Halloween & the Witches of Benevento
As globalization has sunk its vast talons into our once diverse cultures, I have grown accustomed to seeing, for example, St. Valentine’s Day celebrated in Naples. So when I saw the first Halloween decorations go up around town some years ago, I shrugged it off as just another glum harbinger of the day when we shall all — Neapolitans and Australian Bakanambians alike— sit around the campfire on St. Patrick’s Day, nibble on our traditional Finnish karjalanpiirakka and sing Dixie.
And yet, there really is a local Halloween, of
sorts, near Naples. It's when witches and spooks come
out at certain times and gather by the sacred Walnut
Tree and do things that I am not at liberty to reveal
(except that they dance and no doubt take shots of their
famous and potent inebriating beverage, Strega [witch]).
That place is Benevento in the hills about 30 miles (50
km) northeast of Naples. It is the capital city of the
province of the same name in the Campania region of
Italy and supposedly founded by Diomedes after the
In Italian lore and literature dealing with witchcraft, Benevento and the sacred Walnut Tree are in the same class as the Brocken in the Harz mountains in Germany, where northern witches gather on the night of April 30, Walpurgisnacht. The Benevento gathering is often called in Italian folklore the tregenda, a word that may derive from an old plural form of trecento (three hundred) used to mean any large number. Today, it is used only to mean the gathering of witches at propitious times of the year, typically the winter and summer solstice and vernal equinox.
In 1600, the celebrated Jesuit and demonologist, Martin Antonius Delrio mentioned the noce di Benevento (Walnut Tree of Benevento) in his Disquisitiones Magicae libri sex (Six Books on Investigations into Magic), and the sacred tree and gathering of witches of Benevento crop up often in literature and anthropological studies. A poem published in the 19th century in Naples, Storia della Famosa Noce di Benevento (History of the famous Walnut Tree of Benevento) goes into some detail on the lore: there is the great serpent twisted around the tree, and then there is the poisonous nature of the tree, itself, such as to paralyze you if you fall asleep in the shade of the branches. More recently, Italian anthropologist and ethnologist, Giuseppe Cocchiara (1904-65), devoted an entire chapter to the witches of Benevento in his 1956 book, Il paese di Cuccagna e altri studi di folklore (The Land of Cockayne and Other Studies in Folklore. Reprint, 1980, Bollati Boringhieri. Torino. )*2
A large body of scholarship has developed over the years dealing with the obvious syncretism —that is, the mixing of snake worship (possibly from the cult of Isis, particularly strong in Benevento under the Romans) and various forms of tree worship from northern Europe (which has given us the Christmas tree, for example). Northern influence penetrated into Italy with the Lombard invasions after the fall of the Western Roman Empire; thus, it is plausible that northern lore mixed with local, earlier lore come together to give us the “witches” of Benevento. Locally, the witches are often referred to as janara, possibly from dianara, a priestess of Diana.
Of the many legends that weave the
Lombards into the origins of the lore is one that tells
of a local Christian priest, Barbato, in the mid-600s,
when Benevento was an autonomous Lombard duchy besieged
at the time by the forces of Byzantine emperor, Constans
II, still trying to maintain a hold on the exarchate,
the Eastern Imperial enclave in Italy. The Lombard ruler
of Benevento, Romualdo, made a vow to Barbato to give up
his northern gods and embrace Christianity if Benevento
were spared from the Greek forces. The Greeks, for
whatever reason, lifted the siege and went elsewhere;
Romualdo promoted Barbato to bishop of Benevento but
reneged on his own promise to switch faiths and
continued to worship his little golden statue of a viper
(the snake from the tree, one supposes). Then,
Romualdo’s good and faithful wife, Theodorada—and what a witch she was!—ratted him out to Barbato
and gave the bishop the statue. Barbato melted it down
and turned it into a chalice for the Eucharist; he then
went and chopped down the walnut tree and built the
church of Santa Maria
del voto on the site.
Pericle Fazzini (1913-87), an Italian sculptor
best-known for his 1977 work, The Resurrection, on the premises of
the Vatican. The Dance
of the Witches is from 1949 and is in the
Fazzini family collection in Rome.
*2. Cockayne means,
roughly, “land of plenty”; the term goes back to ancient
times, existing with slight variations in many
languages. (See this link.) The Cocchiara book is
not to be confused with the 1891 book, il Paese di Cuccagna
by Neapolitan writer, Matilde