Witchcraft and the Art of Winemaking

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Maybe you’ve heard a bad bottle of wine being described as “corked.” This is the fault of TCA, a chemical compound that contaminates wine barrels and corks, giving vino an odor similar to Grandma’s dirty basement or a wet dog. Corked wine isn’t pleasant, but it certainly sounds more appealing than a bottle filled with witch pee—reportedly a common problem in 16th century Italy, when people thought that witches, after retiring from their midnight parties on the Satanic Sabbath, would break into wine cellars and urinate and defecate in the bottles and casks after drinking their fill. Villages would regularly toss out barrels of wine, convinced they’d been contaminated with unholy excrement.

The northern province of Friuli had some help with the problem. The Benandanti, or Good Walkers, were members of an ancient agrarian cult that believed themselves to be practitioners of white magic, and used their powers to protect vintners and farmers.

Membership in the Benandanti was an accident of birth. Children who emerged from the womb with their faces wrapped in a caul, or a piece of amniotic membrane, were thought to have healing powers and the ability to see witches, making them prime candidates to join the group. As children like this grew, they were said to go into a trance and experience strange visions on specific nights. Around the time a benandante turned 20, another benandante would come to visit them during one of these visions and show them the purpose of the trances. Their spirits would reportedly leave their bodies and ride roosters, goats or other animals through the sky, drinking the neighbors’ wine and joining other Benandanti in the woods.

But that's not all they did: The Benandanti would also battle the witches during their Satanic Sabbath by flanking them and attacking them with stalks of fennel. The witches fought back with stalks of sorghum. If they won the battle, crops would wither, children and animals would get sick, and the town's wine casks would become toilets. If the Benandanti won, though, the nearby villages would be safe and prosperous for the season. The fields would be fertile, the animals healthy, and the wine clean and delicious.

Unfortunately, the Benandanti were active during the Roman Inquisition, which prosecuted scores of people for heresy, blasphemy, sorcery, and witchcraft. Inquisitors investigated the Benandanti and at first claimed them heretics, but ultimately decided that their activity was “benign magic” and not Satanic.

No Benandanti were executed, but the Inquisition’s initial denounciation of them left unpopular with the villagers. They became synonymous with the very witches they fought against, and the cult declined and disappeared, leaving the wine to fend for itself.