Fragments of a forgotten shamanism: the Piedmontese Masche

The study of "magical" practices and folkloric beliefs regarding the Piedmontese Masche opens us some glimpses (not too unexpected) on Cosmic-agrarian cults of ancient Eurasia.

di Marco Maculotti
cover: David Ryckaert III, “The Witch”, c. 1640-1650

«The secret rituals that the so-called witches practiced could hide, and at the same time preserve, secrets that belonged to very remote and forgotten eras; in that case, it would not have been impossible for Keziah to have discovered how to cross the gates that regulate access to the other space-time dimensions. Many traditions insisted on the futility of material barriers to stop witches, and who could tell what was hiding behind the allegory of the nocturnal ride on a broomstick? "

"She told Judge Hathorne of lines and curves that could be made to move across the walls of space to another outer space ..."

HP Lovecraft, “The Dreams in the Witch-House”, 1933

There are very few geographic areas in the world affected by the "phenomenon" of Witchcraft as much as Italy: from inquisitive trials in the North, from Liguria to Trentino, to ecstatic-agrarian cults del Friuli analyzed by Carlos Ginzburg [1], from janare of the South [2] to the Sardinian Janas of the same name [3], from the Tuscan Stregheria studied by Charles Godfrey Leland in Aradia, the Gospel of the Witches (1899) [4] to the most ancient traditions regarding the Apennine and Cumane Sibyls, the Italian peninsula seems to have known a wildfire diffusion of the cultic practices in question, a diffusion that not even the advent of Christianity has been able to mitigate, if not after many centuries and to price of multiple human lives [5].

Even the most ancient gods of the Italic populations, on the other hand, were said to be "wild" divinities, typical of a pastoral world and not yet settled, like the Latins Silvan [6] e Faun and the sabina Feronia: tradition that makes us think of an archaic era, probably the Neolithic, in which it must have spread throughout the entire peninsula a shamanic type of cult system, which we have already proposed elsewhere to be the real substratum of Revival (always if of Revival then we must speak, and not rather of a more or less continuous persistence) of the "witchcraft phenomenon" [7].

Here we want to limit ourselves to analyzing the Piedmontese tradition, in whose cultural context the followers of the witchcraft cult are called with the appellative of “Masche”, a term deriving from the Lombard which appears for the first time in a text written in the Edict of Rotari (643 AD) with the meaning of "witch": "Si quis eam strigam, quod est Masca, clamaverit". But its meaning goes far beyond, as we shall see, the simple meaning used in the Edict, assuming, if necessary, also the meaning of "spirit of a dead man" and "evil demon".

However, although the testimonies of the Christian era particularly insist on highlighting the "sinister" and "demonic" sides of the masche, nonetheless popular tradition does not consider them entirely evil: just as they could curse and poison their victims, they were also able to heal them, both thanks to the knowledge of herbal science and through "magical" practices, or we will rather say "para-shamanic"; just as they unleashed storms and spoiled crops, they could also remove them and favor the fertility of the land and the abundance of crops with ritual operations.

For our examination, we will rely above all on the text written by Donato Bosca, leading expert on the subject, Masche. Voices, places and characters of a "Piedmont Other". He recognizes certain dominant characters in the figure of the masca, which he summarizes as follows [8]:

the masca is predominantly a female figure;
almost always operates at night;
meets with other males in places far from inhabited centers;
lives on the edge of the town;
it can change into animals;
is able to move in flight;
his favorite victims are male;
sometimes devours or sacrifices babies;
fears the sacred;
she is a profound connoisseur of natural practices.

We will now analyze the aforementioned dominant characteristics one by one, making use of the information provided by Bosca and integrating them with some additional observations suggested by the knowledge of similar themes in anthropological-cultural areas not far from the one we are dealing with here.

Francisco de Goya, “Vuelo de brujas”, 1798.

The masche, Witchcraft, Shamanism

The fact that the masca is a predominantly female figure absolutely cannot cause anyone astonishment: in all traditions ascribable to the bed of "witchcraft" there is always not only a greater female presence from a quantitative point of view, but the emphasis is always placed on the fact that the sapiential-cultual realm of "witchcraft" is by its nature feminine, knowledge of natural practices (and especially of plants, now used as a remedy now as poison, according to the best shamanic tradition) being inseparable from a corpus of knowledge that in archaic times belonged by right to the female assembly (probably also in the context of initiatory brotherhoods), such as that doctor and obstetrician. Hence, the large number of healers still active in the twentieth century in many rural areas of Italy.

It is not to be excluded - indeed, those who have followed us for some time will know that this is our working hypothesis - that these practices may have known a maximum diffusion in a proto-historical era, probably as said Neolithic, in any case preceding the arrival of the Indo-European peoples from the East: an era that, resuming the studies of Bach stove [9], would be shaped by a Zeitgeist so to speak "matriarchal", "selenic-chthonic", in contrast to that of the more recent Indo-European conquerors, whose "patriarchal" culture was based on the domestication of the horse, the working of iron, the use of the war chariot and a "solar" and "vertical" religious sentiment , aimed more at the Uranian gods than at the Earth and Chthonian ones. It is also the hypothesis of Marija Gimbutas [10] and, before her, of Margaret Murray [11], which was perhaps the first to connect the dots and link medieval European witchcraft with the ancestral cult of the "Horned God" and his paredra.

Nothing strange, therefore, that a similar cultual-cultural system, previously hindered by Indo-European migrations - whose peoples, however, were able to integrate archaic elements from this Neolithic substratum into their "sacred vision", see for example the cult of Pan / Silvano / Fauno and that of Diana and the numinous powers connected to it, such as nymphs and fairies -, then "burned at the stake" by the Inquisition of the Church of Rome, has historically given preference to female adepts, who probably in his practices also found a way to convey their resentments towards the "patriarchal" structures of the established power .

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In this sense, the reference to the predisposition of the masche (or, more generally, of the witches), of fear the sacred: in reality they fear (and above all abhor) the conception of the "sacred" typical of Christianity, according to which the gods of the Gentiles are equivalent to the devil. In any case, their repulsion for the cross is indubitable: Bosca tells [12] of a priest who used, after Mass had begun, to have cents with the cross placed in the stoup:

«And it happened that at the end of the mass a certain number of women remained stationary in the pews, as if they could no longer move, as if they were paralyzed. A sign that they were male and that the coin with the cross had imprisoned them. "

Salvator-Rosa-Scene-with-Witches -Morning-1645-1649-painting-artwork-print
Salvator Rosa, “Scene with Witches: Morning,” c. 1645-1649.

For Giuseppe Viola, an "anachronistic character halfway between the healer and the histrionist" interviewed by Bosca, a resident not far from Alba, "the masche constituted a kind of secret society that drew powers and privileges from a magical book offered by Beelzebub to those who in exchange gave him a gift of his soul "(we will talk about it shortly). Here we are interested rather in emphasizing how his testimony [13]:

«… Hinted at magical symbols and rituals, with references to an archaic world… A kind of remote pre-Christian pagan era in which pagan divinities dominated undisputed woods, hills, valley floors and ups and downs of Langhe and Roero. "

That said, it is natural that certain consequences of a practical nature correspond to the aforementioned liminal position of the character of the masca, such as the fact of live on the edge of the country (feature that the "witch" has always shared with other "border" characters such as the shaman, the blacksmith and, in folklore, the Wild Man), you hate almost always operate at night (on the other hand, the "witches" cultual context is to be considered based on the knowledge of the phases of the moon, the adoration for selene divinities such as Diana and Hecate being unequivocal in this sense), or of meet up with other males in places far from inhabited centers, often "fairy" places like walnut trees, hills connected to the world of fairies, sacred woods since the times of the most archaic paganism, valleys and caves that still today in the toponymy recall the ancient cults ("Valley of the Witches", "Grotta delle Fate", "Ponte delle Masche", etc.): these are the places used for the meetings of "four tempora " (which the Celts called imbol [14], Belthane, Lamas [15] e Samhain), better known by the "profane" with the generic name of "Sabba".

It may be interesting here to note that the "magical" powers attributed in the testimonies of the Christian era to the masche - and more generally to the witches - are almost the same that the classical authors recognized to Celtic Druids, or rather Proto-Celtic, as it seems that the priestly college of the same already existed in the Archaic period; it was therefore in all probability an institution - or, better said, a sacred brotherhood - of a civilization that occupied both continental Europe and the Iberian peninsula and the British Isles well before (in the late Neolithic and in the age of bronze) of the Celts known by the Romans in historical times. Anyway, here is a list of the extraordinary powers attributed to the Druids by Latin authors [16]:

« They check the powers of illusion, do raise winds and storms, cover the lands with fogs to wreak havoc among the armies ... are masters in the art of transforming bodies. They are capable of distant visions. They manufacture mysterious elixir of oblivion. Are doctors because, after Tiberius, Pliny describes them in Gaul as reduced to practicing medicine for a living. Can drain the streams. Sometimes they prophesy. »

Once we have ascertained the many similarities between the powers attributed to the masks / witches (or more fully to all those who the Church considered "followers of the devil") and to the Druids, we just have to point out how the latter professed a predominantly "arboreal" cult with a shamanic imprint, based on the observation of the phases of the moon and on the collection and use of plants for healing and "magical" purposes, as well as that the four sacred "hinges" of the druidic calendar, as we have already seen, slavishly equivalent to the nights of the "four tempora”In which the witches' Sabbath took place, in Piedmont as well as throughout Europe.

On the zoomorphic metamorphosis [17] and on "Flight" of the masche [18] it will not be necessary to dwell too much, having already dealt with the subject in two other previous articles: therefore what has already been said elsewhere is valid, namely that the ability to "fly" is to be connected to ecstatic practices through which, most often with the help of a psychotropic ointment, the witches they left the body and, "in spirit" (or, according to Paracelsus' lexicon, with the "astral body"), they could reach the most disparate places, even transforming themselves into animals if necessary (black cats, goats, owls, etc.). Thanks to such ecstatic experiences, the masche gained the power of bi and that of the "Remote viewing". It was also said that they could appear in the form of "flames swinging in the wind" or "will-o'-the-wisps".

All these extra-ordinary powers, although at first glance they may seem pertaining at most to the world of fairytale and science fiction, are well known in the shamanism from any part of the world in all its more or less variegated offshoots [19]: for example in India, where they are called Siddhi ("Spiritual power", "psychic ability") and are not at all "demonized", or in Ireland and Scotland until at least the XNUMXth century, where they were the prerogative of a minority of people who had been endowed with the gift of "Second view", often given to them by the "underground" people of the Tuatha de Danann, a divine and feral consortium which is referred to in the Gaelic idiom by the term ... Sidhe [20]!

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Jokes of the etymology or shreds of an archaic substratum common to the whole of Eurasia, from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean and to the steppes of Central Asia? In this regard, Bosca's report of two ritual sticks used in Kazakh shamanic practices and exhibited in the ethnographic museum of Alma-Ata, capital of Kazakhstan, is not out of place. [21]:

"All they told me is this: they are sticks that were used by witches (mostly women and mostly evil) to give the evil eye or play pranks on people ... They are museum objects that belong to the Kazakh tradition, population of nomadic herders of Turkish-Mongolian origin that became permanent and peasant only in the last century.

If what has already been noted may seem - with good reason - exceptional, it must be added that the Kazakh denomination of these ritual sticks, which recall both in form and in use the "wands" of witches (and fairies), is "Staffs of Command". The continuation of the discourse will allow us to find another, amazing correspondence with the "witches" tradition - but at this point it would be better to say "shamanic" - Piedmontese.

XNUMXth century lithograph depicting the Sabbath.

The "Physics" and the "Book of Command"

Let us now continue the discussion, investigating in a more in-depth way the ways in which the masche obtained and implemented their exceptional powers; again, we believe, this will connect us to the powers attributed to the Druids and to the ritual and ecstatic practices of Central Asian steppe shamanism. According to the testimony of the aforementioned Viola and many others, the masche were able to perform wonders because they knew the "rules of the game", the so-called "Physics", ie a corpus of "magical" practices with which it was believed it was possible to influence reality ("Yes, physics. They show you things that others don't see» [22]).

In this regard, it is probably no coincidence that the female divinity of the Sabbath is often referred to, in the procedural documents of the Inquisition in northern Italy, "Lady of the Game" (Dominate Ludi) [23]. For his part, Bosca defines this "Physics" as "a sort of psychokinetic energy that made it possible to plagiarize people with little strength of character" but specifies that, referring to the masche, "it indicated a state of hypnosis that allowed one to detach oneself from reality and access other worlds» [24].

Indispensable for the implementation of certain prohibited practices, it was believed to be the "Book of command", a sort of "black magic cookbook", that is to say a tome that the masks were in possession of and which was rumored to have been given to them by the Devil himself. The meeting place of the adepts with the devil to obtain it had to be a wooded area, preferably in the middle of a crossroads or a septivium - this reconnects us again to the proto-Indo-European chthonic-nocturnal cults, such as eg. those of Hecate and Chthonic Mercury - often near a majestic tree struck by lightning [25]. According to a testimony collated by Bosca, one of these demonic books [26]:

«A priest from Elva had it… And to read in there really needed a very deep science. It wasn't a book like the others. First of all centuries old, perhaps even millennia; and then, written by hand, but with an infinity of very strange signs - squiggles, arrows, circles, knots, fences, spirals, figures and monstrous figures - and with certain pages in a red so bright that it looks like blood and fire. Opening it, and reading it in its various chapters as it should, its fortunate owner could do whatever he could think of, satisfy any whim, produce the most grandiose and catastrophic phenomena imaginable; how it would be cloud the sun, stir up the wind, unleash the hurricane, change the direction of the rivers, level the mountains.

Although most scholars believe it was simply a sort of diary on which the followers of the secret cult wrote down formulas and ceremonies, nevertheless popular tradition speaks of it as a real "supernatural" and "diabolical" object. There are many stories collated by Bosca in which he tells of works of destruction of "Books of command" with "supernatural" consequences [27]:

"By burning them you could see flames of every color, and inside the flames men trying to get out moaning and you could hear cries, laughter, screams, whistles, the most deafening noises.

It is also said that a male could not die without having passed the "Book of Command" and thears witchcraft to someone else: it simply wasted away in the most atrocious physical and mental suffering, "amidst diabolical torments and obsessions" [28], and it took weeks or months to expire.

August_Malmström _-_ Dancing_Fairies _-_ Google_Art_Project.jpg
August Malmström, “Dancing Fairies”, 1866.

masks, Fairies and spirits of the dead

In all likelihood, however, it is precisely because of its ability to come out of the body "in spirit" and to take on animal features at will that traditionally the figure of the masca arises halfway, as on the other hand also the Janara of southern Italy, between the witch and entity other such as ghosts, feral entities, spirits of the dead and "evil demons" of all sorts. So Davide Lajolo [29]:

«The masche are in the woods and are very tall. Their head almost always hangs over plants, even the tallest ones. They're made of white things that look like sheets, but they're not sheets because they can't be touched. They have a hoarse voice that crosses all the valleys and hills like an echo. With them it is also possible to consume love. "

As is evident, sometimes their mythical-folkloric ambit is the same as the entity of theunderworld [30] of the type of Fairies (the girls kidnap and replace babies in cribs [31] or, at night, they weave the manes of the horses in the stables) and is also connected in some way with the "world of the dead": Bosca reports legends that recall the topos mythical of "Wild Hunt" [32], which on the other hand was said to be conducted by the goddess Diana or homologous female divinities. In addition, the "goblins" (servant) are mentioned in the testimonies collated by Bosca as participants in the Sabbath together with the masche [33]: the reign of the god (and goddess) of witches is the same fairy land [34], the otherworldly domain, halfway between the underground and the ethereal, of the "Queen of the Fairies" and the "Horned God".

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When we talk about "masche", therefore, we must not focus only on the "witches", but on the entire mythical universe that the study of the phenomenon reveals: and this means the Neolithic substratum, with adjoining seasonal cult practices, the knowledge of natural remedies, the use of psychotropic plant substances, the worship of divinities of the "wild nature" with all its following of entities other such as Wild Men, Fairies, fairies and elves. If we want to decipher their mythical-cultural complex it is necessary to enter their "flow", understand theirs Worldview, do not demonize them Christianly the mythical universe nor - even worse - limiting ourselves to merely considering it at the level of "fable", "superstition", or "psychopathy" as the loners of academies usually do.

We want to conclude with a quote from the professor Tonello Regis, reported by Bosca, in which it is summarized the ambivalent mythical universe of the masche: it is highlighted - in addition to the more "sinister" aspects already discussed at length - as it ultimately recalls "fantastic" suggestions of the "fairy world" and not immune from topos of paradise lost, locus amœno of the type of the legendary Arcadia and the Celtic Overseas, to which we all, wandering souls, "prisoners of a dream", yearn to finally return [35]:

“There are hateful and vengeful males, bloodthirsty daughters of the devil, there are other mischievous and mischievous ones who exchange the most beautiful babies in their cradles with their little witches. And goblins who enjoy messing up tiles and frightening the herds in the mountain pastures; souls in purgatory who go in procession at night on the mountains making themselves light with the little finger lit as the ghosts of Monte Rosa, prisoners of a dream that drives them in the useless search for "das Verlorene Thal", the wonderful green lost valley among the glaciers.

1280px-Oberon, _Titania_and_Puck_with_Fairies_Dancing__William_Blake__c_1786
William Blake, “Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing,” c. 1786.


[1] C. Ginzburg, The benandanti. Witchcraft and agrarian cults between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Einaudi, Turin 1966 and Night story. A decipherment of the sabbath, Einaudi, Turin 1989; see also M. Maculotti, The Friulian benandanti and the ancient European fertility cults, on AXIS mundi.

[2] See M. Maculotti, Cernunno, Odin, Dionysus and other deities of the 'Winter Sun' and M. Palmesano, The magic of the Mainarde: on the trail of the Janare and the Deer Man, on AXIS mundi.

[3] See A. Massaiu, The distant origins of the Sardinian Carnival, on AXIS mundi.

[4] CG Leland, The Gospel of the Witches, Alternative Press, 2001.

[5] See M. Maculotti, From Pan to the Devil: the 'demonization' and the removal of ancient European cults, on AXIS mundi.

[6] The mythical figure of the "silvano" is also present in Piedmontese folklore with the name of "servan", "dwellers of the woods who enjoy messing things up, messing up tiles, flocks, whatever happens in sight. Among the misdeeds, not letting the milk quail and treacherously ringing the bells of the cows "(D. Bosca, Masche. Voices, places and characters of an "Other Piedmont" through research, authentic stories and testimonies, Priuli & Verlucchia, Turin 2012, p. 214).

[7] See Maculotti, Benandanti, op. cit.

[8] Bosca, op. cit., pp. 102-103.

[9] JJ Bachofen, Mothers and Olympic virility. Secret history of the ancient Mediterranean world, edited by J. Evola, Mediterranee, Rome 2010.

[10] M. Gimbutas, The language of the Goddess, Venexia, Rome 2008.

[11] M. Murray, The god of witches, Astrolabio-Ubaldini, Rome 1972.

[12] Woods, op. cit., p. 103.

[13] Ibid, pp. 42-43.

[14] See M. Maculotti, Imbolc, the triple goddess Brigit and the incubation of spring, on AXIS mundi.

[15] See M. Maculotti, The festival of Lughnasadh / Lammas and the Celtic god Lugh, on AXIS mundi.

[16] L. Charpentier, The giants and the mystery of the origins, The Age of Aquarius, Turin 2007, p. 238.

[17] See M. Maculotti, Metamorphosis and ritual battles in the myth and folklore of the Eurasian populations, on AXIS mundi.

[18] See Maculotti, Benandanti, op. cit.

[19] See M. Eliade, Shamanism and the techniques of ecstasy, Mediterranee, Rome 2005.

[20] Regarding the Tuatha de Danann, it should also be added that: "... the legends mystify them as a fairy and semi-divine people ofAnnwyn (the Celtic afterlife) whose members, immortal and powerful magicians, participated in eternal banquets in places out of space and time, often located inside ancient mounds or near dolmens or lakes, or danced under the moon , or even kidnapped children "(cit.,"Sidhe"). Impossible not to notice the similarities with the mythical-folkloric universe of the masche and, more generally, of the witches of continental Europe. On the Celtic afterlife, cf. Jean Markale: the Other World in Druidism and Celtic Christianity, on AXIS mundi.

[21] Woods, op. cit., p. 53.

[22] Ivi, p. 197.

[23] See L. Muraro, The Lady of the Game. The witch hunt as interpreted by its victims, La Tartaruga Edizioni, Milan 2006.

[24] Woods, op. cit., p. 212.

[25] Ivi, p. 49.

[26] Ibid, pp. 201-202

[27] Ivi, p. 49.

[28] Ivi, p. 71.

[29] D. Lajolo, Gazzetta del Popolo, 10 July 1977, cit. in Bosca, op. cit., p. 102.

[30] See M. Maculotti, Who is hiding behind the mask? Visits from Elsewhere and the paraphysical hypothesis, on AXIS mundi.

[31] See M. Maculotti, The kidnappings of the Fairies: the "changeling" and the "renewal of the lineage", on AXIS mundi.

[32] Bosca, op. cit., p. 90. On the “Wild Hunt”, cf. G. Failli, The Marvelous in the Middle Ages: the "mirabilia" and the apparitions of the "exercitus mortuorum" e Hellequin's Masnada: from Wotan to King Arthur, from Herla to Harlequin, on AXIS mundi.

[33] Ivi, p. 86.

[34] See M. Maculotti, Access to the Other World in the shamanic tradition, folklore and "abduction", on AXIS mundi.

[35] Woods, op. cit., p. 35.

13 comments on “Fragments of a forgotten shamanism: the Piedmontese Masche"

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