Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn

Aradia, Myth and Reality of Witchcraft

by Professor Paolo Portone, Director

CIRE (Center of Ethno-Historian Research)

Cuomo, Italy

Professor Paolo Portone

translated by David Griffin

Translator's Introduction 

It is my pleasure to present below the first of a series of articles written by contemporary ethnographer-historian, Prof. Paolo Portone. The below short article was published in September, 2002 in the Italian journal for History, Anthropology, and the Science of Language. Most interesting is the case Prof. Portone makes for the fabrication of the myth of the "diabolical witch," as deriving directly from the ancient cult of Diana, l'Arte Eccelsa, later branded as Stregheria (witchcraft) by the Inquisition. This evidence casts interesting new light on the authenticity of Charles Godfrey Leland's "Aradia, of Vangello of the Witches."

What remains curious to me is how Prof. Portone's research continues to be largely overlooked by Italian witchcraft scholars of history and anthropology in America and in England.  

More than a century before the shamanic experience of Mexican anthropologist Carlos Castaneda under the guidance of sorcerer Don Juan, in Tuscany, and more precisely in the so called “Tuscan Romagna” region (in the XIX century, this term indicated those territories across the Apennine mountains which were later annexed to the actual Romagna), Charles Godfrey Leland (1824-1903), a bizarre American Gentleman, was introduced by a woman called Maddalena (a pseudonym, in actuality) to the magical world of “Tuscan stregheria[1]” [Tuscan witchcraft]. 

 A friend of gypsies and a regular visitor of European slums, revolutionary - he participated in the Paris riot in 1848 - dedicated anti-slavery advocate, publicist and pedagog, Leland was a respectable literate. He is author of the humoristic work on German immigrants in America [entitled] Hans Breitmann’s Ballad, and an eclectic scholar. He is credited for the first collection of legends of Algonquin Indians, for the translation of the language spoken by Irish braziers, the Shelta, and for a peculiar work, anticipating Freudian theories, translated in Italian with the title “La forza della volontà” [The Power of Will]. In a sense, the passion he cultivated for the world of the poor and the outcast, be it Indians, Gypsies or Tuscan “Streghe” [Witches], lead Leland to blaze a trail of dawning anthropology, yet without any claim of superiority towards the object of his research, actually demonstrating in all cases a profound sympathy for the “different”. 

Fascinated [as he was] by “wild” traditions and costumes, which appeared to his eyes as a residue of the primordial condition of freedom challenged by capitalism, to Leland the Strega stories he collected in Tuscany had a very peculiar meaning, which went far beyond erudite studies on folklore, gaining the value of an actual true revelation. Being strongly influenced by the lesson of Michelet, he thought he detected, in the saga of Tuscan witches, the presence of a subterranean autonomous culture, rural in nature, alternative with respect to the one of dominating elites. 

The official Church, the religion of tyrants and dominators, had been contrasted through the centuries, in the obscurity of woods and caves, by a religious magical tradition, concentrated mainly on the cult of a feminine divinity, Aradia, which could be related to classic Greek-Roman polytheism and in particular to Diana, the goddess of hunting and forests, the tutelary numen of pregnant women, but also the custodian of magical practices in her incarnation as Hecate. 

According to Leland, from the material collected among the Streghe of “Tuscan Romagna”, which he summarized first in The Legends of Florence (London, 1896) and then in "Aradia, or The Gospel of Witches" (London 1899), emerged a homogenous and culturally autonomous set of beliefs - “more than witchcraft and less than a religion” - which could possibly link together the “Stregheria” of Maddalena and her associates and La Vecchia Religione [the Old Religion], in particular the cult of Diana. According to the American researcher, the presence of explicit reference to The Old Religion, kept hidden even with violence by evangelizers, as well as of coherent cultural traces in clear contrast with the oppressors’ religion in the Tuscan Stregheria is sufficient evidence to sustain the authenticity of the information he collected from Maddalena and at the same time a relevant argument to determine, following the path of a French romanticist of historiography, the nature of what ecclesiastic Inquisition and secular courts persecuted with ferocity between the XV and the XVII centuries under the label of "diabolical witchcraft." 

However, the publication of the Vangelo did not encounter the favour of scholars, least of all the historians of the witch hunt. His theories on the underground cult of Aradia, that surprisingly survived for Centuries in the fabric of Christianized society, even while influencing certain minor interpretative lines of the phenomenon of modern European witchcraft - just think about the argument of the horned god sustained by English Egyptologist Margaret Murray in her famous essay The God of the Witches (London, 1933, it. trans. Il Dio delle streghe, Rome 1972) - were always rejected by official historical critique which, even later on, always challenged the authenticity of the gospel of Aradia. 

The main objection raised towards Leland was that the material obtained from Maddalena had been entirely invented or at least substantially re-elaborated to satisfy his curiosity. This is an analogous critique to the one raised, in recent times, against the studies conducted by Castaneda in the Yucatan, which however find partial confirmation in a letter written by Leland to his niece Elizabeth, in which he admitted that the material provided by Maddalena might have indeed been partially invented just for him[2]. 

Among the contemporary critics of Aradia, the name of J. B. Russell stands out. According to him, the Vangelo has no value as evidence of the survival in Italy of a cult centered on the divine figure of Diana. To Russell, Diana is nothing but a “mix of witchcraft, medieval heresy, concepts derived from the witch hunt and political radicalism”. Maddalena, still according to Russell, had confirmed, with her stories, the argument sustained by Leland in favour of a Micheletian interpretation of Stregheria, that is [witchcraft] as a phenomenon of social rebellion against feudalism and its political and religious institutions[3].

Historian Elliot Rose is on the same page as Russell. After an accurate formal analysis of the text, Aradia - Rose says - appears as what it is: an apocryphal. In fact, far from documenting “ancient magic traditions of pagan heritage”, the Vangelo actually consists of a synthesis of medieval heresies to which, in recent times, a “status of scripture” has been given. It is indeed the “verbose and pompous” style, far from the essentiality of popular tales, that (still according to Rose) renders Aradia not a “folk product” but an “art product” (and not the best kind thereof). A clutter of themes sampled from the heresies of Cathars and Albigesians, the so called “Old Religion” mentioned in the Gospel is nothing but a post-Christian construction - from the inversion of the ritual of mass, to the orgies with the lights out, to the transformation of Diana into a cat to honour Lucifer - derived from the confusion made, during the Centuries of persecution, by the rigid categories imposed by inquisitorial demonology on the complex and utterly inchoate fabric of magical-religious Pagan traditions preserved among the people[4]. 

Despite these objections, often justified, raised at the time against the Vangelo, Aradia continues to cast an undoubted charm onto the reader, who has good reason to wonder when confronted with the narrations of original and fascinating events and characters. Probably the best quality of the Gospel, however, is its way of suggesting, between the lines of the pompous verse of the anticlericalism of the 19th century, the existence of a popular fantasy, still alive in the imagination of Tuscan lower classes in the second half of the XIX century. In this sense, Aradia has a similar charm as the erudite fairytale writings (from La Fontaine to Andersen) which preserve, despite numerous interpolations, an “alien” root bringing us back to a “diverse” cultural and religious dimension, preserved in the oral traiditon of “country folk”, made of symbols, myths and beliefs predating Christianization, as we were taught by the studies of Russian [researcher] Propp and by our [Italians] Cocchiara and de Martino. 

In this perspective, the Gospel of Aradia has its own undoubted validity, and hence credit must be give to Italian researcher Lorenza Menegoni who restored from oblivion, also by authoring a remarkable translation for the Library of Lares, such an interesting document attesting the existence among lower classes of XIX century Tuscany of a creative fantasy, alternative to the dominant “Christianized” culture. To ask more than that out of the Gospel would mean to wrong Leland and his anthropological informant, Maddalena; it would mean that we want to gather from that document more than its makers intended to communicate with it, thus forcing the legend of Aradia in a direction unknown to the presumed Tuscan witch and to the American scholar himself. 

 In fact, aside from all the instrumental use of the Gospel made by those contemporary revivalists of the “Old Religion”, and especially by those who think themselves emulators of the ancient witches, reuniting themselves in the multiform association called Wicca, Aradia is a document within the [context of] of occidental Christianized culture, postdating the period of witch hunt (XV-XVIII centuries), that is the period of the first radical censorship made by occidental “Christianized” civilization against its pastoral, rural past - as stated by French historian Mandrou -, and hence it is polluted by the roots of the stereotype, demonological and inquisitorial in origin, of the diabolical witch. 

This being said, it is not unrealistic to propose that even in the modern age, in the heart of a Europe too often depicted as completely devoted to the Church of Rome, ancient divinities of the Greco-Roman pantheon were still being worshipped. It is a common opinion among historians that the core of those beliefs based on which the stereotype of the diabolical witch was created and fashioned belonged to the ancient Pagan, Celtic, Germanic, Greco-Latin religion, as well as to the oriental and the African ones. Only a few contemporary researchers would challenge the relationship between the worshippers of Diana, mentioned in the "Canon Episcopi," and the modern witches of the "Malleus Maleficarum," just like, only few of them today would dream of denying the tight link between the Inquisitorial repression of ancient beliefs and the birth of diabolical witchcraft, a transition documented exemplarily by one of the most ancient Italian trials for witchcraft, published by E. Verga in 1899. 

 In this appears, in all evidence, the dramatic transition leading what has been defined with the clever expression of the “factory of the witch”: the two defendants, Sibilla and Pierina, called for the first time to appear in front of the Inquisitor of Milan, in 1384 declared, not under any sort of torture, that they had taken part in a ritual for women only, in which a mysterious Mistress of the Game was worshipped. A practice which, however, happened in complete respect of the official religion - the participants never pronounced the name of Christ not to offend the powerful spirit living in him - and without any ritualistic sacrifice of children or consumption of foods, beverages, or sexual intercourse, and moreover without any allusion to Lucifer. 

A testimony of the existence of a cult syncretically surviving parallel to Christianity, but that at some point ended up colliding with the model of acculturation imposed by the Church, first the Catholic, then the Protestant one, with permission from the secular power. Not by chance, in the second trial that the two Lombard “witches” were subjected to, in 1390, the fatal one that caused them to be burned on the stake, Pierina and Sibilla confessed, this time under torture, that they had paid homage not only to the Mistress of the Game, but also to a person called Lucifello, a demonic entity with which they had mated. From then on, the “factory of the wtich” had started to work, and with this began a new story, a tragic one for thousands of women, and men also, which had nothing to do with the magical and devout world of the ancient religion, of which the stories of Maddalena the “fattucchiera” [Italian synonym of witch], after all, only preserve a faded glow, “as of distant flame”. 


End Notes: [1] See Ch. G. Leland, Aradia, The gospel of witches, (edited by) Lorenza Menegoni, Firenze, Leo Olschki Press, XXVIII, pp. 90 [2] Ch. G. Leland, Aradia, the Gospel of witches, (edited by) L. Menegoni, p. 10, n. 15. [3] J. B. Russell, A History of Witchcraft, London, 1980, p. 148. [4] E. Rose, A Razor for a Goat, Toronto, 1962, pp. 213-218.