Stregheria and Italian-American Folk Magic
‘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 operating in secret up until today. Much of the work presented as ‘Stregheria’ appears to have originated with the writings of Raven Grimassi, which must be read with a critical eye. Grimassi is a controversial figure among Italian practitioners, 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, although some modern practitioners have followed the example of their anglophone counterparts and begin reappropriating the term. This is not to say that the word 'stregheria' 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 nation of Italy. Italy as a unified country has only existed since 1861. The concept of a pan-Italian ethnic identity is even newer. Each region within Italy has a distinct culture, with attendant variations in language, food, and religious practice. 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 roles and unique words for them in their own dialects.
Some modern Italian and Italian-American practitioners use the term ‘benedicaria’, a neologism which emphasizes the role of blessing and Catholic sacramentals in the work. Practitioners of benedicaria may or 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 descendants. 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 Etruscan religion. The Etruscans inhabited the regions now known as Tuscany, western Umbria, and northern Lazio. By contrast, approximately 84% of Italian-Americans trace their roots to 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. 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 imagined history: a history which includes both Christianity and the trauma of immigration. That is how we wake up our saints.