The cult of witchcraft has a long history in Italy, the signs are all around us, if we know where to look. The first in a series of four articles about witchcraft in Italy.
If there was ever a place where nothing is as it seems, where tradition and superstition overlap with history and religion, where piety and respectability rub shoulders with profanity and corruption it is Italy. The country that now hosts the seat of Catholicism, the Vatican, is also the territory from which the cult of Witchcraft originated and still preserves a clandestine presence.
The modern notion of Italy is of an ordered state, a country of immovable institutions and fixed traditions, but we would be mistaken, there are always two sides to the coin in Italy. For governance and institutions of power there is the subversive political element, for justice and the courts there exists the Mafia, for the institutions of organised religion, there is the folkloric traditions of a pagan past.
One of the most important texts on witchcraft was by an American-Italian journalist Charles Godfrey Leland who travelled throughout Italy recording folkloric and linguistic traditions. 'The Aradia: Gospel of the Witches', was published in 1899 and has since become the principle text or 'scripture' of the modern witchcraft cult of Wicca or of the American sect of Stregheria.
Leland gleaned most of his information from a young Florentine woman known as 'Maddalena' who worked in the parlours of Florence in the 1890's as a fortune-teller. She claimed to be from a long line of witches and sorcerers and she became Leland's primary source for all his writings on witchcraft, eventually producing the 'Vangelo' manuscrpt which eventually translated as 'The Aradia'.
Useful as a modern reference point for Italian witchcraft but the traditions and practices, especially of spell casting and incantation had been long held in Italy and Leland argued that they were an amalgamation of traditions and superstitions that had existed since ancient times and morphed throughout history. Describes the roots of 'Stregheria' [Italian witchcraft] as a syncretic offshoot of Etruscan religion and later blended with Etruscan peasnat religion, medieval Christian heresy and veneration of saints.
The Witch's Sabbat, 17th Century woodcut
According to Leland's texts the tradition of the Strega, was based on the worship of the pagan moon goddess Diana, as opposed to the god of 'the cities' and civilisation where the Sun gods where worshiped. Followers would meet on nights of the full moon and dance around naked and partake in sexual orgies that would ensure fertility of the land and ensure a safe harvest. Leland wrote: " The witches even now form a fragmentary secret society or sect that they call it that of the Old Religion and that there are in the Romagna entire villages in which the people are completely heathen."
Witches burning at the stake
Leland's witches fit comfortably with the European stereotype of the female witch that had survived since the time of the Roman inquisition in the latter half of the 16th century. A sort of religious purge of all perceived enemies of the Catholic church where the holding of conflicting ideologies was tried and punished as a criminal act. Somewhere between 51,000 and 75,000 trials were conducted on behalf of the Inquisition resulting in some 1,250 death sentences. Witches were burnt at the stake in this time.
By Hugo Mc Cafferty