Italy is a country where tradition runs deep, even if on a conscious level the inhabitants adhere to the required modern values, there is always room for superstition.
As recently as 1982 the case of Carole Compton made international headlines around the world. Carole, a twenty-year old Scottish girl moved to Rome to be with her Italian boyfriend and found work with a wealthy family caring for their young son. When a number of fires broke out in their home, one of them destroying the family's holiday home, another in their son's bedroom the family began to have suspicions about Carole and discharged her from service.
Carole found further employment with another family and moved with them to their holiday home on the island of Elba, where, allegedly, quite a lot of paranormal activity took place around the young girl. Typically classed as 'poltergeist' activity, it was the kind that saw objects move across the room, and others mysteriously shatter of their own accord. It was the grandmother of the house who initially accused the girl of being a witch and when a fire broke out in the mattress of the three-year-old child she was supposed to be minding, the grandmother convinced the parents that Carole was responsible and phoned the police.
Carole was arrested and locked up in prison in Livorno as the Italian justice system can detain the accused even without charge. Publicity began to spread to Britain where the papers ran with the headline 'The girl they call a witch' that there was a young British girl, in Italy who was accused of witchcraft. She was never charged with witchcraft but it made the basis of the prosecution's case against her. The publicity proved highly embarrassing for the Italian authorities but it did provide some money for Carole's case. She was eventually brought to trail in 1983 after 16 months in prison and was found not guilty of attempted murder but guilty of two counts of arson.
Father Gabriel Amorth, the Vatican’s expert on exorcism
As recently as January 2004, in Canneto di Caronia, Sicily, a number of spontaneous fires broke out in about 20 houses. Fridges, mobile phones and washing machines burst into flames, even when the electricity supply was cut off to the village. Experts examined the area for a natural electromagnetic disturbance but were at a loss to explain the phenomenon. Locally however, old lore and superstitions were aroused and Father Gabriel Amorth, the Vatican’s expert on exorcism, confirmed that the Catholic Church was considering the possibility of demonic activity in the area.
The only thing these cases prove is the Italian readiness to turn to witchcraft as an explanation for the unexplainable. No one would admit to believing in the presence of witches but when they need to be used as a scapegoat they can be summoned as if by magic. Indeed it is evident that the 'witch hunt' mentality is very much alive and well in Italy. The most recent and most famous case that fits the bill is that of Amanda Knox who served four years of a 26-year sentence for the murder of British student Meredith Kercher. Her conviction was later overturned on appeal but the trial saw many of the old buried prejudices, particularly against overt female sexual power rise to the surface.
Amanda Knox's trial was described as a modern-day witch-hunt
The case had so many elements that invoked the unconscious memory of witchcraft, the murder took place on Halloween and the accused was portrayed as a sexually promiscious vixen who manipulated men to do her bidding as if caught in a spell. It has been proposed that the prosecution was directed by elements in the justice system that believe that witchcraft and Satanism are afoot in Italian society and responsible for numerous crimes. Knox became a bigger celebrity in Italy than the Pope, her appeal was broadcast live on the main television channel and the whole country spoke of nothing else at the time.
Instead of Santa Claus in Italy the tradition of 'La Befana' exists. She's an old woman who flies around on a broom on the 6th of January and brings children treats, which she stuffs in a stocking. She's a remnant of Italy's relationship with the 'strega' and very much alive and well today. In Italy the common backache is known as 'colpo della strega' or 'stroke of the witch'.
There exists in Italy in the town of Benevento a legend about the gathering of witches around a vast old walnut tree. The tree appears in many ancient manuscripts and was said to be sacred to Proserpine, Nox, Diana, and all Cthonic deities. The walnut witches were said to be one of the most powerful sects of witches and that it was through them that many of the old traditions of the Old Religion survived past the Roman Inquisition. The Tree was eventually cut down and a church built in its place, but legend has it that a seedling from the tree was planted at another location in the town under which witches still meet in secret.
Detail from the label of the Strega liqueur featuring witches dancing under a walnut tree
Interestingly, the liqueur Strega is manufactured in Benevento from where it is exported all around the world and if you look at the label you can see very clearly, naked figures dancing, hand-in-hand around the foot of a walnut tree.
By Hugo Mc Cafferty