Witch season

Italy’s unlikely associations with the occult

Joanna Drot-Troha
October 27, 2017 - 19:12

Post-equinox, as the nights draw in towards the Winter Solstice and Halloween is fast upon us, what better time to remember that we are entering the witch season?

Don't Look Now

Despite its undisputed role as the cradle of Catholicism, Italy has a strong association with the occult. From the lasting traditions of ancient and Etruscan mythology, through the first documented Tarot cards, or tarocchi played in fifteenth-century Milanese and Bolognese courts to the enduring folklore myth of the Befana, the witch, from whom expectant children still accept their sweets on the eve of Epiphany.


This esoteric preoccupation has permeated pop culture and literature, from the supernatural giallo films of Dario Argento to overseas horror hits such as The Omen, in which a high-ranking American diplomat unwittingly adopts the Satanic foundling Damien from a Roman priest, and Don’t Look Now, whereby a grief-stricken couple on a Venetian holiday are plagued by soothsayers and possible ghosts.


Since enquiring after the label on the saffron-infused digestif Strega and learning of its inspiration drawn from the Campanian myth of the Witches of Benevento, realization dawned that the witch is a compelling figure in Italian folklore, and in this respect Tuscany has its own unique tale of a profound cultural influence on modern witchcraft and Neopaganism.


In 1899, the American writer Charles Godfrey Leland published Aradia, or The Gospel of the Witches. A religious text, supposedly handed to him by a Florentine fortune-teller and witch informant called Maddalena, it was compiled of beliefs, spells, rituals and even recipes from a Tuscan witch cult that worshipped the Queen of Witches, the Goddess Aradia.


A moon goddess and the daughter of Diana and Lucifer, Aradia was sent to Earth like a female Messiah to help the pagan peasants of Tuscany fight back against the tyranny and oppression of the strengthening Church. It was this gospel, or vangelo, which only really gained popularity in the 1950s, that later compounded the pantheon worshipped by modern-day Wiccans of the Moon Goddess and the Horned God.


This was also the text that inspired the Italian-American pagan scholar Raven Grimassi, a descendant of a Neapolitan witch, to popularise his own ethnic Italian form of witchcraft, Stregheria or “the Old Religion” in the 1980s. In his The Book of the Holy Strega, Grimassi argues that Leland’s text was an overly Christianised portrayal of a real woman, Aradia di Toscano, a humble fourteenth-century witch, La Bella Pellegrina, who influenced the peasants to revive their lost pagan rituals.


Whatever the true origins of the legend of Aradia, modern-day Wiccans celebrate her as a nature goddess, and during harvest time this typically Tuscan-sounding chapter heading from the Gospel of the Witches sounds like an appealing recipe for modern-day biodynamic viniculture: “To Have A Good Wine And Very Good Wine By The Aid of Diana”.


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