Southern Italian Traditionalist Craft
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Posted: May 20th. 2007
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Southern Italic Witchcraft (by Nemesis)
NOTA BENE: This is most emphatically NOT a tell all. Streghe, like all other Traditional Occultists, value our Oaths and our Honor above all else. Hence there will NEVER be a public presentation, in any media, of our inner lore. Rather, what this article focuses on are historic roots, folkloric practices, and common points of fellowship among Streghe working within a Southern Italian framework. As such, the information contained herein is grounded in academic research, in popular folklore, and in my personal understanding of history and folklore. Please, please, please…hold me accountable for historical and grammatical errors.
This article is the result of a love for Mediterranean history, magical traditions of antiquity, and the folk beliefs of my grandmother, who expressed horror at my initial foray into the Occult, but who (later in life) came to regard my Path with respect and open acceptance. I dedicate this to her, to my initiating Elders and Teachers in the Craft, and to the Gods and Goddesses who ‘hath set my blood afire and causeth mine heart to live.’
In mainland Italian, a female Witch is known as a Strega, while a male practitioner walks under the title of Stregone. Witches, in the plural, are Streghe – though groupings of all male practitioners may be called Stregoni.
The modern Italian word for Witchcraft is Stregoneria – another term, favored by most in America, is Stregheria. These terms mean the same thing, though cases may be made for one or the other being solely religious (or magical) in focus. Historically, Streghe are rooted in the Latin word, Strix, which means both Witch and Screech Owl. However, different areas have their own words for a Witch – such as Saga, Venefica, Fata, and Ianare.
In Sicily, Strega/Stregone/Streghe mean much the same thing as they do on the mainland. “Witch” encompasses an entire spectrum – from crotchety spinsters to fortunetellers to practitioners of folk magic to those initiated into the surviving remnants of Pagan religion. The terms Maga (f) , Mago (m) , and Magi (plural) also mean “Witch (es) ” in Sicilian. These were borrowed from the Hellenized Persian Magos (Priest / Miracle-worker) , and references (today) the Priesthood of the Old Religion.
In Sardinia, both Witches and Faeries go by the name of the Giane, in reference to cave-dwelling sorceresses of the mythic past.
In medieval times, the religious beliefs of Witches were known (amongst practitioners) as La Religione Vecchia (The Old Religion) or as il Societe di Diana (the Society of Diana) . A more modern Italian phrase is Antiche Uzanse (the Ancient Ways) – while a poetic English-American reference is “The People of the Screech Owl”.
For the sake of brevity, I will use the English Witch, Witches, and Witchcraft in this article.
Italy (as a unified nation) is a modern innovation brought about in the past 130 sum years. For Italic cultural specifics, each region and town had its own identity. Xenophobia was especially common and modern society has done little to change that. Hence, each region and town – even each family – may be said to have its own Tradition, with its own distinct roots, methods, and “secret lore”.
Southern Italy has had, since ancient times, a strong influx of Etruscan and Greek cultures. Such were the number of Doric temples in Southern Italy and Sicily that the historians gave this area the title of Magna Graecia (or Greater Greece) . Beyond that, there was a strong Phoenician and Egyptian influence, through trade. With Rome, the influence of Latin cultus began to take root, though Southern Italy retained its distinctly non-Roman flavor throughout its history.
Much evidence can be found linking modern Craft practices to a Greek or Roman precedent. It was Ovid who noted that Witches meet at night to celebrate the Mysteries of the Triple Goddess. Thessalian Witches originated the practice of drawing down the Moon from the sky. Theoricitus mentions that Witches of Greece and Southern Italy addressed prayers and incantations to the Moon
In more recent times, during the Crusades and the resulting Italian Renaissance, Arabs left their mark on Southern Italy. This is especially true of Sicily, Sardinia, and Malta. For instance, the traditions of the tarantella (a dance steeped in magical folklore) have roots in and similarities to Middle Eastern dances performed by women to cure illness, divine the future, and gain visions from the Dead.
On the islands of Sicily and Malta, you also find strong traces of French and German folklore, brought by the Norman invaders. Due to Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christian presence in Southern Italy, ancient Deities were identified with Christian Saints. For instance, a feast of Demeter was once held in late July – this became married to the Catholic traditions of Lammas (August 1) and the Feast of Mary, Queen of Heaven (August 15) .
In America, with our multicultural/pluralistic society, different Italian cultures have blended (sometimes unwillingly) to find a common identity. The same can be said for the Craft traditions stemming from Italy and its Islands. We also have begun to both complement and supplement our traditional Craft practices through contact with Traditional Wicca, Hellenismos, Religio Romana, and Afro-Diasporic Traditions (specifically, Santeria and Kardecian Spiritism) .
Like most variants of Traditional Craft, our religious focus is on a Mother Goddess and a Father God. Opinions differ as to whether these are universal in appeal (“All Gods are one God and all Goddesses are one Goddess”) or if they are, more specifically, the Mother and Father of the Craft. The most common name for the Mother Goddess is Diana, who reigns (in popular legends) as the Queen of Witches. The Father God is most generally revered as Apollo or Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun) . Because of Roman Catholic overlays, it has become common to refer to these Divine Parents as “Our Lady” and “Our Lord”. (This historically allowed us to operate more or less openly, whilst carrying a different connotation amongst those in the know.)
We also honor our Ancestors. In general, this takes the form of two cults (stemming from the Roman domestic cult) : the Lare and the Lasa. The Lare are those spirits related to us by blood or, as more recently espoused, any spirit that originated as a human being. The Lasa are more accurately the Spirits of Nature, inclusive of the Faery races, Angels, and Elemental Beings. They are credited Ancestral status partly because they preceded humanity, but also because of legends saying that the first Witches were the result of human and Lasa marriages.
The Ancestral cult is practiced through a home shrine (popularly called a Lare Shrine or similar) , where offerings and prayers are made on a daily basis. Special offerings are made as part of rites of passage and in petition. Offerings are also made outdoors to the Lasa and wild animals.
Additionally, each regional manifestation has its own particular emphasizes and local Deities. Most will also honor Catholic Saints and Angels– this sometimes borders on ancestral worship (the Saints were humans after all) , or identification of the Saints with Deities, or simply as a carryover from Catholic folk magic. The cults of the Black Virgin (La Madonna Nera) , Archangel Michael, and one’s Guardian Angel are especially popular.
Rituals vary wildly. Southern Italian Craft has a very folksy flavor. In general, our celebrations are more akin to the “kitchen witch” variety than to grand high Episcopagan pageantry. In America, this is changing through influence of Wicca, Golden Dawn, and academic research into the ancient religious festivals of Greece and Rome. (Some have begun adopting and adapting either the Eight Sabbats or ancient Greek / Roman festivals for celebration within their respective Ways.)
Unlike Wicca and modern Paganism, we (historically) do not have formal Sabbats. Our Festivals were and are those of our region or town. These range from celebrations of agriculture (Blossoming of the Almond in March, the Ember Days, First Fruits in late July/early August, et al.) to Saint Festivals (Michaelmas, All Souls, Epiphany, et al.) . The most Sabbat-like events are our lunar rites – i.e. the Full Moon – that feature the baking of bread, storytelling, offerings, and singing/dancing.
Within some sects and families, there are noted shamanistic elements. On certain nights, members answer an astral summons and take part in the Wild Hunt with Diana at the lead. It is possible that this shamanic element has historical precedent. In the Canon Escopi, the medieval Church makes mention of “Some wild women, deluded by Satan, believe that they fly by night in the company of Diana, Goddess of the Pagans.” This is also related to the Benandanti, a 16th century cult centering on spirit-flight and the epic battle between Light and Dark that took place with the change of Seasons on the Solstices and Equinoxes.
Our tools are those of the home: scissors to cut away unwanted energies, keys to open/lock astral doors (and serve as a symbolic phallus) , thread to bind, brooms, pots and pans from our kitchen, and so on. The hearth is especially sacred to us, representing the connection between the Living and the Dead, and the presence of the Gods. This can be present as a flaming cauldron, as the stove, as the home’s fireplace, or as an unspoken feeling of Family. We also work with the tambourine – both as a means of manipulating energy and a way to converse with spirits (much like a Siberian shaman’s drum) .
Core Beliefs and Tenets
* Our ethical code is very simple, encompassed in three phrases: Honor, Respect for All, and Personal Responsibility. Though simple, they are bonds, holding our entire Craft together, and rivals the Japanese concepts of bushido. Loyalty, honesty, and integrity are obvious manifestations of this ethos.
* A noted focus on Family, both of blood and of spirit.
* Preserving our oral lore and mythic history while being adaptable and open to present needs, research, and current events. We are naturally syncretic, slowly evolving and growing, as opposed to an all-inclusive eclecticism.
* An implied matriarchal focus. The most active initiates have generally been women, as men would be the ones out in the fields, etc.
* Sexually, we are conservative. Whether gay or straight, we tend to celebrate monogamous relationships and partnerships.
* A belief that one’s magical power comes from the Heart. We identify this Heart with one’s Honor, and how one faces the trials and triumphs of life.
* Value of secrecy in Craft practice, not so much because it is traditional (though it is) , but out of preference for preserving the beauty and integrity of what defines our ‘Family’ as Family. And those who would break this unspoken bond violate the principles popularized as Omerta.
* Ritual and magic as (part of) living life, not as a practice.
* Reincarnation takes place (generally) within the family, or within a group of kindred souls. We identify the Summerland of modern Theosophical belief with ancient Sumer, expressing a hope to return to an ideal of life found in the Cradle of all Civilization. Some, drawing from Greek lore, believe in a general afterlife (the House of Hades) , a paradise for Witches and Heroes (Elysium) , and a place of punishment for evil doers (Tartaros) .
* While most of us recognize some sort of cosmic law analogous to Eastern karma, we find ourselves more in agreeance with ancient concepts of Fate. Fate can be defined as the momentum of choice. In other words, for every choice we make and (in) action we take, there is a consequence. If one threatens our loved ones, we will stop at nothing to insure that justice is served. In this, we agree with the ethos that “to allow evil an unhampered existence causes greater evil to occur, and those who allow this are just as guilty as perpetrators of the original wrongdoing.”
The core structure is the Family. The older family members rule as “heads of the family”. Outsiders may be brought in through what amounts to ritual adoption. The formal rites of elevation generally occur much later in life, as we believe life experience to be conducive to Priesthood. Recently, in America, some sects and factions have adopted elements of British Traditional Wicca, especially as regards to coven structure, as a way of teaching those outside the family structure. However, a central feature is that, before the Gods, all are equal. Ritual nudity is generally not practiced – partially owing to conservative Italian values, but also can be credited to more focus on family than on fertility.
On one hand, most Streghe will recognize and accept as colleagues those who dedicate themselves to the Gods and truly strive to live the Craft in their own way. On the other, if you are claiming hereditary status, one must have gone through the necessary rites of passage to validate this claim. While each family is different, there are certain aspects (beliefs and practices) commonly held that serve as a fail-safe. By these we know those who are sincere from those who are outright frauds.
Closing Word of Thanks
This article could not have been written without the aid, input, and inspiration of numerous Elders, Teachers, Friends, and Priest/esses. Especially worthy of mention are: the Rev. Lori Bruno, pastor of Our Lady and our Lord of the Trinacrian Rose, who shared with me legends and lore, wisdom and compassion; Aradia, mi madre in la stregheria, who brought me to the Crossroads that i might persevere on my own; and all my aunts, uncles, cousins, in the great family of La Religione Vecchia di Italia. May the Great Gods and Goddesses keep, uplift, and guard them, now and always.
Resources for Further Information
Web Resources (Annotated) :
www.trinacrianrose.org/ (Our Lady and Our Lord of the Trinacrian Rose Church – Old World Sicilian Craft blended with Continental Wiccan traditions. The pastor, Rev. Lori Bruno, is a hereditary Sicilian Strega-Maga, one hell of a good cook, and a tireless priestess in the service of Her Gods.)
www.webnik.com/coven/strega/strega.html (Wytches’ Hill and Befana’s Broom website, with general information on La Religione Vecchia) .
www.templeofdianainc.org (The Temple of Diana, INC., is based in MA, in strategic alliance with Trinacrian Rose, and has some lovely devotional material for Diana and Apollo) .
Book Resources (w/o Annotation) :
Bonefry, Yves. Roman and European Mythologies.
Burkett, Walter. Greek Religion.
Davidson, Gustav. Dictionary of Angels.
Davies, Morganna and Lynch, Aradia. Keepers of the Flame.
Elworthy, Thomas. The Evil Eye.
Frazer, Sir James. The Golden Bough.
Ginzburg, Carlo. Ecstasies – Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath.
Ginzburg, Carlo. The Night Battles.
Gwynn. A Light in the Shadows - A Mythos of Modern Traditional Witchcraft.
Johnsons, Sarah Illes. Hekate Soteira.
Kerenyi, C. The Gods of the Greeks.
Kinsgley, Peter. In the Dark Places of Wisdom.
Leland, CG. Aradia: Gospel of the Witches.
Leland, CG. Etruscan Roman Remains.
Martello, Leo. Witchcraft: the Old Religion
Unfortunately, the oral lore and histories i depended upon can not be validated beyond those already in the know.
Again, i am grateful to those Elders, Priest/esses, and Teachers who have inspired me, guided me, and who thought that a general article about the greater body of Southern Italian Craft traditions was a great idea.
Beyond that, i admit to being indebted to the written word. The Italic Traditions are lucky in that we have a great deal of historical support from Classical and Meideval records to our existence. Those interested in pursuing this are recomended to the websites and books suggested above. I also recomend reading Ovid, Virgil, Horace, and those dusty tomes on history and folklore beloved of anthropologists but largely ignored by the rest of society.
Copyright: (c) Jonathan Sousa
Location: Norton, Massachusetts
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