On December 10, 2016, the medieval mountaintop village of Triora celebrated the inaugural opening of its new Museum dedicated to the “City of Witches of the North,” in the historical Palazzo Stella. Called, MES: Museo Etnostorico della stregoneria, the Museum’s name translates to: The Ethnohistoric Museum of Witchcraft.
I spoke with the museum’s Science Director, Roman author Paolo Portone, about his involvement and what the museum has to offer. Beyond his work with the Museum, Portone has a vast source of articles he’s written available on his website on the topics of witchcraft, the witch hunts, and more, all from an historical perspective. Some are translated in English. He is pictured below in the Museum: www.paoloportone.it
But first, a little bit about Triora’s witchery history.
Standing at an elevation of 2560 feet in the Ligurian Region, Triora’s mountain peak was once an important crossroads whose highest point is the graveyard, once a place where people passing-through had to pay a fare. It’s now a quiet village full of historical treasures. The MES is located, in fact, in the historic central Palazzo Stella, in a renovated building saved from WWII devastation. The entrance to the MES is across the circular palazzo whose cobblestone streets boast a large mosaic of a red Cerberus. Longstanding rumors say the church around the palazzo is built on top of a pagan temple, which is a common occurrence in Italy.
The mystical, dreamy fog that settles over the village each morning and night hides a violent past where the Europe’s 500-plus year Inquisition reached into small villages like Triora, kidnapping women, children, and men accused of witchcraft and the broader “heresy” and locked them in prison, often without documentation nor trials, while some were burned at the stake. Along with other village-led burnings in surrounding small villages, the embers of the fires can still be felt if you listen enough for the whisperings of grief from the spirits of these accused people.
Inside the “chiesa” (church) San Bernardino, a small, one-roomed church on a cliff-side, you can see an intensely painted floor-to-ceiling fresco of saints on the left and punishments of hell on the right. Certainly an effective fear-inducing behavioral propaganda left over from those dark, medieval days. San, or “saint” Bernardino was a hateful man after all, giving fire-and-brimstone speeches against witches, calling for their deaths. Importantly, churches dedicated to him can often be found in places that have an important history of female healers. This is a land, after all, rich in indigenous healing traditions using herbs and plants and the Grande Madre’s channeled energy.
(The Cabotina, former home of witches, midwives and healers)
I stayed in Triora in 2016, where I spent time with local “strega” healers, hidden among the Escher-like “above, below, and in-between” multilayered cobblestone streets, trademarks of medieval villages in Italy that I dearly love.
This place hold many secrets in-plain-sight as curative maidenhair ferns grow out of walls covered in soft dense mosses, and stray cats watch you walk through their neighborhood past nooks where once outcast single women banned from their homes, accused of witchcraft, re-convened at night under the protection of the moon to care for each other (pictured below), having snuck their way in from the walnut groves down the mountain slopes.
The entrance is now lined with a few witchy shops, one owned by a local named Lilia who gave me a lengthy interview about the town and history of witches there. The men in her family are Lineage healers. The village also quietly protects a renown healer “strega”(witch) originally coming from Puglia, a 99 year old named Antonietta. I met with her on two occasions, where she taught me about dozens of herbs she collects and uses to cure people. I received a potion-type cure from her which I describe in my book being an otherworldly experience. I also got to give her energy healing for her shoulder. You can read more about Antonietta in my book “Italy’s Witches and Medicine Women Vol 1” and even see her talking about plants in my video Lecture. (she is in the photo below)
I also spent time on top of another mountain, Castellarone, with herbalist Doriana. Her land is pictured in the photo on this page’s homepage. She doesn’t live in a village at the top of the mountain- she lives on the very top of the mountain, up so high that clouds passed by our shoulders like vespers. Her medicinal plants grow wild “selvatico.” Her philosophy is to care for what’s around the plants because the plants already know how to take care of themselves. She told me, “If a plant can’t take care of itself, it can’t take care of you.” An herbalist practicing biodynamic farming, she follows pagan science of planting and harvesting with moon, the sun, and also the planets, and does the same with the infusion processes of the oils she makes from her herbs. Also found in her belief system is the pre-pagan belief that everything comes from the Great Mother as well as the moon “la luna,” but that masculine energy has its role and is important for balance. You can watch her interview also in my online Lecture. (Doriana in photo below)
These are the types of women that the MES Museum commemorates.
Often referred to as “the Salem of Italy,” it’s a place that experienced a far more sinister plot against women. The MES pays respect to Franchetta Borelli (or Borello, depending on which documents you read), a witch who was tortured at the hands of the most depraved inquisitor, whose name I won’t even give recognition to here.
While so many of Italy’s witch hunt documents were locked away inside churches with access forbidden to the public or outright destroyed during WWII,or claimed “lost,” there are people in Italy who’ve devoted much of their lives to reclaim the ones that do exist so the names won’t be forgotten. Let’s not forget many women were imprisoned and torture without any documentation nor trials at all.
Paolo Portone is one of people who have done this retrieval work. One of his books, “La causa delle streghe di Triora. I documenti dei processi, 1587-1618,” of which he is one of 4 contributors, is one of these works.
The reason this article is “Part 1” is that I haven’t been to this new museum, so I don’t feel I can comment about it without doing so. I return to Italy this summer, so I will take photos and video footage while I’m there and be able to report just exactly what’s inside and what the experience is like. Magic doesn’t just live in the past, and I want to know how the MES connects my practices to those of my ancestors.
As for the museum’s Science Director, I met Paolo through another person I met with in Finalborgo: Manuela Saccone who is responsible for the educational activities at the Museo Archeologico del Finale, who educated me on the pre-pagan Goddess history of Italy. She connected me with Paolo, and Paolo, in turn, has been a continued source of support for my work, assisting me with historical information from Italy’s archives.
I don’t base any of my writings on historical documents because I don’t believe historical information tells it “as it really was,” especially regarding the history of women, and in this case, the history of witches. My research into this history is all about recognizing the clues and hidden language of what the church has usurped and tried to hide, why they went after women in the first place, and uncovering the roots of feminine shamanism in Italy that existed before paganism. Despite the historical records being written by men in power and often church men, in their records there is always evidence of what came before them. So I use the documents to see “through” the false history by finding symbols which don’t belong, character assassinations that cover-up other socio-political motives, and more.
[Image of Iside, Egyptian Goddess, who is the moon, considered the goddess of seafarers while holding a boat, alongside an image of Iside, goddess of the Egyptians, who is the moon, dressed in stars, with things in hand depicting the nature of the Nile and Egypt, the lunar eclipses]
Paolo often provides me with this trail of historical “accidental evidence,” knowingly or not.
I won’t say Paolo shares my same viewpoint, but he has definitely devoted his work to bring clarity to the horrible stories and accusations made up by the church against innocent women and towards getting to the heart of the matter about the women who were hunted and tortured and killed in the witch hunts of Italy and Europe .
Here is the transcription of interview with Portone:
“I have worked for more than thirty years on ethnohistorical research on the phenomenon of witch hunts and the cultural universe of victims’ material.
I’m the head of the department of Literature and History at the Art School Ripetta (in Rome), scientific director of CIRE (Center Insubrico Searches ethnohistorical) and member of SISR (Italian Society for the History of Religions). For my bibliography can safely refer to my site: www.paoloportone.it
By the City of Triora and the Superintendence of Fine Arts of Liguria I was given the task of scientific curator of the new museum, for which I have worked continuously from 2015 to today. It seemed to me, given the place of Triora and its significance in the history of witch hunting, this was an opportunity to lead, although with hindsight, a little justice to the memory of those innocent women who were declared evil witches who worshipped Satan, under the irons of torture.
My interest in the phenomenon of witchcraft was born from one of my childhood fantasies, fed by stories of my maternal grandmother, especially with respect to the legendary Benevento Walnut. Also inspiring me were the university courses of two Italian historians and Rosario Villari and Attilio Agnoletto, challenging the academic prejudices. They dealt with the witch hunt and the phenomenon of diabolical witchcraft.
My work has been ongoing for 30 years. My first work dates back to 1983 and it was the result of a research project lasting two years in the magical background among the most precious collections of magical, esoteric and demonological texts at the national level. Since then, my investigations have not stopped, expanding to the examination of ethnographic sources.
There are two areas that I dealt with mainly during this period. One is the ancient diocese of Como, the land of choice for witch hunts in Italy and a laboratory in which, starting from the second mid-fifteenth century, the creation of the figure of the devilish witch, modern-ancient hybrid absolutely unprecedented in Italian and European folk imagination, which was instead the result of the mystifying reworking of Christian demonology of ecclesiastical matrix.
The other is Benevento, and more generally the south of Italy , a land of ancient religious traditions that have survived the various waves of Christianization that have occurred over the centuries, and that paradoxically due to the particular conditions of economic and social development that have characterized it, determining the typical form that in Italy we know as “late southern”, has however contributed to preserving the earliest pre-Christian cultural and religious legacies until almost the present day as documented by the studies carried out in the second half of the twentieth century by Ernesto De Martino in Calabria, Lucania and Puglia.
The name of the new museum in Triora is MES: Ethnohistorian Museum of Witchcraft. It is the result of a research project that sought to re-organize the older Museum of Ethnography’s collected materials in a different form.
In particular, it is intended to articulate the museum’s educational material in four summary sections of the central themes underlying the historical phenomenon of diabolical witchcraft and its repression.
The journey begins with a room devoted to magical thinking in all its forms and historical and anthropological manifestations. The exhibits are part of the precious esoteric collection Pio Breddo, which includes amulets, talismans, objects related to the various divination and magical practices. In the second room the leitmotif are the deities and female creatures who for centuries have been the spiritual guides for generations of Europeans, and the benign figures linked to rites of fertility and sexuality; life-givers but also the ones who know the secrets of nature and magic. subjected to Christianization to a slow and inexorable process of demonization.
In the third room the central theme is represented by herbal and medical knowledge of the “dominae herbarum,” that is, those wise women who with various names (bagiue, magare, janare) were known in the peninsula by the lower classes and as informal caretakers of charisma and were the object of the concentric attack by the ecclesiastic hierarchy, holders of the monopoly of the care of the soul, and the medical academy.
Finally, in the last room we wanted to focus the attention of the visitor on the famous Triora trial, among the most important, celebrated in Italy in the late sixteenth century, which saw more than ten people gathered , mostly women, and that despite ending with their liberation was no less harsh, both for the torture to which the victims were subjected, and for the death to which some women met as a result of the physical and psychological violence suffered during the trial.
The MES offers a fascinating journey through one of the darkest events in our history from which we hope that visitors can come out with more knowledge of what really happened and above all, the real nature of the victims.
For more information, you can visit the Museum’s website: http://www.museotriora.it
As well as the Museum’s Facebook page: MES
For information on the phenomenon of witchcraft and hunting in Italy, interested parties can also consult the documents scanned and published on my personal website” www.paoloportone.it
Content copyright Karyn Crisis 2018
For Karyn’s Book and online Lecture visit: www.karyncrisisheals.com