Italian Witchcraft Through the Ages: From Ancient Rites to Modern Stregheria

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The Ancient Roots of Italian Witchcraft, Tracing the Evolution of Stregheria

Italian witchcraft, known as “stregheria,” traces its roots to the ancient pagan practices that endured on the Italian peninsula even as Christianity spread. These practices, which blended into or were overshadowed by Christian traditions over the centuries, have experienced a revival. In recent decades, a concerted effort by scholars in history, anthropology, and Italian folklore has reinvigorated interest in these ancient rites, leading to the establishment of modern neo-pagan reconstructionism termed “stregheria.”

Featured image: Witchcraft Scene, painting, Salvatore Rosa (1615-1673), source

Numerous ancient sources shed light on the history of witchcraft beliefs. One of the earliest, the Canon Episcopi (906 AD), mentions witches linked to the worship of Diana. The Life of Saint Damasus offers an even older record, describing a Roman synod threatening excommunication to women who believed they rode with demons and Herodias at night.

Similar beliefs appear in De spiritu et anima, a text attributed to Saint Augustine (though possibly apocryphal). This text mentions women who believed they roamed at night with Herodias on animals.

The term “Vecchia Religione” specifically refers to a spiritual and religious practice believed to be native to Italy, also known as “Stregheria” or “Italian Witchcraft.” Charles Leland‘s late 19th-century interviews with individuals in the Tuscan-Romagnol Apennines, who identified themselves as witches and followers of an ancient religion, suggested the rediscovery of a cult that had quietly persisted from Roman and possibly Etruscan times. This cult was dedicated to a Female Principle identifiable with Diana, along with Apollo (also referred to as Lucifer) and Herodias, purportedly Diana’s daughter. Other deities included Janus, Pan, Mefitis, Hecate, Mammon, Dionysus, and many more.

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The “Bacchanal in Honor of Pan” is an oil painting by Sebastiano Ricci, completed in 1716, and currently housed in the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice. This artwork draws inspiration from the myth of Arcadia, portraying a scene that celebrates Pan, the god of the wild, shepherds, and flocks, known for his connection to nature and propensity for music and revelry, source

Related article: The religion of the Etruscan people

While pagan survivals in the religiosity of these peasant groups are undeniable, the existence of a secretly organized religion surviving from ancient times is considered unlikely. The survival of Diana’s cult, according to Leland, is evidenced by witchcraft trial records dating from the 13th century. As for Herodias, Italian historian and essayist Carlo Ginzburg suggests she is a Christianized version of “Herodiana,” deriving from the two female deities Hera and Diana. Already in the 12th century, Italian abbot Ugo da San Vittore mentioned women believing they rode out at night on animals with Herodias, whom he equated with Minerva.

Leland described practitioners generally venerating nature spirits and ancestors, sometimes called Lares or Lasas. They also worship Catholic saints, influenced by Christian syncretism.

Beliefs about the afterlife within the Old Religion vary widely, from an undefined hereafter to reincarnation, with the possibility of rebirth within one’s family or becoming a Nature Spirit.

Ancient practices included the use of an ointment made from psychoactive plants, stemming from shamanism, to enable spiritual journeys. To avoid potential brain damage from these substances, some practitioners have turned to meditation or other trance-inducing techniques. Dreams, astral travel, and oracular divination are also common practices.

The Old Religion is present throughout Italy, especially in regions such as Lombardy, Piedmont, Veneto, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Liguria, Emilia-Romagna, Lazio, Apulia, Campania, Calabria, and Sicily, where significant numbers of people are devoted to it.

Ancient Rome

Early Roman religion centered on the concept of numina, impersonal spirits representing natural forces. These spirits, initially vague like the Lares (protective spirits) and Penates (household deities), gradually evolved into more human-like figures.

The lack of a rigid pantheon allowed for the incorporation of deities from conquered cultures. Etruscan gods, particularly the Venus-like Turan, were readily adopted. Likewise, numerous Greek deities found their place in the Roman pantheon, with Jupiter replacing Zeus as the king of gods.

Religious practices in Rome extended beyond established cults. The Bacchanalia and Dionysian mysteries, focused on the god Bacchus (Greek Dionysus), were eventually suppressed by the state due to concerns about their potential to disrupt social order.

Literary sources from the Roman Republic and Empire provide evidence of a fascination with magic. Prominent authors like Horace, Porphyry, Pliny the Elder, and Virgil document the existence of occult rituals and spells practiced by sorcerers and witches. Apuleius‘ “Metamorphoses” is a significant literary exploration of magic in the Roman world.

Roman law, however, took a dim view of magic used for malicious purposes. Ancient statutes prescribed harsh penalties for individuals who employed magical practices for criminal ends.

Medieval Witchcraft Trials

The decline in popularity of traditional Roman deities created a space for the rise of Christianity. This new faith presented a monotheistic God who was both a personal entity and a transcendent being. Christianity also incorporated various rites and elements from the preceding pagan polytheism, although these elements were reinterpreted to fit the new religious framework.

The veneration of saints and patron figures in Christianity bears some resemblance to the earlier practice of honoring pagan deities. Similarly, the winter solstice festival (natalis solis invicti) was transformed into Christmas, now celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ as the embodiment of the divine Logos (Word) and the “light of the world.” The Christian feast of Epiphany also shows influences of the Egyptian pagan festival honoring Isis.

In cases where deities were not directly assimilated or reinterpreted, they were often demonized and seen as malevolent forces. This negative view of pagan gods served to further differentiate Christianity from its predecessor.

In the early Middle Ages, surviving beliefs from the old religion were often dismissed as baseless superstitions, and their continued underground presence was not seen as a significant issue. However, by the Renaissance, instances of witchcraft considered to be genuine began to emerge, prompting the Inquisition to suppress them while also attempting to curb the growing trend of summary executions of alleged witches across Europe.

In 1326 and 1484, two papal bulls were issued, condemning occultism and magical practices. The first witchcraft trial is recorded in 1340, with another notable case in Milan in 1390 involving two women, Sibilla Zanni and Pierina de Bugatis, who claimed to have participated in the “Game of Herodias”, and for worshipping “Madona Horiente,” an entity linked to witchcraft and seen by inquisitors as a version of Diana. The publication of the Malleus Maleficarum in 1487, which equated witchcraft with Satanism, established the denial of its existence as heresy.

Witch-hunter-Manual-Compendium-Maleficarum
Wood Engraving from the Compendium Maleficarum, 1608

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The phenomenon of witch hunts intensified in the 16th century, particularly in Northern Europe, amidst the backdrop of the Lutheran Reformation. These persecutions highlight the Renaissance period’s increased interest in recovering ancestral and occult forms of spirituality. On a philosophical level, the era was also characterized by the emerging concept of a perennial philosophy that underlies various religious forms. Figures like Giordano Bruno and Tommaso Campanella developed natural theologies incorporating a panpsychist view of the universe with Neoplatonic elements.

Further evidence comes from northern Italy. In 1457, Bishop Niccolò Cusano judged three elderly women from Val di Fassa who worshipped a “good lady” named Richella, a figure associated with wealth and fortune. Social tensions fueled witchcraft accusations, particularly in the Italian Alps.

Historian Carlo Ginzburg suggests that the frequent appearance of Diana in these accounts reflects a tendency for inquisitors to interpret local beliefs through a Roman lens, providing a familiar framework for understanding unfamiliar practices.

Witchcraft Scene, 1690 – 1730, National Gallery of Parma, source

Remnants in Folklore

Traces of these beliefs persist in Italian folklore. Roman folklore, for instance, still features Herodias, who is said to gather witches on the night of Saint John.

Veneto traditions offer another example. Here, the Redodesa, a beautiful but ruthless woman, takes the place of Herodias. Legend has it that on the Epiphany eve, the Redodesa crosses the Piave river with her children, causing the water to calm. After her passage, specific flowers bloom, believed to bring good luck. The Redodesa then visits homes, checking if women have completed their spinning and tidied their houses. Blessings await the diligent, while misfortune falls upon the slackers.

Italian witchcraft isn’t a monolithic practice. Each region boasts its own unique flavor, shaped by the various cultures that have influenced the area. To understand these regional variations, we need to examine the “pagan substratum,” the layer of older beliefs underlying folk customs.

This exploration reveals a fascinating connection between each region and distinct deities. Campania, for instance, draws on the cults of Hecate, Cybele, Isis, Diana, Mephitis, Pan, and Bellona in its figures, festivals, and superstitions.

Sicily presents a contrasting picture. Here, witchcraft intertwines with the legend of the “women from outside,” fairy-like creatures. Notably, the presence of elves in Sicilian folklore is unique in Italy and Southern Europe, suggesting a connection to the mythology of the British Isles. These “Ladies” were believed to form a powerful society of 33, led by a “Greater Fairy” (also known as “Mother Major” and “Wise Sibyl”) residing in Messina.

In Lazio, we find surprising evidence of the enduring figure of Cupid. Aldo Onorati’s book “Black Magic and Satanic Rites in the Roman Castles” documents a case from the 1950s-1960s, where a woman kept a statue of Cupid on her dresser and even under her bed.

In Sardinia was associated to the worship of the Great Mother, Dionysus, and Maimon.

Sprites on the Threshold of the Sibylline Fairies, from an illustration of “Guerrin Meschino” (1473), source

Veneration of Nature Spirits and Ancestral Guardians

In ancient times, respect and reverence were paid to the spirits of nature and ancestors. These beliefs continue to echo in regional folklore.

Benevento, known in folklore as the “city of witches,” has a name evolving from ancient origins, suggesting its longstanding mystical aura. Initially called Maloenton, a term tied to the worship of the child god Bolla, Benevento’s history intertwines with ancient Samnite cults and Roman religious practices, including the veneration of the goddess Isis.

The folklore of Benevento and southern Italy is rich with the legend of the Janara, a witch believed to possess powers over health, fortune, and nature. Originating from either the Roman goddess Diana’s priestesses or the Latin for “door” (ianua), the Janara is a pivotal figure in local superstitions, feared for her malevolent abilities but also integral to the region’s cultural heritage.

Witches-of-the-walnut-tree-benevento
The walnut of Benevento

Benevento’s connection to witchcraft is amplified by historical accounts of pagan rites performed by the Lombards. Near the Sabato River, rituals involving women dancing around a walnut tree adorned with snakes and warriors assaulting a goat skin were perceived by Catholic observers as demonic acts indicative of witchcraft and sabbath celebrations.

Campanian folklore features also other supernatural spirits, like the Munaciello. This creature, likely a descendant of the Lares (Roman household spirits) or an elemental spirit, appears and disappears in homes, identifiable by its black clothing, red cap, and buckled shoes. Similarly, the Manalonga, a deceitful water spirit dwelling in ditches and dragging in those who get too close, likely stems from the Sirens of Greek mythology.

Lazio offers another example with the lenghelo. Described as tall and slender (its name translates to “long” or “elongated”), this mischievous sprite is known for pranks. It targets those who disrespect family or people it dislikes by jumping on their stomachs during sleep, hiding objects, or causing minor disruptions. However, it can also bring good luck by leading people to lost items or even winning lottery numbers. Interestingly, different types of lengheli exist – those of the house, forest, and garden/orchard. The forest lenghelo is considered particularly malicious, known for confusing travelers and scaring animals. Its presence is signaled by an eerily silent forest devoid of birdsong or animal life. The lenghelo of the vineyards and gardens is a countryside sprite known for stealing fruit. Notably, the lenghelo parallels the ancient Roman Genius Loci (guardian spirit of a place) and the Penates in the case of the house lenghelo.

Feasts and Folklore

While modern attempts exist to align Italian witchcraft festivals with the eight neopagan sabbats, historical evidence doesn’t support such a uniform calendar. This concept likely draws influence from Druidism and Wicca. However, some Italian celebrations roughly coincide with ancient pagan traditions linked to solstices and equinoxes. Examples include Roman celebrations of Sol Invictus (later absorbed into Christmas) and practices on St. John the Baptist’s night, which had little to do with Christianity. Preferred locations for Sabbats include the Walnut Tree of Benevento and the Tonale Pass. For many practitioners, there is a natural continuity between magic and religion, with magic seen not as a means to exert control but as a spontaneous creation within an enchanted, living world.

Unlike Anglo-Saxon traditions with fixed dates like May 1st (Roodmas) or October 31st (Allhallow), Italian witches often preferred Thursdays, a day free from strict religious restrictions. Interestingly, magical gatherings also coincided with certain Christian fasting periods known as Tempora (occurring on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays during specific weeks).

Other significant festivities were Calendimaggio (May Day) and All Saints’ Day (including the Day of the Dead). These celebrations likely originated from Celtic practices of Beltane and Samhain, and were deeply ingrained in Italian folklore, often accompanied by magical rituals that blended pagan and Christian elements. However, these festivals were more social in nature than strictly witchcraft-related.

Interestingly, folklore mentions specific days for protection against witches, suggesting these might be the actual dates of gatherings rather than popular holidays. Inquisition records support this, as they show no unified calendar like the neopagan Wheel of the Year. Instead, festivities varied regionally, occurring on specific days like St. John’s night, full moons, or Tempora. In some cases, gatherings might have even been weekly.

Drawing of a pentagram on a ring from Crotone, Calabria, taken from “Images of the Ancient Gods” (Vincenzo Cartari, 1647)

A key distinction between witchcraft and social folklore was the focus on a single entity during these gatherings. Unlike the veneration of multiple gods or saints in folklore, each witch group worshipped a specific “bona domina” (good lady) – a figure like Diana, Richella, Herodias, or Oriente, depending on the location.

Most practitioners believed their magic could influence reality. This often involved worshipping deities, ancestors, spirits, and sometimes even saints. Historically, witches used ointments made from hallucinogenic or narcotic plants to achieve an altered state, possibly associated with a “witches’ flight” – a term some scholars interpret metaphorically as a shamanic journey. An alternative practice in the Friulian tradition involved dream travel by the Benandanti.

Hydromancy, a form of divination using water, was another method of communication with the spirit world. Witches also engaged in various divinatory and oracular practices.

Present Day

From the Romantic period to the present day, there has been a sustained revival of interest in ancient religions, characterized by a reevaluation of Europe’s mythological past, often deemed more genuine than historical accounts.

The Romantic era (18th-19th centuries) witnessed a renewed interest in ancient religions. This stemmed from a desire to rediscover the mythological past of European cultures, often perceived as more authentic than dry historical records. Freemasonry’s rise during this period also reflected a broader yearning for a universal religion grounded in nature.

Jules Michelet‘s 1862 work, “La Sorcière” (The Witch), played a crucial role in reevaluating paganism. By portraying witches in a positive light, it challenged the centuries-old association of witchcraft with Satanism.

The latter half of the 19th century saw the founding of the Theosophical Society by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. This influential organization aimed to create a spiritual synthesis by merging Eastern beliefs from Buddhism and Hinduism with elements of classical paganism (particularly Neoplatonism) and Christianity. Concepts like reincarnation and karma became central to this new spiritual framework.

Further exploration of the pagan-witchcraft connection came from anthropologist Charles Leland. In the late 19th century, his research in Tuscany and Romagna unearthed a link between witchcraft and the cults of Diana and Herodias. Leland’s published works, presented in a format resembling a gospel, significantly influenced early 20th-century anthropologist Margaret Murray. Murray’s publications attempted a partial reconstruction of a historical “Old Religion” in Europe, drawing heavily on Leland’s findings.

In post-World War I Italy, figures like Julius Evola and the Ur Group advocated for a return to Rome’s pre-Christian spirituality, promoting the worship of ancient Roman deities. Some within this movement, such as Arturo Reghini, sought to align their vision of “pagan imperialism” with Fascist ideology.

The initiation of Gerald Brosseau Gardner into the Old Anglo-Saxon Religion in 1939 marked the birth of Wicca, a contemporary pagan religion. This, in turn, rekindled interest in the potential revival of Italian witchcraft. Wicca’s emergence serves as a testament to the enduring fascination with ancient religious practices and their lasting impact on contemporary spiritual movements.

External Sources: Wikipedia 1, 2

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