August 3rd, 2002

Country Bumpkins of the Empire's Outback

Ivy Madonna

The professor examined another framed photograph, on the other side of my bookcase. He turned his head. “And this one?”
“Mary, mother of mercy, at the sanctuary of San Frutuosso.”

The look on the learned man’s face told me he was in one of his expansive, didactic moods. Some folks are put off by academic lecturing, but not me. I loved to pick that man’s brain. He took a seat on the sofa, leaned back.

“The Ivy Madonna,” he said.
“Yes, that’s a good name for it.”
“Such religious icons are created to summon supernatural power, and especially to cure various ills. The first healing rituals were devised by early hunter and gatherer cultures. The ancient Kalahari people in southern Africa, for instance, began with simple music and dance. Later they added costumes and storytelling. Performance art, if you will. Then the storytellers added objects and paintings to enhance the healing message. You might say this is the very origin of Art.”

“The artist as shaman. Or is it the other way around?”

The professor grinned. “Clever fellow! The artist and healer were one figure. He was a specialist who went inward to a dark mysterious place of creativity. He took all the early spontaneous rituals and made them intentional. And all people believed that going into the space of music and art, and fully participating in the experience, would free their own healing spirit.”

“Okay, that’s Africa. What about Italy?”

“Well, there was in earliest times a thing called Stregheria, a nature-based Pagan belief system that embraced a masculine/feminine diety. In central Italy the goddess Diana and her consort, the god Dianus, were personifications of the forces of nature. Around 1000 BC Etruscans further developed and refined the concepts. Later Roman armies spread the beliefs into every land they conquered. When Constantine converted, though, he made Christianity the sole offical and mandatory religion. And those country bumkins in the Empire’s outback who clung to the Old Religion were persecuted. So Stregheria went underground.”


“And what?”

“Does Stregheria still exist? Say, here on Ischia?”

The professor laughed. “If you ask an old timer he’ll give you a funny look and pretend he never heard of it. Ask a Catholic priest, ditto. But then there’s something verrrrry curious. Not too long ago I heard that a priest at one of the churches here called in a Bishop from Rome to help a poor guy who was said to have been driven insane by a spell cast by some old Strega in Buonopane. The Bishop performed an exorcism, just like in the movies.”

“This Strega who cast the spell was from Buonopane?”

“Yes. Apparently it’s still a hotbed of witchcraft, passed down by individual familes for many, many generations.”

“And yet nobody talks about it.”

“Buonopane was an isolated community up there on the mountain, and it still is. Most still speak in the old dialect. And they never talk to outsiders.”

“Do you think that’s a remnant of the Christian persecution?”

“Partly. But a more likely reason for their silence is that the dialect is considered by modern Ischians and mainlanders as primitive, spoken only by rustics.”

“The country bumpkins of the Empire’s outback.”

“Precisely,” the professor said.