On the night battles

17 03 2009


Catholic Witchhunters in Italy and the Decline of the Enchanted World

For a little over a year now, I have been contemplating the idea of a “marginal Catholicism”: a religiosity in contact but not necessarily controlled by the official hierarchy. One can call it, “popular Catholicism”, “folk Catholicism”, or even “underground Catholicism”. I write on it not because I have some romanticist vision of an unspoiled peasant past or because I idolize the voice of the people over and above the voice of their leaders. Nor is it an issue of a religion of the heart versus a religion of the head; such dichotomies ultimately prove trite and useless. There is, nevertheless, a great loss that we have experienced in modernity with relation to our “pre-modern” beliefs; a sense that how we believe and the principles behind those beliefs are fundamentally different from those of the past. At times, one generation removed or even right under our noses now, we realize that the way people saw God, the world, good, and evil is different from our own way of seeing things. The project that I have undertaken is to chronicle those differences; those things that have been silenced during the “purification” of popular religion in the continuing march of modernity.

In the book, The Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century, the Italian scholar Carlo Ginzburg tells the story of the relationship between the benandanti (or “good walkers”) and the Inquisition. In the region of the Friuli in northeastern Italy, a group of people born with a caul were summoned on the nights during Embertide to leave their bodies and fight witches for the good of the village. Under the command of an angel or a lead benandante, they would have ritual battles with witches during their “black Sabbaths”. The benandanti would attack with fennel stalks, and the witches would fight back with sorghum stalks. If the benandanti  won, the crops of the village would be safe for the year, but if they lost, disaster and famine would sweep the land. During these episodes, it was claimed that the bodies of the benandanti remained behind in their homes, still as if they were dead.

No one really knows for how long these rituals had been going on. They seem to have their basis in pre-Christian fertility rites, particularily when considering the symbolism of the sorghum and fennel stalks. Nevertheless, there was nothing pagan about the benandanti‘s attitudes towards their ghostly battles. As Ginzburg documents, for them they were fighting for the “faith of Christ” against the Devil. Also, being a benandanti was seen as a vocation inherited from birth; many did not want to have to go out and fight the witches, but they did it for the good of the village. Tied to the cycle of the seasons and the well-being of the village, the benandanti  in sixteenth century Italy were merely another part of the Catholic peasant’s cosmos, along with God, the saints, ghosts, demons, and men.

As we well know, at this time the Inquisition was making in-roads into all parts of society, trying to take the Counter-Reformation home to the masses. The story between the benandanti and the Inquisition that Ginzburg tells is a very complex one. Being one of the few scholars who was given access by the Vatican to the archives of the Inquisition, Ginzburg documents how inquisitors came into villages to transform the benandanti into their foes, the witches. Through cajoling, threats, and directed interrogation, the orthodox clerics would trap the benandanti into admitting that they really worked for Satan, that they were indeed witches who would blackmail people with their witchcraft, and that their experiences were merely the result of demonic manipulation. After a few generations, the benandanti were discredited in the eyes of the people, and they were often thrown into the same category as witches in the popular imagination. Eventually, the memory of the benandanti would die out, and the stories told about them were often confused and mixed in with the common lore of witchcraft.

What Ginzburg aims to document is how the elites redefined and ultimately destroyed a popular religious phenomenon that could not fit into the predetermined principles of their own belief system. For them, no one could fight the devil except for the official Church, and anyone who pretended to do this was obviously being manipulated by the same devil. The details of their story were so unsavory that they could not fit it into their own determinations of what constituted orthodoxy. When they came into a village where the benandanti lived, often they did not even speak the same language as the peasants, and the awe and fright they must have caused in the populace is something that Ginzburg highlights in many places. In the shadow of the rack and the whip, one can easily conclude that many benandanti changed their stories to escape torture and excommunication. In spite of the sometimes obsessive persecutions by the clergy, no benandanti were ever burned at the stake or imprisoned for a long period of time. Indeed, Ginzburg shows how the benandanti ended on a very anticlimactic note. With the rise of more modern ways of thinking, they were seen by the Church and the people as a left-over superstition of a distant past. This reflects the idea that the end of the witch trials in Europe was not the result of the mass extermination of witches, but rather of the entrance of human consciousness into the disenchanted realm of modernity.

It is unknowable now, at least for me, what constituted the nature of the benandanti‘s night battles. Do we explain them through our prism of modern scientific knowledge of psychological diseases and mass hallucinations. Or was the Inquisition right?  Were they really demonic in inspiration? Or should we take the story of the benandanti at face value? Ginzburg, being the good historian that he is, speculates but does not seek to impose any one approach to these questions. For the remainder of this essay, I will pursue the last option, since I believe it most useful to the project I underlined above.

Like the curanderos in Latin America, the benandanti were seen as a middle ground between the “completely good and safe” forces of the Church and the malevolent invisible forces that sought the destruction of mankind. In these areas, the Church was often seen as a powerful but distant force for the good; an institution to which the people belonged though it did not belong to them. In the battles of everyday life, in a world of a nasty, brutish, and short existence, people had other intercessors than the official church to help them get through their daily struggles.

While the official orthodoxy of the Counter-Reformation sought to limit, prune, and organize the spiritual world into easily definable and predictable categories, the popular consciousness still had the creative and (dare I say) pagan elan for projecting the chaotic character of daily life onto their ideas of the nature. While still respecting the dichotomies that the Church posed as essential to the beliefs of a “good Christian” (good vs. evil, light vs. darkness, superstition vs. faith, etc.), the peasant mind still had the ability to appreciate that “the good” could sometimes look a lot like evil, that darkness was sometimes necessary to defend the light, and that “superstition” was a necessary appendix to the doctrines of the Faith. This skill of being able to live with such cognitive dissonance was not the result of great intellectual insight or purity of intention; it was due to being in touch with the concrete struggles of human existence from which the elites would often distance themselves due to their abstract scholarly ideals. Little did they realize that these ideals were a luxury that only they could afford.

I should reiterate that for Ginzburg the institution of the benandanti seemed to die a natural death. As belief in witches became less and less acceptable in the official discourse of society, the belief in the benandanti  disappeared like so many other traditions. For me, I would ask if it was the power of belief itself, interior to man, that gave people such extraordinary powers. Perhaps the reason why we find such phenomena strange and unacceptable now is that we have long since abandoned a world where things like this could occur. I base my conjectures on the philosophical principles of the immortality and powers of the soul, made in the image and likeness of God and tied into the music of the spheres. Perhaps the disappearance of the benandanti has little to do with mental illness but is the result of the limitations on the powers of the human soul that our rationalistic prejudices have imposed upon us. Perhaps the “scientific” world that we see all around us is to some extent an illusion of our own making; a vision that does not respect the ultimate sovereignty of the human soul and that cannot transcend certain “laws of nature” out of respect to certain predetermined mechanistic principles.

Of course, there is no way to know for sure. While I do not pretend to put popular religion on a pedestal, I will say that perhaps it can still see the almost defunct enchanted cosmos, though mixed in with many errors and superstitions. In matters of the human soul, our reason can only go so far before it encounters things that far transcend it. The benandanti may have been part of a world no longer accessible to us, one which even many members of the Church wanted to suppress. Though mainstream religious institutions can at times insinuate its existence, they cannot completely control it. We must always keep in mind that we live in a universe in which we are the lowest form of intelligent life. There are entities both above us and amongst us that are working constantly both for our benefit and harm. Though the outcome for the orthodox Christian has already been determined in the macro-historical sense, the battles of the night and day, seen and unseen, continue all around us.



9 responses

31 03 2009

America isn’t really all that far removed from Corsica. The fantasy writer Manly Wade Wellman wrote a series of stories and novels about a guitarist named John roaming around through the North Carolina hills, encountering the legendary horrors and witches of that area. He based this on research and friend of a friend stories from people he knew in North Carolina, and the mindset of the stories is acknowledged as completely authentic.

One of the interesting features of the series is the use of quotes from a book called The Long Lost Friend, which a lot of mountain people had on hand for emergencies (and still have, one hears). It was a sort of combination protective prayerbook and spellbook, and fairly old. Receiving communion comes into it a lot, apparently. The quotes reminded me at times of some of the Gaelic and Old English prayer/spell combos.

23 03 2009
Fearsome Comrade

We’ve only “lost something” if magic, dueling idols, fairies, and so on are real. Since I think it’s all fiction, I can’t see any intrinsic benefit in someone believing that a powerful shaman can destroy his crops. I mean, if the cosmos isn’t actually enchanted, what’s the good in believing that it is? It makes your life more colorful, but also more terrifying.

22 03 2009
random Orthodox chick

It would be a big mistake not to believe in witches anymore. While they may start out as the new-age type, I’ve personally met (and been the target of) many who practice witchcraft far removed from the common “Wiccan” practice of other neo-pagans.

18 03 2009
The Shepherd

Good post, I read about the accounts of people in the mailing list and around the world and I simply had to say to myself “all these people just simply can’t all be insane or have a constant steady supply of drugs on hand”. Your last point reminds me of how in the Gospels Jesus is unable to perform miracles in areas where people had no faith. If that could be an issue 2000 years ago it must be a real bastard to do these days.

Those people you mentioned are a far cry from witchcraft traditionally understood. From what I’ve observed practitioners of modern/new age “magick” often don’t take it very seriously at all. Many people heavily involved in these movements would be the very first to tell you that magic can’t effect the external world and would say magic is a dressed up form of psychotherapy and a type of post modern religion. Most of them would laugh at the African account you mentioned and pin it on drugs, superstition or both. However, look at the curanderismo mailing list and the witches mentioned do pretty crazy stuff all the time.

18 03 2009

Several months ago, I saw a story on Yahoo! news about an incident that occurred in Africa (I forget the country) where the locals were on the lookout for a criminal who used black magic to turn himself into a goat to escape prosecution. Up until the 17th century or so, incidents like these would not have been unusual in the West. I wonder at what point and why witchcraft ceased to be a social concern for Europeans and their American peers. For all of the supposed religiosity of the US, belief in the malevolent nature of witches and their existence in society seemed to have died out after the Salem Witch trial. At least, I don’t recall reading anything else about witches. How then, should modern Catholics view witches? Are the colorful people at the metaphysical bookstore handmaidens of the devil? Is the self-defined radical lesbian separatist witch who wrote a letter to the editor in the latest “New Yorker” undermining the Church through her practice of the dark arts? It’s certainly not a topic most people think about, I imagine.

17 03 2009

Interesting. We have these in the Philippines as well. A lot of the rural folk here, especially the ones who have little to no contact with the institutional Church, actually rely on amulets and trinkets because they are seen as effective tools in fighting the Evil One. Often, Christian prayers and symbols will be used to ‘curse’ the powers of Hell in ways that would surely scandalize the pious. I heard of an old man in my father’s province who dedicated his life to fighting demons and elementals– everything from duendes to phantoms and even other sorcerers– but kept a gigantic crucifix and literally rows on rows of images of the Sacred Heart, the Mater Dolorosa, and the odd Trinidad trifacial on practically every corner of the house.

I think you’d like this site, just found it incidentally from a blog linked to mine. A lot of it is in Tagalog, bad Spanish and English and pig Latin, though, but that’s what makes it a lot more interesting to me.

17 03 2009

For what it’s wort, you may be interested in knowing that the english name for people born with a caul is caulbearer, and they still continue to live amongst us to this day. You might also research the links between Moses and Jesus being associated with the caul, as they were High Priests of The Way in their times.

17 03 2009

Here’s a link for paperback version of the above book: http://www.amazon.com/Dream-Hunters-Corsica-Dorothy-Carrington/dp/1857994248

17 03 2009

A book that I believe many will find fascinating is Dorothy Carrington’s “The Dream-Hunters of Corsica.” “Here are the ‘mazzeri,’ dream-hunters who can foresee death. At night they go hunting–or dream they do–and kill an animal in the face of which they recognise the face of a living person. Once pinpointed by the dream-hunter, that person will not have long to live. Unkike the ‘mazeri,’ the ‘signadori’ are guardians of life. practising folk medicine, securing release from the curse of the ‘Evil Eye’ and casting spells infused with light and hope.”
This isn’t something that was confined to an earlier age but continued as part of modern Corsican culture.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: