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  • Spells, Saints, and Streghe: Witchcraft, Folk Magic, and Healing in Italy
    Part 5 of 13: The Influence of the Catholic Church

    by Sabina Magliocco

    The ambivalent attitude of Italians towards the Catholic church is sometimes interpreted by revivalists as evidence that their relatives were hiding paganism under a veneer of Christianity. But while this might have in fact been the case in the Church's earliest years, intervening millennia ensured an almost complete penetration of Christian discourse into everyday life.

    Before the emergence of the nation-state, the Roman Catholic church was the most important social institution uniting Italians. It permeated almost every aspect of the individual's life from the cradle to the grave, and divided the year cycle into spiritually significant times which brought the entire community together. So powerful was its influence that nearly all traditional folk magic and healing has a Catholic veneer. In fact Grimassi gives a spell to St Anthony for reclaiming lost objects (1995:201) and another to Sts Peter and Blaise for blessing a holy stone (1999:56), both of which have many analogues in Italian and American folklore archives, attesting to their wide diffusion and popularity. In contrast, Leland's conjurations to Diana, which reproduce, in structure and feel, some Catholic folk prayers, seem to be unique.

    Nonetheless, many Italians have historically had mixed feelings about the Catholic Church as an institution. The Church has traditionally been allied with the state and the elite classes, leading many non-elites to see it as collaborating in their economic and cultural oppression. Especially in rural areas, many people practiced folk Catholicism, a syncretic mixture of some pre-Christian elements with a dose of Catholic flavoring. while remaining relatively resistant to aspects of official doctrine, either due to a lack of understanding (until 1962, Masses were held in Latin, which the majority did not understand) or to skepticism about the Church's motives.

    Italian folk Catholicism tends to be orthopractic rather than orthodox; relations with God, the Virgin Mary and the saints are quid-pro-quos, and punishment for violated contracts cut both ways. In this context, Leland's conjurations, which strike Pagans today as petulant, demanding and irreverent, are in fact well within the spirit of the tradition. When certain Sardinian villages suffered a drought, the patron saint's statue was brought out, decorated, and venerated until the rains came. But if the rains did not arrive, it was not uncommon for angry villagers to "punish" the saint by plunging its statue head first into the well. We see the same attitude towards divinity in many of the charms and conjurations in Leland's Aradia, which threaten Diana if she does not accede to the conjurer's demands. These attitudes, which reflected clientilistic social relationships in parts of Italy, are completely absent from the works of Martello and Grimassi, where a different, more synergetic attitude between seeker and deity are evident. This new outlook reflects important shifts in social structure and organization between Italy of the late 19th century and today's New Age culture, where an egalitarian spirit prevails even in relations of social inequality.

    What of the claim that many practitioners of the vecchia religione hid under the eyes of priests by becoming priests themselves, or by becoming involved in Catholic organizations? Again, this is a slight distortion of what is still a common pattern. In my fieldwork I observed that some individuals were attracted to religiosity in whatever form it took, official or unofficial. These people often became involved in religious fraternities and sororities which maintained various calendar customs and saint's shrines, while at the same time running a lively practice in folk healing on the side. They did not see these practices as incompatible, since their cures all involved some sort of invocation to the saints, although they were well aware that the priest usually disapproved. Still, they did not see themselves as practicing a pre-Christian religion, but as good practicing Catholics who happened to do very sensible things of which the priest disapproved. Their disobedience of the priest did not trouble them overmuch; priests also disapproved of many other ordinary activities, such as drinking, celebration, the use of birth control and premarital sex, in which they also continued to engage. Anti-clericalism has always been rife in Italy, especially among men; priests, as voluntarily celibate men with access to local women in the confessional, are objects of mistrust and derision, preserved in countless folk narratives, rhymes and songs.

    We have seen how three flaws in the reasoning of Italian-American revival Witches often leads them to make dubious claims or interpretations about the origins of their practices. These include the projection of modern Italian national identity into the historical past; the uncritical interpretation of folklore as "survivals" from a pre-Christian era; and an oversimplification of the complex relationship between official and folk Catholicism which can lead to an erasure of Christian elements from popular belief and practice. But Italian culture has a rich body of folk magical beliefs and practices documented in the ethnographic record of the last 100 years. These are the kinds of practices and beliefs brought to North America by the Italian immigrants who arrived on our shores between 1890 and 1960, and which are likely to have survived in the families of contemporary Italian-American Neopagans. They form the basis of contemporary Italian-American revival Witchcraft.

    < Part 4: The Survivalist Bias Part 6: The Context of Traditional Italian Folk Magical Practice >

    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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