Paganism and Witchcraft in
Diana's Hunt
copyright © 2004 by David C. Petterson

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The Story
Dramatis Dei
Witchy Things
The Witches
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The Story

Giovanni Boccaccio was a fourteenth-century Italian poet and novelist. Most people know him, if at all, for his Decameron, a brilliant anthology held together by a frame-story of ten people fleeing the Plague and amusing each other with tales and anecdotes. But years before that, Boccaccio's first literary effort was a masterpiece of mythic and numerological imagery, an overtly Pagan tale with barely a whiff of Christian tokenism, a much-neglected and delightful poem which modern Witches would do well to become familiar with: Caccia di Diana, or Diana's Hunt.

This poem was composed around the year 1330, when Boccaccio was about twenty years old. It's set in a rustic and semi-mythologized area near Naples. An unnamed Narrator tells the tale, a story simple enough:

One fine Spring day, a messenger from Diana summons a group of women to her service. All those he calls are listed by name - except for one, with whom our Narrator is obviously deeply in love. The women bathe with Diana, then divide into four groups, scattering to the cardinal points for a joyful hunt. With gusto and enthusiasm, they cheerily and expertly catch and kill a wide range of animals. Halfway through the poem, a second band of women appears, and they, too, divide into groups and continue the lively hunt. One straggler arrives late. Around noon, Diana summons them all back together, builds a pyre, and suggests a sacrifice of the animals to Jove. The Narrator is still spying on them. His unnamed Beloved leads a revolt against Diana, for the hunt has aroused lusty desire in the women, and now they'd rather engage in some earthy pleasures rather than do the reverent sacrifice. Diana flies off in a huff, and the Narrator's Beloved invokes Venus, who descends on a cloud. She changes all the burning animals into healthy young men, who leap from the flames to run off with the huntresses. It's finally revealed that the Narrator himself was one of those animals, a stag now transformed. He is then claimed by his Beloved; and so the tale ends.

A modern English edition of this wonderful poem is Diana's Hunt: Caccia di Diana, edited and translated by Anthony Cassell and Victoria Kirkham (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991). Unfortunately, the translators go to great lengths to convince us that, despite all appearances, the poem is really an allegory for the Christian image of chaste and holy love. Their position seems patently and obviously absurd. Somehow, they even avoid considering the most important and obvious implication which any mention of Diana would have had to anyone in Europe in Boccaccio's day: Diana as Queen of the Witches and Queen of the Faeries.

This article will explore some of the poem's Pagan and Craft themes and images, and its relationship to the evidence for Medieval European Paganism and Witchcraft.

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Dramatis Dei

There are three Pagan deities named in the poem: Diana, Jove, and Venus. The association of Diana with Witchcraft throughout the Middle Ages is pretty well known and hardly needs to be rehearsed at this point. The other two, however, may need some elaboration, and there are some points to stress concerning Diana herself.

Going back at least to the beginning of the tenth century, the Canon Episcopi talks of women being called to Diana's service, just as they are in the opening verses of Diana's Hunt. The Canon doesn't provide details of what such "service" might entail, but perhaps Boccaccio does.

Throughout the Middle Ages, there are tales of women who claimed to ride with Diana on certain beasts, usually (though not invariably) at night, and often with the help of psychotropic substances such as belladonna and foxglove - most commonly, in the form of ointments rubbed onto the skin. In H. C. Lea's Materials Toward a History of Witchcraft (Thomas Yoseloff, 1957; page 177), there is a fascinating description of exactly this:

[Johannes] Nider [1517] relates that his preceptor told him of a Dominican who, on reaching the village, found a 'feminam quandam dementatem' ['woman who was mad'] - so demented that she imagined herself to fly by night with Diana. He sought to disabuse her and she promised to show him. On an appointed night he came with trustworthy witnesses, she placed herself on a pannier [a large wooden bowl used for kneading bread] and rubbed herself with ointment while muttering spells, and fell asleep, with dreams of Domina ['Lady'] Venus and other superstitions so vivid that she moved and fell to the floor, injuring her head but still lying in stupor. When she awoke he asked her if she had been with Diana, when he had witnesses that she had not left the place, and with wholesome exhortations he led her to detest her errors.
Note here how Venus is casually equated to Diana.

It was common for the women riding with Diana to claim to go to a place, a named spot, often on the peak of some faraway mountain. In Italy, the spot was usually Benevento, which is actually the name of an Italian city. In Sweden, the Witches' mountain was named Blockula. But in much of Central Europe, it was the Venusberg, another association between Witches and Venus.

Still another such association is a Latin word for "Witch": veneficus, which literally means "poisoner," from venom, the poison of a snake. But venom is from Venus, because snakes' venom was a primary ingredient of some ancient and Medieval love-potions. Snakes have long been associated with the Moon, symbol of Diana and of the Witches' Goddess. Snakes shed their skin, as the Moon monthly sheds its light, both to be reborn anew. The association of Witches with serpents is so strong that the Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible occasionally uses the word "Pythoness" to mean "Witch" (in classical times, "Pythoness" was the title of a priestess of Apollo who delivered the God's oracles at His shrine at Delphi).

There are intimate associations between Venus and Diana. The language of the chase can apply either to a hunt or to courtship. The English word venery, derived from Latin venere, can be applied either to hunting or to carnal desire. Diana the Huntress is sometimes seen as chaste and cold, as the light of the Moon has a similar cold beauty; but the intimate tie between the hunter and the prey cannot be denied, and that tie is symbolized in the carnal passions of Venus. (The tie was recognized as long ago as the height of Sumerian civilization; the Goddess Inanna was patroness of both love and war.) These two Goddesses are simply different manifestations of the same principle, a principle which has been central to Witchcraft for a very long time: both the hunt and sexual love are, and always have been, overriding themes in Witch imagery. The Goddess has always been a symbol of physical love, a symbol sometimes shared with Pan or Dionysos. Today, the God is more often associated with the Hunt than is the Goddess; but in Medieval times (at least, on the shores of the Mediterranean), Diana was the Huntress.

The connection of Jove to the Witches is a little less obvious now, but it was completely plain in Boccaccio's day. Jove was a God of Storms, and Witches of the Middle Ages (and of ancient times) were believed to be able to call up storms. The eleventh-century Corrector Burchardi contains a number of references to condemned worship of Jove, especially on Thursdays, the day of Jove - as well as condemnations of raising storms. Not incidentally, the Corrector also contains two copies of the Canon Episcopi, and also condemns worship of the Sun, the Moon, the Planets and Stars, standing stones, trees, wells; also the Magic of sex, love, and fertility, healing Magic, burnt offerings as Pagan sacrifices, seasonal festivals - in short, Nature worship in general, and all the other things modern Witches normally think of as being part of the Medieval Craft. And all of it is there associated with Diana and with Jove.

Why, then, do Diana's huntresses in Boccaccio's poem decline the opportunity to sacrifice to Jove? One assumes, after the play of the hunt, they're ready for fleshy, human lovers, not the abstract distance of a storm-god. And Venus is able to supply exactly what they're looking for.

So a primary theme of Diana's Hunt is the pursuit and fulfillment of love, and an acknowledgement of the necessity of physical love to this process. That's why the carnal aspect of the Goddess, rather than the chaste aspect, finally triumphs. This is, indeed, how this poem has been interpreted for many centuries, and is also a big reason why it's been pretty much ignored (the Encyclopedia Britannica says: "La caccia di Diana ('Diana's Hunt'), his [Boccaccio's] earliest work, is a short poem, in terza rima (an iambic verse consisting of stanzas of three lines), of no great merit"!). Its theme and message are both stunningly contrary to the typical Christian ideal of abstinence from - or even abhorrence of - sex.

Cassell and Kirkham, the translators of the modern edition, make a convoluted argument attempting to prove the reverse - that Boccaccio's real intention was to elevate Christian ideals of spiritual love (represented, somehow, by Venus) over the bestial joys of Diana, thus allowing Christian readers to appreciate Boccaccio's poem without discomfort over its message. Their argument remains unconvincing.

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The allegorical and philosophic poetry of Boccaccio's era was filled with number-play, and Boccaccio's work is no exception. Readers uninterested in esoteric number-play can safely skip his section; the point is simply that Diana's Hunt contains a great deal of numerological play which both blatantly and subtly refers to Paganism, Witchcraft, the three Deities mentioned in the poem, and various seasonal matters.

In numerological considerations, in addition to the inherent philosophical properties of single-digit numbers themselves, the digits of multiple-digit numbers would often be added together, or multiplied, and further meanings would be deduced or hidden there. In Diana's Hunt, the significant numbers and their interaction, interestingly enough, have important Pagan overtones. The most common important numbers in Diana's Hunt are 3, 7, and 9, with a couple of other interesting numbers as well.

The number play described below may seem unimportant, or even a bit silly, to modern readers. But poets and philosophers of Boccaccio's day loved this kind of thing, and would go to great lengths to insure various important numbers appeared frequently in their writing. Much of the following - but not all - is noted also by Cassell and Kirkham.

The poem begins with a summoning of a group of women, called to hunt with Diana. 32 women are named (3 + 2 = 5, the number of points on a pentagram), followed by the Narrator's Mystery Woman, who is thus the 33rd. The number 33, of course, is written with two 3's; there are three deities mentioned in the poem (Venus, Diana, and Jove). But in the system of numerology used by Boccaccio, 3 is the number specifically associated with the Goddess Venus. There is thus a connection between Venus and the 33rd huntress, the Mystery Woman.

Looking again at the two 3's in 33, 3 x 3 = 9, a number long associated with the Witches' Goddess. Diana's Hunt consists of 18 cantos (a "canto" is to a long poem what a chapter is to a novel); 1 + 8 = 9, and 18 is also twice nine. In Diana's Hunt, 9 is the number of the Mystery Woman (since it was she who is the 33rd woman called to the hunt), and she is the poem's main focus.

Halfway through the poem, in Canto 9, a second group of women arrives. There are 25 women in this group. 2 + 5 = 7, the number Boccaccio associates with the Moon, and thus the number of Diana; these are Diana's huntresses. In the first group of women, there were 33 mortals, plus Diana herself, to make 34; 3 + 4 is also 7. So the most important numbers so far are 3 (Venus), 7 (Diana), and 9 (the Mystery Woman).

The total number of mortal women in the two hunting parties is 33 + 25 = 58; each canto - with one exception - is 58 lines long. The exception is Canto 3, which describes the beginning of the actual hunt. This canto contains 61 lines; 6 + 1 = 7. The length of this canto thus associates it with Diana (appropriate for the start of the hunt), but its position, as canto number 3, connects it to Venus. This hints at the underlying identity of the two Goddesses. Now, the "typical" canto in Diana's Hunt consists of 18 triplets plus two doublets, to make up its total of 58 lines. Canto 3 has one extra triplet, making 19; 1 + 9 = 10, and 1 + 0 = 1, reinforcing Canto 3's idea of the unity of Diana and Venus.

So every canto consists of 18 or 19 triplets, plus two doublets - one doublet at the beginning of the canto, and one at the end. These two doublets provide 4 extra lines in each canto. Fours automatically evoke the Quarters and the Elements, about which more will be said shortly.

The number of lines in the poem as a whole is (18 cantos x 58 lines in each = 1044, plus one extra triplet in Canto 3 = ) 1047. 1 + 0 + 4 + 7 = 12, the number of signs in the Zodiac; this reduces further, as 1 + 2 = 3, once again the number of Venus, the eventual victor.

The number of mortal women in the two hunting parties, and the number of lines in the typical canto, are both 58; 5 + 8 = 13; a number important to Witchcraft in general. Looking at 13, 1 + 3 = 4, inevitably invoking the four Quarters. (Cassell and Kirkham try to convince their readers that 13 is a specifically Christian number, representing 1 god in 3 persons.)

There are 33 mortal women in the first hunting party, 25 in the second, and one straggler who shows up late in Canto 16 (1 + 6 = 7). That makes a total of 59 mortal huntresses (59 is the number of days in two full Lunar cycles, which average 29.5 days each; this is why there are two hunting parties). Adding Diana herself, this gives 60 huntresses in total. Many early calendars divided the year into 6 periods of 60 days each, plus an intercalendary period of 5 extra days, to yield a year with 365 days. The number 60 is thus associated with the yearly round. 60 reduces to (6 + 0 = ) 6. Recall that the Mystery Woman was the 33rd to be called to the hunt; 3 + 3 = 6. But only 32 women of that first group were named, and 3 + 2 = 5, to represent the intercalendary days. There is, therefore, an unmistakable allusion here to seasonal matters.

To the 60 total huntresses, add Diana's Summoner who calls the first hunting party together, and there are 61 total persons involved with the hunt. 6 + 1 again = 7, Diana's number; this is, after all, her hunt.

There are other interesting numerical regularities in Diana's Hunt, but this should be sufficient to show the importance of 3, 7, and 9, their association with Venus, Diana, and the Mystery Woman respectively, and the subtler allusions to numbers associated with Witchcraft and with seasonal matters.

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Witchy Things

There are a number of hints and allusions in Diana's Hunt which point toward matters specifically relating to Witchcraft as we modern Witches view it.

When the first group of huntresses is assembled, Diana divides them into four separate sub-groups, and sends them out to the cardinal points. Right away, here is a reference to the importance of the Four Quarters, and it is connected to service performed for Diana. In Medieval times, Diana was the Queen of the Faeries in addition to being Queen of the Witches (indeed, faerie and witch were often thought of as synonyms). The Faeries were seen as creatures of the air, the Hosts of Air. Air, of course, is the element associated with the East; so, quite naturally Diana herself leads the hunting party which goes off toward the East.

Of the 32 named huntresses in the first hunting party, eight are sent to each Quarter. Diana leads the eastward party. The southward party - South, the direction of Will and Energy, of life's blood and life's passion - the southward party is led by the Mystery Woman, who will later lead the revolt against Diana, and who will invoke the passionate Venus in her stead. It is appropriate for her to lead her group South.

When the activities of the various separate small parties are described in the poem, in Cantos 3 through 8, they are described in exactly the order many modern Witches would expect: East first (the direction of sunrise), then South, West, and North - that is, beginning in the East and going deosil around the Circle.

Nor is this sequence mere chance. The second large party of huntresses shows up in Canto 9. There are 25 women in that party, and they divide into four groups of 6 each, plus a leader who goes with the eastern group. These, too, are described in the expected sequence; the group in the East first, then South, West, and North.

There are thus 8 hunting parties, representing the 8 Sabbats.

The poem opens with the women being called, summoned, by a man who can only be called a Summoner - surely a well-known Craft role, if little-used today. The Canon Episcopi spoke of women who were called to Diana's service. Diana's Hunt gives a lively description of just such a calling.

The Mystery Woman is never named, but she is given a number of titles, descriptions by which we can form an image of her: Noble Lady, Beautiful Lady, and so on. Boccaccio's most common title for her is translated by Cassell and Kirkham as "Fair Lady," but in Italian this is rendered bella donna, "Beautiful Lady" - belladonna, one of the most common active ingredients of the Witches' flying ointments in the Middle Ages.

There are obvious Pagan references throughout the poem, in addition to the presence of the Classical deities. The transformation at the end of the poem, of the various animals into healthy young men, is reminiscent of - but a reversal of - Circe's transformation of Ulysses' men into pigs, in Homer's Odyssey. Similarly, the transformation of the Narrator from a stag to a man by the magic of Venus is a reversal of the story in Ovid's Metamorphoses of the hunter Actean who was changed into a stag by Diana.. (But is it really a reversal? Or merely a continuation? The Narrator's pre-existing love for the Mystery Woman implies he was once a man to begin with. Might he actually be Actean?)

Cassell and Kirkham want to portray Boccaccio as a good and devout Christian, and want to depict all this symbolism and allegory as deeply Christian in meaning and emphasis. For instance, they point out that all the various animals hunted (bears, boars, lions, stags, and so on) appear in various Christian bestiaries and other Christian theological texts, in which they're given Christian theological interpretations. Could all this Pagan and Witchy symbolism be coincidental?

Boccaccio was well-versed in mythological matters. Later in life, he wrote a massive multi-volume Genealogy of the Gentile Gods. Many of his other poems and tales had Classical deities as main characters. It is possible for him to have been simply a very good Classical scholar with no particular sympathy for Paganism himself. But there are a few things which argue against Diana's Hunt being a Christian allegory at all, or even a mere diversion couched in Classical imagery.

First, Boccaccio's later works - the Decameron, for instance - frequently portray the Church or Churchmen in a stunningly unfavorable light. As a young man, his father forced him to attend a Christian university in Naples, and he hated it. Forced to study canon law, he learned it well, but abandoned such studies as soon as he could, in favor of pursuing his real love, poetry. In fact, he seems to have written Diana's Hunt, a celebration of the carnal sexual chase, while in the midst of his ecclesiastical studies! One can readily imagine this piece to have been a conscious revolt against the Christianity being forced upon him.

As for Cassell and Kirkham's argument concerning the Christian bestiaries: Christian writers at that time were busy trying to give nearly everything a Christian slant, precisely because it already had a Pagan slant. It's difficult - maybe impossible - to find any animal species in Europe which wouldn't appear somewhere in some Christian text. Virtually all such animals also appear in pre-Christian Pagan bestiaries. This proves nothing either way.

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The Witches

There is one last bit of evidence against this imagery being only coincidentally Pagan and Craft. That is the long list of women actually named as huntresses of Diana.

There are 32 women named in the first hunting party, and 25 in the second, plus one straggler. This makes 58 in total. Commentators have attempted to identify these women, as people Boccaccio actually knew, or who were known to him. For many of them, their family names are given as well, and these are all prominent families in and around Naples and other areas of Italy in the fourteenth century. Commentators have assumed he mentioned these women and their families to praise and flatter them, perhaps even to convince some of them to patronize his poetry - that is, to give him grants and stipends, so he could make a living as a poet.

One implication here is that Diana's Hunt is not set in some distant and mythical past; it's not a fantasy of bygone days. Whether the events are to be taken as possible, allegorical, realistic, fantastic, or satiric, they are in any case to be taken as current and present. C. S. Lewis wrote Christian allegories set in a fantasy world in which the Christian god was not present, and therefore one wouldn't expect his characters to be Christians. Other writers have set Christian allegories in rustic pre-Christian settings, to disguise the basically orthodox messages. Not so Boccaccio: the presence of contemporary figures in his poem shows the time and place of Diana's Hunt to be fourteenth century Naples. And yet the appearance of Diana and Venus and sacrifices to Jove are not depicted as being in any way unusual or surprising.

Nor are the values there, as depicted in the activities of the women, anything approaching Christian values. The members of the first large group of huntresses all appear to be young unmarried women (only their first names are given, or their names with patronymics; this is the usual form for unmarried women of Boccaccio's time). But in the second group, most, maybe all, appear to be married. At the end of the poem, all these women sport rather freely with the animals transformed into young men. This is hardly a depiction of Christian chastity and virtue! Further, since there are far more animals resurrected than there are huntresses, many are not only unchaste, but rather promiscuous; and some are seen as adulterous besides. This is not a Christian ideal.

How would a hunt with Diana have been viewed in fourteenth century Naples, a hunt imagined to actually take place in fourteenth century Naples - particularly one which ended in a joyful orgy? This was the time and place which gave birth to the Inquisition, the era in which "being called to the service of Diana" was a synonym for Witchcraft, and in which depictions of a Witches' Sabbat invariably ended in wild sex. Diana's huntresses could not have been seen as anything other than Witches.

Imagine a poet back in the 1950's writing a delightful little tale of a group of college students from prominent Washington families being summoned to a lively dinner conversation by the spirit of Karl Marx. Imagine the author of this poem himself being an intern on the staff of Senator Joe McCarthy (chairman of the anti-Communist Un-American Activities Committee), as Boccaccio was, at the time he wrote Diana's Hunt, a student in the Christian university at Naples. The families mentioned could not possibly have viewed the poem as an attempt to praise or flatter them, no matter now highly the poet spoke of his characters - not even if the allegorical tale ended with the characters unexpectedly rejecting Marx in favor of, say, Lenin or Max Engles, and the party then cheerfully and playfully firebombing the First National Bank. No one would seriously suppose it all was really a clever allegory extolling the virtues of capitalism. Nor would anyone have mistaken the characters as anything other than Communists.

On the other hand, if those "prominent families" were themselves families of Communists, they might not mind at all. In other words, if indeed Boccaccio expected the families of his named women to have been flattered by his depiction of them, he must also have expected these to have been families of Hereditary Witches.

What does it mean, this easy and joyful tale of Diana and her Huntresses / Witches? At the least, it shows the imagery of the Wild Hunt, of the Sabbat, of Pagan sacrifices and Pagan deities, to have not been universally condemned. Boccaccio at the least was able to get away with it, and apparently to suffer no reprisals. Whether he identified himself as a Witch and Pagan or not, he was most certainly familiar with ideas which we would today recognize as a Medieval precursor to modern Pagan Witchcraft. Nor were his subjects, apparently, unduly offended.

Beyond this, I encourage readers to form their own interpretations. The poem is a great deal of fun, even on a surface level. Read the tale, and speculate on whatever theological ideas it may contain. But speculate also on what it really must have meant to have such imagery so blatantly presented, in such an enchanting and favorable light, in fourteenth century Italy.

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In summary, Diana's Hunt contains a stunning amount of Craft-related imagery, some of which is associated with Medieval Witchcraft:

In the Middle Ages, a group of women called to hunt with Diana would not have been mistaken for anything other than a troupe of Witches.

The ninth-century Canon Episcopi tells of women called to Diana's "service", but offers no details of what such "service" might consist of. Boccaccio's wild hunt might well do just that.

The huntresses are called - summoned - at the beginning of the story. There is a Summoner who calls them. "Summoner" is a traditional position and title within the Craft.

Diana divides the hunting parties into four groups, and sends each group off toward one of the Four Quarters - thus confirming the importance of the Quarters in Medieval Witchcraft.

Boccaccio does not give a name for the Lady who is the main character, the one beloved by the Narrator. But he does refer to her by several titles, the most-used of which is "Fair Lady" - in the original Italian, Boccaccio wrote, "bella donna". This is, of course, a primary ingredient of the Witches' flying ointment, belladonna.

The story relates, in turn, the activities of each of the groups which head off toward the cardinal points. The East group is described first, then South, West, and North. The idea of starting in the East and going deosil should not be unfamiliar to modern Witches.

Each of these groups consists of eight huntresses (in addition to the two leaders). The number 8 has many Pagan meanings, among which are the Eight Sabbats.

A second party of huntresses appears halfway through the story. They are also divided into four groups, which head off toward the cardinal points, reinforcing these ideas.

Two large parties with four groups in each is reminiscent of two groups of Sabbats (Major and Minor) with four Sabbats in each.

At the end of the hunt, Diana suggests a sacrifice to Jove. The eleventh century Corrector Burchardi specifically refers to Pagan worship of Jove, in addition to Diana. Boccaccio was not just plucking Deities out of the air, but was making reference to actual Pagan worship with which he may personally have been familiar.

The huntresses - led by the bella donna - refuse to perform the sacrifice suggested by Diana, and instead invoke the Goddess Venus. Venus is, of course, the Morning Star, an image alluded to in Leland's Aradia.

Venus herself has definite connection to Medieval Witches through the Venusberg. The connection of Diana to the Witches hardly needs to be repeated.

There's a lot of animal imagery and wonderful number play in the tale. Boccaccio associates the number 3 with Venus, 7 with Diana, and 9 with the bella donna - and 3, 7, and 9 are very common and frequently-used magical numbers (see, for example, Tolkein's Lord of the Rings: "Three rings for elven-kings", and so forth.)

At the end of the tale, when Venus appears, she changes all the hunted animals into healthy young men. Medieval Witches were frequently said to be shape changers, or to have the ability to change the shape of others, and much of the imagery seems to involve animal totems, two very common features of Shamanic traditions. And the Witches' God often appeared in animal form.

The animals, slain by the huntresses, had been tossed onto a pyre for the sacrifice Diana had suggested. When resurrected, they immediately bathe in a river. Consecration by fire and water is also relevant to a Craft context, as is the death-and-rebirth imagery.

To conclude the story, the huntresses run off to sport with the newly-risen young men. Wild orgies were a common feature of Medieval tales of Sabbats, confirming that these huntresses were seen as Witches.

The main character - the bella donna - winds up matched with the poem's Narrator, who is revealed at the end to himself have been one of the hunted animals. Specifically, he's a stag. The idea of a stag consorting with a "chief Witch" is also perfectly in accord with Craft imagery; this is the joining of the Stag-Horned God and the High Priestess.

There are too many parallels, and they are too close, for there to have been no relationship between, on the one hand, modern and Medieval Craft, and, on the other, Boccaccio's Diana's Hunt. A lot more work needs to be done here, but Boccaccio may well have been alluding to a fourteenth century Italian Witch tradition very similar to things easily recognizable by modern-day Witches.

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