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
"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
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
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
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
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
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.