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  • Spells, Saints, and Streghe: Witchcraft, Folk Magic, and Healing in Italy
    Part 1 of 13: Introduction

    by Sabina Magliocco

    The expansion of Neopaganism and revival Witchcraft in North America during the last decade has brought about a renewed interest in ethnic forms of folk magic, and a corresponding proliferation of books and websites dedicated to the magical practices of various ethnic groups. Italian folk magic is among those which have received considerable attention. Raven Grimassi, Leo Martello and Lori Bruno are some of the more visible Italian-American Witches who have re-worked elements of ethnic folk magic into vibrant new traditions. The re-discovery (and recent re-publication) of Charles G. Leland's Aradia, or the Gospel of Witches (1890, 1990, 1998), about an alleged Tuscan witch cult in the late 1800s, has also sparked renewed interest in the possible Mediterranean roots of contemporary Witchcraft. Yet neither Leland's material nor emerging Italian-American Witchcraft traditions bear a strong resemblance to Italian folk magical practice as documented in the ethnographic record of the last 100 years. Italian-American Witchcraft or Stregheria traditions differ from Italian folk magical practice in several important ways: 1) Italian folk magic is not an organized or unified religion, but a varied set of beliefs and practices; 2) while it has deep historical roots, it is not a survival of an ancient religion, but an integral part of a rural peasant economy and way of life, highly syncretized with folk Catholicism; 3) knowledge of magical practices was at one time diffused throughout the rural population, rather than limited to a secret group of magical practitioners.

    There is a rich body of ethnographic data on folk magical practices and beliefs from Italy, but for the most part Italian-American Witches have not drawn from this in re-creating their traditions. I believe this is mostly because outside a few works of ethnography and history (e.g. Falassi, 1980; Ginzburg, 1983, 1991), there is relatively little material on Italian folklore available to English readers. Many Italian-American Witches do not read Italian, and what little Italian scholarship is available in North America is often difficult to get outside university libraries. And, as I will demonstrate, the context of Italian folk magical practice differs considerably from that of contemporary Italian-American revival Witchcraft, so that materials are not always easily transferable from one system to another. In this article I hope to show English readers a glimpse of Italian folk belief and practice in their original cultural contexts, and to illustrate some of the ways that they differ from Stregheria, or Italian-American revival Witchcraft. Of course, any such attempt, especially in a short article, is bound to be limited in scope. Italian folklore scholarship spans over 100 years and 20 separate regions, each with its own dialects and cultures; this overview cannot pretend to be comprehensive. However, for those interested in Italian folk magic and popular religion, I hope I can provide a point of departure from which to evaluate existing sources and discover new ones.

    My own interest in this topic stems from my personal background as well as my field experience. But although I grew up in Italy and the United States and maintain ongoing ties with Italy through frequent visits, I cannot make any claims to a family tradition of magical practice. Most of my knowledge of Italian folk magic comes from ethnographic research and fieldwork in Sardinia, an island off the western coast of Italy where I spent 18 months living in a highland community of sheep and goat pastoralists between 1986 and 1990 (Magliocco, 1993). I approach the study of folk magic from the perspective of my training in folklore and anthropology. I tend to look at the social and economic contexts of phenomena, and to interpret folk practices not only in light of their historical roots, but of their current cultural roles. I look for multiple documentation of the existence and meaning of a custom in order to confirm its widespread practice, rather than relying on a single informant's report. Consequently, my approach differs significantly from authors whose aims lie more in the direction of revival or revitalization.

    I want to make very clear that my goal is not to authenticate or de-authenticate anyone's spiritual practice. Contemporary folklorists and anthropologists have recognized that authenticity is always a cultural construct (Bendix, 1997; Handler and Linnekin, 1983): what is considered "authentic" is a result of how we construe our relationship to the past, and how we interpret that past in light of present concerns. Moreover, all traditions are perpetually in flux as their bearers constantly re-interpret and re-invent them with each individual performance. Revival and revitalization are part of the process of tradition, even when the result is different from the "original" practice itself. Thus all traditions are authentic, and the historicity of a tradition has nothing to do with its efficacy for any given group of people.

    Part 2: Stregheria, or Italian-American Witchcraft >

    Additional Resources
    Famous Italians Folk Dances Folk Songs
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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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