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Benevento, Walnut Tree of

Provincial capital of Campania, ancient Lombard principality, and part of the Papal States until 1860, Benevento is still legendary as a land of witches, who met under the walnut tree. For centuries it has been regarded as the principal location of Italian witches’ Sabbats, similar to Blocksberg (or Brocken) in Germany, Blåkulla in Sweden, and Mount St. Gellért in Hungary. Judicial records, demonological literature, and popular fables suggested Valtelline (Valtellina; Veltlin), Emilia, Val d’Adige, and Val Camonica as additional meeting places for Italian witches. No other place, however, could compete in notoriety with Benevento, the fame of which extended far enough to come to the attention of the celebrated demonologist Martín Del Rio, who wrote of the noce di Benevento (Walnut Tree of Benevento) in his Disquisitiones Magicae libri sex (Six Books on Investigations into Magic, on 1599/1600) (Cocchiara 1980, 193). Echoes of the diabolical legend are found in the works of numerous late medieval and early modern Italian authors such as Agnolo Firenzuola, Giambattista Basile, Tommaso Garzoni, Francesco Redi, Ippolito Neri, Lorenzo Lippi, Gerolamo Tartarotti, Ludovico Antonio Muratori, and Gioacchino Belli, and in comedies by playwrights such as Pietro Aretino, Anton Francesco Grazzini, and Nicolò Piperno, who wrote and produced the play La noce Maga di Benevento Estirpata da San Barbato (The Magical Walnut Tree of Benevento uprooted by St. Barbato) in 1665.

Among the most interesting descriptions of the Sabbat was a nineteenth-century poem, published in Naples, entitled Storia della Famosa Noce di Benevento (History of the Famous Walnut Tree of Benevento). This work definitively established the central nucleus of the diabolical legend of Benevento: a “large snake” twisting around a walnut tree of “immense size,” “in the shadows of its leaves, the witches’ Sabbats take place, with the participation of a great number of witches, wizards, and devils from hell,” dedicated to “far del male” (practice evil), and “unapproachable by the profane, bound by Satan” (Cocchiara 1980, 188). Among the principal elements of the legend, the walnut tree (Juglans regia) represents a constant of Italian Sabbats. Numerous medieval testimonials from both learned and popular sources documented the tree’s evil reputation. Medieval tradition derived its assumed toxicity from the etymology of its name, supposedly taken from the Latin verb nocere (to harm). Popular tales contributed to spread its sinister reputation, such as the account of the poor Umbrian who awakened paralyzed after napping under a walnut tree and was then miraculously healed by Saint Francis. In particular, the tree was said to have the power to infect the brain of any person who might carelessly fall asleep under its damp shade. In his Quaestio de Strigis (An Investigation of Witches, ca. 1470), Giordano da Bergamo claimed that under the shadow of the walnut tree by the “virtue of the Devil the witch’s humors can become mixed-up and her fantasy can create illusory images,” because “being so damp,” the tree is “well-suited to our brain, which is very damp” (Abbiati, Agnoletto, and Lazzati 1984, 82–83).

A sacred tree (not a walnut tree) worshipped by the Lombards of Benevento was mentioned in a work written after the ninth century, the Vita Barbati Episcopi Beneventani (The Life of Barbato, Bishop of Benevento). Bishop Barbato uprooted the tree after obtaining a promise from Lombard duke Romualdo to renounce the pagan cult in exchange for victory over the Byzantine army that besieged Benevento in 663. The pagan rite consisted of a competition testing the abilities of knights, who were required to gallop toward the sacred tree, grab a small part of a snake’s skin hanging from it, and then “superstitiously” eat the skin. In the next few centuries, the myth of the evil tree was grafted onto the traditions of this tree-worshiping cult according to a typical pattern in which Christians associated preexisting religious traditions with the Devil. However, not all scholars agree that the legend of the walnut tree is tied exclusively to a distorted version of this Lombard rite. Other indications suggest multiple sources for the legend; for example, the cult of the snake, an intercultural element spread throughout other areas of Europe, or the cult of Isis, a goddess particularly venerated in Benevento, where a magnificent temple was erected to her under the Roman emperor Domitian. An urn of the cult of Isis with a lid adorned with images of the sacred serpent, discovered in 1903, convinced some scholars that the Beneventans worshipped snakes through the cult of Isis, and that this tradition was bequeathed to the pagan Lombards.

Among the first to discuss the Beneventan Sabbats was Mariano Sozzini in a letter of 1420 to the humanist Antonio Tridentone. Also in the 1420s, St. Bernardino of Siena spoke in his sermons of the witches’ assemblies in Benevento, but without mentioning a walnut tree. In the 1428 trial of Umbrian healer Matteuccia da Todi, which was connected to St. Bernardino’s sermons, we find the first description of the Sabbat under the noce di Benevento, preceded by the nocturnal flying brought about by anointing with a [Page 110] magic salve and by the recitation of a spell that, with slight regional variations, recurred frequently in other late medieval and early modern trials and is found in the popular saying, “Salve, salve / Send me to the noce di Benevento / Over the water and over to the wind / And over all bad weather” (Mammoli 1969, 31). From this point forward, in the minds of inquisitors and demonologists and of their victims, the legend of Benevento as a diabolical place was consolidated, combining elements from the mythical Lombard sacra arbor (sacred tree) and the sacred snake of the cult of Isis. In demonological literature, the work of distinguished papal theologian Silvestro Prierias concerning the noce di Benevento is particular noteworthy (Abbiati, Agnoletto, and Lazzati 1984, 226). Echoes of the Campanian Sabbat can also be found in the Tractatus de haereticis et sortilegiis (Treatise on Heretics and Sorcerers), written around 1524 by Paolo Grillando, which referred to the Sabbat under the “extremely cold noce di Benevento” (Grillando 1592, 111–112).

However, the definitive systematization of this legend came from Pietro Piperno, author of De Nuce Maga Beneventana (On the Magical Walnut Tree of Benevento, 1634), subsequently translated into Italian as Della Superstiziosa Noce di Benevento (On the Superstitious Walnut Tree of Benevento, 1640). In this tract, a true and proper demonological work, the Beneventan medical examiner not only identified the sacred tree venerated by the Lombards with the evil walnut tree, but also tried to demonstrate that its Sabbats were a product of diabolical knowledge that could make it appear illusively at any moment (Piperno 1640, 96). Piperno claims that witches did not gather under the diabolical tree in their dreams, but in corpore (physically), and thereby advises secular and religious authorities to guard more attentively against such gatherings. Requests for greater penalties against superstitious acts did not result in local witch hunts, except for a series of perhaps as many as 200 trials, mentioned in later sources, that were dispersed in 1860, and an event in which three women were reportedly handed over to secular authorities in 1506 (Di Gesaro 1988, 385).

Paolo Portone; Translated by Shannon Veneble

See also:

bernardino of siena; blåkulla; drama, italian; grillando, paolo; italy; piperno, pietro; prierias, silvestro; sabbat; todi, witch of.

References and further reading:

Abbiati Sergio, Attilio Agnoletto, and Maria Rosario Lazzati. 1984. La stregoneria. Milan: Mondadori.

Bonomo Giuseppe. 1971. Caccia alle streghe. La credenza nelle streghe dal secolo XIII al XIX con particolare riferimento all’Italia. Palermo: Palumbo.

Cocchiara Giuseppe. 1980. Il paese di Cuccagna. Turin: Boringhieri.

De Blasio, Abele. 1900. Inciarmatori, maghi e streghe di Benevento. Naples: Pierro. Reprint, 1976. Bologna: Forni.

Di Gesaro Pinuccia. 1988. Streghe.L’ossessione del diavolo. Il repertorio dei malefizi. La repressione. Bolzano: Praxis.

Grillando Paolo. 1592. Tractatus duo: unus De sortilegiis d. Pauli Grillandi Castellionis, iureconsulti florentinii excellentissimi . . .alter De Lamiis. Francoforti ad Moenum: Martinum Lechlerum.

Mammoli Domenico. 1969. Processo alla strega Matteuccia di Francesco 20 marzo 1428. Todi: Res Tudertinae.

Montesano Marina. 1996. Streghe. Florence: Giunti.

Piperno Pietro. 1640. Della superstitiosa noce di Benevento. Naples: Giacomo Gaffaro.

Portone Paolo. 1990. Il noce di Benevento. Milan: Xenia.

Summers Montague. 1929. The History of Witchcraft and Demonology. London: Mystic.