Leland was an American folklorist, lecturer, and prolific author who wrote several classic texts on English Gypsies and Italian Witches. He was founder and first president of the Gypsy Lore Society. His immersion into Gypsy lore and Witchcraft influenced its revival in the 20th century.
He was born August 15, 1824, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, into a family with Puritan heritage. His father, Henry, was a descendant of Hopestill Leland, one of the first white settlers in New England. He died on March 20, 1903, in Florence, Italy.
Leland was conscious of the significance of his birth date as it is contributed to the ascension of the Virgin Mary into heaven, and also to the ascension of Buddha. He considered himself fortunate because of this.
His niece Elizabeth Robins Pennell in the two-volume biography of him described many details of Leland’s life that she wrote in 1906. She shows that Leland’s fascination with occultism and folklore started early in life. In the biography’s first chapter she writes:
In both the “Memoirs” and “Memoranda,” he tells how he was carried up to the garret by his old Dutch nurse, who was said to be a sorceress, and left there with a Bible, a key, and a knife on his breast, lighted candles, money, and a plate of salt at his head: rite that were to make luck doubly certain by helping him rise in life, and become a scholar and wizard.
Pennell revealed that Leland’s mother spoke of an ancestress that had married into “sorcery.” In his memoirs Leland wrote: “My mother’s opinion was that this was a very strong case of atavism, and that the mysterious ancestor had cropped out in me.” Another reference to an ancestor (whether the same one or not is uncertain) is as follows: An ancestor – a High German Doctor – had a reputation as a sorcerer, and ‘Rye’, as his family called him, was believed to have inherited his gifts. Leland is said to have believed that this ancestor was “Washington Irving’s ‘High German Doctor’ who laid the mystic spell on Sleepy Hollow.”
The biography is full of accounts of Leland’s early interest in the supernatural that became his lifelong passion. About this passion his niece wrote:
It is what might be expected…of the man who was called Master by the witches and Gypsies, whose pockets was always full of charms and amulets, who owned the Black Stone of the Voodoos, who could not see a bit of red string at his feet and not pick it up, or find a pebble with a hole in it and not add it to his store-who, in a word, not only studied witchcraft with the impersonal curiosity of the scholar, but practiced it with the zest of the initiated.
Initiating him into this curious path was the fact that Leland grew up in a household of servants. He learned Irish fairy tales from the immigrant women working in the home, and Voodoo from black servant women in the kitchen. Of his boyhood Leland writes: “I was always given to loneliness in the gardens and woods when I could get into them, and to hearing words in bird’s songs and running or falling water.”
Pennell comments that he never could escape his fascination for the supernatural, or did he ever show any desire to. Perhaps the supernatural fulfilled needs for Leland that the nature did not. He later in life admitted that he hated school even through he had graduated from Princeton, and then studied in Munich and Heidelberg. He was always hesitant about education. His dislike and ambivalence toward education seems to indicate for him satisfaction lied elsewhere.
He had some taste for scholarship, though; this is evidence from his unpublished manuscript translation of the Pymander of Trismegistus, a Hermetic text commonly known as Hermes Trismegistus: His Divine Pymander; which frequently called The Pymander, for short, was the foundation for much of the Hermetic writings that influenced the Western occultists during the later 19th and early 20th centuries.
When periodically returning to America, he established short-lived careers as a lawyer, newspaper editor, and an article writer. His law career last a grand total of six months, but he soon caught his stride as a writer. In due time he became the Editor of the Philadelphia Bulletin. While in that position, he wrote frequent fiery attacks on ‘the institution of slavery’, putting him out of favor with many Southerners who depended on slave labor to run their plantations.
It was during this period that Leland wrote the Ballad of Hans Breitmann, which was written in an approximation of a heavy German accent. After retuning to England a publisher expressed interest in re-publishing this work.
In 1870 Leland took up residence in England from where he started his world traveling. It was in England, however, that he eventually studied Gypsy society and lore. Over some time he developed a trusting friendship with Marty Cooper, the King of the Gypsies in England, who personally taught Leland to speak Romany, the language of the Gypsies. It required many years before the Gypsies accepted Leland as one of their own, and called him Romany Rye, meaning a non-Gypsy who associates with Gypsies. He wrote to Pennell on November 16, 1886, “I have been by moonlight amid Gypsy ruins with a whole camp of Gypsies, who danced and sang…”
Leland penetrated the Mysteries of the Gypsies to such a degree that he wrote two classic works on the subject, thus establishing himself as an authority. Also he discovered Shelta, the secret language of the tinkers.
It was in 1888 when Leland discovered himself in Florence, Italy, where he spent the remainder of his life. There he met a woman of whom he would only refer to as “Maddelena.” Though some people believed her real name was Margherita Talanti. She worked the Florentine back streets as a “card reader” telling fortunes. Leland discovered that Maddelena was a Witch and quickly employed her to assist him in gathering material for his research of Italian Witchcraft. Pennell, in Leland’s biography, mentions coming across a description of Maddelena in his manuscript notes:
…a young woman would have been taken for a Gypsy in England, but in whose face, in Italy, I soon learned to know the antique Etruscan, with its strange mysteries, to which was added the indefinable glance of the Witch. She was from the Romagna Toscana, born in the heart of its unsurpassingly wild and romantic scenery, amid cliffs, headlong torrents, forests, and old legendary castles. I did not gather all the facts for a long time, but gradually found that she was of a Witch family, or one whose members had, from time to immemorial, told fortunes, repeated ancient legends, gathered incantations, and learned how to intone them, prepared enchanted medicines, philters, or spells. As a girl, her Witch grandmother, aunt, and especially her stepmother brought her up to believe in her destiny as a sorceress, and taught her in the forests, afar from human ear, to chant in strange prescribed tones, incantations or evocations to the ancient gods of Italy, under names but little change, who are now known as folletti, spiriti, fate, or lari-the Lares or household goblins of the ancient Etruscans.
Through his company with Maddelena she introduced him to another women who also helped to provide material for his research. Her name was Marietta, whom from Leland’s notes Pennell thought was a sorceress, but in his books Leland’s description of Marietta is less clear. At one time Leland seemed to have suspected that the two women might have been fabricating the material, mostly verses, which they were giving him, but later he seems to change his mind. In later letter to his niece Leland describes the vast amount of training that Maddelena has undergone as a Witch. He wrote that her memory seemed inexhaustible, the incantations that she had learned seemed endless, and when her memory failed her she consulted another witch. She told him that you never finished learning Stregheria-witchcraft. Leland wrote that he was sure that the incantations were originally Etruscan; and Maddelena had written over 200 pages of folklore, incantations, and stories.
In letters addressed to others Leland tells of other Witches also helping him gather material. From them he obtained certifications that their testimonies about the Etruscan Jupiter, Bacchus, and so on were real. In this material was included some minor Roman rural deities. Leland wrote that he found himself in an atmosphere of witchcraft and sorcery as he went about collecting songs, spells, and stories of sorcery. An eminent scholar told him that he could do well at folklore except he had too many irons in the fire.
Leland described the Italian Witches that he met as “living in a bygone age.” Apparently it was an age that he longed for himself. There is indication in his work Etruscan Roman Remains that Leland not only kept company with the Witches he met but was initiated into the Stregheria.
True, there are witches good and bad, but all whom I ever met belonged entirely to the buone. It was their rivals and enemies who were maladette et cetera, but the latter I never met. We were all good.
In the chapter entitled “Witches and Witchcraft” in the same book Leland indicates a priest joined the Craft. He asked a strega how a certain priest became a stregone. The female Witch answered the he (the priest) “came to practice our noble profession.” It is assumed that the stega, Leland and the priest all belonged to the same organization, or fraternity.
Some people are puzzled by Leland’s descriptions of Italian Witchcraft when reading his works. He describes the Witchcraft in common negative Christian stereotypes of the period while depicting the Witches as “good” and “noble” followers of the goddess Diana instead of the devil. His book Aradia: Gospel of the Witches is an example of this as it was a shocking turn from his general theme of the good witches of Benevento. Perhaps Leland was attempting to describe both attitudes toward Witchcraft at that time: the attitude of the Italian people, and the one of the Witches themselves. The author T. C. Lethbridge speculated that the Aradia: Gospel of the Witches might be a collection of beliefs and practices dating back just to the Middle Ages but drawing on beliefs perhaps much older.
Leland’s works include: Memoirs, Memoranda, Ballad of Hans Breitmann, Gypsy Journal, Gypsy Sorcery, Etruscan Magic and Occult Remedies, Legends of Florence, and Aradia: Gospel of the Witches. A.G.H.