Italian witches, known as Strega, walk the path of the Old Religion. They are the witches of Old Italy. In 1890, folklorist Charles Leland published a book titled ARADIA; GOSPEL OF THE WITCHES. Although it was typical in many ways of the distorted Christian image of Witchcraft of this period, we do find several things of interest. In Leland's book, Italian witches worship a goddess and a god, meet for full moon rituals and celebrate with singing, dancing and making love. Their celebration also includes a feast containing cakes and wine. In 1609, Francesco Guazzo published several woodcuts in his book Compendium Maleficarum. One of these Italian woodcuts depicts witches gathered inside a circle drawn upon the ground. In 1954, Gerald Gardner describes English Witchcraft in very much the same way.
Many people are familiar with Charles Leland's account of Italian Witchcraft, as well as the famous figure Aradia whom Leland introduced to the public in 1899. In this article I will present documentation from several sources showing that an active Witch cult was functioning in Italy during the later half of the 19th century. Let us look now at Aradia and Italian Witchcraft as seen through the eyes of 19th century writers in Italy.
In 1886 a man named Charles Leland became acquainted with an Italian woman named Maddalena who claimed to be a witch. Over a 10 year period she provided him with what she claimed was The Witches' Gospel. During this period Leland was heavily involved in the study of Italian Folklore. In 1899 he published a book called Aradia; The Gospel of the Witches based upon material that Maddalena had supplied him. Unfortunately the work is largely typical of distorted images of Witchcraft common to the era. We do, however, discover some valid elements of Italian Witchcraft traceable to actual pre-Christian pagan practices.
It is important to note that Leland is not the only source of information relating to an active Witch sect in Italy circa 1896. In volume 3 of Folk-Lore; Transactions of the Folk-Lore Society (published March, 1897) we find an interesting account of Neapolitan Witchcraft. The author, J.B. Andrews, tells us: "The Neapolitans have an occult religion and government in witchcraft, and the Camorra; some apply to them to obtain what official organizations cannot or will not do. As occasionally happens in similar cases, the Camorra fears and yields to the witches, the temporal to the spiritual."
The ancient Roman poet Horace gives 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. This would seem to indicate that during this Era such beliefs about Witches and Witchcraft were somewhat common knowledge. We know from the writings of Roman times that Proserpine and Diana were worshipped at night in secret ceremonies. Their worshippers gathered at night beneath the full moon and shunned the cities where the solar gods ruled. Diana was a Roman Moon Goddess known earlier in Greece as Artemis; twin sister of Apollo God of the Sun.
Italian Witches joined Masonic groups both to protect themselves and to continue the ancient practices with other Witches. Masonic influences are readily recognized by a simple examination of modern practices. For example, the Comacini were highly influential in the development of various Masonic elements that appear in modern Witchcraft systems throughout much of continental Europe and the British Isles. Other secret societies such as the Italian Carbonari (that established lodges in Scotland circa 1820) had three degrees of initiation marked by colored cords or ribbons: blue, red and black. A triangle marked the first degree level. The Carbonari claimed to have been based upon the Roman Mystery Cult of Mithra. One story originating from their Order in France states that this particular chapter originated in Scotland during the reign of Queen Isabel and was befriended by Francis I, King of France. Under his protection the Masonic cult multiplied and spread to Germany, France and England where it was also known as Forest Masonry. There is an interesting similarity here to Italian Witches who call their own groups"groves" (Boschetto).
A Hermetic group in Naples also influenced modern Stregheria. This group was called Fratellanza Terapeutico-Magica di Myriam (the Magical Therapeutic Brotherhood of Myriam) and was founded in Naples by a man named Guilian Kremmerz. On March 20, 1896 the Brotherhood of Myriam drew up a constitution and commenced formal instruction. The basic structure of the Order's practices was based upon natural magnetic properties found in all living things as well as in the earth itself. The Order taught that all things were balanced within a polarity structure. Healing through electromagnetic properties of the body was one of the primary practices of the Brotherhood.
The Brotherhood of Myriam taught the concept of the aura, an energy field surrounding the body. It also instructed its members concerning the lunar body. The lunar body was believed to form from the emotional state of an individual, creating an energy body within the aura. The lunar body, in this context, is the occult or spiritual counterpart to the electromagnetic energy field known as the aura. The Order of Myriam also instructed its members on the astral dimensions and various practices associated astral workings. Although such concepts were previously well known to Italian Witches, the Brotherhood supplied terms and labels that were later adopted into Stregheria.
There are many elements in our tradition of Stregheria that are different from Wicca. We follow a slightly different Mythos from Wicca and thus our Treguenda's in the Wheel of the Year are different from Wiccan Sabbats. Our rituals are very structured and reflect a philosophy of "adding but never removing" elements from our rites. We have a strong commitment to family and clan, reflected in our practices of ancestor reverence through spirits know as Lare. We believe our tradition follows what we would call elder Wicca, the Old Religion, from which many of the elements of modern-day Wicca have been derived