the sabbath of the witches of Benevento

With the rain and with the wind under the Benevento’s tree (ancient spell)

Luca Signorelli - Duomo of Orvieto (1499)
Luca Signorelli - Duomo of Orvieto (1499)

If every nation has its own witches and devils, the story says from every angle of the world these wicked souls meet  under the walnut of Benevento, an ancient city between the mountains of Sannio, in the heart of  southern Italy.

Romans called this city Maleventum from the ancient name of the city: for them the word sounded like “evil event” so they considered a  doomed city until  276 b.C. when they stopped in its forests Pyrrhus of Epirus, obliging him to come back in his homeland. At this point hardly this city could be considered negative for Romans, and they changed its name in Beneventum, i.e. good event.

During the Empire the city was well known for the cults of Isis, who was worshipped in a Temple dedicated to her, and still we can see the obelisk in one of its central squares:

Before going on, we should notice that many shrines of  Isis (strongly associated with the constellation of the Virgo and the star Spica) are directly connected with health and the use of herbs.

We have the same in Rome- maybe we will talk  better in the future: the  hellenistic Temple of Isis was in the area  where we can find  now the Collegio Romano, the palace built by the founder of Jesuits Ignazio of Loyola,  and where the jesuit and polymath Athanasius Kircher  wrote his books about Isis:

A part of the Collegio Romano was occupied with the Botanical Garden and the oldest and famous  Pharmacy in Rome where the jesuits produced and sold the famous Teriaca of Rome, a medical concoction made of herbs and flesh of viper, known since Galen times.

But now  let’s come back to Benevento.

There in the Middle Ages, women experts in the art of herbs and medicine, started to gather under a great walnut in the forest near their city. They were called in the local dialect ianara, a mispelling from dghianara, i.e. Dianara, the child of Diana, who like Isis was the goddess of the birth and of the death.

From Longobards, who kept the city after the fall of Roman Empire, ianare learned the pagan cults praticed under secular trees: these women spent their nights wandering in  the forests of Sannio near the shores of the river Sabatum, and after the name of this river, their strange activities were easily turned into the  famous Sabbath of the Witches.

Grien (1484)
Hans Baldung Grien (1484)

In the forests and alongside the river, they picked several kind of herbs: surely they knew quite well the effects of  deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna), hembane (Hyoscyamus niger) and wolf’s bane (Aconitum napellus): herbs with several therapeutic effects, true, but more known for their deadly powers of tropine alkaloids.

Culpeper lists these plants under Saturn rulership and cold in the 4th degree, and in fact this is a proper for Devil which is cold and freezing in nature.

Mattioli version of Dioscorides
Mattioli version of Dioscorides

The effects of alkailods were so well known that Giovan Battista della Porta in 1600, skeptickal about witches, did a little experiment:

An old woman came to my notice. . . who promised of her own accord to bring me answers in a short while. She ordered all of us who were gathered there with me as witnesses to go outside, Then she stripped off all her rags and rubbed herself very thoroughly and heartily with some ointment (she was visible to us through the cracks of the door). Then she sank down form the force of the soporific juices and fell into a deep sleep. We then opened the doors and gave her quite a flogging; the force of her stupor was so great that it had taken away her senses. We returned to our place outside. Then the powers of the drug grew weak and feeble and she, called from her sleep, began to babble that she had crossed seas and mountains to fetch these false answers. We denied; she insisted; we showed her the black-and-blue marks; she insisted more tenaciously than before

In his Magia naturalis, he gives a quick recipe for some of these herbs (I would not try, considering they are deadly herbs!!!):

“To cause sleep with Mandrake .”

Dioscorides says, that men will presently fall asleep in the very same posture when they drink Mandrake, losing all their senses for three or four hours after, and that physicians do use it, when they would burn or cut off a member.  And skillful men affirm, that Mandrake growing by a Vine, will transmit its Soporiferous quality into it, so that those that drink the Wine that is made thereof, shall more easily and readily fall asleep.  Here we will relate the pleasant stories of the Mandrake out of authors of Stratagems.  Junius Frontinus reports, that Hannibal being sent by the Charthagenians, against some rebels in Africa, and knowing they were a nation greedy of Wine, mixed a great quantity of Mandrake with his Wines.  The quality of which, is between poisonous and sleepy.  Then beginning a light skirmish, he retired on purpose, and in the middle of the night, counterfeited a flight, leaving some baggage in his camp, and all the infected Wine.  Now when those barbarians had took his camp, and for joy, had liberally tasted of that treacherous Wine, he returned, and took and slew them all, as they lay dead as it were before.  Polianus the same.  And Caesar, sailing towards Nicomedia, was taken about Malea by some Cilician Pirates.  And when they demanded a great ransom for his liberty, he promised them double what they asked.  They arrived at Miletum.  The people came out of the town to see them.  Caesar sent his servant, being a Milesian, named Epicrates, to those of the town, desiring them to lend him some money, which they presently sent to him.  Epicrates, according to Caesar’s command, brought the money, and with it, a sumptuous banquet, a water-pot full of swords, and Wine mixed with mandrake.  Caesar paid to the pirates the promised sum, and set the banquet before them, who, being exalted with their great riches, fell freely to it, and drinking the infected Wine, fell into a sleep.  Caesar commanded them to be killed sleeping, and presently repaid the Milesians their own money.  Demosthenes, intending to express those who are bitten as it were by a sleepy Dragon, and are slothful, and so deprived of senses that they cannot be awakened, says, they seem like men who have drunk Mandrake .  Pliny affirms, that smelling to the leaves of it, provokes sleep.

“For the same, with Nightshade.”

We may make the same of Nightshade, which is also called, Hypnoticon, from the effect of it.  A Drachm of the rind, drank in Wine, causes sleep, but gently and kindly.  This later age, seems to have lost the knowledge of Solanum Manicon.  For in the very description of it, Dioscorides seems to be mad.  But in my judgment, (as I have elsewhere said) he describes several plants in that place.  Fuschius his Stramonium, and the herb commonly called Belladonna whose qualities are wonderfully Dormitive.  For they infect water, without giving it either taste or scent.  So that the deceit cannot be discovered, especially, considering it must be given in but a very small quantity.  I prepared a water of it, and gave it to a friend for certain uses.  Who instead of a Drachm, drank an ounce, and thereupon lay four days without meat or motion, so that he was thought dead by all, neither could he be awakened by any means, till at last, when all the vapors were digested, he arose.  Although Dioscorides threatened nothing but death from the immoderate use of it.  The same may be made also,

“Of Poppy,”

In a Lohoch.  Take the heads of Poppy, and cut them crossways, with a tender hand, lest the knife enter too deep.  Let your nail direct the issuing juice into a glass, where let it stand a while, and will congeal.  The Thebane Poppy is best.  You may do the same with Nightshade, Henbane.  Of all these together, you may make,

“A Sleeping Apple,”

For it is made of Opium, Mandrake, juice of Hemlock, the seeds of Henbane, and adding a little Musk, to gain an easier reception of the smeller.  These being made up into a ball, as big as a mans hand can hold, and often smelt to, gently closes the eyes and binds them with a deep sleep. (From 1658 English translation)

But in another edition Della Porta adds  the recipe  for witches ointment, which was deleted from following editions:

I will tell what I learned from those women, they take grease of babies 🙂 and they cook with water in a copper vase, letting condense it at the bottom of the saucepan, then they take it and mix with Elaeoselinum, Wolf’s bane and poplar  leaves and soot. Or, another recipe, Water parsnip (Sium latifolium),  Acorus calamus, silverweed (Potentilla), bat blood 🙂  solanum somniferum and oil, then we should anoint all the part of the body until make it red, and the active principles can enter the skin. So they believe they are flying in the air in a night under  the Moon and parties and music and beautiful boys…..

These effects are not the same for all the women, but especially for the melancholic temperament, who has a cold complexion and with a low metabolism: they feel things they saw in their dreams as it was the reality, and they tell in the same way.

Which is the truth? In 1960 during lysergic era Will Erich Peukert, a famous German folklorist, tried Della Porta recipe (I hope without puerorum pinguedo !!) and said he had the same result the Italian scientist wrote about.

Even after the Industrial Revolution witches were not forgotten in Benevento.

The story says that Russian composer Modest Petrovic Mussorgskij, around 1865 was a guest in the villa of Marquise Maddalena Pignatelli, at 30 kilometres from Benevento, in a place called Montecalvo: the woman showed him the river Sabatum and told him the old stories of ianare. When he came back in Russia, the musician wrote his masterpiece “A night on Montecalvo”.

This is the famous version from Disney’s Fantasia

others on the other hand can enjoy this one too 🙂


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