Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Stregheria and Vernacular Magic in Italy: A Comparison

Raven Grimassi wrote:
.... first, some background. Last year (2006) Sabina met with my mother and they chatted for several hours. From reading the following, I think two things happened. One is that Sabina now believes that my mother is a native Italian, and the other is that my mother comes from a magical background in Italian Folk Magic. Sabina has also modified her view of me, and now rather than being a charlatan, I am apparenlty a true believer who is just misguided by my interpretation regarding the family lineage. In any case, we're making progress. Perhas after the next meeting, I will go from misguided true believer to an actual witch. What's most promising is Sabina's admonishment that Stregheria "should not be interpreted as inauthentic, fake or contrived"

So here is the article, which appears to be a reworking of some of her earlier articles:

Stregheria and Vernacular Magic in Italy: A Comparison*
Sabina Magliocco
January 10, 2007

The distinction between contemporary Stregheria and traditional Italian magic, healing and spiritual practice has lately been the subject of lively debate on a number of listserves and websites. In this brief essay, I will attempt to summarize some of my academic publications on this theme for a non-scholarly audience, and to encourage further research, questions and discussion on this topic. I should state at the outset that my approach is academic: as an anthropologist and folklorist, I consider both Stregheria and Italian vernacular magic as important facets of culture in their own right. My intention is not to support or deny the authenticity of either, but to help readers understand both in the contexts in which they developed,
and how the former grew from the latter in the context of the Italian American diaspora.

*Stregheria* is an Italian American variety of Neo-Pagan Witchcraft. It owes its origins to Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches (1889), a collection of spells, rhymes and legends which amateur folklorist Charles G. Leland claimed came from a Florentine fortune-teller named Maddalena. According to Leland, Maddalena belonged to a family of witches who practiced a form of pagan religion centered on the worship of the moon goddess Diana. Leland interpreted the materials he collected according to popular folklore theories of the late 19th century: as survivals of ancient pagan religions, specifically those of the Romans and Etruscans, whose civilizations had once dominated central Italy. He dubbed witchcraft la vecchia religione (the old religion). Right from the start, Leland’s work was controversial. Some of the materials in it – the conjuration of lemons and pins, for instance – have analogues in Italian folklore. Other snippets appear to be versions of popular Italian children’s rhymes, rewritten to suit Leland’s ideology. And the character of Aradia does seem to be based on a figure from medieval Italian folklore: the biblical Herodias (Erodiade in Italian), popularly believed to fly through the air at
night at the head of a ghostly procession. But these bits of folklore do not appear anywhere else in Italian tradition as part of a single text. If The Gospel of the Witches had been an authentic document from a folk tradition, some other version of it would have been collected at some point by Italian folklorists or historians. Yet no other similar text has ever been found by Italian ethnologists. For that reason, Leland’s Aradia has always been suspected to be a fake. More recently, historian Robert Mathiesen has proposed a new explanation: that Aradia be interpreted as a dialogic and intersubjective text – a product of the close interaction between Leland and Maddalena, during which Maddalena selected and re-interpreted bits of folklore in ways that would interest her wealthy patron. The result was a document that incorporated many elements of folklore, but strung them together in unusual ways, giving them a unique and atypical interpretation.

Despite the controversies surrounding it, Leland’s text became quite influential: it equated folk magic to an ancient religion involving the veneration of a goddess, and located this all in Italy. Leland clearly influenced Gerald B. Gardner, who is widely credited with the development of Wicca in its present form, and through Gardner, an entire generation of Witches. Among the first to openly identify as a practitioner of Italian witchcraft was Leo Louis Martello (1933-2001). Martello claimed to have been initiated by a family member as a young man. He described a secret hereditary tradition based on a Sicilian version of the myth of Proserpina (Persephone). Along with priestess Lori Bruno, also a hereditary practitioner, he founded the Trinacrian Rose of New York City, one of the first Italian American covens in North America.

But the real heir of Leland is Raven Grimassi, the architect of Stregheria. Like Martello and Bruno, Grimassi claims to have been initiated into a family tradition of magical practice which he describes as hereditary, domestic, and secret. Grimassi’s mother comes from the region of Campania, outside Naples. She belongs to a family whose members practiced a number of magical traditions, including the removal of the evil eye, the making of medicinal liqueurs and oils, and divination. Like the traditions described by Martello, Bruno and a number of Italian ethnologists, it consisted of a set of secret teachings limited to family members, passed on only to those who were felt to have some innate magical ability and interest. But it is not this tradition that Grimassi writes about in his works The Ways of the Strega (1995), Hereditary Witchcraft (1999), and Italian Witchcraft (2000). Instead, he presents an elaboration of what Leland described: "a religion similar to Wicca in structure and practice, with Italian flavor added through the names of deities, spirits, and sabbats." According to him, Italian Witches divide themselves into three clans: the Fanarra of northern Italy, and the Janarra and Tanarra of central Italy. No mention is made of southern Italy, despite the fact that the majority of Italian immigrants to North America, including Grimassi’s mother, originated there. Each tradition is directed by a leader known as a Grimas. Like the names of the three Strega clans, the word “Grimas” does not occur in Italian or in any of its dialects. Italian American Streghe worship in circles called boschetti (“groves”) led by a High Priestess and Priest. The meet on full and new moons and observe eight sabbats. They venerate a lunar goddess and a horned god based on the Etruscan deities Uni and Tagni, also known as Tana and Tanus, Jana and Janus, Fana and Faunus. Ancestor spirits known as Lasa watch over each family, and various nature spirits such as Fauni, Silvani, Folletti and Linchetti play key roles in Stregheria. The guardians of the four directions are known as Grigori. While Grimassi’s books have been very influential in the United States, individual Stregheria covens that are not descended from his may not necessarily follow his teachings. As in all Neo-Pagan Craft, there is a wide range of variation and adaptation among groups and individuals. The common thread that links all Stregheria covens seems to be their efforts to give their practice an Italian flavor, whether through the types of deities venerated, the food served at rituals, or the adaptation of Italian and Italian American cultural practices to a Pagan context.

Grimassi’s genius is creative, rather than scholarly. He never claims to be reproducing exactly what was practiced in Italy, admitting that Streghe have “adapted a few Wiccan elements into their ways” (1995:xviii). He openly acknowledges that he is expanding on his family tradition, adding elements to it to restore it to what he imagines was its original state. But from his attempts to restore a tradition, a brand new tradition has emerged: one that bears little
resemblance to anything that was practiced in Italy or in Italian American ethnic communities.

While based on Italian folk magic, historical accounts and folklore collections, Stregheria is, like most revival Witchcraft, a modern tradition. Folklorist Robert Klymasz, writing about what happens to folklore as a result of immigration to a new culture, identified three layers of folklore that are present in any ethnic community. These include the traditional, with clear links to Old World forms; the transitional, in which some elements from the Old World crystallize, while others adapt to the new context; and innovational, in which new folklore is developed to make up for older forms that have been lost (Klymasz, 1973). Stregheria belongs to the last category. It has some points in common with Italian vernacular magic, which I will outline below; but there are more differences than similarities. Its true value lies in its ability to provide contemporary Italian Americans with a new context in which to interpret folk magical practices that have remained in their families for many generations, giving these traditions a new life. In the process, it plays a vital role in helping to create and maintain identity for its practitioners.

*Italian vernacular magic*, by contrast, is neither a religion nor a formalized system of practice. It is both a worldview and a set of customs tied to the agro-pastoral cycle which is strongly embedded in the lives of its practitioners, almost never on a self-conscious level. For most of its carriers, it is simply an ordinary way of doing things and behaving. While it may have historical roots in
pre-Christian practices, it is emphatically not a pagan tradition, but firmly embedded within a Roman Catholic cultural matrix. In my more recent work, I have called it “the enchanted worldview,” playing on Max Weber’s trope of the disenchantment of the world.

The enchanted worldview in Italy is rooted in specific pre-market economic and social systems. Because of subsistence activities associated with the land, time is organized according to seasonal cycles; these are reflected in the ritual year, which is dominated by Catholic liturgical forms. These almost always are locally interpreted in ways that connect them to the economic cycle: for example, in
Campania, where wheat and hemp crops have been replaced by tobacco, which has a similar growing season, the ritual year begins at planting time near St. Martin in mid-November, and extends until the end of the harvest season at St. Cosimo and Damiano in October. In pastoral areas such as Sardinia and the Apennine, May and September, the months that frame transhumance, are emphasized in local ritual practices. The exact shape of the ritual year thus differs markedly from one area to
another. The symbols – the Madonnas and saints – are the same, but each township differs in the way it situates these characters within its symbolic and economic system. The enchanted worldview is not only rooted in the ritual year cycle; it is all-pervading in the individual’s life cycle. It begins at birth and penetrates every phase of life and every rite of passage, from the moment of birth, when most
Italian babies who are not born with a caul (la camicia, or “shirt,” in Italian) are given a fine lawn shirt by a relative, often a godparent, to protect them against evil influences, to funerals, where a variety of beliefs about the otherworld are made manifest through practice.

The core of Italian vernacular religion and magic is thus the correlation of its symbolic systems with local economic and social structures. The primary connection is never with the dominant structures of church and state. Hegemonic structures may or may not coincide with indigenous ones, but where there is no match, they are
simply ignored. If a particular element does not make sense in terms of local understandings of time, space, and the nature of the world, people will treat it as though it does not exist, as if it were of no consequence. As a result, the landscape of the enchanted worldview in Italy is everywhere local.

Despite its exquisitely local character, the enchanted worldview exists throughout Italy, in both northern and southern regions, with significantly more commonalities than one might think, given the differences in language, culture and economy that characterize Italy’s twenty regions. Certain concepts are ubiquitous: for example, the evil eye and its diagnosis and cures are found in all regions, and are very
similar throughout. Yet the enchanted worldview defies systematization. Beliefs and practices are nowhere standardized, or even organized into an easily articulated set of principles; they are part of everyday life, part of praxis. German ethnologist Thomas Hauschild, who spent nearly twenty years studying magic in Basilicata,
a region in the south of Italy, wrote: “There is no system, only practice” (Hauschild, 2003:19). The practice is the system. Practices and beliefs exist within a particular cosmology, but its details seldom preoccupy its technologists. Thus, a structure like that described by Grimassi, with orderly branches in various parts of
Italy, each with its own leader and systematic body of lore, is inherently foreign to the enchanted worldview in Italy.

The main characteristic of the enchanted worldview is a belief in the omnipresence of spiritual beings that can influence human lives. These beings include the dead, saints, and the Virgin Mary and Jesus (who are, after all, nothing more than particularly powerful dead). Spirits such as folletti, linchetti and monachelli also appear, echoing some of the spiritual flora and fauna in Grimassi’s works, but they are often troublesome, rather than helpful: they tangle the manes of horses, frighten donkeys and confuse travelers who cross their paths. Some spirits are associated with certain kinds of illnesses, although exact relationships are generally determined by local lore. For instance, in Basilicata, the unquiet dead are said to cause skin diseases such as erysipelas and St. Anthony’s Fire (herpes zoster); in Campania, children who fail to thrive are said to be taken by witches
on their night flights, and worn out with flying and dancing; in Emilia Romagna, Puglia and Sardinia, spiders and/or insects are responsible for a range of illnesses from tarantismo to argismo to arlìa. Some scholars suggest these insects once embodied ancestor spirits who then possessed their victims through the bite or sting (De Martino, 2005 [1961]). Even spirits such as saints and the Madonna, who belong to a greater Catholic pantheon, are everywhere localized: the Madonna is usually worshipped in one or more of her local manifestations, and the devout have their personal favorites based on each Madonna’s attributes and the qualities she “stands over,” or rules, and their own individual needs or interests.

Everywhere in Italy, there are experts who specialize in interfacing with the spirit world. These are the Italian equivalents of British and European cunning folk, and much of their work consists in the diagnosis and cure of spiritual illness. Their names vary according to region; they may be known as guaritori (healers), donne che aiutano (women who help), praticos (knowledgeable or wise people), fattucchiere (fixers), maghi (sorcerers), and by numerous other dialectical terms; but they seldom call themselves streghe (witches). This term is overwhelmingly negative in Italian folklore, and almost always refers to a person who brings harm to others. Italian folklore is rich in legends about witches who fly through the air to their
legendary gatherings around the walnut tree of Benevento, shrink themselves so small they can fit through keyholes, suck breath or blood from victims, and cause all manner of illness and mischief to their neighbors. Clearly, these activities refer to folkloric witches; they have never been practiced by actual human beings. Occasionally, however, healers may be accused of being streghe by those who believe
themselves to be victims of black magic, or by clients who have failed to be healed by the cunning person’s cures.

There are two principal strains of healing in Italian vernacular culture: healing through the use of herbs, and spiritual healing. In some cases, both may be practiced by the same individual. Of the two, healing with herbs is considered less a matter of spiritual ability than of practical knowledge. Spiritual healing, in contrast, is believed to be more connected with personal power. This is variously
called la forza (power), la virtù (virtue; also attribute); or il segno (the sign), and is generally believed to be inborn. But power alone is useless without the prayers, magical formulae and techniques that make up the cunning person’s craft. Knowledge and power are passed on through an initiation, most commonly at midnight on
Christmas Eve mass, during the elevation of the host -- that magical moment of transformation in the Catholic liturgical year at which the world is transformed by the birth of the Savior, and the host is transformed into his body -- and thus, by association, any transformation can take place. The knowledge takes the form of prayers that call upon a saint or the Madonna, and in some cases an accompanying technique, which varies according to the nature of the spiritual cure. These formulas and techniques are secret; they cannot be passed on to others without the healer losing her or his power, and they can only be passed on at the appointed time in the ritual cycle. Often, this is the only initiation and training necessary for the transmission of simple charms. Healing knowledge and power are typically passed down within the family; in some cases, family members – typically a group of siblings or cousins – must work together in order to bring about the cure.

As scholars have documented for other parts of Europe, spirits figure prominently as the helpers of Italian cunning folk. While many ordinary Italians living in traditional communities admit to belief in spirits, and occasionally even to contact with them, cunning folk seem to possess an intensified ability to commune with them above and beyond that of ordinary people. In many areas, healing is essentially
conceptualized as a battle against malevolent spirits – whether those of the unquiet dead, witches, or others. Healers need spiritual allies in these battles, and many healers claim to have them in the form of spirits who guide and help them in their craft. The nature of these spirits, once again, is highly localized as well as idiosyncratic: they may be saints, personal ancestors, or helpful dead. They may
appear to the healer in dreams and visions: trance and ecstatic states are a fundamental part of communicating with the spirits; they are doorways into the spiritual world for healers and magic workers. When cunning folk rely on saints or the Virgin Mary as helpers, they may maintain shrines to them, participate actively in the organization of festivals in their honor, and play active roles in religious
sororities and fraternities that raise money for the feasts. Cures for certain illnesses may take place only on specific feast days or in the context of saints’ festivals. Thus, healing is closely connected to the seasonal and economic cycle of the community, and to the Catholic liturgical calendar.

Italian cunning folk may use a variety of tools in their work which suggest a connection to Stregheria and Neo-Pagan Witchcraft. They commonly keep notebooks in which charms and prayers are recorded – the forerunners of modern-day books of shadows. Some use weapons of various types (daggers, swords, bayonets and even guns) to frighten evil spirits or symbolically cut away certain illnesses, such as
worms. Ropes or cords may be used in binding spells and charms, while other tools may be entirely idiosyncratic.

The Italian cunning tradition has a number of traits that suggest that some aspects of modern Stregheria may derive from it in part, and that many Italian Americans who see themselves as carriers of Stregheria grew up in families that preserved aspects of the rural Italian enchanted worldview. Like modern Neo-Paganism and revival witchcraft, this way of life was organized around a ritual year that followed the
cycle of the seasons; the moon and sun influenced rhythms of work and production. Women were recognized as life-givers and nourishers, and were closely involved in the maintenance of shrines to a feminine divine figure, the Virgin Mary. Their immigrant ancestors may have been carriers of a tradition of healing that involved herbal and magical practices. They may have kept notebooks of charms and prayers
that were precursors of today’s Neo-Pagan books of shadows. Their tools may have included knives, swords and other weapons designed to frighten away malevolent spirits, and their craft involved communication with helpers who took the form of ancestor spirits. Since these traditions could often be conflated with witchcraft in
popular narratives, it is possible that this link persisted into the second, third and fourth generation after immigration, giving contemporary Streghe the impression that their ancestors belonged to an organized, hierarchical but secret society of witches. But Italian cunning craft also differs from modern Neo-Pagan Stregheria in
important ways. It is emphatically not a pagan religion; there is no mention of a goddess and god, nor are deities ever drawn down into the bodies of practitioners. It exists within a largely Catholic worldview, albeit one permeated with ancestor spirits, magical practice and other elements that mark it as vernacular, rather than ecclesiastical, in nature. Absent, too, is the Wiccan ritual framework, and while there may be certain similarities between the Wiccan year cycle and that of rural Italy, that is because the former is based largely on the Irish agro-pastoral cycle, which shares a common heritage with that of other parts of Europe, including Italy.

But could an ancient pre-Christian religion involving the veneration of Diana have survived in Italian peasant tradition, only to be brought to North America by Italian immigrants? The lack of written evidence makes any answer to this question hypothetical at best, but from the historical record, such a scenario would be very unlikely. Three factors make the survival of a pagan religion in Italy into the 20th century, and its transmission through written documents such as Leland’s Aradia, improbable: the strong presence of Christianity throughout the peninsula from fairly early after the fall of the Roman Empire; the lack of a unified Italian culture and language until the late 19th century; and the relative isolation and lack of resources of the peasant classes – the very ones who are said to have preserved the religion, according to the Neo-Pagan mythos.

Stregheria and Italian vernacular magic and healing are, then, quite different but interconnected traditions. Many Italian Americans who today see themselves as carriers of Stregheria grew up in families that preserved aspects of the enchanted worldview in an immigrant context. While Stregheria may be helping contemporary Italian Americans rediscover aspects of their roots and feel pride in their ethnic identity, its form, structure and cultural context are markedly different from those of the enchanted worldview and its associated practices in Italy. Yet Stregheria should not be interpreted as inauthentic, fake or contrived, for innovation and reclamation are part of the process of tradition. The enchanted worldview cannot exist in the context of contemporary urban North America; Italian Americans need new ways to construct and preserve ethnic identity, and for some, Stregheria satisfies those needs.

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