Raven Grimassi
Raven's Loft
 

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THE ROOTS OF ITALIAN WITCHCRAFT

 

The origins of Italian Witchcraft go deeply into the past of the pre-Christian era.   The earliest forms were no doubt rooted in primitive ideas about magic and spirit beings.  But over time the concepts comprising Italian Witchcraft evolved.  As elements of foreign beliefs in magic were absorbed in Italy, indigenous beliefs were influenced by them over time.  This did not eradicate the old traditions or replace them, but almost certainly changes various elements were integrated.

In the ancient literature of Greece and Italy we find the witch as a person who calls upon the primal forces of Nature as well as upon such goddesses as Hecate, Diana and Proserpina.  One example is found in the tale of Medea, where she speaks an evocation:

"Diana, who commands silence when secret mysteries are performed, I invoke you. 

Night, faithful keeper of my secrets, and stars who, together with the moon, follow on from the fires of the daylight, I invoke you.

 Hecate of the three faces, who knows all my designs, and comes to help the incantations and the craft of the witches, I invoke you.

 Earth, who furnishes witches with powerful herbs, and you Breezes, Winds, Mountains, Rivers, and Lakes, and all the gods of the groves and all the gods of the night, be present to help me.

 Proserpina, night-wandering queen, I invoke you.

 Hecate, Diana, Proserpina, look kindly now upon this undertaking.”

The idea that inanimate objects possess consciousness and power (and can be called upon for aid) is extremely ancient. It is certain that primitive beliefs and practices were preserved among rustic people in rural areas, and in this light we can say that witchcraft is a peasant tradition as opposed to the learned class of educated city dwellers.  However, that being said, this is not meant to exclude the involvement of the learned class in the practice of witchcraft.

In my own lineage, I am reportedly descended from a witch named Calenda Tavani (sometimes called Caliente Tavani) and the Tavani were, at one time, nobles in the area of Naples (Tavani is a variant spelling of the more common family name, Tavano).   But was Calenda a witch because of her family lineage, or was she a witch who happened to be of noble blood lines?

We know historically that noble families hired Court magicians, astrologers and the like.  They also purchased Occult manuscripts and paid for them to be translated. Because noble families were clearly drawing upon outside sources, this strongly indicates that Noble families were not practicing bloodline traditions of their own but were collecting information to integrate into their developing practices.  In recent times the claim has been made that a  Pagan tradition was preserved and transmitted exclusively along family lines of Italian nobility, but this is, of course, highly unlikely.  Instead, what is likely is that eclectic practices were passed along in one form or another, but that such systems themselves can be no older than the Middle Ages (and therefore not a pre-Christian tradition).

We cannot dismiss the importance of Noble families that did creatively ensure the survival of the Occult Arts in one form or another.  One example is the Visconti family, which helped popularize the Tarot and therefore preserve it for future generations.  At this point in the article, mention should be made of a legendary secret society in Italy known as the Madre Natura.  One of the claims of the Order is that Cardinal dei Medici was a member in high standing.  The Order claimed descent from an ancient Italian priesthood, and one of its goals was to "restore the usurped altars to the god of the silver bow and the radiant daughter of the foaming wave" - a reference to ancient Roman deities.  The Order embraced the Pagan Creeds of the Neo-Platonists, and had connections to the Free Masons and the Carbonari, another secret society in Italy. Naturally these organizations are not pre-Christian themselves; they draw upon older concepts and materials but have no direct lineage to pre-Christian sects.

In recent writings over the past two years or so, I have referred to the tradition passed to me as being "peasant witchcraft" and I use this term to denote its old rustic roots.   It is clear, upon examination, that over time more sophisticated elements were added to the tradition, some of which are Hermetic and some appearing to be concepts reflected in Chaldean star lore.  These, along with ceremonial magic techniques, lead me to believe that the tradition adopted outside beliefs and practices, which were then modified to fit the preexisting witchcraft foundation.  I cover this in my title "The Book of the Holy Strega" published in 2009 (a different book from that of the same title, which I self-published back in the early 1980s).  It seems clear that occultists in the lineage had a hand at introducing elements that were of interest to them and which enhanced the tradition.

When we examine the roots of Italian Witchcraft, we have to include Etruscan influences (at last in mainland Italy).  Sicilian Witchcraft is more influenced by Greek elements, as the Greeks had a stronger presence in Sicily.  But we still find many similarities.  The Etruscans were the heirs to prehistoric religion in what is now mainland Italy, which explains extremely archaic elements of Tuscan Witchcraft.  Southern Italian traditions appear to have more Greek and Spanish influences (as Spain once ruled Sicily and parts of Southern Italy in the past). 

Over the passing centuries, foreign cults were brought into Italy.  These included sects from Egypt, the Middle East, and other regions.  Among the most popular and influential cults were those of the Great Mother (Asia Minor), Isis (Egypt), Mithras (Persia), and Dionysus (Greece).  How much of impact these cults had on the rural people is questionable, but among the learned class of city dwellers there is no question.  The villas and estates of the wealthy were decorated with paintings and frescos of foreign deities, which indicates the attraction to these foreign elements.

Ancient writings, such as those by Homer, Lucan and Ovid depict witches as calling upon the goddess Hecate, Diana and Proserpina.  The connection between witches and Diana is a persistent theme and also appears in the Middle Age and Renaissance periods.  The goddess Diana was venerated in the region of Aricia at her sacred site established on the shore of Lake Nemi.

With the rise to power of Christianity, and in particular the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine to Christianity, the decline of Paganism took place.  By the late 4th century of the Christian era, Pagan temples were closed by the authorities. The ancient writer Servius tells us that by the end of this century the Cult of Diana at Nemi was dissolved and the Guardian of the Grove (Rex Nemorensis) had been sent to Greece.  All the key and major strongholds of pre-Christian religion were eradicated.

We know historically that at the end of the 4th century a Christian cemetery was established at Nemi, which indicates that it was no longer regarded as Pagan ground.  In addition, the Christians used the area around the lake as a quarry up through the Middle Ages, which made the setting unusable for religious activities and purposes.  The caves along the hillsides became occupied by hermits and vagabonds.  The sacredness of the site gave way to mundane occupation.  In recent times the claim has been made that an unbroken pagan tradition survived at Nemi under the guardianship of a lineage of priestesses up into current times.  This is extremely doubtful in light of the historical facts surrounding Nemi.

The threat posed to witches by the Church and its agents was less severe than in other regions of Europe.  Imprisonment for six months, or banishment, was the most common punishment for anyone sentenced as a witch.  Executions did take place but in comparison to the rest of Europe they were very few.  In Italy, the authorities wanted the accused to repent and turn away from the practice of witchcraft.   There are several cases in Italian witchcraft trials where the accused has appeared before the authorities multiple times.   This type of leniency unintentionally allowed witchcraft practices to survive and be passed on.  We must take note that the witchcraft trials in Italy did not include charges against noble family members, but were aimed at the lower classes.

Of interest is the Gospel of Aradia, by 19th century folklorist Charles Leland, in which we find mention of witches and the nobility:

"In those days were many slaves who were cruelly treated; in every palace tortures, in every castle prisoners"

""And thou shalt teach the art of poisoning, of poisoning those who are great lords of all; yea, thou shalt make them die on their palaces.."

From this we can safely conclude that the witches traditionally had no allies or kindred practitioners among the noble class.  There are, however, oral tales that some nobles protected the occasional witch discretely.  The most likely reason being that the witch was needed for magical aid from time to time.  It should be noted that in some of the non-Leland tales of Aradia, it is suggested that Aradia was of noble bloodlines herself.  In such tales she flees her family (who want her to become a nun), and it appears that the mention of noble blood is simply to explain her ability to read and write.  While some nobles may have been involved in witchcraft, it is extremely unlikely that theirs was a family tradition.  It is more likely that a few people of noble bloodlines somehow found their way into witchcraft groups.

But to discover and understand the true roots of Italian witchcraft we must look to the distant past of pre-history.  The oldest myths and legends come from oral traditions that were later written down for future generations.  They record the memories of our ancestors in the misty past.  The oldest word in Western Culture used to denote a witch is the Greek word pharmaceute, which is pronounced far-mah-koo-tay.  It denotes a person with intimate knowledge of plants.  Since the beginning, witches have been associated with herbs (particularly those with strong chemicals that have profound effects upon the mind and body).

Ancient tales of witches connect them with the crossroads, a place with strong links to magic and to spirits of the dead.  In southern Europe, witches belonged to the vagabond class, which was rejected by mainstream society.  Witches did not gather in the fine temples of Greece and Rome, but met instead outside the cities in rural settings that included a crossroads.   One of the primary deities of the crossroads was the goddess Hecate, who is a classic goddess of witchcraft.  Among her attributes, Hecate is associated with wandering spirits of the dead that gather at the crossroads.   In ancient literature, witches are associated with three specific deities: Hecate, Diana, and Proserpina.  These are the deities of the lower classes, the disenfranchised, rejected, and non-conforming people who are traditionally not accepted within mainstream society.

Folklorists of the 19th century discovered witches in Italy who claimed to be practicing a tradition passed on through family lineage.  Among the folklorists were J.B. Andrews, Roma Lister, Charles Leland, and Lady de Vere.   These folklorists performed field studies in which they interviewed the self-identified witches.  Other authors such as Lina Gordon, and Eliza Heaton, mention village witches they encountered during their stay in Italy. The latter were solitary witches of the peasant class (as were those interviewed by the folklorists).  This demonstrates that witchcraft was firmly in place in several different regions of Italy, but with no note of witchcraft among the upper classes.