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The contemporary folk magic systems in Italy reflect strong elements of Catholicism, as they have since the late Middle Ages. In America, and elsewhere, we are seeing the rise of what is commonly called Christian witchcraft. The latter is a blending of contemporary Wiccan and witchcraft elements, which are formed around a Christian core. This process is not unlike the evolution of modern folk traditions in Italy.

Modern Italian witchcraft traditions, by contrast to contemporary Italian folk traditions, typically do not contain Christian elements. Instead they focus upon Pagan elements of magic and religion. However a few traditions have adapted certain Catholic aspects of saint veneration, which constitute a Christian veneer masking earlier Pagan deities.

Some contemporary folk traditions erroneously view themselves as practitioners of a form of Italian witchcraft, but are instead a branch of common folk magic and healing traditions that are rooted in Italian Catholic culture. Ironically these folk practitioners reject the authenticity of Italian witchcraft traditions that do not reflect their beliefs and practices. Sadly, being highly active in their judgment and criticism of others, they bring little else than disharmony to the Pagan & Craft community. One example can be found on the website Stregoneria Italiana, a group with members who actively contrive to foster ill feelings toward author Raven Grimassi with frequent erroneous and negative posts in various forums and chat rooms throughout the Internet.

Today we face many problems associated with the misconceptions that do exist regarding Italian folk magic systems and Italian witchcraft. Although they share certain basic elements, the two systems reflect a clear distinction. This is reflected in the 19th century field studies of Charles Leland who comments:

“The witches of Italy form a class who are the repositories of all the folklore; what is not at all generally known, they also keep as strict secrets an immense number of legends of their own, which have nothing in common with the nursery or popular tales, such as are commonly collected and published …the more occult and singular of their secrets are naturally not of a nature to be published”.

Nineteenth century folklorist Lady de Vere describes such a structured witch cult in an article she wrote in 1894: "...the community of Italian witches is regulated by laws, traditions, and customs of the most secret kind, possessing special recipes for sorcery" (La Rivista of Rome, June 1894).

As noted, Italian folk magic traditions possess various aspects of Christian beliefs and practices. These are often rooted in the venerations of saints or the use of sacred or holy objects such as holy water, the communion wafer, or the rosary. In addition various elements of folk magic are liked to important dates in Christianity such as Christmas Eve and festivals celebrating a variety of saints. Many of these displaced earlier Pagan festivals such as the summer solstice, which is now celebrated as St. John’s Day.

Italian witchcraft possesses active elements of pre-Christian religion, and incorporates the aid of spirits, faeries, astronomical forces, and a variety of Pagan deities. Ancient Roman writers depict witches associated with the goddess Hecate, Diana, and Proserpina. Ancient writers in Europe also associate witches in Italy with the goddess Venus, and the god Priapus. None of these elements are found in traditional Italian folk magic traditions, but they do reside in older forms of Italian witchcraft. Most modern scholars have ignored or dismissed the earlier writings that mention pre-Christian elements within Italian witchcraft, and do not consider them as evidence of an actual witches’ sect.

Contemporary scholars investigating folk magic and Italian witchcraft have conducted field studies that involve interviews with folk practitioners in Italy. Almost one hundred percent of these individuals are Catholic or some other denomination of the Christian faith. By contrast the field studies conducted in 19th century Italy, by such folklorists as J.B. Andrews, Lady de Vere, Roma Lister, and Charles Leland involved individuals who claimed to be witches. Naturally, in accord, the material and conclusions gathered by contemporary scholars and 19th century folklorists differ greatly. It is noteworthy that five folklorists in Italy during the 19th century independently discovered a commonality within witchcraft traditions in different regions of Italy (none of which conform to common folk magic or folk traditions then or now).

Most modern scholars focus on the folk healer in Italy, and tend to see the arts and customs of this figure as definitive of the cultural norms. While this view may be true of contemporary traditions in modern culture, it fails to appreciate the significance of the existing Pagan elements preceding the modern folk traditions that contain them. The majority of scholars today view pre-Christian elements as insertions into a Christian framework instead of seeing them as evidence of the survival of ancient pre-Christian religion. One example appears in the feast day of San Domenico in Cocullo (Abruzzo region) whose statue is covered with living snakes and carried in a procession. This site was earlier the home of the Marsi, a pre-Christian Pagan tribe that worshipped the goddess Angizia, a type of snake deity.

The customs associated with the feast of San Domenico strongly suggests that the Pagan elements pre-existed in a readily adoptable form that fit the Christian veneer. However, most scholars appear to believe that such Pagan elements are not evidence of pre-existing sects and their beliefs and practices that were later incorporated into saint veneration in the Christian era. As previously noted, most modern scholars seem to reject the idea that modern folk traditions are actually Christian offshoots of earlier Pagan beliefs and practices.

When exploring for the correct chronology regarding Pagan and Christian elements, it is noteworthy that the Church and its agents seem to have intentionally displaced things as they Christianized. One example is the festival day of the goddess Diana on August 13th, which was displaced with the Ascension of Mary on August 15th. Another example is the birth of Jesus placed near the Winter Solstice, and his resurrection in the spring. The death of Jesus on a tree (wooden cross) also resembles pagan themes in Europe. When we add to this the Pagan elements contained within saint veneration, the evidence seems weighted against the Christian markers in terms of origins, chronology, and who took what from whom.

David Gentilcore, a historian of early modern Italy, held that while it was impossible to draw absolute distinctions between schooled medical professionals, ecclesiastical healers, and illiterate "wise-women," that medical knowledge flowed between these three groups. This is one example of how common elements within a group (or tradition) do not necessarily demonstrate that the systems or organizations are the same. The differences between Italian folk magic/folk customs and Italian witchcraft appear to reveal the truth of such a view. Gentilcore also notes that while some cures were known and accessible to all members of society, others were restricted to community wisewomen:

"Some cures were immediately accessible, being the common lore of all members of society; others were restricted to community wise women (referred to in the Otrantine trial records as magare) and midwives.  As we shall see, they belong to the system of the sacred because they attempted to establish relationships with the sacred and influence it, although they did so outside ecclesiastical structures" - From Bishop to Witch, page 129 (Gentilcore).

Gentilcore notes that historians and folklorists lack a full comprehension of folk methods. This has led to an unintentional misrepresentation of the traditions by the academic community. Gentilcore cites the concealment involved in secret societies as a factor in the misunderstanding of academic researchers:

" view these 'exorcising techniques' simply as lay versions or applications of ecclesiastical rituals would be to rob them of their richness and miss their other sources of inspiration.  The folklorist and historian is not entirely to blame, since the invocations and prayers were often revealed by the healer without the accompanying prescription or magico-medical practices.  This is usually the choice of the informant (or, in the case of the episcopal and inquisitional trials, the accused) for whom the secret cannot be revealed to him without both the ritual and the healer losing their efficacy.  Because of the importance of secrecy witnesses could not often be sure what the healer said or did" - page 134

Although most modern scholars dismiss or reject the pre-Christian elements of contemporary Italian folk traditions, there are some who do recognize the importance of them in understanding folk systems. Several scholars recognize that Christian themes (particularly related to saints) and biblical associations (historiola) have been constructed around pre-existing Pagan beliefs and practices. Gentilcore notes:

"The brief magical formula that followed the historiola was usually pronouned sotto voce, its very secrecy giving it limitless power.  By their nature, such words had to escape the comprehension of the uninitiated in order to be effective.  Giuseppe Cocchiara identifies this part of the invocation as a surviving pre-Christian magical formula on to which has been tacked the Christian historiola.  Yet often the magical formula itself, which depends on the exorcisng power of words, took on a Christian form..."

This modification and arrogation of the foundational Pagan elements of folk traditions has blinded most scholars to the lore, beliefs, and practices of the earlier pre-existing authentic forms of Italian witchcraft. By choosing to view the modified Christian folk traditions as the original and normal model, modern scholars fail to search in earnest for its Pagan roots (or to recognize it once they encounter it).

Few if any modern scholars have personally interviewed contemporary Italian witches. One of the small numbers of modern scholars to explore the topic of Italian witchcraft today is anthropologist Sabina Magliocco who authored an article titled Spells, Saints, and Streghe (published in Pomegranate, issue #13, August 2000).

In her article, Magliocco states that most of her knowledge of Italian folk magic comes from ethnographic research and fieldwork in Sardinia, where she spent a cumulative 18 months living in a highland community of sheep and goat pastoralists between 1986 and 1990. She makes it clear that her knowledge is in the area of Italian folk magic. There is no claim by her to possess anything resembling an intimate knowledge of Italian witchcraft (as practiced in Italy or elsewhere). It seems likely that shepherds in Sardinia did possess some knowledge of folk magic as many Italian do. However, it seems reasonably certain that these commoners knew little if anything of authentic forms of witchcraft. Therefore they cannot seriously be viewed as expert witnesses on Italian witchcraft.

Magliocco comments on the influence of Charles G. Leland's Aradia, or the Gospel of Witches, and goes on to say that Leland's material does not bear a strong resemblance to Italian folk magical practice as documented in the ethnographic record of the last 100 years. She also claims this is true of modern Italian witchcraft traditions. Naturally there is little reason why they should, because they are two different systems. As we have already seen, the community of Italian witches possesses secret customs and traditions (again noted by 19th century folklorist Roma Lister).

As previously Charles Leland mentions the following from his field studies among self proclaimed witches (as opposed to common people in a shepherd community, as was the case with Magliocco’s field studies):

“The witches of Italy form a class who are the repositories of all the folklore; what is not at all generally known, they also keep as strict secrets an immense number of legends of their own, which have nothing in common with the nursery or popular tales, such as are commonly collected and published ... the more occult and singular of their secrets are naturally not of a nature to be published ....”

In this light Magliocco’s views are difficult to reconcile with those of professional Folklorists in the 19th century who performed field studies among people who defined themselves as witches. She comments that Italian-American Witchcraft or Stregheria traditions differ from Italian folk magical practice in several important ways. She first states that Italian folk magic is not an organized or unified religion, but a varied set of beliefs and practices. This is true, which is one of the primary reasons it differs from Italian witchcraft.

Magliocco writes that while folk magic has deep historical roots, it is not a survival of an ancient religion, but an integral part of a rural peasant economy and way of life, highly syncretized with folk Catholicism. This is another reason why it differs from Italian witchcraft. She continues with the view that knowledge of magical practices was at one time diffused throughout the rural population, rather than limited to a secret group of magical practitioners. Indeed such things were diffused, but they were diffused from the secret societies into the common population. However, the material was never understood by the non-initiated, and was quickly Christianized to conform with the standards of contemporary society. Within the “rural population” it quickly transformed into a diluted and altered form that today is known as folk magic.

Magliocco concedes that the context of Italian folk magical practice differs considerably from that of contemporary Italian-American revival witchcraft, so that materials are not always easily transferable from one system to another. This is precisely one of the main reasons why they need to be understood as different systems. Their differences do not render either as unauthentic but speak to different systems that are not dependent upon one another.

In her article, Magliocco states that all traditions are perpetually in flux as their bearers constantly re-interpret and re-invent them with each individual performance. She further comments that revival and revitalization are part of the process of tradition, even when the result is different from the original practice itself. Ironically her argument is therefore as true of folk magic as it would be of Italian witchcraft. Consequently, since folk traditions transform within the model that Magliocco supports, they cannot be the measure of “authenticity” when comparing them against Italian witchcraft or other systems. This would be particularly true of anything that pre-dated the folk tradition, since the tradition itself has transformed into something different from its roots.

Magliocco writes that one of the problems with the idea of a unified organization of Italian witches is that the Italian peninsula could not be said to have anything resembling an integrated culture between the end of the Roman Empire (453ce) and the beginning of the 20th century, making the existence of a secret, organized Italian witch cult nearly impossible. However, the reality is that five folklorists in Italy (during the 19th century) independently discovered a commonality within witchcraft traditions in different regions of Italy. Magliocco also comments that the development of a unified Italian system of ritual magic, diffused through oral tradition on a popular level, is unlikely before the 20th century. She goes on to add that any generalizations about an Italian folk culture need to be treated with great caution. The latter statement is very true, which is yet another reason why folk traditions and folk magic systems cannot be the universal measurements of authenticity in an investigation and comparison of Italian witchcraft.

To understand Italian folklore and folk magic (as opposed to authentic forms of witchcraft) it is helpful to look at its literary history. According to folklorist Italo Calvino (Italian Folktales) it is generally accepted that Italian tales were recorded from the oral tradition by the early Middle Ages. Gianfrancesco Straparola and Giambattista Basile compiled the earliest works. Straparola wrote tales of wizardry and enchantment. Basile wrote down old tales of enchantment and superstition spoken by Italian peasants in Venice, Crete, and along the Mediterranean coast (circa 1637). Laura Gonzenbach, a Swiss-German born in Sicily, gathered oral tales from the peasants of Sicily, and published her work in 1870.

The writings of Straparola and Basile provide us with a snapshot of common Italian lore, as it existed it Italy around the 15th century. Because we possess no earlier works it is almost impossible to know what alterations were made over the centuries, and how similar the tales are in relationship to the roots of the beliefs and practices depicted in the written accounts. A further problem arises when we ask whether beliefs about witches in folk tales represent what people actually believed, or whether they reflect the fantastic.

In the book Out of the Woods: The Origins of the Literary Fairy Tale in Italy and France, edited by Nancy Canepa (published by Wayne State University Press, 1997) the author points to manipulations and transformations of the earlier folklore tales by certain authors of the 18th century. This resulted in a change of not only the core and flavor of the original folktales, but also altered the social history through which they originally arose. Canepa notes that this dominated fairy-tale scholarship well into the 1970s.

Scholar Jack Zipes, in his book The Trials and Tribulations of Little Red Hiding Hood (Routledge, 1993) states that folktales “were told by priests in the vernacular as part of their sermons to reach out to the peasantry”. Canepa points out that “The authors – and audiences – of the first French tales, as of the earlier Italian tales, were the elite frequenters of courts and salons, and these authors lost no opportunity to use the tales to air their views on prevailing social and political conditions…” This leaves us with the problem of how contrived were the retold tales, and what personal gain existed in each occasion of the telling? In such a light, popular lore again becomes unreliable as a standard by which to view the authenticity of folklore as a reliable means of discerning cultural integrity. Instead it can be seen as exposing political stratagem.

Canepa notes the problem with viewing popular lore as reflective of the culture as a whole: “Moreover, in the case of the fairly tale (v. other forms of ‘fantastic’ literature), the situation of a given work in a precise sociocultural context is further obfuscated by the tendency to regard fairy tales, even when they are literary creations of individual authors, along the same lines as oral folkltales: that is, as collective, anonymous, products of a tale-telling community that may span vast chronological and geographic boundaries”.

The problem for scholars is that the written tales (which as we’ve seen have been manipulated and transformed over the centuries) comprise the bulk of the research data used by the academic community. Although some modern scholars still seek out oral accounts, the written tales that people have been exposed to from birth have no doubt contaminated the oral tales that can still be encountered in contemporary times among the common people. The problem is further confounded by the fact that modern scholars reject the field studies of 19th century folklorists who recorded the oral accounts of lore and witchcraft drawn from people professing to be witches. The favoring of exoteric material over esoteric material by the academic community has resulted in a misunderstanding of Italian witchcraft (both old and new) that may never be resolved.