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The following is a full chapter excerpt from the Book of the Holy Strega, and is copyright protected.  Please do not reproduce this chapter.  You may use up to 200 words in a review.  For use of more material, contact: grimassi@earthlink.net

 There are different legends written about Aradia.  These tales take place in Italy during a time period that suggests the Middle Ages.  One legend portrays Aradia as the daughter of Diana and Lucifer, who came to earth to teach witchcraft. Another depicts her as a mortal, a woman who lived and taught the “Old Religion” in the northern region of Italy, and who brought about a revival of witchcraft (and foretold the coming of the Age of Daughter, a time when men and women would walk as equals).  Some commentators believe that the Aradia legends are inconsistent with Italian culture.  Other people believe the tales to reflect a legend that is rooted in historical events that were suppressed by the Church.

To better understand the writings about Aradia we need to know something about the times in which her legendary tale takes place.  Without historical perspective it is all too easy to misjudge the story of Aradia as incongruous with Italian culture, or to dismiss it as too fantastic in nature.  Therefore we need to look at subculture within Italy both before and after the time of Aradia (who a popular legend places in the early half of the 14th century).

In the late 12th century Italy, Joachim di Flora (also called Joachim di Fiore) the Abbot of Corazzo wrote a prophetic text on the Age of Reason.  His writings had a major influence on religious thought throughout the remainder of the Middle Ages.  Joachim passed his writings on to the Holy See in 1200 for the Pope’s approval.  Concerning the Age of Reason to come, Joachim wrote:

"The Old Testament period was under the direct influence of God the Father.  With the advent of Christ came the age of God the Son.  The time was now ripe for the reign of God the Holy Ghost.  A new era was being introduced, a culmination; in the new day man would not have to rely on faith for everything would be founded on knowledge and reason."

The year 1300 was declared a Jubilee Year by Boniface VIII.  It was also the year that Dante had his "vision: of Inferno Panderers."  A sect known as the Guglielmites arose at this time and formed around a woman known as Guglielma of Milan.  Within the circle of those who worshipped Guglielma, a band of followers believed her to be the incarnation of the Holy Ghost[1].  Her adherents carried the message that she was “bodily equal to Christ” and would die a death of redemption for the sake of the unconverted. Guglielma’s followers further taught that “Redemption” was only possible through the incarnation of the Divine in both male and female.[2]

The Guglielmites were strong opponents of Pope Boniface, and supporters of the Visconti family (who were accused of involvement in the occult arts).  Following the death of Guglielma, on August 24, 1281, Manfreda of Pirovano (a cousin of Matteo Visconti) was appointed chief of the Guglielmite sect. She eventually was granted the title of Pope by the sect, vicar of the Holy Spirit upon earth.  According to legend, her portrait appears on the Papessa card of the Visconti Tarot deck.

                                                        Papessa Tarot Card

Of the approximately thirty members of the sect (from about seven Milanese families) women outnumbered men, but ten of the most fervent members were male.  The sect had an interesting social life, practicing equality of the genders in all regards.  There was no emphasis on virginity or chastity in the sect, though a good number of the female members were widowed or unmarried.

Gatherings and banquets were held at the burial site of Guglielma as followers awaited her resurrection.  In the year 1300 the Church banned this activity and Manfreda was put to death as a heretic.  The Inquisition ordered Guglielma’s bones exhumed and burned to ashes to discourage any claims of resurrection[3].  This ended the public practices of the sect, which then disappeared from the pages of official history.

One popular story is that Guglielma was in reality, Princess Blazena Vilemina, daughter of the King of Bohemia.  She was reportedly born in 1210 and appeared in Milan around 1260 and died on August 24, 1281.  Guglielma first appeared in Milan dressed as a "common‑woman."  Because of her noble background, she attracted followers from both the Visconti family as well as the Torriani family (noble rivals of the time) and was seen as a "peacemaker" between the families.  There is some conjecture that she might have been influenced by the sisters of the "Free Spirit", a very prominent heretical group of the time that preached the teachings of Joachim.

Guglielma's chief disciple, a man by the name of Andrea Saramita, said that he heard her make claims of "divinity."  He was a rather well‑off layman, well versed in the teachings of Joachim concerning the Age of the Spirit.  He wrote most of their documents and was the chief theologian of the sect.

What is interesting is that the members of the sect crossed social boundaries unheard of in their time.  Both wealthy and poor people were involved as well as poor servants.  Membership ranged from the ruler's son, Galeazzo Visconti, to a poor seamstress named Taria, and Bianca a serving maid.  On the grounds that Guglielma had wanted her devotees to remain together as a family, they held frequent commemorative meals in her honor. Reportedly there were attempts throughout the 1300's to continue the remembrance of Guglielma, by hiding her image in paintings and calling her by various names.

The theme of a female messiah, a commemorative meal, and a coming Age of Reason may have been influential and possibly foundational for the legends surrounding Aradia.  At the very least it demonstrates that such a general theme was known in Italy during the early 14th century.  The pre-existence of these basic themes, later appearing in the Aradia material, lends some cultural support to the legend, thus providing historical foundation for its nature, and for its fitting appearance in the culture of Old Italy.

Most modern scholars claim that the name Aradia comes from the Italian, Erodiade, which is another form of the name Herodias (an infamous woman in the New Testament who desired the death of John the Baptist).  In witch trial transcripts and Church writings, the goddess Diana is often equated with Herodias.  Anthropology professor Sabina Magliocco notes it is possible that women in fourteenth century Tuscany might have adopted Aradia as a name, as a variant of "Erodiade" (i.e.Herodias) the biblical villainess.  The figure apparently developed into a mythical witch and a goddess (conflated with Diana).  If so, Magliocco suggests that the Aradia figure may have been a real person taking on the role of a healer as part of her society.  Magliocco further suggests that such a woman might have chosen to play the part of, or even take on the name of, Erodiade[4].  However, it should be noted, that Magliocco is not attempting to make such a case, but is simply allowing for the possibility.

Scholar Carlo Ginzburg sheds some light on the subject of Herodias in his book Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath.  Ginzburg points out that the old hypothesis equating Diana and Herodias stems from a misunderstanding/misreading of the original reference to the goddess “Hera Diana,” which is rendered Herodiana, and then “normalized” to read Herodias[5].  What should have been rendered Heradiana, appears instead as Herodiana, which is curiously close to the word Herodian (a biblical association). The latter indicates an association with King Herod of the Bible, and the tale of Herodias who was instrumental in the beheading of John the Baptist.   Here we begin to see a distortion take place, which on the surface seems to be simply a mistake in equating similar word names.  But was this an honest mistake or an intentional false conflation?

Ginzburg points out that Burchard, Bishop of Worms, added "Herodias" to the name of Diana when referring to an earlier canon about Diana and her night followers[6].   Therefore "Herodias" is not present in the original canon references to Diana and her followers.  Ginzburg also mentions that the Council of Truer in 1310 “set Herodiana along side Diana” and here we see another intentional distortion of the original theme.  Ginzburg points out that in 1390 Friar Beltramino “inserted” a reference to Herodias that did not appear in the trial records concerning a woman named “Sibillia”.  Ginzburg states that the women on trial “only speak of ‘Madona Horiente’; her identification with Diana had probably been suggested to Sibillia by the first inquisitor…”

According to Ginzbug we find that Vincent of Beauvais added statements to the original Canon Episcopi, and that Dominican preacher Johannes Herolt added the name Unholde. Later editions of his Sermones added then names Fraw Berthe and Fraw Helt, displacing Unholde. This appears to be evidence of deliberate alterations, which further confuses the allegations that attempt to equate Diana with other figures.

Ginzburg mentions the existence of a Medieval sect of peasants who worshipped the goddess Hera in the Palatinato (consisting of about 400 members). They believed that Hera flies through the night during the time of Epifania, bringing abundance to her followers[7].  Ginzburg notes that Hera is tied to Diana, which creates a connection to Herodiana as a nocturnal goddess. He further notes that the name Herodiana eventually becomes transformed into Erodiade. This is supported by a 12th century reference attributed to Ugo da San Vittore, (an Italian abbot) who writes of women who believe they go out at night riding on the backs of animals with "Erodiade," whom he conflates with Diana and Minerva[8].  Some commentators believe that the name Aradia may have evolved from the name Erodiade.

It is interesting to note that the ancient custom among the Romans was to create composite names for various deities.  Some examples include Artemis-Hekate.[9]  In the Hymn to Diana, Catallus writes: “Diana whose name is Juno-Lucina, who hears the prayers of birthing women”.  As we know, Juno is the Roman name for the goddess Hera. Here we can easily see a connection between Diana and Hera, a possible foundation for the name Hera-Diana. This root may help explain the confusion between Hera-Diana and Herodias (noting Ginzburg’s reference to Herodiana rendered as Herodias).

We know from many historical records that the worship or veneration of Diana continued well into the Christian era.  This concerned the Church and led it to address the problem head on.  One of the most popular means was through the popular text, the Canon Episcopi, which reads:

 “One mustn’t be silent about certain women who become followers of Satan (I Tim. 5,15), seduced by the fantastic illusion of the demons, and insist that they ride at night on certain beasts together with Diana, goddess of the pagans, and a great multitude of women; that they cover great distances in the silence of the deepest night; that they obey the orders of the goddess as though she were their mistress; that on particular nights they are called to wait on her.” - Ecstasies, page 90

In the Witch Hunter's manual known as the Malleus Maleficarum we read:

“In truth, if anyone cares to read the words of the Canon, there are four points which must particularly strike him. And the first point is this: It is absolutely incumbent upon all who have the cure of souls, to teach their flocks that there is one, only, true God, and that to none other in Heaven or earth may worship by given. The second point is this, that although these women imagine they are riding (as they think and say) with Diana or with Herodias, in truth they are riding with the devil, who calls himself by some such heathen name and throws a glamour before their eyes. And the third point is this, that the act of riding abroad may be merely illusory, since the devil has extraordinary power over the minds of those who have given themselves up to him, so that what they do in pure imagination, they believe they have actually and really done in the body. And the fourth point is this: Witches have made a compact to obey the devil in all things, wherefore that the words of the Canon should be extended to include and comprise every act of witchcraft is absurd, since witches do much more than these women, and witches actually are of a very different kind.”

“As regards those who hold the other two errors, those, that is to say, who do not deny that there are demons and that demons possess a natural power, but who differ among themselves concerning the possible effects of magic and the possible operations of witches: the one school holding that a witch can truly bring about certain effects, yet these effects are not real but phantastical, the other school allowing that some real harm does befall the person or persons injured, but that when a witch imagines this damage is the effect of her arts she is grossly deceived. This error seems to be based upon two passages from the Canons where certain women are condemned who falsely imagine that during the night they ride abroad with Diana or Herodias. This may read in the Canon. Yet because such things often happen by illusion are merely in the imagination, those who suppose that all the effects of witchcraft are mere illusion and imagination are very greatly deceived.”

What we see here is an attempt to dismiss the reality and validity of Diana worship by introducing the idea of deception.  The Church wishes people to regard the goddess Diana as an illusion created by the Devil.  Through this the Church hoped to equate Dianic worship with diabolism.  Over the course of time the Church succeeds in this venture, and ultimately we find this distortion well-rooted in the “Gospel of the Witches” by Charles Godfrey Leland.  In his work we find the name Herodias attached to Diana and Aradia, and so the error of association continues.

According to one popular legend, Aradia was born in 1313 in northern Italy, in the town of Volterra.  This date is likely a contrived one that is intended to bestow mystical meaning to the time of her birth.  According to legend, Aradia gathered a small band of followers and went about the countryside teaching and preaching the Old Religion of Italy.  Aradia spoke of an Age of Reason that would come, and which would replace the Age of the Son.  When she departed, Aradia requested that a meal be held in her honor, and that she be remembered by future generations.  As we have already seen this is nothing new in the nature of an Italian subculture sect.

The belief in the historical existence of a woman named Aradia, who brought about a revival of Italian witchcraft, is not without many supporters (as well as skeptics).  The figure of Aradia is sometimes called the Holy Strega or the Beautiful Pilgrim.  In the oral traditions surrounding Aradia it is said that she lived and taught during the later half of the 14th century. The Italian inquisitor Bernardo Rategno documented in his Tractatus de Strigibus (written in 1508) that a "rapid expansion of the witches’ sect" had begun 150 years prior to his time.  Rategno based this upon his study of many transcripts from the trials of the Inquisition concerning witchcraft[10].  Historian Keith Whitlock, in his book The Renaissance in Europe, mentions a growing concern about witches among Italian inquisitors in the 14th and 15th centuries, and we will explore this later in this chapter.

Tracing back over the years, Rategno pin-pointed the beginnings of the witch trials, and noted their sharp increase over a period of years. Following a thorough study of these records (kept in the Archives of the Inquisition at Como, Italy) Rategno fixed the time period for this “revival” somewhere around 1350.  If Aradia had been born in 1313, as the legends claim, this would certainly have made her old enough during the period referenced by Rategno to have taught and influenced others, and for groups to have formed that carried on her teachings.

It is noteworthy here that in 1435, Johannes Nider wrote in his Formicarius that a “new kind of witchcraft” began around 1375.  This “new” witchcraft was organized, and Nider’s writings were foundational for the image of the wicked Sabbat that evolved into the infamous version known to most people today.  In earlier time periods the gathering of Italian witches was known as a tregenda, and it featured communication with the dead.  The devil, orgies, and cannibalism are absent in the earliest writings on the tregenda.[11] Can it be that the depiction of the wicked Sabbat is an intentionally contrived one that is designed to vilify organized witch sects?  If so, why was the Church worried about the appearance of a new witchcraft?   What might come to light if its followers were allowed to spread the actual sect as opposed to the one depicted by the Church?

In 1890, author and folklorist Charles Leland published his book on Italian witchcraft titled Aradia; or the Gospel of the Witches. Leland's account of Aradia includes a legend about the "beautiful pilgrim" that he claims was preserved among Tuscan peasants for generations.  In part, this legend says:

"Then having obtained a pilgrim's dress, she traveled far and wide, teaching and preaching the religion of old times, the religion of Diana, the Queen of the Fairies and of the Moon, the goddess of the poor and the oppressed. And the fame of her wisdom and beauty went forth over all the land, and people worshipped her, calling her La Bella Pellegrina (the beautiful pilgrim)."

In 1962, T.C. Lethbridge (former Director for Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology) published a book called Witches that refers to Aradia in several chapters. In Chapter 2, Lethbridge writes:

"We can then, I think, assume that Leland's Vangelo and Dr. Murray's trial evidence are more or less contemporary and that it is reasonable to use the two together to form a picture of the witch cult at about A.D.1400... Aradia was sent to earth to teach this art to Mankind. That is, she was, in the opinion of her devotees, a personage, known in Hindu Religion as an Avatar, who taught them how to harness magic power. Aradia, at some far-off time, may have been as much an historical person as Christ, Krishna or Buddha..."[12]

It is also interesting to note that in Ginzbug’s Ecstasies - Deciphering the Witches' Sabbath, a passage appears that may be a historical reference to Aradia. On page 189 he speaks of a Pagan Sect known as the "Calusari" who, during the Middle Ages (as late as the 16th and 17th Centuries), worshipped a Mythical Empress who they sometimes called "Arada" or "Irodeasa."  This name is remarkably close to the name Aradia, and we will revisit this later in the chapter.

The Calusari also used the term "mistress of the fairies" for their Empress, just as the followers of Aradia reportedly called Diana “the Queen of the Fairies.” Could this sect have still been practicing a form of worship previously initiated by Aradia over 100 years earlier?  According to one popular legend of Aradia, she left Italy at some point in her vocation and traveled out of the country.  Serbia, the home of the Calusari, lies a short distance across the Adriatic from Central Italy, and travel by ship was not uncommon in that era.  If Aradia was fleeing the threat of the Church, she would not have traveled west to France because the Papacy was still established in France at the time (and the story informs us that Aradia was still being hunted by agents of the Church). It would have been too dangerous to have gone to northern Europe because witches were being executed in that region (Italy did not begin the execution of witches until after the time of Aradia). So in fact an eastern exodus would have been the only logical action to take in such a situation (other than fleeing south to Egypt). At the very least there is a striking coincidence between Aradia's witches and the Calusari of Arada.

In Leland’s version of the Aradia story we find a setting in which peasants are under servitude to the ruling class.  The basic theme is one of oppression by “evil lords” and retribution from the peasants in the form of poisoning.  In chapter one of Leland’s book we read:

 “In those days there were on earth many rich and many poor.  The rich made slaves of all the poor.  In those days were many slaves who were cruelly treated; in every place tortured, in every castle prisoners.  Many slaves escaped. They fled to the country; sleeping by night, they plotted escape and robber their masters, and then slew them. So they dwelt in the mountains and forests as robbers and assassins, all to avoid slavery”

In another section of chapter one, we read a reference to Aradia (as the daughter of the goddess Diana) teaching peasants how to poison their oppressors, and even how to ruin the harvest crops of a “rich and greedy” peasant by calling upon a destructive storm.  But historically, did Italian peasants own fields of crops, and was there a period of the type of oppression described in Leland’s book?

What we find in Italy during the Middle Ages is a system known as Seignorialism. Under this system the “bonded” and the “free laborer” were homogenized into a single class of peasants.  Seignorialism enjoyed its peak from the period spanning from 1000 to 1350.  The noble class controlling the system was called the seigneurs, and they dominated the lives of the peasants.  Each lord that oversaw an area, held court and judged offenses committed by the peasants.  Whenever his land was ready for plowing or harvesting, the peasants were required to provide the labor.  The peasants were also required to use gristmills, ovens, and winepresses owned by the lord, and to pay for that use.

In general the lord reserved the right to approve or deny the marriages of his people.  He also imposed an annual “head tax” on each peasant, and could tax any income they received at any time of the year.  Although peasants could own small strips of land around their villages, the lord had the power to sell these lands and the peasants along with them.  If a peasant died without heirs, the land automatically became to the property of the lord.  Ecclesiastical and lay authorities called upon the lords to destroy any remains of pagan structures on their lands and to compel their subjects to abandon pagan customs.

Looking at the historical system of Seignorialism, it is not unlike the setting of Leland’s Aradia tale.  It also seems ripe for the abuse of the peasant class, and on at least some level must certainly have caused hatred towards the lords.  It may be that Leland’s story has embellished and exaggerated this period of history, but that is typically the case regarding folk tales themselves.  One example is the evolution of English stories about the figure known as Robin Hood.  If we view the story of Aradia as evolved and layered with new elements gathered over the centuries, then we can understand and appreciate it in the same way we do other folkloric figures of any culture.

In keeping with the general theme of oppressed peasants, Leland states that Diana is the goddess of outcasts and outlaws. As previously noted, Leland’s tale of Aradia makes mention of peasants fleeing servitude and being outlaws.  Leland’s Aradia material depicts the followers of Aradia as witches, just as his earlier work titled Etruscan Roman Remains portrays witches as the worshippers of Diana. But is there any pre-existing connection between Diana and witches in Italy?

Among the earliest ancient Roman writings we find those of Horace.  In his work titled The Epodes, Horace includes a passage indicating that the goddess Diana is associated with witches and witchcraft. This comes in the form of an evocation by a witch named Canidia. She begins by calling to Diana: “O’ you faithful witnesses to my proceedings, Night and Diana who preside over silence, when the secret rites are celebrated, now, now be present.”

Scholar Matthew Dickie writes about the goddess Diana being evoked by Canidia in Horace’s Epodes.  Dickie states that “Diana in particular, is prayed to as she rules the silence in which the hidden sacred rites are performed. The rituals the sorceress performs are from her point of view mystic rites confined to those adept in an esoteric form of wisdom, performed in secret, in silence and in the darkness of the night.” [13]

                                                                        The Magic Circle (by John Waterhouse)

Historian Jeffrey Burton Russell, in his book Witchcraft in the Middle Ages, writes that “The most important explicit Mediterranean element in medieval witchcraft is the cult of Diana.”  He adds that Diana appears frequently as a leader of witches in the early Middle Ages and even in 16th century Italy.[14]  Russell goes on to say that pagan festivals persisted and that “The festivals most important for the development of the witch idea were the fertility rites associated with Diana or Hecate.”[15]

The view of witchcraft as a type of Dianic cult was argued by Giralamo Tartarotti, an 18th century Italian writer.  He is notable for his works titled Congresso notturno delle lammie (1749) and Apologia del Congresso notturno delle lammie (1751) in which he tried to debunk the belief in the existence of witches as having any supernatural connection.  Tartarotti claimed that witches were simply magical practitioners involved in a pre-Christian cult of the goddess Diana.  His view was unwelcome by the Church, and is dismissed by most modern scholars.  I presume this is because it is an isolated view not in keeping with the accepted views of the “learned” at the time, and it therefore has no backing from other writers.  The authorities of the time believed that witches flew through the air and frolicked with the Devil, which is a much faultier concept than that proposed by Tartarotti.

                                                                                              Witches flying to Sabbat

Montague Summers, an English author and clergyman, comments about Tartarotti’s view in Witchcraft and Black Magic.  Here Summers writes: “Yet Tartarotti, fastening upon the myth, evolves from so shadowy premises the notion of what he is pleased to call a ‘Dianic cult’ and he proceeds to assert that witchcraft is nothing else save this fabulous cult. His ninth chapter carries as its caption: The identity of the Dianic cult with modern witchcraft is demonstrated and proven.”[16]  The “myth” to which Summers refers is the theme presented in the Canon Episcopi.

In an article titled Curiosities of Superstitions in Italy, by author R.H. Busk, which appears in a late 19th century journal, Tartarotti is portrayed in a more scholarly light[17].  Busk states that Tartaroti’s views on Italian witchcraft were drawn from his study of the writings of Plautus, Strabo, and Horace (along with the writings of Ausonius and Festus).  Tartarotti’s initial interest lies in the popular folk beliefs of Italy about witches, which he links to the legends of the Roman entity known as a strix.  This legendary creature is a type of vampire that preyed on infants.  Eventually the tales of these creatures included the ability of the strix to assume the form of an owl or an old woman, as it pleased.

Busk notes that Italian philosopher Gianfrancesco Pico put forth the belief that witches fly through the air on a stick called a gramita, a tool commonly used to hang out flax and hemp. According to Busk, Pico states that witches travel on the gramita at midnight to attend a gathering featuring banquets, dancing, and all kinds of depravity (which Pico says is traceable to many pagan mysteries).  Busk states that “Diana is continually spoken by name as the presiding genius of these weird festivals, and her mysteries were celebrated with dancing.”

The persistence of themes related to the pagan goddess in Italy continually drew the attention of the Church and its agents on various levels, to the degree that the matter needed to be addressed.  What at one time had been a focus on heretics, expanded in the 14th and 15th centuries to include witches.  Historian Keith Whitlock, in The Renaissance in Europe asks the question: “But why should the stereotype of the heretic have been extended to include the witch? Why should inquisitors have become more concerned with witches in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries?”[18]

Whitlock proposes that the rise of witch-hunts and the rise of the Renaissance are connected.  He goes on to state that the Renaissance saw a growing interest in the revival of antiquity, including the ancient gods and goddesses.  In connection with this, Whitlock writes:  “For some of the clergy, as for Phronimus, these ‘gods’ were ‘demons’, so they believed that they were witnessing a revival of the demonic. In this context the confessions of certain women that they had attended ‘the game of Diana’ must have confirmed clerical suspicions.”

But the association of Diana and witchcraft was not limited to Italy alone. We find that Fray de Barrientos, a 15th century bishop of Cuenca (Spain), makes mention of gatherings in honor of Diana, as he wrote in his instructions to the diocese: “..the women called witches who are said and believed to accompany the Pagan Goddess Diana at night, together with many other woman who ride on beasts and travel through many towns and places.” [19]

Historian Mircea Eliade, in his book Occultism, Witchcraft, and Cultural Fashions, states that Diana became the chief of the witches in western Europe.  He goes on to discuss her role in Romania where she is depicted as the Queen of the Fairies.  This role is also assigned to Diana in Leland’s Aradia tale.  Eliade also makes mention of the “secret cathartic society” known as the Calusari (who venerate a patroness known as Irodiade or Arada).[20]  He notes that the sect features an acrobatic dance.  In Italian witchcraft we also find an acrobatic dance called La Volta.  Is all of this coincidental or are we looking at spreading roots?

Before leaving the topic of Diana and her connection to witchcraft, I turn now to the writings of Margaret Murray. She was a British anthropologist who claimed to have discovered the existence of a pre-Christian religion.  Murray referred to this as a “Dianic cult” of “ritual witchcraft” centered on Diana, and Murray claimed the goddess had a consort named Janus or Dianus.  Modern scholars reject her findings and many people regard her work as thoroughly debunked.  But was Murray completely in error, and should we reject absolutely everything she had to say?

Historian Carlo Ginzburg, in the preface to his book titled Night Battles, wrote that “we should acknowledge the ‘kernel of truth’ in Murray’s thesis.”  In his following work, titled Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath, Ginzburg writes: “In my preface to The Night Battles I made a statement to which I still fully subscribe, even though it earned me ex-officio enrolment in the phantom (but discredited) sect of ‘Murrayites;: viz., that Murray’s thesis, although ‘formulated in a totally uncritical manner’, contained ‘a core of truth’   But what is this “kernel of truth” mentioned by Ginzbug?  For him the core of truth is found in the claim that witchcraft has its roots in an ancient fertility cult.  He does not appear to believe that an ancient witches’ sect existed and survived into Christian times, but instead appears to consider the validity of concepts that contributed to “the folkloric roots of the Sabbath.” In other words there is a difference between acknowledging the antiquity of concepts, beliefs, and practices reflected in the records about witchcraft, and interpreting them as evidence that an organized sect existed that carried forth such elements as a cohesive tradition.

One of the problems in sorting out the facts regarding witches and witchcraft is due to the academic situation itself.  Scholar Bernadette Filotas points out, in her book titled Pagan Survivals, Superstitions and Popular Cultures, that “there is little information available about those pagan rituals and beliefs that left no traces in archaeology.”[21]  She also points out that the only source of information for these rituals and beliefs comes from the writings of Christian clerics.  Due to adversarial politics, this source can be no more reliable than Roman writings about Druids and Celts.

Another problem is that not until the 1960s have historians paid significant attention to early medieval popular customs. Filotas states that historians have focused primarily on evidence coming from the leading figures and public institutions, and therefore upon the dominant ideas popularized by them.  She notes that “The ideas and customs of anonymous men and woman are usually missing.”  This is significant because it is within the anonymous population that operative witchcraft flourishes.  Therefore the most important evidence is seriously absent, and primarily so because it was overlooked or bypassed (not because there wasn’t anything to discover).

There is one more factor to consider regarding the academic problem.  The view of scholars, pertaining to witchcraft, is based upon texts written by the accepted authorities of the period.  The clashing views of Neo-Pagans are dismissed because there is no support from the old authorities.  But how credible are these authorities?  They believed in the magical flight of witches, the manifestation of the Devil in material form, pacts with demons, and in the extraordinary supernatural abilities of witches.  Were these people in a state of mind to now be regarded as credible investigators, spokesmen, judges, and experts?

Modern scholars note the lack of evidence to support the idea that witchcraft was an ancient religion practiced by witches.  However when we look at the questions asked of accused witches, we see nothing designed to truthfully or accurately ferret out such a connection (even though elements of Dianic worship arise during interrogation).  The questions are instead designed to extract confessions of Devil worship, heresy, and diabolical deeds.  When the accused spoke about the goddess Diana, the inquisitor responded with the question of how often the Devil appeared to the accused in the form of Diana.  The interrogation continued from there to focus on the Church’s view of what constituted witchcraft instead of exploring the beliefs (referenced by the accused) about Diana and any associated personal practices.  Clearly the questions were not designed to uncover “The Old Religion” and so there should be little wonder why we do not have significant evidence pertaining to witches religion.  No one was looking for it and so it does not appear.

Another academic problem lies in deliberate misrepresentations that occurred in the past.  The roots of this are exposed in what some historians refer to as the 1321 conspiracy.  Historian Steven L. Kaplan notes that: “detailed analysis of the surviving evidence shows that in 1321 religious and political authorities deliberately faked evidence to reinforce a growing hostility from below against lepers and Jews.”  Kaplan further notes that “Many links connect the 1321 conspiracy to the emergence of the inquisitorial image of the witches’ Sabbat.”[22]  Since history can be manipulated in this way, how sure can we be of any of the old writers involved in promoting depictions of the nature of witchcraft?

It is interesting to note that the accusations raised against witches are the same that appear against Jews and lepers in connection with the 1321 conspiracy.  Charges of this nature are further fueled with the onset of the “Black Death” in 1348.  It is in this period that we find allegations of poisoning wells and fountains, which were public sources of water.  These allegations were leveled primarily against the Jews, but become a component against witches in the following years.

Kaplan writes of witches becoming a growing threat in the eyes of the Church at the onset of the 15th century.  He references a letter written in 1409 by Pope Alexander V that warns against “new sects and new rituals” that are hostile to both Christianity and Judaism.  Although no sect is named in the letter, Kaplan suggests that the statement is an allusion to the witches’ Sabbat. He further suggests that a new image of witches as a threatening sect arises in the eyes of the Church.[23]

The witches’ Sabbat does not appear to play a major role in trials until 1428.  At this time it features in a trial at Valais, which is situated on the northern border of Italy.  This trial introduces, for the first time, the concept of magical flight and the transformation of witches into various animals.  It seems clear that the Church’s depiction of the Sabbat evolved over centuries, but was originally rooted in pagan tradition and collected folkloric elements along the way to the eventual stereotype of debauchery and satanic worship. Scholar Franco Mormando writes of the Sabbat in his book The Preacher’s Demons:

 ‘‘This notion of the assembly is yet another universal item in ‘the classic formulation of the Witch Phenomenon.’  Like much else in the baggage of the European witch, it has its roots in pagan mythology, specifically in the un-Christian but nondiabolical ‘Society of Diana,’ an innocuous, festive ride and gathering of woman under the tutelage of the pagan goddess of the moon and the hunt.  Turned into a demonized witch phenomenon by the theologians and canonists of Christian Europe, the assembly was by the end of the fifteenth century to be known (with tinges of anti-Semitisim) as the witches’ ‘Sabbath.’  With the passing years, it slowly acquired ever more heinous, orgiastic characteristics.  During Bernardino’s lifetime, the gathering was called by various names; the preacher himself, in one of his 1424 sermons to the Florentines, refers to it by the Italian term tregenda.”  - page 66

Earlier we noted the tregenda as a reported assembly of witches, who claimed to be able to communicate with the dead.  Scholar Walter Stephens writes:

 “About 1354, the Dominican preacher Jacopo Passavanti was writing in Italian (in Lo specchio della versa penitenza, or The Mirror of True Repentance) that ‘some people say they see dead people and talk to them, and that they go by night with witches [colle streghe] to their tregenda.’  Many such people are simple impostors, he says: they take advantage of others’ bereavement for financial gain or out of sheer malice. Nonetheless, some people do sincerely think that they see dead people.  This is impossible, says Passavanti (presumably because these souls are in hell or purgatory and are not allowed out). But people are seeing something that is real.  The Devil can take on the semblance of dead people and falsely impersonate them…”[24] 

It was Jacopo Passavanti’s view that the “simple people” were easily mislead into error.  His own belief was that demons assumed the likeness of men and women and travelled to the tregenda. Here they were mistaken for humans.  Passavanti further stated that some women came to believe they had “traveled at night in the company of the tregenda.”  He goes on to say that the leaders of this group are Herodias and the goddess Diana.[25]

Much of what we know regarding the tregenda comes from the 15th century sermons of the friar Bernardino of Sienna.  His writings are, of course, very negative in his depiction of witchcraft and paganism. But, in a secondary sense, they are rich in the lore of the period (a time when the deliberate misrepresentation of paganism and witchcraft has yet to reach its peak).       When examining the references to the tregenda it appears to be the forerunner of the infamous witches’ Sabbat. Scholar Franco Mormando writes:

"As to what Bernardino imagined as occurring during the tregenda, we cannot be completely sure, since the notion of the Sabbath was still in its development phase.  The friar’s 1424 sermon does not describe this convocation of witches.  His later treatise on witchcraft and superstition, De idolatriae cultu (1430-36), contains a reference to the tregenda, though the word itself does not appear in the text.  This Latin work nonetheless gives us some idea of his conception of the regular witches assemblies, which eventually evolved into the sabbath."   - The Preacher's Demons - University of Chicago Press, 1999, page 66

It is noteworthy that among the earliest depictions of the witches’ gatherings we find no presence of the Judeo-Christian figure of Satan.  A 13th century mural discovered at Massa Marittima (a town south-west of Siena) demonstrates this absence.  The mural was discovered in August, 2000, and has been identified by a British university lecturer as the earliest surviving representation of witchcraft in Christian Europe.  George Ferzoco, the director of the center for Tuscan studies at the University of Leicester, comments that “I have no doubt that this is by far the earliest depiction in art of women acting as witches."

The 13th-century mural is a large, richly colored painting, seven meters high. It was discovered under layers of subsequent over-painting next to a fountain in the centre of Massa Marittima. It shows a tall, spreading tree with two groups of women standing below it.  The first thing that was noticed about the tree was its unusual "fruit," which is apparently sprouting from the branches as twenty-five phalluses.

                                                                                                   The Mural at Massa Marittima

Beneath the tree are two groups of women, one standing to the right and the other to the left side of the trunk of the tree.  One of the women in the group on the left is holding up a stick with which she appears to be trying to dislodge a bird's nest. The mural features two of the other women grabbing each other's hair as they appear to fight for possession over one of the phalluses picked from the tree.

Ferzoco, after examining this feature, recalled a passage from the inquisitors' manual known as the Malleus Maleficarum.  In its description of witchcraft practices, there is an allegation that witches robbed men of their genitals.  The passage claims that witches sometimes collect male organs in great numbers (as many as twenty or thirty members).  These are placed in a bird's nest or closed inside a box, where they come alive and are fed oats and corn.  Ferzoco commented that "There was a well-known story in Tuscan folklore about witches removing mens' penises and placing them in bird nests in trees, where they would then multiply and take on a life of their own."  It is noteworthy that the Italian mural was painted two centuries earlier than the writing and publication of the Malleus Maleficarum.

According to Ferzoco, the mural is a unique piece of political propaganda, commissioned by one Tuscan faction to sully the reputation of another.  He states:  "It's a message from the Guelphs, telling people that if the Ghibellines are allowed power, they will bring with them heresy, sexual perversion, civic strife and witchcraft."  The Guelphs and Ghibellines were two factions who fought for power in Tuscany and northern Italy for decades during the Middle Ages.  Perhaps the most famous victim of their feuds was the poet Dante, a Guelph expelled from his native Florence in 1302 after a rival Guelph group took power.  At the time the mural was painted, the Guelphs controlled Massa Marittima.  According to Ferzoco "They presented themselves as the clean living upstanding party in Tuscan politics and it was traditional for them, in launching their attacks on the Ghibellines, to label them as heretics."

While Ferzoco's interpretation of the meaning of the mural is interesting, there are other views to be considered as well.   If we accept his opinion that the mural is the earliest depiction in art of women "acting as witches," then what does the imagery reveal about witchcraft beliefs in this period?  There are several noteworthy aspects including the absence of the Devil at this assembly of witches.  The presence of a magical tree is an important element that reflects the long-standing tradition of the witches’ tree at Benevento.  The imagery of walnuts in their likeness of testicles, and the presence of phalluses in the mural, may be a suggestion of fertility themes linked to witchcraft's ancient past.  The botanical name for walnuts is juglans, which is also the Latin name for walnuts.  It is derived from the Latin word jovis, meaning "of Jupiter."  In the mural we see eagles, and the eagle was the symbol of the god Jupiter. It is note worthy that the walnut is also known as Jupiter’s acorn.

In the mural at Massa Marittima we see the image of a woman holding up a rod as she looks upwards at the branches above her.  One interpretation is that she is trying to dislodge a nest.  The type of tree is not mentioned by Ferzoco, but from the leaves it does not seem to be an oak (sacred to Jupiter) or a walnut. On a side note, there is an interesting piece of lore associated with harvesting walnuts by beating the branches.  This is mentioned in the book Dictionary of Phrase and Fable[26], by Ebenezer Brewer:

“It is said that the walnut tree thrives best if the nuts are beaten off with sticks, and not gathered.  Hence, Fuller says ‘Who, like a nut tree must be manured by beating, or else would not bear fruit”- page 1283

St. Augustine, a 4th century theologian, applied Christian symbolism to the walnut.  He said the outer green casing of the walnut represented the flesh of Christ.  The shell symbolized the wooden cross of Jesus, and the kernel was the divine nature that nourished the Christian faith.[27]  In references within the Bible, and within commentaries on scriptural meaning, we find mention of the walnut possessing mystical properties.  It is said to have been placed in water (along with storax and “plane wood”) to produce a drink that bestowed the blessings of the Trinity.  This drink ensured the spiritual purity of offspring who were conceived by parents blessed in this way. A special rod was also made of walnut and served as a symbol of watchfulness[28]

The walnut tree, and its fruit, plays an interesting part in the legends and folk tales of Italy. These are associated with fairies, witches, spirits, and other beings. In the next chapter we will explore the connection between the walnut tree, the goddess Diana, and the witches of Old Italy.  Although this history is dimly lit, we will rely upon the light of the full moon to reveal what has been hidden for ages.


[1] A History of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages, by Henry Charles Lea. Pages 94-95: “The history of the Joachites has shown us the readiness which existed to look upon Christianity as a temporary phase of religion, to be shortly succeeded by the reign of the Holy Ghost, when the Church of Rome would give place to a new and higher organization. It was not difficult, therefore, for the Guglielmites to persuade themselves that they had enjoyed the society of the Paraclete, who was shortly to appear, when the Holy Spirit would be received in tongues of flame by the disciples, the heathen and the Jew would be converted, and there would be a new church ushering in the era of love and blessedness, for which man had been sighing through the weary centuries.”

[2] The Creation of Feminine Consciousness, by Gerda Lerner:  Oxford University Press, 1994 – page 91

[3] Encyclopedia of Prophecy, by Geoffrey Ashe:  ABC – CLIO, Inc., 2001 – page 96

[4] Who Was Aradia? The History and Development of a Legend, by Sabina Magliocco: The Pomegranate: The Journal of Pagan Studies, Issue 18, Feb. 2002.  The passage reads:  What if some women, inspired by utopian legends of the Society of Diana/Herodias, decided to try to replicate such a society in medieval Europe? Though we have no proof such a society ever existed, it is not inconceivable that a few inspired individuals might have decided to dramatize, once or repeatedly, the gatherings described in legends. The use of the term giuoco ("game") by Sibillia and Pierina suggests the playful, prankish character of ostension. A "game" based on legends of Diana/Herodias and the fairies would probably have been secret and limited to the friends and associates of the creative instigators, who might well have been folk healers. One or more women might even have played the role of Diana or Herodias, presiding over the gathering and giving advice. Feasting, drinking and dancing might have taken place, and the women may have exchanged advice on matters of healing and divination. The "game" might even have had a healing intent, as was the case for many comparable circum-Mediterranean rituals, and may have involved trance-dancing. This is one possible explanation for the remarkably consistent reports of Sibillia and Pierina, tried within a few years of each other. The existence of ostension in connection to these legends could also mean that Grimassi's claim that Aradia was a real person may, in fact, not be entirely out of the question; a healer who was part of the society might have chosen to play the part of, or even take on the name of, Erodiade.

[5]  Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches Sabbat, by Carlo Ginzburg: Random House, 1991 - page 104 hereafter citied as Deciphering

[6]  Deciphering - page 90

[7]  Storia Notturna. Una decifrazione del sabba, Torino 1989. page 81

[8]  Bonomo, Giuseppe. Caccia alle Streghe. Palermo: Palumbo, 1959

[9]  AESCH. Hiket. 667-7) and Juno-Lucina (Catullus’ Hymn to Diana).

[10]  Deciphering – page 71

[11] I refer the interested reader to The Preacher’s Demons, by Franco Mormando (University of Chicago Press, 1999).  The book deals with 15th century witchcraft through the eyes of Bernardino of Siena. Pagan roots and elements are examined in a fair and balanced view.

[12] Witches. The Citadel Press, 1962 – page 13 – 14

[13] Magic and Magicians in the Greco-Roman World, Routledge, 2001 – page 139

[14] Witchcraft in the Middle Ages, Cornell University Press, 1984 – page 48

[15] Witchcraft in the Middle Ages. Cornell University, 1972 – page 58

[16]  Witchcraft and Black Magic. Dover Publications, 2000 – page 115

[17] Notes and Queries: A Medium of Intercommunication for Literary Men, General Readers, etc, Published at the London Office, 20 Wellington Street, 1894

[18] The Renaissance in Europe: A Reader (Renaissance in Europe series), by Keith Whitlock, published by Yale University Press, 2000 – page 341

[19] The Malleus Maleficarum and the Construction of Witchcraft, by Hans P. Broedel (Manchester University Press, 2004)  – page 134

[20]  Occultism, Witchcraft, and Cultural Fashions, by Mircea Eliade, University Of Chicago Press, 1978, page 81 & 82:  “All of these maladies are successfully cured by the choreographic and cathartic ritual of a group of dancers, who constitute a sort of secret society (Mannerbund) called calusari, a name derived from the Romanian term for ‘horse’ cal (<Lat. Caballus). Now, surprisingly enough, the patroness of this secret cathartic society is the ‘Queen of the Fairies” (Doamna Zinelor) – the Romanian metamorphosis of Diana. She is called Irodiade (=Herodias)  or Arada, both names famous among western European witches”

[21] Pagan Survivals, Superstitions, and Popular Cultures.  Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 2005, page 19:   “In a practical sense also, the word ‘survivals’ is misleading when applied to reprobated practices in the early Middle Ages. Except for Roman religion, there is little information available about those pagan rituals and beliefs that left no traces in archaeology and for which the only source is the writings of Christian clerics.”

[22] Understanding Popular Culture. Mouton De Gruyer (Publisher), 1985, page 311 hereafter citied as Popular Culture

[23]  Popular Culture, page 44

[24] Lovers - page 132

[25] Witchcraft in Europe, 400-1700: A Documentary History, by Alan Kors and Edward Peters, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000, page 111

[26]  Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, by Ebenezer Brewer, Westview Press, 2007

[27] Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art, by James Hall, Westview Press, 2007, page 341.  The symbolism of the walnut, ascribed to it by St. Augustine, is also discussed in the book Symbols of the Christian faith, by Alva Steffer, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002.

[28] Genesis 12-50, edited by Mark Sheridan, InterVarsity Press, 2002, page 202-203