left biblioblography: Allegories Gone Wild -Because It Takes A Witch To Catch A Witch…Cry Benandanti!

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Allegories Gone Wild -Because It Takes A Witch To Catch A Witch…Cry Benandanti!

Cross posted @ God Is 4 Suckers!

The religious delusions over the centuries have given spawn to the strangest tales – deep memetic roots drinking from the chaotic waters of the subconscious. One such tale is that of the caul bearers, also known as the Benandanti.

First, the reader might ask, “What is a caul?”

A caul (Latin: Caput galeatum, literally, "head helmet") is a thin, filmy membrane, the amniotic sac, that covers or partly covers the newborn mammal immediately after birth.

These are (of course) removable. But in the days of old, superstitions rose about this:

In medieval times the appearance of a caul on a newborn baby was seen as a sign of good luck. It was considered an omen that the child was destined for greatness. Gathering the caul onto paper was considered an important tradition of childbirth: the midwife would rub a sheet of paper across the baby's head and face, pressing the material of the caul onto the paper. The caul would then be presented to the mother, to be kept as an heirloom. Some Early Modern European traditions linked being born with the caul to the ability to defend fertility and the harvest against the forces of evil, particularly witches and sorcerers.

Over the course of European history, a popular legend developed suggesting that possession of a baby's caul would give its bearer good luck and protect that person from death by drowning. Cauls were therefore highly prized by sailors. Medieval women often sold these cauls to sailors for large sums of money; a caul was regarded as a valuable talisman.

“I was born with a caul, which was advertised for sale, in the newspapers, at the low price of fifteen guineas. Whether sea-going people were short of money about that time, or were short of faith and preferred cork jackets, I don't know; all I know is, that there was but one solitary bidding, and that was from an attorney connected with the bill-broking business, who offered two pounds in cash, and the balance in sherry, but declined to be guaranteed from drowning on any higher bargain. Consequently the advertisement was withdrawn at a dead loss ... and ten years afterwards, the caul was put up in a raffle down in our part of the country, to fifty members at half-a-crown a head, the winner to spend five shillings. I was present myself, and I remember to have felt quite uncomfortable and confused, at a part of myself being disposed of in that way. The caul was won, I recollect, by an old lady with a hand-basket.... It is a fact which will be long remembered as remarkable down there, that she was never drowned, but died triumphantly in bed, at ninety-two. (Charles Dickens, David Copperfield)”

Who are the Benandanti, and how does this pertain to them?

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 under the Roman Inquisition, and their witchcraft assimilated to Satanism. The Benandanti claimed to travel while asleep to struggle against evil witches (streghe) in order to insure good crops for the seasons to come. Under pressure by the Inquisition, these nocturnal spirit travels (which often included sleep paralysis) were assimilated to the witches' Sabbath, leading to the extinction of the Benandanti cult. According to historian Carlo Ginzburg, the Friuli probably has known the same history that in 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."

Other legends also developed. One popular legend went that a caulbearer would be able to see the future or have dreams that come to pass.

Negative associations with the birth caul are rare, but in several European countries a child being born with a caul was a sign that the child may become a vampire. As a preventative measure, the caul was removed before the child was able to eat any of it, and then it was destroyed.

The most common portent of good luck in recent centuries is that the baby born with a caul will never drown, the second most common myth is from Scotland and that believes the child will be fey, or psychic. Another British meaning is that the child will travel its entire life and never tire.

Icelandic culture states a child born with a caul was thought to be special, and this means the child will go through life with a faery companion, a shadow familiar known as the Fylgiar. The Fylgiar serves this person, and it is believed that the person also serves the Fylgiar while asleep or when making deliberate astral projections. This faery can be heard in the home of such a person banging and knocking around. Their most disturbing quality is that they warn their human companions of their own deaths, at which time they can be seen. The condition of the Fylgiar at the time of the sighting indicates what sort of death it will be. A mauled faery means a nasty, painful death, while a peaceful one means a calm, painless death. The Fylgiar continues to live on after the human familiar dies, but it is believed that it accompanies its person to Valhallah, the Nordic Land of the Dead, where it remains until the human soul is comfortable and accepting of his or her demise.


The Benandanti, which included both male and female members, were a small group of anti-witches that ensured the protection of the crops and villagers. Unlike most other occult organizations, the Benandanti were born, not made: only children born with "the caul," or the amniotic sac partially covering their face were destined to join the ranks of the Benandanti.

So the Benandanti were the self-appointed ‘anti-witch’ brigade, claiming to use witchcraft to fight witches (fire with fire as the adage goes).


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 (wolves, butterflies and rats in the Friuli). The spirits of the men would go to the fields to fight evil witches (malandanti). The Benandanti men fought with fennel stalks, while the dark 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 meet a Goddess, who was known by a variety of names, such as Abundia, Irodiana, or simply "the Abbess". There 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.

The level of commitment to a delusion astounds me to this day.  So they battled…with plant stalks?

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.

For ‘testimonies’, read ‘tall tales after many ales in a pub’. And…why would someone ‘soil’ wine casks? Endless toilet humor suggests itself here.

Many of the tasks the Benandanti performed were typical of shamans around the world, including healing people of the village, keeping the paths of the dead from this world to the next secure, ecstasy, protection of their villages from evil spirits. The selection of members by a personal characteristic (the caul) rather than by application, initiation, or study, is similar to the way in which individuals become shamans or priests because they have a "calling," an internal quality that self-selects them. Thus, the historian Carlo Ginzburg detects a true relationship between the Benandanti cult and the shamanism of the Baltic or/and Slavic cultures. This explains, according to him, the similarities between the Benandanti cult in the Friuli and a distant case in Livonia concerning a benevolent werewolf.

So, this occurred during the Roman Inquisition. What was their response? I’d say predictable is the best description:

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. Drawing this distinction was difficult, however, since so many of their actions were similar to those of the evil witches they purported to oppose. According to one Inquisition account...

"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.

Given the commoner ingredients, the question would be: what were they hallucinating on? Cats and hares? Were these folks pygmies or something? They must’ve used something to induce these ‘visions’ – or perhaps it was simple alcohol poisoning? Or perhaps the use of wormwood?

(Note: the ‘flying ointment’ of the ‘bad witches’ contained ingredients as follows: a fatty base and various herbal extracts, usually including solanaceous herbs that contain the alkaloids atropine, hyoscyamine and scopolamine. The herbs' essential oils are extracted when heated in the base. These oils are poisonous when ingested; when applied to the skin, the alkaloids are absorbed more slowly into the body. Typical ingredients in alleged recipes include hemlock (Conium spp.), deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna), wolfsbane (Aconitum spp.), and henbane (Hyoscyamus niger), usually in a base of animal fat.)

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.

I guess that all’s well that ended swollen, ey?

We as a species have proven our ability to violate Occam’s Razor with a facility and fertility that defies any and all the axioms of logic.

Till the next post then.

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