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Charles Godfrey Leland: A Biography

by Raven Grimassi

Charles Leland - Folklorist and Author whose 19th Century field studies in Italy revealed the existence of a surviving Witch Cult from ancient times. He wrote and had published several classic texts, such as Aradia; Gospel of the Witches, and Etruscan Roman Remains (both published by 1899).  Leland's writings on Italian Witchcraft bear many striking similar elements to the writings on Gardnerian Wicca written by Gerald Gardner over one half a century later.


Many people today think of Gerald Gardner as the founder of modern Wicca/Witchcraft. Gardner's books on Witchcraft published in the mid-twentieth century brought about a growing interest in the Old Religion of pre-Christian Europe. However, over half a century earlier a man named Charles Godfrey Leland wrote on many of the same topics later popularized by Gerald Gardner. For example, the theme of witches meeting at the time of the full moon, being nude, calling their ways The Old Religion, celebrating with ritual cakes and wine, and worshipping a god and goddess all appear in Leland's writings on Italian Witchcraft circa 1896.

In chapter four of his book Gypsy Sorcery & Fortune Telling, published in 1891, Leland makes the earliest connection between Wicca and modern Witchcraft:

"as for the English word witch, Anglo-Saxon Wicca, comes from a root implying wisdom..." Leland's footnote here reads: "Witch. Mediaeval English wicche, both masculine and feminine, a wizard, a witch. Anglo-Saxon wicca, masculine, wicce feminine. Wicca is a corruption of witga, commonly used as a short form of witega, a prophet, seer, magician, or sorcerer. Anglo-Saxon witan, to see, allied to witan, to know..."

Of interest is Leland's "pre-Gardnerian" reference to Wicca and Witchcraft. Of special interest is the fact that there is no single element of the basic structure of Gardnerian Wicca that cannot be found in Leland's earlier writings, as noted in the opening of this article. The only exception would be the clear mention of a ritual circle. However, in the Italian witch-hunters manual (Compendium Maleficarum, 1608) we do find a woodcut of Italian witches gathered in a circle traced upon the ground. Therefore the historical support for this aspect of Italian Witchcraft may have been obvious enough for Leland to have felt no need to address it specifically.

But who was this Leland character, and why should we take particular notice of his writings in the first place? Charles Godfrey Leland was a famous folklorist who wrote several classic texts on English Gypsies and Italian Witches. He was born in Philadelphia on August 15, 1824 and died in Florence, Italy, on March 20, 1903. Leland was fascinated by folk lore and folk magic even as a child, and went on to author such important works as Etruscan Roman Remains, Legends of Florence, The Gypsies, Gypsy Sorcery, and Aradia; Gospel of the Witches.

In 1906 a two volume biography of Charles Godfrey Leland was written by his niece Elizabeth Robins Pennell. In chapter One, recounting his personal memoirs, Pennell writes of his infancy:

"In both the 'Memoirs' and the 'Memoranda' he tells how he was carried up to the garret by his old Dutch nurse, who was said to be a sorceress, and left there with a Bible, a key, and a knife on his breast, lighted candles, money, and a plate of salt at his head: rites that were to make luck doubly certain by helping him to rise in life, and become a scholar and a wizard."

Pennell goes on to tell us that Leland's mother claimed an ancestress who married into "sorcery." Leland writes in his memoirs: "my mother's opinion was that this was a very strong case of atavism, and that the mysterious ancestor had through the ages cropped out in me." The biography of Charles Leland is filled with accounts of his early interest in the supernatural, an interest that turned to a life long passion. Of this passion Pennell writes:

"It is what might be expected...of the man who was called Master by the witches and Gypsies, whose pockets were always full of charms and amulets, who owned the Black Stone of the Voodoos, who could not see a bit of red string at his feet and not pick it up, or find a pebble with a hole in it and not add it to his store - who, in a word, not only studied witchcraft with the impersonal curiosity of the scholar, but practised it with the zest of the initiated."

As a young boy Leland grew up in a household that employed servants. According to Pennell, Leland learned of fairies from the Irish immigrant women working in his home, and from the black servant women in the kitchen he learned about Voodoo. Leland writes of his boyhood: "I was always given to loneliness in gardens and woods when I could get into them, and to hearing words in bird's songs and running or falling water." Pennell notes that throughout Leland's life, he could never get away from the fascination of the supernatural, nor did he ever show any desire to.

Fluent in several foreign languages, at age eighteen Leland wrote an unpublished manuscript English translation of Pymander of Trismegistus, a hermetic text now commonly known as Hermes Trismegistus: His Divine Pymander. The Pymander, as it was often called for short, was the foundation for much of the hermetic writings that inspired many Western Occultists during the later part of the nineteenth century and early part of the twentieth century.

In 1870 Leland moved to England where he eventually studied Gypsy society and lore. Over the course of time he won the confidence of a man named Matty Cooper, king of the Gypsies in England. Cooper personally taught Leland to speak Romany, the language of the Gypsies. It took many years before Leland was totally accepted by the Gypsies as one of their own. In a letter dated November 16th, 1886 Leland wrote to Pennell: "...I have been by moonlight amid Gypsy ruins with a whole camp of Gypsies, who danced and sang..." Having penetrated their mysteries to such a degree, Leland went on to author two classic texts on Gypsies, establishing himself as an authority on the subject among the scholars of his time.

In 1888 Leland found himself in Florence, Italy, where he lived out the remainder of his life. It was here that Leland met a woman whom he always referred to as Maddalena. Leland once introduced her under the name "Margherita" to folklorist Roma Lister.  In the modern Pazzaglini translation of Aradia, scholar Robert Mathiesen adds the last name "Talenti" in an attempt to decipher this from the poor penmanship of a letter written and signed by Maddalena.  Many people hold to the notion that Margherita must have been Maddalena's legal name simply because of Lister's mention of the name used to introduce her.  This position does not take into account that Leland may have been protecting Maddalena's identity by using the name "Margherita". 

My continued research on Leland recently brought to light some new findings, which I presented at the Pantheacon conference, on February 17th, 2008.  I presented a copy of a page from The International Folklore Congress: Papers and Transactions, 1891.  On page 454 of this publication Maddalena's name appears as a contributor to an exhibit presented by Charles Leland.  Her name is given as Maddalena Taluti.  This fact sharply conflicts with Robert Mathiesen's claim that Maddalena's last name was Talenti.

Who was this person called Maddalena?  Maddalena reportedly worked as a "card reader" telling fortunes in the back streets of Florence, and later married a man named Lorenzo Bruciatelli. Leland soon discovered that Maddalena was a Witch, and employed her to help gather material for his research on Italian Witchcraft. In Leland's biography, Pennell mentions running across his manuscript notes where he writes of Maddalena:

"a young woman who would have been taken for a Gypsy in England, but in whose face, in Italy, I soon learned to know the antique Etruscan, with its strange mysteries, to which was added the indefinable glance of the Witch. She was from the Romagna Toscana, born in the heart of its unsurpassingly wild and romantic scenery, amid cliffs, headlong torrents, forests, and old legendary castles. I did not gather all the facts for a long time, but gradually found that she was of a Witch family, or one whose members had, from time to immemorial, told fortunes, repeated ancient legends, gathered incantations, and learned how to intone them, prepared enchanted medicines, philtres, or spells. As a girl, her Witch grandmother, aunt, and especially her stepmother brought her up to believe in her destiny as a sorceress, and taught her in the forests, afar from human ear, to chant in strange prescribed tones, incantations or evocations to the ancient gods of Italy, under names but little changed, who are now known as folletti, spiriti, fate, or lari - the Lares or household goblins of the ancient Etruscans."

Maddalena introduced Leland to another woman named Marietta who assisted her in providing him with research materials. Pennell, who inherited the bulk of Leland's notes, letters, and unpublished materials, refers to Marietta as a sorceress but Leland's own description of her in his published works is less clear. At one point Leland mused, in a letter to Pennell dated June 28th, 1889, that Maddalena and Marietta might be inventing various verses and passing them off as something of antiquity. However, Leland seems to have had a change of heart, as reflected in another letter to Pennell written in January of 1891. Here Leland writes:

"It turns out that Maddalena was regularly trained as a witch. She said the other day, you can never get to the end of all this Stregheria - witchcraft. Her memory seems to be inexhaustible, and when anything is wanting she consults some other witch and always gets it. It is part of the education of a witch to learn endless incantations, and these I am sure were originally Etruscan. I can't prove it, but I believe I have more Etruscan poetry than is to be found in all the remains. Maddalena has written me herself about 200 pages of this folklore - incantations and stories."

In another letter dated April 8, 1891 (written to Mr. Macritchie) Leland indicates still other Witches who assisted him in his research:

"...But ten times more remarkable is my MS. on the Tuscan Traditions and Florentine Folk Lore. I have actually not only found all of the old Etruscan gods still known to the peasantry of the Tuscan Romagna, but what is more, have succeeded in proving thoroughly that they are still known. A clever young contadino and his father (of witch family), having a list of all the Etruscan gods, went on market days to all the old people from different parts of the country, and not only took their testimony, but made them write certificates that the Etruscan Jupiter, Bacchus, etc. were known to them. With these I have a number of Roman minor rural deities, &c."

In Florence, Leland spent all of his spare time collecting Witch Lore, and purchasing items of antiquity as he chanced upon them. In a letter written to Mary Owen, Leland says "I have been living in an atmosphere of witchcraft and sorcery, engaged in collecting songs, spells, and stories of sorcery, so that I was amused to hear the other day that an eminent scholar said that I could do well at folk-lore, but that I had too many irons in the fire." Leland describes the Italian Witches he met as "living in a bygone age." It was an age that Leland apparently longed for himself.

Leland, apparently, did more than interview Italian Witches, or simply keep in their company. A passage from his book Etruscan Roman Remains strongly suggests that Leland was himself initiated into Stregheria, as indicted in the last sentence of the following:

"But, in fact, as I became familiar with the real, deeply seated belief in a religion of witchcraft in Tuscany, I found that there is no such great anomaly after all in a priest's being a wizard, for witchcraft is a business, like any other. Or it may come upon you like love, or a cold, or a profession, and you must bear it till you can give it or your practice to somebody else. What is pleasant to reflect on is that there is no devil in it. If you lose it you at once become good, and you cannot die till you get rid of it. It is not considered by any means a Christianly, pious possession, but in some strange way the strega works clear of Theology. True, there are witches good and bad, but all whom I ever met belonged entirely to the buone. It was their rivals and enemies who were maladette streghe, et cetera, but the latter I never met. We were all good."

There is another passage given in the same book. In the chapter titled "Witches and Witchcraft" Leland is interviewing a strega, and asks her how a certain priest became a stregone. In doing so he asks her how he (the priest) "came to practise our noble profession."  By the use of the term "our noble profession" Leland seems to be referring to the strega and himself as being part of something which the priest had also joined.

One of the most puzzling aspects of Leland's writings on Italian Witchcraft is the fact that he goes back and forth between speaking of Witchcraft in common Christian stereotypes of the period and portraying Witches as "good" and "noble" followers of the goddess Diana instead of the devil. His book Aradia; Gospel of the Witches is certainly a shocking turn from his general theme of the good witches of Benevento. Was he trying to please both sides? Or was he laying the foundation for a greater revelation to come. Perhaps we may never know, as Leland died without completing his work on Italian Witchcraft. One of his last wishes was to ask that someone compile all of the material he had written on the subject into one single volume. This sentiment is expressed in the appendix at the close of Leland's book Aradia, in which he writes:

"It would be a great gratification to me if any among those into whose hands this book may fall, who may possess information confirming what is here set forth, would kindly either communicate it or publish it in some form, so that it may not be lost"

I am currently working on such a project.  It is tentatively titled The Witches' Lore: A compilation of the writings of Charles Leland on Italian Witchcraft, and I expect to have it published in the fall of 2009.

This page was last updated on November 3rd, 2008