Charles G. Leland
The following very curious tale, with the incantation, was not in the text of the Vangelo, but it very evidently belongs to the cycle or series of legends connected with it. Diana is declared to be the protectress of all outcasts, those to whom the night is their day, consequently of thieves; and Laverna, as we may learn from Horace and Plautus, was pre-eminently the patroness of pilfering and all rascality. In this story she also appears as a witch and humorist.
It was given to me as a tradition of Virgil, who often appears as one familiar with the marvelous and hidden lore of the olden time.
It happened on a time that Virgil, who knew all things hidden or magical, he who was a magician and poet, having heard a speech (or oration) by a famous talker who had not much in him, was asked what he thought of it. And he replied, “It seems to me to be impossible to tell whether it was all introduction or all conclusion; certainly there was no body in it. It was like certain fish of whom one is in doubt whether they are all head or all tail, or only head and tail; or the goddess Laverna, of whom no one ever know whether she was all head or all body, or neither or both.”
Then the emperor inquired who this deity might be, for he had never heard of her.
And Virgil replied, “Among the gods or spirits who were of ancient times – may they be ever favorable to us! Among them (was) one female who was the craftiest and most knavish of them all. She was called Laverna. She was a thief, and very little known to the other deities, who were honest and dignified, for she was rarely in heaven or in the country of the fairies.
“She was almost always on earth, among thieves, pickpockets, and panders – she lived in darkness.
“Once it happened that she went (to a mortal), a great priest in the form and guise of a very beautiful stately priestess (of some goddess), and said to him: –
” ‘ You have an estate which I wish to buy. I intend to build on it a temple to (our) God. I swear to you on my body that I will pay thee within a year’
“Therefore the priest transferred to her the estate.
“And very soon Laverna had sold off all the crops, grain, cattle, wood, and poultry. There was not left the value of four farthings.
“But on the day fixed for payment there was no Laverna to be seen. The fair goddess was far away, and had left her creditor in the lurch!
“At the same time Laverna went to a great lord and bought of him a castle, well furnished within and broad rich lands without.
“But this time she swore on her head to pay in full in six months.
“And as she had done by the priest, so she acted to the lord of the castle, and stole and sold every stick, furniture, cattle, men, and mice – there was not left wherewith to feed a fly.
“Then the priest and the lord, finding out who this was, appealed to the gods, complaining that they had been robbed by a goddess.
“And it was soon made known to them all that this was Laverna.
“Therefore she was called to judgment before all the gods.
“And when she was asked what she had done with the property of the priest, unto whom she had sworn by her body to make payment at the time appointed (and why she had broken her oath)?
“She replied by a strange deed which amazed them all, for she made her body disappear, so that only her head remained visible, and it cried: –
” “Behold me! I swore by my body, but body have I none!’
“Then all the gods laughed.
“After the priest came the lord who had also been tricked, and to whom she had sworn by her head. And in reply to him Laverna showed all present her whole body without mincing matters, and it was one of extreme beauty, but without a head; and from the neck thereof came a voice which said: –
‘Behold me, for I am Laverna, who
Have come to answer to that lord’s complaint,
Who swears that I contracted debt to him,
And have not paid although the time is o’er
And that I am a thief because I swore
Upon my head – but, as you all can see,
I have no head at all, and therefore I
Assuredly ne’er swore by such an oath.’
“Then there was indeed a storm of laughter among the gods, who made the matter right by ordering the head to join the body, and bidding Laverna pay up her debts, which she did.
“Then Jove spoke and said: –
” ‘Here is a roguish goddess without a duty (or a worshipper), while there are in Rome innumerable thieves, sharpers, cheats, and rascals who live by deceit.
” “These good folk have neither a church nor a god, and it is a great pity, for even the very devils have their master, Satan, as the head of the family. Therefore, I command that in future Laverna shall be the goddess of all the knaves or dishonest tradesman, with the whole rubbish and refuse of the human race, who have been hitherto without a god or a devil, inasmuch as they have been too despicable for the one or the other.’
“And so Laverna became the goddess of all dishonest and shabby people.
“Whenever any one planned or intended any knavery or aught wicked, he entered her temple, and invoked Laverna, who appeared to him as a woman’s head. But if he did his work of knavery badly or maladroitly, when he again invoked her he saw only the body; but if he was clever, then he beheld the whole goddess, head and body.
“Laverna was no more chaste than she was honest, and had many lovers and many children. It was said that not being bad at heart or cruel, she often repented her life and sins; but do what she might, she could not reform, because her passions were so inveterate.
“And if a man had got any woman with child or any maid found herself enceinte, and would hide it from the world and escape scandal, they would go every day to invoke Laverna.
“Then when the time came for the suppliant to be delivered, Laverna would bear her in sleep during the night to her temple, and after the birth cast her into slumber again, and bear her back to her bed at home. And when she woke in the morning, she was ever in vigorous health and felt no weariness, and all seemed to her as a dream.
“But to those who desired in time to reclaim their children, Laverna was indulgent if they led such lives as pleased her and faithfully worshipped her.
“And this is the ceremony to be performed and the incantation to be offered every night to Laverna.
“There must be a set place devoted to the goddess, be it a room, a cellar, or a grove, but ever a solitary place.
“Then take a small table of the size of forty playing cards set close together, and this must be hid in the same place, and going there at night…
“Take forty cards and spread them on the table, making of them a close carpet or cover on it.
“Take of the herbs paura and concordia, and boil the two together, repeating meanwhile the following: –
I boil the cluster of concordia
To keep in concord and at peace with me
Laverna, that she may restore to me
My child, and that she by her favoring care
May guard me well from danger all my life!
I boil this herb, yet ’tis not it which boils,
I boil the fear, that it may keep afar
Any intruder, and if such should come
(to spy upon my rite), may he be struck
With fear and in his terror haste away!
Having said thus, put the boiled herbs in a bottle and spread the cards on the table one by one, saying: –
I spread before me now the forty cards
Yet ’tis not forty cards which here I spread,
But forty of the gods superior
To the deity Laverna, that their forms
May each and all become volcanoes hot,
Until Laverna comes and brings my child;
And ’till ’tis done may they all cast at her
Hot flames of fire, and with them glowing coals
From noses, mouths, and ears (until she yields);
Then may they leave Laverna at her peace,
Free to embrace her children at her will!
“Laverna was the Roman goddess of thieves, pickpockets, shopkeepers or dealers, plagiarists, rascals, and hypocrites. There was near Rome a temple in a grove where robbers went to divide their plunder. There was a statue of the goddess. Her image, according to some, was a head without a body; according to others, a body without a head; but the epithet of ‘beautiful’ applied to her by Horace indicates that she who gave disguises to her worshippers had kept one to herself.” She was worshipped in perfect silence. This is confirmed by a passage to Horace, where an impostor, hardly daring to move his lips, repeats the following prayer or incantation: –
“O goddess Laverna!
Give me the art of cheating and deceiving,
Of making men believe that I am just,
Holy, and innocent! extend all darkness
And deep obscurity o’er my misdeeds!”
It is interesting to compare this unquestionably ancient classic invocation to Laverna with the one which is before given. The goddess was extensively known to the lower orders, and in Plautus a cook who has been robbed of his implements calls on her to revenge him.
I call special attention to the fact that in this, as in a great number of Italian witch incantations, the deity or spirit who is worshipped, be it Diana herself or Laverna, is threatened with torment by a higher power until he or she grants the favour demanded. This is quite classic (Grecco-Roman or Oriental) in all of which sources the magician relies not on favour, aid, or power granted by either God or Satan, but simply on what he has been able to wrench and wring, as it were, out of infinite nature or the primal source by penance and study. I mention this because a reviewer has reproached me with exaggerating the degree to which diabolism – introduced by the Church since 1500 – is deficient in Italy. But in fact, among the higher classes of witches, or in their traditions, it is hardly to be found at all. In Christian diabolism the witch never dares to threaten Satan or God, or any of the Trinity or angels, for the whole system is based on the conception of a Church and of obedience.
The herb concordia probably takes its name from that of the goddess Concordia, who was represented as holding a branch. It plays a great part in witchcraft, after verbena and rue.