High Tuscia, a rugged terrain of woods and canyons nestled between Rome and Tuscany is well known as homeland to the mysterious Etruscans as well as the headquarters of a revolutionary secret society of the 16th century which practiced occultism and masked its anti-clerical and reformist agenda behind pagan symbols. The great villas and sculpture gardens of the area, with their symbolic statues, fountains, landscaping and iconography all bear testimony to the Tuscia’s occult connection. Few people know, however, that rougher forms of female magic were practiced in those woods in the long centuries following the decline of Etruscan culture up until relatively modern times. In the woods outlying Villa Lante, the 16th century garden of extraordinary fountains built by Cardinal Gambara, replete with pagan symbols of rebirth and regeneration -- there stands a wooded hill called Montecchio where wild women convened to dance around a fire, perform magic rites, and embrace winged beings. Local legend knows them as the Witches of Montecchio or as the Daughters of the Moon. On this day of Halloween, it seems fitting to pay a visit to their sacred spots.
For centuries this hill was considered taboo, maledetto, cursed, and thus avoided by hikers and chestnut or porcini gatherers so frequent elsewhere in these woods. Here in Montecchio only a hunter or two would venture, well-armed, in the boar season. A shadow seems to hang over the place - as it does in many similar sites I have visited in the Tuscia – such as the pagan altars just outside the Monster Park of Bomarzo, totally abandoned and enveloped by vines and scrub; or the strange cave dwellings of Corviano perched perpendicularly on towering cliffs, or the mouldering step pyramids thickly furred with moss hidden amid lonely hazelnut groves near Vitorchiano. Secluded, silent, luxuriantly overgrown, these woodland places stand so near to built up areas, highways, villages, all out of sight just over the next ridge. The hiker may take heart that the safe and familiar world is within reach and yet these eerie places of the Tuscia radiate a chilling isolation. Leaving my car by the roadside and stepping in amid the trees, I can feel myself entering a time warp.
The track runs steep up a grassy slope, weaving in among scrub, thorns, and waist high weeds that tear my clothes. Boar tracks riddle muddy patches where rain has collected.
Pink and purple flares of cyclamen stretch on for yards, poking up through grass and dead leaves. Here at night, under the moonlight, the daughters of the moon ran heedless, with hair streaming, through these branches up to the sacred plain at the very top of the hill. Here fire-blackened outcroppings of rock indicate the site of their ancient bonfires, recently resuscitated, probably by boar hunters or by the curiosity seekers who have preceded me. Further along I find the sacred spot I have been seeking: the throne where the queen of the witches, or better, the high priestess ---presided. Her throne is a niche carved in cold stone atop a mossy mound of rock, earth, and lichen. It is not a place to sit – here she held court by lying down. The cross-shaped niche, reminiscent of an angel’s form with outspread wings, perfectly contains a supine human body – with lateral troughs at right angles just designed to hold your arms uplifted at the elbows. Local legend claims that this was the queen’s nuptial bed, where she embraced a great winged spirit who impressed the shape of his wings upon the stone. Or perhaps she merely lifted her arms in a ritual gesture, reaching up to the moon and stars and the shape of the troughs helped her maintain such an awkward position at length. Perhaps 9 months following this ritual embrace, in this niche she gave birth to a new daughter of the moon. Her throne may have been a place of sacrifice, an altar, or a place of healing or birthing. Candle stubs and melted blobs of wax on nearby stones show me that the place is still frequented at night.
Who were the witches of Montecchio? Historical findings indicate there was indeed a community of women living in these woods in the middle ages: a religious community of female hermits tolerated by the church. Local legend though brands them as witches, who however, practiced usually white magic, but on occasion ensorcelled the menfolk of their rivals, causing them to run out from their homes in the night to join the moon daughters in their revels.
Who knows if on this night of Halloween, they will return to this hill – either in the flesh as contemporary neophytes or as shades of an archaic past to celebrate the goddess of earth and moon and woodland who once reigned supreme in these parts. I touch a charred rock – still warm to touch – and am convinced tonight too here in this spot, orange flames will lick the jet black sky and around that flickering light and heat, a ring of wild women will be dancing till dawn.
Note: The sacred and pagan places of Tuscia have been a topic of my research for many years, and are featured in my novel The Etruscan (Wynkin deWorde, 2004) and in my forthcoming novel, Signatures in Stone, set in Bomarzo.