A Spell of Astral Travel in the Italian Tradition

Italian traditional witchcraft, la stregheria, is an amalgamation of centuries of influence from all corners of the Mediterranean. By the Middle Ages, it had been re-planted in the Christian tradition. But its roots are massively ancient–built upon the remnants of the old religio romana, and infused during the days of the empire with elements from Grecian and Egyptian magical systems. I recently came across this clandestine rite intended to transport the magical practitioner to the Italian city of Benevento, known since the 13th century as an infamous gathering place for witches sabbats.

Witches’ Sabbath, Francisco Goya (1798)

As in other traditions, the crossroads is a typical place where the magician may encounter spirits with whom to do their working. Here he would place offerings to the dead and to the goddess Hecate. Mulled wine and grain, and the meat of a pig respectively. Once offered, the magician summons the goddess and asks that a portal be opened allowing passage between the worlds.
On the ground, he marks out a five-pointed star facing Westward. At each point placing a lit candle, and a skeleton key at the center. Gazing at the key unto the point of trance, gently he blows across each flame three times saying:

Sotto aero e sopra vento
Sotto acqua e sotto vento
Menami la noce Benevento

Then he immediately picks up the key in his left hand, closing his eyes and slowly exhaling. While exhaling, he imagines the star opening as a doorway, allowing himself to enter into and move through the portal. The magician finds himself surrounded by the stars of the night sky, moving through them and flying over the land, the sea and the mountains. He finds a clearing lit by torches, and, exhaling, descends himself to rest near the walnut tree at Benevento. This is the gathering place of the witches who have come to feast and revel with the gods.
The magician, visualizing, sees a banquet table filled with food. Others come to join him. He continues feasting, making merry and observing all the goings-on around him. As torches process away, he sees in the distance an ornate throne sitting at the base of the walnut tree. Upon the throne is seated the Great Sabbatic Goat, the Horned One. The crown of his head is lit with a torch, and this is flanked by two great horns. This is the Lord of Nature, Pan himself. The banqueters gather around the one enthroned to dance, their vigor inflamed by the wine and food. The magician moves himself about, all the while dancing and watching around him as the dancing turns into a Bacchic frenzy.
Suddenly the magician sees a person standing behind the Black Goat, offering a fig to eat. This fig is the symbol of these hidden mysteries. He takes it and eats it, the culmination of this strange communion.

Description de L’Assemblee des Sorciers qu’on Appelle Sabbat (1735)

When he has decided the time has come to leave, the magician summons his five-pointed star portal again, and pronounces his enchantment to return:

Sotto aero e sopra vento
Sotto acqua e sotto vento
Portami via da Benevento

Again he perceives the opening of the stellar portal, and, slowly inhaling and lifting his arms aloft, is surrounded by the stars of night, his soul flying swiftly through the air and over the world below. Finally exhaling, his arms slowly lowered to the ground, he opens his eyes to his return back the crossroads from whence he first departed.

“To journey to the walnut tree is to awaken the Primal Conscious, through which the ancient forms reconnect. It is a return to the Old Ones known to our ancestors before the world was reshaped by human minds. In ancient times, the serpent was venerated at the site of the tree. The serpent has always been the revealer of truth, the enlightener, and the guardian of the seed of light. The seed that lies under the protection of the serpent gives way to the grand harvest. Thus are the cakes and wine featured at the Sabbat banquet. For it is here that one comes to know that within, which is of the eternal Gods.” – From To Fly By Night, The Craft of the Hedgewitch

Il Trionfo della Morte – Francesco Traini, C. XIV

Facsimile of a fresco by Traini, exposed to nature for centuries but severely damaged in WWII,  located in Camposanto, Pisa.

“A scroll warns that ‘no shield of wisdom or riches, nobility or prowess’ can protect them from the blows of the Approaching One. ‘They have taken more pleasure in the world than in things of God.’ In a heap of corpses nearby lie crowned rulers, a Pope in tiara, a knight, tumbled together with the bodies of the poor, while angels and devils in the sky contend for the miniature naked figures that represent their souls.”
-Barbara Tuckman, The Black Plague

Detailed 14th Century Illumination of Dante

Priamo della Quercia (active 1426-1467) masterfully illuminated these miniature scenes of Inferno and Purgatorio only a century after Dante’s time. Together with illuminations by Giovanni di Paolo, this Yates-Thompson manuscript contains 110 miniatures in brilliant pinks, blues, greens and gold.






More found at the British Library

Virgo, Isis, Mighty Mother

Roman statue of Isis, 2nd century

Hail Isis, representative of all motherhood, new life, and goddess of magic and wisdom!

Apuleius, Prayer to Isis, Metamorphoses,  lib XI cap XXV

O holy and blessed dame, the perpetual comfort of human kind, who by Thy bounty and grace nourishes all the world, and bearest a great affection to the adversitities of the miserable as a loving mother, Thou takest no rest night or day, neither art Thou idle at any time in giving benefits and succouring all men as well on land as sea; Thou art she that puttest away all all storms and dangers from men’s life by stretching forth Thy right hand, whereby likewise Thou dost unweave even the inextricable and tangled web of fate, and appeases the great tempests of fortune, and keepest back the harmful course of the stars. The gods supernal do honour Thee; the gods infernal have Thee in reverence; Thou dost make all the earth to turn, Thou givest light to the sun, Though governest the world, Thou treadest down the power of hell. By Thy mean the stars give answer, the seasons return, the gods rejoice, the elements serve: at Thy commandment the winds do blow, the clouds nourish the earth, the seeds prosper, and the fruits do grow. The birds of the air, the beasts of the hill, the serpents of the den, and the fishes of the sea do tremble at Thy majesty: by my spirit is not able to give Thee sufficient praise, my patrimony is unable to satisfy Thy sacrifices; my voice hath no power to utter that which I think of Thy majesty, no, not if I had a thousand mouths and so many tongues and were able to continue forever. Howbeit as a good religious person, and according to my poor estate, I will do what I may: I will always keep Thy divine appearance in remembrance, and close the imagination of Thy most holy godhead within my breast.

Tu quidem sancta et humani generis sospitatrix perpetua, semper fovendis mortalibus munifica, dulcem matris adfectationem miserorum casibus tribuis. Nec dies nec quies nulla ac ne momentum quidem tenue tuis transcurrit beneficiis otiosum, quin mari terraque protegas homines et depulsis vitae procellis salutarem porrigas dexteram, qua fatorum etiam inextricabiliter contorta retractas licia et Fortunae tempestates mitigas et stellarum noxios meatus cohibes. Te superi colunt, observant inferi, tu rotas orbem, luminas solem, regis mundum, calcas tartarum. Tibi respondent sidera, redeunt tempora, gaudent numina, serviunt elementa. Tuo nutu spirant flamina, nutriunt nubila, germinant semina, crescunt germina. Tuam maiestatem perhorrescunt aves caelo meantes, ferae montibus errantes, serpentes solo latentes, beluae ponto natantes. At ego referendis laudibus tuis exilis ingenio et adhibendis sacrificiis tenuis patrimonio; nec mihi vocis ubertas ad dicenda, quae de tua maiestate sentio, sufficit nec ora mille linguaeque totidem vel indefessi sermonis aeterna series. Ergo quod solum potest religiosus quidem, sed pauper alioquin, efficere curabo: divinos tuos vultus numenque sanctissimum intra pectoris mei secreta conditum perpetuo custodiens imaginabor.

Hijacking Satan, Church Propaganda in Medieval Florence

In the magnificent baptistery of the Duomo of Florence, there is a master work of the Infernal Majesty of Satan and the fallen angels, eagerly munching the tenderest parts of the damned. This may be one of the earliest artistic versions of Satan as the Pan-like devil we know Him as today.

This, and Marcovaldo’s other 13th century works incorporate a blend of Byzantine and Romanesque styles, popular in Tuscany in the time. But this image of Satan is something quite new, though old. These devils are a frightening hybrid of the Satyr and a more ancient god in Tuscany, Fufluns.

These pagan deities, whose domains were merriment, orgiastic revelries and having a good time in general, are now demonized to represent the downfall of sinners, and the mysterious fits of ecstasy of the Cult of Dionysis, only known by this time in rumors or works of Greek tragedy like Euripedes’ Bacchae, were now the Church’s tool of the imagination, used to keep the masses scared and afraid, and so obedient.

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