Feronia Buona Vecchiarella

It is said that in the days in which spirits roamed the earth more often than they do now, a wandering beggar woman, wrapped against the November chill, came to a small village at midday.

As the marketplace was empty, she knocked on the first door and said, "Give me hospitality."

The master of the house told her, "Here is nothing for you," shutting the door in her face.

At the second house, she received the same answer, and the next. A servant muttered from behind the closed door, "Another beggar." No one on the main street would take her in, nor give her one small coin, nor fruit, nor even a crust of bread.

At last, she came to a cottage that had fallen into a wretched aspect, located on the outskirts of town.

When she knocked on the door, a small voice responded, "Who is there?"

"Some have called me Feronia," the little old woman responded.

A thin youth, dressed in little more than rags, opened the door.

The beggar woman said, "Everyone else turned me away without so much as asking me my name."

The thin lad responded, "Come in, buona Vecchiarella."

"Where is your family?"

The boy answered, "My uncle died, not long ago." He rubbed his eyes. "I had no one else."

"Have you no fire?" asked Feronia.

"No fire have I," answered the lad.

"Have you nothing to eat?"

The boy brightened and said, "I have part of a loaf of polenta, and it is at your service--as my uncle would say." He set the loaf of coarse bread on the table. "But the milk of the old nanny goat out back has gone dry."

"Bring some wine, then."

"Wine, I have none."

"Is there none in the cellar?"

"In my uncle's cellar, there are dozens of empty, cracked old wine jars, but no wine."

"Look again," said the old woman.

The boy went downstairs to the cellar and oddly, instead of empty broken jars, the boy found all the jars upright and whole. He picked up one and it was heavy with wine.

When he came back, the hearth had a fire blazing with a great heap of wood next to it.

"Lad, you are as thin as a shadow," said the little old woman. "Bring me your old goat. I'll cook it to eat."

The boy brought her the goat, which she butchered, cleaned, and prepared in pieces over red-hot coals. When the meat was cooked and ready, they both sat down to table.

The little old woman set a bowl between them and said, "Put all the bones in this bowl and do not leave out one."

The boy did so, for he thought that the woman might make a soup with them later.

While they ate, he talked about his uncle. He talked about the people of the village, who were hard hearted and miserly, but sometimes kind. He explained the bread was a gift from a girl. The Vecchiarella asked, "The senor is not hospitable there?"

The lad said how much his uncle had loved to share a glass of wine and meal, and a story or two with travelers. He talked of how things had been hard since his uncle had become ill. He talked so much, because the little old woman said almost nothing, but ate silently. When she spoke again, she said, "Your uncle has taught you the duty of hospitality."

When she finished eating, the little old woman tied the bones in the skin of the goat and shook it three times. Then, she unbundled the hide and flung both hide and bones out the window.

"Take one and return a hundred fold," she said. Then the old woman yawned and murmured, "How weary I am," and suddenly laid down to sleep.

As she snored, the boy banked the fire and cleaned up from the feast. Indeed, it had been quite a feast for him, as he could not remember having eaten so well in a long time. He cleaned quietly so as not to disturb the little, old woman, Feronia, as she slept.

Outside, he heard a bleating.

When the boy glanced out the window, he saw a young nanny goat with her utter full of milk, followed by her kid just below the window.

Very surprised, he went outside and behold! There was a herd of a hundred goats. The boy gathered the animals and put them away for the night. The old woman was still sleeping deeply when he came back inside, so he wrapped himself in a blanket and slept on the floor.

Early before dawn, the old woman arose and woke the boy. She said, "I must go now, but follow me from behind for a little way."

The lad indeed followed her, just as she had bid him. A gentle rain fell. When they reached the main street, he felt the ground beneath his feet tremble.

As the Vecchiarella walked along, the houses of that inhospitable village fell down, one after the other. People shouted and ran from the houses. Small fires broke out. Only the small cottage of the youth at the end of the village was untouched.

The old woman yelled at the people when the trembling stopped. "Your inhospitability and lack of benevolence has cost you much. Only this one understands the duty of hospitality. He spoke well of you, therefore some of you live."

The old woman turned to the boy and said, "Return to your home. You will find something else there."

In this way, the people knew Feronia Vecchiarella must be a strega-folletta and that she is kind to those who are liberal with her. Yet, those that give her nothing will suffer for it. It was later said that if any had wronged her, they should seek her pardon at a ruins that was her tomb.

The rain extinguished the fires. The lad said, "Don't weep. Your houses can be fixed. I will share with my friends all that I have."

Upon returning home, he found a few old, gold coins, on the spot where the little old woman had slept.

copyright 2007 Myth Woodling

Myth's Notes

Feronia was a Roman Goddess of the woods. She was honored by the Sabins and Etruscans. She had care of trees. Her temple stood in a grove, and slaves were set free at her shrine.

Leland, in Etruscan Roman Remains, 1892, stated Feronia survived in Tuscan 19th century folklore as a "strega-folletta"--literally a "witch-faery" or "witch-spirit" who appears as an old woman. Strega = witch. Folletti = many faeries or spirits. Folletto = a single male faery. Folletta = a single female faery.

According to the folklore collected by Leland, this Goddess has become a wandering witch, who demands shelter, food, or alms, punishing those who do not follow the Italian rules of generosity and hospitality. "All who gave her alms were very fortunate and their affairs prospered." (p. 55)

Cautionary tales urging hospitality to strangers and to those less fortunate were a frequent motif in Italian folklore. I once read an Italian miracle tale in which Jesus Christ flattened a town, killing everyone in their homes who had refused him lodging and hospitality. The only survivor, a beggar who provided hospitality, was rewarded in much the same manner as the lad had been in the above story. After eating the old goat, the Lord Jesus Christ replied, "I give you a hundred for one." This statement is very like the Italian faeries, known as the bonae res who returned whatever they took from a household a hundred times.

In 1249, William of Alverina, Bishop of Paris, discussed beliefs in night rides by the followers of "Domina Abundia," who brings abundance and good luck to the homes she visits if there is plenty to eat, but whose followers abandon and scorn houses where they receive no hospitality (Bonomo, 1959:22). Vincent of Beauvais (1190-1264) reports an instance of ostension involving this legend: a group of young men forced their way into the home of a rich farmer, helping themselves to whatever was lying around while dancing and singing "unem premes, cent en rendes" ("we take one, return a hundredfold"). The thieves ransacked the place while the credulous farmer told his wife to keep quiet, for the visitors were bonae res and would increase their riches a hundredfold (Bonomo, 1959:25-26). --Sabina Magliocco, Who Was Aradia? The History and Development of a Legend ,The Pomegranate: The Journal of Pagan Studies, Issue 18, Feb. 2002.

A "Vecchiarella", incidentally, is an affectionate or polite term for a "little old woman."

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