chapter  IV
The benandanti at the sabbat
Pages 48

This tightly woven fabric of beliefs became unravelled for the first time in the course of a trial against a woman of Latisana, Maria Panzona, the wife of a cooper. She had been arrested towards the end of the year 1618 for stealing handkerchiefs, blouses and other objects preserved as votive offerings and gifts in the Church of Santa Croce. In prison Maria said certain things which aroused the suspicion that she might have healed the sick by diabolical means. This was quickly confirmed: the witnesses interrogated by the judge (the priest of San Giovanni Battista of Latisana had been specially deputised by the Venetian inquisitor for this purpose) unanimously declared that Maria Panzona treated the victims of sorcery with strange mixtures and incantations. When Maria was conducted before the judge on 31 December, she did not hesitate in replying to the customary opening question, whether she knew the reason for her summons: 'I believe that I have been called and brought here to talk about the witches in this area.' Then she proceeded to name them - there were about fifteen of them in all - including a certain Aloysia, nicknamed 'la Tabacca', who 'sucks blood from humans, especially from little children'. She personally had seen her doing this. Maria had been present 'in the form of a black cat and she [Aloysia] in that of a white cat." So it seems she, Maria Panzona, was a witch too. But when the judge invited her to disclose the crimes which she herself had committed, the woman objected: 'I have never performed spells or charms, because I am a biandante, and benandanti are all opposed to witches and warlocks.' And as proof she recalled how she had healed victims of sorcery using concoctions of herbs and an incantation recited three times which went like this:

'I mark you against witch, warlock, belandante and malandante, that they may neither speak nor act until they have counted the threads in the

It is striking that a benandante should include 'belandanti' in an exorcism among their traditional enemies - witches, warlocks and malandanti: a contradictory element which becomes more pronounced in Maria Panzona's successive disclosures. 'These witches,' she said, 'are accustomed to go up to the field of Josaphat every three months, and the belandanti also go, and I go with them too, and we make this journey on Thursday nights.' Up to this point we are still in the sphere of familiai traditions, associated especially with the benandanti of Latisana. We recall that even the drover Menichino of Latisana, who appeared before the Holy Office in Venice twenty-five years earlier, had asserted that he used to go with benandanti to the field of Josaphat. The same can be said about his statement immediately following: 'the woman seated in majesty on the edge of a well, called the abbess,' who was in that field and to whom all 'pay reverence, bowing their heads'. This was the only allusion in the Friuli to that polymorphous feminine divinity found beyond the Alps at the head of the 'Furious Horde', who was related in so many ways to the myth of the benandanti.' But Maria also stated that they were conducted to that field by an animal. She explained, after another question from the judge, that she and her companions were transported 'by cocks and billygoats, who have been changed into these forms, even though I know well,' she added, 'that they are really devils.' And then she elaborated further: 'The one perched on the edge of the well who looks like an abbess is the devil.' This identification was immediate and spontaneous; it was not solicited, as in previous benandanti trials by leading questions from the judges. Thus, it would appear, that the identification of benandanti with witches and warlocks, for which judges and inquisitors had striven for so long, had finally occurred of its own accord. It was a benandante who had recognized that the nocturnal conventicles which she attended were the sabbat, presided over by the devil.