Review of Leland’s Aradia

Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches

Review copyright 2011 by Freeman Presson, all rights reserved.

This new edition of the venerable Aradia was conceived at The Witches’ Almanac and dedicated to the proposition that there should be a new, affordable, Aradia with commentary by significant persons in modern Witchcraft/Stregheria1. It is a handsome paperback with a really nice bit of cover art that suggests moving figures obscured by shadows in a wood.

Aradia’s position in the history of the Witchcraft revival is pivotal or incidental, depending on who you ask. People who have a historical or practical interest in Magic and Witchcraft will want to have this volume in their libraries.

I had briefly encountered the text of Aradia a few years ago. At that time, I was only slightly interested in the content and more interested in the vexed question of its authenticity, or so I thought. Having re-read the entire work and read the new commentary included in the present edition, I am now more inclined to look at what is useful or suggestive in the work itself and much less inclined to care about its provenance.

If there indeed was any kind of widespread witch-cult of whose practices the Aradia is indicative, and which saw itself as “the Old Religion,” then one simply has to be amazed at the persistence of certain aspects (a cult of Diana), and the almost complete garbling of others, as compared to what we know of late Antique Paganism. The ancient current, in its most primal, shamanic form, will force its way into consciousness dressed in whatever names and metaphors will assure its continuation.

This is probably not a work on which today’s Witches or Mages would base a large part of their practice. Certain pieces are interesting and still possibly useful (the conjurations of water and salt, for example). The first part of the Charge of the Goddess was clearly lifted from here, and one could probably find many other parallels between this (from 1899) and the Gardner/Valiente oeuvre (as revealed starting in 1954).

Many other writers have noted how the Craft in this book is harsh compared to modern Wicca, especially eclectic Wicca whose practitioners wave “Harm None” around as a shield and point to their chalice and blade when asked about the Great Rite. Anyone practicing in Aradian tradition is busy cursing, threatening the Gods, and having monthly no-holes-barred coven-wide orgies in the woods.

Along with the Authenticity Question, there’s another question frequently asked: was Leland himself a practitioner or initiate? There is a passage on pp. 50-51 of the current edition, where Leland is commenting on a blessing that was used for such things as luck in finding rare books, that quite clearly identifies him as some sort of Magician. I could have written it, as could almost any other practitioner. My best guess would be that he brought this to his work in Italy, rather than found it there. Certainly, this kind of thinking made him the most sympathetic editor imaginable.

Judika Illes points out that when grimoires were published, their sources were always inflated. They were purported to come from Solomon, from Moses, from Hermes Trismegistus, or Pope Honorius, because their authority had to be resounding (and yes, masculine). This one is attributed to a semi-itinerant female fortune-teller from Tuscany. Now, granted Leland is in large part a folklorist, not a Pope-lorist, but this is still a huge difference. On the other hand, there could have been an opposite sort of self-authentication going on here, in the form of “Maddalena was too ‘simple’ to have written this.” (Do I have to explicitly say I don’t believe that?) In his notes, Leland anticipates some objections, but basically claims the material simply has to be authentic.

This edition retains the Introduction by Professor Robert Mathiesen, but no academics are represented among the new commentators, so that the Authenticity Question, to which I did not mean to devote so many words, is not much advanced.

I will close, then, by claiming again that the book has sufficient virtues aside from that to be a valued addition to any occult library.

1. The commentators are: Lori Bruno, Patricia Della-Piana, Jimahl Di Fiosa, Raven Grimassi, Mike Howard, Paul Huson, Judika Illes, Leo Louis Martello, Chrisina Oakley Harrington, Christopher Penczak, Andrew Theitic, Donald Weiser and Myth Woodling.

About freemanpresson

Healer, Celto-Cherokee Pagan, Priest, Frater of the Church of the Hermetic Sciences, sometime writer, astrologer.
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16 Responses to Review of Leland’s Aradia

  1. Kathleen says:

    Aradia was the first book on witchcraft I read (or could even find). It provided a good jumping off point to me back in the day.

  2. Pingback: Alchemical Invocations of Vox Populi – Leland’s Aradia & the Creation of the Folk | ?!

  3. henadology says:

    Leland’s Algonquin Legends of New England is also an amazing book, still the best on the subject, in my opinion. Leland’s commentaries are really interesting, but the best thing about the book is just his deep understanding of what a myth is, the difference between myth and ordinary stories, and his sensitivity to the subtleties of narration in the texts he collects. I highly recommend it if Algonquin myth is of any interest to you. Leland was truly one of the great 19th century polymaths; to call him an “antiquarian” really doesn’t do him credit.

    • I do think I need to read some more Leland, including a good bio if there was one. I saw there was one self-pub book about him, which did not look awful on a cursory glance.

      • henadology says:

        (“Do him justice”, I meant to say.)

        A bio of Leland would be interesting; he seems as though he would have led a more interesting life than the average scholar.

  4. David says:

    The self published book seems a bit biased towards disproving Leland, and as I was reading it, I kept wondering if the author could tell the difference between when Leland was joking and when he was serious.

    Leland’s Memoirs are interesting both in terms of Leland himself, and for a picture of the literati of the time:

    • Looks like you meant to add a link. I see it on Google Books! Full edition, readable on my phone. Waiting room material!

      • David says:

        Yeah, sorry about that, my HTML skills are negligible. A good portion of Leland’s work is available for free on Google Books so I’m sure you’ll find enough to satiate all inquiries. : )

  5. Leaf Erikson says:

    I highly recommend Leland’s The Mystic Will. It’s a good read that strongly suggests that Leland was a practitioner of some sort.

  6. Thank you, David!

  7. Eric Jeffords says:

    Thank you for this review! I also purchased this same copy. The commentary in the back was what I found the most helpful. On the subject of Wicca, gods know what they do in the Covens /shrug

  8. Pingback: Review of The Witchcraft of Dame Darrel of York (Charles Godfrey Leland) | Freeman's Reviews

  9. Pingback: Review of The Witches’ Almanac #32 (Spring 2013 – Spring 2014) | Freeman's Reviews

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