What better way to spend a rainy afternoon than attend a talk as part of the Unitre (university of the third age) programme. Natalia Sereni, our local historian is well-known for her books on, among other subjects, the Prato Fiorito, Bagni di Lucca’s part in World War One and the entry of Fornoli in the comune.
Sereni’s subject yesterday was ‘Racconti Notturni’ (Tales of the Night). To this day stories are told locally of witches, demons, sorcerers, elves, sibyls and soothsayers. Indeed, Italy today is even fuller of what are generally called superstitions. Horoscopes are eagerly read and broadcast and posters advertising fortune tellers and card-readers drape our town walls. Why should beliefs in magic and witchcraft still be flourishing and expanding in what is supposed to be a rational and scientific age?
The fact is that these beliefs go back an incredibly long way and are rooted in ancient pagan beliefs. Indeed, the word ‘pagan’ comes from the root for ‘village’ and that’s where these beliefs survive to this day. Religion (derived from the Latin ‘religio’ – tying together) systematised and created a hierarchy of these credences with God placed firmly on top of the pyramid.
In post-reformation northern Europe there was no place for magic and witchcraft. Indeed, such practices were actively discouraged by burning perpetrators of anti-religious heresy at the stake. A manual, ‘Malleus Maleficarum’, (the hammer of witches) written by clergyman Heinrich Kramer and published in 1487 and apparently still in use by the church is an excellent guidebook to the discovery of witches and the ways of interrogating them with appropriate punishments and the correct instruments of torture to use.
So it was the Protestants who led the league in the burning of witches, especially during the start of the seventeenth century. Indeed, King James I was a specialist in the subject – no wonder that Shakespeare dedicated ‘Macbeth’ to him. In catholic Italy there was less burning and persecution going on – the last witch was killed off in 1828.
The reason for this is that the Catholic Church used a process of syncretism in which previous pagan beliefs were incorporated into a new scheme approved by the ecclesiastical authorities. Thus, the Earth goddess Diana was incorporated into the Virgin; the attributes of wizards were made part of the characteristics of St John the Baptist and at least one divinity who protected shepherds’ herds and farm animals became St Anthony Abbot (whose ancient statue incidentally graces our local church at San Cassiano).
No wonder so many churches here are built on the foundations of pre-Christian temples and shrines. Recently we visited Tamilnadu in India and were amazed by the fact that the rites carried out in the magnificent temples of that part of the world have remained the same for thousands of years. Even the appearance of an Asian messiah in the form of Gautama did not interrupt rituals of worship but became incorporated within the multiplicity of idols which adorn these religious centres through the process of syncretism.
The multiplicity of saints in the Roman Catholic faith may be regarded as replacements for the many gods, sprites, fauns and deities of ‘pagan’ times. Catholics are in reality, worshipping in a structure which systematises and orders primeval beliefs whose main object was to help people understand the weird world they lived in. Myths and legends are, in fact, narratives which explain why things come to be and are what they are. If one complains saying that science has done away with this sort of ‘magic’ interpretation then think again: there as so many things which happen in one’s life, so many strange coincidences, phenomena, intuitions, singularities, miracles even, which cannot simply be explained by the laws of quantum mechanics or physics or, indeed, any other form of scientific or rational theory.
An aside by Bagni di Lucca’s own Vito, who combines modern medical science with holistic practices and psychoanalysis, was most perceptive, especially when regarding dreams. Vito sees dreams as the only state where mankind experiences complete freedom: in daily life we are obliged to place the chains of social restrain on us. Dreams, therefore, can provide an indication of who we really are and where we are likely to go. The problem, however, is the way we interpret them.
Natalia Sereni finished her perceptive and provoking talk with a quote from Hamlet: ‘There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy’. After all even I have difficulty in explaining that our planet is a globe to a determined believer in flat earth theory. That’s why I’m off to the local wise woman to get some advice on what is the best washing powder I should buy.