90th Festa di San Gennaro, Little Italy 2016

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Interrogating ‘Stregheria’

‘Stregheria’ is a term used almost exclusively by American anglophones talking about a witchcraft tradition which allegedly emerges from Italy. Often, it is accompanied by Murrayesque claims of an unbroken pagan priesthood. Much of the work presented as ‘Stregheria’ appears strongly influenced by (perhaps even originating in) the writings of Raven Grimassi, which must be read with a very critical eye. Grimassi is a controversial figure, to say the least. He himself states:

My first attempts at providing information on the Italian Craft began around 1979 with the self publication of books and a magazine.  Working from material I had copied in my late teens and early twenties, I created an “outer-court” system through which I could convey the basic concepts of initiate teachings. Looking back on these early projects they were crude and amateurish. But for the time period they seemed to fit in with what most people were producing. …Thinking back on those days now I realize that I was a “true believer” in the things I had been taught and had learned. I think this was no more evident than in my writings on Aradia, which I presented in a self published work titled The Book of the Holy Strega.

I am not interested in critiquing Grimassi’s work or policing the self-identification of other practitioners. However, there are several facts which I think should be brought to bear when evaluating the claims of people who purport to practice, teach, or provide magical services under the banner of ‘Stregheria’.

‘Stregheria’ is not a common word in Italy. The Italian word for ‘witchcraft’ is ‘stregoneria’, and it has profoundly negative connotations. This is often the case among cultures who remain rooted in the magical world: they still have a need to describe the work of malevolent, spiritually powerful individuals, and no desire to reclaim that concept for political reasons. This is not to say that the word is entirely fabricated; it appears in a handful of texts from the 18th and 19th centuries. Nevertheless, it’s a word that most native Italian speakers will never have heard. It puts more distance between the anglophone American practitioner and and the people who live in the region where their tradition allegedly originates.

The matter becomes more complicated when we consider the vast linguistic and cultural diversity of the modern Italian nation. Italy as a unified country has only existed since 1861. The concept of a pan-Italian ethnic identity is even newer. Formerly–and even today, to a certain extent–each region within Italy had its own dialect and cultural identity. As most of the Italian immigrants to United States came from the Mezzogiorno region of Southern Italy and Sicily, we would expect them to have their own regionally-specific socio-magical functions and unique words for them in their own dialects.

Some modern Italian-speaking practitioners use the term ‘benedicaria’, a neologism which emphasizes the role of blessing and Catholic sacramentals in the work. Practitioners of benedicaria may not identify with the social role of the witch. The line between ‘stregoneria’ and ‘benedicaria’ remains blurry at best. My experience with practitioners who use the term benedicaria is that they tend to pay closer attention to historical folk practices, which is laudable. However, the term is not itself historically attested, and we may hypothesize that whatever thing it represents was never meant to have a name.

So why bother with this line of inquiry? Does it really matter what word is used? If the people purporting to practice ‘Stregheria’ changed their branding to so it said ‘stregoneria’, or ‘benedicaria’, or even ‘Italian folk magic’, would that resolve the issue?

Not necessarily. The larger problem here is not what word is used, but how. It’s about forging a deep, authentic relationship with the people and the land that these words come from. And for Italian-Americans in particular, it’s about strengthening our relationship with our ancestors while respecting their other descendents. When anglophones (and American anglophones in particular) use the word ‘Stregheria’, they are engaging in a kind of exotification and cultural appropriation. Swapping one word for another will not necessarily eliminate those deeper issues.

Returning for a second to Grimassi, much of his work draws on reconstructions of ancient Etrustcan religion. The Etruscans inhabited the regions now known as Tuscany, western Umbria, and northern Lazio. By contrast, approximately 84% of Italian-American immigrants during the height of the diaspora came from Southern Italy and Sicily. Most Italian-American family traditions and folk religion will not be illuminated by study of Etruscan paganism. A practitioner with roots in Naples is better served by studying the cult of San Gennaro, the cult of the Holy Souls in Purgatory at Fontenelle Cemetery, or the cult of Mama Schiavona at Montevergine–cults which, unlike the Etruscans, survive until this day and can be experienced as living traditions rather than reconstructions.

But it is just these living traditions that some seek to negate by practicing Stregheria. Certainly, there are many legitimate reasons to be uncomfortable with Christianity in general and the Catholic Church in particular. Yet some of the most pagan-seeming Italian cults originate late into the Christian era–for example, the Madonna delle Galline, an emanation of the Madonna covered in chickens who originates in the 17th century. (No, really.) Likewise, the necromantic cults of the Holy Souls in Purgatory and the Headless Souls do not, as one might think, originate in pagan hero cults. Peter Brown in his classic work The Cult of the Saints demonstrates that even the cult of the saints as collective, rather than personal, dead was only possible with the innovation of Christianity. Nascent Christianity broke many of the pagan and Jewish taboos on ancestor worship, including contact with the remains of the dead. Removing these traditions from their Christian framework is not only historically inaccurate, but, as scholar Sabina Magliocco writes, it “does violence to the way practitioners [of living traditions] perceive themselves.”

Of course, this is not to say that Italian-Americans must simply emulate their Mediterranean cousins. Doing so is equally problematic, and ignores the fact that many rich cultural traditions, including entire dialects, are better preserved in the Americas than in the old country. The most fruitful approach is considering a real, rather than immagined history: a history which includes both Christianity and the trauma of immigration. That is how we wake up our saints.

Further reading

Benedicaria – The Blessing Way of Southern Italian Folk Medicine, Part 1 by Gail Faith Edwards

Benedicaria – The Blessing Way of Southern Italian Folk Medicine, Part 2 by Gail Faith Edwards

Benedicaria: “Magia” Popolare e delle Campagne

Magic: A Theory from the South by Ernesto de Martino

Spells, Saints, and Streghe: Witchcraft, Folk Magic, and Healing in Italy by Sabina Magliocco

Il Regno: Ethno-cultural journal for people of Southern Italian descent

Stregoneria: A Roman Furnace by Nicholaj de Mattos Frisvold in Serpent Songs

Lent & Passiontide

“Some Italian Americans preserved the Old World custom of personifying Lent as an old woman represented by a doll made from a potato decorated with feathers and cloth. Each week the children of the household would remove a feather from the doll until by the time Easter came it was totally denuded. Then the doll was burned.

“The climax of the Lenten season and Passion week on Good Friday begins a three-day period, ending on Easter Sunday, which condenses the previous seven weeks of spiritual concentration. Good Friday itself has been marked by religious processions, the most thoroughly documented being that of Maria Addolorata (the Virgin of Sorrows) in Brooklyn. Many residents of the parish of the Church of the Sacred Heart and Saint Stephen trace their ancestry to Bari in Apulia, where the tradition of the procession originated. They gather in the church in the early morning on Good Friday to await the priest and several formally attired young men, who will carry the statue of the Virgin on a platform through the streets. Accompanied by various parish organizations, the church band (playing funeral music), and any parishioners who care to join, the statue makes its way through the neighborhood, pausing frequently to permit devotees to pay their respects. As the procession passes their houses, people kneel to receive a blessing or join the marchers. Many have put up special decorations of flowers and lights.

“Shortly after the procession of the Virgin leaves from the front of the church, another group sets out from the rear. Bearing a glass coffin with a life-size statue of the crucified Jesus, several men set out through the streets on a route that will bring them into contact with the Virgin’s procession when it ends at the church door. The meeting of the two processions (la giunta) climaxes the event, which is supposed to depict the mother’s mournful search for her lost, now-dead son.

“Italian Americans in Brooklyn also process on Good Friday in reenactments of the Stations of the Cross, marked by black crosses at sites throughout the neighborhood. At each, the procession of parish organizations bearing their identifying banners pauses while a priest narrates the events depicted there, and some are enacted by costumed children.

“Such Good Friday customs serve as commemorative reminders of the events in sacred history which charter the fundamentals of Christian doctrine. They also allow participants a sense of imaginative identification with the happenings in the Passion of Jesus and the sorrows of his mother. The following day’s activities offer opportunities for a final cleansing and purgation before the celebration of Easter. Purification on Holy Saturday may be domestic, as in the Sicilian-American custom of using the day to cleanse one’s house of the devil, or it may be personal. According to Ligurian tradition reported in California, after bathing the face on Holy Saturday, one should recite, ‘Flowing Water / Quench this ardent fire that courses through my veins.'”

Malpezzi and Clements, Italian-American Folklore, pp. 90-91.

Italian-American folk healing

“Many Italian-American women have had knowledge of folk prophylactics and cures which they use for the daily health of family members. At the same time, folk medical specialists, individuals with special knowledge and gifts, were available for serious ailments. Particularly when an illness lasted for some time or when its cause was uncertain, Italian Americans went to folk healers, usually women who could diagnose the source of an ailment, perform the necessary procedures for curing it, and prescribe additional remedial activity as needed. Such healers usually had to be versed in two kinds of medicine: one based on a folk pharmacopeia of herbs and other natural ingredients, and one requiring expertise in magical counteractants to illness. The latter often overlapped with cures for malocchio, but it also included magical responses to ailments whose causation was purely natural. Sometimes the healer would rely on only one kind of medicine, but sometimes she had to combine the natural and the magical to effect the required cure.

“Some communities had folk medical specialists, such as the spilato among Sicilians in Buffalo, New York. This person, blessed with an inborn healing gift that became honed through instruction traditionally by a relative, could use his or her hands to cure sprains, strains, stiffness, bruises, and other skeleto-muscular disorders. Generally, specialists in magical healing were able to practice their skills in the United states much more effectively than those who relied on natural remedies, since the ingredients for the latter were often unavailable in the New World and might be replaced by relatively inexpensive patent medications that were available to anyone. Usually the herbal remedies that have endured in Italian-American folk tradition are those requiring no specialized healer status within the community. They are truly ‘home remedies.’

“There is also an interplay between scientific and magical folk medicine, seen in some ways in which Italian Americans have traditionally promoted good health. These include drinking holy water, eating a bowl of grapes on New Year’s Day before rising, putting blessed palms from Palm Sunday beneath the mattress, sprinkling clothes with salt, wearing garlic or camphor in a pouch around the neck, or having a priest bless one’s house.”

Frances M. Malpezzi and Wiliam M. Clements, Italian-American Folklore, pp. 134-135.

Women’s prominence in devotion

“Women outnumbered men in the devotion since the time of the earliest available documents, although they were not included in its organizational life. They have always been the primary economic support of the devotion. With only about two exceptions, women wrote in to report the graces granted by the Madonna even when the grace had been bestowed on a man. Women were also the central figures in the life of the church….

“Women felt a profound sense of identity and a special closeness to the Madonna, as they reveal in their letters to her requesting graces or thanking her for favors granted. When their sufferings as mothers and wives were most intense, as these women tell their stories, when they felt that no one else could understand their particular agonies, they turned to the one who long ago had appealed to the masses of Europe because of her evident participation in humanity’s trials. The mothers and grandmothers of the women of Italian Harlem had contributed to the evolution and popularity of this image, which now found an urban restatement. The Madonna to whom these women were so attached was not a distant, asexual figure, but a woman like themselves who had suffered for and with her child. Her power was located precisely in those areas where the power of Italian women, in all its complexity, was located: the domus. Like Italian women, the Madonna was expected to hold families together. She was also asked to forgive and to protect, suggesting a complex and considerable power–and one that could be wielded capriciously.”

Robert Orsi, The Madonna of 115th Street, pp. 205-206.

The sense-world of the festa

“The festa of the Madonna of Mount Carmel recreated the primary and traditional environments of the Italians–the preverbal environment, on the one hand, and the remembered environment of Italy, on the other–in the presence of a quasi-omnipotent mother who healed or did not heal, depending on the behavior of the individual. For the older immigrants and their Italian-born children, the sense world of the festa was the sense world of their southern Italian childhoods; for the later generations in East Harlem, the sense world of the festa recalled the smells, sounds, and tastes of life in the domus. In both cases, the festa and the domus, the sense world was shaped and presided over by a powerful woman. The religious experience of July 16 had the power to evoke memories that were extraordinarily basic: the people seemed to be returning not only to their paese but, more profoundly, to their mothers. The festa was a time of regression, in other words, and the smells, tastes, and sounds of it helped to precipitate and sustain this regression. The devotion summoned people into the sacral domus and surrounded them with familiar tastes, smells, sounds, colors, and textures; in this way, in the presence of their ‘mamma,’ the people returned to the world in which they had first learned, from their mothers, what reality was, what was good and what bad, what their basic values were and the values of their community. The festa and the long-passed intimate moments of moral formation smelled, tasted, and sounded the same.” [emphasis added]

Robert Orsi, The Madonna of 115th Street, pp. 171-172.

Italy or East Harlem?

“For the most part, however, the continuity of faith and devotion which the parish journal made explicit was seen as a faithfulness to southern Italian traditions. The procession, we are told, recalled the great traditional religious processions of southern Italy, just as the Italian American societies consecrated to particular saints resembled those in Italy. The people were urged to relive their Italian past, to reaffirm their Italian selves during the festa. They were told to recall the little shrines to Mary scattered all over Italy–in valleys, beside rivers, deep in forests–and in this way to travel again the spiritual geography of their youth as they worship at the shrine on 115th Street. Though they could not actually be in southern Italy, they could behave as though they were there; indeed, there are times when the author of the parish bulletin actually confused the two places, so that it is occasionally difficult to tell whether he is writing about Italy or East Harlem.” [emphasis added]

Robert Orsi, The Madonna of 115th Street, 168-169.