In Britain, places like York and Edinburgh pull in tourists by presenting themselves as the “most haunted city” in the country, Europe, or even the world. Tours are organised around sites of spooky events, and thousands of fascinated visitors relish the scary stories.
Yet there is a little-known town in southern Italy that could also make a claim to being one of the most haunted or enchanted places around: Benevento in Campania.
Legends of unusual events here date right back to its origins as a Samnite city, in the 4th-6th century BC. Originally called Maleventum, the Romans changed the name to Beneventum when they took power in the third century BC. They believed that “Male”ventum was an ill omen, or suggested that bad things happen in the town, and so they modified it to include “bene” or “good”.
For some time under Roman rule, the Egyptian goddess Isis (Iside) was worshipped in Benevento and Emperor Domitian built a temple for her here in 88-89 AD. At the beginning of the 20th century, archaeological excavations uncovered many fascinating artifacts from this temple, such as statues of priestesses and baboons.
After Emperor Theodosius ordered the complete suppression of all non-Christian cults around 395 AD, the worship of Iside was discouraged and viewed with suspicion. Her temple was destroyed so that its foundations and contents could be used to prop up newly constructed walls around 663, by orders of Barbatus, Bishop of Benevento, to protect the city against attack. For more on Iside see here
The Germanic Lombard tribe that settled in Benevento in the sixth century brought their nature religion with them. According to some historical records, they worshipped a “sacred tree” on the outskirts of town. There are accounts of pagan rites in which knights had to gallop towards the tree, grab a part of snake’s skin hanging from it, and then eat the skin.
Bishop Barbatus allegedly uprooted this tree in the seventh century as he sought to repress non-Christian cults. Legends subsequently developed around the tree-worshipping traditions in Benevento, associating them with the Devil. A “walnut tree” was talked about in poems and books. These told stories of witches and wizards flying to Benevento, gathering and dancing under the tree for their Sabbats (pagan festivals), casting evil spells and then flying off again. A link was formed between the Italian word for walnut “noce” and the Latin for harm “nocere”.
Stories about the sinister powers of the walnut tree helped build fear and fascination around it. Some claimed that if you fell asleep under the tree, the poison seeping from its damp roots would infect your brain. According to one story related to St. Francis, an Umbrian man who napped under a walnut tree awoke paralysed but was later healed after the saint appeared to him in a dream.
The legend of Benevento’s walnut tree sprung mainly from the original Lombard tradition. But the background of the cult of Iside here may also have contributed. Snake symbols found on urns and other objects originating from her temple suggest that serpents were worshipped through her cult, and this tradition was passed on to the Lombards.
There is uncertainty about the location of the original magic tree, but most records say it is somewhere around the Ponte Leproso, which crosses the Sabato river on the outskirts of town. There isn’t much evidence of witches in Benevento, but I’m sure an inventive person could come up with an interesting tour down to the river, stopping at some eerie sites, that many curious tourists would be happy to pay for.
When I was in the area of the Ponte Leproso, before I knew it was the alleged site of the walnut tree, I remember that I started feeling a little uneasy, as if I were in a sort of charmed place. It may just have been because it was really quiet with no one else around…
The famous Strega liqueur which has been produced in Benevento since 1860 is named after the witch legends. According to the man who runs the bed and breakfast I stayed in, if you drink a glass of this with your partner, then your love will last forever. I have seen no evidence of this spell working though. You may want to try yourselves, as he also pointed out, “there is a witch in every woman”.
When you are in Benevento, it is worth stopping off at Caffe Strega on Corso Garibaldi. Here you can try the liqueur, buy a bottle or confectionery flavoured with it, or even try a Strega ice cream. Enjoy darlings!