Paculla Annia  

From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia

Jump to: navigation, search

Related e

Wiki Commons

Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Paculla Annia was a priestess from the southern Italian region of Campania. According to Livy, she largely changed the rules of Bacchanalias so that regarding nothing as impious or forbidden became the very sum of Bacchus' cult. This article relates the story as told by Livy. Annia is of importance to the history of European witchcraft.



In 188 BC, Paculla is said to have allowed men to participate for the first time, although it is now believed that men had participated before that. The first men to be initiated were her sons, Minius and Herennius Cerrinius. She also ordered the festivities to take place by night instead of by day, and decided that instead of taking place over three days in a year there would be five days of initiation in each month. Participants of the ceremonies were to be of all sorts: men and women, young and old, noble and common people, free and slaves -- all in a celebration of wine and sex. Finally, as a rule, it was decided that no-one older than twenty should be initiated.

In the rites, men were said to have shrieked out prophecies in an altered state of consciousness with frenzied bodily convulsions. Women, dressed as Bacchantes, with hair dishevelled, would run down to the Tiber with burning torches, plunge them into the water, and take them out again. Their flames would not diminish as they were made of sulphur mixed with lime.

The rites gradually turned into sexual orgies, particularly among the men, and men who refused to take part were sacrificed. It is said these men were fastened to a machine and taken to hidden caves, where it was claimed they were kidnapped by the gods.

The festivities were reported to Postumius who persuaded the Roman Senate to authorize a full investigation. In 186 BC, the Senate passed a strict law (the Senatus consultum de Bacchanalibus) prohibiting the Bacchanalia except under specific circumstances which required the approval of the Senate. Violators were to be executed.

Relation to the history of witchcraft

Some scholars maintain that Christianity did not invent the idea of witchcraft as a potentially harmful force whose practitioners should be put to death. This idea is commonplace in pre-Christian religions. According to the scholar Max Dashu, the concept of medieval witchcraft contained many of its elements even before the emergence of Christianity. These can be found in Bacchanalias, especially in the time when they were led by priestess Paculla Annia (188-186).


The charges of evil and subversive practices that were levelled against these devotees in the second century BC reappear in remarkably similar form as major elements of European witchcraft as described by prosecutors in the Middle Ages:

  • secret nocturnal meetings;
  • women leaders;
  • children commonly initiated into the cult;
  • ecstatic festivities with music, dancing, and cries followed by orgies;
  • same-gender sexual practices; and
  • allegations of ritual murder and other crimes.

Elements of the witch stereotype not yet present were the Christian Devil (as this religion had not yet begun), shapeshifting, and levitation. The last two attributes were associated with the Roman mythological creature known as the strix; this creature would later be associated with witchcraft in Italy and Eastern Europe. The fusion of these elements into the concept of a large-scale social conspiracy developed only later. Nevertheless, the mysteries led by women were already being cast as a fast-spreading cult and a serious threat to society at large.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Paculla Annia" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

Personal tools