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Article by Sabina Magliocco

 Who Was Aradia? The History and Development of a Legend

by Sabina Magliocco

California State University, Northridge


The author wishes to thank Ronald Hutton and Chas S. Clifton for their helpful critiques of an earlier draft of this work.

Aradia is familiar to most contemporary Pagans and Witches as the principal figure in Charles G. Leland's Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches, first published in 1899. Leland presents her as the daughter of Diana, the goddess of the moon, by her brother Lucifer, "the god of the Sun and of the Moon, the god of Light" (Leland, 1899, 1998:1), who is sent to earth to teach the poor to resist the oppression of the wealthy classes through magic and witchcraft. Through Leland's work, Aradia's name and legend became central to the Witchcraft revival. Between 1950 and 1960, "Aradia" was probably the secret name of the Goddess in Gardnerian Craft (it has since been changed), and she has also given her name to numerous contemporary Witchcraft traditions (Clifton, 1998:73).

Leland's Aradia also inspired a number of 20th century works of Pagan literature. In a privately published electronic document entitled The Gospel of Diana [which according to Silvio Baldassare originated as a spoof of the Gnostic Gospels (Baldassare, 1997:15)], Aidan Kelly expands on Leland's idea of Aradia as a religious leader and heroine of an Italian peasant resistance. Kelly's Aradia, however, is a notably erotic character; according to her teachings, the sexual act becomes not only an expression of the divine life force, but an act of resistance against all forms of oppression and the primary focus of ritual. Kelly's document has not achieved broad diffusion in contemporary Pagan circles, however. Much more influential in the perpetuation of Aradia's legend is the work of Raven Grimassi. Grimassi, the author of a series of popular books on Stregheria, or Italian-American Witchcraft, presents Aradia as a wise woman who lived in Italy during the 14th century, and who brought about a revival of the Old Religion. He claims to practice a tradition founded by Aradia's followers (Grimassi, 1995:xviii). In Hereditary Witchcraft, Grimassi expands on Leland's version and the material he presented in Ways of the Strega by adding a chapter on Aradia's teachings (Grimassi, 1999:191-201), which include a series of predictions about the future of humankind and the return of the Old Religion (1999:207-208). After Aradia's mysterious disappearance, her twelve disciples spread her gospel, explaining the diffusion of the Old Religion throughout Italy and Europe (1999:203-210).

But who was Aradia? Was she the legendary figure of Leland's Gospel, or a 14th century teacher of the Craft, as Grimassi proposes? Or is her story more complicated? In this paper, I explore the roots of the legend of Aradia, and in the process attempt to shed light on the formation of some of the most important motifs in the legendcomplex surrounding witchcraft, both traditional and contemporary. While my conclusions differ from those of Leland, Kelly and Grimassi, they may reveal a surprising possibility underlying the legend that has not been considered before. My approach is grounded in the academic discipline of folklore, which regards stories about historical or alleged historical figures as legends. A legend is a story set in the real world about an extraordinary or numinous event. Legends are typically told as true, with many features that root them in a specific time and place and lend them authenticity; but they are not necessarily believed by all who tell them. In fact, according to legend scholars Linda D"gh and Andrew Vazsonyi, it is the tension between belief and disbelief that keeps legends alive and circulating, as each new listener must decide "Is this true? Could this have happened?" (D"gh and Vazsonyi, 1976). Within any given community, there are legend believers and disbelievers; our community is, of course, no exception when it comes to this particular legend. The truth content of legends, that is, how closely they correspond to actual historical events‹ can vary widely; although some contain a kernel of reality, many legends are "true" only in the most metaphorical sense, in that they are an accurate reflection of popular attitudes, values and morality at a given time and place.

Legends can take many forms. Most typically, they occur as narratives, either in the first person ("This actually happened to me") or third person ("This actually happened to a friend of a friend/ long ago, etc."). Logically, many legends start out as first person accounts and become third person accounts; but just as often, a narrator may retell a third person account as though it had actually happened to him/her, making the story more vivid for the audience. Legends can also exist as simple statements ("The house on the hill is haunted"), and occasionally become dramatic enactments known as "ostension" (D"gh and Vazsonyi, 1986), which I will describe later at some length. Legends appear in multiple variants; no one variant is any more correct than any other. At times, legends may cluster together to form what folklorists call a legend complex: a group of interrelated legends and beliefs centered around a particular theme. The multiple legend complexes centering around witchcraft are among the most enduring in Western history. Legends are extraordinarily responsive to social change; in fact, they are one of the most sensitive indices of transformations in cultural values and worldview (Dundes, 1971; Magliocco, 1993). For that reason, it is imperative to understand them in the cultural, political and social context in which they appear. In considering the development of the legend of Aradia, I will be applying all of the above principles, but especially the latter. My goal is to show how each successive historical era added and subtracted elements to this tale in keeping with the cultural preoccupations of the time, giving us not only today's concept of Aradia, but also a much broader legend complex surrounding the nature of witchcraft itself.


The origin of the name "Aradia" is veiled in mystery. I have not been able to find it in written form before the publication of Leland's Gospel in 1899. However, Leland himself equates Aradia with the legendary figure Herodias, a central character in the development of the witchcraft legend complex in Europe (Leland, 1899/1998:1). According to the Gospel of St. Matthew, Herodias was the sister-in-law of King Herod, the wife of his brother Philip (Matthew 14:3-12). Apparently she hated John the Baptist, and asked Herod to arrest John when the holy man was found in his dominion. But Herodias wanted John dead, so she concocted a plan in which she urged her daughter Salome to dance for King Herod. In exchange, the girl was to demand the head of John the Baptist on a platter. The plan worked: Salome danced, Herod delivered, and here the gospel stops. But according to an early Christian legend derived from the gospel, when Salome saw the head brought before her, she had a fit of remorse, and began to weep and bemoan her sin. A terrible wind began to blow from the saint's mouth, so strong that it blew the famous dancer into the air, where she is condemned to wander forever (Cattabiani, 1994:208). Since in Roman usage, the wives and daughters of a house were commonly known by the name of the male head of the household, it is easy to see how Salome became confused with her mother Herodias. In medieval Italian, Herodias is rendered as "Erodiade," only a short linguistic step away from Aradia.

One of the earliest mentions of Herodias is in the work of Raterius of Liegi, Bishop of Verona (890-974 CE). He laments that many believe that Herodias, wife of Herod, is a queen or a goddess, and say that one third of the earth is under her charge (Bonomo, 1959:19). Herodias gets linked with Diana in the Canon Episcopi, a document attributed to the Council of Ancyra in 314 CE, but probably a much later forgery, since the earliest written record of it appears around 872 CE (Caro Baroja, 1961:62). Regino, Abbot of Pr¸m, writing in 899 CE, cites the Canon, telling bishops to warn their flocks against the false beliefs of women who think they follow "Diana the pagan goddess, or Herodias" on their night-time travels. These women believed they rode out on the backs of animals over long distances, following the orders of their mistress who called them to service on certain appointed nights. Three centuries later, Ugo da San Vittore, a 12th century Italian abbot, refers to women who believe they go out at night riding on the backs of animals with "Erodiade," whom he conflates with Diana and Minerva (Bonomo, 1959:18-19).

In each of these cases, legends about women who travel in spirit at night following Herodias or Diana are being recorded by clerics whose agenda is to eradicate what they see as false beliefs. It is difficult to gauge whether these reports represent a wide diffusion of the legends in north-central Italy and southern Germany between the 9th and 12th centuries, or whether the authors of early medieval decrees and encyclicals simply quoted each other, reproducing the same material. However, the work of German historian Wolfgang Behringer demonstrates that legends of night-flying societies, including followers of Diana, were in oral circulation in the western Alps (a region that now includes parts of Germany, Switzerland and Italy) in the 16th century, and probably well before it as well (Behringer, 1998:52-59). Herodias appears in these legends, as in the New Testament, as a symbol of wantonness (so she remained; as late as the 19th century, prostitutes in Paris were euphemistically referred to by Eliphas Levy as les filles d"Herodiade, "the daughters of Herodias")‹but also as a tragic figure, condemned to wander through the air forever as punishment for her sins. Regino equates her with Diana, and Ugo adds Minerva; we cannot know, based on the evidence, if this was their own interpretation, formed as a result of their educated knowledge of Roman mythology, or whether tellers themselves were merging Herodias with other Roman goddesses in their narratives. It is telling, in any case, that pagan goddesses are being syncretized with one of the most wicked characters in the New Testament.

Whether the association was of scholarly origin or arose from oral tradition, Herodias and Diana are linked in folk legend from the 9th century CE onward; and it is through Diana that the connection to witchcraft is formed. The goddess Diana is associated with witchcraft from early Classical Roman literature. She was often conflated with Selene (a deity from Asia Minor) and Hecate, all three of whom were associated with the moon. Hecate was also the queen of the spirits of the dead, present at tombs and at the hearth, where pre-Roman peoples buried their ancestors. At night she would appear at crossroads, followed by her train of spirits flying through the air and her terrifying, howling dogs (Caro Baroja, 1961:26). Folklore about Diana's night rides may be a permutation of earlier tales about Hecate and the rade of the unquiet dead, which survived in Europe well into the middle ages and, in northern Europe, fused with the legend of the wild hunt. All three goddesses were known for helping witches: Horace, writing about the witch Canidia, has her invoke "night and Diana, ye faithful witnesses of all my enterprises" to assist her in thwarting her enemies (Horace, Epode 5, vv.49-54; cited in Caro Baroja, 1961:26). In Roman times, women of all social classes worshipped Diana on the kalends of August at her sanctuary near Lake Nemi. Her rituals were conducted at night; the lake was ringed by torches. Archeologists have found votive offerings of tablets seeking Diana's aid as well as clay statuettes of mother and child (Diana protected women in childbirth) and of uteri, as well as horned stags representing Actaeon, the youth whose desire the goddess punished by transforming him into a stag. Since the rites were women's mysteries, little information remains to us about their nature (Bernstein, 2000:154). However, we do know that men were often suspicious of women's mystery rites, and may have circulated legends about them like those cited by Juvenal about the rites of the Bona Dea, another goddess worshipped in secret exclusively by Roman women. According to this 1st century BCE Roman author, men imagined the rites to be of a sexual nature, with feasting, dancing and wild orgies (Juvenal 6.314, cited in Bernstein, 2000:220). It is important to remember that this is a male fantasy of secret women's rites, rather than a description of their actual content, and that Juvenal was writing about the rites of the Bona Dea and not those of Diana. Nevertheless, it is not impossible that similar kinds of stories circulated about many women's mysteries, including the rites of Diana. The motif of rites of sexual pleasure may thus have become associated with the legend of Diana and her followers. This motif surfaces again centuries later in association with the witches" sabbat.

Christian legends of Herodias, the flying dancer, may have begun to merge with those of the pagan goddess Diana because of their shared theme of night flight. With the merging of the two traditions, additional motifs become part of the legend complex: a connection with the moon; the practice of witchcraft; the presence of additional spirits, i.e. the spirits of the unquiet dead from Hecate's rade; and gatherings of women that included feasting, dancing, and sexual license. By the 10th century CE, legends of Diana and Herodias were in wide circulation in Europe, and this continued well into the 12th century. At this point, the legends began to incorporate material from yet another legend complex.


During the 12th century, authors begin to report folk legends about spiritual beings, variously called bonae res ("good things"), dominae nocturnae ("night women") or fatae ("fairies"), that would visit homes at night to feast. If food was plentiful and the house was in good order, these visits were thought to bring good luck, since the bonae res would restore everything they consumed before the night was out. The bonae res could also punish householders whose homes were not orderly, or who did not have plenty to eat and drink, by withdrawing their blessing. The spirits were sometimes said to be led by a queen who had different names, depending on the source of the legend: Bensoria, Diana or Herodiana (combining Herodias and Diana) in Italy; Satia and Dame Abonde in France; Holde or Berchta in what is now Germany (Bonomo, 1959:22) These female figures were the protectors of spinners and of orderly homes, distributors of fertility and plenty who rewarded the good and punished the lazy. Diana and Herodias became identified, in parts of Europe, as leaders of these spiritual assemblies (Bonomo, 1959:29).

In 1249, William of Alverina, Bishop of Paris, discussed beliefs in night rides by the followers of "Domina Abundia," who brings abundance and good luck to the homes she visits if there is plenty to eat, but whose followers abandon and scorn houses where they receive no hospitality (Bonomo, 1959:22). Vincent of Beauvais (1190-1264) reports an instance of ostension involving this legend: a group of young men forced their way into the home of a rich farmer, helping themselves to whatever was lying around while dancing and singing "unem premes, cent en rendes" ("we take one, return a hundredfold"). The thieves ransacked the place while the credulous farmer told his wife to keep quiet, for the visitors were bonae res and would increase their riches a hundredfold (Bonomo, 1959:25-26).

A similar story appears in Boccaccio's Decameron (1348-54) as the "Queen's Tale" (#9). Two common laborers, Bruno and Buffalmacco, explain to a learned doctor that despite their poverty, they are able to live happily, because they go in corso ("on course," "on a journey"). "From this we draw anything we want or need, without any harm to others, and from this comes our happy lifestyle which you see," explains Bruno. The doctor wants to know what this is all about, but Bruno tells him it is a great secret, and that he could never reveal it. The doctor swears he won"t tell a soul, so at last Bruno confides the details to him. He and Buffalmacco are part of a brigade of 25 men with a captain and two council members elected every six months, guided by two disciples of a great necromancer. Twice a month, the brigade assembles; each person states their wishes and all are provided for. The assembly then feasts on delicious food and fine wine, while sweet music plays and beautiful women are available for erotic fun. The doctor can"t wait to go "in corso" himself, and begins to ply the laborers with gifts and money, hoping they will take him. Finally they agree. They tell him that on an appointed night, a dark, hairy beast will appear and carry him to a secret location, but he must not mention God or the saints. On the designated night, Buffalmacco and Bruno appear dressed in a bear-skin and carry the gullible doctor on their backs, leaping and yelping, until they dump him into a sewage ditch while they escape, laughing at his foolishness.

Legends about fairies who reward neatness and plenty and punish want and slovenliness seem to address issues of class conflict and social inequality in pre-modern Europe. One family's good fortune could be explained as the result of supernatural intervention. At the same time, such legends also gave hope to the lower classes that if they keep a neat enough house, they too might be blessed by the bonae res. In this sense, the stories acted as a form of social control, reinforcing values of orderliness and hospitality while threatening sanction against householders who violated them. The stories also contained compensatory fantasies for the lower classes, a theme that will appear again a few centuries later. For people whose very survival depended on subsistence farming, and who often suffered from hunger and privation, the idea of breaking into the homes of the wealthy and enjoying some of their benefits, even in spirit, must have been a compelling one indeed, especially as the food magically restored itself by morning. It is not surprising that instances of ostension like the one described by Vincent of Beauvais occurred.

These versions also demonstrate that legends about night-time travels in the company of spirits had both believers and skeptics. Moreover, there may have been class differences between the two: lower classes were more likely to know about them and believe in them than the educated classes, for reasons I explained above. In Boccaccio's tale, the learned doctor, who has never heard of the legend, is taken advantage of by shrewd laborers, who themselves are non-believers, although they are familiar with the legend. They successfully fool and humiliate the learned doctor, reversing the usual power relationships between social classes. However, nowhere in Boccaccio's version is there mention of a company of women, or of a female leader of the spiritual assembly; instead the company is led by a great necromancer, and the doctor is told he will be borne to the assembly by a hairy beast, perhaps a reference to the diabolization of these legends that was taking place during Boccaccio's lifetime.

In all accounts discussed so far, the point of view of the Canon Episcopi prevails: the night travels are spiritual journeys; they do not take place in the flesh. The stupidity of the gullible is exactly that they mistake a spiritual tradition for an actual practice. Moreover, while the clerics decried belief in these legends because they diverted parishioners" attention away from God, they were not taken as evidence of the practice of witchcraft, nor did they have any diabolical content. But as the 12th century advanced, a new view began to emerge and compete with that of the Canon. According to this emergent worldview, the women's nightly journeys were not spiritual, but real. At the same time, older legends about the Society of Diana and Herodias, the bonae res and Dame Abonde begin to merge with tales about maleficent witches. These legends took on a menacing tone. Combined with new attitudes about the nature of the night journeys, they became the building blocks of the witches" sabbat in the subversion myth of diabolical witchcraft.


Until the 11th century, legends of the society of Diana or Herodias existed side by side with legends about a very different kind of character: women who entered homes at night in sprit form to harm the inhabitants by sucking blood, eating bodies and cooking them before restoring to them the appearance of life. Their victims eventually became ill and died. These are related to the Classical Roman legends of striae, women who could transform into birds of prey to fly out at night and eat their victims, often infants, in their beds (Bonomo, 1959:33). Their victims often appeared perfectly healthy, but over a period of time sickened and died: their souls were thought to have been eaten and, in some cases, cooked by the maleficent beings.

In some parts of Sicily, Sardinia, and Friuli, these two strains still existed separately as recently as the 19th century. In Sardinian folklore, cogas (lit. "cooks;" vampire-like witches) and janas (fairies; from dianas, "followers of Diana;" cf. Neapolitan ianare) are very different types of creatures: while cogas are uniformly malevolent, janas live in caves or Neolithic shaft tombs in the mountains, are expert weavers and singers, and can interact with and even marry humans (Liori, 1992:107- 111). The 19th century country doctor and folklore collector Giuseppe Pitré reported that Sicilian peasants distinguished between the vampiric, maleficent witch (stria, nserra) and the donna di fuori. Sicilian donne di fuori ("women from the outside") or belle signore ("beautiful ladies") documented by Pitré are creatures somewhere between fairies and witches. They appear as beautiful women who can enter homes at night through the keyhole. If all is in order, they reward the householders, but they punish dirt and disorder. They love babies, but too much attention from the donne di fuori can also harm children (Pitré, 1889: iv:153). Gustav Henningsen, in his careful review of Spanish Inquisition documents from Sicily, reveals that during the 16th century, the term "donne di fuori" referred to both fairies and people of both genders who were believed to ride out with them at night (Henningsen 1993:195). These individuals were usually folk healers who could cure illnesses caused by the fairies, often as a result of some unwitting offense against them (Henningsen, 1993:195). The usual cure involved a ritual supper offered to the fairies by the victim. The fairies, accompanied by the healers in spirit form, would come to the victim's home on an appointed night where they would dance, celebrate and spiritually consume the food, thus curing the afflicted person (Henningsen, 1993:200-01).

These medieval Sicilian beliefs have interesting parallels throughout the modern Mediterranean. In rural Greece, as recently as the 1960's, certain folk healers specialized in curing ills brought about by the fairies, known as exotica ("those from outside;" cf. donne di fuori) (Henningsen, 1993:210). Anthropologist Vincent Crapanzano, working in Morocco in the 1960's, documented a belief system centered around the jinn (fairies) and their human followers, folk healers belonging to religious brotherhoods who could cure illness by performing a trance-dance to special music. The queen of the jinn, known as ëA"isha Qandisha, could appear either as a beautiful woman or a hideous hag, but always had a non-human feature, such as camel toes. Healers consulted ëA"isha Qandisha in their dreams, where she explained the cause of the illness and its cure (Crapanzano, 1975:147). In the 1970's, folklorist Gail Kligman documented Romanian brotherhoods of trance dancers who specialized in curing ailments thought to be caused by iele (fairies), whose patron saint was Diana or Irodeasa [cf. Erodiade] (Kligman, 1981). And in Sardinia in the 1980's, folklorist Clara Gallini studied argismo, a belief system based on the idea that the (often metaphorical) bite of certain insects could be cured only through ecstatic dancing, done to music played by groups of specialized musician-healers (Gallini, 1988). There may also be parallels to tarantismo, the folk belief system documented in southern Italy, especially Calabria, by folklorist Ernesto De Martino (1961); but this is a topic beyond the scope of this paper.

The broad diffusion of similar motifs in the circum-Mediterranean suggests that we are dealing with a belief-system of significant antiquity which may once have existed in many parts of Europe. It involved beliefs about illnesses caused by fairies or spirits, folk healers who specialized in communicating with these spirits through dreams and trances, and the enactment of ritual cures, which may have included special meals, music and trance-dancing. In many cases, healers themselves belonged to a society which may have met either in spirit or in actual ritual enactments of the cures.


But in most of Europe, belief systems involving night-time spiritual journeys, folk healers and fairies began to change during the 12th century, merging with motifs about maleficent witches and with the growing diabolical interpretation of witchcraft generated by the Church. John of Salisbury (1110-1180) combines the two by attributing to Herodias the leadership of night-time cannibalistic banquets, where babies were offered to the lamiae, female-headed serpents of Classical provenance. By the 14th century in Italy, Jacopo Passavanti first mentions the tregenda (sabbat) in conjunction with his merging of the two legendary strains. In his description, demons take the place of humans at these gatherings, leaving humans asleep in their beds. The intent of the demons is diabolical: to lead people astray. He mentions that certain women believe they travel with this company, and that its leaders are Herodias and Diana (Bonomo, 1959:64).

An examination of some Italian trial records shows the gradual transformation of legends about the society of Herodias/ Diana into diabolical sabbats, where feasting, drinking and dancing are accompanied by sex acts and cannibalism. Two early trials which have captured a great deal of scholarly attention are those of Sibillia and Pierina of Milan (Bonomo, 1959; Caro Baroja, 1961; Muraro Vaiani, 1976; Ginzburg, 1989). Both trials took place in the late 14th century; both women were probably first identified and persecuted because they practiced divination or folk healing (Muraro Vaiani, 1976:153). Sibillia's first trial took place in 1384. Accused of heresy, Sibillia confessed to having believed in and told legends about the games of Signora Oriente ("milady of the East"), not thinking it was a sin. Signora Oriente or La Signora del Giuoco ("the lady of the game") presided over these gatherings, where there was feasting on all manner of delicacies, music and dancing; she could predict the future, reveal secrets and resurrect the animals that had been eaten by the assembly, so that in the morning, all appeared exactly as before.

In 1390, Pierina de Bugatis, also of Milan, confessed under questioning to participating in the "game of Erodiade." The gatherings would slaughter and feast on livestock, whose bones Signora Oriente would put back into their skins before resurrecting them with her magic wand. The party would visit the homes of the wealthy, where they would eat and drink; they would bless homes that were neat and clean. Signora Oriente instructed her followers about the properties of various herbs and answered their questions about illness and thefts. But the followers were sworn to secrecy. To attend the assembly, Pierina would call upon a spirit named "Lucifelus," who appeared in the form of a man to take her there.

The tales told by Sibillia and Pierina illustrate the merging of a number of motifs from different traditions into a single legend complex: the night journeys, the company of women led by a female leader, who seems to control both abundance and rebirth, as well as revealing the future and dispensing advice on healing; the magical feasting in which appetites are satisfied; the resurrection of dead animals after the banquet; the fairy visits to the homes of the rich, where hospitality is rewarded and all returns as before at the evening's conclusion. In Pierina's version, we have the first appearance of "Lucifelus," a variant of Lucifero, or Lucifer, as the agent of transport to the games‹a minor figure, at this point, who is diabolical in name only.

Italian historian Luisa Muraro Vaiani believes the judges hearing these depositions had a hard time understanding their nature. The women at times spoke as though they were reporting folklore, while at other times they spoke as though they themselves had experienced these night journeys‹a characteristic of legend performance I have already remarked upon, and one which makes sense if we accept the hypothesis that both women were folk healers who continued an ancient tradition of consulting with spiritual beings for healing advice. Their tales were dreamlike, mixing familiar elements with supernatural ones. To us, they may even suggest events that took place in an altered state of consciousness, and like many such experiences, they alternate in perspective between the self and a kind of detachment from the self. But the judges, working with a binary system of opposites in which illusion and reality were mutually exclusive concepts, didn"t know what to make of these dream-like visions that seemed so real to the accused. They ended up assuming they were real. Sibillia was sentenced to prison at her first trial for having believed in and told people about the society of Diana, acts that were considered apostasy, not witchcraft. But at her second trial in 1390, she was sentenced to death for recidivism and for having actually participated in the games. Thus, the transition between attitudes of the Canon and later ones hinged on the understanding of legendary material as fact (Muraro Vaiani, 1976:137-142)‹a critical transition which had ominous consequences in the development of the witchcraft persecutions.

One of the best-known of the Italian witch trials took place two centuries after Sibillia and Pierina were tried and executed. In 1540, Bellezza Orsini of Colle Vecchio (Perugia), a widely respected folk healer who cured using herb-infused oils, was accused of poisoning. At first she swore her innocence, but under torture, she confessed to being part of a secret society of witches. The secret society she described was a hierar- chical one in which the initiate-to-be apprenticed with a master strega. Initiation involved a formal renunciation of Church teachings, a renegation of baptism, and the invocation of the devil, who was called Mauometto ("Mohammed"), and appeared as a handsome man dressed in black. At the time of Bellezza's trial, the Islamic Ottoman empire was expanding its reach towards Europe. The use of the name "Mohammed" for the devil reflects widespread popular fear and prejudice towards Muslims in16th century Europe. Sexual intercourse with the devil was part of the initiation. Afterwards, the assembled company would fly off, with the help of flying ointment, to the magic walnut tree of Benevento where they would dance with other devils. Initiates chose new, non-Christian names so they could be used when members got together again. Orsini described witches as organized into teams according to their place of origin. Each team was led by a captain with 20-30 students under her. A "witch queen," called Befania, ruled over all the teams. Each November 1, there was a "reconciliation," or gathering of witches, during which a new witch queen would be elected. According to Orsini, the members of the witch society were sworn to help one another, and to help less fortunate teams by sharing baby-meatballs and other ingredients. By then, witch gatherings included cannibalistic feasting, and the dead were no longer brought back to life.

It is evident that drastic changes had taken place in the Diana/Herodias legend complex between 1390 and 1540. Gone are the earlier legends of all-female societies of revelers whose presence brought good luck to the homes they visited, and where all that was consumed was magically restored‹a kind of compensatory fantasy for the poor not unlike other contemporary portrayals of utopias of plenty, such as Cuccagna and Bengodi (Del Giudice, 2001). By 1540, Herodias and Diana are no longer players in the dangerous "game." Instead, it has acquired menacing, diabolical elements introduced by ecclesiastical revisions which interpreted all deviations from Christian doctrine as evidence of a world-wide diabolical conspiracy whose agents were witches. The witch gathering is now presided over by the devil, whose name is identical to that of the Islamic prophet Mohammed‹evidence of the demonization of Islam in the popular imagination by the 16th century. Besides the devils" followers, the women present include the witch-queen Befania, a corruption of the word epifania ("epiphany"), and witches who initiate their charges into the diabolical society. According to Cattabiani, there may well be a connection between Befana, the Italian Christmas witch, and earlier legends of Herodias. This link is preserved in the names for the Befana in the region of the Italian Alps near Belluno, where to this day she is known as "Redodesa," "Redosa," or "Redosola"‹possible corruptions of "Erodiade" (cf. Romanian "Irodeasa") (Cattabiani, 1994:13). The witches gather at Benevento and fly around the magical walnut tree with the help of flying ointment; cannibalism and sexual intercourse with the devil are integral features of their assemblies. The witch society is a secret society; initiates are brought in by a teacher, and secret names are used to conceal everyday identity. November 1 is now a recognized time for witches" gatherings. Bellezza Orsini's confession reveals the growing diabolization of the legend of the night journeys, as well as the crystallization of certain folk motifs which continue to be central in contemporary revival Witchcraft: secrecy, the use of ritual names, initiation through a teacher, and the importance of October 31/ November 1 in the year cycle. The transition in the content of the legends was accompanied by a change in the attitudes of the clerics and the elite: material previously understood as legendary was now being understood as fact. The tension between belief and disbelief that had kept the legends circulating was beginning to solidify into an acceptance of the witches" sabbat as an actual event. By 1525, the Canon Episcopi was being called into question: Paolo Grillando writes in De sortilegiis eorumque poenas that the Canon was mistaken about the illusory nature of the witches" sabbats, and that they were in fact real (Bonomo, 1959:110).


But what if the judges were right? If the games of Diana/ Herodias were in fact experiences of the imagination, whether dreams or other alternate states of consciousness, why did many women confess to having attended them? Is it possible that the Society of Diana/ Herodias was a real secret society of women, and that Sibillia, Pierina and Bellezza were members? Could Herodias/ Erodiade/ Aradia have been the secret name of an actual leader of such a society, who then became legendary? If this were true, it would give us an intriguing source for Leland's legend of Aradia, as well as revolutionizing our understanding of the history of the witch trials and our sense of gender relations in Europe during the middle ages. Let us carefully examine the evidence both for and against this hypothesis. First, it is important to remember that not all women confessed to the reality of their experiences; many maintained their dream-like nature to the bitter end. Other confessions, like Bellezza's, were produced under torture, and are thus unreliable as historical evidence. Victims would often confess to outrageous acts under torture because the narration of fantastic episodes brought respite from agony and bought the accused time. A strange compact often developed between judges and their victims which may have led some women to manufacture diabolical details they thought would satisfy their accusers, leading to the creation of fantastic trivia such as the baby meatballs in Bellezza's confession. Other details might have been drawn from the victim's knowledge of everyday reality; for example, the complex organization of the witch society described by Bellezza parallels the organization of other medieval social institutions such as trade guilds and religious fraternities and sororities, which were led by elected officials chosen at yearly assemblies. These guilds and fraternities functioned as mutual aid societies, much as Bellezza describes for the secret society of witches. Thus we need to be selective in interpreting the nature of these narratives. Some details suggest that certain aspects of the Society of Diana/ Herodias may have been real. The women who reported on it constituted only a small minority of all those accused of witchcraft. Moreover, the narrators had an important element in common: they were folk healers and diviners. A key function of the night-time journeys was the obtaining of answers to divinatory questions and information on cures. This structure parallels that of similar belief-complexes about spirits, healers and night journeys from the circum- Mediterranean. In several of these examples, we know that folk healers indeed were members of a society that convened in the flesh to play music, dance ecstatically and conduct healing rites. In other cases, the societies reported by healers existed only in spirit, and included spiritual members, whether fairies, jinn, exotica or iele. These details, shared with other circum- Mediterranean healing traditions, suggest that the accused may indeed have been part of a secret society of folk healers‹either actual, spiritual, or both.

At the same time, other legend elements have content that is clearly dream-like and fantastic: all wishes are granted; food magically regenerates; humans fly. These motifs point to the spiritual nature of at least some of the experiences. Additional elements suggest the creation of a legendary peasant utopia: there is food and drink aplenty for all assembled; humans and nature exist in harmony; death is followed by resurrection or rebirth; relationships, though hierarchical, are based on mutual trust and dignity; knowledge is available to all members; gratification is ubiquitous, and the Christian notion of earthly pleasures as sinful is completely absent. These descriptions suggest a kind of utopia, an "imagined state" whose conditions inversely reflect those of its source (Del Giudice and Porter, 2001:4-5). Muraro Vaiani suggests that Diana/ Herodias was to her followers as Christ was to his, albeit in a parallel universe: the Lady did not judge or deny the Christian universe, but offered an alternative (Muraro Vaiani, 1976:153). Legends of the secret society may have constituted a kind of compensatory fantasy for women‹ one in which women had power and the ultimate authority rested with a benevolent supernatural female leader. Through legends and perhaps even dreams, they may have offered solace and compensation to women whose real-life experiences reflected the hardships of gender and class oppression in medieval Europe, much as narratives of earthly paradises such as Cuccagna and Bengodi, where rivers flowed with wine and mountains were made of cheese, were created by Italian peasants whose everyday lives were filled with hunger and privation (Del Giudice, 2001:12).

How can we better understand the nature of these narratives, which even after six centuries seem to take place in a world between dream and reality? I would suggest that it is not unreasonable to assume the existence in medieval Italy of legend complexes similar to those in other parts of the circum-Mediterranean, concerning fairies, spiritual journeys and healing. As we have already seen, aspects of these belief systems existed in parts of Europe and North Africa until the end of the 20th century. Henningsen's work confirms the existence of similar beliefs in Sicily during the 16th century, and Behringer documents their presence in the western Alps. If Sibillia, Pierina and Bellezza were indeed members of such a society, their stories begin to make a certain amount of sense. This is especially true if we consider two additional tentative assumptions: the idea of ostension and that of the autonomous imagination. Ostension is D"gh and Vazonyi's term for the enactment of legends. For example, a Halloween haunted house may portray legends about ghosts, vampires and werewolves, or a Pagan ritual may dramatize the legend of Robin Hood. Ostension always derives from a pre-existing legend: the legend precedes the existence of its enactment. Thus, for instance, legends of contaminated Halloween candy predated the finding of actual contaminants in treats by at least ten years (D"gh and Vazsonyi, 1986/1995). Individuals who placed needles, razor blades and other dangerous objects in treats as pranks engaged in a form of ostension. The theory of ostension explains how easily certain elements can pass from legend to ritualized action. Hypothetically, legends about spiritual journeys to dance with the fairies and receive healing can easily be transformed by creative individuals into healing rituals with food offerings to the fairies and ecstatic dancing to special music. 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.

However, it is important to remember that even if a group decided to enact aspects of the legend of Diana/ Herodias, it would not have been a revival of pre-Christian paganism, but an attempt to act out certain ritual aspects described in the legends. Moreover, the more magical aspects from the trial reports‹night flights on the backs of animals, ever-replenishing banquets, resurrection of dead livestock‹could not have been achieved through ostension. We need to consider these as fantastical legend motifs, reports of experiences from trances or dreams, or both.

One way to explain these motifs is to consider the role of the autonomous imagination in blending cultural and personal material. This term, coined by anthropologist Michele Stephen, refers to a part of the human imagination that operates without our conscious control (Stephen, 1989:55- 61). It emerges in dreams and in alternate states of consciousness such as vision trances and religious ecstasy. The visions it produces are vivid and detailed, appearing "more real than reality" to experiencers. They seem to arise independently of any conscious volition on the part of the subject. The autonomous imagination is more creative and synthetic than ordinary thought processes, easily combining elements from the subject's personal life with cultural and religious material. Thus dreams and visions seem to speak directly to our most intimate concerns, but also bring religious and cultural symbols to bear upon them. Furthermore, the autonomous imagination processes time and memory differently from ordinary conscious thought. Past, present and future events may blend together; personal memories may combine with cultural material in unusual ways.

It is possible that some of the experiences of the Society of Diana/ Herodias described by the accused are attributable to the autonomous imagination of the experiencers. Please note that I am not claiming that the accusers invented the experiences; in fact, I am saying quite the opposite. To women such as Pierina and Sibillia, the experience of flying out to the games of Herodias may have seemed more real than ordinary, everyday reality if it took place in trance visions. While it is possible that vision trances may have played a part in a hypothetical, ostensive Society of Diana/ Herodias, it is also conceivable that women who were active narrators of these legends as well as folk healers might have experienced altered states of consciousness, either through the use of herbs or by using meditative techniques. This is consistent with the discoveries of Behringer, who studied the trial transcripts of Conrad Stoeckhlin, a 16th century horse herder from Oberstdorf, in the western Alps, who was executed for practicing witchcraft. Stoeckhlin, a folk healer, reported that an angel led him on a series of trance journeys and gave him advice on healing and divination (Behringer, 1998:17-21; 138). We also know that some contemporary Italian folk healers used such techniques well into the 20th century, and that they reported contacting spirits who helped them with their healing (Henningsen, 1993; De Martino, 1961, 1966; Selis, 1978; DiNola, 1993:41).

Of course, spiritual experiences (and their interpretations) vary widely according to culture and historical period. It is not unlikely that contemporary legend material about Diana, Herodias and the fairies may have made its way into the trance visions of medieval Italian folk healers through the mechanism of the autonomous imagination, giving rise to their reports of actually participating in the game of Herodias. The healers were telling the truth; their experiences were real. Both Behringer, in his research on the visionary horse herder Stoeckhlin, and Stuart Clark, in his monumental study of early European demonology, propose early modern European folk culture did not always distinguish sharply between experiences that took place in dreams, ecstatic visions or trances and reality (Behringer, 1998:158-59; Clark, 1997:193-96). The dualistic conception in which "dreamtime" was opposed to "reality" was a product of medieval Church reforms that culminated in the formation of the myth of diabolical witchcraft. Here we must return to Muraro Vaiani's hypothesis that it was the judges who did not know how to understand the ecstatic experiences of the accused because they fell outside of their dualistic conception of the nature of reality. Therefore, they interpreted them as sorcery‹the only mechanism they understood through which illusion could be made to seem real.


What can we conclude from this evidence about the legend of Aradia? The evidence I have examined and presented here suggests that the legend of Aradia has roots in archaic, pre-Christian materials concerning societies of healers who trafficked with spirits in order to cure. Healing may have involved trance-journeys as well as ecstatic dancing. These ancient materials combined with Classical legends of Diana and Hecate, and during the middle ages became attached to the New Testament story of Herodias, the eternal dancer. By the 11th century, these elements had become part of a widespread legend complex in Europe that may have involved episodes of ostension, or the enactment of certain legend motifs, probably for the purposes of healing. As clerical and popular attitudes towards the nature of nighttime spiritual journeys changed, these legends merged with parallel folk materials about maleficent witches, and became the building blocks of the subversion myth of the diabolical sabbat, responsible for the death of tens of thousands of innocent women and men between 1300 and 1750.

What Leland collected from Maddalena may represent a 19th century version of this legend that incorporated later materials influenced by medieval diabolism: the presence of "Lucifero," the Christian devil; the practice of sorcery; the naked dances under the full moon. While there may have been instances of ostension regarding this legend, the evidence does not support the idea that Aradia was an early teacher of the Craft, although some women may have called themselves Erodiade during ostensive episodes. There is no evidence of a widespread revival of pre-Christian religion as a result of the proliferation of this legend. In fact, it is ironic that a compensatory legend that envisioned a society led by women, featuring relationships based on equality, access to knowledge for all, and the fulfillment of all earthly desires became twisted into the subversion myth of the diabolical sabbat, which was responsible for the murder of so many innocent women during the witch craze.

Legends and beliefs about healing, fairies and nighttime spiritual journeys may have continued to exist in pockets throughout Italy until the late 20th century. Because legends always change to reflect their social environment, they became Christianized, and incorporated references to saints. In some cases, saints may have replaced the earlier fairies. Some version of this legend complex may be at the core of both Leland's discovery of a "witch cult" in Tuscany in the late 1800's, and Grimassi's claims that his family practiced a form of folk healing that involved spirits, dancing, and the goddess Diana (Grimassi, pers. communication 8/25/00). These were not, as Leland suggested, survivals of Etruscan religion, but elements of great antiquity reworked into systems that made sense for Italian peasants of the late 1800's and early 1900's. Some parts of these belief systems may even have survived the journey to America, forming the basis of Stregheria, or Italian American revival Witchcraft.

Folklore, of course, seldom dies; it transforms itself according to new paradigms and cultural discourses. So it is not surprising to read new versions of this legend emerging today. Grimassi's expansion of Leland's materials must be understood in exactly such a context‹as the continuation of the legend begun so long ago. It is intriguing to note that while both Leland's and Grimassi's versions may appear to be strictly Neo- Pagan in content, both also contain very strong Christian influences. In the Gospel of the Witches, Diana sends her only daughter Aradia to earth to teach people to resist their oppressors just as in the New Testament, God sends his son Jesus to earth for much the same purpose. In Hereditary Witchcraft, Grimassi describes Aradia as having twelve disciples, six male-female couples, who help spread her teachings after her mysterious disappearance. Do these elements invalidate the legends? Quite the contrary, I would argue. They simply demonstrate how easily legend material absorbs motifs from the surrounding culture. These elaborated new versions show that the legend of Aradia is a living tradition that continues to evolve today, changing to adapt to the individual needs of the narrator as well as the larger changes in society.


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