Italian Witchcraft

Italian Witchcraft

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

By 500 CE, Rome had driven out all sorcerers and the only divination allowed was by public, not private, augury. In 1181 the doge of Venice, Orlo Malipieri, passed laws punishing sorcerers and poisoners. A hundred years later, Emperor Frederick II of Sicily began to reverse the trend by employing Saracen diviners and inviting Michael Scot, the Scottish wizard, to his court. By the thirteenth century, sorcery was still an offense in Italy, yet astrology was not. Divination, especially by charting the course of the stars, worked its way back into favor. Learned people studied both astrology and divination. In fifteenth century Italy, many papal decisions were made with the aid of astrologers, and there were resident astrologers at all the courts.

Much like the rest of Europe, in Italy there were many lowly "wise women and men" who dispensed herbs and potions and worked a little magic, and these people became the targets of the Inquisition. The Old Religion, or La Vecchia Religione, had endured through the many centuries of Christianity. Whatever sophisticated high magic might be done in the towns and cities, those who lived in the country, or Pagans (from the Latin paganus, "a country dweller"), still worshiped the goddess and celebrated the seasons.

The epidemic of witch hunting and persecution that swept the whole of Europe started in Italy, at the court of Pope Innocent VIII, with his Papal Bull against witchcraft in 1484. This was reprinted as a foreword to, and endorsement of, the horrific Malleus Maleficarum of Heinrich Kramer and Jakob Sprenger two years later. The Bull was a typical pronouncement from a Christian against a nonChristian form of worship that had fertility as its central theme. The Bull laid great stress on power over fertility, citing intercourse "that members of both sexes do not avoid to have. . . with demons, Incubi and Succubi." Practically every pope in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries issued a Bull against sorcery. What made that of Innocent VIII especially important was the development of printing at that time and the resulting widespread distribution of the Bull. It provided the spark that started the widespread panic against witchcraft that raged out of control across Europe and even leapt the Atlantic Ocean to the New World. In the first year that the Bull appeared, forty-one people were burned at the stake in Como alone. In 1510, 140 witches were burned at Brescia, seventy at Valcanonica, and, four years later, 300 more were burned in Como.

The old wise ones who had worked diligently to cure the sick now found themselves charged with causing the sickness. Anything unusual was ascribed to witchcraft. If a hen stopped laying or a cow ran dry, witchcraft was immediately suggested. There was no hesitation by the authorities to use torture to gain the necessary confessions.

A feature unique to Italian witchcraft was the witch dance, which was known as La Volta. The staid churchmen proclaimed that this dance, which they said was practiced by witches at their sabbat rites, was so fast and furious it could only have been taught to them by the devil himself.

But while the persecutions raged throughout most of Italy and the rest of Europe, there were many isolated areas where the Old Religion was able to survive. In the wild countryside of the Romagna Toscana, on the island of Sicily, and in other pockets, the country people still worshiped the old gods. The way in which the magical arts and the Pagan religion survived from Roman times was through the streghe, the followers of the Old Religion. The women of Gaeta were notorious for being streghe, as were those of Nursia. Charles Godfrey Leland discovered this at the end of the nineteenth century when, in Florence, he encountered a witch named Maddalena. She recognized his knowledge on such matters and let him have a copy of a Vangelo delle-Streghe, a Gospel of the Witches of Italy. This was the source of his next book, titled Aradia, Gospel of the Witches, published in 1899. It told of the worship of Diana, as "Queen of the Witches," and of her daughter Aradia, who is really a younger version of Diana herself.

Even today, Sicily abounds with believers in the old gods. There are many ruins of ancient temples—to Demeter, Persephone, Diana, Minerva, and others—still found there. One of them is the Temple to Demeter in Castrogiovanni. Others include temples and temple ruins at Segeste, Syracuse, Taormina, and Tyndari. Leo Martello makes the point that the streghe would outwardly adopt the New Religion but continue their own practices in secret. This was a common ploy elsewhere. It was also a practice of the Gypsies, the Roma, as they moved across Europe. Today there are a number of Wiccan traditions that have an Italian foundation, many of them basing their rituals on the material to be found in Leland's Aradia.

Witches main body 12/22/08 11:34 AM Page 266


The Witch Book: The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft, Wicca, and Neo-paganism © 2002 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.
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