In A Nutshell
Across most of Europe, witches were known for communing with the Devil and cursing their neighbors. Sicilian witches, though, were thought to commune with the fairy world. Most of the ills that were visited on mortals came from angry fairies, and Sicily’s fairy witches acted as go-betweens for the mortal and the fairy world, resolving disputes and curing illnesses.
The Whole Bushel
For centuries, witches have been at the heart of investigations, trials, and executions throughout Europe and the New World. In Sicily, though, the witch took on a rather different appearance.
Sicilian witches were indistinguishable from one of the world’s most widespread mythological creatures: the fairy. Known as donna di fuora, which translates as “the lady from outside,” the members of the Sicilian witchcraft scene were part of what was essentially a fairy cult.
Between 1579 and 1651, around 65 of these fairy witches were taken before the Spanish Inquisition, but they were a bit problematic. Most places considered witches evil: They consorted with the devil, they cursed their neighbors, they danced naked in the moonlight, and they offered up child sacrifices.
The Sicilian women, on the other hand, claimed their magic was in healing. But the dancing part was also there as part of rituals where they would meet in the woods.
Many didn’t even realize that there was anything questionable about what they were doing. Their beliefs were ancient and viewed as mostly positive, allowing them to help their neighbors rather than hurt them.
While most European witches were intermediaries between the mortal world and the Devil, standing against everything that was good and holy, the Sicilian fairy witches were mortal messengers that could interact with both the fairy realm and the human world. Most of that interaction was in the form of healing, as they were privy to folk medicine and magic that could be used to benefit both humans and animals.
They also acted as mediators. One idea was that illness and misfortune were often caused by angry fairies, and fairies could act as go-betweens to set everything right again. That was done in a number of ways depending on the situation and could include offerings, spells, or rituals.
Ceremonies were often held beneath a walnut tree, and many of the confessions given included details about how the women would leave their bodies and take on a spirit form to congregate for their ceremonies and games.
The fairy cult was divided into companies rather than covens, and every group was comprised of an odd number—usually seven or nine. The leader was known as either the Queen of the Fairies, the Mother, the Teacher, Lady Wisdom, or Lady Sibyl, and one man was permitted in each company. According to the Inquisition, companies were given names as well, including the Company of the Poor and the Company of the Mother.
Sounds great and all, but that still presented a problem for people like witch-hunters and the Inquisition. The women claimed to head out on spiritual journeys several times a week, when they would be accompanied by their fairy spirits and guides from the other world.
The idea of witches having fairy guides instead of demonic ones popped up in a couple of other places throughout Europe, most notably in northern Italy where witches also communed with the fairy world rather than a demonic one. And in Sicily, the witches were expected to show an attitude that might have horrified the witches of other areas, often cursing their otherworldly associates and threatening them in cases where everything else had failed.