When witches went after wine

Wine is under plenty of stress right now, between taxes, falling exports and the loss of the on-trade. At least modern winemakers don’t have to contend with the supernatural. Jeff Siegel reports.

Photo by Katherine Hanlon on Unsplash
Photo by Katherine Hanlon on Unsplash

Think it’s difficult getting wine to market these days, given everything from taxes to tariffs? At least you don’t need protection from the Benandanti – good witches who would stop the bad witches from using your wine barrels or wine glasses as their toilets.

Witches and wine

Witchcraft has been in the news in the past year, thanks to recent archaeological discoveries in both the US and Britain, where witch bottles have been unearthed from historic homes and sites. These were glass bottles filled with urine, human hair, nails and thorns, and placed around homes, whose purpose was to repel witches or other supernatural forces.

It turns out that 16th century Friuli wineries also had methods to keep witches at bay – battle-hardened, shapeshifting good witches.

Some 500 years ago, says Jennifer Billock – a freelance journalist, practicing witch, and editor of the e-newsletter Kitchen Witch, which details the intersection of food and witchcraft – producers and their customers in northern Italy relied on the Benandanti to protect their wine from a faction of bad witches who wanted to defecate and urinate in barrels and bottles, as well as the locals’ wine glasses.

“This was a battle between two factions of witches,” says Billock, “and the goal of the Benandanti was to hold the bad witches at bay. And it wasn’t just about wine, but about protecting the area’s crops.”

The Benandanti were born into witchcraft; they were identified at birth when the amniotic sac that surrounds the fetus didn’t tear away but became wrapped around the newborn’s head. After that, it was a lifelong struggle for the ‘good walkers’ (a loose English translation of Benandanti) to protect the residents and businesses in Friuli from the bad witches. 

Without the Benandanti’s help, the only way to fend off the bad witches was to leave a bowl of clear water outside your home or building. If you forgot to do that, or if the bowl overturned or was washed away in a storm, then the bad witches had carte blanche to relieve themselves in your wine.

Only the male Benandanti could fight the bad witches – which, if nothing else, shows just how long men have dominated the wine business. When it was time to fight, the men would go into a trance, and then shape shift into spirits, says Billock.

The bad witches would do the same thing, and each side would be armed; the Benandanti used stalks of fennel, while their enemies wielded sorghum. The spirits would flail at each other with their fennel and sorghum until one side gained the upper stalk. These battles happened four times a year, on the Thursday during the Ember seasons, which roughly equates to four Thursdays a year, just before the seasons changed.

No one is quite sure how one side defeated the other, says Billock, other than some vague reference to beating the other side into submission. During the witch trials that were part of this period (and the testimony from which provides much of the information about what happened), the Benandanti who were on trial said they couldn’t describe a battle in detail because God’s angels would be angry and beat them.

It’s help that many wineries could probably use right now, considering the bad forces arrayed against the wine trade. Modern wineries, however, will have to rely on other weapons – like social media (the 21st century's version of witchcraft?), direct to consumer and other sales techniques. The battle, unfortunately, never stops.

Jeff Siegel




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