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Spells, Saints, and Streghe: Witchcraft, Folk Magic, and Healing in Italy
Part 3 of 13: Problems With the Concept of an Organized "Italian" Witchcraft
by Sabina Magliocco
One of the problems with the idea of a unified organization of Italian Witches is that Italy as a national and cultural entity is a relatively recent construct. Until 1861, Italy as a nation did not exist at all. The peninsula was divided into a plethora of large and small fiefdoms interspersed with Church-owned territories. Communications and travel between the various regions of Italy were difficult at best due to the mountainous terrain and lack of roads. Centuries of incursions and domination by foreign political powers led to the development of very distinct regional cultures and dialects, such that a person from Palermo (Sicily) literally could not communicate with one from Torino (Piemonte). People could not always move freely about between regions because of the wars and political conflicts that divided them. The Italian peninsula could not be said to have anything resembling an integrated culture between the end of the Roman Empire (453CE) and the beginning of the 20th century, making the existence of a secret, organized Italian witch cult nearly impossible. There was a certain conformity of beliefs about witches and folk magical practices, but on a fairly general level which also extended to other areas in Europe. It is more useful to look at the development of broad culture areas within which one can find a certain range of traits: northern Italy, comprising the regions along the Alps and the coastal Venezia-Giulia; central Italy, consisting of areas in Emilia-Romagna, Tuscany, and the northern sections of Umbria and Lazio; and southern Italy, from Civitavecchia (just north of Rome) down to the tip of the boot, including the islands of Sicily and Sardinia. Of course, within these divisions, there exist even finer boundaries, so that each individual region, city, town and small village has its own unique dialect and folk culture. Italy is part of a broader geographic and cultural region encompassing the
western Mediterranean; within this area, regional cultures form distinct clusters, so that for example Friuli, which borders on Austria and Slovenia and was long dominated by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, has more in common culturally with Austria and the Balkans than with many other Italian regions. It is no accident that the medieval Friulian folk beliefs about Benandanti documented by Carlo Ginzburg (1983) have analogues in Balkan folklore about calusari (Kligman, 1981). But these beliefs were confined to the area of Friuli-Venezia-Giulia, and were not found in other regions of the peninsula. In the same way, we find in the tarantismo of Puglie and the argismo of Sardinia (both ecstatic dance therapies for the bites of venomous spiders) evidence of cultural similarities with the zar possession cults of the north African rim. Thus Italy is by no means homogenous; each region is unique in dialect and culture, and within each region, there are multiple subdialects which are often mutually unintelligible. Just as an example, Sardinia, an island slightly smaller than the state of Indiana, has no less than three major dialects, only two of
which are somewhat mutually intelligible, plus Catalan, which is spoken only in the town of Alghero and is completely unintelligible to speakers of any of the three major dialect groups. This makes the development of a unified Italian system of ritual magic, diffused through oral tradition on a popular
level. unlikely before the 20th century; in fact, any generalizations about an "Italian" folk culture need to be treated with great caution.
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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