Raven Grimassi
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Articles

A JOURNEY AROUND THE FIGURE OF THE BEFANA

by Claudia and Luigi Manciocco

 

 

This book [House Without A Door] is dedicated to the legend of the Befana, who has had an important role in the imagination of children. It is not, however, a book for children even if the child's world, the magic sphere, the mysteries  and games of childhood, the fables and fantasy are recurring themes. Those who wish to relive with us the magic of the first wonders of infancy, and understand the meaning and origins of this extraordinary figure should be prepared to undertake a long voyage that will carry us back in time, to the origins of man’s history. We'll discover what makes this personage so mysterious and arcane, because this little old lady so dear to children has continued to fascinate them for centuries, and they still await her arrival on the night of her holiday.

 It's possible to demonstrate historically through archeological and anthropological statistics how archaic traces of civilization were conserved in the traditions of the Mediterranean world and survive through the form of images and symbols regarding mythic figures, such as that of the Befana. Some images connected to the figure of the Befana are revealed in an archaic agricultural context when the homes became stable and the cult of domestic folklore was established.

 

Befana sitting amidst the harvest - by Bartolomeo Pinelli, 1825

 

In Neolithic culture the houses of villages in Anatolia (Catal Huyuk) and other places had neither windows nor doors; the only entrance was through the wide, horizontal roof. The house was entered by a ladder, which was then withdrawn in a defensive action. The Befana arrived in the homes through the chimney, an act that in the myths throughout the world is attributed to mythic figures, as for example, the spirits of the Montagnais Indians in North America, and above all the Nitu Natmate, ancestral spirits of the Papua‑melanesiani, as well as other figures who bring gifts during the Christmas holidays.

Once the link between the figure of the Befana and the ancestral spirits is established the Befana presents herself during the big holiday as a mythical ancestress who returns yearly. Her principal function is that of reaffirming the bond between the family and the ancestors through an exchange of gifts. The children receive gifts symbolizing archaic civilizations where they were considered the representatives of the ancestors, to whom the offerings were destined, as shown by Levy‑Bruhl in the structure of the new years' eve festivities in Bering (see page 204, A House Without a Door). Sometimes the Befana receives offers of food. In the popular dramatization in Tuscany and elsewhere the Befana is a masked figure who guides the cortege of postulants and receives offers from families who, in kind, receive from her the gift of prosperity.

 

Befana dispensing gifts suspended from a fennel stalk - by Bartolomeo Pinelli, 1825

 

The Befana occupies a pedagogical function of an outside educator who rewards or punishes, and has an important role in the child's development. This Big Grandmother presided over the various phases of the life of the child and of initiation rites, which took place during the festivities of the New Year. (See chapter 4, the Magical Night, with enclosed bibliography).

Regarding the stocking hung up on the chimney, she is not only the container of gifts or of offerings of food but is herself a gift, inasmuch as a manual product dedicated to mythical figures that are patrons of yarns and weaving, close to the Befana, such as Frau Holda and Berchta who visit homes during the Christmas period. The stocking may also have evocative functions. (see A House Without a Door, chapter IV, page 5).

In the mythical tradition the Befana arrives flying on a broom, or even on a donkey. This testifies to her association with plants and animals, which in antiquity had a sacred value as representatives or simulations of totem‑line ancestors, as well as divinities. In mythology the branch is home to the spirit of the ancestor, which is why it has assumed the magical function of flight and could have a role of evocation as well as of distancing from the spirit. These actions were conceived as a voyage, a flight from a far‑away kingdom.

Besides the link with the cult of the hearth the Befana personifies a close link to fire itself, whether astral (brought from the stars, appearing as a meteor) or earthly (for example on the eve of the Befana holiday bonfires are lit to burn her figure). This action is meant not so much as to exorcise a negative entity, as to re-accompany at the end of the big holiday the spirit of the ancestor to the kingdom beyond the tomb through the symbolism of the ascending fire.

This essay provides the possibility of a transversal interpretation, through the elements of fire and water.  The Epiphany holiday includes purifying rites, and benedictions with water. The water prepared on the eve of Epiphany has a sacred and warding‑off‑evil‑spirits value and is used in critical moments of family life. In the Abruzzo it's called "Water of the Bboffe" Fire in particular represents a recurring theme throughout the essay. The third chapter is titled "The Three Fires" and is dedicated to the figure of the Kings of the Magi, who in the historical tradition were priests of the sacred fire, a privileged caste who in the Zoroastriana Persia waited until the fire expired.

Their knowledge of the stars guided them to Baby Jesus, to whom they carried three gifts symbolic of the regality of Christ over the three worlds: earthy gold, celestial incense, and myrrh from beyond the grave. These three substances can be linked to each of the three sacred fires of Vedic India and Avestica Persia. Therefore it is possible through fire and gifts to establish a connection between the Magi and the figure of the Befana in the expectation of the holiday of January 6.

"A House Without a Door" presents this narrative of fantasy, as well as a serious scientific and anthropological journey. Through the analysis of the cult of ancestors and the various rituals connected with this, the essay reveals and focuses on certain fundamental aspects of rather well‑known figures, that are however in certain ways still mysterious, attempting to find an explanation to the evolution of the image and phenomena that have accompanied her through the years.