La Befana, The Christmas Witch
La Befana is the ancient Italian/Sicilian folkloric figure of “the old woman” who preceded St Nicholas or Santa Claus in delivering gifts to children throughout Italy and Sicily on Epiphany Eve (January 5).
Concerning Befana’s relation to “Epiphany” (“manifestation of the divinity;” Epifania is a Latin word with Greek origins), the popular belief is that her name derives from the Italian La Festa dell'Epifania (Feast of Epiphany, January 6).
In popular Italian/Sicilian folklore, Befana visits all the children on the eve of the Feast of the Epiphany to fill their stockings with candy and presents if they are good, or a lump of coal or dark candy if they are bad. She is popularly known as a wise and magical woman who arrives flying on a broom or sometimes even on a donkey, bringing gifts to the children, leaving figs, dates, nuts, and candy on the eve of the Epiphany. Some believe that her principal function is that of reaffirming the bond between family and the ancestors through the exchange of gifts. In some regions, her appearance is associated to ancestor worship and divination.
Christian legend has it (at least one version of it) that La Befana was approached by the Three Wise Men a few days before the birth of the Infant Jesus, asking for directions to where the Son of God was. She did not know, but she provided them with shelter for a night. She declined the Magi’s invitation to join them on the journey to find the baby Jesus, but she later had a change of heart and tried to search out the astrologers and Jesus. That night she was not able to find them, so to this day it is believed she is searching for the little baby as she visits all the children on the eve of the Feast of Epiphany.
However, it should be noted that the origin of the name “Befana” is not at all clear. Many folklorists believe that the name Befana is derived from the Italian’s mispronunciation of the Greek word epifania or epiphaneia (Greek, εĻιφάνεια = appearance, surface; in English: “epiphany”). Others point to the name being a derivative of Bastrina, “the gifts associated with the goddess Strina.”
This second derivation for Befana is very interesting—and intriguing for those (like the Gypsy Scholar) who are into (a) the lore of the “sacred feminine,” (b) the revival of the ancient pagan (i.e., pre-Christian) goddesses, and (c) the rediscovery of the ancient pagan festivals, which were overlaid by Christian festivals, such as Winter Solstice by Christmas. (The Gypsy Scholar has regularly presented radio programs dedicated to going back to the origins of these Christianized pagan festivals, including the earliest: Christmas as a northern-shamanic amanita muscaria mushroom festival!)
This goddess Strina is more properly Strenia (or Strenua), the Sabine/Roman goddess of the New Year, purification, and wellbeing. It is this goddess who some authorities suggest Befana is descended from. For instance, Mary E. Rogers, writing back in the 19th century (Domestic Life in Palestine), stated that she believed the custom of exchanging gifts at Christmas
“is a relic of pagan worship, and that the word ‘Bastrina’ refers to the offerings which used to be made to the goddess Strenia. We could hardly expect that the pagans who embraced Christianity could altogether abandon their former creeds and customs. Macaulay says, ‘Christianity conquered paganism, but paganism infected Christianity; the rites of the Pantheon passed into her worship, and the subtilties of the Academy into her creed. Many pagan customs were adopted by the new Church.’ T. Hope, in his ‘Essay on Architecture,’ says: ‘The Saturnalia were continued in the Carnival, and the festival with offerings to the goddess Strenia was continued in that of the New Year…’”
Another 19th-century author, Rev. John J. Blunt (Vestiges of Ancient Manners and Customs, Discoverable in Modern Italy and Sicily), states:
“This Befana appears to be heir at law of a certain heathen goddess called Strenia, who presided over the new-year's gifts, ‘Strenae,’ from which, indeed, she derived her name. Her presents were of the same description as those of the Befana—figs, dates, and honey. Moreover her solemnities were vigorously opposed by the early Christians on account of their noisy, riotous, and licentious character.”
These authors subscribe to the theory that connects the tradition of exchanging gifts on Christmas to an ancient Roman festivity in honor of the god Janus (god of January) and the goddess Strenia (in Italian, a Christmas gift used to be called strenna), celebrated at the beginning of the year when Romans used to give each other presents. This goddess’s traditional festival in Italy was January 1, at which time kindling from Strenua’s sacred grove at the top of the Via Sacra was carried in a procession to the Roman citadel. Thus, it looks like the Italian/Sicilian tradition of La Befana incorporates “other pre-Christian popular elements as well, adapted to Christian culture and related to the celebration of the New Year.” In this role, La Befana is a goddess of the winter holiday season. Again, La Befana’s night is celebrated on Jan. 5, the evening before the Epiphany, which is also called “Twelfth Night” or “Magic Night.”
There is also an Italian-Celtic connection here. Among contemporary authors, the eminent historian and folklorist Carlo Ginzburg relates La Befana to Nicevenn, a Queen of the Fairies in Scottish folklore (whose name is from a Scottish Gaelic surname, Neachneohain meaning “daughter(s) of the divine” and/or “daughter(s) of Scathach,” the archetypal warrior woman). In the context of the Celtic New Year (Samhain, Oct. 31), this has to do with the “old lady” (“the divine hag,” “crone,” or “Cailleach” of Irish mythology, who is also part of the Celtic triple-goddess “maiden-mother-crone” sequence), who represents the old year just passed, ready to be burned in order to give place to the new one. It is believed that her cultus was introduced by Titus Tatius, who ruled as co-chieftan with Romulus. King Tatius was the first to reckon the holy branches (verbenae) of a fertile tree (arbor felix) in Strenia’s grove as the auspicious signs of the New Year. It is said that Strenia is associated with New Year’s Day, when she presides over words of encouragement, as well as gifts of good scented omens in the form of branches of Verbena.
In many of the legendary stories, Befana’s arrival marks a seasonal finale of sorts, and she uses her iconic broom to sweep away the old to make space for the new. This tradition still goes on in many European countries, which consists of burning a puppet of an old lady at the beginning of the New Year, called “Giubiana” in Northern Italy. This has clear Celtic origins. Here, Befana is also related to the mysterious rites of the Celtic peoples once inhabiting the whole Pianura Padana and part of the Alps, when wicker puppets were set on fire in honor of ancient gods. The witch, or the woman magician (i.e., the priestess of the ancient Celtic culture who knew the secrets of nature), took the form of the Befana, “the old woman.”
To my mind, what is especially intriguing about the character of “La Befana” is not only her association to the ancient goddess Strenia and the New Year, but also her association with the vibrant Italian/Sicilian tradition of Witchcraft (Stregheria).
La Befana is also referred to as the “Christmas Witch.” According to legend, she spends her days cleaning and sweeping. She is often smiling and carries a bag or hamper filled with candy, gifts, or both. In pictorial representations she sometimes carries a broomstick. Popular tradition tells that if one sees La Befana one will receive a thump from her broomstick, as she doesn’t wish to be seen. However, her broomstick has other (i.e., magical) functions. She is usually portrayed as a hag riding a broomstick through the air, wearing a black shawl and covered in soot because she enters the children's houses through the chimney. (Is La Befana, like Santa Claus, a modern survival of the northern shaman, who comes back down the yurt hearth or pole—the axis mundi—bearing gifts from his journey to the spirit world?) In the most common modern tellings of the Italian tale, La Befana’s famous midnight ride is done on a broomstick (another instance of the winter season’s witchy “wild hunt”), which is an iconic element of both the witch and of the homestead. Over centuries of storytelling, the broomstick has become one of the common cultural signifiers for both the old woman and the witch. (By the 15th century, the concept of a “witch” as a crone who flies on a broom was already well established in popular European folklore, as demonstrated by art and literature.)
Judika Illes, a best-selling author on witchcraft and other occult subjects, has written: “Befana may predate Christianity and may originally be a goddess of ancestral sprits, forest, and the passage of time. Some identify this wandering, nocturnal crone with Hekate.” Again, some scholars believe that “Strenua” is the original goddess known as Befana today, that the Befana tradition is derived by the later Strenua witch-cult (which is very popular in Sicily).
Therefore, two important observations can be considered in relation to the folklore of La Befana: (1) She is part of the European witchcraft tradition (so wonderfully brought out for modern scholarship by Carlo Ginzburg, who sees the entire witchcraft phenomenon as of the nature of “ecstasy”). (2) Her origins go back all the way to the time of the pre-patriarchal, Neolithic “Goddess cultures” (as well documented by Marija Gimbutas and Raine Eisler). Thus (in keeping with the work of Gimbutas and Eisler), the Italian anthropologists Claudia and Luigi Manciocco (in their book, A House Without Doors) trace Befana’s origins back to Neolithic beliefs and practices and see her as a figure that evolved into a goddess associated with fertility and agriculture. La Befana has also been linked specifically to the traditions related to the Italian agricultural cycle. Thus, another theory on La Befana’s ancient origins has the Romans believing that on the Twelfth Night after Natali Sol Invictus (the Roman festival of “Birthday of the Unconquered Sun,” celebrated on the near-solstice date of 25 December) a woman flew over the cultivated fields to give fertility for the future harvest. (It should be noted that the Catholic Church forbade rural rituals of this sort because they smacked of “paganism.” This is why Blunt observed that Befana’s “solemnities were vigorously opposed by the early Christians on account of their noisy, riotous, and licentious character.” And here, under “noisy, riotous, licentious character,” we can include another Roman winter festival that the Church repressed and replaced with their liturgical Christmas observance—the Saturnalia, on the Julian calendar from Dec. 17th to the 23rd. And, as Rogers has observed, “The Saturnalia were continued in the Carnival.” This connects with the GS’s investigations of the relationship between the ancient Celtic Beltane and Samhain celebrations of social reversal—“turning the world upside down”—and the later, pre-modern Carnival or “carnivalesque,” which manifested as both a social and a political phenomenon.)
Given this, it is not too much to assume that what we have in the Italian/Sicilian folkloric figure of La Befana is a survival from the Great Goddess era. These pagan goddesses were, with the victory of the patriarchy, either repressed, demoted to minor deities, or turned into demonic forces. However, to the Gypsy Scholar and to neo-pagans, the folkloric figure of La Befana magically turns the winter season into The Season of the Witch!
“La Befana vien di notte
Con le scarpe tutte rotte
Col vestito alla romana
Viva, Viva La Befana!”
(A traditional Italian song)