The Spirit of Italian Witchcraft
Copyright 2006 Mary Santangelo
(used here with author's permission)
Not too many Pagans or Witches are familiar with other traditions of Italian Witchcraft other than information already in existence. What I am going to talk about is the Shamanic side of Italian Witchcraft known to Italians as Stregoneria as well as its aspects within Christianity.
The word Strega or Stregheria (the American terminology of the word) meaning Witch or Witchcraft is derived from the word Strix or Strege – a Latin word for owl – mainly the screech owl. In myth, this nocturnal bird prayed on human blood. The Romanian word Strigoi relating to the vampire is all tied in to explain in symbolic terms what a Strega is.
To begin with, the Strega is an individual that considers their "bloodline" of great importance – handing their secrets down through word of mouth from generation to generation fulfilling some ancient promise perhaps. This was done by an adult member of the family finding the most "talented" within their bloodline to pass this knowledge on to.
Very seldom was this gift passed to anyone outside of the family bloodline. If the family head had no one to pass it on to, they would die never to reveal what they knew burying the ancient knowledge in the sands of time. If by some miracle an outsider was brought in, they were tied to their new family by the intermingling of blood.
Secondly, they do all their magical workings at night while in trance, therefore, mimicking the nocturnal birds night flights who's importance was blood. The Strega move between the realms of the living and those that are hidden from the mundane - they are shape shifters, sorcerers and healers.
In family Stregoneria, it is difficult to pin down a specific organized way of doing things, as each family depending on the various provinces in Italy, practiced differently. Many came to America via Ellis Island and made their home here in the states. Italian customs blended with American ways bringing about a unique form of Italian-American customs and heritage. The Strega descendants in America are first or second generation children of Italian ancestry. Their diverse ways here are just as unique as they were in Italy.
With Witchcraft and Paganism making its debut in the states, so has Stregheria gotten on the bandwagon. However, these old family traditions are unlike anything Wiccan. The family Strega had no Wiccan Rede or threefold law. They had their own creed by which they lived. They taught honor, respect, loyalty, ethics, ancient wisdom and love. These were taught from an early age as were many other treasures including their cultural heritage. Most families had no degree system nor did they promote initiation in the way Witchcraft sees initiations. Their level of attainment was the child's spiritual growth throughout the years and their initiations were their trials in life.
No one truly knows what the Strega may have practiced two thousand years ago, nor do we know what religion they may have been if any. There were many factions in Italy other than Etruscan influence. This also included the Greeks, Samnites, and the Sabines among others. This is probably why the Strega today are so diversified in their ways.
When Christianity came on the scene, their beloved Diana easily blended into the Blessed Mother, while their God Lucifer (the Light- bearer) also known as Apollo blended into Jesus Christ. Their magic found its way incorporated within the Latin Mass along with the Novena's of Saints and Angels. To many old time Strega and their descendants this has not changed. They go every Sunday to Mass, lighting their candles and doing their magic. Those who were fortunate to hold on to their Pagan past retained their old world ways, some combining their old Gods with the Catholic saints much like Santeria without the sacrifices.
My own family handed down much Christian and folkloric magic whose symbolism had been lost for many years - it wasn't until I decided to do my own research that brought many things we do to light. Stregoneria is blessed with the richness of its heritage and should not be lost; therefore, I do commend those who have come out of the closet to at least introduce this ancient art to a new world.
One thing I learn each day in my faith is that life is ever changing and we change along with it. We look at change with despise, as though "How dare it enter our lives". What amazes me is that we are a species who are quick to judge and so very slow to change. We would rather keep our old habits in place of those that could benefit us. And although we crave advice, we are the first to defend those things that have no place in our lives. We are afraid to "go with the wind". We resist to the point that even if we want to change, our resistance stops that change right in its tracks.
What we forget is that there really is no change as we know it, just movement – just rhythm. Life is movement like the spirit within all things.
In Stregoneria we believe in a form of animism. In other words to us, nothing is dead, everything lives and has life even the inanimate. When we pick up a stone, it has life. When we bake bread, it has life. When we talk about the "old days" with our families, it has life. Everything has a spirit and a soul which is part of the universal soul called Anima Mundi.
This "spirit" we call Numa or Pneuma from the Greek Pneo "to breathe". It is the wind, the air, the breath of life and because this breath gives life, we relate it to spirit. However, air is all around us, it flows through us and is part of our world. This pneuma is called many things in many cultures. The yogi's call it prana – the universal life force. In the Japanese healing system know as Reiki, the energy that flows from the healer is the ki (life force energy). This life force energy is also known as chi and in Hebrew is known as Rauch, also the breath of life.
This breath of life is in all things within our immediate reach and even beyond our known world. It flows in and out of us. It is the rhythm of the universe. It is the cycle of the moon, the ebb and flow of the tides, the inhalation and exhalation of our very being. It is the movement of all things.
The pneuma in Stregoneria is within our reach. It vibrates with every act we do. It is in every implement we use and emanates from our own being so we may put into motion those things we wish to manifest. When we bless, we use pneuma. When we light our sacred fire, we activate the pneuma within the flame. When I use my bastone (spirit stick), I connect with the life force that is all around me – past, present and future. I embrace it as it embraces me. Each breath I take, my bastone breathes with me. We share the same life force, the same spirit. When I drink of the wine and eat of the bread – I partake of the pneuma of the Gods.
To me, I see Diana as the Numina of the Moon and Lucifer as the Numina of the Sun, but they are just as strong and real as the spiritual forces of the ancient Watchers who are now spiritual ancestors. The "spirit" does not loose its force if it does not manifest into a physical form – the Numa is a powerful force regardless.
Although my ancestors are long gone from this material plane, their pneuma is all around me. Their essence is within my flesh, their voices are my voice, and their life is carried within my soul. I am proud as a first generation Italian American to carry their spirit within me. May those who follow La Vecchia Religione continue to cherish it and commit to its growth.
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