Irpinia: The Land of the Wolf

One of the most enduring and beloved symbols of Irpinia is that of the wolf. While the she-wolf who raised Romulus and Remus may be Italy’s most famous wolf, it’s the Irpinian wolves who have protected our land and its people for millennia. The name “Irpinia” derives from the Oscan word “hirpus”, which means wolf, and the wolf remains Irpinia’s symbol to this day.

As a spirit animal, the wolf is a symbol of  guardianship, ritual, loyalty, and spirit. The wolf has the ability to make quick and firm emotional attachments, and often need to trust their own instincts. Many spiritual traditions believe that they teach us to do the same– to trust our hearts and minds, and to have control over our own lives.

A wide variety of stories, legends, and even songs, have been written about wolves– and werewolves– in Irpinia. In many legends, men transform into werewolves around Christmas time. After they return to their original human form, they’re often found wandering naked in wooded areas or vineyards. In fact, in the Avellinese regional language, the word for werewolves is either “pompanari” or “pampanari,” which derives from “pampana,” the dialectal version of “pampanino” or the vine leaf.

Recently, The Wam ran an article containing several of Irpinia’s most famous myths surrounding wolves and werewolves, some of which we’re happy to reproduce here in English!

St. William and the Wolf
Statue of St. William of Vercelli with the wolf he tamed at Montevergine located in St. Peter’s Basilica.

A legend surrounding St. William of Vercelli, the founder of the Sanctuary of Montevergine, states that when he was first in the area surrounding where the sanctuary stands today, he met a wolf. At this point, St. William had dedicated his life to living as a hermit and had heard stories of how this particular wolf terrorized the area, eating chickens and goats. In fact, the wolf even mauled St. William’s donkey to pieces. But St. William prayed to God for strength and was able to tame this wild wolf, making it his pack animal.  There is even a statue of St. William with a wolf at his feet at the entrance to the sanctuary, as well as at St. Peter’s Basilica.

“Lu pumbunaru” in Alta Irpinia
(The Werewolf in Alta Irpinia)

Once there was a husband and wife who lived happily. He was a baker, while she took care of the house. Often, after work, they would go for walks in the meadows, looking at stars, while they dreamed of one day having children. He treated her like gold and gave her everything she wished for. Once a month, he would go out at night and return the next morning.

When he would leave for the night, he would tell her, “Only open the door when I knock three times– not before, and not after.”

The wife always obeyed her husband and never questioned his actions, until his actions became the talk of the town. The wife herself also wondered why her husband would go out without an explanation, but stopped asking him questions because she never got a real answer. Then one night, she got tired of wondering.

As he was about to leave, he said to her as usual, “Only open the door when I knock three times– not before, and not after.”

She promised she would obey.

When she heard the initial knock, she opened the door and screamed. She was greeted by a giant wolf who was standing on two legs who proceeded to rip her to pieces.

The werewolf was this woman’s husband. An ancient curse on his family caused the men to turn into werewolves every time there was a full moon. For this reason, the men of his family became bakers– so they could work at night without being suspected.

When the man came to and was back in human form, he realized he was smeared with his wife’s blood. Distraught, he killed himself.

The “P’mm’nal” of Calitri and Cairano
(THe Werewolves of Calitri and Cairano)

The older townspeople of Calitri and Cairano know what the P’mm’nal are– these are the people born under a Christmas full moon. Seen as offensive to the Lord, these people paid dearly for their unfortunate birth. When there is a full moon, the P’mm’al feel a heat that overtakes their body– this is the first sign that they are turning into werewolves and they rush to avoid contact with others.

The howls of the P’mm’nal are said to be so frightening that those who hear them feel the blood freeze in their veins.

To escape the P’mm’nal, you have to climb up to a balcony that is located at the end of three steps or take refuge in a church after having climbed a ladder to get into it. The P’mm’nal (Pumminale) are also mentioned in a song by the same name, written by Vincio Capossela, an Italian singer-songwriter of Irpinian origin.

Nella notte di luna mastro Giuseppe è uscito di casa la luna gli ha mandato il richiamo del Pumminale ha lasciato la moglie e la figlia
e ogni cosa che porta a ragione
ha lasciato il dovere da fare
le ha lasciate al richiamo dell’Ade
se ne è andato nelle malestrade
English translation:
On the moonlit night Giuseppe left the house the moon sent him the call of the Pumminale he left his wife and daughter
and everything that leads to reason
he left the duty to do
he left them at the call of Hades
went away in the bad ways

You can listen to the song here:

What happens if you meet a werewolf? Many Irpinian legends state that you just need to climb a set of stairs with more than three steps, or just pierce their skin with iron or silver nails that come from a cross. You can even try to scare them with fire!

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