The Annual Invasion of the Italian Sea Witches

(Image credit: Giandomenico Ricci)

We looked at the Italian witch Befana not long ago, but she is not the only witch that haunts Italy around Christmastime! On the evening of January 5th, the night before Epiphany, a very specific species of witch invades the town of Grado, Italy. Grado is on an island in the Adriatic Sea, and many of their traditions are based on marine history and legends. This is the night to witness the arrival of the Varvuoles.

(Image credit: Giandomenico Ricci)

A Varvuole is a sea witch, with a face bleached zombie white by seawater, wearing fish nets for shawls. The army of Varvuoles arrive slowly by boat, converging on Grado to cause mischief and scare little children. They are greeted by the women of Grado, who battle the witches with traditional weapons- garlic, holy water, and crosses (I said they were a very specific species of witch). The yearly event in Grado also includes a stage show with dancing and a final battle in which the Varvuoles are finally defeated and sent back to the sea.

The origins of this tradition are a blend of pagan practices, scary tales for children, and the real history of pirates that menaced Grado. Read up on the origin and the pageantry of Varvuoles at Atlas Obscura.

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