Dusio-The Trickster


Catholicism and the Craft

It is the most natural thing in the world that there should be certain blendings, compromises, and points of affinity between the Stregheria-witchcraft, or "old religion," founded on the Etruscan or Roman mythology and rites-and the Roman Catholic: both were based on magic, both used fetishes, amulets, incantations, and had recourse to spirits. In some cases these Christian spirits or saints corresponded with, and were actually derived from, the same source as the heathen. The sorcerers among the Tuscan peasantry were not slow to perceive this.

Charles Leland

Etruscan Roman Remains, 1892

In Italy today, many Catholic traditions have preserved the old Pagan ways. The two most obvious examples are the reverence for Mary (as the "Mother of God"), and the belief in the intercession of saints (a remnant of Pagan worship related to specific spirits who have power over various aspects of life). The Fanarric Witches of northern Italy maintain the belief that the Goddess was the first of all that came to be, and that she created the God. In this sense she can be thought of as the Mother of God. They also believe in a host of various spirits who can be persuaded to assist them in life through the use of offerings, prayers, and spells.

Many modern Strega simply consider Catholics to be Pagans who have accepted the divinity of Jesus. There are some interesting concepts in both the Old and New Testaments that resemble Strega beliefs and may well be the foundation of such an idea. According to the New Testament, the Magi were the first to seek out Jesus after "seeing" his star. Legend claims that the Magi were astrologers and sorcerers, and associates them with the lands of Chaldea, Egypt, and Persia. These are all places that have an occult history dating far back into antiquity. The tale of the Magi recorded in the Book of Matthew seems to indicate that these mystic Pagans were among the first to pay homage to Jesus.

In the Book of Proverbs (chapter 8, verse 2), we find a personage called "Wisdom" conceived of in the form of a female divinity who "stands at the crossroads," a phrase used in ancient times concerning the Witches' goddess. Wisdom speaks of being present both prior to and during the process of Creation. In verse 30 (The Jerusalem Bible) she claims to have been God's assistant during the process of Creation:

I was by his side, a master Craftsman, delighting him day after day, ever at play in his presence, at play everywhere in his world, delighting to be with the sons of men.

In the Book of Wisdom (found only in the Catholic version), Wisdom is praised with these words (chapter 7: 22-27):

For within her is a spirit intelligent, holy ... penetrating all intelligent, pure and most subtle spirits; for Wisdom is quicker to move than any motion; she is so pure, she pervades and permeates all things ... She is a reflection of the eternal light, untarnished mirror of God's active power ... although alone, she can do all; herself unchanging, she makes all things new ...

Connected to this concept of the feminine aspect of Divinity is the word Ruach. In Hebrew, this word is of feminine gender and would properly be defined in the sense of feminine divinity. When we read in the account of Creation (Book of Genesis) that the "spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters," the Hebrew word used here for spirit was Ruach. In the New Testament this has been translated into "Holy Spirit," as in the Trinity concept of "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit." Hebrew mystics of the Kabbalah' considered Ruach to be associated with the element of air, and thus with spirit as well. Among early Kabbalists, the sound of a word denoted its elemental association; soft sounds were associated with air, hard sounds with earth, hissing sounds with fire, and muted sounds with water.

It is not necessary, however, to look to Catholicism in order to find remnants of earlier Pagan worship. Aspects of Stregheria still survive today in both Italy and America, even among those who would not readily identify themselves as being members of La Vecchia Religione. They employ various prayers to a host of saints, lighting candles, and placing assorted objects as required by tradition. Saints such as St. Anthony, St. Jude, St. Anna, and St. Simon have replaced the old Pagan gods, to whom similar prayers and offerings were once made.

Charles Leland, in his book Etruscan Magic & Occult Remedies, records the old connection between Witches and Catholicism, of which he writes:

As for families in which stregheria, or a knowledge of charms, old traditions and songs is preserved, they do not among themselves pretend to be even Christian. That is to say, they maintain outward observances, and bring the children up as Catholics, and "keep in" with the priest, but as the children grow older, if any aptitude is observed in them for sorcery, some old grandmother or aunt takes them in hand, and initiates them into the ancient faith.2

Much of their magick is mixed with Catholic rites and saints, the origins of which date back to ancient times. Certain saints, such as Anthony, Simon, and Elisha, are viewed as demi-gods, and their magickal rites of evocation are performed in cellars.


Perhaps one of the most unlikely remnants of Witchcraft in Catholic Italy is the annual tradition of Befana, the "Good" Witch. On January 6th, children set out stockings to be filled with presents by Befana, a curious tradition to have survived in a Catholic Christian nation. Curious, unless you realize that the Old Religion never totally disappeared in Italy.

The antiquity of the Befana tradition will become clear, and we discover that she may well be a surviving memory of Fauna, a goddess of the Old Religion. In order to fully understand this we will first look at the "modern" Befana. Although rapidly disappearing, the tradition of the Befana and Befano procession is still observed in some Italian cities. Early in the evening people gather together dressed in the scruffiest and oldest clothing possible. Their faces are blackened with charcoal, and pieces of frayed rope serve as imitation hair. La Befana and her husband Befano are dressed in peasant costumes of the Middle Ages; both have humped backs and carry long staffs. Befano does not seem to serve any particular role in the procession, other than as a consort to Befana.

In their homes, meanwhile, children are busy writing their wishes on pieces of paper, which are then placed in the hearth and allowed to float up the chimney. As they do this they chant the following rhyme:

Befana, Befana you are my lady you are my wife Throw something down to me A small orange or a pefaninos or apiece of pecorino.

Pefanino is a small biscuit made in the shape of Befana, and pecorino is a special type of cheese made from goat milk.

La Befana moves through the streets with her husband Befano and her entourage. She is accompanied by a makeshift band of three or four musicians and a live horse. The procession tours the neighborhood, calling out to the children at each house. Here they sing the Befana song, and the Befana dances with Befano:

Upon the mountain the snow is falling And is blown on the wind before And with a light step she descends to us A spirit that is dear to us all A spirit that many here love Who comes every year to find you She has arrived with us "la Befana" Every heart is full of joy From among the valleys, villages and countryside Our Befana has arrived here She has brought a large sackful of presents That she wants to give to you dear children who promise to be good for their mothers and fathers.

The tempo changes at this point and the following verse is repeated twice:

And now you friends that are here We want to sing and dance And a veglione we want to do With the Befana and Befano And we want to salute you all Friends we shall always remain And the Befana before she goes Wishes you all happiness and prosperity.

Having done this, the Befana and the people in her procession are given a glass of wine, some treats, or even a little money from the householder, and then they move on to the next house.

In her book Celebrating Italy, Carol Field tells of Befana and her ancient association to Hecate. Here she writes:

The good and bad sides of the Befana are like the good mother/bad witch of fairy tales, two aspects of a single person. The Befana may bring wonderful presents, but she can also be a grotesque woman with a sinister black face, associated in some accounts with Hecate, Queen of the Night.3

On page 301 of Field's book, there is a reprint of an etching of Befana done by Bartolomeo Pinelli in 1825. In this drawing Befana is seated, surrounded by an abundance of fruits, grains, and other harvest items. In her hand she holds a stalk of fennel, upon which a stocking is suspended. Here she represents the Great Mother amid the fruits of the Earth.

Field recounts a recent experience she had, in which she observed the burning of an effigy of Befana during a New Year's celebration. A procession began at sunset, wandering through the village and up to a site upon a hill, where a pyramid-style stack of corn sheaves, brushwood, and pine branches had been erected. An effigy of Befana was placed on the top of the stack, which was then set on fire by the men of the village. The torching of the stack, and the parade preceding it, is always led by the oldest man of the community. Chestnuts, symbols of fertility, are roasted on the fire. It is said that if the smoke blows to the east, it is an omen of a year of abundance. If it blows to the west, then the crops will be poor. Once the fire has died, people remove the embers and scatter them over the fields that will later be planted. This is very much like the Sacrificial King Mythos (the Slain God).

It is likely that originally Befano was the sacrificed deity, and that in time this was altered to appease the onlooking Christian officials (burning the female Witch was something that the Church would gladly sanction). It is quite interesting to see that these things have been preserved down through the ages, and are still practiced today. The fact that Befana has a male consort, is associated with the Goddess Hecate, with Witches, and with the Harvest Mother confirms the antiquity of contemporary Craft theology. Hecate was the goddess of night, and of magick. Crossroads were sacred to her, and it is interesting to note that spirits called Lare were protectors of the crossroads. Befana brings gifts to the hearths within a family's home. Lare dwelled in or near the family hearth, and it is partly because of the Lare cult within the Old Religion that the Old Ways have been preserved through family lines. The Lare were originally gods of the cultivated field and Befana is shown surrounded by the harvest, another connection of considerable antiquity.

There are two books written in Italian that present the associations of Befana with certain seasonal rites, and reveal her connection to the Goddess in ancient times. The first, The Sacred Day, a Book of Festivals (I1 giorno del Sacro, it libro delle feste) is written by Franco Cardini (professor of history at the University of Florence). This book focuses on festivals and their connections with myth, rituals, and magickal rites. The other book, by Alberto Cattabiani, is titled The Calendar: Festivals, Myths, Legends, and Rites of the Year (Le feste; miti, leggende e i ritti dell `anno). The author of Celebrating Italy draws upon these research texts throughout her book. A wealth of information can be found in these books supporting the survival of pre-Christian cults into modern times.

The worship by Witches of a masculine deity is easily documented. Unfortunately, the Horned God of the Old Religion, as he oversaw the Sabbath rituals, was portrayed as the Devil by the Church. Many engravings and woodcut prints from the Middle Ages portray this Christianized distortion of the seasonal rites. Fortunately, Italian Witches have managed to maintain the presence of the Goddess Diana in the Witch Cult throughout the ages.

It is interesting to note that Jan Ziarnko, in 1612, produced an engraving for the work Tableau de l' inconstance. In this engraving (see Figure 6) he displays a horned entity sitting upon a throne. To its right sits a woman who is labeled in the text as the Queen of the Sabbath. Kneeling before them are worshippers who are presenting a small child. All about, people are involved in dancing and feasting. The fact that people kneel to the throned individuals addresses the issue of worship. The importance of this image is that it shows a male and a female entity overseeing the Sabbath. In the picture, we note that they do not participate as would a High Priest or High Priestess. The Sabbath is being performed for them. This addresses the issue of Deity. Are we seeing Befana and Befano before they were dethroned by the Christian Church?


The ancient seasonal festivals of the old gods still remain in Italy, disguised as days of feast in honor of various Catholic saints. These feast days occur throughout the year, marking the ancient Pagan cycles of growth, decline, and renewal. The cycle of Winter first appears in November and weaves its spell through January as the Earth seems to wane, and seeds lay beneath the ground where they await their rebirth in the Spring. In Italy it is a time when the wheat has been sown and the fruits have been gathered. The harvesting of olives for olive oil is the seasonal labor of November and December. The veil between the world of spirits and humankind grows thin, and tradition says that those who dwell in the Spirit World feel an attraction to the living and return for visitations.

According to Italian tradition, the dead return to the world of the living on the night of November eve, and continue until the second night (three nights in all). In Sicily it is the custom to set an extra place at the table for the return of departed relatives. Sicilian families are also known to set a banquet out before the family tomb as they gather on November 2 to honor the dead.

During the Roman Empire, early Italians associated the fava plant with the dead, due to the single black stain on an otherwise perfect white petal. The Romans served fava beans at funeral banquets, honoring the connection of the dead with the fava plant. This association has remained constant in Italian Witchcraft, and fava bean soup is still a traditional meal served on November eve. A bowl of fava bean soup is placed outdoors as an offering to the spirits at midnight and then buried after sunrise on November 1.

Figure 6 Lord and Lady of the Sabbat

In the tenth century, Christian monks encountered this celebration and were concerned with the problem of what to do with this Pagan tradition. They decided to cook up large batches of fava soup and offer them up for the souls of the dead. Hungry peasants took great delight in the vats of fava bean soup that the monks set out on street corners. The Church allowed this practice to continue because of the conversion opportunities it presented, but it wasn't until the fifteenth century that the Church officially claimed the day of celebration, calling it Ognissanti, or All Souls' Day.

In modern Italy, celebrants still eat festival treats called ossi da morto (bones of the dead) and fave dei morte (fava of the dead), which are sweets similar to cookies, but fashioned in the shape of skeletons and fava beans. In Sicily, special ritual breads are made in the form of a corpse laid to rest, along with figures made of sugar in the shape of traditional heroes and characters from Italy's past.

As winter approaches in December, the old gods make their appearance in the form of various saints now associated with the holiday season in Italy. December 13 is the festival of Santa Lucia and is marked by Pagan customs that include the observation of omens predicting the weather for the outcome of the next year's crops. Santa Lucia, or Saint Lucy, was born in Sicily in the second century A.D. and was a Christian martyr, according to inscriptions found in Syracuse (Sicily) dating from the third/fourth century A.D. In northern Europe, the Italian figure of Lucia is pictured with blond hair and wears a crown of candles upon her head-interesting how images are altered by culture. In Italy, Santa Lucia is actually a Christianized goddess dating back to early Roman times, when she was called Lucina, the Goddess of Light.

December ends with the theme of birth, whether in the image of the Son of God or the Sun God. January begins the closing of the Winter cycle and introduces the curious figure of Befana, the Good Witch. On the night of January 5, Italian children hang stockings to be filled by Befana, in much the same manner as is associated with the Santa Claus custom. Games such as tombola are still played during the holidays-this is a game that dates back to the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia. Neapolitans wrap dried figs in laurel leaves and exchange them at New Year's, a custom going back to Roman times, when friends gave jars of dates and figs filled with honey and a bay leaf, meant to assure good fortune for the coming season. These are just a few of the many surviving Pagan traditions that are still alive in Italy today.

In her book Celebrating Italy, author Carol Field writes of January:

Later on January 17, for the feast of Sant'Antonio Abate, when a pig is slaughtered, people eat dried chestnuts, invoking fertility at the precise time the greatest source of plenty has been slaughtered. Whoever finds the black bean cooked into a sweet focaccia becomes King of Epiphany and although he is destined to be dethroned, he no longer meets the fate of the King of the Wood, who was sacrificed in the forest.

In early Roman times, whoever received a fava bean inside one of the ritual cakes was made master of the Saturnalia revels. As late as the fourteenth century, the custom (although altered by Christianity) was still practiced at this seasonal festival, which by then had been changed to the festival of Epiphany. Curiously, however, the name of the festival was Festa del Re (the Festival of the King), which retained the earlier Pagan meaning.

Catholic Monks with the Scrolls ofAradia

Another custom of this festival still observed in Italy today is when lots are drawn for pieces of the festival cake. Whoever finds a black bean in his slice is proclaimed king of the banquet and must choose a queen to rule with him over the festivities. Families still purchase a focaccia cake to be left near the fireplace for Befana at the time of Epiphany (Befana will be burned in effigy at the end of the season). Unfortunately, these old customs are beginning to disappear as the upcoming generation seems to not share a love of the Old World Traditions.

The last festival of January is the festival of Saint Anthony, the patron saint of animals. In the old days he was the god of the forest. His festival day falls on January 17, which in Italy is "the brief moment between the end of the old year and the sowing of seeds for the new." In the timing of his festival, we see that he is associated with a time when hunting was more important than agriculture, when the stag god was the King of the Woods, before he became the Harvest Lord. On this feast day, people take their animals to church to be blessed. The festival of Saint Anthony is followed by the last rite of winter, known popularly as Candelora (February 2), and known by Italian Witches as Lupercus. So ends the cycle of Winter, as it passes on its way toward the Spring.

Wrapped safely in the Roman Catholic celebrations of modern Italy lay the Pagan traditions that have connected humankind with the cycles of Nature since the time of our beginning. In most cases, only the names of the old gods have been changed to those of saints. Yet among the small isolated covens of hereditary Witch families, and the solitary Witches of remote Italian villages, the Old Religion remains unbroken, still clinging fragilely to the present. Perhaps in the Spring someone will plant a few more seeds and the Old Religion will continue to bear fruit into the future.


1. An ancient mystical Hebrew system that was designed to explore and explain the nature of divinity and the occult universe.

2. Etruscan Magic & Occult Remedies, page 237.

3. Celebrating Italy, page 299. William Morrow & Co., 1990.

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