The legend of the Befana has had an important role in the imagination of all children of the world. Those who wish to relive the magic of the first wonders of infancy and understand the meaning and origins of this extraordinary figure, should be prepared to undertake a long voyage that will carry them back in time, to the origins of human's history. We'll discover what makes this personage so mysterious and arcane, because this little old lady so dear to children has continued to fascinate them for centuries, and they still await her arrival on the night of her holiday.
It's possible to demonstrate historically through archeological and anthropological statistics how archaic traces of civilization were conserved in the traditions of the Mediterranean world and survive through the form of images and symbols regarding mythic figures, such as that of the Befana. Some images connected to the figure of the Befana are revealed in an archaic agricultural context when the homes became stable and the cult of domestic folklore was established. In Neolithic culture, the houses of villages in Anatolia (Catal Huyuk) and other places had neither windows nor doors; the only entrance was through the wide, horizontal roof. The house was entered by a ladder which was then withdrawn in a defensive action. The Befana arrived in the homes through the chimney, an act that in the myths throughout the world is attributed to mythic figures as, for example, the spirits of the Montagnais Indians in North America, and above all the Nitu Natmate, ancestral spirits of the Papua-Melanesians, as well as other figures who bring gifts during the Christmas holidays.
Once the link between the figure of the Befana and the ancestral spirits is established, the Befana presents herself during the big holiday as a mythical ancestress who returns yearly. Her principal function is that of reaffirming the bond between the family and the ancestors through an exchange of gifts. The children receive gifts symbolizing archaic civilizations where they were considered the representatives of the ancestors to whom the offerings were destined. Sometimes the Befana receives offers of food. In the popular dramatization in Tuscany, Italy (and elsewhere), the Befana is a masked figure who guides the cortege of postulants and receives offers from families who, in kind, receive from her the gift of prosperity.
The Befana rewards or punishes, and has an important role in the child's development. This Big Grandmother presided over the various phases of the life of the child, and of initiation rites which took place during the festivities of the New Year.
Regarding the stocking hung up on the chimney, she is not only the container of gifts or of offerings of food but is herself a gift. The stockings may also have evocative functions.
In the mythical tradition, the Befana arrives flying on a broom, or even on a donkey. This testifies to her association with plants and animals which in antiquity had sacred values as representatives of totem-line ancestors, as well as divinities. In mythology, the branch is home to the spirit of the ancestors, which is why it has assumed the magical function of flight. These actions were conceived as a voyage, a flight from a far-away kingdom.
Besides the link with the cult of the hearth, the Befana personifies a close link to fire itself, whether astral (brought from the stars, appearing as a meteor) or earthly (for example on the eve of the Befana holiday, bonfires are lit to burn her figure). This action is meant to re-accompany the spirit of the ancestors to the kingdom beyond the tomb through the symbolism of the ascending fire.
The Epiphany holiday includes purifying rites, and benedictions with water. The water prepared on the eve of Epiphany has a sacred and warding-off-evil-spirits value and is used in critical moments of family life.
The figure of the Kings (Magi), in the historical tradition, were priests of the sacred fire. They were a privileged caste who, in the Zoroastrian Persia, waited until the fire expired. The Magi symbolized the three worlds: earthy gold, celestial incense, and myrrh from beyond the grave. These three substances can be linked to each of the three sacred fires of Vedica, India, and Avestica, Persia. Therefore, it is possible, through fire and gifts, to establish a connection between the Magi and the figure of the Befana in the expectation of the holiday of January 6.