The witches of Benevento and their walnut tree Sabbats
We are in Italy. When the Romans conquered the area in the 3rd century B.C. they changed its original name Maleventum (meaning “bad event”) into Beneventum (“good event”) but, name apart, it was a place of crossroads. The city stood in fact where the Appian Way forked and the Sabato and Calore rivers came together and, interestingly, crossroads (in italian “crocevia”) were the special domain of the goddess Trivia, protector of witches, with word Tri-via that means “three roads”.
The legend of the witches of Benevento dates back to the fourth century BC, when the ancient colonists of Magna Graecia introduced the orgiastic worship of Cybele.
For a short period during Roman times, the cult of Isis, Egyptian goddess of the moon, proliferated in Benevento, with the emperor Domitian that had a temple erected in her honor in 88-89 AD. Within this cult Isis became identified with Hecate, goddess of the underworld, and Diana, goddess of the hunt, deities also connected with magic. At the beginning of the 20th century, archaeological excavations uncovered many fascinating artifacts from this temple, such as statues of priestesses and baboons. Today in the city centre there is an obelisk dedicated to Isis with hieroglyphic inscriptions that describe her as the “lady of the stars, of the heaven, of the earth and of the underground.”
During the Renaissance, some of the most famous witches of Italy of that period lived and worked in, or in the area of Bernevento, including Boiarona who, according to legend, had chained some demons to the walnut trees, and the witch Gioconna that was interrogated by the Holy Office of Rome in 1540 in the Arcistrega of Samnium. She was renowned for her beautiful apprentices, whom she taught how to rub their bodies with flying ointment.
The witches had the custom of nocturnal meetings, usually in the night between Saturday and Sunday, around a big walnut tree, to attend their Sabbats. People believed they traveled seated on flying broomsticks, after having anointed themselves with their witches unguent, which not only lifted them into the air but also made them invisible to the indiscreet eye.
Under the branches of a huge walnut tree an obscure rite was performed, and the locals feared these figures: they thought, among other things, the witches could cause miscarriages and malformations in the newborns. In addition, they brushed against sleepers like a gust of wind and caused a sense of oppression on the chest, and people also feared more innocent pranks, which, for example, would make the horses be found in their stables in the morning with their manes braided, or sweating after having been ridden all night. It was also believed they had the ability to enter their houses by moving their bodies under the doors during the nighttime.
According to the legend the witches, indistinguishable from the other women by day, at night anointed their underarms or their breasts with an unguent and took off flying, pronouncing their magic phrase.
” ‘Nguento, ‘nguento,
mànname a lu nocio ‘e Beneviento,
sott’a ll’acqua e sotto ô viento,
sotto â ogne maletiempo.”
Carry me to the walnut tree of Benevento,
Above the water and above the wind,
And above all other bad weather.”
The chief physician of Benevento, Pietro Piperno, in his essay “On the Superstitious Walnut Tree of Benevento” (1639, translated from his original Latin De Nuce Maga Beneventana), traced the roots of the witch legend back to the seventh century.
At that time Benevento was the capital of a Lombard duchy. However the invaders, although formally converted to Catholicism, did not renounce their traditional pagan religion. Under Duke Romuald I they worshiped a golden viper (perhaps winged, or with two heads), which probably had some connection with the cult of Isis, since the goddess was able to control serpents. They began to develop a singular rite near the Sabato river, which the Lombards celebrated in honor of Wotan, father of the gods, and the hide of a goat was hung on a sacred tree. The warriors earned the favor of the god by rushing frantically around the tree on horseback and striking the hide with their lances, with the intent of tearing off shreds, which they then ate.
Eventually a priest, Saint Barbatus of Benevento, outright accused the Lombard rulers of idolatry and, according to the legend, when Benevento was besieged by forces of the Byzantine emperor Constans II in 663, Duke Romuald promised Barbatus to renounce paganism if the city (and the duchy) were saved. Constans withdrew (apparently, by divine grace), and Romuald made Barbatus the bishop of Benevento.
As a result, Saint Barbatus cut down the sacred tree and tore out its roots, and on that spot he had a church built, called Santa Maria in Voto. Romuald continued to worship the golden viper in private, until his wife Teodorada handed it over to St. Barbatus, who melted it down to make a chalice for the Eucharist.
Surely an intriguing story, but incompatible with the historical facts. In 663 the duke of Benevento was Grimoald, while Romuald I would not succeed his predecessor until 671, having become King of the Lombards in the meantime. Moreover, Romualdo’s wife was named Theuderada, not Teodorada. And, cherry on the top, historic reports neither mentioned the legend, nor the presumed pagan faith of Romuald, who was much more likely to have been an Arian like his father Grimoald.
In any case, for hundreds of years after it was uprooted, legend has it that the tree re-appeared on nights of the witch’s Sabbats.