Ways of the Strega

a review by Jenny Gibson

Raven Grimassi's _Ways of the Strega_ is an example of how you don't have to be like everybody else to be good.

Raven's account of the Burning Times differs notably from the standard scholarly version. He believes that some Witches were indeed Pagan, people who had worshipped the Goddess Diana for centuries. The Church destroyed organized Paganism in the early Middle Ages. But it was willing to overlook Pagan "superstition" and customs, as long as people paid lip service to Christianity. Then, in the early 14th century, Aradia di Toscano began wandering the countryside, encouraging people to rise up against the Church and embrace the Old Ways. Her sermons were quite effective, and the number of Witches began to rise dramatically. The Church responded harshly, attacking Aradia and her followers. Over the next centuries, hundreds of Italian Witches were killed, but the persecution was never as strong as it was in northern Europe.

Parts of Raven's theory mesh nicely with the academic view of the Burning Times. He does a superb job of demonstrating that the worship of Diana survived until the 16th century. Raven uses genuine medieval documents and good scholarly texts. With these, he constructs a sensible, coherant time-line, which illustrates that throughout the Middle Ages, the Church railed against women and peasants who worshipped Diana. This connects nicely to some 15th century trials against Witches who claimed to belong to the Society of Diana. (These trials, incidentally, are the only ones where I've seen Witches who were openly and defiantly Pagan. One woman from Modena swore at the Inquisitors and told them there was no way they could prevent her from worshipping her Goddess!)

Large sections of Raven's theory are a-historical, however. We have no solid evidence that Aradia di Toscano existed, or that the Burning Times in Italy was directed against an organized religious sect. Raven freely admits that this information comes from his religious tradition. He says his mother was a member of an ancient Italian tradition of Witches, and that this is the lore they teach.

So _The Ways of the Strega_ opens up another can of worms in Pagan history: oral tradition. Many Witches claim they come from family Witch traditions which have preserved oral lore from ages past. How are we, both as Pagans and as historians, to handle this?

I'm not sure, and I'd love to hear other people's opinions.

Originally I took a hard-line scholastic approach: if you can't prove it, it ain't history. Oral tradition is a fancy word for gossip -- it's something that somebody said, and that's no sort of evidence at all. It's too easy to fabricate; there's no way to tell if someone's lying.

As I talked to more traditional Witches, my opinion started to change. Sure, a lot of them were clear fakes or dupes, people who wanted to come from a Witch family so badly that they grossly distorted evidence. One woman had her grandmother's diary, which contained a couple herbal remedies. From these two recipes, she deduced that gram must have been a Witch, part of an ancient tradition stretching back to the Stone Age. On the other hand, many of these Witches seemed 100% honest. They might not have historical evidence to back up their beliefs, but they didn't say anything that directly contradicted history either.

I realized that I was being much harsher on Pagans than on other groups. There are some good reasons for this -- we've had a number of fakes, and a lot of people desperately want a tradition to "validate" their beliefs. Yet much of our information on Native culture and beliefs comes from oral tradition, as does almost all of folklore. If we insisted on historical evidence, neither of these fields of studies would exist.

So today, I take a sort of compromise position. If somebody's oral "tradition" contradicts history, I'll point that out. And I'm certainly not above saying that some -- like Edain McCoy -- are out and out fakes. On the other hand, I'm not going to disparage somebody just because they don't have the kind of evidence I want. If their oral tradition is plausible, I'm willing to accept that it's a possibility.

But I think that oral tradition is a big problem, and will continue to be one -- and I'm not sure how we should handle it.