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Stregheria and Vernacular Magic in Italy: A Comparison

By Nola

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.

Read the original article at: StregaNola

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