Berkeley Witch

Hell Really Exists

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in Civdale, Paolo Gasparutto, who could cure bewitched persons and who "roamed about at night with witches and goblins." Summoned and questioned by the priest, Gas-parutto admitted the Ember Days' outings, adding that in addition to fighting, there was leaping about, dancing and riding on animals. To the priest, this sounded ominously like a witches' sabbat, and he involved the inquisitors.

Various interrogations and trials of benandanti were conducted in the region from 1575 to 1644. The church inquisitors made efforts to associate the benandanti with witches and to get them to confess that they participated in witches' sabbats (said to occur every Thursday night, not just during the Ember Days), and were forced to abjure Christ and gave their souls to the Devil.

With few exceptions, the benandanti staunchly deflected these efforts. They also insisted that being benandanti did not at all interfere with their regular churchgoing and Christian prayers. They said they were forced to go out in service because they had been born with the caul. They were initiated at maturity, and after some 10 or 20 years in service, were relieved of their obligations. While some benandanti claimed to go out during each of the Embers Days, others said they went out only once every few years. Still others said they were called out whenever witches "did evil." Some said they knew who were other benan-danti and who were witches, while others said they did not know anyone but recognized the spirit forms as one side or the other. Most protested that they could not reveal names or even details about the battles, lest they be severely beaten in punishment. The inquisitors, however, often succeeded in eliciting names of members of both factions.

One aspect of the benandanti's nocturnal travels that puzzled inquisitors the most was the leaving behind of the body. By the late 16th century, inquisitors and demo-nologists were beginning to question the actuality of the witches' sabbat, contending instead that it was all hallucinatory. But the benandanti insisted that their spirit battles were very real; that they did leave the body and travel in spirit, and could assume the shapes of animals. They did not feel pain in the fighting, they said. Some said they left the body after rubbing on an oiNTMENT or oil, while others fell into a faint that resembled a cataleptic state. Beyond that, the peasants were at a loss to explain. One description of the spirit travel to the valley of Josaphat, offered in 1591 by Menechino della Nota as a dream in order to dodge the inquisitors, is described in Night Battles by Carlo Ginzburg:

. . . I had the impression there were many of us together as though in a haze but we did not know one another, and it felt as if we moved through the air like smoke and that we crossed over water like smoke . . . everyone returned home as smoke . . .

No inquisitors could accept that the soul could leave the body while it was living and return. That the ben-

andanti took the shapes of animals led the inquisitors to believe that they were physically led off on animals, and they tried to ascertain that the Devil did the leading.

Until the Inquisition, little had been known about the secretive benandanti, even in their own villages. Some who were known for their healing and spell-breaking abilities were sought out. The public attention, plus the persistent efforts of the church to ally the benandanti with witches, eventually did lead to increasing association of the benandanti with witches. By 1623 the church had obtained confessions from benandanti that they participated in witches' SABBATS. This led to more damning confessions of DEVIL'S pacts, desecration of the cross, vampirism and abjuration of the Christian faith. What had once been a purely agricultural rite became transformed into a rite of Devil worship.

Despite its success, the church put little effort into prosecuting the benandanti. Many trials were never concluded, and torture was not used. Punishment, when meted out, was mild—prison sentences or banishment. The benandanti apparently came to light when skepticism about witches was gaining ground in parts of Europe. The last major benandanti trial took place in 1644. A few scattered inquisitional efforts occurred into the late 1600s, but trials were abandoned. See Wild Hunt.

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