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Mediterranean / Aegean Parallels in Modern Wicca

 

The Four Ritual Tools

In modern Witchcraft (and Wicca) we often find the inclusion of what is commonly referred to as the "four tools of Western occultism."  These are the pentacle, wand, dagger, and chalice.  It is interesting to note that in the ancient cult of Mithras we find the use of ritual tools known as the wand of command, the libation cup, the crescent-shaped blade, and the platter.  In the book The Cults of the Roman Empire, by Robert Turcan, the author also notes the presence of a ritual sword and a scourge known as the sun's whip.  These Aegean/Mediterranean tools bear a striking resemblance to those that later appear in Gardnerian Wicca.   One possible explanation for this theme is that the Cult of Mithras was spread to the British Isles by the Roman legions, which occupied Britain for several centuries.

It is noteworthy to find the appearance of the blade, cup, pentacle, and wand displayed together in a magical/ritual context in the symbolism of the early Italian Renaissance period. This image of the traditional tools of Western Occultism is captured in the 15th century Visconti Cary-Yale tarot deck, the oldest known extant deck. The Visconti Magician card depicts a man standing before a table. In his left hand he holds a wand. On the table itself is set a large chalice, a sword, and a pentacle. Stuart Kaplan, an acknowledged expert on the Tarot, says that all Tarot symbolism as we know it today evolved from the Italian Tarot.

Source: The Encyclopedia of the Tarot, U.S. Games Inc., Stamford 1978.

The Book of Shadows

Italian Witches were hand copying from the Key of Solomon in the 17th century, and mixing it with spells and rituals in their private hand written books.*

Francesco Guazzo wrote in his 17th century Italian Witch Hunter's Guide that witches use a black book from which they read during their religious rites. **

Sources: *Journal of Social History, volume 28, 1995, article by Sally Scully, Department of History at San Francisco University. **Compendium Maleficarum 1608.

Drawing Down The Moon

In the writings of the ancient Roman poet Horace (Epode 17) we find these words (addressed to Canidia): (the Witch Canidia replies) ... must I, who can move waxen images and draw down the moon from the sky by my spells, who can raise the vaporous dead, and mix a draught of love lament the effect of my art, availing nothing upon you?"

The Four Elements

Empedocles (a student of the teachings of Pythagoras) was historically the first person known to have taught the concept of the Four Elements as a single cohesive doctrine. He lived around 475 BC in his native homeland of Sicily where he presented the teachings concerning the four elements as the four-fold root of all things.

Source: Ancient Philosophy, Mystery, and Magic; Empedocles and the Pythagorean Tradition by Peter Kingsley, Oxford University Press 1995.

The Elementals

In book one, chapter 18 , of the Compendium Maleficarum by Francesco Guazzo (1609) we read that Italian witches work with spirits of certain specific natures. Guazzo lists these as: fiery, aerial, terrestrial and water. Here, of course, are the elemental creatures also related to modern Wiccan beliefs.

Source: Compendium Maleficarum, 1608

The Ritual Circle

Italian witches employed beech twigs to trace ritual circles in the ground. Such a circle is depicted in a 17th century Italian woodcut by Francesco Guazzo.

Sources: Compendium Maleficarum, 1608.

Duotheism

In classic Roman and Greek concepts we find the Divine Couple imagery in such matings as Jupiter and Juno, Zeus and Hera. At the second lectisternium in 217 BC, for the first time in their history, the Romans selected a dozen deities and grouped them together into couples according to the Hellenic pattern. From this celebration arose the Roman version of the Twelve Principle Deities in Roman Mythology. Folklorist Charles wrote if Italian Witches who worshipped Diana and her consort the Roman god Lucifer, the morning star.

Sources: Etruscan Roman Remains. Roman and European Mythologies compiled by Yves Bonnefoy, University of Chicago Press, 1992.

The Watchers

In Italian Witchcraft the beings known as the Grigori (Watchers) are an integral aspect of the belief system. Over the course of many centuries the initiates of Italian Witchcraft have developed various signs and gestures that are recognized by the Grigori and indicate the presence of a trained witch of the Old Religion. This intimate relationship between Grigori and initiate has been forged and nurtured by the Strega for countless generations. The ritual display of prescribed signs and gestures at the appropriate quarter grants passage by the Grigori and allows the initiate to gain access to the portals that lead directly into the Otherworld realms.

 As guardians of the portals to such realms as the astral plane, the Grigori can negate magickal energy from manifesting there. This results in a failed magickal work or spell. The reasons why the guardians might intercede in such a manner are varied, but the Grigori bear the title "guardians" for good reason. Non-initiates of authentic forms of Italian Witchcraft, and those to whom these inner mysteries have yet to reveal themselves, often dispute the role of the Grigori (if not their existence itself).

Another erroneous claim made by non-initiates is that initiates of Italian Witchcraft believe their actions are "judged" by the Grigori, which is untrue and is based upon ignorance of authentic Italian witch beliefs and practices.   The appearance of the essential Grigori or Watcher concept, in the literature on Italic paganism, dates back to archaic Roman religion, which itself is derived from the Etruscans.  Ovid, in his work titled Fausti, calls the Lare the "night watchmen." In archaic Roman religion small towers were built at the crossroads and an altar was set before them upon which offerings were given to the Lare. The Lare were guardian spirits associated with these towers and with demarcation in general, as well as seasonal themes related to agriculture.  

In the early Stellar Cults of Mesopotamia there were four "royal" stars called the Watchers. Each one of these stars "ruled" over one of the four cardinal points common to Astrology. This particular system would date from approximately 3000 BC. The Star Aldebaran, when it marked the Vernal Equinox, held the position of Watcher of the East. Regulus, marking the Summer Solstice, was Watcher of the South. Antares, marking the Autumn Equinox, was Watcher of the West. Fomalhaut, marking the Winter Solstice, was Watcher of the North. 

In Charles Leland's book Aradia he recounts the tale of "The Children of Diana, or how the fairies were born," in which it is stated that Diana created "the great spirits of the stars." In this book we also find a reference to an elder race: "...Then Diana went to the Fathers of the Beginning, to the Mothers, the Spirits who were before the first spirit, and lamented unto them that she could not prevail with Dianus. And they praised her for her courage; they told her that to rise she must fall; to become the chief of goddesses she must become a mortal."  

Sources: Dumezil, Georges. Archaic Roman Religion. Baltimore and London: John Hopkins University Press, 1996, volume 1, page 343-344).

The Lure of the Heavens; A History of Astrology by Donald Papon, Weiser 1972. 

Star Names; Their Lore and Meaning by Richard Allen, Dover Publications 1963. 

Aradia, Gospel of the Witches by Charles Leland. 1963. 

Three Degrees of Initiation

Italian Masonic group known as the Carbonari (circa 1820) had three degrees of initiation marked by colored cords or ribbons: blue, red and black. A triangle marked the first degreelevel. The Carbonari claimed to have been based upon the Mystery Cult of Mithra.

Source: A History of Secret Societies by Arkon Daraul, Citadel Press 1961.

Structure of the Circle Ritual

It is interesting to note that in the Essay on the Mysteries of Eleusis, by M. Ouvaroff, we find passages from the ancient philosopher Porphyry who reveals that the symbols of the Greek and Roman Eleusinian Mysteries included the circle, triangle and cone which are all aspects of Wiccan rites. Source: The Secret Teachings of All Ages by Manly Hall, Philosophical Research Society 1962. The Northern Orientation of Ritual The Etruscans who occupied central Italy (from whom the Romans borrowed heavily) placed their deities into quarter associations. To the north was the chief god Tinia (and his consort Uni) who was king of the gods. The north was divided up into four sections which spanned from the north to the east quarter. In the east (the furthest extension of the northeast placement) dwelled the twelve major gods and goddesses of Etruscan religion. In the south were placed the lesser gods and nature spirits. In the west were placed the deities of Death and the Underworld. In this Etruscan view of the Cosmos we have the earliest account of Italic beliefs associated with the four quarters.

Source: Roman and European Mythologies complied by Yves Bonnefoy, University of Chicago Press 1992.

Conduct of the Ritual by a Priest, Priestess and Maiden

Stucco relief from the Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii Italy depicts a woman leading a blindfolded initiate assisted by a silenus priest and a female attendant (relief from the Farnesina 30-25 BC Rome, National Museum). The ancient cults of Roman typically involved both priests and priestesses with their attendant maidens. The Mystery Cult of Dionysus at Pompeii is a classic example depicted on murals.

Source: Mystery Religions in the Ancient World by Joscelyn Godwin, Harper & Row 1981.

The Descent of the Goddess to the Underworld

The Eleusinian Mysteries, originating in Greece, involve themes of descent and ascent, loss and regain, light and darkness, and the cycles of life and death. Author Manly Hall, the author tells that the rites associated with these Mysteries were performed at midnight during the Spring and Autumn Equinoxes. Hall reports that the Eleusinian Mysteries spread to Rome and Britain where initiations into this cult were performed in both countries. The Eleusinian Cult contained the Greater Mysteries and the Lesser Mysteries. The Lesser dealt with the abduction of Persephone by the Underworld God, a classic descent myth. The Greater Mysteries dealt with the Quest for the return of the Goddess, and the rites were performed in honor of Ceres (an Agricultural Goddess who was Patron of the Mysteries). In the general mythos, Persephone descends into the Underworld and encounters its Lord. The life of the world disappears with Her and the first autumn and winter befalls the earth. The Lord of the Underworld falls in love with the Goddess and wants to keep Her in His realm. Ceres intervenes on Her behalf and pleads with the Underworld Lord to release Persephone. At first He refuses because Persephone has eaten the seeds of the pomegranate, an ancient symbol of the male seed (as we see in the Wiccan Descent Legend they loved and were One). Eventually He agrees on the condition that She returns again to His realm for half of each year (cycle of the seasons).

Source: The Secret Teachings of All Ages by Manly Hall, Philosophical Research Society 1962.

Lunar Orientation and Full Moon Meetings

The writings of the ancient Roman poet Horace give 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. In Charles Leland's Aradia; Gospel of the Witches (1890) we also find a reference to Italian Witches gathering for lunar rites:

"Whenever ye have need of anything, once in the month and when the moon is full, ye shall assemble in some secret place, or in a forest all together join to adore the potent spirit of your queen, my mother, great Diana. She who fain would learn all sorcery yet has not won its deepest secrets, them my mother will teach her, in truth all things as yet unknown. And ye shall be freed from slavery, and so ye shall be free in everything; and as a sign that ye are truly free, ye shall be naked in your rites, both men and women also..."

Sources: Epodes of Horace, 30 BC. Aradia, Gospel of the Witches, Charles Leland.