17 August 2011


Charles Godfrey Leland. Aradia or the Gospel of the Witches, The Witches’ Almanac, Hampton Roads, 2010. (First published 1899).

Charles Leland (1824-1903), a Philadelphian who founded the Gipsy Lore Society, was particularly interested in witchcraft, using the word in its broadest sense, that is, to include fortune-tellers and the like. In the 1880s he moved to Italy, a country with: “Great numbers of streghe, fortune-tellers or witches, who divine by cards, perform strange ceremonies in which spirits are supposed to be invoked, make and sell amulets, and, in fact, comport themselves generally as their reputed kind are wont to do...”
One unexpected fact about these people was – still is, I have been told – that despite nearly two thousand years of Christianity, they are inclined to call upon the Gods of the ancient Romans, Jupiter, Venus, and so on, in their spell-casting. Leland produced a weighty tome, Etruscan-Roman Remains in Popular Tradition, 1893, in which he claimed an even more remarkable find: that in Tuscany some women knew the names of the Etruscan deities, something very few scholars did. For example, a charm to make vines grow invoked ‘Faflon’. The Etruscan wine God (equivalent to Bacchus or Dionysus) was called Fufluns.

Those acquainted with such matters were reluctant to discuss them with outsiders, so he relied heavily upon a woman whom he called Maddalena, real name Margherita Taluti. We may suppose that he paid her for her information, though he did not say so. She was also the principle source for his Legends of Florence. One of the stories in this, he observed, had previously been published in the sixteenth century, but in the old version a witch and her daughter ended up being executed. In the 1890s retelling they got away with their nefarious doings, indicating that the source must have been witches themselves, just as in Gipsy tales the thief always escapes.

The last thing that she presented him with, at the beginning of 1897, was a manuscript in her own handwriting of Aradia: The Gospel of the Witches. It was a medley of legend and practical spells, the unifying message being that, if you want good fortune, then ignore the teachings of the church, and instead invoke Diana, the Goddess of the Moon, this being known as la vecchia religione, ‘the old religion’. A typical invocation runs as follows:

Lovely Goddess of the bow!
Lovely Goddess of the arrows!
Of all hounds and of all hunting
Thou who wakest in starry heaven
When the sun is sunk in slumber
Thou with the moon upon thy forehead.

Who the chase by night preferrest
Unto hunting in the daylight,
With thy nymphs unto the music
Of the horn – thyself the huntress,
And most powerful: I pray thee
Think, although but for an instant,
Upon us who pray unto thee!

Now, it is a fact that witchcraft was never associated with devil worship before the fifteenth century, but, on the contrary, with the Goddess Diana, indeed one mediaeval word for witch was dianatica, so this text is what one would expect of an old witchcraft survival. The Gospel begins by relating that Diana coupled with her brother Lucifer “the god of the Sun and of the Moon, the god of Light” (an act she later regretted), and bore a daughter, Aradia. Eventually, Diana sent Aradia down into this world to teach witchcraft to oppressed people.

This is clearly a take-off of the Christian legend of the Incarnation. Yet it did not come from nowhere: some writers in mediaeval France stated that the Queen of the witches was Diana or Herodias (or Herodiade) and Aradia is evidently the same as the latter; in Romania Irodiade is the Queen of the fairies, and she is evidently the same figure, since fairies and witches are often interchangeable in folklore. Now Italian, French and Romanian are all Romance languages, i.e. direct descendants of Latin. This suggests that the name goes back to Roman times, though chancing not to occur in any surviving classical text. (What would clinch this argument would the discovery of a form of the name in Spanish or Portuguese. Unfortunately, I have never been able to do so.)

One section, ‘The House of the Wind’, about a girl whose prayers to Diana were answered, was written out by Maddalena from a man who lived in Volterra. It was composed in a long winded style compared to the rest of the book, so Leland edited it down from twenty pages to four. This does show that there was more than one author, but it remains likely that most of it is in the wording of Maddalena herself, and no doubt incorporated her own ideas.

The book received a single lukewarm review in Folk-Lore, and a more substantial and enthusiastic one in the Revue de l’histoire des rĂ©ligions, but otherwise was totally ignored for decades. Yet somebody must have read it, because the 1940s saw the gradual emergence of a modern English form of witchcraft which has come to be known as Wicca. In the earliest surviving manuscript texts of its rituals, the secret Goddess name was written in code – it was Aradia! Moreover, a passage known as ‘The Charge of the Goddess’ contained some passages copied from the first and second chapters of Aradia, even preserving a couple of the iambic pentameters of Leland’s translation, thus eliminating the possibility (which one or two people have tried to suggest) that Wicca represents an independent survival of traditions about Aradia. Some Wiccans have apparently borrowed the Italian la vecchia religione, though in England ‘the old religion’ was formerly used by Catholics to mean the Catholic Church.

The revival of an interest in witchcraft, by academics as well as would-be witches, led to a lengthy criticism of Aradia by a Canadian professor, Elliot Rose, in his book A Razor for a Goat. Rose concluded that it was ‘certain’ that the book comprised ‘art products’ not ‘folk products’, and that they were ‘bad art’ at that. This, however, was based upon subjective impressions. When he got down to concrete arguments, they were rather peculiar. He argued that Aradia displayed “throughout a set of ideas borrowed at second hand from Albigensians”, meaning apparently that they were the same things of which the Cathars and Waldensians were falsely accused. In fact the one idea that appears throughout is that the worship of Diana brings good fortune, which was certainly not a belief of the Albigensians, not even allegedly. Aradia says that witches’ gatherings should be held at the full moon, which was never suggested to be the practice of any group of heretics.

Rose also asserted that: “The passage relating to the division of the goddess herself into Light and Darkness is plain popular Manichaeism”. The actual lines to which he was referring were: “Diana was the first created before all creation; in her were all things; out of herself, the first darkness, she divided herself; into darkness and light she was divided.” The implication is that light and dark are two aspects of the same thing; this is the very antithesis of Manichaeism, popular or otherwise, the basis of which is that light and darkness are in perpetual warfare. Perhaps the real significance of this passage is that it is obviously a parody of the opening verses of Genesis.

Once Aradia’s influence on Wicca had become apparent, the book was belatedly in demand. In the early 1960s Charles Cardell, whose ‘Dumblecott Magick Productions’ peddled such products as ‘Moon Beauty Balm’, as a sideline reprinted Aradia along with a few other witchcraft texts. But these seem to have been in very small editions, and Robert Mathieson, in his new introduction, admits that: “This reprint is now even more rare than the first edition. I have never seen it, nor do I know of any person or library that owns a copy.”

Yet from 1968 other reprints started to appear, several of which are noted by Mathieson, along with translations into German, Finnish, and Italian (that is back into the original language, only a few actual passages from which were given by Leland). I do not think his list is complete: so far as I can remember, there was an edition in about 1989 by Keith Morgan of Penmaenmawr, North Wales, who was then publishing a series of Wiccan books that were ruined by their poor quality: his Aradia was clumsily retyped, then badly printed in an ugly font. A year or two later his ex-girlfriend Caryl Thompson, who had moved to Essex, responded with an expensive hardback edition of her own, though her introduction did not add much new.

To this edition are appended some thirty pages of ‘Modern Perspectives’ from such individuals as Lori Bruno, “a Hereditary High Priestess and Elder of the Sicilian Strega line of the Craft of the Wise”, Patricia Della-Piana “a strega and a spiritual poet”, and Jimahl di Fiosa, “a respected Elder of the Alexandrian tradition of Witchcraft.” Michael Howard (“an English writer, editor, publisher and historical researcher”) expresses concern about Aradia’s use of the name Lucifer, since although the passages referring to him are brief, and treat him in the ancient tradition as God of Light, he has long since been taken as a form of the devil, which Wiccans are keen to disassociate themselves from, pointing out that their religion is not Satanism but a form of nature worship. What these kind of remarks show is that whether the contents of Aradia are ‘art products’ or ‘folk products’, in any case they are still regarded as important by people in the twenty-first century. -- Gareth J. Medway.

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