Aradia or the Gospel of the Witches

Charles G. Leland. Trans. Mario Pazzaglini and Dina Pazzaglini. Blaine, WA: Phoenix Publishing, 1998.

Reviewed by Jan Stryz, Michigan State University, Department of English

This new translation marks the hundred-year anniversary of an obscure work of Northern Italian folklore, written in 1897 and first published in London in 1899. The Pazzaglinis' resurrection of the text attempts to correct errors made in the original translation, and with the help of essays by contributors who also have examined the original manuscript and other documents relating to its author and to the practice of witchcraft, to place the significance of Aradia. The background material provided carefully circumscribes the broad claim suggested by the book's subtitle. There is no "gospel of the witches," as the phrase itself implies a strict, centralized scriptural authority to which a localized oral tradition would not subscribe. Rather, the book offers a selection of chants and tales supplied wholly or at least primarily by an informant Leland identifies as Maddelena. The separate essays by Robert Mathiesen, a medieval philologist at Brown University, and by Chas S. Clifton address doubts regarding Maddelena's existence. While establishing that Leland did not fabricate this material, both Mathiesen and Mario Pazzaglini point out problems regarding the text's compilation. It is uncertain whether Maddelena drew from written texts, or transcribed oral material herself, though the latter seems more probable. Further, only a few of the chapters included actually comprise the central written text which Maddelena purportedly sent Leland. (The original text sent by Maddelena has been lost, but Leland's transcription of the Italian remains.) By his own admission, Leland included material collected at other times that he thought seemed relevant, and he might not have accurately recorded all the oral material he gathered himself, as his mastery of the varied dialects was not complete. An amateur folklorist swept up with the romance of a culture he perceived as passing, Leland wove comments of his own into the text and cleaned up verses to make them more palatable to a Victorian audience. Aradia bears the personal stamp of both Maddelena and Leland (whose colorful character is outlined in the introductory material), and as a collection and synthesis of various

fragments, Mathiesen points out that it should not be seen as representative of Northern Italian Wiccan practice. While it should not be taken to represent the whole, Pazziglini and Mathiesen establish its authenticity as a piece of a local Italian culture.

The historic and social significance of the piece has several facets. Contributors to the volume concur with Leland that the stories and practices may have elements of Etruscan Roman culture, though on that point the text provides an invitation for further investigation rather than a definitive answer. The material does provide evidence of a "counter-religion" formed in opposition to the combined oppressiveness of the Church and the moneyed class. A brief, roughly sketched mythology tells of an alternate savior: Aradia (or Herodias), who is the daughter of the goddess Diana, and her brother the Sun or Lucifer. Diana decreed that Aradia should go to earth and teach witchcraft to the oppressed, so that they could "poison all who are great Lords . . . ruin [the] harvest" of rich and greedy peasants, and to the priest who would harm them with benedictions to "do him (always) a double harm" (270). Upon her departure from earth, Aradia promises that if her pupils gather in a lonely place once a month, when the moon is full, "And adore the powerful spirit / Of my mother Diana" that her mother would teach them witchcraft, and thereby make them "free from bondage" (271). The figure of Aradia, along with her charge to gather and worship the goddess, were imported into modern witchcraft with the 1949 publication of Gerald Gardner's highly influential "Wiccan textbook," Book of Shadows.

The Clifton essay traces the influence of Aradia on the contemporary forms of the craft, noting that the Wiccan writer responsible for bringing out the 1968 reprint of the book, Raymond Buckland, commented on his discomfort with "the 'vengeful' aspects of Tuscan witchcraft depicted in Aradia." But he added that he believed the book was important because it "seemed to show that there was some sort of continuity, that there was some sort of existence of the craft in Italy, whether or not it was the Craft as I had come to know it" (75). Clifton adds the argument of one contemporary witch that the defiant quality of Aradiawhich includes supplicant threats to the

goddess should she fail to grant a wish balances out what she says the American Craft has done to Diana:"Disneyfied [her]pulled her teeth, turned her from the powerful and omniscient Goddess into the benevolent Good Mother. Very few Witches [are] willing to take the risk of arguing with Her, let alone threatening Her" (76).

Indeed, Clifton notes that Aradia has not been popular among modern witches, and that one of the quarrels raised with the book's authenticity concerns the threats contained in invocations. (Though these might not sit well with contemporary American practitioners, such threats can be found in petitions to old pagan deities as well as in petitions to Christian saints, whose statues even now are sometimes buried and only unearthed when the petition is fulfilled). Leland characterizes adherents of witchcraft as rebels and outcasts who emerged in response to the tyranny of early Christian times, which explains the text's defiant edge. Interestingly, two of the modern defenders of Aradia cited by Clifton speak of discovering and being inspired by the book as teenagers. In her privately published Hippie Commie Beatnik Witches: A History of the Craft in California, 1967-77, Aidan Kelly wrote: "'Here were people who had believed that sex is good, as I did, and who had been oppressed by the Church for it, far worse than I had been . . . . Since I felt utterly isolated from the rest of humanity - such was the typical state of bright teenagers in the 1950s - it was a source of some moral support to know there had been others in the world who had opposed the Church, and for good reason.'" Similarly, Gwyneth Cathyl-Harrow told Clifton, "'When I first read Leland's Aradia, I was fifteen years of age, a very unhappy teenager in a desperate phase of life, and Aradia was the only written source of advice on what Witches actually did . . .'" (62). If deep discontent and chafing under the strictures of authority are common among those drawn to such material as found in this book, its rituals and chants seem to promise a remedy.

Clifton says that as a college student who had sampled from all the lectures of passing spiritual teachers, his own first encounter with the book puzzled him. He was not aware at the time that "there might exist a Western path of transformation rather than transcendence" (63). His application of the phrase "path of

transformation" provides an interesting approach to the book. Pazzaglini's discussion of the assumptions and practices underlying the magical world-view of Northern Italian believers in "the old religion" suggests how this text might be seen as belonging to a "path": "Everything is alive and everything fits causally into everything else . . . . Volition is the primary tool of action in this causal net. Magical practices are techniques for formulating and directing volition onto a specific target for a particular desired result" (100). He claims that mothers teach their children to focus attention and block out the external world through the repetition of chants. Unfortunately, no evidence is offered to support the suggestion that nonsense rimes and "many such devices" are used for training in "the magical use of the will" (101). Yet the central role of the will is made clear in the text when threats to a deity turn what begins as a prayer into a command.

Further examination of the main text shows that the primary transformation is always effected on the outside world, never on the inner self. The world becomes plastic, malleable to the most personal wishes of the practitioner, so that the self becomes enthroned. One striking example of how the self is insulated with its desires intact can be seen in Leland's condensation of a legend he received in manuscript, concerning a beautiful girl who refuses to marry her betrothed because their poverty prevents them from having the opulent wedding she envisions. Mocked for this, she attempts suicide by flinging herself from a tower, but the intervention of a beautiful, unearthly woman leaves her unharmed. Following the instructions of this lady to obtain her desires by worshipping the moon, she awakens to find herself in a great house, and is gorgeously attired by a maid, and attended by ten elegant women to a church where she has a grander wedding than she had even imagined, after which the whole town is treated to a feast. In another incredible example of metamorphosis serving wish-fulfillment, a wizard who cannot win the daughter of a rich lord through normal means conjures Diana and Aradia to turn the girl into a dog at night, so that she can leave her house undetected. He instructs them to bring her to his bed, and transform her back into a beautiful girl. After he has had his fill of love-making with

her, he tells the goddesses to transform her again into a dog and send her back to her bed, from where she will awaken as normal with only a dreamlike remembrance of the incident.

Other spells address more practical concerns, including one to insure a good grape harvest yielding a wine that will not spoil. This begins with drinking the "blood" of Diana, which the supplicant says must change to wine. Leland includes a few comments relating to antique elements of this invocation. One chant invokes help in finding a rare book at a bargain pricewhich seems it might be an uncommon sort of need in a peasant culture steeped in oral tradition. Here Leland reveals his own involvement in his researches, for he tells us he obtained it "after some delay" in response to his specific request. One exception to the pattern of simple wish-fullfilment is a story included in the Appendix, in which a young man who invokes the help of Diana's children, the fairies, initially enjoys financial prosperity, but then his finances take a turn for the worse. The fairies tell him, in response to his query, that he cannot depend on good fortune alone, but must himself work and save to enjoy a consistent profit. Here, as in other examples, the energies of the supernatural are directed toward affairs of the mundane world, but with the qualification that these energies alone will not suffice.

If the world of Aradia sets itself against established social authority, it turns to supernatural authority to override both it and any other worldly or natural forces. And while at times the supplicant may look with loving eyes to the benevolent parental deity, worship turns to wrath if the deity fails to fulfill the role of indulgent parent. It is no wonder, then, that Aradia would appeal to teenage girls, for it presents a landscape where adolescent fantasies can be fulfilled. The bad parent is replaced with a good parent, who actually becomes the servant of the witch. Authority is not abolished, but transferred to a self that occupies the center of its world.

The Pazzaglinis who re-translated the Italian portion of Leland's text are a mother and son with Northern Italian roots. Dina Pazzaglini is well acquainted with standard Italian and with the complicated

dialects of the region from which Leland gathered his material. Their inclusion of Leland's original translation, their own translation, and a line-by-line comparison of the original Italian with their English version allows the interested scholar to study linguistic aspects of the text in detail. The book is not geared to an exclusively scholarly audience, however, and some of the contributers are identified as practicing Wiccans. On the whole, contributers offer a variety of perspectives and give a balanced treatment of the text. This new edition of Aradia should prove useful both to scholars and to those with a more general interest in the history of witchcraft.