Stir a tiny pinch of truth, popular tradition, a significant amount of fantasy and there you have it- myths and legends. The legends of any culture or country are always fascinating, and those of Italy are no different. Hidden between the folds of villages, mountains, rivers and seemingly normal streets of Italy are endless legends that the natives staunchly believe in. For them, they are explanations for unusual events, illnesses or any phenomena that cannot be explained otherwise.
Long before werewolves became a fascination in modern culture, the Italians had stories about them floating around. In old texts, they were described as either wolves who behaved like humans or humans who could change their skin. The Italians themselves weren’t sure if the creature was originally a human or an animal. In Italy, these werewolves were called Lupo Mannaro. In ancient times, they were believed to live among humans and transform into a fearsome creature during nights of the full moon.
The Italians believed that the night of December 25th was a prime night for werewolves. According to many, these men were cursed by the church to roam around the earth in their animal form. According to one legend, a priest was attacked by a werewolf in Ragusa. The terrified priest resorted to stabbing the animal with his wooden crucifix. Bleeding, the werewolf transformed back into a human who proceeded to thank the priest for breaking a curse that had been cast upon him as a child. According to the curse, the man transformed into a werewolf on the night of every full moon until dawn, until the priest broke the curse. In Sicily, the natives believe that Lupo Mannaro cannot climb up more than three steps, so finding a long flight of stairs to run up to and escape would save one’s life.
Just as the legends of the Lupo Mannaro varied, there were also various methods that were believed to cure a man afflicted with the curse. One of the methods states that whenever a human was on the verge of transforming into a werewolf, he had to be restrained in a cold bath. According to another, throwing metal keys at him would stop the transformation. Other extreme methods include shooting the werewolf with silver bullets or a crossbow with silver-tipped arrows.
Meet Lariosauro, Italy’s own Loch Ness monster. According to Italian folklore, Lariosauro lives in Lake Como, which lies thirty miles to the north of Milan and is one of the deepest European lakes. In November 1946, two hunters claimed that they saw a huge animal resembling a reptile swimming in the lake. It had red scales and was about twelve metres in length. Upon firing with their rifles, Italy’s Nessie disappeared into the centre of the lake with a hissing sound. The creature was named after Lariosaurus balsami, a prehistoric reptile whose fossilized remains were discovered in the lake in 1830.
More sightings followed at the lake. In 1954, a creature with a round muzzle and webbed paws was spotted by a father and his son. Then, in August 1957, another monster was allegedly seen by natives. A month later in the same year, an animal was spotted in the lake, this time whose head resembled that of a crocodile. The last sighting was in 2003 and it looked more like a giant eel. Giorgio Castiglioni, a sceptical researcher, attributes the sightings to more rational explanations- in 1954, Nessie was an otter, in 1957, just a hoax, and in 2003, just a group of innocent fish swimming together.
One of the oldest and most celebrated legends of Italy, Befana is Italy’s own Santa Claus lady. At least, that’s what some of the Italians believe. Some say that she is a good witch and for others she is a spinster. The church wasn’t too happy with the myth, so they fabricated their own version of it- they claimed that she is a spawn of the devil. Befana appears during the night of January 6th and leaves presents for children who have been well. As for those who have been naughty, they receive nothing but a piece of charcoal. For Italians, the day is a significant day as it marks the end of Christmas season. Befana is described as an old woman or hag who rides a broomstick through the air, wrapped in a black shawl and as she enters each home through the chimney, she is typically covered in soot. A bag carrying gifts and candy for the children would be flung over her shoulder.
So how did this legend come to be in Italy? According to legend, the three Wise Men were searching for the Christ child when they decided to ask for directions at a small house. Their knocking at the door led to an old woman holding a broom to open the door. For the woman, there were three colourfully dressed men on her doorstep asking for directions to the Christ child. The woman had no idea what the men were talking about and could not help them with their task. Before the men left, they kindly asked the woman to assist them on their journey, only for her to decline the offer, stating that she had a lot of household chores to do. As it often happens, after they left, the woman felt she had made a mistake and set off in search of the men. Hours of searching turned up nothing and instead, the woman stopped every child she met on the street and handed out treats to them, hoping that one of them was the Christ Child. And every year, on the eve of Epiphany, Befana sets out searching for the Christ child and leaves goodies for the good children and lumps of coal for the naughty ones.
Floating around Northern Italy is the story of Dahu, the legendary goat whose legs measure different lengths. Legend states that the Dahu is an animal similar to the mountain goat, but with legs of different lengths so that it can walk properly on the uneven mountain terrain. Much like its different legs, there are different legends too. According to one, the natives call it the laevogyrous dahu or the female dahu (having shorter legs on the left side and walks around the slope in a counter clockwise direction), while another one is the male goat or the dextrogyre dahu (has shorter legs on the right side and walks in clockwise direction). The varying legs and directions of both the goats enable them to find their mates. Moreover, the male dahu’s testicles drag along the ground and leave a trailing scent so that the female dahu finds it easily. The males make use of the scent to find other males, leading to a fight to assert dominance.
The myth of dahu started out as more of a prank. Pranksters claim that to catch a dahu, two people have to be involved- one who waits at the foot of the mountain with a bag and the other who has to be good at mimicking dahu sounds. Standing behind the goat and mimicking its sound leads to the animal being startled, losing its balance and rolling down the hill, straight into the bag held by the other person. Another method to catch the dahu is to ground pepper in the area the animal grazes. It sniffs the pepper, sneezes and hits itself against a stone and loses consciousness. Unsurprisingly enough, no one has yet caught a dahu.
In Italy, the evil eye is called the Malocchio. The belief in Malocchio prevents the Italian people from sharing any good news with others whose envy or jealousy can bring you bad luck. Neither do they share important events like exams or interviews in fear of someone casting the nasty evil eye on them. The Italians believe that one way of keeping away such bad luck is to wear red, even just red underwear! Other ways include wearing the Italian Horn or the Cornuto and the Hand Horn or the Mano Carnuto. The Cornuto is a pendant in the shape of a chili pepper worn on a necklace. The pendant can either be in coral or gold and is believed to be sacred to the Moon Goddess. The Mano Corunto is to form one’s hand into a fist with the index and pinky finger extended outwards, thus making them look like horns. Another way of warding off evil is to touch something made of iron. You can see the horn amulets hanging from cars, windows or doors of shops and homes in Italy.
The Italians believe that bragging about a good thing can even cause the Immortal Gods to become jealous of their joy, thus inviting their destruction upon them. When a baby is born, many Italians refrain from saying that the child is beautiful in fear of inviting the Malocchio.
The Badalisc, also known as Badalisk, is a legendary creature of Val Camonica of Italy. It is described as a creature with a huge head covered with the skin of a goat, a huge mouth, glowing eyes and two small horns. Italians believe that the Badalisc lives in the woods surrounding the Andrista village and troubles the villagers. So each year, the villagers capture it during Epiphany and lead it into the village. The group consists of musicians and masked characters, like il giovane or the young man, il vecchio or the old man, la vecchia or the old woman, and the bait used to capture the animal, the young signorina. Then there are old witches beating on drums, a hunchback or un torvo gobetto who fights a duel with the animal and bearded shepherds. Once the group arrives at the village square, Badalisc’s speech is read. The speech comprises the creature gossiping about the village- the sins and schemes of the villagers. The Badalisc is said to be dumb, so an interpreter reads the speech. After the speech comes singing, dancing, general merry-making and feasting. Towards the end of the day, the participants eat the Badalisc polenta (a traditional food.) The Badalisc always has a place of honor during the feasts. The next day, after an exhibition, the creature is set free and allowed to return to the woods until the next Epiphany.
Traditionally, only men take part in the procession. During ancient times, women were forbidden from participating in exhibitions or even watching or listening to the Badalisc’s speech.
Thyrus the Dragon
One of the most popular legends of Italy is that of Thyrus the Dragon, who besieged Terni during the Middle Ages. Thyrus was a winged water dragon or snake which lived in the marshes near Terni. The residents or anyone who passed through the area fell ill and died due to Thyrus’s evil breath. The people lived in fear of the dragon until the Board of the Elderly decided to step in. They decide to find a solution and save Terni and its villagers. They summoned the bravest men of the land to the Town Hall to fight and slay Thyrus, but none were willing to take the risk. Only one man of the noble House of Cittadini stepped forward and he, armed as a knight, set out on his mission. A fierce fight with Thyrus spelled its doom. Having received the news that they were now safe and sound from the dragon, the villagers themselves went to see the site of the fight. The celebration lasted for many days. The brave man was hailed a hero and rewarded with the land that Thyrus had terrorized. To commemorate the day, the Board of the Elderly placed Thyrus in the town’s coat of arms along with an inscription in Latin: ‘Thyrus et amnis dederunt signa Teramnis’, meaning, ‘Thyrus and the river gave their insignia to Terni’.
Legends often stand as metaphors for real events or facts and the legend of Thyrus could be one. The deaths caused by the dragon could stand for the countless number of natives who perished due to malaria, which was once rampant in Terni’s marshy areas. The hero who slayed Thyrus represents the bonification of the land to fight such epidemics.
Seven-headed dragon of Cerenzia
Among the many villages of the southernmost peninsular of Italy that house legends and myths, the ancient village of Cerenzia is one. The village had around seven thousand residents, a bishopric (whose remains are still present) and nine churches. Cerenzia is connected to a sixteenth century legend that till date, holds significance to the residents.
On November 9th, 1528, the natives of Cerenzia were standing in line at the village fountain for their daily water ration. Out of nowhere, a dragon with seven heads appears, spitting fire. The villagers turned to the bishop for help, who said that the dragon would devour a Christian each day for a year and no ordinary man could defeat it. The only person who could do so was San Teodoro d’Amasea, who could slay any fearsome beast with a single strike of his sword. And so San Teodoro was sought out by the villagers, who agreed to save Cerenzia’s natives. The natives, led by the bishop, enticed the dragon from its resting place, only for San Teodoro to blind it and hence kill it. The villagers, out of gratitude, elected San Teodoro the protector of the country and to this day, November 9th, is a day of celebration for the natives in memory of their hero. In a church dedicated to San Teodoro, a painting depicting San Teodoro with the seven tongues of the dragon on his head hangs to this day.
Why are legends relevant to this day?
Myths and legends are more of a window to an individual’s cultural soul. These ancient tales pose a connection to the origins and sense of identity of a culture. Much like clothing, food, architecture and language, stories link a culture to its past, reflecting a journey that has weathered centuries. Some of the tales also give us an insight into lost cultures and traditions.
We still read myths and legends today as they narrate universal and timeless themes that are relevant, no matter what the age or culture. In ancient myths, knights in armour may have slayed dragons and saved entire villages. Today, the same themes can be seen in modern novels and movies. An ordinary citizen with valour takes it upon himself to fight anything that threatens his town or country. Throughout the narrative, the protagonist has to think deeply and creatively to fight and defeat evil. In the end, good prevails over evil, which is what each of us wants for this world.