to the Benandanti to a wide variety of practices which he describes as evidence of a substrate of shamanic cults in Europe.

'The Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries' (Ginzburg; 1983)

Ian Myles Slater: on Popular Belief and Official Doctrine (book review)

"Whether or not Carlo Ginzburg actually discovered evidence of shamanism in sixteenth-century Italy, in this or later books, is in part a matter of how one defines shamanism. What he undeniably found, in the seemingly unpromising records of the Inquisition, was evidence of beliefs so remote from those of official European culture as to be flatly unintelligible to the churchmen who first encountered them. Eventually, the Church courts managed to impose something resembling officially acceptable doctrines on the local population, but the process took generations, as Ginzburg is able to show from trial records.

Briefly, Ginzburg found that, in the Friuli district, there was a widespread belief that certain men and women were marked at birth as defenders against witches and demons, these being regarded mainly as the enemies of the people, their livestock, and their crops. The chosen defenders, the "Benandanti," or "good walkers," ventured forth in their dreams to do battle with the forces of evil. Those born with the mark of the Benandanti regarded themselves as good Christians, the allies of the Church. To those outside the local culture, this position was clearly nonsense; unauthorized and unsanctified supernatural power could only be Satanic in origin, and those who claimed to exercise it were, at best, dangerously deluded. In the end, if the court records are to be trusted, they persuaded even the Benandanti themselves that this was the case. At least, the "absurd" and "outrageous" testimony of self-described Benandanti fades from the records, to be replaced with conventional witch-beliefs endorsed by the Holy Office.

The official tendency, Catholic and Protestant, to lump local witch-doctors together with the witches they claimed to counter had long been recognized by historians. Ginzburg, however, discovered, and offered to surprised historians (in the original Italian edition of 1966), a stratum of belief that, when first recorded, seems to have been entirely outside the mainstream of medieval European culture. There is scattered evidence for similar concepts in other parts of Europe, and abundant evidence from other continents, but the connections and age of the beliefs in and about the Benandanti remain subjects for controversy. The demonstration that diverse local beliefs had been rendered uniform by the judicial process, and by intensive indoctrination of the "lower classes," however, remains a landmark.

As described in the "Preface to the English Edition," the Italian version rather quickly received favorable -- and some unfavorable or uncomprehending -- notice from historians of European witchcraft. It was interpreted, or perhaps misunderstoond, by Mircea Eliade, the influential figure in "History of Religions" at the University of Chicago, one of the great authorities on shamanism (and much else). Although sections had been published in English earlier, the whole book became available in English in 1983, in the present translation, from Routledge & Kegan Paul in Britain, and Johns Hopkins University Press in the U.S. I first read it a few years later, and eventually acquired a copy of a Penguin Books re-issue of 1986. (All the English-language editions seem to differ only in cover art, besides the name of the publisher.) I have re-read it from time to time over the years. Although historical views of European witch-beliefs and popular culture have both been in flux, this book remains among the most fascinating in its crowded field."

Ground-breaking work (book review by kaioatey)

"As anthropologists fanned around the world they brought back detailed accounts of shamanic practices of indigenous peoples from Africa, Asia, Siberia & Native America - but not from Europe. European shamanism (including druidism) is thought to have been largely stamped out due to the combined efforts of Enlightenement and the Holy Inquisition. The book opens up the question of the many similarities between Germanic, Latin, Slavic agricultural cults and their relationship to the Dionysian rituals as well as the issue of universality of core beliefs that underly indigenous practices around the world.

The book also pioneers a new understanding of Europeans and their history - one that focuses on the peasant and his relationship with the land (and the Church). The aristocratic elite that controlled the politics and religion of mediaeval Italian city states was just a tiny fraction of the population; Ginzburg therefore opens up a new (and should i say delicious) can of worms.

This book represents a huge step forward in our understanding of European shamanism. Ginzburg burrows deep into the 16th century Inquisition archives from the Friuli region of Northern Italy (where Latin, Slavic and Germanic traditions come together). He returns with a fascinating discovery of an ancient fertility cult, whose participants (the benandanti) represented themselves as defenders of harvest and fertility of the fields. A benandante was someone who four times a year during the Ember days left the body and went "invisibly in spirit" to fight the witches and the devil - "we fight over all the fruits of the earth and for those things won by the benandanti that year there is abundance", said a peasant while questioned by the Inquisition. The benandanti were united by a common element of having been born with the caul (i.e., wrapped in the placenta, which was thought to be an object endowed with magical powers). The departure of the spirit from the body, which was left lifeless, was understood as an actual separation, an event fraught with perils, almost like death. The soul was considered very real and tangible. "We crossed over water like smoke and following combat, everyone returned home as smoke...". The soul was always associated with a spirit animal (usually hare, but also pig, rooster, mouse etc.). This was a world of spells, incantations, evil eye, herbal potions, spirits and communication with the dead.

Ginzburg shows that these beliefs in 16th century peasants were all-pervasive and deeply connected with Earth and its cycles. The Ember Days (i.e., Christmas) festivities had survived from ancient agricultural cults and symbolized the changes of seasons, the passage from the old to the new time of year and a promise of planting, harvest, reaping and autumn vintage. Ginzburg paints a interesting picture of Italian Inquisition - that of a huge centralized organization which was inefficient, swamped with bureaucratic legalisms and in most cases not that interested in prosecuting "ignorant peasants" . The book also champions a rather controversial thesis according to which the Church managed to steer the perception of the benandanti cult from representing fertility rites to that of witchcraft and the devil, almost as if the Church created the very devil that it abhorred. Interesting parallels with modern times, I should say."

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