I am interested in the Sicilian and Italian traditions! Can you direct me as to where to learn more about this/explain the basics of this practice? Thank you so much- your blog is great:)
Italian Witchcraft and Folklore
Hey! That’s wonderful! They’re surprisingly difficult to find any accurate information on!
My best resources are the article by Sabina Magliocco titled Witchcraft, healing, and vernacular magic in Italy, a less reliable article (that mixes witch-lore and folk magic all together) by J.B. Andrews called Neapolitan Witchcraft, and Carlo Ginzburg’s book The Night Battles about the benandanti in Friuli (Northeastern region of Italy).
If anyone knows any other sources feel free to list them!
Italian witch lore is very old, as there have been legends of witches in this region for a very long, accountable period. The word strega (witch) most likely comes from the Latin strix (screech owl) which witches were thought to take the shape of in the night. The practice of witchcraft is called stregoneria, a male witch is a stregone, and a female witch is a strega.
There are more legends of Italian witches in the south (particularly near Naples). One of the most famous is the story of the witches of Benevento, who convened beneath a walnut tree on a hill therein, and danced and worshiped the Devil. This tree was supposedly cut down.
There is a popular image of a witch who arises among Christian tradition in Italy, even still today. This witch is called Old Befana or Bella Befana(Bruta Befana, Bella Befana or Vecchia Befana) who is a good witch who lived alone in a small cottage. One day, three wise men knocked on her door. “Behold! The child of God is born, (yada yada) we’re going to find him and bring him gifts! Will you join us Old Befana?” Now, Old Befana was glad to hear the news and excited to meet the new babe and give it what gifts she could. However, she was not one to shuck her responsibilities so she said she would have to wait until her chores were completed. They agreed and she saw them off, before finishing her cleaning. Once her duties were completed, she packed up her presents for the babe, hopped promptly onto the broom she had just finished sweeping with, and flew out the chimney into the cold night. However, they had not told her how to find them again! Not wanting to deny the boy his gifts, she decided to give some to all the little children she passed on her way, as any might be the new born child of God. Every year on that same night, Old Befana rides out on her broom and deposits gifts for little children, in hopes that one day she will finally find the baby Jesus and give him the presents she has been holding all this time.
In southern Italy, many of the tales of witches (streghe) and folk healers (fattucchiere, or ‘fixers’) tell of the songs they sing to work their magic. Unfortunately, this seems to be all anyone knows on the subject, and I can’t find any references or information on these songs!
In lore, the witches of both benevolent and malefic natures are closely related or interchangeable with more faerie-like spirits. The Janare of Naples/Janas of Sardinia (lit. followers of Diana) are magical women said to live in Neolithic shaft tombs and are expert weavers and spinners. They sometimes intermarry with humans, but are very different from the cogas (or little cooks) of Sardinia, who are malefic witches that cook and eat their victims.
Most folk magic in Italy has died out, even in many of the rural areas. What is documented and what remains is all, unsurprisingly, Catholic magic. Much of it draws to saints, prayers, and Catholic holy tools. One name for this form of magic is benedicaria. However, much of it seems more agricultural or magical and less religious in nature. There is no point assuming this other source is pagan, because we could never prove where almost of any of it originated.
Most witchcraft you will find today in Italy, especially in urbanized areas, is of a New Age or Neo-pagan persuasion. Neo-Wicca is about the best you can hope to find, and even that is comparatively rare to that found in Great Britain, Australia, and the U.S.
In conversations about Italian magic and witchcraft, Raven Grimassi’s book Italian Witchcraft tends to come up. THIS BOOK IS UTTER BULLSHIT. HOGWASH. STUFF AND NONSENSE. It’s almost literally just Neo-Wicca with different names and some made up information. I’m not exaggerating. If you have this book, it’s better off as kindling than on your bookshelf. Just saying.
Charles Leland’s book Aradia: The Gospel of the Witches is a pretty piece of poetry, and perhaps has some truths in it, but it can never be relied upon. His source is not credible, and the information doesn’t add up well. It is a beautiful book, but not an accurate account of Italian magic or witchcraft.
Here are a few blog posts I have made relating to Italian witchcraft and folk magic: