The Witches of Roero
By francograsso

Witches are reportedly short, ugly, and certainly hunchbacked: they perform black magic and generally scare off kids and grown-ups. Roero has had its share of them. Micilina of Pocapaglia and Fiorina of Montà are possibly the most popular.

Three or four hundred years ago, historical records are unfortunately vague about this, such a character lived in Pocapaglia, one of Roero’s communities. Michelina, later called Micilina, was born in Barolo, married a man of Pocapaglia and moved there. Records do not tell us if she was already short, ugly and hunchbacked, indicating her husband’s poor taste of women, or if she became one following his frequent beating and daily insults.

Keeping in mind that in those days distances were covered by foot, horseback if you were gentry, that roads were not paved, that the landscape was mostly virgin woodland, and that forests were infested by all sort of strange animals and rustlers and, of course, witches, Barolo, today’s a few miles away, was then a distant foreign country for most Pocapaglini’s.

Micilina, not gifted by beauty, and a foreigner, was ignored and discriminated against by the wary local inhabitants: women would not chat with her, men did not like her looks, and kids were scared shitless. Her strange behaviour may not have helped: she spoke mostly to herself, or maybe she was talking to the devil, used to draw strange symbols on the dirt with her walking stick, not yet the broom she would be flying with later on, was often in the company of black cats, and was lazy.

She was so lazy that one day, not wanting to bother herself with weighting the basket full of cherries she was going to sell at the local market, she bet on it’s weight and lost. This was bad news: she was going to be beaten again by her husband who would have spent the money earned from the sale of the cherry on his favourite booze.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, it really depends on one’s point of view whether it was fortunate or unfortunate, she met a well dressed, possibly educated foreigner, while walking back home. Nobody had seen this man before in Pocapaglia nor had seen him in the neighbourhood, nor in the woods. People would later swear that it was the devil itself, no tail and no horns, dressed for the occasion.

The few who actually witnessed the meeting later told the Inquisition that Micilina, following specific instructions to do so, drew a circle on the dirt, spoke a few unintelligible words, spat on the ground and then savagely treaded on it and, if any additional proof was needed, pronounced her husband’s name three times. As you may have guessed the said husband fell from a cherry tree that same day, broke his neck, and died right there and then.

The good news are that Micilina was not beaten again by her husband. The bad news that she was indicted by the Inquisition, interrogated, found guilty and burned alive.

Her tribulations are commemorated annually in Pocapaglia in August. The tribulation of Fiorina are recounted in Montà, every September of every year.

A witch is a “masca” in the local dialect. A broom, that’s the flying machine the “masca” uses to go from here to there, is a “scopa”.