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” [Tuscan witchcraft].
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.