Mythical Goddess Tarot: Mary
(This interview with antropologist and pagan Sabina Magliocco was published in my newsletter before 2012. It is still valid today as we navigate the fifth world.)
What is Stregoneria?
“Stregoneria” simply means “the practice of witchcraft or sorcery” in Italian. Today, it’s used by some Neo-Pagan practitioners to distinguish their form of Italian American folk revival from others (e.g. “Stregheria,” a term used by author Raven Grimassi for his own brand of Italian American Witchcraft.
How were you introduced to Italian folk healing and Stregoneria?
I first became familiar with Italian folk healing when I did fieldwork in Sardinia in the mid-1980s. There were several local healers; some healed with herbs, while others said charms or prayers.
I came to know about Stregoneria from online sources within the last several years.
Who practices this tradition in Italy? Are there American practitioners?
Vernacular of folk healing is still widely practiced in Italy, especially in small, face-to-face rural communities. Practitioners include both women and men. There are also urban practitioners with large clienteles, although these healers are more often male and may mix other esoteric practices, such as tarot card reading and New Age healing, with traditional techniques.
Italian immigrants brought these practices with them to the United States when they came in large numbers between 1890 and 1920. Data from folklore archives around the country show that some of these practices survived in the United States. However, under the pressure of urbanization, displacement from the rural landscape and year cycle, and the influence of American dominant cultural forms, most of these practices went underground and eventually ceased when their practitioners died. Today, the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of these practitioners are reclaiming some of these practices in a modern context.
How do these healers receive their “calling”?
The stories vary according to the particular healer and the regional tradition; there is no single method. The majority inherit their practice from a relative, often a mother or grandmother; sometimes an opposite-sex relative. Others get the “call” directly from a saint; one woman in Castellammare di Stabia reported to an ethnographer that St. Rita called her, causing her to faint, and during her syncope touched her on the mouth, conferring healing powers.
What role do the Virgin Mary, Jesus, or Catholic saints play in a healer’s initiation?
The Virgin Mary and the saints are central to Italian folk healing, because in most cases the power to heal is thought to come directly from them. Of course, saints are popularly believed to be able to cause illness as well as heal it – for example, St. Paul of Galatina is associated with the folk illness of tarantismo, the bite of a metaphorical spider. He can cure the illness if the afflicted dance before his church on his feast day, the 29th of June, each year.
Do healers visit places in nature to receive spiritual power?
Some cures are indeed associated with particular places in the landscape, e.g. specific trees, springs or rocks. But the healers I know would probably not say that they visit these natural places to receive spiritual power; they would say that in order to cure l’arlia, the afflicted woman or girl needs to go to a particular tree on a particular path, where prayers will be said and offerings made to Santa Liberata, who will free her from the illness.
Have you ever witnessed a healing or divination performed by a trance-healer?
I’ve seen both healing and divination, but not with trance. In the first case, I was able to watch a woman and her brothers heal neonatal hernia on the eve of the Feast of St. John the Baptist (June 23) in Thiesi, Sardinia in 1986. The family are keepers of a small chapel to the saint on the outskirts of town. On the appointed day, mothers would come from all over the surrounding area to bring their babies who suffered from this common phenomenon. While it can easily be fixed surgically, and often resolves on its own, many mothers were wary of having their children go under the knife, and preferred a more traditional approach. The cure consisted of making a long vertical cut in the branch of a fig tree, then passing the child three times through the opening, while reciting prayers to St. John. Afterwards, the opening would be wrapped in burlap and tied up; according to belief, when the cut healed, the child’s hernia would also resolve.
I’ve also witnessed – and received – the removal of the evil eye.
Are stones or crystals ever used to diagnose an illness?
I have not see this done, but it doesn’t mean it’s never practiced. In fact certain kinds of stones were thought to help heal certain conditions: for example, bloodstone (hematite) was said to be able to stop the flow of blood, while geodes containing small mineral particles were called pietre della gravidanza (pregnancy stones) and were believed to be useful in preventing miscarriage.
Do Italian healers work with herbs?
Yes, this is a very common practice.
What are the most helpful and powerful plants in this tradition?
The herbs used vary depending on the kinds of plants present in the region, as Italy includes many different types of environments. One of the most commonly used is rue (ruta graveolans); it is believed to be effective in preventing the evil eye as well as numerous other ailments. Other plants that are commonly used in a variety of environments include chamomile (camomilla), St. John’s Wort (hypericum), fig (ficus) and the various mints (menta piperita & spicata).
Do Italian healers believe that plants have spirits? Are spiritual forces connected to healing plants?
I have not heard or read of this belief, but it is not inconceivable that some healers believe it. However, healing of all kinds has a spiritual or religious component. Often, herbal healing is combined with prayers and devotions in rituals that have both a physical and a spiritual component.
Are herbs ever used in divination rituals?
Plants can indeed be used in divination rituals. In Sardinia, I have seen wheat kernels used in a rite to divine the presence of the evil eye. The healer drops them into holy water while reciting a charm; if a bubble forms around the kernels, then the ailment is present. There is also an Appenine love divination that uses fern leaves.
Do healers in Sardinia have a connection to “Dea Madre”?
The Sardinian healers that I have interviewed don’t have a concept of a “Dea Madre,” but all are extremely devoted to the Virgin Mary, whom many scholars believe to embody qualities of earlier goddesses.
Are there healing or divination rituals that are performed for the entire community?
Historically, there have been few instances of group healings – for example, the large public performances of the tarantate at the church of St. Paul in Galatina on June 29 – but these are exceptions rather than the rule. Most healings and divinations are performed privately between the healer and her/his client.
What is the most important thing you have learned from your contact with this tradition?
For me, it’s been a revelation that folk healing continues to be a part of so many people’s lives, and that concepts of health are much more complex than simply physical well-being. I’ve also been fascinated to learn about the important connection between the saints and the cause/ cure of illness; this is clearly a vernacular understanding of how the world works, one not based on liturgical concepts. It’s also been a privilege knowing the healers who shared their stories and practices with me.
Thank you for sharing your knowledge with us. How can we find out more about your work?
I’m working on a book and educational DVD about vernacular healing and magic in Italy and in the Italian communities of the eastern US, but my administrative responsibilities are keeping me pretty busy these days. Once I am no longer department chair, I hope to be able to obtain funding that would allow me to complete this project. So far, I’ve published two articles on my preliminary findings; they are:
“In Search of the Roots of Stregheria: Observations on the History of a Reclaimed Tradition,” in Speaking Memory: Oral History, Oral Culture and Italians in America, ed. Luisa Del Giudice; 165-182. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.
|“Italian Cunning Craft: Some Preliminary Observations,” Journal for the Academic Study of Magic 5 (2008), 103-133.