By Rachael Funk
Nestled at the foot of the Dolomites, Italy’s idyllic region of South Tyrol is saturated in mysticism and folklore. Due to its distinct shape, the Sciliar massif has become the symbol of the town, as well as the subject of myths and legends itself. Though many creatures and mysterious spirits were whispered to live there, none were better known than the Sciliar Witches. Read on to learn more about this fascinating piece of South Tyrolean history!
The Sciliar-Alpe di Siusi area has a long history of witchcraft
Before Christianity arrived in the region, the Sciliar witches were merely local women who used herbs to cure illness and performed rituals to encourage a good harvest. Then, in medieval times, their reputations changed and they were persecuted for anything that went wrong in town. What once were regarded as harmless ceremonials were suddenly viewed as pacts with the devil and sparked a witch hunting frenzy.
The Sciliar massif was the meeting place for evildoing
Rumors in the town said there were gatherings on the mountain every Thursday so the witches could partake in black magic rituals and dance with the devil. They would arrive either on horseback or by broomstick. Since foul weather tended to brew over the jagged peaks of the Sciliar, thunderstorms and any weather-related damage was blamed on the witches. Coven gatherings were said to happen on the plateau while the oldest witch would sit on a chair-shaped boulder to lead the group and enjoy the stunning landscape.
There was a witch hunting manual
Discredited German clergyman Heinrich Kramer was so laser-focused on catching and killing witches, he was thrown out of Innsbruck by the local bishop for overstepping the boundaries of legality. Undeterred, he created Malleus Maleficarum, which became the bestseller of its time, second only to the Bible for nearly 200 years. In the book, he argued witchcraft was on par with the crime of heresy, which was punishable by burning at the stake.
Kramer’s manual covered information such as what witchcraft was, witches’ powers, how they recruited, and a detailed step-by-step guide on how to conduct a witch trial and how judges might protect themselves from spells. It also discusses at length how to overcome a witch’s “stubborn silence” and the proper use of torture to extract confessions. By the 1530s, the manual was condemned for unethical and illegal procedures, about 20 years after the second trial in South Tyrol.
Trials began in the early 1500s
In 1505, seven women and one man were burned at the stake for being witches. Then, in 1510, suspected witches in the region were accused of causing a drought with their magic and were also burned. More than 60 people were tortured until they confessed to harming people and animals with their witchcraft, causing fires with the help of Satan, eating babies, causing damaging weather, and intentionally spreading a plague. Once someone made a confession, they were promptly jailed or executed. A second trial occurred about 10 years later, skyrocketing the death toll in the area.
You can hike to the Witches’ Benches
A hiking trail called Hexenbanke can be enjoyed by modern-day visitors. This trail will bring you up to the area where the witches were thought to have gathered to engage in their wickedness. You can also take on the Hexenquellen barefoot and adventure trail. Guides encourage those who walk this trail to do so barefoot, in order to better connect with the experience. There are a variety of activity stations along the way, so hikers can smell, taste, and interact with nature. This trail is not marked, so walkers are accompanied by the witch Curandia and the wise owl Emma, who guide guests through the trail.
The legend is still alive in South Tyrol
Though the trials of the witches of the Sciliar are long gone, witches are still part of part of the local culture, along with other fascinating mythology. Grandparents in the area tell their grandkids stories about the salingen, who were beautiful women who turned into flowers, the forest-dwelling elves called salvans, and, of course, the witches who gathered on the mountainside.