Tuesday, September 20, 2011
The constellation of Pegasus and the brightest star in the galaxy Andromeda are rising in the northeast at this time. In southern Australia, spring can be a changeable season and is often characterised by warm days interspersed with wind and rain, vigorous plant growth, abundant flowers and nesting birds. Young koalas leave their mothers’ pouches and mature koalas begin mating. In northern Australia this is the hot dry season; the atmosphere is sticky, water dries up and the ground is very dusty. Swamps and waterholes evaporate, and birds and animals gather around the shrunken billabongs. During this season Aboriginal people burn off the dry grass which flushes out game such as wallabies, goannas, snakes and lizards. Emus are laying their eggs now, and several turtle species, as well as brown snakes, mate.
Meditation: According to Aboriginal legends from the Murrumbidgee area of New South Wales and from the Murray River region in New South Wales and Victoria, the sun is created from the yolk of an emu egg which was thrown up into the air where it struck and then ignited a pile of kindling. Emu breeding habits display cooperation between the sexes: the female lays the eggs and the male hatches and rears the chicks which are striped light and dark – like the year. The emu’s egg, laid during the time of the equinox, signifies harmonious balance, partnership, sharing, polarity, duality and androgyny.
Friday, September 9, 2011
Ancient Greek epics such as the Odyssey, and the Voyage of Argo tell of princely heroes destined for kingship who seek out legendary sorceresses, appealing to them to wield their magickal power for the sake of a royal line. Witches had pivotal roles in these stories, acting as guides for such heroes as Odysseus and Jason; men who were required to enter the feminine, womb-like space of the underworld, or to travel to the ends of the Earth, as part of their courageous journeying. Later on, in Roman literature, such as in Horace’s Odes and Epodes, or Lucan’s Pharsalia, Witches degenerated into the cemetery-scouring hags familiar to popular culture, no longer sending the hero down to search the underworld, but instead, bringing the realm of the dead up to their customers by performing necromantic rites.
There are many Witches featuring in Greco-Roman literature, some of whom have familiar names such as Circe and Medea, and others who may be somewhat lesser-known such as Simaetha, Perimede, Agamede, Pamphile, Fotis, Erictho, Dipsas, Sagana, Canidia, Veia, Diotima and Oenothea. This article, however, focuses only on Circe, Medea, Canidia and Erictho. Circe and Medea are demoted Goddesses, whereas Canidia is based on an actual real life character, and Erictho is a fearsome composite of several Witches - as well as of the goddess Hekate. These intriguing sorceresses inhabited the margins of society, they personified peripheries, edges, boundaries, and were fringe-dwellers in every sense of the word - if they didn’t live far out to sea on an island like Circe, then they might come from foreign countries like Medea and Erictho, or inhabit the fringe of ‘decent’ society as did Canidia.
Dealing with Witchcraft was a step away from the confines of normality for both the mythic hero and the average citizen, it was an adventure between the worlds where transformation was possible. Apart from goddesses and queens, Witches were practically the only women with fleshed-out personalities and important roles to play in classical literature, and their characters acted as ‘templates’ for the portrayal of Witches in literature for centuries to come.
And then the demon goddess lightly laid
Her wand upon our hair, and instantly
Bristles (the shame of it! but I will tell)
Began to sprout; I could no longer speak;
My words were grunts, I grovelled to the ground.
I felt my nose change to a tough wide snout,
My neck thicken and bulge. My hands that held
The bowl just now made footprints on the floor.
And with my friends who suffered the same fate
(Such power have magic potions) I was shut
Into a sty.
The first magical operation recorded in Greek literature is found in Book 10 of the famous Odyssey by Homer which was written in the 8th century BCE. This magic was performed by Circe, a Witch who lived on an island called Aeaea at the edge of the known world. Ancient Greeks believed the world was flat and that it was encircled by the ‘river of ocean’, Circe lived at the boundary of this world - practically as far away from civilisation as possible - near the entrance to Hades, the Underworld. She is a Heliade, a daughter of Helios the Sun God, and is sister to both Aeetes, the father of Medea, and Pasiphae, mother of the Minotaur. It is likely that Circe herself was also originally an ancient Goddess of some sort, perhaps a ‘Potnia Theron’, a Mistress of Animals. She is also a predatory seductress, and her name in Greek, Kirke, is related to kirkos which means a circling bird of prey, or a wolf, and which in Homer, denotes a hawk.
On their way home from the Trojan War, the hero Odysseus and his companions arrive at her island where "...all about them were lions, and wolves of the mountains, whom the goddess had given evil drugs and enchanted, and these made no attack on the men, but came up thronging about them, waving their long tails..." No sooner does Circe meet with the men than she waves her wand over them and "they took on the look of pigs, with the heads and voices and bristles of pigs, but the mind in them stayed as they had been before... Circe threw down acorns for them to eat, and ilex and cornel buds, such food as pigs who sleep on the ground always feed on." Pigs were sacred to Demeter and Persephone and associated with the fertility of the earth, so perhaps Circe is, in a way, designating the men as offerings to the chthonic Earth Mother/Daughter duo.
With the aid of the god Hermes, who supplied him with a magickal plant called ‘moly’, Odysseus becomes immune to Circe’s magic and so instead of transforming him into a pig as well, she invites him to become her lover. Eventually Odysseus persuades her to change his companions back to their human form, and they all remain living on her island for a year. However, Odysseus needs to obtain the advice of a famous prophet called Tiresias, (who unfortunately is dead), to find out exactly how to reach his home to reclaim his kingship. Circe explains the ritual processes required to enter the underworld so he can consult with the Seer, and shows him how to get there. Here she seems to be a type of gatekeeper, and her island, a portal to the realm of the dead.
In addition to her role in the Odyssey, in later literature Circe had dealings with the prophetic divinity, Picus, who loved the fruit goddess, Pomona, and was consequently changed by Circe into a woodpecker for preferring Pomona over her. She also loved Glaucus but he was in love with Scylla, consequently Circe put poisonous herbs into the fountain where Scylla bathed and she was turned into the famous monster which lurked in a cliff overlooking the strait between Italy and Sicily. Circe was also associated with Marcia, mother of Latinus by Faunus, and with Aphrodite.
My magic song rouses the quiet, calms the angry sea,
I move forests, bid the mountains quake,
the deep earth groans, and ghosts rise from their tombs.
Thee too bright moon, I banish...
Medea is the niece of Circe, a Heliade, and also a Priestess and Witch in the lunar cult of Hekate. She is known to us from the Voyage of Argo, or as it is also known, Jason and the Argonauts by Apollonius of Rhodes, which was written in the 3rd century BCE. Probably the most infamous Witch of antiquity, many writers were fascinated by her and she also appears in works by Seneca, Euripedes and Ovid. In the story of the Argonauts, the goddesses, Athena and Hera, convince Aphrodite to send Eros to smite Medea with love for Jason, leader of the Argonauts, because it fits in with their plans which favour Jason. He had been sent to her kingdom of Colchis to find the Golden Fleece by his uncle who would not let him ascend the throne of his homeland without it. Medea consequently betrays her own people by helping Jason obtain the Golden Fleece, and then has to flee with him back to Greece.
Back in Jason’s kingdom Medea is seen as exotic and foreign and fails to be assimilated into society. Although she was instrumental in putting him on the throne and lives with him as a wife, ungrateful Jason later abandons her because he is offered a chance to marry a local princess for political reasons. Medea derives her sinister reputation from what she did to punish Jason - she made a poisonous robe for the princess he was to marry, who dies horribly, and then she kills her own children. Readers throughout later centuries have had difficulties reconciling their feelings of sympathy for Medea, with their abhorrence at her murderous behaviour. Many explanations for her actions have been suggested ranging from the obvious; that she was just desperate and furious, to the more subtle; that writers used it as a way of making her appear even more ‘alien’. Other versions of the story say that she left the children in the temple of Hera where they were stoned to death by the Corinthians and still other stories mention descendants of Medea and Jason, so if she did kill her children she only killed two of them. One of the survivors, Thessalus, was said to be the father of the Thessalian race.
Medea was not executed for her murders and infanticide, but flew away on her magical chariot and appealed to foreign kings for asylum. To one king, Aegus of Athens, she bore a son Medus whom in some versions of her story she took home to Colchis and who eventually became the father of the Medes, a powerful Asian race. Some writers say that she went to Italy where she was deified by people called the Marrubians as the obscure goddess, Angitia, whose name came from her abilities to kill serpents and cure snakebite; (anguis = serpent). She was also identified with the Roman goddess, Bona Dea, who was the chaste sister, or wife, to Faunus, and who was also associated with serpents. Bona Dea’s cult was a women-only affair, she was a goddess associated with healing, and medicinal herbs were sold in her temples.
Canidia and Erictho appear in Roman poetry, not in epic stories or plays, and so their characters are less-developed than Circe or Medea’s. They are meant to be repulsive, frightening hags, not sexy, amoral sorceresses, which seems to be the way Roman authors perceived Witches. Nevertheless, these types of Witches were to make a big impression on the readers of such literature and this Roman stereotype persisted for the next two thousand years. Hag-like, spooky Canidia, along with her companions, Sagana and Veia, are thought to be (besides the Norns and the Fates), the inspiration for Shakespeare’s ‘Weird Sisters’ from Macbeth. Canidia appears in poems by the Roman writer Horace (65 - 8 BCE), and seems to have been based upon a real Neapolitan pharmacist and perfume-maker called Grattidia, famous for her potions and poisons.
Canidia orders funeral Cypresses,
wild fig trees dug out from tombs,
a nocturnal screech-owl’s feathers,
and eggs smeared with the blood of a nasty toad.
Herbs supplied by poisonous, fertile Iolcos and Spain,
bones snatched from a starving bitch,
to be scorched in the Colchian flames.
~Horace, At o deorum.
According to Georg Luck’s essay in Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: Ancient Greece and Rome, Horace deliberately satirises Canidia as a depraved practitioner of the black arts in an effort to debunk popular belief in Witchcraft and discourage people from paying Witches for their services. Just as in northern Europe, southern European Witches were always ready with an elixir or a poison and many people sought their aid: The love-struck, seeking to ensnare a beloved or to destroy a rival; young women unable to conceive a child, begged the Witch to bestow upon them the blessing of fertility; and men with impotence problems implored Witches to straighten out their dilemma.
Arrest and persecution of Witches, whether they were hexers or healers, was not unique to Christian Europe’s Witch trials. In the years 184, 180-179 BCE, (which was, incidentally, before Canidia/Grattidia’s time), Roman magistrates ordered the execution of thousands of people accused of veneficia (poisoning) or malign magic, in one case killing 2000 alleged magic-workers and in another 3000. Performing magick, and especially being famous for doing so, like Grattidia, was a dangerous business and practitioners were always at risk of being denounced by an unsatisfied client.
Nay, though the Witch had power to
call the shades forth from the depths,
‘twas doubtful if the cave were not a part of hell.
Discordant hues flamed on her garb as by a fury worn;
bare was her visage, and upon her brow dread vipers hissed,
beneath her streaming locks in sable coils entwined.
Such is the description of the Witch, Erictho, in Book 6 of the Pharsalia by the Roman author Lucan (39 - 65 AD). In this incredibly long epic poem about the Civil War between Julius Caesar and Pompey, we meet a fearsome figure who seems to be a combination of all the previous Witches, as well as being reminiscent of Virgil’s description of Hekate in The Aeneid. Erictho lives in Thessaly, the classic country of sorcery, and is consulted there by Pompey’s son on the eve of the battle of Pharsalus (48 BCE). She has enormous powers, more like a Goddess than a Witch, and emerges as a kind of Great Mother Kali scouring the cremation grounds, collecting the bones and ashes of the dead. In the Pharsalia, instead of guiding the supplicant to the underworld, Erictho brings the underworld up to him by performing necromancy and reanimating a corpse to foretell the future about the outcome of the battle. Such operations were believed to really work and reviving the dead was a subject discussed in scientific circles up to the 19th century. Georg Luck tells us that the poet Shelley read Lucan with his wife Mary, and that this is probably where she derived her idea about writing Frankenstein.
What can we learn from these Witches?
Investigation into the classical Mediterranean Witch figures (by reading the sorts of titles listed below) reveal the beginnings of the sexist stereotyping of women who practiced Witchcraft, as well as showing us interesting role models of what we would now call ‘Solitaries’ or perhaps ‘Hedge Wytches’: there are no covens (unless you call Canidia and her two friends a ‘coven’), no pentagrams, and no ‘Great Rites’. The Witches’ patron deity was Hekate and Witchcraft seemed to be more concerned with attainment of power, in a worldly sense, control of sex, fertility, life and death, and medicine for healing or harming, rather than any sort of religious practice. These ancient Witches are quite different to the rather pervasive ‘fluffy bunny New Age Wiccans’ of contemporary society. Although they are not necessarily based completely truthfully on real life ancient practitioners, personally I think that anyone who studies and/or practices Witchcraft today needs to be aware of these ancient Witchy prototypes and their role in the stereotype/archetype of the Witch.
Where to find Greco-Roman Witches
These once-popular classic works have been somewhat neglected of late by many Pagans, however these books are recommended reading for the popular revival/practice of Stregheria as well as any sort of Hellenic or Roman reconstructionist Paganism, and for those who have an affinity with Mediterranean cultures.
The Odyssey by Homer, (Penguin 1946), the Voyage of Argo by Apollonius of Rhodes (Penguin 1959 & 1971), Medea by Euripides (Penguin 1963), Metamorphosis by Ovid (Oxford University Press 1986) the Aeneid by Virgil (Penguin 1990), Complete Odes and Epodes by Horace (Penguin 1983), and Pharsalia by Lucan (Penguin 1992).
Other helpful titles
Arcana Mundi by Georg Luck. (John Hopkins University Press USA 1985), Women of Classical Mythology by Robert E. Bell (ABC-CLIO USA 1991) (Has lots of obscure goddesses as well as more familiar ones listed). Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: Ancient Greece and Rome. Ed. Bengt Ankarloo & Stuart Clark. (Athlone Press 1999) The Rotting Goddess by Jacob Rabinowitz. (Traces the development of Hekate from a local fertility deity into a somewhat sinister Witch Goddess). (Autonomedia USA 1998) and Goddesses of Sun and Moon by Karl Kerenyi. (Highly recommended for his analysis of the figures of Circe and Medea) (Spring Publications USA 1979).
Originally published in The Cauldron #106 (November 2002).
Wednesday, September 7, 2011
I have just finished reading the sixth and final book in Jean M. Auel’s “Earth’s Children” series, The Land of the Painted Caves. This series – for those who don’t know – is set in Europe during the Upper Palaeolithic (or Late Stone Age) period, dating between 40,000 and 10,000 years ago. Auel’s books are meant to be set around the 28,000 BCE (30,000 BP) mark. The first book in this series, The Clan of the Cave Bear, came out in 1980 but I didn’t discover and read it until around 1986. That was also the year that the film of the book, starring Daryl Hannah, came out – although I didn’t see it until several years later. I’ve heard that it was voted worst film of that year and I agree, it was not good. The book on which it is based however, is excellent.
Back in 1986 when I was reading Clan of the Cave Bear, inspired by a magazine devoted to rural self-sufficiency called Grass Roots, I had recently moved from the Melbourne suburb of St Kilda (yes the seedy carnivalesque one) to rural Central Victoria. It was the absolute tail-end of the Back to the Earth Movement that had been prominent in the 1970s, and I was really sorry that I’d – apparently – missed it. My boyfriend and I thought we’d do rural self-sufficiency anyway; I was already spinning my own wool, weaving and making clothes in my St Kilda flat. We made a pact to move to the country whether we were ready to or not. When we first arrived in Central Victoria we squatted in an abandoned farmhouse from which we soon got evicted (it wasn’t so abandoned after all) and by the time I discovered Clan of the Cave Bear, maybe a month or so later, I was living in a tiny caravan in a forest on a rural property belonging to the first other witches ever I’d met. (They were friends of the bohemian artist father of my boyfriend’s best friend). One of the witches had turned me onto Auel’s book – she was always good for supplying interesting books of the 80s witchy zeitgeist.... Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon, for example.
At this rural retreat there was no electricity, water came from rainwater caught in a dam, and if you wanted it hot it had to be heated over a fire. The heroine of Clan of the Cave Bear, Ayla, was the perfect role model for me at that time. Did I need to make a fire? – Ayla was my role model. If I had to bathe in a chilly dam – Ayla swam in much colder rivers. Making one’s own clothes or building dwellings like Ayla did was all a part of the modern Back to the Earth Movement (Ayla didn’t grow veggies though, but she knew all about recurring seasonal plants for harvesting – oh hunter-gathers, the first affluent society). One of the stand-out things in Clan of the Cave Bear was the description of herbal medicine and we all knew that was a part of [modern] witchcraft. Author Jean M. Auel excelled in the description of herbs and other plants, as well as the characteristics of the landscape. She had researched hunting and butchery, and ancient crafts. It was the perfect headspace for alternative life-stylers.
One of the really interesting things about the Earth’s Children series was the background of what we understood, in a Goddess Movement-Gimbutas kind of way, as an ancient religion of the Great Mother Goddess. The inside flap of Clan of the Cave Bear had a picture of the Venus of Willendorf, and Ayla’s partner Jondalar (who appeared in book 2, The Valley of the Horses) came from a people who called this goddess Doni. I was already familiar with the forms of witchcraft deriving from British Wicca, as explained by Doreen Valiente and the US Feri/Reclaiming Tradition of Starhawk, with their focus on a Goddess as well as a God, from when I lived in the city. Now, in the country, along with Clan of the Cave Bear I was reading up on Celtic and other mythological systems and the American Goddess Movement. Marija Gimbutas’ books were also available for me to peruse. It all made absolute sense: there was an ancient Great Mother Goddess who had a younger male paramour, and this is where the gods of witchcraft came from. I was deeply intrigued with the tiny bronze Venus of Willendorf pendant that the above-mentioned witch provided for me, and hung it immediately on a leather thong around my neck. Living in the forest, with a fire burning to keep me warm at night and the southern stars whirling above my head, I really felt I could be someone like Ayla.
It didn’t really matter that this was 1986 and we weren’t actually hunting our own food with spear throwers or pit traps. We made clothes, used herbal remedies, believed in a weird religion, attended the Mount Franklin Annual Pagan Gathering for Beltane and the Down to Earth Confest, an alternative lifestyle festival held on the Murray River in northern Victoria, around Litha – such events seemed exactly like the Summer Meetings that Jean M. Auel described for Ayla’s people in deep prehistory. At the 1989 Confest at Walwa (one of my favourites ever) I even met a woman whose new baby girl was called Ayla. As far as I was concerned I was living the life! I didn’t know much about historical periods, about archaeology... I just wanted to live a dreamy, aesthetically pleasing life, in a utopia of nude swimming, handmade objects, herbalism and magical spells and rituals. To paraphrase a now absolutely cliché bumper sticker, the Goddess was alive and magic was afoot.
Sure, Jean M. Auel’s characters, Ayla and Jondalar, were the Stone Age Barbie and Ken. Yes, Ayla was suspiciously responsible for discovering many things – too many things for one woman; she was a Stone Age “Everywoman”, no, a Superwoman! – but that was good for me. It was empowering to think that women did important things in the past; it meant we could do them again now, and in the future. Yes, the social aspects of real Upper Palaeolithic Europeans may not have been anything like the way Auel described them in her books, they probably weren’t. As I said above however, she had done a lot of research on the environment, flora, fauna, crafts, cave paintings and other characteristics of this period – and these are novels after all, not academic textbooks. Back in the late 80s however, from what I can recall, I think we generally thought of them as “history”. How – why – would we have thought otherwise?
The third instalment in the series, The Mammoth Hunters, was just great (I wasn’t too thrilled with the second one, The Valley of the Horses, it was OK...it was necessary) and I think that a reader could be satisfied finishing the series there, with the third book, and never reading another one. I don’t actually recall where I lived when I read this one; it came out in 1985, so maybe I was still in the country. (It was in The Mammoth Hunters that the Venus of Brasempouy, thought now to be a forgery, featured). After I’d read the third book I think I forgot about the series for a while. It wasn’t until quite a bit later, after I had moved back to Melbourne in the early 90s, that I met someone (in the context of his being interested in the Church of All Worlds, the Australian branch of which I had co-founded with Anthorr and Fiona Nomchong in 1992) who, during our conversation, told me a strange tale about the books. He said that Jean M. Auel had become an alcoholic, that she’d had to give back her most recent advance to the publisher and that there would be no more books in the Earth’s Children series. I couldn’t believe it and hoped it wasn’t true.
I still don’t know whether this story was actually true. I never got confirmation of it. You can imagine my consternation however when, sometime in what must have been the early 2000s, contrary to what this informant had told me I heard of a fourth instalment in the series, The Plains of Passage, that had apparently been out for a while but which I had been oblivious of. I immediately bought and read it to catch up on Ayla’s and Jondalar’s movments (you know how you can get attached to fictional characters...). This was a particularly satisfyingly descriptive instalment of their story, particularly in regards to what Auel does best: the vivid descriptions of flora, fauna, landscape, crafts, hunting, herbalism, the construction of dwellings, and dealing with horses. I read the next book, The Shelters of Stone, in 2002 in the wake of a traumatic birthing experience (which is detailed in Celebrating the Pagan Soul, edited by Laura Wildman, New York: Citadel Press, 2005. 226–230). While I was pleased to be continuing with the story and it distracted me from my ordeal, there may have been a little too much description of caves in the book... yes, it was interesting, but we don’t need to hear about so many.
This was also the point in my life at which I became disillusioned with believing in the Venus of Willendorf and other prehistoric figurines as “goddesses”. As I had discovered (simultaneously, not as a result of) in Ronald Hutton’s The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles, we do not know whether such objects depict deities, humans, or what these statuettes were used for. Were they fertility figurines, anti-fertility – or something else entirely? Coincidently however, as a result of my reproductive trauma, Marione, editor of the Goddess magazine The Beltane Papers, sent me a little statue of this very Venus as comfort... It was a kind gesture on her part and I do love it. I’ll always be fascinated, from an aesthetic angle, with ancient art. Another of my absolute favourite Stone Age female figurines is the Venus of Lespuge; it’s so...‘modern’.
And now it’s 2011, twenty-five years since I started the Earth’s Children books (how time flies!) and I have finally finished the series. And that’s it. Auel isn’t going to write any more, I hear. Maybe 6 books is enough – although I bet fans would welcome more. Yes, the prehistoric society Auel depicted is largely based on the peaceful Earth Mother worshippers soon to be taken over by the patriarchal Kurgans model, so prevalent within the Goddess Movement and criticised by Cynthia Eller in The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory... Yes, you could read Margaret Elphinstone’s The Gathering Night for a less Ken-and-Barbie inhabited rendition of European prehistory... and I recommend it heartily. You could also watch the French-Belgian movie, Quest for Fire, for a more believable and aesthetically pleasing film adaptation of the Stone Age than the abysmal Daryl Hannah Clan of the Cave Bear film. Yes, there are things to be critical of in Auel’s Earth’s Children series... but there is also something really evocative about this story of a European “Adam and Eve”. Maybe it’s just escapist reverie, but then again, perhaps there is actual value in such a tale of what Cro-Magnons – what we early humans – may have been like.
Sunday, September 4, 2011
Now at last I salute your potent art,
and kneeling I beg by Proserpina’s realm,
by Diana’s immovable godhead, by your books
of incantations strong to unfix the stars
and call them down from the sky, Canidia,
leave off at length your supernatural spells
and let the swift wheel reverse, reverse.
- Horace, Iam iam efficaci.
To mention practical Witchcraft these days almost always means British Witchcraft of some sort, a religious, magical or shamanic system from England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland or thereabouts. Owing to the publicity that Witches such as Gerald Gardner and Alex Sanders received in the past, English Witchcraft in particular was highlighted, so to speak, on the world map. Any research on Witchcraft history however, will show that it actually occurs all over the world in different variations. One of these Witchcraft varieties is the Italian version called ‘Stregheria’. The word ‘Strega’ (stray-guh) means a female witch, singular, ‘Streghe’ (stray-gay) is the most common plural form, a male witchcraft practitioner is a ‘Stregone’ (stray-go-nay) and when talking about a tradition of Italian witchcraft it is a ‘Stregheria’ (stray-guh-ria) tradition not a ‘Strega’ tradition. If you find yourself drawn to the gods of classical antiquity, those majestic deities from ancient Greece and Rome and if the cultures of the Aegean and the Mediterranean resonate within you, then Stregheria may be the Pagan religion and folk witchcraft for you.
Popularised in the later twentieth century by such public Italian-American witches as Leo Martello, Lori Bruno and Raven Grimassi, Stregheria is rapidly increasing in popularity amongst Pagans in the USA and is rather more slowly making inroads into Australia as well. Stregheria, in a roundabout way, has already had a profound influence upon modern British Wicca. One of the major Stregheria texts which is also an old Wiccan favourite, ‘Aradia or the Gospel of the Witches’ compiled by Charles G. Leland and published in 1899, is believed by several scholars to be the inspiration for the Charge of the Goddess, the primary invocation used in Wiccan ritual:
...Whenever ye have need of anything,
Once in the month, and when the moon is full,
Ye shall assemble in some desert place,
Or in a forest all together join
To adore the potent spirit of your queen,
My mother, great Diana...
In his essay accompanying the new 1998 translation of ‘Aradia’ by Mario & Dina Pazzaglini, Wiccan author Robert Chartowich suggests that ‘Aradia’ is also responsible for the use of nudity within British Wiccan ritual:
And ye shall be freed from slavery,
And so ye shall be free in everything;
And as the sign that ye are truly free,
Ye shall be naked in your rites, both men
And women also.
Consequently, Anthropologist and Folklorist, Sabina Magliocco, suggests that ‘Aradia’ should be looked at ‘as the first real text of the 20th century Witchcraft revival.’
So what is Stregheria then? The Streghe worship Diana, the Roman moon goddess who is recorded in Roman history as having three aspects and is known as Diana Triformis. Her three-fold nature consists of Luna, the moon, Diana the huntress and Hecate the underworld goddess, thus she has influence over the three worlds, celestial, terrestrial and chthonian. Usually represented in mythology as Virgin, in Stregheria Diana is the mother of Aradia by her brother Lucifer the Light-Bringer (Apollo). Streghe believe that Aradia, or as she is also known, Herodias, once manifested as an earthly incarnation and as a lunar ‘avatar’, taught witchcraft to mortals.
‘Tis true indeed that thou a spirit art,
But thou wert born but to become again
A mortal; thou must go to the earth below
To be a teacher unto women and men
Who fain would study witchcraft in thy school...
...And thou shalt be the first of witches known;
And thou shalt be the first i’ the world.
Why Herodias in particular would be a daughter to Diana is a puzzle. Herodias is a name most often associated with the wife of the Biblical Herod Antipas and the mother of the infamous dancer Salome however, she is also a figure associated with Night Flying and as the Canon Episcopi recorded Diana as a generic goddess name associated with the Wild Hunt it is possible the two eventually became conflated. Early Witch Trial records list confessions of night-journeys following ‘Erodiade’, the Italian name of Herodias.
Speaking of Night Flying, the word ‘Strega’ actually comes from the Latin word ‘strix’ meaning screech owl. Pliny the Elder wrote about ‘Striges’ (plural of strix), who were women who could transform themselves into birds of prey by means of magic. The Roman author Apuleius (b. early 2nd century CE) gives a description of this metamorphosis in his book ‘The Golden Ass’: “...watched Pamphile first undress completely and then open a small cabinet containing several little boxes, one of which she opened. It contained an ointment which she worked about with her fingers and then smeared all over her body from the soles of her feet to the crown of her head. After this she muttered a long charm to her lamp and shook herself; and, as I watched, her limbs became gradually fledged with feathers, her arms changed into sturdy wings, her nose grew crooked and horny, her nails turned into talons, and soon there was no longer any doubt about it: Pamphile had become an owl.” It certainly seems then that Stregheria once was a shamanic type of witchcraft such as the sort Carlo Ginzberg writes about in his brilliant book ‘Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath’. In that sense then it belongs to the collective archetype of the so-called ‘9th Sabbat’: the perpetual Sabbat in the center of the Wheel of the Year, accessed through spirit-flight, in this case manifesting through a Mediterranean lens.
Although certain contemporary authors such as Raven Grimassi claim to be practicing and teaching an hereditary form of Stregheria, and in Grimassi’s case have published ‘how to’ books on the subject which are very popular, (although his detractors call it ‘Wicca Florentine style’), Stregheria is really a Pagan religion under re-construction. Grimassi’s books are not the last word on the subject and if you are interested in digging deeper, books such as ‘Etruscan Roman Remains’ and ‘Aradia or the Gospel of the Witches’ by Charles G. Leland are your next step. These have their limitations though and making the effort to study particularly Italian folklore, Roman and Etruscan magic, Paganism and history will also prove rewarding. A suggested booklist appears below. Nor is it actually necessary to be of Italian descent to successfully practice Stregheria, but it helps if you have a deep interest in Roman Paganism, as well as both ancient and recent Italian history. Some students go as far as to learn Latin and/or modern Italian for performance of rituals and to access texts in those languages. For those who do have Italian heritage, the revival of Stregheria has also stimulated much family folklore collecting and different traditional paths within Stregheria are now evident.
A Note on Amulets.
If, like me, you are partial to wearing amulets and other decorative clutter, just as many Wiccans often wear Pentagram jewellery as both an amulet and as a symbol of their faith, Streghe may be identified by the wearing of a Cimaruta. ‘Cimaruta’ means ‘sprig of rue’ in Neapolitan and it was probably originally carved in red coral which has a naturally branching form. The Cimaruta is usually a three-branched amulet and is supposed to resemble the top of a rue plant. It is cast in silver and has other traditional Italian charms at the end of its branches. The charm as a whole can be said to consist of thirteen components sacred to Diana: these are Rue, the triformed branch shape, the metal silver, a hand, a horned crescent, a serpent, a key, heart, rooster, eagle, sword or dart, fish and vervain flower. Not every Cimaruta will have all thirteen attributes however, up until the end of the 19th century it was reputedly difficult to find two Cimaruta which were exactly the same, but now that they are less common there tend to be copies made of a few particular types.
This article is only the briefest general introduction to Stregheria. There are many websites and internet discussion lists devoted to this subject however, for further information I suggest the following books.
Apuleius. The Golden Ass. translated by Robert Graves. Penguin. London. 1954.
Mary Beard, John North, Simon Price. Religions of Rome. Vol.2. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge. 1998.
Frederick Elworthy. The Evil Eye. Colier Books. New York. 1958.
James G. Frazer. The Golden Bough. abridged edition. Macmillan. London. 1983.
Carlo Ginzburg. Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches Sabbath. translation R. Rosenthal. Pantheon. New York. 1991.
Carin M.C. Green. Roman Religion and the Cult of Diana at Aricia. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. 2007.
Raven Grimassi. Italian Witchcraft. (originally Ways of the Strega). Llewellyn. St Paul. 1995.
Raven Grimassi. Hereditary Witchcraft. Llewellyn. St Paul. 1999.
Horace. Complete Odes and Epodes. Trans.W. G. Shepherd. Penguin. London. 1983.
Charles G. Leland. Aradia or the Gospel of the Witches. (new translation). Mario & Dina Pazzaglini. Phoenix. Washington. 1998.
Charles G. Leland Etruscan Roman Remains. Phoenix. Washington. Reprint of 1892 version.
Sabina Magliocco. Spells, Saints and Streghe. The Pomegranate #13. August, 2000.
Ovid. Metamorphosis. translation A.D. Melville. Oxford Uni Press. Oxford. 1986.
Ovid. Fasti. translation A.J. Boyle & R.D. Woodard. Penguin. London. 2000.
Virgil. The Aeneid. translation D. West. Penguin. London. 1990.