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Raven Grimassi

Raven Grimassi Award-winning author Raven Grimassi is the author of seven books on Wicca and Witchcraft, including Wiccan Mysteries (awarded Best Book of the Year & Best Spirituality Book 1998 by the Coalition of Visionary Retailers), Wiccan Magick, Italian Witchcraft (previously titled Ways of the Strega), Hereditary Witchcraft, Encyclopedia of Wicca & Witchcraft (awarded Best Non-Fiction Book 2001 by the Coalition of Visionary Retailers), Beltane, and the forthcoming title The Witches' Craft (October 2002).

Raven Grimassi has been a teacher and practitioner of the Craft for nearly 30 years. He is trained in the Family tradition of Italian Witchcraft (also known as Stregheria), and is also an initiate of several Wiccan Traditions, including Brittic Wicca and the Pictish-Gaelic Tradition. He is currently the Directing Elder of the Arician Ways. Raven considers it his life's work to ensure the survival of ancient witch lore and legend along with ancestral teachings of the Old Religion.

Grimassi has worked as both a writer and editor for several magazines over the past decade, including The Shadow's Edge (a publication focusing on Italian Witchcraft) and Raven's Call (a journal of modern Wicca, Witchcraft and Magick).

Titles by Raven Grimassi:

  • Beltane
     
  • The Well Worn Path
     
  • Italian Witchcraft: The Old Religion of Southern Europe
     
  • The Wiccan Mysteries: Ancient Origins & Teachings
     
  • Encyclopedia of Wicca & Witchcraft
     
  • The Witch's Familiar: Spiritual Partnerships for Successful Magic
     
  • The Witches' Craft: The Roots of Witchcraft & Magical Transformation
     
  • Hereditary Witchcraft: Secrets of the Old Religion
     
  • Wiccan Magick: Inner Teachings of the Craft
     
  • Witchcraft: A Mystery Tradition
     
  • Spirit of the Witch: Religion & Spirituality in Contemporary Witchcraft
© 2006 Raven Grimassi.
All rights reserved.
 

ITALIAN FOLK MAGIC & WITCHCRAFT

There is a common misconception today that Italian folk magic and Italian witchcraft are one and the same.  Although they do share certain elements, the two systems reflect a clear distinction.  Italian folk magic possesses various aspects of Christian beliefs and practices.  These are often rooted in the venerations of saints or the use of sacred or holy objects such as holy water, the communion wafer, or the rosary.  In addition various elements of folk magic are linked to important dates in Christianity such as Christmas Eve and festivals celebrating a variety of saints.  Many of these displaced earlier Pagan festivals such as the summer solstice, which is now assigned as St. John’s Day.

Italian witchcraft possesses elements of pre-Christian religion, and incorporates the aid of spirits, faeries, astronomical forces, and a variety of Pagan deities.  Ancient Roman writers depict Witches associated with the goddess Hecate, Diana, and Proserpina.  Ancient writers in Europe also associate Witches in Italy with the goddess Venus, and the god Priapus.  None of the Pagan oriented  views of elements are found in traditional Italian folk magic traditions, but they do reside in older forms of Italian Witchcraft.  Most modern scholars have ignored or dismissed the earlier writings that mention pre-Christian elements within Italian witchcraft.

Contemporary scholars investigating folk magic and Italian witchcraft have conducted field studies that involve interviews with folk practitioners in Italy.  Almost 100 percent of these individuals are Catholic or some other denomination of the Christian faith.  By contrast the field studies conducted in 19th century Italy, by such folklorists as J.B. Andrews, Lady de Vere, Roma Lister, and Charles Leland involved individuals who claimed to be witches. Naturally, in accord, the material and conclusions gathered by contemporary scholars and 19th century folklorists differ greatly.  It is noteworthy that five folklorists in Italy during the 19th century independently discovered a commonality within witchcraft traditions in different regions of Italy (none of which conform to common folk magic or folk traditions then or now).

Modern scholars focus on the folk healer in Italy, and tend to see the arts and customs of this figure as definitive of the cultural norms.  While this view may be true of contemporary traditions it fails to appreciate the existing Pagan elements preceding the modern folk traditions that contain them.  Most scholars today see pre-Christian elements as insertions into a Christian framework instead of viewing them as evidence of the survival of ancient pre-Christian religions.  One example appears in the feast day of San Domenico in Cocullo (Abruzzo region) whose statue is covered with living snakes and carried in a procession.  This site was earlier the home of the Marsi, a Pagan tribe that worshipped the goddess Angizia, a type of snake deity.

The customs associated with the feast of San Domenico strongly suggests that the Pagan elements pre-existed in a readily adoptable form that fit the Christian veneer.  However, most scholars appear to believe that such Pagan elements are not evidence of pre-existing sects and their beliefs and practices that were incorporated into saint veneration in the Christian era.  As previously noted, modern scholars seem to reject the idea that modern folk traditions are actually Christian offshoots of earlier Pagan beliefs and practices. 

When exploring for the correct chronology regarding Pagan and Christian elements, it is noteworthy that the Church and its agents seem to have intentionally displaced things as they Christianized.  One example is the festival day of the goddess Diana on August 13th, which was displaced with the Ascension of Mary on August 15th.   Another example is the birth of Jesus placed near the Winter Solstice, and his resurrection in the spring.  The death of Jesus on a tree (wooden cross) also resembles pagan themes in Europe.  When we add to this the Pagan elements contained within saint veneration, the evidence seems weighted against the Christian markers in terms of origins, chronology, and who took what from whom.

David Gentilcore, a historian of early modern Italy, held that while it was impossible to draw absolute distinctions between schooled medical professionals, ecclesiastical healers, and illiterate "wise-women," that medical knowledge flowed between these three groups. This is one example of how common elements within a group (or tradition) do not necessarily demonstrate that the systems or organizations are the same.  Gentilcore also notes that while some cures were known and accessible to all members of society, others were restricted to community wise women.  The differences between Italian folk magic/folk customs and Italian witchcraft appear to reveal the truth of such a view.

In modern Italy witchcraft is commonly known by the name stregoneria, which is actually closer in concept to sorcery.  Stregoneria is the magical art of spells, brews, charm making, and things of this nature.  The larger system is known as Stregheria, which incorporates what modern people call stregoneria.  Stregheria is commonly known as La Vecchia Religione, the Old Religion.  Its practitioners view their religion as one that pre-dates Christianity, and is different in many ways from common customs and lore found in the non-initiate populace.

The roots of Stregheria are traceable to ancient Greek and Roman witchcraft.  There are many interesting facets to be found in examining literary and historical sources.  Here we learn that the earliest word used in Western literature to denote witchcraft is the Greek word pharmakis (from which is derived the modern word pharmacist).  This Greek word indicates an intimate knowledge of herbs.  In ancient Greece witches were called the pharmakeutes, the “knowers of herbs” or “the plant people”.

In the earliest Greek writings, witches are depicted as beautiful women.  One example is Medea who seduces a Greek hero with her beauty and enchantment.  This remains constant until Roman influences begin to alter the theme.  The Roman poet Horace is among the first to depict the witch as an unkempt hag.

The earliest Latin word to denote a witch is saga, which referred to a fortuneteller.  The word literally means a person with greater vision.  Later in history the word saga meant someone with great wisdom.  In Roman times the Latin word venefica was used to indicate a witch, or the witches’ art.

The Roman historian Livy mentions the first trial for practicing "veneficium" having taken place in the early days of Rome, and modern scholars assign the year 331 bce to this trial.   The trial involved three women accused of making love potions.  The prosecutor charged that love potions robbed a man or woman of his or her free will, and in effect poisoned the mind.  The meaning of poison remained with the word venefica for centuries to come.  However, the root word for venefica is the same as that for the word venereal, derived from the Latin vene, indicating a relationship to Venus.  Another example of the benign "vene" root connection is the word venerate, which means "to regard with heartfelt deference".

In the book Phases in the Religion of Ancient Rome (University of California Press) by Cyril Bailey, the scholar mentions that Venus was originally a deity of gardens and vines, the cultivator.  Putting this together, we have Venus as a goddess of plants and the Latin word venefica (replacing the Greek "pharmakis" used to indicate one knowledgeable in plants) which all suggests that early witches were in some fashion associated with the goddess Venus, if only in their dealings with love potions.  There may well be more to this however, for indeed many centuries later (1375 ce) a women named Gabrina Albetti is convicted of practicing witchcraft after confessing to going out at night, removing her clothing, and worshipping the brightest star in the sky (which would actually have been the planet Venus).

Nudity in witchcraft is an ancient theme.  Sophocles, in his work titled Rhizotomoi, depicts the witch Medea as being naked while she uses a bronze sickle to reap herbs. Apuleius, in his work titled Metamorphoses, describes the witch Pamphile removing all of her clothing and smearing a magical ointment over her body. Historian Ruth Martin, in her book Witchcraft and the Inquisition in Venice 1550‑1650, comments that it was a common practice for witches of this era to be "naked with their hair loose around their shoulders" while reciting conjurations.  In addition there are several examples of nudity appearing in various 17th century woodcuts that depict witches dancing naked.  The concept of nudity in witchcraft rituals was popularized in Charles Leland’s 19th century book Aradia; Gospel of the Witches.

There are many surviving elements of great antiquity found in Italian witchcraft.  One is discovered in the trial transcripts of Elena Crusichi (aka Elna Draga).  This involved a work of healing that consisted of putting bath water from the ill into the sea.  The act was also timed to the phase of the moon.  Martin points out that this is one of the few entirely non-Christian aspects of healing still in existence by the 16th century.  She also notes the use of the cauldron & chain in magical spells, as well as the power attributed to the number five.  Much of this is associated with the hearthside, which has also long been linked to ancestral themes, and therefore to spirits of the dead.   

Martin provides several examples that involve the five fingers of the hand, which are assigned the powers of evocation.  These were used to call upon the spirits of people who died unjustly or had a violent death.  It is interesting to note that the goddess Hecate, who was long connected with restless spirits, appears in ancient literature as one of three goddesses associated with Witchcraft in southern Europe.  Ancient writers such as Horace, Ovid and Lucan reveal a relationship between witches and the goddesses Hecate, Diana and Proserpina in their writings on ancient witchcraft.

Christian elements are evident within some aberrant traditions of Italian witchcraft.  The most obvious additions can be found in the appearance of Catholic saints.  According to oral tradition various pagan deities were masked as saints, taking on the veneer of Christianity while maintaining the ancient veneration of the old gods.  A primary focus fell on the image of Mary, and her titles of the Queen of Heaven, and the Mother of God, equated her with earlier pre-Christian themes.

Another Christian influence can be found in the gift-giver witch figure known as Befana.  The Christianized tales tells the story of a witch who was too busy to go see the child Jesus along with the Magi.  When she made time, the event has already passed, and she was doomed to forever seek the child.  As the story goes, Befana visits homes and brings gifts to the children in hopes of finding and honoring the infant Jesus.  The involvement of a witch figure as part of the celebration of the birth of Jesus seems to be clearly a Christian invention.  But as we search further in the past for the Befana character we encounter some interesting pre-Christian elements.  Once again we will find ourselves at the hearthside. 

Social anthropologists Claudia and Luigi Manciocco, in their book Una Casa Senza Porte (The house without a door) investigate the ancient origins of Befana.  Here they trace her transformation from an ancient goddess figure to a modern gift-giver figure.  Like the American Santa Claus figure that brings gifts to children, Befana enters the home through the hearth and leaves presents for the children, as well as filling the stockings hung at the hearthside.  Here we find the hearth itself as the portal to ancestral spirits.  The stockings hung on the hearth are symbols of the Fates who spin & weave the lives of mortal kind.

Befana, in esoteric tradition, is the spirit link between past and present generations.  She brings gifts to the children, which provides blessings from the dead.  The fruit, drink, and snacks left for her at the hearthside are offerings to departed ancestors, which secure good fortune.  Befana is, in effect, the living link that joins past and present together at the hearth, which assures the flow of the ancestral current into future generations.

When considering Italian witchcraft it is important to note the differences between exoteric and esoteric traditions.  Many people misinterpret folk magic and folk traditions to be a witchcraft system.  While elements are certainly shared between folk magic and witchcraft, the two systems do not equate.  The lore and magic of the witch is very different in many ways from the customs of the modern folk magic practitioner.

Nineteenth century folklorist Lady de Vere describes a structured witch cult in an article she wrote in 1894:  "...the community of Italian witches is regulated by laws, traditions, and customs of the most secret kind, possessing special recipes for sorcery" (La Rivista of Rome, June 1894).  Folklorist Charles Leland comments:  “The witches of Italy form a class who are the repositories of all the folklore; what is not at all generally known, they also keep as strict secrets an immense number of legends of their own, which have nothing in common with the nursery or popular tales, such as are commonly collected and published …the more occult and singular of their secrets are naturally not of a nature to be published”.

 This theme appears centuries earlier in a book written by Francesco Guazzo, an Italian Ambrosian monk who grew up in the region of Tuscany.

Guazzo wrote of the witch sect in his book Compendium Maleficarum, and in chapter ten he notes that witches adhere to certain laws within their society.  The book was written at the request of the Archbishop of Milan (Frederico Borromeo) and published in 1608. Guazzo describes in great detail the structure of the Italian witch sect, as well as many other European systems.  In chapters twelve and eighteen, Guazzo indicates that witches gather in circles drawn upon the ground with beech twigs, and work with spirits of earth, air, fire, and water among others.

There is little difference today in the surviving witch traditions of old Italy.  The contemporary Italian witch is a combination of herbalist, mystic, healer, fortuneteller, and priest or priestess of the old gods of pre-Christian Italy.  He or she stands as a priest or priestess of the Old Ways, and is intimately linked to the lunar powers of the night, and to the elven or fairy race.  In ancient legends the witch and the fairy often appear in the same tales, and at times it is difficult to distinguish one from the other.  This is noted by the Sicilian folklorist Giuseppe Pitre who, when depicting the Sicilian fairy cult figures described them as “something of a fairy and something of a witch although one cannot really distinguish which is which”  (Early Modern European Witchcraft, Oxford University Press, 1993, page 195).  This is probably best represented by the witch charm known as the cimaruta (sprig of rue).

The cimaruta charm displays the symbols that depict the key and central alignments within Italian Witchcraft. The classic cimaruta charm bears images of a rooster, a dagger, a serpent coiled on a crescent moon, a key, and vervain blossom.  The rooster, as herald of the sun, symbolizes enlightenment.  The dagger is the moonbeam, the sacred arrow of Diana, and represents transformation. The serpent and moon symbolizes mystical vision and the goddess Proserpina. The key is the symbol of Hecate, and also represents one who opens the ways.  The vervain blossom represents the kindred fairy, and the witches’ covenant with these Otherworld beings.

In contemporary times we find that some traditions of Italian Witchcraft have adopted various elements of modern Wicca.  In most cases this was to extend a bridge, and to make the Italian Craft more appealing to a larger group of seekers.  However, some traditions of Italian witchcraft have exclusively retained the Old Ways, and have no interest in any adaptation for a modern audience.  This is most noted in the fact that until the 19th century no hereditary Italian witches ever came forward to speak about the Old Religion.

The findings of various 19th century folklorists in Italy do present some interesting snapshots of witchcraft as reported by individuals claiming to be witches. J.B. Andrews interviewed witches in Naples, Roma Lister in Venice & Florence, Lady De Vere in Rome, and Charles Leland in Florence as well. But it is more the blending of other information drawn from various sources that gives us a fuller portrait. So it is helpful to look back a little further.

 Professor Ruth Martin (in her book Witchcraft and the Inquisition in Venice 1550 - 1650) addresses the witches’ sect:

Page 37: “…witchcraft in Venice during this period, then, was dealt with very much as a religious offence and was allowed to come under the jurisdiction of the Inquisition rather than that of the secular authority”.

Page 39: “ (The witch) …that he or she was a member of an organized sect…”

Page 41:
“The final constituent in the completed stereotype of the witch-figure, and the one which probably contributed the most to the scale of the mass persecutions, was the idea that the witch was a member of a unified and organized sect of similar-minded people…”

 The latter is supported by several witchcraft trial transcripts, one example being the trial of Laura Malipero circa 1654. Professor Sally Scully (in her article appearing in the Journal of Social History, volume 28, 1995) notes that Laura was tried for practicing witchcraft along with her mother Isabella, half-sister Marietta Battaglia and 13 others who practiced the arts together. As previously noted the 17th century writings of Francesco Guazzo provide some interesting information. He was raised in the region of Tuscany, and formed many of his ideas on witchcraft while living in Milan.  This area had a high reputation for Sabbats, sorcery, and various pagan sects.  

Guazzo describes a structured sect of the Italian witchcraft, and notes similarities in many other European systems.  As previously noted, Guazzo indicates that witches gather in ritual circles traced upon the ground with beech twigs, work with spirits of earth, air, fire, and water, and share a hereditary lineage.

In chapter six, Guazzo states: "The infection of witchcraft is often spread through a sort of contagion to children by their fallen parents...and it is one among many sure and certain proofs against those who are charged and accused of witchcraft, if it be found that their parents before them were guilty of this crime. There are daily examples of this inherited taint in children..."

 Guazzo notes in chapter ten that witches adhere to certain laws within their society. As previously noted, centuries later we find this theme continued in the writings of folklorist Lady de Vere, who reports that the "...the community of Italian witches is regulated by laws, traditions, and customs of the most secret kind, possessing special recipes for sorcery" (La Rivista of Rome, June 1894).

 Guazzo states that Witches "read from a black book during their religious rites" and he notes a religious demeanor among witches in chapter eleven, where he writes: "For witches observe various silences, measuring, vigils, mutterings, figures and fires, as if they were some expiatory religious rite". Guazzo's depiction of witchcraft seems to indicate a rather structured and organized cult, and is consistent with accounts from Italian witch trial transcripts dating from 1310-1647.

Guazzo’s theme associating witchcraft as a religion can also be found in the field studies of folklorist J.B. Andrews, who wrote: "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" (Folk-Lore; Transactions of the Folk-Lore Society, March 1897).

During the 19th century, J.B. Andrews interviewed people claiming to be witches. From his field studies we find several interesting things that appear in his article titled Neapolitan Witchcraft, which was published in the Transactions of the Folklore Society, volume three, 1897, number one. Andrews writes:

“Southern Italy has been for many ages the favorite country for witches; they come from all parts of the peninsula to the Grand Councils held under the walnut-tree of Benevento, and even from more distant lands, for its fame is celebrated in Mentonnese tradition”

“The meetings take place at midnight in the country, when the witches dance and take council together”

Andrews notes that witchcraft consists of separate Arts:

“There are special departments of the art—there is that of the earth and of the sea—having their special adepts”

Later in the article he mentions spells that are performed using the stars. On page five Andrews reports that witches use three cords to invoke aid from the stars. One cord is black, one red, and the other white. The cords are knotted for various purposes, and pins are inserted into the knots to fix the spell in place.  Also on page five, Andrews notes the use of the witch’s shadow in magical workings. This practice during the Renaissance period is also noted by Ruth Martin, and by Charles Leland in his legend of Intialo, which all suggests a long-standing tradition.

The preservation of traditions by witches is a theme we find throughout the field studies of various folklorists in Italy during the 19th century. Andrews notes:

“The foregoing information was obtained quite recently from witches in Naples. When asked what books they used, they answered none, that their knowledge is entirely traditional”

Family traditions also feature prominently in these field studies. Andrews writes:

“An instruction in the methods is by itself sufficient; it is frequently given by the mother to her daughter...when a new witch has completed her education, the two women open a vein in their arms; having mixed the blood, the older witch makes a cross with it under the left thigh of her pupil”

 The field studies of folklorist Charles Leland are important primarily because he worked with several people who claimed to be hereditary witches from old family lines. In several of his books, and in his personal letters, Leland mentions a total of five "witches" who gathered research material for him. These were Maddalena,Trina, Marietta, and two men who Leland says came from a witch blood family (one of the men may have been named Peppino). The men were employed to collect information from traders coming down from the mountain regions in northern Italy. The witch family that Leland employed to aid his research (along with Maddalena) is mentioned in Leland’s letter to

Mr. Macritchie, dated April 8, 1891.

In the book Etruscan Roman Remains Leland writes of family involvement as the child grows:

"As for families in which stregeria, or a knowledge of charms, old traditions and songs is preserved, they do not among themselves pretend to be even Christian. That is to say, they maintain outward observances, and bring the children up as Catholics, and "keep in" with the priest, but as the children grow older, if any aptitude is observed in them for sorcery, some old grandmother or aunt takes them in hand, and initiates them into the ancient faith." - Etruscan Roman Remains, page 237. London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1892

 What we are seeing here is the depiction of Italian witchcraft as preserved in family traditions. What is confirming here is that the uneducated peasant witches interviewed by 19th century folklorists are giving accounts of their practices, which reflect those noted during the witch trial periods of history. Since these peasants would not be familiar with the trial documents, nor the basic literature related to witchcraft, the consistency is quite noteworthy.

The folklorists paint a picture of an organized sect of witches, secret in nature, and consisting of laws and special lore. This theme also appears in the 17th century writings of Guazzo. This does not mean that no solitary practitioners existed, for they do appear in trial material. Unlike most of the trials in northern Europe, there are many cases in Italy where the accused freely admits to being a witch

Few if any modern scholars have interviewed contemporary Italian witches.  The few who have do not seem to have taken them seriously enough to continue an in-depth investigation.  One of the few modern scholars to explore the topic of Italian witchcraft today is Sabina Magliocco who authored an article titled Spells, Saints, and Streghe (published in Pomegranate, issue #13, August 2000).

In her article, Magliocco states that most of her knowledge of Italian folk magic comes from ethnographic research and fieldwork in Sardinia, where she spent a cumulative 18 months living in a highland community of sheep and goat pastoralists between 1986 and 1990.  Magliocco makes it clear that her knowledge is in the area of Italian folk magic. There is no claim by her to possess anything resembling an intimate knowledge of Italian witchcraft (as practiced in Italy or elsewhere). It seems likely that shepherds in Sardinia did possess some knowledge of folk magic as many Italian do. However, it seems reasonably certain that these commoners knew little if anything of authentic forms of witchcraft (because they aren't witches).  Therefore they cannot seriously be viewed as expert witnesses on Italian witchcraft.

Magliocco comments on the influence of Charles G. Leland's Aradia, or the Gospel of Witches, and goes on to say that Leland's material does not bear a strong resemblance to Italian folk magical practice as documented in the ethnographic record of the last 100 years.  She also claims this is true of modern Italian witchcraft traditions.  Naturally there is little reason why Folk Magic and Witchcraft should correspond because they are two different systems. As we have already seen, the community of Italian witches possesses secret customs and traditions (again noted by 19th century folklorist Roma Lister).

 Charles Leland mentions the following from his field studies among self proclaimed witches (as opposed to common shepherds, as was the case with Magliocco’s field studies):

“The witches of Italy form a class who are the repositories of all the folklore; what is not at all generally known, they also keep as strict secrets an immense number of legends of their own, which have nothing in common with the nursery or popular tales, such as are commonly collected and published ... the more occult and singular of their secrets are naturally not of a nature to be published ....”

In this light Magliocco’s views are difficult to reconcile with those of professional Folklorists in the 19th century who performed field studies among people who defined themselves as witches.  Magliocco comments that Italian-American Witchcraft or Stregheria traditions differ from Italian folk magical practice in several important ways. Magliocco first states that Italian folk magic is not an organized or unified religion, but a varied set of beliefs and practices.  This is true, which is one of the primary reasons it differs from Italian witchcraft

Magliocco writes that while folk magic has deep historical roots, it is not a survival of an ancient religion, but an integral part of a rural peasant economy and way of life, highly syncretized with folk Catholicism. This is another reason why it differs from Italian witchcraft.  Magliocco continues with the view that knowledge of magical practices was at one time diffused throughout the rural population, rather than limited to a secret group of magical practitioners.  Indeed such things were diffused, but they were diffused from the secret societies into the common population.  However, the material was never understood by the non-initiated, and was quickly Christianized to conform to contemporary society.  Within the “rural population” it quickly transformed into a diluted and altered form that today is known as folk magic.

Magliocco concedes that the context of Italian folk magical practice differs considerably from that of contemporary Italian-American revival witchcraft, so that materials are not always easily transferable from one system to another.  This is precisely one of the main reasons why they need to be understood as different systems. Their differences do not render either as unauthentic but speak to different systems that are not dependent upon one another.

In her article, Magliocco states that all traditions are perpetually in flux as their bearers constantly re-interpret and re-invent them with each individual performance. She further comments that revival and revitalization are part of the process of tradition, even when the result is different from the original practice itself.  Ironically her argument is therefore as true of folk magic as it would be of Italian witchcraft.  Consequently, since folk traditions transform within the model that Magliocco supports, they cannot be the measure of “authenticity” when comparing Italian witchcraft or other systems.  This would be particularly true of anything that pre-dated the folk tradition, since the folk tradition itself has transformed into something different from its original roots.

Magliocco writes that one of the problems with the idea of a unified organization of Italian witches is that the Italian peninsula could not be said to have anything resembling an integrated culture between the end of the Roman Empire (453ce) and the beginning of the 20th century, making the existence of a secret, organized Italian witch cult nearly impossible. However, the reality is that five folklorists in Italy (during the 19th century) independently discovered a commonality within witchcraft traditions in different regions of Italy.  Magliocco also comments that the development of a unified Italian system of ritual magic, diffused through oral tradition on a popular level, is unlikely before the 20th century.  She goes on to add that any generalizations about an Italian folk culture need to be treated with great caution.  The latter statement is very true, which is yet another reason why folk traditions and folk magic systems cannot be the universal measurements of authenticity in an investigation and comparison of Italian witchcraft.

To understand Italian folklore and folk magic (as opposed to authentic forms of witchcraft) it is helpful to look at its literary history.  According to folklorist Italo Calvino (Italian Folktales) it is generally accepted that Italian tales were recorded from the oral tradition by the early Middle Ages.  Gianfrancesco Straparola and Giambattista Basile compiled the earliest works.  Straparola wrote tales of wizardry and enchantment.  Basile wrote down old tales of enchantment and superstition spoken by Italian peasants in Venice, Crete, and along the Mediterranean coast (circa 1637).  Laura Gonzenbach, a Swiss-German born in Sicily, gathered oral tales from the peasants of Sicily, and published her work in 1870.

The writings of Straparola and Basile provide us with a snapshot of common Italian lore, as it existed it Italy around the 15th century.  Because we possess no earlier works it is almost impossible to know what alterations were made over the centuries, and how similar the tales are in relationship to the roots of the beliefs and practices depicted in the written accounts.  A further problem arises when we ask whether beliefs about witches in folk tales represent what people actually believed, or whether they reflect the fantastic.

In the book Out of the Woods: The Origins of the Literary Fairy Tale in Italy and France, edited by Nancy Canepa (published by Wayne State University Press, 1997) the author points to manipulations and transformations of the earlier folklore tales by certain authors of the 18th century.  This resulted in a change of not only the core and flavor of the original folktales, but also altered the social history through which they originally arose.  Canepa notes that this dominated fairy-tale scholarship well into the 1970s.

Scholar Jack Zipes, in his book The Trials and Tribulations of Little Red Hiding Hood (Routledge, 1993) states that folktales “were told by priests in the vernacular as part of their sermons to reach out to the peasantry”.  Canepa points out that “The authors – and audiences – of the first French tales, as of the earlier Italian tales, were the elite frequenters of courts and salons, and these authors lost no opportunity to use the tales to air their views on prevailing social and political conditions…” This leaves us with the problem of how contrived were the retold tales, and what personal gain existed in each occasion of the telling?  In such a light, popular lore again becomes unreliable as a standard by which to view the authenticity of folklore as a reliable means of discerning cultural integrity.  Instead it can be seen as exposing political stratagem.

Canepa notes the problem with viewing popular lore as reflective of the culture as a whole:  “Moreover, in the case of the fairly tale (v. other forms of ‘fantastic’ literature), the situation of a given work in a precise sociocultural context is further obfuscated by the tendency to regard fairy tales, even when they are literary creations of individual authors, along the same lines as oral folkltales: that is, as collective, anonymous, products of a tale-telling community that may span vast chronological and geographic boundaries”.

The problem for scholars is that the written tales (which as we’ve seen have been manipulated and transformed over the centuries) comprise the bulk of the research data used by the academic community.  Although some modern scholars still seek out oral accounts, the written tales that people have been exposed to from birth have no doubt contaminated the oral tales that can still be encountered in contemporary times among the common people.  The problem is further confounded by the fact that modern scholars reject the field studies of 19th century folklorists who recorded the oral accounts of lore and witchcraft drawn from people professing to be witches.  In its place scholars accept the view of people professing to be Catholic.  Ironically the witches interviewed in the 19th century were preservers of their older inner traditions, while the common folk were subjected to continually revised material that changed according to each teller.  Here we see the exoteric lore of Catholic peasant society versus the esoteric lore of the witches’ sect.  The favoring by the academic community of exoteric reports over esoteric accounts has resulted in a misunderstanding of Italian witchcraft (both old and new).  It is doubtful this will ever be accurately resolved.