Raven Grimassi
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STREGONERIA: ITS TWO FORMS

 

Stregoneria is the contemporary word commonly translated into English as witchcraft.  Native Italians grow up with the idea that stregoneria is evil and harmful in nature, and they hold the same stereotype beliefs about stregoneria that the average American citizen holds about witchcraft.  The stereotype of stregoneria in Italy features the Devil and the black arts of magic.  The practitioner is typically portrayed as an old hag that is mistrusted and feared.  However, the practitioner is still sought out in secret by people needing the aid of her mystical arts. But is this practitioner a witch or is it a sorcerer?

In the course of this article we will explore two different forms of stregoneria.  One form is that which appears in common culture and of which various elements are found even in the average Italian family. These are often referred to as simply "the things we do."  In essence this is simple folk magic. This form of stregoneria incorporates various Catholic elements such as the rosary, cross, holy water, communion wafers, saints, candle vigils, and prayers.  Various charms against envy and the "evil eye" are also used for protection along with simple spells such as the use of olive oil and water to detect and banish ill forces. Among native Italians the difference between stregoneria and folk magic is that stregoneria is used for evil and folk magic for good.

Now that we have looked at the common form of stregoneria (its exoteric form) we will turn to the other form of stregoneria, which is the oldest one and comes to us from pre-Christian times.  It is, in essence, a primitive practice of magic uninfluenced by the so-called higher forms of magic that appear in Western ceremonial magic.  Glimpses of this type of stregoneria can be captured in the ancient tales of witches and witchcraft.  In Western literature we see the ancient witch calling upon various sources of power.  One example comes to us from the tales of Medea, a Greek witch. In tales, such as those of Ovid, Medea addresses her incantations to the stars, Hecate, Tellus, and the goddess of earth. She also erects an altar to Hecate and another to Hebe. Her incantations reveal the witch's connection to an ancient theology:

“Night, trustiest keeper of my secrets, and stars who, together with the moon, follow on from the fires of the daylight, and you Hecate of the three heads, who know all about my designs and come to help the incantations and the craft of the witches, and Earth, who furnish witches with powerful herbs, and 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.  Night-wandering queen, look kindly upon this undertaking."

What we see here is the calling upon of not only deities but of spirits or forces.  The latter is indicated by the inclusion of the wind, mountains, rivers and lakes.  This suggests two things.  First we may well be looking at concepts of Neolithic thought if not of an earlier period prior to the personification of deities in human form.  Second, we are looking at a "night cult" - demonstrated by the inclusion of a "night-wandering queen" and "gods of the night" not to mention the evocation of Night and the stars themselves.  This sets witchcraft apart from mainstream Greek religion.

There is no doubt that Roman witchcraft was highly influenced by its Greek counterpart.  Elements of Roman witchcraft appear in Italian Witchcraft to this day, but another important aspect is the influence of Etruscan magic and theology.  However this topic is too vast to examine in this article.  Author Charles Leland deals with it nicely in his book Etruscan Roman Remains, and the curious reader may wish to read that work.

Despite the inclusion of an altar and the evocation of deities in the tales of witchcraft, the ancient Greek writers refer to it as illicit religion. This topic is  discussed in the book Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: Ancient Greece and Rome (edited by Bengt Ankarloo and Stuart Clark, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999).    Over the centuries the magical art of witchcraft was the primary focus of writers. This resulted in the view that witchcraft is/was simply a practice and not a religion. Ironically, during the Christian period of the witch trials, witches were accused of worshipping the Devil, which is a religious theme.  But witchcraft continued to fall only under the category of a magical practice.

Centuries of trials in which the accused witches were asked for details of their practices and beliefs strongly suggests that the ways of the sect were not common knowledge.  This in turn points to witches being taught in secret through either family lines or membership in some form of group or inner society.  In trial transcripts the questions put to the accused are not directed at uncovering anything of a religious nature (old or new) but instead are focused on magical practices and ill deeds.  It is this portrait of witches and witchcraft that spreads into popular culture and creates the stereotype in the minds of the populace.

Italian culture was less influenced by witchcraft than it was by Folk Magic.  The latter is found not only in the common practices and beliefs of the Italian people but also in the folklore and various tales that natives grow up with.  Like small fragments of witchcraft, various elements of folk magic are found in many Italian families.  In many cases the members of the family do not view such things as being witchcraft or folk magic but simply as "the things we do".

Folklorists and social Anthropologists present various theories about the origins of folklore and Folk Magic, but all seem to agree that changes take place within them that alter the original models.  This is because the average person is not interested in preserving things exactly as he or she found them.  Instead such things are often adapted for personal use and this changes various elements of the lore or Folk Magic within the culture.

By contrast the witch is a preserver of traditions and consciously works not to alter the teachings and techniques.  Things may be added to his or her Craft, but the original models are honored and preserved.  The art of witchcraft is passed on from witch to witch and is not available to the everyday person within Italian culture.  That small elements of witchcraft found their way into popular culture seems apparent by their presence.  How and why this happened is not important for the purposes of this article.

What we are seeing in contemporary times is a sub-cultural movement in Italy of individuals and groups interested in paganism, witchcraft, and folk magic arts. Many of these seekers have left the Catholic faith and the restraints of mainstream society.  Unfortunately they tend to carry with them the basic concepts of what they learned growing up, which naturally colors their perception related to things such as witchcraft.  Much of what they were exposed to, and came to accept at one point in their lives, came from the Church. Additional influences came from the movies, the magazines, whatever published books were available.  Unfortunately this conveyed little more than the stereotypes.  The actual practices of witches remained hidden from plain sight.

This situation has resulted in attempts to recreate such things as stregoneria from whatever public sources are available. Naturally this misinformation results in confusion, and from this we find misrepresentations and misidentifications of witchcraft and folk magic. One example is that of the Internet group calling itself "Stregoneria Italiana" that collects and mixes a hodge-podge of systems and practices into one conflated concept under the banner of "Stregoneria Italiana."  Another example is the site known as Rue's Kitchen, which presents mainstream folk magic concepts of  Italian culture as though they reflect a cohesive system of practice and belief.  But like Stregoneria Italiana, the featured material is not representative of initiate teachings but is simply the layperson's perspective of what is actually an esoteric system that remains outside of their knowledge and experience.

The Rues' Kitchen site hosts an article that distorts Grimassi's position on Stregheria.  Its primary goal seems to be that of misguiding the reader about Grimassi's role in the presentation of "Stregheria" as well as attempting to discredit the validity of the system. The first erroneous allegation is that Grimassi has given the word "Stregheria" a "complete makeover."  However the facts are that at its core, Grimassi's presentation of Stregheria as a religious form of witchcraft connected with the goddess Diana, is in keeping with pre-existing writings on Stregheria.  These writings include the 17th century writings of Giralamo Tartarotti, the 19th century writings of folklorist Charles Leland, and a variety of trial transcripts in which "Diana" and other goddess names appear.  Therefore the accusation against Grimassi is unfounded and unwarranted as he clearly did not invent or "makeover" these concepts.

One devious statement is that what Grimassi presents "looks exactly like modern Wicca with an Italian accent." This is stated in a way that suggests deception on Grimassi's part.  However, in his book, Italian Witchcraft, Grimassi clearly states that the material is a blend of Italian witchcraft with Wiccan elements.  The book also makes it clear that its focus is on the "Aridian Tradition" which Grimassi states is a modern one that he created (based upon an older model).  In this we see that Grimassi is forthright in his presentation of Stregheria as a blend, and is not misleading anyone as suggested by his critics.

Another false allegation is that Stregheria, as Grimassi presents it, is "completely unrecognizable" to Italians who have grown up in an actual family tradition. This implies that the critic has personal knowledge of what constitutes authentic family witchcraft traditions, which is highly doubtful when looking at other commentaries from this individual.  In any case, the readership mail sent to Grimassi from native Italians demonstrates that many similarities exist between his writings and the practices of Italian people claiming to practice witchcraft (although certainly not the Wiccan elements).  Therefore although some things may be unrecognizable in Italian family traditions, many are recognizable, and so the statement that Grimassi's material is completely unrecognizable is completely untrue.

The final erroneous statement is that Stregheria is a "unique" and "modern construction with an ancient label slapped onto its surface."  The facts are that both the word "stregheria" and the concept of it as a religious form of witchcraft associated with Diana is not modern or unique.  However what is a modern construction by Grimassi is the Aridian Tradition of which he writes in his book Italian Witchcraft (formerly titled Ways of the Strega), and his book Hereditary Witchcraft.  It should be noted that the Aridian Tradition is not "Stregheria" itself but falls under the umbrella .  Stregheria is the ancient Witch religion of Old Italy, and the Aridian Tradition is a contemporary Italian-American system based upon it but adopting modern elements from other sources as well.

By way of summary, we have looked at the two types of Stregoneria.  One is that which is known to lineage practitioners who have been trained and initiated into the timeless arts.  The other version is that which is imagined by non-initiates who are comprised of everyday people growing up with the stereotypes of popular culture. And as we have seen, it is not uncommon for fragments of folk magic to be practiced among average Italian families. These elements come from simple non-initiate levels of popular culture and are readily recognizable by the man-on-the-street.  The initiate level teachings escape notice because they are not part of popular culture but remain available only to an inner society.  By contrast the layperson's perspective is easily found on sites like Stregoneria Italiana and Rue's Kitchen. Hopefully the day will come when authentic Stregoneria is written about and is featured on websites just as elements of authentic Italian witchcraft have been brought to light through the efforts of Stregheria initiate Raven Grimassi.

Grimassi is currently working on a new book, tentatively titled The Witchcraft of Old Italy.  This book will present authentic Italian witchcraft without the Wiccan elements of the Aridian system featured in previous works by Grimassi.  This book will help demonstrate what is authentic and what is not, and will further demonstrate the differences between Stregheria itself (as a whole) and the Italian-American branch formed by Grimassi under the name of the Aridian tradition.  This will be the first book ever written by an actual initiate practitioner of Italian witchcraft to disclose what has been kept secret for generations.  Grimassi feels that due to the persistence of false information and deliberate distortion on the Internet, that the time has come to finally sort the chaff from the grain.