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."


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.


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.


* 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.


Tuesday, June 29, 2010

"Lombard Laws" reflect a completely different society

Upon review of the first half of the book 'The Lombard Laws' (Drew; 1973), one can see that they lived in an entirely different society than in modern times. Present was a complex clan and family structure that was the basis for the entire society.

Part of the reason for the development of the law codes and it's courts was to avoid the Germanic "blood feud." If something bad was perpetrated upon an individual or family of a particular clan, it was perceived as an attack upon the entire clan. This attack, real or perceived, was thought of by the Langobards as something that "must be responded to." That was true for other Germanic societies as well.

The laws make no mention of any type of "prison" as punishment. Punishment almost always was sanctioned as repayments via various set monetary amounts. Only in a few rare occasions was someone put to death for particularly heinous or high crimes.

The courts did not seem to be formal. I got the impression that they could be held outdoors, and facilitated by a representative(s) of the law. Present would be legal guardians, witnesses, the accused, character witnesses, victims, clan representatives, etc. Rather than an all-powerful court where almost everyone was afraid to open their mouths, and where the judge would be seated above everyone; the court of law and the two clans seemed to hold a somewhat equal balance of power. Most issues seemed to be nothing more than some type of bodily damage from a fight (ex. "a broken arm") or some type of property damage, and the question of repayment.

Women held no legal status, although some could hold high positions of honor. In other words, the head of the family household would be the legal guardian of a woman. No woman was the legal head of a family household. That fact of life could mean different things in different situations. For example, a free woman held a much higher status than say a male slave, half-slave male, and many others. A man had the legal right to commit justifiable homicide against another man if he was sleeping with his wife, which was actually one of the law codes. To say the least, the modern concept of a woman living alone and having "sex in the city" would be insane to the Langobards, or probably any ancient society for that matter. The earlier societies of the Etruscans and the Gauls may have exercised much more gender equality than the invading Romans and later Langobards did.

A family household might consist of a male head, his wife, their children, other relatives or in-laws, half-slaves and slaves, their children, and sometimes even the children of the family head and slave or half-slave women (which would create very complex inheritance issues, but which were detailed in the codes). The issue of slavery, and how it pertained to the Langobards and the Romanized population has not been made clear. In other words, as to whether or not the Langobards had slaves who were not Langobards(?). It is clear that, for example, that Tuscans and other regional natives were well-represented in all governing bodies of the Langobard state. The head positions were, however, almost always held by Langobard males.

Free Langobard males were basically at the top of society, but it's not yet clear as to the next level in this class system. Free Langobard women? Other free men? It should be noted that under Roman law, there very likely was a slave caste system already present in the Cisalpine region. It should also be noted that when a war broke out, the Langobard men did the fighting. One time a Moorish army was marching to invade France. The Franks asked the Langobards for help. After word got out that a Langobard army would be present at the battle, the Moors didn't show up, and that's a fact.

Code number 381 from King Rothari's Law was particularly interesting. It concerned the charge of cowardice. In other words, merely calling someone a coward. The law states: "381. If anyone in anger calls another man a coward and cannot deny it, and if he claims that he said it in anger, he may offer oath that [it was said in anger and] he does not know him to be a coward. Afterwards he shall pay twelve solidi as composition for this insulting word. But if he perseveres in the charge, he must prove it by combat, if he can, or he shall pay composition as above." In the Spartan-like Langobard society, being called a "coward" seemed to be the ultimate insult.


Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Opening of 'Rothair's Edict'

In the book 'Lombard Laws' (Katherine Fischer Drew; 1973), right at the start of chapter one (I. Rothair's Edict), on pages 39 and 40, there is the English translation of the opening of 'Rothair's Edict' by King Rothair himself (also known as Rothari). I think you will find it interesting, and powerful in it's wording:

Rothair's Edict

The most noble Rothair, king of the Lombards, together with his principal judges, issues this lawbook in the name of the Lord.

In the name of the Lord, I, the most noble Rothair, seventeenth king of the Lombards, issue this lawbook with the aid of God in the eighth year of my reign and in the thirty-eighth year of my life, in the second indiction, and in the seventy-sixth year after the happy arrival of the Lombards in the land of Italy, led there by divine providence in the time of King Alboin, my predecessor. Issued from the palace at Pavia.

The collection which follows makes evident how great was and is our care and solicitude for the welfare of our subjects; for we recognize that it is not only the numerous demands of the wealthy which should carry weight, but also the burdensome trials of the poor are important. Therefore, trusting in the mercy of Almighty God, we have perceived it necessary to improve and to reaffirm the present law, amending all earlier laws by adding that which is lacking and eliminating that which is superfluous. We desire that these laws be brought together in one volume so that everyone may lead a secure life in accordance with law and justice, and in confidence thereof will willingly set himself against his enemies and defend himself and his homeland.

In these matters our concern for the future assures us that what we do here is useful and so we have ordered the names of the Lombard kings, our predecessors, and from what family they came, to be noted down here insofar as we have ascertained them from the older men of the nation.

The first king was Agilmund, from the family of the Gugings.
The second was Lamisio.
Leth was third.
Gildioch, son of Leth, was fourth.
Godioch, son of Gildioch, was fifth.
Sixth was Klaffo, son of Godioch.
Seventh was Tato, son of Klaffo. Tato and Winigis were sons of Klaffo.
Eighth was Wacho, son of Winigis, nephew of Tato.
Ninth was Walthari.
Tenth was Audoin, from the Gaugus family.
Eleventh was Alboin, son of Audoin, who, as mentioned above, led the nation into Italy.
Twelfth was Klep, from the Belios family.
Thirteenth was Authari, son of Klep.
Fourteenth was Agilulf, a Thuring from the family of the Anawas.
Fifteenth was Adalwald, son of Agilulf.
Sixteenth was Arioald, from the Kaup family.

In the name of God, I, Rothair, son of Nanding, from the family of the Harode, am the seventeenth king, as stated above. Nanding son of Notzo, Notzo son of Alamund, Alamund son of Alaman, Alaman son of Hiltzo, Hiltzo son of Weilo, Weilo son of Weo, Weo son of Frocho, Frocho son of Facho, Facho son of Mammo, Mammo son of Obthora.