Article written by Amra the Lion
The story of the Italian town of Benevento, Strega witches, and Lake Nemi are well known parts of the Pagan Strega tradition. However, much of the historic lore is not so well known outside of Italy. Here is a summary of some of the most striking features as they relate to contemporary Paganism.
Of Rome and the Samnites
Benevento is located about 50 miles Northeast of Naples and is situated at the rising of the Apennine Mountains. It is a hilly country and the town itself is nestled in the hills on Lake Nemi. Originally this was the territory of the Italian people known as the Samnites before and during the rise of Rome. It was known at that time as Malaventum, which means "bad winds." The Samnites were a ferocious people that warred against the domination of the Italian peninsula by the Romans and led to series of battles known as the Samnite Wars. 343 B.C. saw the first and 290 B.C. saw the last of three majors wars when the Samnites were fully incorporated into Rome's territories and the Romans renamed the town Beneventum meaning "good winds" in remembrance of their victory. However, the Samnite streak of independence would rear itself again with the Italian Civil Wars of Gaius Marius and Lucius Cornelius Sulla Dictator during the days of the waning Republic circa 105 to 80 B.C. and the Samnites marching on Rome alternatively for full Roman rights or for an independent "Italian Republic".
It was during Roman times that the religious life of Benevento would make its mark. The worship of the Goddess Diana originally started in Latium, the forested region that is the home of the city of Rome, and spread far and wide into all Italian territories. Diana found a home and a temple that was built to her on the banks of Lake Nemi, which is also known as Speculum Diana, Diana's Mirror, due to the reflection of the Full Moon in its waters. There ruled a priest to Diana known as the Rex Nemorensis, the King of the Sacred Grove, who was chosen through trial by combat. The story of the Rex and Diana's mirror has been immortalized in the Golden Bough by Sir James Frazer. Diana's Temple at Benevento was a popular pilgrimage destination known far and wide. One funny story is that the Emperor Commodus grew to dislike the reigning Rex and sent a "replacement" for him, a huge man twice the size of the Rex, who was killed easily.
First with the conversion of the Empire to Christianity and later with the Empire's fall, the Pagan religion of the people was supplanted by Catholicism run by the State and then the Church. However, many of the people's customs, beliefs, and practices continued under the eyes of the Church. Such was the worship of Diana at Benevento. Even as the temple fell into ruin, the locals still would worship there and it continued to be known as a magic and lucky place by the peasants even as it was condemned as being infested by devils from the Catholic Church. Old customs died hard and, contrary to popular belief, few people in Catholic Italy were ever executed for witchcraft. Conversion of the people and the "baptism" and incorporation of the Pagan customs into Catholicism would be paramount in the Church's modus operandi.
The next great impact to Benevento and in fact to all of Italy was the invasion of the German barbarians, the fall of the Empire in 476 A.D., and more specific to Benevento, the Lombard invasion beginning in 568 A.D.
The Lombards were an ancient Germanic people known in Roman times. The Winnili were their ancient name and there were thought to have originally come from Jutland and settling on the Elbe near the Baltic. They came to be known as the Longobards, meaning "long beards", or Lombards. Odin was the chief deity of these people and his worship centered on the mythical Yggdrasil or World Tree linking the realms of the Gods and humans. Catholic Italy was shocked by these barbaric invaders who were as individuals mostly Pagan or who embraced Arianism, a form of heretical Christianity that denied the divinity of Christ. The Lombards killed Catholics who would not convert to Paganism and destroyed or confiscated Church lands and properties. Eventually these people would embrace Catholicism and blend in with the rest of the Italian people. But not before leaving their mark on the legends of the area.
The horse riding Lombards would worship Odin by riding around a tree decorated with animal skins. This spectacle led the locals to whisper about the witchcraft and devil worship or these barbaric invaders. Probably the groves of Diana were a location which witnessed such a spectacle, already charged with the magic and memory of the Pagan Moon Goddess. This combination of Pagan cultures gave rise to the local belief and tales of witch's celebrations, dancing around trees under the full moon, performing magic.
Today's Strega Benevento
The beliefs, legends, and myths of the witches of Benevento have taken on a life of their own and today are part of Italian folklore. Despite the insistence of secrecy of the Strega tradition by modern practitioners, Benevento is akin to Salem Massachusetts and is quite well known in Italy and abroad. The most popularly known token of Benevento is Liquore Strega, a liquor which features a group of witches and satyrs dancing around a tree on the label. While the exact formula is a trade secret, it is most certainly made in part from a tree sap or resin and saffron, which is most of the world's most expensive herbs used in dyes, perfumes, and for love magic since ancient times. Guidebooks point out Ben Vento's witches as a tourist stop and encourage you to pick up a Witch's Garland from a local vendor for good luck, which is a colored cord with thirteen knots tied into it.
All in all, Benevento has seen Time color it with many cultures and traditions and continues to be looked to as a place of magic and mystery.
The presence of the horse-riding Lombards worshiping Odin in Nemi may have given rise to the emergence of the legend of the night ride of "Diana, goddess of the pagans," made famous by the Canon Espiscopi. Folklorists specializing in European Faerie lore have noted the similarity between the "trooping faery" stories and Diana's night rides as well as Woden and his Waelcreies (Odin and Valkaries). Yet most people who are tracing the roots of Italian witchcraft talk about Canida, Erchtho and other witches mentioned in ancient Roman lore. Though the legend of the night ride of Diana may have evolved from tales of Diana and her nymphs hunting in the moonlit countryside, it is also possible that this medieval Italian lore owes something to Northern European legends.
Amra's reference to "Benevento's witches as a tourist stop" is a blanket statement referring to the general "witchiness" of Benevento.
Many other scholars refer to the "witch's garland" as a knotted cord with black chicken feathers bound in each knot and that this form of magic is a death curse which was usually buried. The person wasted as the cord rotted. Interesting. Amra, who has been to Italy and Benevento, has never seen such an item or heard of it used. In a later email to me, he wrote, "I think this is one of theose things with a million variants. Usually you will see a street vendor with a table to the side of the road selling these things and the specifics are always different as far as the feathers, amount of knots and specific meaning. I guess the intent is more what counts."
For a legend referencing Benevento, read A Tragic Anecdote. The author of Italian Folklore, Italo Calvino, references the folktales "The Haughty Prince," "The Two Hunchbacks," and "The Two Muleteers," which are in his book, as legends pertaining to the "walnut tree of Benevento."
The Walnut Tree
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