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  • Spells, Saints, and Streghe: Witchcraft, Folk Magic, and Healing in Italy
    Part 7 of 13: The Folkloric Witch

    by Sabina Magliocco

    It is nearly impossible to understand Italian folk magic without reference to the evil, malevolent witch, a figure revivalists attribute to distortions of the Inquisition. Yet belief in witchcraft-that is, that certain individuals, both male and female, had supernatural powers to heal or harm-was widespread in all regions of Italy. The witch has always been an ambiguous figure in the popular imagination. On one hand, the witch was essential as a healer and counter-hexer in a society that had little access to, and much distrust of, formal medicine. Yet witches were also feared for their supernatural powers and their reputed ability to do harm. Witches were therefore both real individuals living in communities and frightening supernatural figures, and these categories overlapped considerably in people's minds, sometimes giving rise to specific accusations of witchcraft.

    It is clear that many activities attributed to witches were folkloric in nature-that is, no living member of any community, even traditional magic-workers, practiced them. Following Davies' recent work on witch belief in Britain (1999), I call these the province of the folkloric witch--the supernatural figure of legends and folktales. The word strega (plural streghe), from the Latin strix, "screech-owl," is often used in Italian to refer to the folkloric witch, and the word has ancient negative connotations. Pliny the Elder wrote about striges (plural of strix), women who could transform into birds of prey by means of magic, and who would fly at night looking for infants in their cradles to slaughter (Pliny the Elder, cited in Cattabiani, 1994:207-208). The strega therefore is not just a bogey created by the Inquisition, but a dangerous character with deep roots in Mediterranean folklore.

    The folkloric witch appears predominantly in legends (accounts about supernatural events that were told as true) and folktales (purely fictional accounts set in a magical world). In Italian folklore she is usually female. Folkloric witches perform feats that are obviously supernatural: they can transform into animals (wolves, hares, lizards and cats are popular choices), fly through the night sky on the backs of animals, tangle people's hair in their sleep, steal milk from nursing mothers and livestock, suck blood from living beings, and torment their enemies by paralyzing them in their beds at night (DeMartino, 1966/83:71; cf. Hufford, 1982). Folkloric witches' activities sometimes overlap with those of fairies and the dead: in Italian folklore, noisy night raids and circle-dancing in the cemetery or church square are attributed to all three.

    Clearly, the folkloric witch is fictional; she represents an embodiment of rural peoples' worst fears, and her actions do not correspond to any real folk practices documented by ethnographers. Nevertheless, the presence of this character in Italian folklore from all regions indicates the ambivalent feelings villagers had towards those who practiced traditional magic and who just might be dangerous streghe.

    < Part 6: The Context of Traditional Italian Folk Magical Practice Part 8: Il Malocchio or the Evil Eye, and its Relations >



    Additional Resources
    Famous Italians Folk Dances Folk Songs
    Folklore/Legends Proverbs/Proverbi Traditions

    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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