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Aradia: How an Ancient Figure Shaped Modern Witchcraft

e Diana, goddess of the hunt, leaning against a tree by Pietro Rotari  (mid 1700s)
e Diana, goddess of the hunt, leaning against a tree by Pietro Rotari (mid 1700s)

Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches, is a book written by American folklorist Charles Godfrey Leland and published in 1899. It presents what Leland believed to be the religious text of a group of witches in Tuscany, Italy, documenting their beliefs and rituals. However, historians and folklorists have debated the existence of such a group. Nevertheless, this book significantly impacted the development of the contemporary Pagan religion known as Wicca in the 20th century.

The text combines Leland's English translation of an original Italian manuscript called the Vangelo (gospel) with his research on Italian folklore and traditions. Leland obtained the manuscript from his primary informant on Italian witchcraft beliefs, a woman known as "Maddalena," whom he called his "witch informant" in Italy. The remaining content includes material from Maddalena and Leland's studies. Leland learned about the Vangelo's existence in 1886, but it took Maddalena eleven years to provide him with a copy. After translating and editing the material, the book took another two years to be published.

Aradia consists of fifteen chapters that describe the origins, beliefs, rituals, and spells of an Italian witchcraft tradition. According to the text, the central figure of this religion is the goddess Aradia, who came to Earth to teach witchcraft to peasants, empowering them to resist their feudal oppressors and the Roman Catholic Church.

Leland's work remained relatively unknown until the 1950s when discussions about "pagan witchcraft" survivals gained popularity. Aradia was then examined within the broader context of these claims. Scholars have varying opinions, with some dismissing Leland's assertion about the manuscript's origins and others arguing for its authenticity as a unique documentation of folk beliefs. As scholarly attention increased, Aradia played a significant role in the history of Gardnerian Wicca and its offshoots, providing evidence of witchcraft survivors' existence in Europe. Additionally, a passage from the book's first chapter became incorporated into the religion's liturgy. The text gained wider availability through various reprints by different publishers, including a critical edition 1999 with a new translation by Mario and Dina Pazzaglini.

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A portrait of Maddalena, Charles Godfrey Leland's informant while he was researching Italian folk witchcraft traditions.
A portrait of Maddalena, Charles Godfrey Leland's source.

The Genesis of the Manuscript

During the 1890s, Charles Godfrey Leland, an American author, and folklorist, dedicated much time to studying Italian folklore in Florence. One notable result of Leland's research was the creation of Aradia, Or The Gospel of the Witches. While Leland is closely associated with Aradia, it is essential to note that the manuscript, which forms the core of the work, was attributed to the research conducted by an Italian woman referred to as "Maddalena" by Leland and his niece, Elizabeth Robins Pennell. It is worth mentioning that Folklorist Roma Lister, a Leland contemporary friend, revealed that Maddalena's actual name was Margherita. She was a "witch" from Florence who claimed to have a lineage tracing back to the Etruscans and possessed knowledge of ancient rituals. Professor Robert Mathiesen, who contributed to the Pazzaglini translation of Aradia, mentioned a letter from Maddalena to Leland signed as "Maddalena Talenti" (the last name being a guess due to the challenging handwriting).

Leland first encountered Maddalena in 1886, and she became his primary source for collecting Italian folklore over the years. Leland described her as belonging to a dwindling tradition of sorcery and admired her ability to provide precisely what he needed. She shared several hundred pages of material with him, which he incorporated into his books Etruscan Roman Remains in Popular Tradition, Legends of Florence Collected From the People, and eventually Aradia. In 1886, Leland learned about the existence of a manuscript on the doctrines of Italian witchcraft and encouraged Maddalena to locate it. Eleven years later, on January 1, 1897, Leland received the manuscript written in Maddalena's handwriting. Leland believed it to be an authentic document of the witches' "Old Religion," although he was uncertain whether the text originated from written or oral sources.

By early 1897, Leland completed the translation and editing of Aradia and submitted it to David Nutt for publication. After two years, Leland requested the return of the manuscript to submit it to a different publishing house. This request prompted Nutt to accept the book, which was eventually published in July 1899 in a limited print run. Wiccan author Raymond Buckland claims to have been the first to reprint the book in 1968 through his "Buckland Museum of Witchcraft" press. However, a British reprint was published by "Wiccens" Charles "Rex Nemorensis" and Mary Cardell in the early 1960s. Since then, various publishers have repeatedly reprinted the text, including a 1998 retranslation by Mario and Dina Pazzaglini accompanied by essays and commentary.

Original 1899 title page for "Aradia, or Gospel of the Witches"
Original 1899 title page for "Aradia, or Gospel of the Witches"

What the Book Contains

After an extensive eleven-year quest, Leland remained unsurprised by the contents of the Vangelo. Most of it aligned with his expectations, although he was taken aback by its "prose-poetry" passages. In the appendix, Leland confidently stated, "I firmly believe that within this Gospel of the Witches, we possess a reliable framework of the doctrines and rituals observed at the witches' Sabbat. They revered forbidden deities and engaged in prohibited acts, driven by their rebellion against Society and their fiery passions."

Leland's final version took the form of a concise volume. He organized the material into fifteen chapters with a brief preface and an informative appendix. The published edition included footnotes and, in many instances, the original Italian text that Leland had translated. While most of Leland's Aradia focused on spells, blessings, and rituals, the narrative also interwove tales and myths that hinted at influences from both ancient Roman religion and Roman Catholicism. Prominent figures within these myths included the Roman goddess Diana, a sun deity named Lucifer, the lunar embodiment of the Biblical Cain, and the messianic Aradia. "The Gospel of the Witches" portrayed witchcraft as a means of casting spells and as an anti-hierarchical "counter-religion" in contrast to the Catholic Church.

Aradia dedicated entire chapters to rituals and magical spells, encompassing enchantments to win love, a conjuration to transform stones into amulets, and the consecration of a ritual feast. The narrative material comprised captivating short stories and legends depicting the birth of the witchcraft religion and the deeds of their deities. In the appendix, Leland provided a concise summary of the mythic content, portraying Diana as the esteemed Queen of the Witches and emphasizing her association with sorcery. The witches devoutly worshipped Diana, firmly believing in her integral role as the primordial creatrix. Aradia, the daughter of Diana and Lucifer, imparted the knowledge of witchcraft to former serfs, who harnessed its power to seek retribution against their oppressors. This cosmogony was exceptional, as it attributed the creation of the universe to the divine feminine principle.

Aradia was divided into fifteen chapters, with the initial ten presented as Leland's translation of the Vangelo manuscript entrusted to him by Maddalena. This portion primarily consisted of spells, rituals, and myths. Towards the end of Chapter I, Aradia imparted instructions on practicing witchcraft to her followers. However, it's important to note that the first ten chapters did not directly translate the Vangelo. Leland included his commentary and notes on specific passages, and Chapter VII incorporated additional material from Italian folklore. According to medievalist Robert Mathiesen, the Vangelo manuscript represented even less of Aradia, suggesting that only Chapters I, II, and the first half of Chapter IV aligned with Leland's description.

The remaining five chapters were identified as other relevant material acquired during Leland's research into Italian witchcraft. These additional chapters validated the coexistence of Diana's worship alongside Christianity. For instance, Chapter XV presented an incantation to Laverna using a deck of playing cards. Leland justified this inclusion by noting that Aradia portrayed Diana as worshipped by outlaws, and Laverna was the Roman goddess of thievery. Leland's thoughts on the text can be found in the book's preface, appendix, and footnotes.

The Italian passages he translated contained misspellings, omissions, and grammatical errors and were in standard Italian rather than the local dialect. According to Mario Pazzaglini, the text represented a translation from dialect to basic Italian and then into English, resulting in a compilation of texts, some of which were misinterpreted. Leland described the text as a collection of ceremonies, incantations, and traditions aiming to preserve valuable and intriguing remnants of ancient Latin or Etruscan lore. The text's lack of cohesion or consistency was considered an argument for its authenticity, as it exhibited no signs of being altered to appeal to future book buyers.

The Goddess Diana,  as painted by Simon Vouet (1637).
The Goddess Diana, as painted by Simon Vouet (1637).

The Book's Claims Face Scrutiny

According to Leland, the witches continue to exist as a clandestine society known as the Old Religion. In certain villages of Romagna, people still adhere to heathen customs. Leland believed that if a religion exists, there must be a corresponding scripture. He considered the Gospel of the Witches an ancient work, possibly translating an early or later Latin text.

However, doubts have been raised regarding Leland's claim about the authenticity of the manuscript and his assertion of receiving it. Margaret Murray's book, "The Witch-cult in Western Europe," published in 1921, proposed that the European witch trials persecuted a pagan religious group. Theda Kenyon's book, "Witches Still Live," published in 1929, linked Murray's thesis with the witchcraft religion mentioned in Aradia. Subsequently, arguments against Murray's idea also included arguments against Leland.

Witchcraft scholar Jeffrey Russell dedicated a section of his book, "A History of Witchcraft: Sorcerers, Heretics and Pagans," published in 1980, to refute the claims made in Aradia, Murray's thesis, and Jules Michelet's "La Sorcière." Elliot Rose's book, "A Razor for a Goat," dismissed Aradia as a collection of incantations that failed to represent a religion. In "Triumph of the Moon," Ronald Hutton summarizes the controversy by presenting three possible scenarios:

  1. The Vangelo manuscript is an authentic text from an undiscovered religion.

  2. Maddalena wrote the text, either with or without Leland's assistance, possibly drawing from her background with folklore or witchcraft.

  3. Leland fabricated the entire document.

Hutton himself is skeptical not only of the existence of the religion claimed by Aradia but also of the existence of Maddalena. He argues that it is more plausible that Leland invented the entire story rather than being easily deceived by an Italian fortune-teller. However, Clifton disagrees with Hutton's stance, stating that it amounts to an accusation of "serious literary fraud" based on an "argument from absence." One of Hutton's main objections is that Aradia does not resemble anything found in medieval literature.

Mathiesen dismisses the third possibility, arguing that while Leland's English drafts for the book underwent substantial editing and revising, the Italian sections remained essentially unchanged. He concludes that Leland worked from an existing Italian-language original he describes as "authentic but not representative" of any larger folk tradition. Sabina Magliocco explores the first possibility that Leland's manuscript represented a folk tradition involving Diana and the Cult of Herodias in her article "Who Was Aradia? The History and Development of a Legend." Magliocco suggests that Aradia may be a 19th-century version of the legend that incorporated later materials influenced by medieval diabolisms, such as the presence of "Lucifero," the Christian devil, sorcery practices, and naked dances under the full moon.

Scene with a witch,  Angelo Caroselli  (17th century)
Scene With a Witch, Angelo Caroselli (17th century)

Aradia's Influence on Wicca and Contemporary Witchcraft

Magliocco highlights Aradia as the pivotal text of the 20th-century Witchcraft revival, underscoring its profound influence on the development of Wicca. The text supports Margaret Murray's thesis that early modern and Renaissance witchcraft preserved ancient pagan beliefs. Furthermore, it lends credibility to Gerald Gardner's claim of encountering religious witchcraft in 20th-century England, aligning with the works of Michelet, Murray, and Leland, further suggesting such survival.

The Charge of the Goddess, a crucial liturgical piece in Wiccan rituals, draws inspiration from Aradia's speech in the book's initial chapter. Parts of this speech were included in an early version of Gardnerian Wicca ritual. Surprisingly, Doreen Valiente, one of Gardner's priestesses, identified the material as originating from Leland's book. Valiente reworked the passage in prose and verse while preserving the "traditional" Aradia lines.

Certain Wiccan traditions use Aradia or Diana to refer to the Goddess or Queen of the Witches. Hutton notes that early Gardnerian rituals employed the name Airdia, a distorted form of Aradia. Hutton further suggests that a line spoken by Aradia influences the inclusion of skyclad practice, or ritual nudity, in Wicca: "And as the sign that ye are truly free, Ye shall be naked in your rites, both men And women also: this shall last until The last of your oppressors shall be dead."

Aradia is considered the source of this practice, as pointed out by Robert Chartowich, who refers to the 1998 Pazzaglini translation of these lines. According to Chartowich, the inclusion of ritual nudity in Wicca was based on Leland's mistranslation by incorporating the clause "in your rites." However, earlier mentions of ritual nudity among Italian witches exist. Historian Ruth Martin states that Italian witches commonly practiced reciting conjurations while "naked with their hair loose around their shoulders." Historical accounts of witches in Italy engaging in magical practices while naked are documented.

The reception of Aradia among Neopagans has not been entirely positive. Some argue that claims of revealing an Italian pagan witchcraft tradition must be compared with the claims in Aradia. Others attribute the adverse reaction to an "insecurity" within Neopaganism about the movement's authenticity as a religious revival. Valiente offers yet another explanation, stating that the identification of Lucifer as the God of the witches in Aradia was too strong for Wiccans who were accustomed to the gentler, romantic paganism of Gerald Gardner.

Aradia was particularly influential for leaders of the Wiccan religious movement in the 1950s and 1960s. Still, it is no longer as commonly recommended to newcomers or extensively cited in more recent Neopagan books. However, Wiccan author Stewart Farrar affirms the importance of Aradia, acknowledging Leland's research as a significant contribution to a living and growing tradition.

Raven Grimassi, in his popularization of Stregheria, has extensively written about Aradia, presenting his rendition of her story. He differs from Leland in many aspects, portraying her as a witch who lived and taught in 14th-century Italy rather than a goddess. Grimassi argues that similarity or dissimilarity to Leland's material does not determine authenticity, as Leland's material itself is disputed.

Therefore, the Aradia material cannot effectively discredit other writings or views on Italian witchcraft, nor serve as a representative ethnographic foundation against which other reports or opinions "must" be compared. The primary objection of Neopagans to this material is its inclusion of negative stereotypes related to witches and witchcraft, which is regarded as an insult by many neo-pagans.

Charles Godfrey Leland just prior to his death.
Charles Godfrey Leland just prior to his death.


The figure of Aradia, her story, and her influence occupy a controversial and multifaceted position within Neopaganism and Wiccan culture. From being portrayed as an archetypal witch to a divine entity, her persona has been subject to various interpretations, reinterpretations, and debates, reflecting the fluid nature of spiritual beliefs. As with other aspects of human thought and spirituality, our understanding of Aradia and witchcraft continues to evolve and change over time. However, regardless of the interpretation, it is evident that Aradia's presence has inspired countless individuals to embark on an ancestral spiritual journey and embrace their power.

Aradia's legacy endures in the modern era through her significant influence on Wicca and Neopaganism, where she is revered as The Queen of Witches. Her teachings encourage us to explore our unique spiritual paths and harness the internal power to empower ourselves and those around us. Emulating Aradia's example, we must never fear embracing our true selves and our extraordinary abilities.

Suggested Reading:

Howard, Michael (2010). "Modern Wicca: A History From Gerald Gardner to the Present" Llewellyn Publications.

Spencer, Craig (2020). "Aradia: A Modern Guide to Charles Godfrey Leland's Gospel of the Witches" Llewellyn Publications.

Leland, Charles G., Pazzaglini, Mario (1999). "Aradia: Gospel of the Witches, Expanded Edition" Phoenix Publishing.

Hutton, Ronald (2000). "The Triumph of the Moon" Oxford University Press. Russell, Jeffrey (1982). "A History of Witchcraft: Sorcerers, Heretics, & Pagans" Thames and Hudson.

Gardner, Gerald (1954). "Witchcraft Today" Citadel Press.

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