Folkloric Witches: The streghe in popular imagination--sundry types, origins, and history

This page is currently under construction.

Folkloric witches exit in folklore and popular imagination in many cultures. The different regions in Italy and surrounding areas have very diverse cultures, legends and folklore. These include diverse legends about the streghe (witches).

According to Sabina Magliocco in Witchcraft, Healing and Vernacular Magic in Italy:

The word strega (plural streghe), from the Latin strix “screech owl,” is often used to refer to the folkloric witch, and the word has ancient negative connotations…

Folkloric witches perform feats that are absolutely supernatural: they transform into animals, fly through the air on the backs of goats; tangle people’s hair; steal milk from nursing mothers and livestock; suck blood from living beings; and torment their enemies by paralyzing them in their beds at night. By the nineteenth century, the legend of the walnut tree of Benevento (near Naples) as a gathering place for witches was well known throughout much of the peninsula. Folkloric witches’ activities at times overlap with those of fairies and the dead: in Italian folklore, noisy night raids and circle dancing in the cemetery or church square are attributed to all three.

Versions of this list can be found in several Italian sources.

Abitatrici dei campi (dweller of the fields)
The nature of these streghe (witches) is ambivalent. Some folks instead call them fatae (faeries). These spirits are found in the legends of Calabria and Basilicata, which have been influenced by Albanian communities. It is said they abduct bambini (children) from their cradles, and then hide them in the trunks of the oaks.

The name, animulari, seems to be from the Sicilian dialect word anunulu, which means "spinning wheel." The animulari belong to the donni di fuora (women of the outside). They meet in lonely and abandoned places. They also fly at night, spinning.

These streghe (witches) exist in the legends of Alassio and near Savona. They gather near the seashore. It is also said that they manage to navigate through the storms, which they can summon. They are responsible for dumping water into boats drawn up onto the dry shore. If they take some things at night, they will put everything back in place before dawn. They can also spoil the bread flour in the mills and ruin the wine in barrels. They will snatch babies to suck their blood. At least one source I found called these creatures streghe marinare (sea witches).

Beate donnette (blessed little women or happy/crowned little ladies)
They are popularly known in the provinces of Trento and Vicenza and are sometimes mistaken as fatae (faeries). There are folktales in which they are not presented as malific witches. Their name is deceptive, like those of the Venetian bele butele.

It seems obvious to me that the befane are associated with La Befana, the old woman of the Feast of the Epiphany. Interestingly, not one Italian source explores or mentions this connection. The sources I found stated that the befane are old and ugly and actually are associated with the famous Germanic Frau Holle.

Bele butele (blessed little women or beautiful girls)
These "blessed little women" in Venetian folklore have a name that deceives the unwary. They appear as attractive women, but their true physical nature is quite different. They have legs of a goat or horse, monkey arms, and long ears. The bele butele go in search of men who linger outdoors in the evening, before returning home, after the last Hail Mary when prayers end. It is at that hour that these are dangerous creatures.

However, women and children can be at greater risk from the bele butele, because they can be stolen from inside houses--if no men are present inside--and slaughtered.

Bonae res (good things)
The bonae res are widespread in the legends of the province of Brescia. These females are ambiguous figures in folklore. They seem to be halfway between streghe (witches) and fatae (faeries). The bonae res used to gather in night assemblies called the balli angelici (angel dances or balls) in order to dance. The bonae res were like the bonnae muliers (good women).

Cogas (cooks)
Cogas are the streghe (witches) of Sardinian folklore. Cogas are wholly malevolent, as they cook and eat their victims. Some claim that a coga is the seventh daughter born in a family into which only daughters were born. The legends describe them as riding upon brooms to fly. They can fly down to enter homes to draw the blood of infants for cooking. To frustrate cogas, a person simply leave a dress overthrown where an infant sleeps in a room. A person may also sprinkle barley or wheat grains upon the doorstep and she will be compelled to stop and count them. Fennel seeds may also be sprinkled. If a cogna crosses herself while flying over a graveyard or church, she will fall to the ground naked. In the province of Cagliari, there is a celebration in August. One source stated, the male version is called a cogus.

Donna del gioco (women of the game)
In the collective imagination, these women over time became confused with legends of streghe (witches), fatae (faeries), and spirit-women attending ancient nocturnal rites. The donna del gioco are associated with the gioco di Diana (game of Diana) and the Domina Ludi (the Lady of the Game).

Gatte masciare (cats masciare)
These streghe (witches) dwell in Bari. They specialize in transforming into cats in order to wander the city at night, climbing over the terraces of houses.

At sunset, these women rub themselves with ungono dia olio masciaro, which is an oily grease. This unguentto is one of the strumenti magici della streghe, one of the magical tools of the witches. It allows them to be able to throw themselves into empty space and fly from the rooftops.

There is a connection between the Apulina gatte masciare and the Sardinian cogas. If a man was convinced that a cat was actually a strega (witch), he could recite a magic formula and the cat would be immediately transformed into a naked woman. These women were believed to have sold themselves to the devil for their extraordinary powers.

The term masca means strega (witch) or maga (sorceress) in the folklore of Piedmont. This term is related to mascar, meaning "muttering." It is unclear if masca is related to masciare or masciaro.

The term, masciaro, may also mean strega (witch) or maga (sorceress). Masciaro and masca may both derive from the the Latin Megaera. Interestingly, the Italian article Stregoneria, streghe e stregheria: le origini, la storia, le tipologie uses the word masciaro rather than masca. Clearly, there is something more I have not discerned, because Masciaro is also a fairly common last name.

In ancient Greco-Roman mythology, Megaera (Latin spelling) or Megaira (Greek spelling) was one of the Dirae or Furiae (Furies). They were three female chthonic deities of vengeance: Tisiphone (Murder Retritution), Alecto/Alekto (Unceasing), and Megaera/Megaira (Grudge). In Greece, they were known as the Erinyes.

Ovid called these three Furies the "Sorores Genitae Nocte" (Night-Born Sisters). Seneca mentioned Megaera specifically: "...Megaera lead on her band bristling with serpents..." Virgil also wrote: "Two demon fiends there are, called by the name of Furiae, whom darkest Nox [Night] brought forth at one and the same birth with hellish Megaera, breeding all three alike with the twining coils of serpents and giving them wings like the wind." Seneca wrote: "Whither hastes that headlong horde of Furiae? Whom seek they? Against whom are they preparing their flaming blows? Whom does the hellish host threaten with its bloody brands? A huge snake hisses, whirled with the writhing lash. Whom does Megaera seek with her deadly torch?"

The figure of winged Megaera, with serpents in her hair, wielding a torch and wearing blood-stained clothes, left her legacy in folklore and popular imagination, reflected in the Romance languages. In modern Italian, megera designates an evil or ugly woman. In Portuguese, megera, means a jealous, spiteful woman.

Genti beate (gentiles blessed)
This is another name of streghe (witches) that is deceptive. The genti beate are widespread in Verona. Some folks claim they are instead fatae (faeries), more precisely anguane. They live in caves and gather at night to hold their councils. They hunt snakes, birds, and deer, which they eat. Some claim they are spirits who live near the springs.

The janare are terrible streghe (witches) of Campania, dwelling near Caserta monte ianaro (Mt. Ianaro). Many say their name comes from the name of this mountain, because there was no "j" in Latin, so words which began with "i" were later replaced with a "j." They appear with long, evil-looking boar tusks, and dress in a black cloak stained with blood. They could penetrate into the cracks of windows, becoming wind. Like faeries elsewhere, they are said to steal donkeys and horses from the stables, returning the animals at dawn exhausted. Their name probably derives from Dianare, or sacerdotesse di Diana (followers/priestesses of Diana). Linguistically, the name janare is related to the names of the Roman Goddesses Jana/Iana or Diana.

The janare may have borrowed their black cloaks from the actors portraying the Poinai (Vengeances), i.e. the Furies, in Greco-Roman theater. The Greek Strabo (1st century bce to 1st century ce) wrote in Geography 3. 5. 11 (translation, Jones) : "People who wear black cloaks, go clad in tunics that reach to their feet, wear belts around their breasts, walk with canes, and resemble the goddesses Poinai in tragedies."

Lavandale (washer women)
The lavandale could be assigned to different categories. In some stories, they are fantasmi (ghosts). In other stories, these legendary creatures are streghe (witches). The common factor in the legends of these creatures is water. These women are seen near a spring washing clothes. They compel unwary travelers to help them. As the travelers wring the wet clothes, they discover the broken bones of human limbs. The streghe lavandale can also abduct children from homes. Such children meet a dire fate, because the young victims are beaten on the rocks like sheets being cleaned. This legend is typical of Istria.

The Istrian lavandale bear some resemblence to a Scottish faery, the bean nighe (Scottish Gaelic for "washer woman"). The bean nighe is also known as the "Washer at the Ford" aka "Washer of the Shrouds." Sometimes wailing or keening, this faery washes the blood from shrouds of those who are going to die. The Scottish also called her cointeach, literally "one who keens." The bean nighe, who is also known as ban nigheachain (little washer-woman) or nigheag na h-àth (little washer at the ford), is an extremely ugly hag--more so than the lavandale. The bean nighe is described as having a one large buck tooth, webbed feet, a single nostril, and extremely pendulous breasts. Her long stringy hair is partially covered with a hood and a white gown or shroud is her main wardrobe. As the bean nighe is a faery, she is sometimes described as being dressed in the faery's color, green. Other Scottish legends describe the bean nighe as a ghost of a woman who died in childbirth.

In the Celtic Breton language of Brittany, France, this same being is called eur-cunnere noe. According to the folklore of Brittany, three old washer women, called in French les lavandière, are seen at midnight near the water's edge washing haubans (shrouds) for those about to die.*

Madri (mothers)
The name is linked to the well-known three mothers of the film, Inferno Dario Argento. These Sicilian streghe (witches) are found in the folklore of the province of Trapani. The madri streghe (mother witches) are ugly and horrible. They have yellow eyes and pupils which are slit shaped like the pupils in cats' eyes. They are able to cast malefici (baleful spells) and sortilegi (divinations). They know the arts of magic. In Calabria, these streghe (witches) are known by the names magare and magarat.

Malandanti (bad walkers) and Benandanti (good walkers)
In the 16th and 17th centuries, in the Friuli district of Nothern Italy, the malandanti (bad walkers) fought magical spirit battles at night against the benandanti (good walkers). The malandanti are often described in modern Italian sources as stregoni (sorcerors). In English translations, the malandanit are often called "witches."

If the malandanti (bad walkers) prevailed in these spirit battles in the sky, the villagers would be plagued by blight, disease, and famine.

The malandanti (bad walkers) were armed with canne de sorgo (sticks of sorghum), which was probably "broomcorn" or "broom sorghum," which is sorghum vulgare var. technicum. The benandanti (good walkers) were armed with stalks of finocchio (fennel).

One could argue that the malandanti (bad walkers) were personifications of hostile forces of nature--blight, disease, and/or famine. However, in the original records, those who admitted to the Holy Inquisition that they were benandanti (good walkers) described the malandanti (bad walkers) as being folk from other villages. It is a feature of Italian culture to have strong loyalties to one's own paese (village). To my knowledge, no one admitted to being one of the malandanti (bad walkers). However, those who professed being benandanti (good walkers) explained to the Inquisition that they were good Christians in the service of God. As one of the benandanti (good walkers) explained, "I sleep because the benandanti journey with the others to fight four times per year in the ember days, at night, invisibly with the spirit, the body remains...we stick with the fennel and they fight with the sorghum canes..." If the benandanti (good walkers) won the spirit battle, then there was abundance and prosperity for their community.

The Inquisition took a dim view of any participation in spirit battles and did its best to stamp out belief in this heresy.

Masche (people of the mask)
The tribes of these witches are active in Piedmont, but there are also found in Lombardy and Liguria. Some aspects of this legend seem to be of Celtic origin. There are several remedies against the masche: a few drops of water in milk, blessed salt in butter, or olive leaves blessed in springs.

Mat Bonadol
According to legend, Mat Bonadol was a powerful stregoni (sorceror) who lived around Lake Endine, Bergamo. The Holy Inquisition executed him as a heretic, but Mat Bondol does not lie quietly in his grave. He is said to turn and emit frightening screams.

The missuia is a strega (witch), because she has the power to turn into a sow. The missuia has twelve piglets, one for each month of the year. This strega (witch) is from the Swiss Alps, but also may appear in the Italian Alps. She dances with her dozen children, singing in a choir.

Supposedly these are the stregoni (sorcerors) who live in the Dolomite chain. They appear at midnight. Personally, I wonder if the word numes is related to the Roman numen, who were the locus genii, indwelling spirits in an area.

Streghe marinare (sea witches or witches maritime)
These streghe (witches) live on the coast of Istria and are very similar to the Ligurian bazure. The streghe marinare are also said to travel through the storms at sea.

Stria della Diassa or stria de la Diassa
The stria della Diassa rages in the province of Belluno. She is also known as strega del ghiaccion (witch of ice). As mistress of the elements of winter, she can trigger blizzards and avalanches. No one knows what she looks like.

Tempestare (witches of the tempests)
Tempestare (witches of the tempests) are streghe (witches) and stregoni (sorcerers) whom legends credit with controlling the elements. The streghe (witches) and stregoni (sorcerors) with this ability are typically found throughout the legends of the entire Italian peninsula. They can cause blizzards, storms, and hail--thus damaging crops. It is said that the bora, the well-known wind of Trieste, is caused by these streghe (witches). In the area of Brescia, two natural disasters, which caused the loss of hundreds of trees, were attributed to these streghe (witches).

Vecia barbantana
This strega (witch) from Verona is much feared by children. She is believed to wander at night in the countryside, capturing lost children to devour them. This strega (witch) was also known as la Bestia (the beast).

This is a tribe of streghe (witches) who live in Lombardy. The name, zobia, could refer to Giovediasa (Thursday), as it is a day of their sabba (sabbath). Their name could come from the Piedmont dialect word, Giobia (Thursday).

In Italian, Thursday, is giovedi--which is the giorno di Giove (the day of Jove/Jupiter). Jove/Jupiter is the Roman dio della folgore (God of Thunderbolts), as Thor is the Norse God of Thursday and Thunder.

These streghe (witches) are also called zobiane or giubbane. They enter homes from chimneys, awaiting the traditional risotto or undoing women's clothing, so the women are later found in the street almost naked.

Final comments

To be perfectly honest, all these names collected from different regions could come from almost any time period. [An exception being the names malandanti (bad walkers) and benandanti (good walkers), as we know these terms were used by the common people in the 16th and 17th centuries due to records kept by the Inquisition.]

Some elements about the more frightening creatures could have been drawn from ancient sources, as Magarea of the Furies or even the strix, which attacked infants in their cradles, like other night flying spirits, such as Lilith.

A feature of folkloric witches is that they are sometimes described as living in the general region where their stories are told--perhaps in the woods, or caves, or maybe in a nearby rival village. However, in other cases, they are described as dwelling among honest, pious folk in the guise of ordinary people. In a few cases, they are ghosts.

Other elements of these legends clearly come from Catholic theologians and clergy. For example, the belief that the gatte masciare were women who sold their souls to the devil in order to transform into cats and fly. The idea of selling one's soul to gain power is clearly added from church theology about diabolism. The abitatrici dei campi may have been faery-spirits which the Catholic clergy may have encouraged the local population to view as child-stealing witches rather than simply child-stealing fatae (faeries).


* Les trois vieilles femmes se rendent au bord de l'eau à minuit pour laver haubans pour ceux qui vont mourir selon le mythe et le folklore de la Bretagne; ou pour laver les vêtements tachés de sang de ceux qui sont sur le point de mourir selon le folklore britannique. -- Les Lavandières
(Translation: The three old women go to the waterfront at midnight to wash shrouds for those who will die according to myth and folklore of Brittany; or to wash clothes stained with blood of those who are about to die according to the British folklore. --Les Lavandières)


Aaron J. Atsma, Erinyes 1,Theoi Project, 2000 - 2011, accessed 3/16/15.

Anna Maria Bruciatelli, STREGA - the word and the witch. January 29, 2010. Under "Reply" I found a message from Arsenic & Old Lace-Vinnie Russo on September 14, 2011 at 4:07 p.m. Vincent Russo wrote "Back in 2007, this post appeared in a mailing list and it shows just a few of the names,"

3.1 Names of Streghe from different parts of Italy
Posted by: "Toni B"
Date: Fri Oct 12, 2007 5:42 pm ((PDT))
Accessed 3/5/15

Daniele Empires, Stregoneria, streghe e stregheria: le origini, la storia, le tipologie August, 22, 2012, accessed 3/5/15.

Les Lavandières, no date, no author, accessed 3/5/15.

Carlo Ginzburg, The Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, (1983). First published in Italian as I benandanti, 1966. Carlo Ginzburg, Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches' Sabbath (1990). First published in Italian as Storia notturna: Una decifrazione del Sabba, 1989.

Sabina Magliocco, Aradia in Sardinia: the Archaeology of a Legend, 2009. Accessed 3/5/15.

Sabina Magliocco, Witchcraft, Healing and Vernacular Magic in Italy. Accessed 3/5/15.

Roberto La Paglia, Il sentiero delle Streghe:Sulle tracce di Aradia , November 17, 2014, p 17-19 in a section titled "Le Streghe Nella Tradizone Popolare" (The Witches in Popular Tradition) I have not found an English edition of Roberto La Paglia's book, but the title would be The path of the Witches: On the trail of Aradia.

"B" in ABC of Aradia: Benandanti
"F" in ABC of Aradia: Fennel
"M" in ABC of Aradia: Malandanti
"S" in ABC of Aradia: Sorghum
Aradia Goddess home page