Aradia or The Gospel of the Witches - Books of Magic and Witchcraft

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Aradia or The Gospel of the Witches
Books of Magic and Witchcraft

Although Aradia or The Gospel of the Witches is a relatively modern book devoted to magic and witchcraft, it is surrounded by an aura of mystery and controversy as powerful as that of any medieval grimoire.

Charles Godfrey Leland (August 15, 1824—March 20, 1903), who is credited as Aradia’s author, was an American folklorist, author, and journalist, and a respected authority on magic and witchcraft. A wealthy, cultured, well-traveled man, he went to Italy where he employed fortune-tellers and witches to serve as sources and teach him about their traditions. Leland came to believe that Italian witchcraft was deeply rooted in ancient Etruscan and Roman traditions. When he heard rumours about a mysterious manuscript setting forth the ancient doctrines of Italian witchcraft, Leland was determined to obtain it.

Among his sources was a fortune-teller named Maddelena whom he allegedly met in 1886 when he began employing her as a source. He nagged her to help him find this manuscript and, eventually, apparently she did. (How much he pressured her is subject to debate. Leland paid his sources; whether what they told him and brought him was true or was intended to please a wealthy patron is also subject to debate.)

Maddelena brought Leland the manuscript that would serve as the basis for Aradia or The Gospel of the Witches on New Year’s Day, 1897. It was not an ancient manuscript. An older version (or any other version) of Aradia has never been found. Nor did Maddelena bring him the original but had copied it in her own hand, similar to the tradition of Books of Shadows and of medieval grimoires. Leland himself confessed that he did not know how much of Maddelena’s handwritten manuscript was copied from another book and how much was based on oral traditions.

Having delivered the manuscript, Maddelena disappeared. Leland never saw her again, nor was he ever able to produce her in order to verify his story. He translated the Italian manuscript. Aradia is mainly devoted to the deity Diana, Queen of the Witches. It describes a version of her mythology and also includes a compendium of charms, spells, incantations, rituals, and folk magic. Leland added a commentary and published the work in London in 1899. (The part that he claims is derived from Maddelena’s manuscript is in Italian with an English translation; Leland’s own additions are solely in English.)

The tale Leland recounts of how Aradia came to be published is not dissimilar from the backstory explaining the existence of many medieval grimoires: the gist of the story is inevitably that a magical adept delivers a manuscript to someone and then disappears, leaving that person to present the manuscript to the world. However, Leland was no medieval sorcerer but a preeminent folklorist operating, theoretically at least, under the guise of science and anthropology, and so his book was held to a higher standard than that of the grimoires. Bitter arguments immediately sprang up regarding whether the manuscript is really a copy of an ancient book or whether it simply purports to be. Although there is no proof that Aradia is based on an ancient manuscript, neither is there any proof that it isn’t.

How much of it is historically verifiable and how much is “made up”? Since its publication, Aradia or The Gospel of the Witches has stimulated tremendous debate as to its true origins.

There are four possibilities:

1. Maddelena genuinely copied an ancient manuscript.

2. Maddelena wrote the book herself, perhaps based on her own family and personal traditions.

3. Leland made up the story about Maddelena and actually wrote the book himself.

4. Some or all of the above are true.

Because Aradia or The Gospel of the Witches would eventually exert tremendous influence on Gerald Gardner and Doreen Valiente and become incorporated into their vision of modern Wicca (most significantly the foundation of The Charge of the Goddess, among the most beloved Wiccan rituals, lies within Aradia), this debate regarding the book’s origins has never gone away but remains fervent and perhaps even more passionate now then when it was first published over 100 years ago.

Aradia is a complicated, complex book even as to how it should be categorized. It is somewhat unique, falling midway between a witch’s Book of Shadows and a medieval grimoire. Whoever did compose the book was familiar with both those magical literary genres. However, the book identifies itself as a vangelo or a gospel; Aradia or The Gospel of the Witches consciously intends to serve as a testament to Diana in the manner that the New Testament gospels serve as a testament to Christ.

Aradia or The Gospel of the Witches explicitly states that devotion to the Madonna, particularly when she is visualized with the crescent moon, masks forbidden devotions to Diana.

In the context of medieval grimoires, Aradia or The Gospel of the Witches is radical because the focus is on powerful female deities (and Diana is clearly a goddess, not a demon) and because most of it is clearly intended for use primarily by women. There is no pretense toward containing hidden teachings from ancient Egypt or secret writings authored by prophets, kings or popes. Instead this is a text of witchcraft ostensibly created by witches for other witches, and humble ones at that. Simple if potentially powerful folk magic spells, the “Conjuration of the Lemon and Pins” for instance, are included that, one imagines, would have bored Dr Faust-style magicians with loftier pretensions.

However, Aradia is more than just a collection of folk magic and ritual. The book includes Leland’s personal definitions of witches and witchcraft:

…in Italy great numbers of strege, fortunetellers or witches, who divine by cards, perform strange ceremonies in which spirits are supposed to be invoked, make and sell amulets, and, in fact, comport themselves generally as their reputed kind are wont to do, be they Black Voodoos in America or sorceresses anywhere.

Leland understands Italian witchcraft (stregheria) to be the joint product of hereditary witches and those who over the centuries, for one reason or another, joined forces with those witches: “the witches of old were people oppressed by feudal lands [sic] …holding orgies to Diana which the Church represented as being the worship of Satan,” as well as a “vast development of rebels, outcasts, and all the discontented, who adopted witchcraft or sorcery for a religion” who held “secret meetings in desert places, among old ruins accursed by priests as the haunt of evil spirits or ancient heathen gods, or in the mountains.”

In Aradia or The Gospel of the Witches, Diana is described as the first of all spiritual entities. Reminiscent of the Pelasgian creation tale retold in ANIMALS: Snakes, Diana first begets Lucifer (who may or may not be that Lucifer). Vain, proud, and arrogant, Lucifer rejects Diana’s advances but she outsmarts him by resorting to witchcraft, shape-shifting into the form of a black cat, and so is able to conceive their daughter Aradia (Herodias), identified as the female Messiah, the first true witch.

Aradia contains no demonology comparable to medieval grimoires; the deities are treated respectfully. Aradia contains no commanding and compelling rituals equivalent to medieval grimoires but does share some themes in common with standard sorcerers’ grimoires—most jarringly (to modern ears and in a book largely devoted to women’s magic) a spell intended for use by a wizard desiring the love of woman.

He is encouraged to transform her into a dog, Diana’s sacred creature, in which form she will be compelled to come to him whenever he wishes. He can then transform her back into female shape and have his way with her. She will remember nothing of the experience, it will seem like a dream. This is essentially the wizard’s equivalent of a magical date-rape drug.

The image of women transformed into dogs is very powerful, however. Diana’s votive imagery almost always depicts her accompanied by hounds; the implication contained in Aradia is that these hounds are transformed devotees, witches accompanying their goddess in disguise, and recalls that the slur “son of a bitch” was once intended to insinuate that a man’s mother was a witch and hence sexually autonomous (or promiscuous depending upon perception), and that his father’s true identity might thus be suspect.

See also Books of Shadows; ANIMALS: Dogs; Snakes; DIVINE WITCH: Aradia; Diana; Herodias; HALL OF FAME: Gerald Gardner; Charles Godfrey Leland; Doreen Valiente.