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  • Spells, Saints, and Streghe: Witchcraft, Folk Magic, and Healing in Italy
    Part 2 of 13: Stregheria, or Italian-American Witchcraft

    by Sabina Magliocco

    While Leo Martello and Lori Bruno were among the first Italian-Americans to allude to their practice of Italian Witchcraft as a Pagan religion (Martello, 1973:7-14; 1975; Hopman and Bond, 1996:119-126), the real architect of Italian-American revival Witchcraft is Raven Grimassi. His works The ways of the Strega (1995) and Hereditary Witchcraft (l999) lay out in detail a system of beliefs, rituals and practices which he claims are practiced by North American Witches of Italian descent, but which hearken back to the Old Religion which "survived relatively intact throughout Italy" (Grimassi, 1995:xiv). He accepts at face value Leland's story of Aradia as Diana's daughter and messenger on earth, seeing her as a 14th century revivalist of la Vecchia Religione (the Old Religion). Not content to simply pass on some Italian-American spells and folk practices, his intent is to "restore the original Tradition [sic] which Acadia had returned to the people" (I995:xviii)-that is, to recreate the ancient religion of the Etruscan and pre-Etruscan Italic peoples.

    Much of what Grimassi presents is drawn from reliable historical or ethnographic sources: the deities of the ancient Etruscans (what little we know from later Roman texts), the importance of ancestor spirits in early Italic religion, the Inquisitorial reports of the society of Diana and the Benandanti as preserving aspects of pre-Christian belief, legends about the walnut tree of Benevento as the meeting place of witches, spells to turn away the evil eye-all these are a part of Italy's magical heritage. But Grimassi, like many other Neo-Pagan authors, is not primarily interested in an ethnographic field study; instead he attempts to construct a coherent system that contemporary Pagans can adapt for their own magical practice. He presents Italian Witchcraft as consisting of three traditions: the northern Italian Fanarra and the central Italian Janarra and Tanarra (Ianara is one word for "witch" in the dialect of Campania; I could find no evidence of the words Tanarra or Fanarra in any dialect dictionary). One must wonder what happened to southern Italian traditions. especially since the largest percentage of Italian immigrants to North America came from the southern regions. Each is led by a Grimas, or leader (for the record, there is no such word in the most comprehensive dictionary of the Italian language; the closest is the adjective grimo, "wrinkled, wizened" or "poor, wretched" [Zingarelli-Zanichelli, 1977:777]), and organized into groves, or boschetti. The Italian tradition of North America descends from a branch of the Naples-based Tanarra tradition. Grimassi adds a great deal of 20th Century Wiccan and magical materials to the folklore he presents, and ties it all together with dubious 19th century survivalist theories and New Age concepts such as reincarnation and self-actualization. To be fair, Grimassi never claims to be reproducing exactly what was practiced by Italian immigrants to North America; he admits Italian-American Witches "have adapted a few Wiccan elements into their ways" (1995:xviii), and acknowledges that he has expanded upon the traditions he learned from his Italian mother in order to restore the tradition to its original state (Grimassi, pers. comm., 1996). But in attempting to restore an ancient tradition, Grimassi has in fact created a new one: a potpourri of folklore, revised history, and contemporary magical practice that bears little resemblance to anything that was ever practiced in Italy, before or after the Inquisition. While it is not my intention to deconstruct Grimassi's Stregheria point by point, I will concentrate, for the purposes of this article, on several major features of his work which make Italian-American Stregheria incompatible with what we know about witchcraft, folk magic and belief in rural Italy from the ethnographic record.

    < Part 1: Introduction Part 3: Problems With the Concept of an Organized "Italian" Witchcraft >



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    About the Author:

    Sabina Magliocco is Professor of Anthropology at California State University, Northridge. She grew up in Italy and the United States and has done field research on traditional Sardinian festivals and socioeconomic change. She has published on religion, folklore, food ways, festival, witchcraft and Neo-Paganism in Europe and the United States.

    The article first appeared in The Pomegranate 13 (2000), pp. 2-22.

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