Raven Grimassi
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Many people are familiar with Charles Leland's account of Italian Witchcraft, as well as the famous figure Aradia whom Leland introduced to the public in 1899.  In this article I will present documentation from several sources showing that an active Witch cult was functioning in Italy during the later half of the 19th century. Let us look now at Aradia and Italian Witchcraft as seen through the eyes of 19th century writers in Italy.

In 1886 a man named Charles Leland became acquainted with an Italian woman named Maddalena who claimed to be a witch. Over a 10 year period she provided him with what she claimed was The Witches' Gospel. During this period Leland was heavily involved in the study of Italian Folklore. In 1899 he published a book called Aradia; The Gospel of the Witches based upon material that Maddalena had supplied him. Unfortunately the work is largely typical of distorted images of Witchcraft common to the era. We do, however, discover some valid elements of Italian Witchcraft traceable to actual pre-Christian pagan practices.

What is valuable in Leland's book Aradia; Gospel of the Witches is that we find a very interesting view of pre-Gardnerian Witchcraft in Italy. Leland gives an account of Witches who gather nude to worship a goddess and a god when the moon is full. During this celebrate they enjoy cakes and wine, and they sing, dance and make love. For those readers who believe that Gardner invented these concepts, bear in mind that this was written in 1890, over half a century before Gardner's writings. Some people claim that such aspects are Gardnerian indicators and argue that the Strega Tradition is therefore based on modern Wiccan tenets. However, the timeframe does not support such an erroneous assessment, as these concepts clearly pre-date the Gardnerian movement of the 1950s from which modern Wicca evolved.

It is important to note that Leland is not the only source of information relating to an active Witch sect in Italy circa 1896. In volume 3 of Folk-Lore; Transactions of the Folk-Lore Society (published March, 1897) we find an interesting account of Neapolitan Witchcraft. The author, J.B. Andrews, tells us: "The Neapolitans have an occult religion and government in witchcraft, and the Camorra; some apply to them to obtain what official organizations cannot or will not do. As occasionally happens in similar cases, the Camorra fears and yields to the witches, the temporal to the spiritual."

Andrews goes on to say the Witches of Naples are divided into special departments of the art. He lists two as adepts in the art of earth and sea magick. Later in the article it is implied that a third specialty may exist related to the stars. Andrews also tells us that Neapolitan Witches perform knot magick, create medicinal herbal potions, construct protective amulets, and engage in the arts of healing

Andrews concludes his article with information he collected from interviewing Italian Witches. Here he states that when asked of them what books they gathered their information from, the Witches replied that their knowledge was entirely traditional, and is "given by the mother to the daughter." The Witches also tell Andrews that blood is exchanged from a vein in the arm, and the new member is given a mark under the left thigh. Although the moon is not specifically mentioned, the Witches do report to Andrews that such ceremonies are performed at midnight.

The ancient Roman poet Horace gives us perhaps the earliest accounts of Italian Witches and their connection to a lunar cult. In the Epodes of Horace, written around 30 BC, he tells the tale of an Italian witch named Canidia. Horace says that Proserpine and Diana grant power to Witches who worship them, and that Witches gather in secret to perform the mysteries associated with their worship. He speaks of a Witches' book of Incantations (Libros Carminum) through which the Moon may be "called down" from the sky. Other ancient Roman writers such as Lucan and Ovid produced works which clearly support the same theme. This would seem to indicate that during this Era such beliefs about Witches and Witchcraft were somewhat common knowledge. We know from the writings of Roman times that Proserpine and Diana were worshipped at night in secret ceremonies. Their worshippers gathered at night beneath the full moon and shunned the cities where the solar gods ruled. Diana was a Roman Moon Goddess known earlier in Greece as Artemis; twin sister of Apollo God of the Sun.

In his book, The World of Witches, anthropologist Julio Baroja reveals evidence of a flourishing cult in southern Europe that worshipped Diana during the 5th and 6th Centuries AD. In the author's notes for chapter 4 he adds that the cult also worshipped a male deity called Dianum. Transcripts from Witch trials in Italy indicate a connection between Witches and the goddess Diana spanning several centuries. In addition to Leland and J.B Andrews, we also have Italian Folklorist Lady Vere de Vere's accounts of Italian Witchcraft as she encountered it in the Italian region of Tyrol. In an interesting article found in La Rivista of Rome (published June 1894) Lady Vere de Vere tells us that "the Community of Italian Witches is regulated by laws, traditions, and customs of the most secret kind, possessing special recipes for sorcery." What should be of particular interest here to anyone with an open mind is Leland's, Andrews' and Lady Vere de Vere's use of the present tense when speaking of Italian Witchcraft circa 1896.

In the Journal of Social History (volume 28, 1995) we find a fascinating article written by Sally Scully, Department of History at San Francisco University. The article details certain aspects of a Witchcraft trial in 17th century Venice. The transcripts of this particular trial are the fourth largest in the Venetian Inquisition's records.

The trial itself focuses upon a woman named Laura Malipero. In 1654, her home is searched by the Captain of the Sant'Ufficio, an arm of the Inquisition. Discovered were several crudely written spells along with sophisticated herbals and copies of an occult book known as the Clavicle of Solomon. This particular book had been banned by the Roman Inquisition in 1640. Laura says in her defense that a boarder in her home had left the objects behind. She further claimed to be illiterate and had no knowledge of the contents. However, the Inquisition noted the presence of copies in various stages of completion, and concluded that a copying process was taking place in her home. At her trial a witness testified that Laura was the most famous witch in Venice (strega famosissima.)

Laura's lawyer argues that she is a magical herbal healer well trained in the arts, and that her procedures work and are valid techniques. He claims she was instructed by pharmacists and barbers (official Guilds of the time) who were licensed by the government. Witnesses come forth to testify to her skills. But adding to her woes is the fact that this is her third appearance before the Inquisition on charges of Witchcraft. In 1630 Laura had been sentenced to one year in jail for heresy after her husband divorced her for practicing witchcraft. She was accused of placing tokens in a shoe, keeping a spell in a purse, and putting holy water in the soup. Laura confessed, but stated that her intentions were beneficent.

In 1649 Laura was again tried by the Inquisition for practicing "stregarie" (love magic, divination, etc.) along with her mother (Isabella), half-sister (Marietta Battaglia) and 13 others. Marietta confessed to fortune telling and little works of magic (piria, cordella, inchiostra). She herself had also been tried by the Inquisition in 1637 for practicing Witchcraft. In the 1649 trial Marietta alone is sentenced to jail and banishment.

What interests us in all of this, is the historical documentation of 17th century Italian Witches hand-copying spells and manuscripts of a magical nature. If nothing else, this serves as partial evidence that Italian Witches were passing magical traditions through personal hand written books (what Wiccans would call a Book of Shadows). This lends credence to the claims of family Witches that centuries old oral and written knowledge has been passed down through the generations. If Laura and her family were involved in such endeavors, certainly others were as well. The existence of hand copied books by Witches is yet another aspect of Italian Witchcraft later appearing in Gardnerian Wicca. In Leland's Gospel of Aradia he refers several times to material recorded in writing by Italian Witches. Leland also tells us that the copy of the Witches' Gospel he received from Maddalena was in her own hand writing.

Shortly after the revival of the Old Religion by Aradia, the violent persecution of Witches stormed Italy. In order to survive, the Cult 'went underground' meeting only in secret and creating strict laws to insure non-discovery. This secrecy continued until the early 19th century when Witches began operating under the guise of Masonic groups and other organizations.

Italian Witches joined Masonic groups both to protect themselves and to continue the ancient practices with other Witches. Masonic influences are readily recognized by a simple examination of modern practices. For example, the Comacini were highly influential in the development of various Masonic elements that appear in modern Witchcraft systems throughout much of continental Europe and the British Isles.  Other secret societies such as the Italian Carbonari (that established lodges in Scotland circa 1820) had three degrees of initiation marked by colored cords or ribbons: blue, red and black. A triangle marked the first degree level. The Carbonari claimed to have been based upon the Roman Mystery Cult of Mithra. One story originating from their Order in France states that this particular chapter originated in Scotland during the reign of Queen Isabel and was befriended by Francis I, King of France. Under his protection the Masonic cult multiplied and spread to Germany, France and England where it was also known as Forest Masonry. There is an interesting similarity here to Italian Witches who call their own groups"groves" (Boschetto).

A Hermetic group in Naples also influenced modern Stregheria. This group was called Fratellanza Terapeutico-Magica di Myriam (the Magical Therapeutic Brotherhood of Myriam) and was founded in Naples by a man named Guilian Kremmerz. On March 20, 1896 the Brotherhood of Myriam drew up a constitution and commenced formal instruction. The basic structure of the Order's practices was based upon natural magnetic properties found in all living things as well as in the earth itself. The Order taught that all things were balanced within a polarity structure. Healing through electromagnetic properties of the body was one of the primary practices of the Brotherhood.

The Brotherhood of Myriam taught the concept of the aura, an energy field surrounding the body. It also instructed its members concerning the lunar body. The lunar body was believed to form from the emotional state of an individual, creating an energy body within the aura. The lunar body, in this context, is the occult or spiritual counterpart to the electromagnetic energy field known as the aura. The Order of Myriam also instructed its members on the astral dimensions and various practices associated astral workings. Although such concepts were previously well known to Italian Witches, the Brotherhood supplied terms and labels that were later adopted into Stregheria.