A Pagan Resurrection


Paganism, also known as Neo-Paganism, is a faith riddled with contradictions and conundrums. Its reappearance in Italy is no exception. Many people may not consider Paganism to be a faith, but it is the world's oldest religion, as well as the newest, pre-modern and postmodern at the same time.

The world's oldest faith has been helped to return to – or even re-emerge in – one of its ancestral homes by the twentieth century's hegemonic globalizing movements, industrialization, and spread of English speaking and writing. Witchcraft as a formalized, postmodern faith, with Pagan clergy, has returned to the land where folk rituals of witchcraft and reverence for ancient priestesses and oracles never completely vanished.

My role as a writer, like that of many other researchers in religious studies, anthropology, and other disciplines, was often one of privileged insider status. My affiliation with the international Pagan community, as well as my background as a scholar and author, contributed to my contacts with the increasing number of Witches, Druids, Wiccans, and Goddess worshippers. As a result, all emic and etic views are discussed here. Theoretical and interpretations for this re-emergence vary from socioeconomic and political to contextual, and all of them are based on ethnographic analysis.

Many Pantheons, Many Traditions

One would anticipate contemporary Pagan worship of Diana or Minerva, Vesta and Venus in lands synonymous with the Roman Empire's legacy, and one might find veneration and ceremonial rituals honoring these Goddesses – especially closer to Rome. Several years of study, on the other hand, exposed me to myths, myths, and rituals that were little understood outside of traditional worship areas. A huge, golden Madonna atop Milan's magnificent main cathedral, for example, can be found in the northern region of Lombardy at the foot of the Alps. Just those born within reach of the 'Madonnina' are considered real Milanese, according to Milanese custom.

Many citizens in Milan today assume that the mother figure protecting Milan is a Gallo-Celtic Goddess known as Bellisama, rather than the Christian Madonna. Bellisama was revered by the ancient Gauls, also known as Celts, in Lombardy and in continental Europe, as far as northwestern France. ‘The Goddess of Milan is Bellisama, her spirit is here, and it's Druidic,' a Milanese Pagan participant said, attempting to explain the continuing local presence of Milan's Gaulish culture.

Therefore, the word "re-emergence" is apt, for the Goddess never left these Mediterranean lands. She was synthesized in what ultimately appeared as today's Christianity, becoming the iconic Madonna of the Mediterranean, as was the case with other classical and pagan idols, as well as with Jesus worship. Sabina Magliocco has explored a strong religiosity and proclivity for sorcery in numerous ethnographic studies on Italy; it has coexisted with Christianity for centuries.

This newly unified land built out of the mountainous peninsula of diverse regions now known as ‘Italy,' is also the home of the Vatican, and thus a Catholic-dominated republic. Rountree has written about how Wiccans and Pagans in Malta go back and forth between Madonna and Mother Goddess veneration. While there are some strong similarities between southern Italy and Malta, where Italians are deeply enculturated into Roman Catholicism from birth, Italy has its own distinct development in the advent of contemporary Paganism. Any of Italy's religiously rooted characteristics aid in the development of the Pagan culture.

Italy's historic and cultural manifestations of protest are a significant component. The Italian psychology and society are profoundly rooted in opposition to external aggression, political injustice, and hegemonic systems. Examples can be seen in the history of its partisan activities during World War II and its Communist Party. Alternative spiritualities such as paganism, shamanism, and other modern, non-Christian faith movements that are gaining momentum in Italy not only have empowerment and new senses of identity, but they are also embedded with cultural and religious rebellion avenues and mores.

The long-term longevity of Italy's popular religious practices may be influenced by its legacy of witch trials. While the tradition of witch-hunts and witch trials in the mediaeval and Renaissance periods has often been cited as a driving and galvanizing force in women's and sometimes men's commitment to Paganism and Witchcraft movements in the twentieth century, it can be argued that contemporary Witches and Pagans' convictions about ancient witches and witchcraft are misguided.

According to studies conducted in recent decades, there were few followers of a pre-Christian Pagan faith who survived into the Christian period among those persecuted and/or executed during the gruesome years of the European and British witch-hunts. In Lombardy, however, two examples of possible surviving vernacular Goddess worship have been recorded: Pierina Bugatis and Sibillia Zanni, who were burned in one of Milan's main piazzas.

Their tale exemplifies some of feminist scholar Anne Llewellyn Barstow's points: despite the presence of the Inquisition, Italy and Spain did not undergo the kind of "witch craze" that swept the rest of Europe. Inquisitors, especially in Italy, became particularly interested in the practices of female fortune-tellers and male magicians, and saw them as wrong beliefs rather than diabolic sorcery, and tried to convert the practitioners to a papally sanctioned form of Catholicism. Penances, whippings, and banishment were used as punishments, but not death.

Early testimony mentioned events that were more akin to modern Goddess worship than those described in witch trial reports. For example, at certain times of the month, they celebrated rites honoring a sacred feminine figure; they healed animals, ate and drank together. While Sibillia and Pierina were sadly lost, the presence of the Inquisition and the Vatican may have helped the continuation of Italy's folk traditions into modern times, as the people did not experience the same degree of persecution of folk healers and vernacular beliefs as people in other countries.

An Enchanted Land and a Rural Country

In northern Europe and North America during the mid-to-late twentieth century, esoteric traditions, and mystery religions such as Wicca, Druidry, and others grew and expanded rapidly. However, in Italy, the arrival of numerous northern European, North American, and British Paganism practices was hindered by the language barrier. The majority, if not all, of Pagan literature was written in English.

In the second decade of the twenty-first century, it is still normal to see educated people in Italy's more sophisticated cities and towns who do not speak or read English, at least not well. Many now-classic Wicca, Witchcraft, and Paganism books from the twentieth century, such as Starhawk's The Spiral Dance and Janet and Stewart Farrar's A Witches' Bible, were postponed because of this.

The delayed arrival of modern Paganism in Italy was due to several sociological and historical influences. One was the early nineteenth-century industrialization of northern Europe, Britain, and North America, as well as the resulting romanticization of nature in those areas. Another was the study of mythology, native rituals, and witches in relation to this idealized view of agricultural customs that flourished in countries like England, Germany, and the United States from the early to mid-nineteenth century.

This was a response to the disappearance of the countryside and agricultural lives, as well as the deep feeling of loss brought about by industrialization. The Romantic revolution in the British Isles was to be a direct response to England's industrialization. The study of folklore, which was only recently established in the nineteenth century, is important for Wicca and perhaps even Druidry in Italy, as it can be claimed that there is a clear line from American folklorist Charles Leland to British ‘father of Wicca' Gerald Gardner, and then to the arrival of Wicca and Druidry in Italy in the twenty-first century. This hypothesis is further developed by examining Italy's Indigenous Practices.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the quest for a re-enchantment of nature and the search for enchantment in the post-industrial period may have helped the development of nature mysticism and esoteric spirituality in northern Europe and North America. A newly urbanized society, on the other hand, may have already lost touch with nature and its rural cultures, with their native traditions and indigenous spiritual practices, to have a thirst for rediscovering enchantment of nature. This was not the case in Italy, which continued to have a strong agrarian and peasant economy far into the twentieth century.

It had experienced late industrialization, like other southern European countries, and yet preserved rural systems, customs, and mores long into the twentieth century. The belief in vernacular religious complexes, which involve the production and use of protective amulets, various healing traditions, and the raising of or protection from the Evil Eye, exemplifies this.

According to Magliocco, "there are practically thousands of spells in Italian mythology to turn around the evil eye," and "all of Italian vernacular magic and curing centers on the evil eye belief complex." Not only in Italy, but also among the Italian diaspora around the world, these are often paired with Christianity. Participants in this study in Italy talked openly about their Evil Eye experience and habits, as well as that of their friends.

New Movements, Rites, and Consciousness

The late industrialization of Italy and its subsequent "modernization without growth" are crucial in this debate, not only in relation to the later advent of Paganism, but also in relation to the late introduction of feminism and the environmental revolution. The rise and propagation of Goddess worship, Wicca, and Druidry, among other forms of Paganism, in Italy is a sociological development linked to the emergence of other movements such as LGBTQ, lesbian, homosexual, bisexual, transgender, and queer rights, the environmental revolution, and personal-consciousness movements.

In this respect, the revival of paganism in Italy is related to the rise of paganism in other parts of southern Europe, as well as other late-industrialized countries such as those in South America. The quest for modern rites of passage was another important component of Italy's hunger for alternate modes of worship and communal celebration. The educated, newly urbanized, younger generations, as well as the vast Italian left wing, felt increasingly alienated from conventional Catholic rituals in the late twentieth century.

An increasing desire for a new way to ritualize these occasions emerged from a lack of fulfilment in and a growing trend away from Catholicism's traditional ceremonies, especially those marking life transitions. Was the Women's Faith revolution the guiding force behind the exponential development of Paganism in Italy? Is it the growing awareness of environmental issues that followed industrialization? Is it a mixture of these causes, as well as more widespread schooling and employment for women?

It's difficult to say what was the "chief mover" in this case. However, as the Women's Spirituality movement grew in popularity in Italy over the last ten to fifteen years, new artistic manifestations arose, encouraging the development of unique rites of passage such as newborn blessings, young girls' coming of age, weddings, and women's rites  honoring menopause. There would be a new meaning to Liberation Theology if this were combined with the fervent sense of new empowerment provided by various Pagan cultures, especially for women raised in patriarchal Italian society.

In his study of Paganism in the British Isles, Graham Harvey identified this link; it holds true in Italy as well. Goddess Spirituality is perhaps modern Paganism's most overt "liberation religion" – or, more accurately, theology. It studies the history, current, and future expectations for signs of alternative lifestyles using several methods. It proposes that the honoring of the Earth and the honoring of women go hand in hand.

The need for modern rites of passage, experience of what was taking form overseas as books arrived and were eventually translated into Italian, and the delayed yet now fervent social and psychological consciousness revolutions all combined to give Italians a fertile blend of ideas ‘whose time had come' at the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first.

These events signaled a new emergence of alternative thought and artistic expression in Italy, as well as reaffirming the Italian proclivity for rebellion through a new kind of cultural resistance movement. Goddess Faith offers Italian women a feeling of empowerment, much as it does in other cultures. A significant nuance of this trend in Italy is that it can find influence in the context of bella figura, a nuanced and profoundly rooted Italian cultural characteristic whose direct meaning may be "making a good impression." This is the standard use, but there are many variations and social ramifications, especially when it comes to women asserting their position in the public sphere.

Bella Figura, according to anthropologist Emanuela Guano, is more than just a way of expressing yourself, dressing and walking – it's a means for a woman to build an identity that provides a sort of resistance and a way to carve out a position of dignity in a "oppressively masculinized" public domain.

As some Italian women experiment with modern and complex modes of empowered identity, my findings show a strong connection between the Ancient persona of Goddess Spirituality and priestesshood and Bella Figura. A Goddess statue stands outside a Pagan temple. The photographer, Ossian D'Ambrosio, gave his permission for this image to be included. It's important to remember the linguistic distinction between traditional Italian witchcraft, native rituals with a long background of Italian society, and modern Pagan Witchcraft concepts.

According to Italian scholars and practitioners, such as the participants in this ethnographic study, the Italian word for traditional vernacular witchcraft is stregoneria. There are regional dialectal variants for ‘witch' in Italy, such as stria and masca; however, strega is the most well recognized and used in the general Italian language. The word stregheria may be familiar to some readers.

This holds true for some modern vernacular manifestations of ‘witchcraft,' the topic of Charles Leland's nineteenth-century studies in central Italy, and particularly Italian-American mystical practices inside postmodern Paganism. Raven Grimassi, an American Pagan teacher and blogger, popularized the word. There are many variations in Italian stregheria and stregoneria customs, but there are also many parallels. In a nutshell, Gardnerian Wicca, and the imagination of Italian Americans, as well as authentic regional Italian traditions, have influenced Italian American stregheria.

However, some Italian authors, such as Menegoni, the translator of Leland's Aradia, advocate the use of stregheria primarily for the local Tuscan worship of Diana and 'Aradia' that Leland encountered. As a result, there are modern Italian witch sects that emphasize their inherited ancient roots and focus on using that name rather than stregoneria. It is a topic of continuing discussion both within and outside Italy.