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Raven Grimassi

Raven Grimassi Award-winning author Raven Grimassi is the author of seven books on Wicca and Witchcraft, including Wiccan Mysteries (awarded Best Book of the Year & Best Spirituality Book 1998 by the Coalition of Visionary Retailers), Wiccan Magick, Italian Witchcraft (previously titled Ways of the Strega), Hereditary Witchcraft, Encyclopedia of Wicca & Witchcraft (awarded Best Non-Fiction Book 2001 by the Coalition of Visionary Retailers), Beltane, and the forthcoming title The Witches' Craft (October 2002).

Raven Grimassi has been a teacher and practitioner of the Craft for nearly 30 years. He is trained in the Family tradition of Italian Witchcraft (also known as Stregheria), and is also an initiate of several Wiccan Traditions, including Brittic Wicca and the Pictish-Gaelic Tradition. He is currently the Directing Elder of the Arician Ways. Raven considers it his life's work to ensure the survival of ancient witch lore and legend along with ancestral teachings of the Old Religion.

Grimassi has worked as both a writer and editor for several magazines over the past decade, including The Shadow's Edge (a publication focusing on Italian Witchcraft) and Raven's Call (a journal of modern Wicca, Witchcraft and Magick).

Titles by Raven Grimassi:

  • Beltane
  • The Well Worn Path
  • Italian Witchcraft: The Old Religion of Southern Europe
  • The Wiccan Mysteries: Ancient Origins & Teachings
  • Encyclopedia of Wicca & Witchcraft
  • The Witch's Familiar: Spiritual Partnerships for Successful Magic
  • The Witches' Craft: The Roots of Witchcraft & Magical Transformation
  • Hereditary Witchcraft: Secrets of the Old Religion
  • Wiccan Magick: Inner Teachings of the Craft
  • Witchcraft: A Mystery Tradition
  • Spirit of the Witch: Religion & Spirituality in Contemporary Witchcraft
© 2006 Raven Grimassi.
All rights reserved.

My View on Italian Witchcraft

In 1995, I published a book titled Ways of the Strega, which several years later was re-titled Italian Witchcraft. The edition contains a new chapter and several of the original chapters are expanded.

My original intention in writing a book on Italian Witchcraft was to provide people of southern European descent something they could practice that contained a connection to their cultural roots.   As I prepared the manuscript there were several challenges in front of me. 

My publisher was Llewellyn, and certain styles and guidelines were required to fit the type of book they would accept for publication. Another challenge centered on the traditional secrecy of the system I was taught.  An additional challenge was the crude forms of magic and ritual that reside in the older forms of Italian Witchcraft.  I knew these would be hard for modern people to understand, and I felt that some of the material was just too alien and might deter people. This would have defeated my purpose in providing an alternative to the Celtic and northern European dominated publications and materials of the time

I settled on the idea of  presenting the material in a familiar format, and  I used the customary Wiccan model as a template.  Through this I presented a general overview of Italian Witchcraft along with the modern rituals that I created.  This was written about in the introduction and appeared in several places in the book. However, some reviewers and critics either did not actually read the book from cover to cover, or simply chose to ignore the statements in favor of criticism for its own sake.

In retrospect this is a book that I wished had been presented with the older pre-Wiccan elements void of anything modern. But that was not possible or desired at the time.  I now believe that only a self published work could ever appear without editing. This is a project that I will undertake in the future.

When we examine Italian Witchcraft we must first note that different traditions of it exist in different regions.  However there are more similarities to be found.  This is reflected in the fact that the 19th century folklorists investigated Italian Witchcraft in three  different regions of Italy, and yet uncovered traditions that varied little from one another. These folklorists include Roma Lister, J.B. Andrews, Lady de Vere, and Charles Leland.

The history of Italian Witchcraft is pre-Christian.  We can follow the evolution of the southern European Witch from her first  appearance as a pharmakis, in which we find the Witch as an herbalist.  Historian Richard Gordon states that pharmakis became the standard word for Witch or Wise Woman (Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: Ancient Greece and Rome).  In Rome the Witch was first called a saga, from which the modern word sage is derived. Over the course of time the Witch came to be called venefica. This word is popularly misunderstood as a poisoner. The root word is actually vene (not venom) and it refers to Venus.  Take for example the word venerate (heartfelt) and the word venereal (from intimacy), which both connect with Venus.   The connection to poisoner and Venus can be  found in the fact that Venus was originally a goddess of culitvated gardens (where herbs grew). Witches were the pharmakeutes, the plant people who made love potions. Therefore, a venefica was originally a maker of love potions.  Roman prosecutors argued that a love potion poisoned the will of whoever was uder the spell, and so the term "poisioner" attached itself to the word venefica.

It is among the Romans that we encounter common views of the era regarding the Witch.  The Roman poet Horace depicts her as calling upon the goddess Diana, and of working rituals and magic in connection with the moon.  Ovid and Lucan broaden this view, and we come to see the Witch figure as a priestess of a triformis goddess: Hecate, Diana, Proserpina.  I view this literary  tradition as being rooted in actual forms of Witchcraft. For more on this see my article on Wicca and Witchcraft.

I believe that with the rise to power of Christianity that two things happened regarding Witchcraft.  The first is that some elements of the Craft seeped into the public domain, which influenced (if not created)  popular lore and folk magic traditions.  The second element is tied to the deliberate distortion of the beliefs and practices of Witchcraft by the Church and its agents. This is evident when we view the descriptions and accounts of the witch assemblies prior to the 15th century with those that follow (and particularly those between 1560-1660).

For example, upon examination of the sermons of Bernardino of Siena we find references to the "tregenda" gatherings of Witches.  Tregenda is the Italian word translated into the English word Sabbat.  The early descriptions of the tregenda do not include the Devil, demons, nor acts of cannibalism or human sacrifice.

Writing of the Tregenda/Sabbat, scholar Franco Mormando states:

 ‘‘This notion of the assembly is yet another universal item in ‘the classic formulation of the Witch Phenomenon.’  Like much else in the baggage of the European witch, it has its roots in pagan mythology, specifically in the un-Christian but nondiabolical ‘Society of Diana,’ an innocuous, festive ride and gathering of woman under the tutelage of the pagan goddess of the moon and the hunt.  Turned into a demonized witch phenomenon by the theologians and canonists of Christian Europe, the assembly was by the end of the fifteenth century to be known (with tinges of anti-Semitisim) as the witches’ ‘Sabbath.’  With the passing years, it slowly acquired ever more heinous, orgiastic characteristics.  During Bernardino’s lifetime, the gathering was called by various names; the preacher himself, in one of his 1424 sermons to the Florentines, refers to it by the Italian term tregenda.”  - The Preacher’s Demons, page 66

The records of Bernardino's sermons are valuable because they pre-date the period from 1560 - 1660, which was the most virulent era of the witch hysteria.  Therefore they provide earlier evidence from an obscure realm of history.   Mormando comments:

"Note that in Bernardino's mind, the tregenda has not quite become the sabbath; he makes no explicit mention of the Devil's presence or of licentious behavior at these meetings of the society of Diana.  Nonetheless, he may have assumed, and expected his audience to assume, that neither was really absent from the picture."

The latter statement is speculation, but is worth noting as a possibility.  We do know that the Devil was certainly associated with witchcraft by the Church and its agents during the time of Bernardino.  Scholar Walter Stephens writes:

“About 1354, the Dominican preacher Jacopo Passavanti was writing in Italian (in Lo specchio della versa penitenza, or The Mirror of True Repentance) that ‘some people say they see dead people and talk to them, and that they go by night with witches [colle streghe] to their tregenda.’  Many such people are simple impostors, he says: they take advantage of others’ bereavement for financial gain or out of sheer malice. Nonetheless, some people do sincerely think that they see dead people.  This is impossible, says Passavanti (presumably because these soul are in hell or purgatory and are not allowed out). But people are seeing something that is real.  The Devil can take on the semblance of dead people and falsely impersonate them…”  - Demon Lovers – Witchcraft, Sex, and the Crisis of Belief by Walter Stephens  (University of Chicago, 2002, page 132)

Stephens goes on to note:

 “In fact, the tregenda that Passavanti describes is not what we now call the Sabbat; it is probably a reminiscence of what folklorists call the wild host or wild hunt." - page 132

This brings us to the troublesome text known as the Canon Episcopi, which most scholars view as a conflation of paganism with witchcraft.   Bernardino quotes the Canon text as follows:

“Among the most impious wild brutes are some most wicked women and even sometimes men who believe and openly profess that they go riding at night on certain beasts along with Diana (or Iobiana or Herodias) and countless other women, traveling over great distances in the silence of of the dead night, obeying her commands as if she were their mistress, and are pressed into her service on certain nights, such as Thursday and Sunday.  They also claim that some children, especially small boys, can be changed by them into a lower or higher forms (in deterius vel in melius) or transformed into some other appearance or likeness.”  - The Preacher's Demons, page 67

But the idea of souls joined to a goddess figure is very ancient.  The goddess Hecate has long been associated with witchcraft and with the crossroads, which appears in legends as a meeting place for souls that cannot pass into the Otherworld.  Hecate is depicted in ancient myths as a goddess of the crossroads who guides the dead. It is not difficult to see this gathering of souls as the wild host.  The goddess Diana has also been associated with witchcraft by ancient writers, and the concept of a "wild hunt" is certainly not divorced from a goddess associated with hunting (as is the case with the goddess Diana).  The ancient writer Lucan even writes of a witch referring to her goddess who is triformis in nature:

“Persephone, who is the third and lowest aspect of our (the witches') goddess Hekate: Hekate, through whom I can silently converse with the dead...”  - (Luc. B.C. 6: 736-38)

The name of the goddess who is not mentioned in Lucan's reference is undoubtedly the goddess Diana as evidenced in the contemporary writings of the period (and earlier).  Here we have not only the presence of a triformis goddess associated with witchcraft in ancient times, but also a starting point with which to begin tracing the Society of Diana.