A caul is a thin membrane of amniotic fluid, which sometimes inexplicably remains covering the head of a newborn child at birth. Since the time of the Romans, to be born with a caul is to be blessed with luck, protection (especially against drowning) and supernatural powers, such as the ability to divine the future and see and converse with ghosts and spirits, even if the individual is deaf.
Traditionally, cauls were carefully preserved and kept as a sort of amulet or talisman; sometimes they were worn about the neck. It was not uncommon for midwives to take cauls and sell them as charms. They once commanded a good price among sailors, who valued them for protection against drowning at sea.
Cauls are said to indicate the health of the owner: if crisp and dry, health is good; if limp and wet, health is bad. Cauls reportedly become flaccid upon their owner’s death. In the lore of parts of the American south, a person dies if his caul is torn.
The nearly universal good luck and magical power ascribed to cauls is contradicted in Greek folklore, which holds that anyone born with a caul will become a vampire. Other terms for caul are “veil,” “silly how” and “hallihoo” (holy or fortunate hood).
Cauls were of vital importance to a pagan agrarian cult of northern Italy called the benandanti, which was still active in the 17th century. The benandanti (which means “good walkers”) were a corps of village men and women who had been born with the caul, and thus could see ghosts and true witches. They wore their cauls about their necks. They were compelled to serve their villages during the Ember Days, the seasonal transitions of the solstices and equinoxes. During the night, they claimed to be summoned by drums or angels to leave their bodies and assume animal shapes, and go out and do battle with an army of witches who also were in animal guise.
The benandanti fought with stalks of fennel, while the witches fought with stalks of sorghum. If the benandanti won, the crops that year would be abundant, but if they lost, the harvest would be poor and the villagers would suffer famine. After the battle, the spirits of both sides would roam the countryside looking for clean water to drink. The benandanti were required to return to their bodies by the dawn crowing of the cock, lest they have difficulty reentering them or be unable to reenter them at all. If that happened, the bodies remained stiff and comalike, and their disembodied spirits would be forced to wander the earth until the destined time of death arrived for their bodies.
The origins of the benandanti cult are not known. The leaving of the body is common to ancient shamanic practices. In 1575, the cult came to the attention of inquisitors of the Catholic Church, which began an investigation to determine whether the cult practiced witchcraft and worshipped the Devil. By then, the cult had absorbed Christian elements. By 1623, the Church had obtained “confessions” of diabolical activities from some benandanti, but authorities never meted out more than mild punishment, due to the increasing skepticism of the verity of so-called witches’ sabbats, which were believed to be wild nights of drinking, dancing, and copulating with devils.
- Ginzburg, Carl. Night Battles, Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. New York: Penguin Books, 1983.