Triora made of its witches an attraction (Photo: Paolo Giovanni Trovo/Dreamstime)

What a beautiful day to write. Despite being the first month that truly brings cold to the country – September seems to be every year more summery – October still has some spectacularly bright days, with colors and scents so vivid they easily rival those of our bella stagione.  Take today, for instance: it’s chilly but sunny, and the sky is the color of periwinkles. There are no clouds, and the light shines on that wealth of golds, oranges, reds, and purples so typical of the fall in this part of Italy. It’s just beautiful and peaceful.

The right day to write, indeed.

But what truly fascinates me about October is its atmosphere. For those who love the cold season like me, this is the first month we feel comfortable: sweaters are back, Dr. Martens finally come out of storage and so do all our beloved woolly hats and scarves. Roasted pumpkin is on the menu and so are hot chocolate with lashings of whipped cream and giant mugs of coffee with pumpkin spice — ok, this may be a pretty personal choice: most Italians from Italy would scream at the idea of it.

And then, it gets dark early. This is, perhaps, the only time of the year when Italy gets something close to the British Islands’ beloved twilight, that moment between day and night where everything, from nature to light, from sounds to our thoughts, is suspended in time and space. Thinking of it, October is the twilight month of the calendar year, and so it shouldn’t surprise it is also the month of the paranormal, of the spiritual and the mysterious. For Catholics, October is the month that leads to the celebration of All Saints and All Souls, on the 1st and the 2nd of November respectively. History teaches us the two festivities weren’t set in those two days randomly, but in accord to ancient pagan festivals people around Europe, especially in the countryside, still celebrated despite having long converted to Catholicism. Of course, the pagan root I’m talking about is the one called Samhain by the old Celts, and commonly known today as Halloween.

Here, we come full-circle.

Halloween, the day of spooks and trick-or-treat, but also the first of three days, if we include All Saints and All Souls, dedicated to the Great Beyond. The whole month of October, with its liminality, soft light, and darkened colors, is the perfect preamble to all that. And the perfect month to talk about the paranormal. About witches. Salem’s are the most famous in the world, and what fascinates so many about their ordeal is the way the unseen and history came together and delivered what turned into a truly popular culture phenomenon. Many, I’m sure, got interested in the Salem Witch Trials for the paranormal side of it, but ended up exploring its historical, psychological, and moral facets.

And while Italy’s witch trials may have never reached, at least when it comes to popular knowledge, the magnitude of Salem’s, we had some unfortunate, gruesome cases, too, such as those of Triora – known, in fact, as “the Italian Salem” – and Rifreddo, and others where legend and mystery, rather than history, actually take the lead, like in the case of Benevento. Not many are familiar with these witches, but their presence is still there, in the alleys of their villages and the words of legends and history books.

So grab that pumpkin spice coffee and get comfortable, because it’s time to take a journey in the world of Italy’s witching villages.

Triora is the first stop of our journey because it remains the most (in)famous of all witches’ villages in the country. Triora is a small commune in the Argentina Valley (Imperia) on the Maritime Alps. With a population of 355, it is a small hamlet, known mostly for its traditional, hearty bread made with buckwheat flour and its witch trials, which took place in the mid-16th century. Just like Salem, Triora made of the historical tragedy that hit its people a marker of its identity and, indeed, a source of popularity: its homes, streets, and alleys have been kept largely the way they were in the Middle Ages, with extra “witchy” decorations, like broomsticks, black cats’ metal cutouts, murals and frightening stone sculptures, just like in Salem. And just like its New England counterpart, Triora’s tourist industry is largely based on the events that took place all those centuries ago: between 1587 and 1589, 30 women (and one young man) were accused of witchcraft and jailed. The accusations against them were also similar to those brought against the women of Salem: they were accused of having caused with magic the tragic famine that had been plaguing the village, and also to have kidnapped – and sacrificed – some children. Historical sources tell us clearly that crops’ failure had nothing to do with magic, and was likely the result of landlords’ incompetence, yet, it was much simpler to find a physical, tangible scapegoat in these women, who were notably isolated from the rest of the community because of their age, their personality or their activities – some of them were healers. The witches were initially imprisoned in  Ca’ de Baggiure (known today as “the witches’ home”) and, at least some of them, were later moved to Genoa. According to the prosecution, Triora’s witches would meet with the Devil in a place called Cabotina, which you can still visit today. While their execution was eventually stopped by authorities, many of these women died under torture: the most famous among them is Isotta Stella, whose story, along with that of all the other victims, is today told in Triora’s Museo Etnografico della Stregoneria,  dedicated to the trials.

A statue in Triora dedicated to the victims of the witch trials (Photo: Christa Eder/Dreamstime)

A handful of miles north of Triora, in the Cuneo province of Piedmont, is the village of Rifreddo, our second stop in this fascinating trip into mystery and history. Rifreddo, whose name comes from Latin and means “cold river,” lies at the feet of Mount Bracco. Today, this small, quiet town of 1000, cradled fatherly in the imposing, yet protective embrace of Mount Monviso, is still known by historians and paranormal investigators because of the events of 1495, when a bloody witch trial – whose victims, it seems, still roam Rifreddo’s streets at night – took place. After the mysterious death of an attendant, the abbess at the local female Cistercian convent felt the Inquisition was needed: the man, she thought, died because of the Devil. Vito Beggiani, an inquisitor, reached Piedmont from Milan in 1495 and the witch hunt began. Soon the masca (Piedmontese for witch) was identified: it was Caterina Bonivarda. Just like in Salem and Triora, many other women linked to her were also accused, following that “domino effect” typical of the Inquisition period. Of course, the women were charged with witchcraft and, according to the trial records, which are still extant, they had even confessed to it, but only after unspeakable pain and months of torture. Today, the village commemorates victims and the trial with a historical re-enactment that takes place, unsurprisingly, on the last Sunday of October.

In the South, Benevento is the most iconic of all witch towns. Contrarily to what happens usually, and very differently from what took place in Triora and Rifreddo, the witches of Benevento weren’t persecuted nor killed, if anything, they were respected and accepted in the life of Beneventans. To be fair, the witches of Benevento are not the same as the ones of Triora, Salem, and Rifreddo: they are more the stuff of legends and old folklore than history. Yet, there is a crumble of truth in every tale and we can’t entirely discount Benevento’s as purely fantastic: perhaps, there is a sparkle of truth in there, too. The connection between the city, located in the Campania region of Italy, and the paranormal is ancient, as it dates back to the 6th century BC when Greek colons brought to these lands the orgiastic cult of Cybele. Ovid, the Roman poet, believed the area was home to striges, evil creatures who fed on children’s blood and often associated with witchcraft. When the Lombard conquered the South, in the 6th century AD, Benevento became their capital, and their very own tribal rituals became part of local lore.

If we know all this, and all that I’m about to write, is thanks to Pietro Piperno, 17th-century Beneventan historian and author of De Nuce Maga (“about the magical walnut tree”), a treatise about the witches and magic of the area. According to him, many famous witches lived in Benevento during the Renaissance, including Alcina, Violante da Pontecorvo, Menadra, and the Arcistrega (or “archwitch,” just like an “archbishop”) of Sannio, who was processed by the Inquisition in 1540. Legends, and Piperno, say that the witches of Benevento used to gather for their sabba around an old walnut tree, where Satan would wait for them every Saturday night. Of course, they would all get there riding their broomsticks and covered with a special salve that allowed them to fly and to become invisible.

The witches of Benevento were feared by locals because it was believed they could slither under doors at night, and harm families and children while they were asleep. Indeed, their traditional name is janara, which means “door” in dialect. However, others believe it comes from the ancient priestesses of Diana, the Roman goddess of hunting and the moon, whose cult thrived in the area during antiquity.

Ottobre: è la stagione dei brividi!

Halloween, il giorno dei fantasmi e del dolcetto o scherzetto, ma anche il primo di tre giorni, se includiamo Tutti i Santi e Tutte le Anime, dedicati all’Aldilà. Tutto il mese di ottobre, con la sua liminalità, la luce soffusa e i colori scuri, è il preambolo perfetto per tutto questo. E’ il mese perfetto per parlare di paranormale e di streghe.

E se i processi alle streghe in Italia non hanno mai raggiunto, almeno per quanto riguarda la conoscenza popolare, la grandezza di quelli di Salem, abbiamo avuto anche noi alcuni casi sfortunati e raccapriccianti, come quelli di Triora – conosciuta, infatti, come “la Salem italiana” – e Rifreddo, e altri luoghi dove la leggenda e il mistero, piuttosto che la storia, presero effettivamente il sopravvento, come nel caso di Benevento. Non molti conoscono queste streghe, ma la loro presenza è ancora lì, nei vicoli dei loro villaggi e nelle parole delle leggende e dei libri di storia.

Quindi prendete il caffè alla zucca e mettetevi comodi, perché è ora di fare un viaggio nel mondo dei borghi stregati d’Italia.

Triora è la prima tappa del nostro viaggio perché rimane il più infame di tutti i villaggi di streghe d’Italia. Triora è un piccolo comune della Valle Argentina (Imperia) sulle Alpi Marittime. Con una popolazione di 355 abitanti, è una piccola frazione, conosciuta soprattutto per il suo pane tradizionale e sostanzioso fatto con la farina di grano saraceno e per i suoi processi alle streghe, che ebbero luogo a metà del XVI secolo. Proprio come Salem, Triora ha fatto della tragedia storica che ha colpito la sua gente un marchio d’identità e, anzi, una fonte di popolarità: le sue case, strade e vicoli sono stati mantenuti in gran parte come erano nel Medioevo, con decorazioni “stregonesche”, come manici di scopa, ritagli di metallo a forma di gatti neri, murales e spaventose sculture in pietra, proprio come a Salem. E proprio come la controparte del New England, l’industria turistica di Triora si basa in gran parte sugli eventi accaduti tutti quei secoli fa: tra il 1587 e il 1589, 30 donne (e un giovane uomo) furono accusate di stregoneria e imprigionate. Anche le accuse contro di loro erano simili a quelle rivolte alle donne di Salem: erano accusate di aver causato con la magia la tragica carestia che affliggeva il paese, e anche di aver rapito – e sacrificato – alcuni bambini. Le fonti storiche ci dicono chiaramente che la perdita dei raccolti non aveva nulla a che fare con la magia, ed era probabilmente il risultato dell’incompetenza dei proprietari terrieri, tuttavia, era molto più semplice trovare un capro espiatorio fisico e tangibile in queste donne, che erano notevolmente isolate dal resto della comunità a causa della loro età, della loro personalità o delle loro attività: alcune di loro erano guaritrici.

Una manciata di chilometri a nord di Triora, in provincia di Cuneo, si trova il villaggio di Rifreddo, la nostra seconda tappa di questo affascinante viaggio nel mistero e nella storia. Rifreddo, il cui nome deriva dal latino e significa “fiume freddo”, si trova ai piedi del Monte Bracco. Oggi, questo piccolo e tranquillo paese di 1000 abitanti, cullato paternamente nell’abbraccio imponente, ma protettivo, del Monte Monviso, è ancora conosciuto dagli storici e dai ricercatori del paranormale per gli eventi del 1495, quando ebbe luogo un sanguinoso processo alle streghe, le cui vittime, pare, vagano ancora per le strade di Rifreddo di notte. Dopo la misteriosa morte di un guardiano, la badessa del convento femminile cistercense del posto ritenne necessaria l’Inquisizione: l’uomo, pensava, era morto a causa del diavolo. Come a Salem e a Triora, molte donne furono accusate, seguendo quell'”effetto domino” tipico del periodo dell’Inquisizione. Naturalmente le donne furono accusate di stregoneria e, secondo gli atti del processo, tuttora esistenti, confessarono anche, ma solo dopo dolori indicibili e mesi di torture.

Al Sud, Benevento è la più iconica delle città delle streghe. Contrariamente a quanto accade di solito, e molto diversamente da quanto avveniva a Triora e Rifreddo, le streghe di Benevento non venivano perseguitate né uccise, semmai erano rispettate e accettate nella vita dei beneventani. A dire il vero, le streghe di Benevento non sono le stesse di Triora, Salem e Rifreddo: sono più materia di leggende e vecchio folklore che di storia. Eppure, c’è un briciolo di verità in ogni racconto e non possiamo ridurre del tutto le streghe di Benevento a un fatto puramente fantastico: forse, c’è anche un barlume di verità. La connessione tra la città, situata nella regione Campania d’Italia, e il paranormale è antica, poiché risale al VI secolo a.C. quando i coloni greci portarono in queste terre il culto orgiastico di Cibele. Ovidio, il poeta romano, credeva che la zona fosse sede di streghe, creature malvagie che si nutrivano del sangue dei bambini e spesso associate alla stregoneria. Quando i Longobardi conquistarono il Sud, nel VI secolo d.C., Benevento divenne la loro capitale, e i loro stessi riti tribali entrarono a far parte della tradizione locale.
Se sappiamo tutto questo, e tutto quello che sto per scrivere, è grazie a Pietro Piperno, storico beneventano del XVII secolo e autore del De Nuce Maga (“del noce magico”), un trattato sulle streghe e la magia della zona. Secondo lui, molte streghe famose vissero a Benevento durante il Rinascimento, tra cui Alcina, Violante da Pontecorvo, Menadra, e l’Arcistrega (proprio come “arcivescovo”) del Sannio, che fu processata dall’Inquisizione nel 1540. Le leggende, e Piperno, dicono che le streghe di Benevento si riunivano per la loro sabba intorno a un vecchio noce, dove Satana le aspettava ogni sabato sera. Naturalmente ci arrivavano tutte a cavallo delle loro scope e coperte da uno speciale unguento che permetteva loro di volare e di diventare invisibili, proprio come tutte le streghe del mondo hanno sempre fatto.

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