Sunday, September 4, 2011
Stregheria: An Introduction to Italian Witchcraft
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.