This week, Julia decided to give us all a history lesson. We’re talking about The Benandanti - a group of witches from Northern Italy. We’ve got fennel stalks, we’ve got primary source accounts, and we’ve got discussions about how you can make your community just a little bit better.
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Amanda: Welcome to Spirits Podcast, a boozy dive into mythology, legends and folklore. Every week we pour a drink and learn about a new story from around the world. I'm Amanda.
Julia: I'm Julia.
Amanda: This is episode 111, The Benandanti.
Julia: I'm so excited. You'll see why I'm excited once you get into the episode but this is a topic that I kinda of re-discovered in my own life and I am excited to teach you all about it.
Amanda: Yes, this was super fun for me. It reminded me of one of my favorite books that I've read in recent memory and I had really fucked up dreams the night after we recorded it. It's a great episode of Spirits.
Julia: It's only a good episode of Spirits if you have nightmares afterwards.
Amanda: That's very true but you know who's exempt from nightmares?
Julia: Is it our new patrons?
Amanda: Yeah, Rebecca Hailey and Gemma, welcome. I'm so glad that you got the protective charms that we sent and our supporting level producers, Philip, Eiore, Vinnie, Danica, Marissa, Sammy, Josie, Amara, Neal, Jessica, Bill Fresh and Deborah.
Julia: They have great dreams, but you know has amazing dreams? That would be our legend level patrons: Jordan, Jess, Sarah, Zoey, Sandra, Audra, Mercedes, Jack Marie and Leanne.
Amanda: Heck yeah, there's just like always cute animal human hybrids. If that's what you're into and just like really good food, but not like underworld food or fay food that makes you live there, just like good food in your dreams.
Julia: Lots of fennel. You'll see why that's fun [crosstalk 00:01:30].
Amanda: You'll get it, you'll get it, you'll get it. Jules, speaking of fennel and herbs, what are we drinking this episode?
Julia: I mean, I just poured us a really nice dark Chianti because it seemed appropriate with the episode. We haven't had just like some straight wine in awhile.
Amanda: That's true, that's true. Our friend Emma on the Pairing Podcast makes me want to be better and drink more wine every time I listen so it was very welcome to me.
Julia: Yes, absolutely. Checkout Pairing, and also checkout our recommendation for this week. It is the new mythology podcast from Parcast called Mythology and is a deep dive into history, origins and meaning of myths.
Amanda: They have a cast of voice actors to bring each myth to life which is really cool and then do they talk about stuff like how myths resonate in our lives today.
Julia: Yeah and how our ancestors saw the universe. Their episode about Athena is out right now which I highly recommend and you can look forward to episodes about Loki, the Epic of Gilgamesh, Osiris and Isis.
Amanda: We thought it would be really up your alley and you can find that, it's just called Mythology, in any podcast app. If you like feeling good in your body, whether that's in your mind or the clothes that you wear, I have good news. Our sponsors this week are Calm and Stitch Fix and we'll tell you more about that later in the episode.
Julia: You can go to Calm.com/spirits for 25% off on a premium membership or you can go to Stitchfix.com/spirits for 25% off when you keep your whole box.
Amanda: I love when that little parallel happens, makes me check my notes to make sure I didn't get something wrong.
Julia: Everything's 25. What's new and exciting in the multitude world, Amanda?
Amanda: That's a good question. We have a bunch of events coming up which we told you about last week, but also there's some good stuff happening on the pods. We have fun stuff in store for Spirits which we're going to tell you about as it happens. I was on Potterless to kick off Deathly Hallows, which honestly it feels like an accomplishment that my life has been building toward, to be able to say ... Mike was like, "Okay, let's open up chapter one," and I was like, "Wait Mike, there's an epigraph."
Julia: Let's talk about the epigraph.
Amanda: It's very exciting to do close reading and yell about symbolism, so checkout Potterless this week, you're really going to love it, I promise.
Julia: Also, you should checkout Join the Party this week because they just started a new arc and I am very excited about this new arc.
Amanda: I know, me too. It's like big changes and excitement but the same Join the Party that you know and love. Also maybe you might hear, I don't know, a familiar voice coming up soon.
Julia: I don't know what you're talking about. Weird, weird.
Amanda: Search for Multitude in your podcast app. Waystation is also doubling our output. We're doing two episodes of Lost Girl per episode in Waystation, so we can binge even faster with our audience. Good stuff happening in the multiverse.
Amanda: Multiverse, I like that. Horse is great. Oh my gosh, this week's story, I can't get over.
Julia: Yes, I am very, very excited. Let's get into it, Amanda. Lookup Multitude in your podcast app, you could checkout Potterless, Join the Party, Horse, Waystation and us, obviously.
Amanda: I think we've given you enough podcast recommendations to get you through the next week until a new Spirits come out. Enjoy episode 111, The Benandanti.
Julia: Amanda, it's been awhile since I feel like I've done some actual historical research. I was a history student once upon a time. I used to do historical research all the goddamn time.
Amanda: You were even in the history club in addition to your history major because you're a big, big nerd.
Julia: I was. I helped found the history club. In like a passing thing. It was not my baby, but I was one of the founding members.
Amanda: Amazing, I love it so much.
Julia: It's not like I don't love researching mythology and folklore because I absolutely do. Sometimes I miss those sweet primary sources and first person accounts and human interest stories, you know what I mean?
Amanda: I do, I do.
Julia: I'm sure you miss really digging into the nitty-gritty of poetry and literature for more than just your entertainment, right?
Amanda: I do. I really miss close reading, guys. I really love close reading. One time, we read Ulysses for a full month and then just talked about it in seminar. We analyze one page for three hours and when I die, I hope heaven looks like that.
Julia: I love it. I also like that your idea of heaven is really specific book club.
Amanda: It is, it is.
Julia: That doesn't surprise me.
Amanda: Book club where we all read the book and we meet a lot of times and talk about the use of comma and color motifs.
Julia: I love you.
Amanda: That's why my recent appearance on Potterless was me being like, "Let me close read the epigraph," than tracing color symbolism and whatnot.
Julia: You're adorable.
Julia: Also, this is why I pepper in poetry for episodes in every now and again, just because I know ...
Amanda: You're so nice to me.
Julia: That's because we're friends, baby. We're friends.
Julia: Lately, the witch trials that were spread across the US and Europe had been on my mind. Maybe it's because we talked about persecution and misogyny in the Rangda episode awhile back or maybe I've just been seeing a lot of references to them in pop culture and podcasting lately. It reminded me of one of the more interesting witch trial stories that I came across when I was an undergrad - the Benandanti.
Now, the Benandanti are a group of witches from Northern Italy. My people, yes, thank you. Their name literally translates to the good walkers. They are some of the most interesting groups of witches that I've come across from a historical perspective. One of the reasons that we know so much about them is because they were written about a lot during the witch trials that were run by the Italian Inquisition during the 16th century.
Amanda: I don't know a lot about these, so I'm going to be really curious to hear about your research.
Julia: I think we're actually going to mix things up a little bit in this episode. I'm going to tell you the story of the end of the Benandanti before I actually tell you about them and then we're going to fill in the blanks at the end. Their first real appearance according to Italian legal records of the Benandanti was a man named Paolo Gasparotto. I'm going to do a lot of Italian accents in this episode.
Amanda: I was just going to say I'm really happy that you can frolic freely through the spiels of pronunciation because your name is Schifini.
Julia: I'm absolutely still going to get most of these wrong but I'm going to try and I can put on an accent that makes it sound like they're legit.
Amanda: Listen, that's all you got to do in this world, man.
Julia: Paolo Gasparotto was a villager in a village known now as Giassìcco. Gasparotto gave a charm to a miller who is looking to heal his son of an unknown illness and word got back to the local priest, Don Bartolomeo Sgabarizza. Very important name. Now, Don Sgabarizza was not caught up yet in the whole Italian Inquisition's fight against everything pagan and magic. He was actually pretty interested in the folk magic that Gasparotto was using and so he called the man to his church so that he could learn more about the charm and the so called magic.
Amanda: My brain definitely goes, "It's a trap, he's going to murder you." I'm glad that, at least, it didn't start that way.
Julia: [inaudible 00:08:35] we talk about murder, I'm going to talk about it a little bit more at the end, I promise.
Amanda: That's a great way to keep me interested is going to be like, "There is a murder here," and then I am just in.
Julia: Gasparotto came to Sgabarizza and informed him that the child that he had "healed" wasn't actually sick but instead had been "possessed by witches" and that the child had been saved from death by the Benandanti and he was one of the Benandanti. The source also refers to them as vagabonds, which is adorable. According to Gasparotto, the Benandanti were witches who practice witchcraft across the countryside around Verona and they "fought, played, leaped about, and rode various animals". Here's Sgabarizza's record of what Gasparotto told him in his own words in 1575. 1575, dang.
Amanda: Whoa, that primary source though.
Julia: Sometimes they go out to one country region and sometimes to another, perhaps to Gradisca or as far away as Verona and they appear together jousting and playing games. The men and women who are the evil-doers carry and use sorghum stalks, which is like cereal grain, I had to look it up. Which grow in the fields ...
Amanda: That's very trendy.
Julia: Which grow in the fields. The men and women who are Benandanti use fennel storks and they go now one day and now another, but always on Thursdays. When they make their great displays they go to the biggest farms and they have days fixed for this. When the warlocks and witches set out to do evil, they must be pursued by the Benandanti to thwart them and also to stop them entering the houses because if they do not find clear water in the pails they go into the cellars and spoil the wine with certain things, throwing filth in the bungholes.
Amanda: I'm seeing really interesting thrill lines here to hospitality and offerings for fay and I don't know. It's just like there's a lot going on here that I'm really enjoying.
Julia: Sgabarizza is not exactly happy to hear that there's all this witchcraft happening in his area and that apparently, there are good witches battling bad witches outside of the church's influence. He reaches out to the Italian Inquisition to inform them of these practices, but the Inquisition dismisses his report despite the fact that he brought Gasparotto with him to recount it for himself. The Inquisition said that his stories were "tall tales and nothing more".
Amanda: See, I was going to make a crack about how I feel like the Inquisition is never chill thank you, they're always just like, "Murder!" I don't know, I give them props for being like, "Nah, not one of ours."
Julia: You can give them props, until five years later. Because five years later ...
Amanda: To be clear, I give no props to the Inquisition. None at all.
Julia: Five years later, there is an Inquisitor named Father Felice da Montefalco. Beautiful name, so good. He revives the case and orders Gasparotto to be brought in for questioning. Gasparotto at this point started walking back on his statements saying he was never a Benandanti and he believed in God, but he was still in prison because he made these contradictory statements under oath.
Montefalco tracks down another suspected Benandanti from the town, Battista Moduco, but Moduco was open about the fact that he was, in fact, a Benandanti and told how he was fighting other witches, the Malandanti, in the service of Christ.
Here's his testimony to Montefalco: I am a Benandanti because I go with the others to fight four times a year, that is during the Ember Days at night. I go invisibly in spirit and the body remains behind. We go forth in the service of Christ and the witches of the devil, we fight each other, we with bundles of fennel and they with sorghum stalks.
Amanda: Man, that's so evocative.
Julia: We're getting this slightly different story from Moduco. That the Benandanti aren't actually out there in the countryside, but they're going to fight evil witches in spirit. We also find out that they go on the Ember Days which are the days at the beginning of the seasons ordered by the church as days of fast or abstinence. These are also tied to Roman paganism, the days that were tied to harvest festivals.
Amanda: Like solstice, equinox situations?
Julia: Yeah, basically. Basically, they were days that were converted from pagan traditions into abstinence and fasting days for the church to dissuade the pagans from celebrating their religion.
Amanda: When it's not pagan, it's fine.
Julia: Yeah, basically that. Gasparotto is interrogated and this time he admits to being a Benandanti, accuses two other people of being evil witches and was released to be questioned at a later date. Both men were called upon again and this time claimed that the devil had convinced them to become Benandanti which one has to assumed they were simply scared of being imprisoned or killed and were just trying to repent.
Amanda: Yeah, it gets closer and closer to the Christian narrative with each retelling, you know, as the pressure mounts.
Julia: Eventually both were denounced as heretics and were sentenced to six months of imprisonment, though both men only served two weeks before they were released.
Amanda: Okay. I mean, they didn't execute them.
Julia: They did not execute them. It is interesting. These men were not the only ones that were being persecuted by the Italian Inquisition and Montefalco. In fact for instance, Anna la Rossa, though she claims not to be a Benandanti, said that she could communicate with spirits of the dead. She eventually revealed to Montefalco that she sold messages of the dead to members of the community who could pay for it and use the money to alleviate her family from poverty since she was a widow. She did not ever go to trial thankfully because Montefalco got distracted by other cases, so that was convenient.
Amanda: Man, I got to tell you, this whole new guy comes in, looks over the records and is like, "Oh, fuck. Someone missed something," is so reminiscent of me being at previous jobs where you walk into someone else's position, you look through their files and then you're suddenly like, "Oh no. Oh wait. Oh man." There's problems there that you can hardly see and the deeper you wade you in, the more there is. I have a tiny bit of a sympathy because definitely I've been there before.
Julia: Honestly, it reminds me of Mulder from X-Files. A little.
Amanda: That's very true.
Julia: A little tiny bit. Not in a good way because what he was doing was very, very shitty. The idea that you come in and you'd be like, "Actually, these cases are all wrong. Let's go persecute some witches."
Amanda: You have a world view or a thesis that you bring and so everything that you see in front of you, you twist to fit that world view.
Julia: Exactly. One of the cases that distracted Montefalco which stopped Anna la Rossa from going to trial was the case of Donna Aquilina who served as a professional healer and could see the dead and cure diseases through spells and potions. She fled the city of Udine when she learned that the Inquisition was becoming suspicious of her actions and Montefalco sought her out specifically.
When he finally interrogated her ... He managed to track her down, she claimed that she was not a witch, nor a Benandanti, but still defended her actions. Being like, "Yo, my actions are helping this community. I am healing sick children, I am making sure people's relationships stay intact, I am making sure that the crops grow. I'm doing good for my community like God would want me to."
Amanda: She's not killing people's livestock or being naked in the woods. She's helping people out.
Julia: Not that there's anything wrong with being naked in the woods.
Amanda: No, I know. It's one of the things that they talked about in Salem, is like, "Someone was nude and it was disturbing."
Julia: Nakedness, oh no. I saw a breast.
Amanda: I've never even seen my wife naked.
Julia: Probably not, to be honest. Okay, then there was Caterina la Guercia who Montefalco accused of "maleficent arts" though all she ever admitted to was that she used some charms to cure children's illnesses, not that she was in fact a Benandanti. She did, however, accuse her deceased husband of being a Benandanti and said that he would allow his spirit to leave his body and walk among the dead. Yeah, I was like, "Good for you lady, just blame it on the dead husband. They can't do anything to him, he's good."
Amanda: I'm sure he would understand.
Julia: There were also plenty of other depositions in the investigation into the Benandanti. A midwife was accused of encouraging mothers to put their newborn children on a spit in order to prevent them from becoming witches or Benandanti. She admitted this was true, that she was trying to encourage mothers to do this, but many more people proclaim themselves to be Benandanti. They were healers and anti-witches and they were there only to serve their communities rather than harm them.
However, the problem is this backfired on them. They started to try and draw the line between the Malandanti and the Benandanti. They accused more of their fellow villagers of being witches and the Inquisition, overtime, just started to ignore their accusations and the accused villagers were enraged and the reputations and lives were ruined by those who they accused. Those people who claimed to be Benandanti or were accused of it did not actually receive too harsh a punishment, other than ex-communication from the church or abjuration. The problem is they disappeared into obscurity following the 17th century. You just didn't hear about Benandanti anymore.
Amanda: I imagine too that part of the Inquisition's motives here are to increase dependence on them. If you take out the people in the community who are helping people with their every day problems and healing wounds and whatever, then the only recourse left is the church. I imagine that as time goes on, we're talking about 150, 200 years at this point and this societal dependence on the church's infrastructure is that much more. I can see how just the presence in popular imagination of the Benandanti would be less and less because the systemic project of making people dependent on the church is working.
Julia: Right, absolutely. The thing is too, once people start relying on the church in that way and once people see that they can't turn to their fellow neighbors because one, they might be accused of witchcraft, two, they might be accused of being a Benandanti, there's no winning in this situation. There is only turning to the church and there is no outside force that they can be a part of openly.
Amanda: I'm sure the knowledge and training and traditions die off as it becomes harder and harder to transmit them.
Julia: It reminds of an interesting that I heard. It was about a family who came over from Germany, either right before or during World War II. It was a family friend went to go have dinner with them on a Friday night. They saw, basically, that they were observing Shabbat even though these people were very openly Catholic and very openly Christian.
It turned out that they've kept these traditions alive but they had separated themselves from their Jewish heritage because they had to be in hiding during World War II. There's traditions still maintained generations after. Yeah, it reminds me of that in the idea that even if the connection between traditions and identifying as a Benandanti disappeared, I can only imagine that the folk magic and the folk traditions that they practiced still existed.
Julia: On that note, Amanda, why don't we go and grab a quick refill.
Amanda: Let's do it.
Julia: Amanda, I was in therapy the other day.
Amanda: Therapy, woo! We stand for therapy in this house.
Julia: We love therapy, yes. I was in therapy and we ended the session with my therapist going, "Have you considered meditation?" I'm like, "Yes, actually I have," because I have Calm. Calm is our sponsor for this week. If you are feeling stressed or anxious, if you don't have coping tools, I highly recommend Calm. Calm gives you the tools you need to live a happier, healthier and more mindful life. Five minutes of Calm everyday can change your day entirely. I say that as a fact because it is true.
Amanda: I have been doing the daily calm which is their short meditation that they put out every single day in the morning before I get out of bed. Because I'm totally tempted to just pickup my phone, read my texts, get into the shower, just start my day but having that moment of just laying there, thinking about whatever it is they're prompting me to do, feeling really intentional. I don't know, it just really works for me.
Julia: Honestly, as someone who doesn't sleep very well or has a little bit of trouble getting to sleep, their sleep stories are wonderful because it's just like I'm very calm. Just interesting enough to slightly hold your attention as you drift off to sleep and lead into your dreams. It's wonderful. They have adult ones but also ones for kids if you are sleeping with your child.
Amanda: There's a new one about Australia and trains. When I saw it, I gasped and adrenaline flooded my body and I was like, "Oh wait, I super duper need this story now," because it's Australia by train. Oh my God.
Julia: Incredible, I love it. You can head to Calm.com/spirits for 25% off of a Calm premium subscription. That includes hundreds of hours of premium programming like the guided meditations, the daily calm, the sleep stories. Definitely check it out.
Amanda: Yup. That is Calm.com/spirits, I'm sorry, we're Long Islanders, to get 25% the premium subscription which I had paid for with my own goddamn money because I love it so much. Calm.com/spirits.
Julia: Amanda, you were talking about clothes before. Tell me, tell me.
Amanda: Oh my gosh, I know.
Julia: I know you got your Stitch Fix box, tell me.
Amanda: I did. I got it yesterday, it was so exciting. This time, Stitch Fix ... First of all, Stitch Fix, they are a online personal online styling service that sends you clothes or shoes and accessories that fit your body, fit your budget, fit your lifestyle for all genders. Oh my God, Julia, this box, they got me.
I'm not going to lie, I had a couple of boxes there where there was one or two items and I thought, "These are amazing but the other ones, they didn't fit maybe or it looked like something I already owned," but this box is a home run.
I got a beautiful creaminess orange sweater and it's so soft that I looked at the label and I was like, "Oh no, I can't wear wool or alpaca or anything like it," because it makes my skin itchy. Looked at it, nope, it's just acrylic. They got it correct. It was just fucking rayon or whatever and it is so comfortable, I was so happy to see it. There is a beautiful plaid shirt, there is ... You know one of those shirts with the little cross of strings in the front, very trendy?
Amanda: I don't know if those are always for me but this one is beautiful. It's burnt orange, it fits the color combo so well. There were forest green jeggings that looked like a pair of pants I remember you owning. You have [inaudible 00:23:52] pants and I was like, "Hell yeah, this is for me." This box, out of this world. I am so happy, I never in my life would've seen that sweater online and be like, "Let me try it," but when it's in my house, I can try it on and not feel weird about being in the Target dressing room. I wanted to give it a go and it's helping me, honestly, be more thoughtful and more daring in the clothes that I wear. I really like that.
Julia: I love it and clearly, your stylist who handpicks these items for you totally nailed it this time around.
Amanda: I am very, very excited. I wrote, "I want the pop-up color. I want to be like Ina Garter but with patterns and living in New York City and is 26." I think that they got it super well.
Julia: I just requested mine which is coming in in the next week or so. I was like, "I'm going to a conference about podcasting and I want to look like a punk professional." Very excited to see how they interpret that.
Amanda: So good. This is all from Stitch Fix. You can go to Stitchfix.com/spirits to get 25% off the price of these items when you decide to keep all of them in your box. If you don't, you can just send back the ones you don't like. It' really, really easy. They have the envelope with the sticker and everything right there. It's just the mail, you can just drop it in. They make it really, really easy to send back whatever it is that isn't perfect for you.
Julia: The shipping, the exchanges and the returns are always free.
Amanda: It's really, really easy. That's Stitchfix.com/spirits for 25% off when you keep all five items.
Amanda: All right. Now, let's get back to the show.
Julia: Amanda, we're going to dive in a little bit more. Who were the Benandanti? Not just what we learned from the Inquisitions' record but who were they, you know what I mean?
Amanda: Yes, this is what I'm here for. Please.
Julia: The Benandanti, we know, claims to travel outside of their bodies while they slept or were in a trance in order to battle with evil witches that they referred to the Antimalarial which means the bad walkers. The good walkers, the bad walkers.
Amanda: I love it a lot.
Julia: These battles would ensure that good crops for the season would come and that they would also stop the spread of sickness throughout the countryside, so protecting the villages. They're doing all the good work. If you are a villager in 15th to 17th century Italy, what more could you possibly want than not get sick and have your crops grow?
Amanda: That's pretty much it and have a very cool lucid dream. I'm pretty into it.
Julia: I'm into it. Me too. They also acted as village healers, they specialized in cures, charms and using divinatory practices to find out who among them were Antimalarial who are cursing the community which could backfire. Not my favorite thing but an interesting idea.
Amanda: There is this broader narrative of chaos versus order and light versus dark, good versus evil, whatever you want to call it, that is ongoing. That ritualistic battling for good fortune. If it doesn't happen, then you know why and if it does happen ... It's just like you don't win a war one time and then that's it forever. There's some kind of ever watchful constant vigilance type thing about that, four times a year battle that I think is really cool.
Julia: We've talked about that in a lot of different cultures, the cyclical nature of battles that either the gods or forces beyond our mortal means are out there doing.
Amanda: Yeah, but Julia this one is being fought with branches which is great.
Julia: That is true. Man, I don't like fennel but I like the idea of people beating each other up with fennel.
Amanda: I can only picture sorghum as looking like wheat which is just hilarious.
Julia: It does. I did some Googling and it does. The interesting part is Benandanti were born, not made like some witches in other cultures. If a child was born with a caul, which is a embryonic membrane that surrounds a baby and sometimes it comes out with them when they're born. If they were born with that covering their face, it meant that the child was destined to be a Benandanti. This is actually a really common omen outside of Italy and the Benandanti, so ...
Amanda: I was going to say I've heard of it before, sometimes as a bad sign, sometimes as just a supernatural sign.
Julia: I was doing research for another topic and seers and psychics and spiritualists that were said to be born with a caul over their face are supposed to be like very in touch with the other side and would be the astral plane I guess.
Amanda: I feel like there's some mention of that in Shakespeare too. Anyone who knows if that's true, let me know.
Julia: I'm going to Google it real quick.
Amanda: I know there was like the not of woman born thing where they're like, "You can do a C-section."
Julia: Apparently, Shakespeare's Hamlet was born with a caul.
Amanda: There it is.
Julia: Got it. Cauls mean otherworldly powers in most societies, particularly Western European, as a child who is said that their spirits would leave their bodies on the Ember Days, as we discussed before. Kind of implying that it's almost like they don't chose to do it. It's almost like an involuntary experience that they have.
Amanda: Now, you put the X-Files imagery into my mind which is always open to X-Files imagery, let me confirm. It's like you're being beamed up, that's awesome and I'm sure also scary. Like I've said before, I think my sister had epilepsy when she was little and so, you have these momentary ... You space out, it's like a mini seizure. Anyway, those are terrifying to see and it sounds like this.
Julia: You know me I'm a big comic book nerd, it reminds of me all of the X-men origin stories when their powers emerge for first time and they destroy half a city or something like that. That's what that reminds me of. When their spirits would leave their bodies, sometimes they would take the shape of a small animal such as a mouse or a moth or a butterfly or a small bird and they would use that animal form to travel across the countryside to do battle with the Antimalarial, the evil witches.
Amanda: There's this great book by Stacy Shift called The Witches about the Salem Trials and it has every single piece of record and evidence that we have from that time. It's fucking so good.
Julia: I'm going to read that later, send me a link to it.
Amanda: Yeah. She also wrote a book on Cleopatra, amazing but there were parts where people were like, "Yeah, that witch was out in the woods at night," and she's like, "I was home with my husband," and he was like, "You were a bird though." They definitely used the transformation or taking over other animals as an excuse.
Julia: That's just so ... God, I'm sorry. Just, "You were a bird though."
Amanda: That's why, I don't know, the book did such a good job of establishing the vibe and the pre-existing social, cultural traditions like why going to church was so important. If you weren't at church, it was like, "Well, what are you doing wrong then?" Anyway, it's incredible and I highly recommend it. It's a bummer but there are those little moments of people being like, "You were a bird though," that make it all worth it.
Julia: We did murder a bunch of women, mostly women and men, because we thought they were different than us. Yeah, it's a bit of a bummer.
Amanda: I mean by it's worth it, I mean reading the book and experiencing that bummer, not the witch trials to be clear.
Julia: Yes, not the witch trials. Not worth anything, really.
Amanda: Amanda does not endorse, one, Inquisitions, two, witch trials.
Julia: We'll talk a little bit about misogyny and persecution of women at the end of this episode, I am sure.
Amanda: That is an involuntary soul leaving the body experience. For me when there's an opportunity to critique the patriarchy, you know I'm there.
Julia: I love you so much. Okay, so it wasn't just doing battle thought. The Benandanti were tasked with many sacred acts while in this form, in their cool spiritual form. The Antimalarial would attempt to [inaudible 00:31:42] crops and ruin harvest, so the spirits of the Benandanti would fight them off with fennel stalks, as we discussed. The Benandanti would also travel to meet a goddess, sometimes known as Burundian or Iridian. This goddess would lead a procession of animals and spirits. During the procession, the Benandanti could learn who in their village or community was going to die in the upcoming year.
Amanda: People always want to know who's going in the upcoming year. I don't want to know. I don't at all. I don't want to know. I'm very sorry, I just don't.
Julia: I feel like it would give me time to prep. It's like ...
Amanda: I mean, I want to know if I'm going to die but I couldn't ... If I knew someone close to me was going to die, I would be just grief stricken. I couldn't do anything in that time.
Julia: I don't know. I feel like it's when you have a loved one who's in hospice or has a terminal illness that you know that they're going to decline within the next several months or something like that, it gives you time to go through the grieving process, kind of expended and not all at once.
Amanda: That's fair.
Julia: That's just my thought process for that. I don't know if I would genuinely believe that in practice but I believe that that's some reasoning to some people.
Amanda: I hear you and either way, it does give you some sense of control where you can't control when they'll die necessarily, you can't stop it but at least, you can prepare and you have some insight.
Julia: I do want to end on this note that some of the Benandanti claimed that as good Christians, God called them to their duties and they acted on his will. When we're saying that the Benandanti were being persecuted by the Italian Inquisition and by the Catholic church, they genuinely believed that they were being good Christians and good Catholics by doing this work.
Amanda: Aa lot of the things that you're mentioning sound really similar to saint narratives and the miracles that get people canonized as saints. It's definitely must have been frustrating. It's one thing if you just say it to make good with authority, but if you really feel you're doing good work, you're doing God-given work and the very institution tasked with carrying out God's wishes on earth is telling you that you're abhorrent, that must be heartbreaking.
Julia: You know what? It's really interesting because I come from an Italian Catholic background and I know a lot of people who are also Italian Catholics who have the sight or believed that they can speak to ghosts and whatnot. It reconciles with them. They can think that they are devout Catholics and also believe in that thing even though the church and ... The Bible literally says, "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live." The category of witch during that period that that was written meant, basically, anyone doing magic stuff that wasn't associated with the Christian God.
Amanda: Right, but for the person, it's tapping into something bigger than yourself. It's tapping into the supernatural, it's channeling bigger wills to your human life so ...
Julia: Right and the argument would be made that God gave them this gift and that they have a duty to use it to help other people within their community. I think that's a completely valid argument that, apparently, the Catholic church and the Italian Inquisition during the 15th century did not agree with.
Amanda: Well, we are, in some ways, living in similar times and in some ways, not. Yikes.
Julia: Let's just finish out with a little bit of historian perspective real quick. According to Carlo Ginzburg, an Italian historian, the Benandanti tradition was connected to a larger complex of traditions from all across Europe that revolved around the idea of "nocturnal gatherings" as he called it and is presided over by a goddess figure.
He mentioned Perchta which we talked about in Michelle Nickolaisen's episode, Holda, Venus and Diana as a unifying goddess figures. He also claimed that the Benandanti were a "popular and archaic secret cult of fertility" though other historians disagree with that statement. Totally valid. I love it when I'm doing research and they're like, "Other historians disagree." I'm like, "I bet they do, that's what they do." Everyone disagrees on everything in history.
Amanda: Also, I love all these fertility rituals and fertility practices and I'm sure that is true for a lot of people but also I'm sure other people were like, "May I please not get pregnant? That would be great." Like, "Can we just [inaudible 00:36:15]?"
Julia: Can we just have not one more baby? I have so many mouths to feed.
Amanda: Can I have one year not pregnant? That would be great.
Julia: I am just selling spells and potions to alleviate my family out of poverty because my husband's dead. Can we please not add one more baby to the list? To Ginzburg's credit, there are several other traditions that have spread across European culture. For instance, the armiers of the Pyrenees, the Dalmatian kresniki, the Hungarian táltos to name a few. They're all very similar to the Benandanti. Ginzburg also ties the Benandanti to shamanism in Baltic and Slavic cultures, notably the Livonian werewolves though these were typical malevolent instead of benevolent like the Benandanti. We were talking a lot about Salem and about persecution of women and just people in general who are different from society. Do we want to keep on that train of thought?
Amanda: I definitely do, but I also have something that's a little bit out of left field.
Julia: Let's do it.
Amanda: I'm re-reading one of my favorite books about business right now called Creativity Inc. which is a memoir from the founder of Pixar. It's a memoir/book about managing people and so his question is not like, "How do I make a successful company," or "How do I make good movies?" The thing he's writing about is how do I create a culture where creative people can take risks and give each other feedback and be honest and be supported?
Because the goal of a team shouldn't be not to fail, it should be to fail super quick and responsible and to be able to give each other feedback to get to a great thing. You get to great things, not by planning them and making no mistakes but by being scientists and experimenting a lot and then getting to where you have to be.
One of the things he writes about that I find really useful is the fact that, I don't know, when stuff happens that doesn't go to plan, you really want to look away. That is really the first instinct and when you fail, you feel ashamed and you want to hide it. Bernie Brown talks about this too in her [inaudible 00:38:20].
To me, they are so tied together because if I make a mistake as a boss, the last thing I want is to go to the people that I have inconvenienced and be like, "Hey, hello. I am your boss and also I fucked up." It just feels like you want to hoard it and hide it and secret it away. The thing that he is encouraging people to do in the book is to, I don't know, it's useful, it's data.
In scientific experiments, if you start an experiment knowing the answer, then you're doing a bad experiment. You're supposed to venture into the unknown and see what you find and come back. I see a similar level of reactionism, to look at people who are doing things that maybe aren't sanctioned, that maybe you wouldn't do and instead of approaching a thing you don't understand with a question like, "What can I learn from this?"
You say like, "How can I make this go away?" Or "How can I not deal with a thing that frightens me or that I can't categorize well or that brings into question a world view I already had?" Probably that was their job, I understand how they were given a mission and I know that life was complicated and that everyone probably thought they were doing the right thing.
That's something that I'm always trying to do better is to say, "If I don't understand something or it makes me mad or makes me feel ashamed." Not like, "How do I shove this away from me and never look at it again?" But, "How do I sit with this? Feel my feelings, learn a lesson and then thank it for what it taught me and move on."
Julia: Interesting. Yeah, I think it's interesting to look at the perspective of the church as one of xenophobia and then think about how best we can act against that and act, as you said, from a place of, "How do I understand this? What can I learn from this?" rather than, "How do I make this thing I don't understand go away?"
Amanda: About centralized power versus distributed power. When you have people in a community that can solve problems for themselves, that is good. Yes, it lessens their dependence on the central power structure and yes, it's dangerous in the sense that people are acting without micromanaged oversight, but that's better. It makes for more resilient communities, it makes for better solutions.
People were probably doing great medicine and then the church is like, "Nope, pray." Then knowledge perhaps was set back, so I don't know. Thinking again about if you're a boss of a team or if you're in an organization with people and folks are doing things that I don't know about, it's my instinct to be like, "Tell me what's happening so I can help make sure no one makes mistakes and no one suffers." My instinct should instead be, "How do I set people up for success? How do I make them feel safe to ask for help? How do I turn my attention inward instead of outward?"
Julia: Honestly, when you think about it as a tactile thing, any support system is better when there is multiple supports that are all even, rather than one support that could potential fail. Because if one support fails, then the rest of them can still hold the other up. It reminds me of the bed of needles experiment or the bed of nails experiment from physics. It's basically saying if you put a balloon on a bed of nails with a lot of nails dispersed, the balloon won't pop. If you put the balloon on the one nail, it's absolutely going to pop. I like the idea that, socially, we should probably allow people more independence rather than centralize things.
Amanda: That reminds me too of tresses in bridges. The more smart supports you have at strategic places, the better. I don't know, I've been reading a lot about restorative justice and different approaches to helping people who commit crimes not to do that anymore and to process the trauma that they probably have gone through statistically.
It really is all about resourcing people, giving them the tools that they need to live robust lives and to make choices for themselves and to help out. There are these environments of fear and scarcity and blame and needing to get ahead for your own safety in a way that means putting others down, that you start to run into trouble.
Julia: I think that's entirely valid. Man, I'm just thinking a little bit more about how culturally we like to consider ourselves that we've moved from being more understanding and being more open to certain things. If you look at history from that perspective, we were open and super cool with a bunch of stuff for awhile and then we got real not cool about all these stuff really quickly.
Amanda: It's a wave, it's a cycle.
Julia: I want to think of ways that we can break the cycle. Because if we look at the Benandanti, clearly they were just creating a culture where they could be successful and also lift up their community and lift up their fellow villagers and stuff like that. I think that even if we're thinking of it like from a small grass roots perspective like, "I want to meditate on the idea of how we can better help our societies and our communities in small ways that we wouldn't be able to achieve from a larger scale."
Amanda: That actually reminds me a former guest, Jolie Kerr, who came on to the show to talk with us about tarot. Just published an article on the New York Times last week reviewing this book by Sophie Hannah called How to Hold a Grudge. It's all about Hannah's world view or definition of the word grudge, it's not like, "I hold on to a sense of being wronged and just like it makes me angry all the time whenever I look at it."
Instead, she's saying like, "How do you turn a grudge into a lesson?" How do you say, "This person wronged me in a way that was like big or small or lasting or fleeting but it taught me something and the anger is signifying something to me." How do I turn that instinct to be like, "Fuck you guy forever," into a story that helps me be better and teaches me a lesson and informs my behavior for the future.
It was just like, I don't know, I think Jolie did a great job of summarizing it and there were a couple of really useful steps for me to say like, "Being angry isn't my fault and being wronged isn't just like a tragedy that I can never learn anything from but it's an opportunity."
"Anger is an opportunity and I want to get better at letting myself dwell in that and not just feeling bad for feeling a feeling and to say, 'How do I look inward and be introspective, instead of pointing blame outward?'" or "How do I look deeper at a thing or a person that frustrates or disappoints me and extend them more empathy instead of more judgment?"
Julia: That was a great note to end on, I think.
Amanda: Also, fucking people are great. I love witches, I love herbs, I love little bird friends that you fly away on to fight evil with fucking sorghum, so good.
Julia: I would encourage our listeners this week to grab your fennel stalks, think about what animal you would turn into as your spirit leaves your body and think about how you, in little ways, can make your community a little bit better. Remember to stay creepy, stay cool.
Amanda: Thanks again to our sponsors for the week, Calm.com/spirits will get you 25% off a premium membership on this number one app for meditation, mindfulness and sleep. Stitch Fix, the online personal styling service will give you 25% off when you keep your whole box of accessories, shoes and clothes at Stitchfix.com/spirits. Spirits was created by Amanda McLoughlin, Julia Schifini and Eric Schneider, with music by Kevin McLeod and visual design by Alison Wakeman.
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Julia: Thank you so much for listening. 'Till next time.