mural that has recently come to light in Tuscany has been
identified by a British university lecturer as the earliest
surviving representation of witchcraft in Christian Europe.
A book published in Italy by George Ferzoco (director of the
center for Tuscan studies at the University of Leicester)
argues that at least two of the women in the erotic wall
painting are sorceresses.
"I have no doubt that this is by far the earliest depiction
in art of women acting as witches," Ferzoco says.
The 13th-century mural was discovered on August 6th, 2000,
at Massa Marittima, a town south-west of Siena. The large,
richly colored painting - seven meters high - was found
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.
Detail of phalluses from
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.
Detail from painting
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
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, a small town in northwestern Tuscany.
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."
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," 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 a 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.
The depiction of witches
assembled in the mural, along with the absence of the Devil,
shares much in common with the early ideas of the witches'
Sabbat before the 16th century. In the early
15th century sermons of Bernardino of Siena we find what may
be the first descriptions of Italian witch assemblies in the
Christian era. Bernardino uses the Italian term
tregenda when he refers to the assembly of witches.
Scholar Franco Mormando
"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
Writing of the Tregenda/Sabbat,
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.” - The
Preacher’s Demons, page 66
The records of Bernardino's
sermons are valuable because they pre-date the period from
1560 - 1660, which was the most virulent era of the witch
hysteria. Therefore they provide earlier evidence from
an obscure realm of history. Mormando comments:
"Note that in Bernardino's
mind, the tregenda has not quite become the sabbath; he
makes no explicit mention of the Devil's presence or of
licentious behavior at these meetings of the society of
Diana. Nonetheless, he may have assumed, and expected
his audience to assume, that neither was really absent from
The latter statement is
speculation, but is worth noting as a possibility. We
do know that the Devil was certainly associated with
witchcraft by the Church and its agents during the time of
Bernardino. 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 soul 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…”
- Demon Lovers – Witchcraft,
Sex, and the Crisis of Belief by Walter Stephens
(University of Chicago, 2002, page 132)
goes on to note:
“In fact, the
tregenda that Passavanti describes is not what we now call
the Sabbat; it is probably a reminiscence of what
folklorists call the wild host or wild hunt." - page
This brings us to the
troublesome text known as the Canon Episcopi, which most
scholars view as a conflation of paganism with witchcraft.
Bernardino quotes the Canon text as follows:
“Among the most impious
wild brutes are some most wicked women and even sometimes
men who believe and openly profess that they go riding at
night on certain beasts along with Diana (or Iobiana or
Herodias) and countless other women, traveling over great
distances in the silence of of the dead night, obeying her
commands as if she were their mistress, and are pressed into
her service on certain nights, such as Thursday and Sunday.
They also claim that some children, especially small boys,
can be changed by them into a lower or higher forms (in
deterius vel in melius) or transformed into some other
appearance or likeness.” -
The Preacher's Demons, page
But the idea of souls joined
to a goddess figure is very ancient. The goddess
Hecate has long been associated with witchcraft and with the
crossroads, which appears in legends as a meeting place for
souls that cannot pass into the Otherworld. Hecate is
depicted in ancient myths as a goddess of the crossroads who
guides the dead. It is not difficult to see this gathering
of souls as the wild host. The goddess Diana has also
been associated with witchcraft by ancient writers, and the
concept of a "wild hunt" is certainly not divorced from a
goddess associated with hunting (as is the case with the
goddess Diana). The ancient writer Lucan even writes
of a witch referring to her goddess who is triformis in
“Persephone, who is the
third and lowest aspect of our (the witches') goddess Hekate:
Hekate, through whom I can silently converse with the
(Luc. B.C. 6: 736-38)
The name of the goddess who
is not mentioned in Lucan's reference is undoubtedly the
goddess Diana as evidenced in the contemporary writings of
the period (and earlier). Here we have not only the
presence of a triformis goddess associated with witchcraft
in ancient times, but also a starting point with which to
begin tracing the
Society of Diana.
In the mural of Massa Marittima
more questions arise than do answers appear. Still it
remains a valuable snap shot of an early period in which the
presence of the Devil is not yet a mandatory one when
witches are shown in gatherings. Perhaps we are seeing
one remnant that suggests the existence of the witches' sect
from a period not yet fully contaminated by its opponents.
We may even be seeing something closer and truer to the
tregenda in its pagan form (before it became
distorted by the inclusion of Judeo-Christian concepts and
beliefs, and was thereby transformed into the popular
depiction of the witches' Sabbat).