The hidden history of an Italian village where witches battled to determine if wine would spoil that season.
In Friuli-Venezia Giulia, a region of northwest Italy where Dolomite peaks slice into the sky and expansive vineyards stretch out alongside them, witches have historically been in control of both wine and crop production. Starting in the 1500s, four times a year, an epic battle between good and evil witches decided the future of the region’s haul. If the crops failed, the evil witches had won. But if the crops and wine thrived, that meant the Benandanti emerged victorious.
The Benandanti (which translates loosely to “good walkers”) were born into their role. Any child born with the amniotic sac wrapped around their head had to spend the rest of their lives protecting residents, wine, and crops. They’d often keep the amniotic sac in a pouch they carried with them, allowing other Benandanti to identify them easily. The evil witches—or Malandanti (“bad walkers”)—were products of the devil. The two groups would clash in local fields on Thursday evenings during ember seasons or the period of time just before the seasons changed.
The Maladanti would arrive at the field in the way you might imagine historic evil witches getting somewhere: flying on brooms, riding massive animals, or led by the devil or a warlock. The Benandanti had a more intensive process to get there. They’d lay down as if to go to sleep but instead go into a deep trance. Then they’d shapeshift into animal spirits and make their way to the battlefield. Relatives of the Benandanti testified that they’d go into the good witch’s room, and the sleeping person would be out of their body, unresponsive to multiple attempts to wake them up.
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Back at the field, when everyone was ready to fight, the two groups picked up organic weapons.
“I am a Benandanti because I go with the others to fight four times a year, in the nights between the ember days, invisibly with the spirit,” auctioneer Battista Moduco said during a 1580 witch trial of the group. “We go in favor of Christ and the sorcerers of the devil. We fight with each other; we fight with decks of fennel, and they with rods of sorghum. If we are victorious, then that year will be one of abundance. If we lose, then there will be famine.”
The weapons changed based on the upcoming season and could include wheat and vines at other times of the year.
It’s not clear how the two groups determined a winner. Allegedly, they pummeled and whipped each other with their weapons, and whichever side surrendered first lost the battle. But no other information is available because the Benendanti apparently made a deal with God that they wouldn’t tell anyone—or so the witnesses in the witch trial said. They said if they went into detail about what happened, angels would come to Earth and beat them. The Good Walkers also wouldn’t say the names of other Benandanti. Both sides had a team captain, and before the battle, all fighters agreed with the captains to never reveal their identities.
Whoever won, though, changed the course of the upcoming season. The Malandanti would cause famine, a subpar harvest, spoiled wine, and sick children. A Benandanti win led to profitable farms, especially delicious wine, and a season of health.
After the battles, both the Malandanti and the Benandanti would make their way back from the fields through area towns, stopping at homes and wineries to rest and quench their thirst. Locals knew to have a bowl of clear water outside their doors for the witches to drink from. If they didn’t, or if the bowl was somehow turned upside-down or the water drained from it, the Malandanti would use wine glasses, wine bottles, and wine barrels inside as their own personal toilets. The Benandanti would steal wine from personal stores to drink since they didn’t have any water.
After about a century of battles and multiple trials of the Benandanti (at least one every time a new inquisitor took over at the Catholic Church), the group began to merge with the bad witches—at least in the mind of the courts and the wealthier locals. Together, they’re said to have morphed into an agrarian fertility cult. This was by design; the inquisitor and courts painted a broad picture of witches as evil during that time. And because the Benandanti, though not in league with the devil, was able to shapeshift and battle witches, they were also evil.
That being said, no one really knows what happened to the Benandanti officially. Maybe they just went underground to continue fighting their battles in peace. The Friuli-Venezia Giulia region is now a thriving wine center, known mostly to Italians and not so much outside the country. Perhaps the good people of Friuli have the Benandanti to thank for their continued success.