Bella Marta and the Young Contadino

In Benevento, there was once a great tree--an oak, in which there was a cavity. It was commonly known that a very beautiful woman would be seen in the vicinity of this tree, near cock crow. Anyone who passed her said she disappeared near this tree, but they knew not where.

There was one young man who, moved by curiosity, said: "I will take a chance. I will go there early and wait. I will follow the lady, and find out where she dwells."

On a summer morning, he went to the wood, and quietly waited near the tree until a figure at last appeared. A very beautiful woman came back at dawn dressed in green and white.

She came directly to the great oak and entered the shadow of its cavity as if it were a door.

He swiftly followed after her, and also stepped into the shadow without any hesitation.

To his astonishment, he found himself suddenly in the hall of a vast and splendid palace.

The contadino stood in wide-eyed wonder as he looked all around himself. One might have walked three days in this paese della fate passing from room to room and still not see all of its marvellous beauty. It was like a great cathedral in some unearthly, hallowed cloister.

He heard a beautiful voice behind him saying, "You are a bold one to have taken such a chance. Who knows what the forest shadows hold between dark and dawn?"

Turning, he saw the beautiful lady in the simple green and white dress whom he had followed. Seeing her clearly for the first time, he could see she was a woman most lovely--neither young, nor old. He gasped and blurted out, "Signora, you are more beautiful than any saint gilded in the church."

He realized what he said must have sounded very silly, but the lady smiled and said, "Be not afraid, I welcome you, and will grant to you a fortunate gift. I am the Bella Marta.

"As you are a youth given to playing games of chance, go and play at such games with dice or cards or numbers, you will win, and when you have won you must always remember those in need with my name. Be not too greedy. If you are in need of something, pronounce this incantation to a large oak in the forest:

"Bella Marta! Bella Marta! Bella Marta!
More beautiful than any saint I've seen.
Here I stand before your tree,
Grant, I pray, a grace to me,
If you will be my patrona,
And if there's aught
Which I can do, it shall be done
For Bella Marta, my own.
"Repeat this incantation to a large oak in the forest; you will do well. Now depart, and count your self lucky in your boldness."

Before he could speak, the world turned around and he found himself sitting on the ground looking at the oak tree in the full sunlight. Staring at the cavity in the great tree, he could see that it was by no means large enough to a allow a full grown person to step inside.

However, the lady was true to her word. The young contadino did not forget her admonition to be generous to those in need in the name of Bella Marta.

copyright 2011 Myth Woodling

Myth's notes:

I have retold this Tuscan tale from Charles G. Leland's Etruscan Magic and Occult Remedies, 1892, p. 148-149. I've added my own embellishments and serious students of folklore should track down Leland's orginal text. Leland believed that this "Bella Marta" was a dryad-like spirit, who was associated with luck. (The story he collected does describe her as living in a tree.) Leland explained this tale ought more likely to connect to the retelling of the sexual affair between a hamadryad and the Greek Rhoecus or Rhiokos.

I don't think that is quite the case, because the story's incantation requests that Bella Marta be his "patrona," not lover. La Bella Marta is clearly either a patron saint or a fata buona. Take your pick.

Below is the orginal Italian incantation which Leland collected:

Bella Marta! bella Marta! bella Marta!
Sei pił bella d'una santa
Al albero tuo vengo a pregare,
Se una grazia mi vuoi fare,
Se questa grazia mi farai,
La mia padrona tu sarai,
Qualunque casa mi chiederai,
Bella Marta tu l'avrai.

--Charles G. Leland, Etruscan Magic and Occult Remedies, 1892, p. 148.

Qalunque cosa mi chiederai--bella Marta tu l'avrai. --Leland, p. 148.

I have therefore presented Bella Marta in this story as a fata buona della fiabe, that is one of those good faeries who abound in folktales. You know the sort who, for whatever reason, decides to do a good turn for some human who has wandered into her presence.

However, I think this folktale could be connected to Santa Marta, who may have been thought of as retiring to someplace in the forests of Benevento in Italian legend. Hence, I purposely added a hint of saintliness in this retelling. Bella Marta advised the youth to not be greedy and remember those in need. There is a tradition that Santa Marta, the Auxiliatrice, will help people to obtain the remedy to their necessities.

Leland pointed out that Bella Marta seemed to be connected to card playing or divination. Apparently, he believed both were rather un-saintly activities.

Yet, Saint Martha of Bethany was always the sort who focused on the practical side rather that the purely spiritual. She is petitioned for help in obtaining necessities. There is still a very active tradition in several Catholic cultures of Saint Marth of Bethany helping people overcome bad luck just as she overcame the dragon.

The verse is rather like dozens of other folk incantations to saints, in which a peitioner offers prayer and devotion in return for the saint's patronage.

Santa Marta: Wonder Worker in Gallia
Praying to Saints and Folk Magic: Santa Marta di Betania
Useful Prayers: Novena to St. Martha of Bethany
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