Carlo Ginzburg who won the Balzan price for his work, was a young man in Napoli, who had an insight moment where he decided on two things concurrently, he will become an historian, and his subject would be witchcraft.
Eventually he found himself in Venice, where he started researching anything he could find on witchcraft, playing what he called “the Venice Roulette”, because he could only ask for 4 volumes a day. He found transcripts from the Witch trials of the 16th and 17th century, on which he based his amazing book The Night Battles, and in a sense he opened up to the world a forgotten layer of peasant farming beliefs, starting a small movement in similar works, by Eva Pocs, Julian Goodare and others.
His (re)discovery of a forgotten stream of shamanic threads in the northern Italian province of Friuli (across the border from Slovenia) focused on the peculiar case of the Benandati (good walkers), who came to light of the inquisition through the witch trials, the inquisitors he showed did not know what to make of the night visions, and journeys of the Benandatis, who claimed to be a counter force to witches.
To become a Benandati one had to be born with a caul (the birth membrane) which still in some parts of rural Italy is said to be a sign of good fortune, ‘nascere con la camicia’ meaning to be born clothed. The benandati themselves referred to it as being born under the sign, which the inquisitors found a little hard to understand at times being from a different class. Those born under the sign were called to go and fight the witches, they would leave their bodies and go to the meadow of jehoshaphat, where they would fight the witches, the Benandati would arm themselves with stalks of fennel and the witches with sorghum.
The trials are very interesting first because the existence of a whole strata of people within a region who were born to dream a certain dream, and that they all entered into that dream together, in fact their first entry into that dream would take place when another Benandati would come and take them to the night battle, on Thursdays of the Amber days, which are set for fasting and prayer in each of the four seasons of the year.
Both the witches and the benandati on trial reported the very same scene, and the same battle, although each had a very different story about how he came to get there, and what happened to him in that place, but the vision themselves were homogeneous.
Carlo Ginzburg noted that the upper class found it very hard to deal with the belief of the peasants, and in truth let some of the cases go amiss as they could not believe the tales and visions shared. He took a further step and described the whole saga and the trials as a sort of class war in which the beliefs and creativity of the peasants were banned by an upper class that could not make sense of them. Instances like an inquisitor asking one of the Benandati why did he go, and him replying that he was taken because he was born under the sign, to which the inquisitor replied, every man has a free will. The Benandati, being from the unreflective class as Carlo puts it, did not share that notion, for him he was the continuous link with an age old oral tradition in which those born under the sign, must go into the night battle dream.
The beauty of the idea that up to the 17th century peasants had a whole strata of folklore and night journeys, shared dreaming voyages and “games” as they called them where men and women would fight each other with the stakes being the next year harvest, calling in storms and enjoying themselves in ways that were increasingly deemed demonic (a lot of which involved the devil). Later on other Historians and researchers like Eva Pocs from Hungary found similar threads in the beliefs of Hungarian people, Serbian and Bulgarians. Weather Shamans, as the Hungarian Talt’os and Zduhać had helpers in a so called Dragon woman, similarly sharing dream scapes and influencing the weather.
They reported dreams in which they had entered and fought over the weather front with another weather shaman, sometimes in the form of a dragon, in fact the dragon motif probably emerged through those practices rather than other mythology. The difference is that they entered a certain dream with only one other “shaman” in those weather dreams, and in the night battles, or for the witches the “Sabbath” for which they entered the dream en masse.
The witch trials and the inquisition were means Carlo Ginzburg argued by the upper class who no longer lived in nature to curb the notions of a people who still practiced a natural life, in fact any people living with nature to some degree still share those type of notions, from weather control, to shared dreaming. And it could be argued further that the fact no one practices those type of activities is simply because they were banned through religion of a people that no longer lived immersed in nature when they could not understand the rural logic anymore.
Our current understanding of magic, and rural areas, is in fact lacking in a central myth. People spend a life time working to construct community, as I have done, finding that project after project, and more so in rural areas, lack something, a core. To me that core is magical creativity of a people, and their connection to the land, so imagine the peasants of Northern Italy going into dreaming together, and working their local weather systems, fighting each other for the next years harvest, by following oral traditions that possibly were not just localised but shared by everyone in Europe, even if they were not connected, meaning in a way that those belief systems and practices are a core practice for any rural people.
The interesting thing is that the rural landscape also have become abandoned as a continuation of the same logic, and our own view of, what in truth should be termed, ‘Rurality’ are still the very same notions of the inquisitors from an upper class, living in castles and cities, meeting the peasant folk who still lived on the land, with their tales of magical gusts of winds, witchcraft, magic, and even night battles. We treat farming and community in the same way.
If you really manage to grasp the scope of a traditional way of life in nature, in which people have practiced dreaming together, and games with which they played with the weather and next years harvest, the magical folk being divided into a male/female grouping, or good versus bad, teams as if they were playing bingo, even if the lines between witch and Benandati were not all too clear. Eventually through the guidance of the inquisition itself have come to be seen all together as witchcraft, all bundled together and forbidden, following later into a mental framework shift and eventually to the abandonment of the countryside, turning into estates through the enclosure act in the UK, but through similar processes in other European countries, maybe you starting to understand the logic behind banning rurality, or the business plan if you wish for doing so.
You can understand the scope of an economic system being built away from the people, and their practices being forbidden. Step by step, circular economy and even village life were abandoned, to feed a globalised system that we have today, one that was never needed by peasants, as in fact most of them grew all they ever needed.
Taking away the religious aspect, we have up to the 17th century in Europe a connection to an art that people living on the earth practiced in every indigenous society, meaning that any people who live a truly rural life, have come up with the very same notions, and “magical” abilities, and in a way we can simply argue that the fact we do not share those beliefs is simply because we do not live in rural areas in connection with true nature. The few that do, live in some kind of agriculturally altered countryside, and so the connecting myths and the central pillar of the community is always lacking, but saying this is not taking it far enough, it is not lacking, it is banned from existence. That is why it is a class war, where the countryside is simply used as a resource to create bigger farms and estates, which have never been sustainable even with technological farming methods, now those systems are collapsing even with modern agriculture, because the old system was a natural means to work and live on the land and the modern is not.
I would say give the land back to the people, but is it too late? It seems everyone has forgotten how to live naturally.
The funny thing is that our own notions are of the Italian (or an European) upper class, and we too no longer believe that shared dreams are possible, or that the Benandati and the witches can go and meet in a dream meadow somewhere and fight each other to decide next year’s crop.
We do not believe in mystical gusts of wind, or that certain mountains stage wars with the hills next to them, that some people control the weather, and so much more, yet the magical is only actually, truly, a reflection of the rural.
In a sense that was always the centre of the community, I will try to write another entry, about why the people “born under the sign” were always referred to as – Good neighbours, Good Patrons (another name for the famous “women of the outside” in Sicily), or the Good Walkers in the case of Benandati. People born this way, could in our time be called, Autistic, or suffering from ADHD, sometimes maybe diagnosed with schizophrenia because we have no other means to understand the things they see, yet once in the not very long ago, they had a central role in an rural area social systems, that of creating the central body of the myth, or in other words they made the tribe, or the village. Which is why possibly they were referred to as Good neighbours, taking into consideration that the population knew they could affect things around them for both good or bad.
I for once would say that with living real natural context, all of those notions and world view points arise by themselves, yes they are built in through society too, as the belief of being born with a caul and it being an un refutable sign that must have taken centuries if not millennia to from into a belief, coming like Carlo argues through millennia of shamanism and lore, and possibly resembles a pre civilisation core that still existed in European societies from times before farming, passed down through oral societies, and replaced by scripture of the upper class.
The Benandati were convinced of their errors just like the witches were, some were burned, some jailed and a lot have just petered away, even if those notions still exist in rural Italy, and I would say the difference is that in those areas people still to a degree live with nature, their land is not always agricultural, it is peasantry in the middle of pure nature, and so rurality is a meeting point, in which magic to some degree still takes place, a magic we can no longer conceive because we either live in agricultural land (managed nature) or cities where none exist, and so we too have forgotten that the magical world view is just the natural one, we think that the weather just happens and we think that dreams, weird as they are just a private matter.
That border line between the upper class and peasants is actually a barrier in our own conceptuality, in order to see things different we must at one point in our lives experience life in totally wild nature, and I do not mean a trip to the mountains, even if that can help, but living in such a place where rurality is still practiced, and if possible by a people who lived in that way for a long time, allowing them to create a central myth, which I have come to understand as the missing glue for modern society.
Living in Central Italy has brought me face to face with a lot of this, in truth at times I feel like some witches I know fight with me over my heritage wheats fields, as some of the natural disasters that happen can not be simply put to climate change, but yet again I feel we all take the point of view of the inquisitor, and the real spectrum and folklore of the peasantry is now lost in our minds, we stopped waking up at night like rural people would in Europe, and go into a power dream, we stopped playing night battles with each other.
Imagine whole groups of people who shared dreaming games 4 times a year, to such a degree that some have reported 5000 people meeting on the same plain. Those “Anti-Withces” all agreed on the Thursday night, even if they lived hundreds of kilometres away from each other, as Friuli and Sicily of Middle Ages, at least to me, should not have been socially connected. You can not compare that with watching Netflix.
If anything I would recommend you read the Night Battles by Carlo Ginzburg, for getting a little glimpse of the real Italian imagination and folklore that has been lost now, and maybe to get a glimpse of why we restrict a lot of the magical, the imaginary and the natural in modern society. Why Globalisation has killed circular economies, why farming is a monoculture, and why society has lost most of its biodiversity to a degree that any other trait but being totally imagination-less is deemed a problem. Once you realise it is all parts of the same parcel, and that the only way out of it is discovering our magical selves again, nothing will look the same.