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Italian American Strega Lori Bruno

Maggie Holtzberg, Folklorist

portrait of Lori Bruno at her Salem shop, 2013.
Portrait of Lori Bruno at her Salem shop, 2013.

My family has always been there where there were things that had to be taken care of.
– Lori Bruno, Hereditary High Priestess and Elder of the Sicilian Strega Line of the Craft of the Wise

When Italians immigrated to this country a century ago they brought with them cultural traditions that have gone on to enrich the American way of life. Perhaps most pervasive and beloved is Italian cooking. A far less familiar tradition is Italian witchcraft, known as stregheria. In Sicily, being a strega (female) or stregone (male) is hereditary; one is born into a family of witches and taught the art from birth.

On an afternoon in early December, I drive up to meet Lori Bruno, an Italian-American strega whose family claims descent from the Sicilan strega line of witchcraft. She is also the go-to person in the local real estate market when houses are slow to sell. The Wall Street Journal published a feature on her during the recent recession, describing how she blesses a house to banish evil spirits. Lori Bruno’s main source of income, however, is from doing psychic readings at Magika, a store she opened a year ago on Wharf Street, in Salem, Massachusetts.

The front of Magika is replete with gift items, statuary, and altars. In the back are two curtained-off spaces for consultation. Lori leads me to an area that she has intentionally set up to feel like a living room. Indeed, it reminds me of my own grandmother’s living room. There are far too many objects to count — keepsakes, paintings, candles, sculptures, altars, two comfortable chairs and a small round table, several large crystal balls and evil eyes, and framed photos of saints, martyrs, and ancestors.

Evil eyes and other talismans.
Evil eyes and other talismans.

Altar figure.
Altar figure.

I ask how far back in Lori’s family the strega tradition goes and she tells me that her family ‘s history of witchcraft, magic, and healing date back to at least the 10th century, as do stories of stigmatization and persecution. On her father’s side, the Brunos trace their family back to 969 A.D. to Jawhar Siqilli Rumi, who ruled the island of Sicily under the Caliph of Bagdad. Her mother’s side claims descent from the philosopher Giordano Bruno, of Nola, Italy, who was burned at the stake as a heretic by order of the Pope.

Family stories abound of ancestors who stood up for human rights, even in the face of persecution and death. Donna Marietta, a midwife and healer, was burned alive for her practice of treating victims of the Bubonic plague in the 1340s by using Arabic medical texts handed down within the family. During World War II, Lori’s father’s cousin helped Jews by issuing false baptismal papers, saving many Jewish lives. He, his wife, and four children were ordered shot to death by Herbert Kappler, who was head of the S.S. in Rome at that time.

The threat of persecution persisted. Lori explains, “The craft of the wise, or what you call the magical craft, had a stigma upon it, where you could not be saying, ‘I’m a witch, a member of the magical community.’ You couldn’t! The witch craft laws were just repealed in the 1940s in England. Read some of this history. So people were afraid. My mother was afraid when I started to do readings. She says, ‘You can’t do that. They killed our family; there’s a price tag on us.’”

Framed wedding portrait of Lori Bruno’s parents.
Framed wedding portrait of Lori Bruno’s parents.

And yet, this Sicilian Strega line of practitioners survived. Historically, the religious energy in Italy was like an accelerant to the strega tradition. Strega families raised their children publicly as Catholics, while privately teaching them the old beliefs and magical practices.

The Sicilian vernacular Catholicism served the strega well. “We would go to church, we’d say Ava Maria, Ava Diana. Our children would become priests in the Catholic church. And right under their noses, they would warn the mothers, when the Inquisition was coming; the host would be put in the mouth flat — they would turn it up and down. That meant go home and hide everything.  What was there to hide? Nothing.

The Sicilian strega was very strong. We had the rolling pin, which is a long stick. We would roll our pasta – that was our wand!” Lori laughs, adding more details of how the practice of stregheria was hidden in plain sight, “The pentacle we used was made on the loaves of the bread we ate. Right there, we would eat it. The inquisitor would come in, ‘Here, have some bread.’ We gave him some. Lori’s voice rising in pitch, proclaims, “Ha, ha ha! We had some fun.”

Throughout the interview, Lori’s way of speaking ranges from a near whisper, peaceful and calming, to a crescendo that ends in an angry outburst, where she rants against isimists, religious intolerance, usury, and the mistreatment of children. Some topics seem like more neutral territory, emotionally. Like the blessing of a house.

“I go in there to bless a house. I use the earth, the air, water, and fire. The earth is salt. The air is incense, the fire, a candle. The water is Holy water, which I make with kosher salt and water. And then I go all around the house. I ring a bell too. If I smell something bad in the house, I’m very careful. Kay? Cause that could mean there’s a bad spirit in there. And you definitely do an exorcism. And we do that too. I was taught by my father.” At his mention, Lori lets out a sigh. And then, in a soft voice says, “I sometimes wish very much that he was here. In fact, I wish all the time that he was here. And my mom.”

The thought of her parents seems to transport her somewhere else. Her eyes close and we sit in silence. Then, as if breaking frame, she states, “You’re doing something with your house soon. Did you know that? Changing it. You want to add something to this home you live in?” When I don’t answer her, she repeats, “Do you? Or move from it?”

“Possibly move from it,” I tell her.

“Two year cycle. Just closed my eyes. Oh my God, something in two years. It’s good. It’s good . . . there is something with a house that has brick. Your house is like Colonial style?”

I nod. “Has a sun porch on the side?” “Yes,” I tell her, but I’m thinking it’s actually on the front of the house, not the side. She continues, “I see your house. Yeah, you got a good home.” Lori leans her head forward and closes her eyes, concentrating on something. “Taylor, the name Taylor. Who is that?”

I tell her I don’t know a Taylor.

“Remember, these things are coming, right now. . . You have new life around you this year. Family, very good. Europe also. You may be going, cause I see a passport here . . .” Then she stops talking and remains silent, her eyes closed.

Thirty-nine seconds go by before she speaks again. I feel hyper-vigilant. “There’s a woman by the name of Betty around you. Elizabeth. Going to do some work with you. It could be within a year. . . O.K., let’s get back to this [interview]. I just get taken up with these things. I had to tell you these things, cause they come out.”

I draw the attention back to her and learn of the people in her life — her husband of the past 36 years, her Coven, her son Anthony who does readings, her daughter who has psychic ability, and her new grandchild who definitely does. I ask Lori how she knows this and she says, “I feel it. Every time I’m around her. I predicted her 26 years before she was born and my daughter will stand by that. I told her she would be having a little girl who was dark skinned and would take my place when I was very old.” Lori chuckles, adding, “I just made 73.”

Lori Bruno with crystal ball.
Lori Bruno with crystal ball.

“Tell me about this,” I say, pointing to one of several large crystal balls in the room. “The crystal ball?” Lori says, somewhat curtly. “It’s not a television set.” Then, her voice softening, she adds, “It’s something you look in and your mind clears and it transports you. You go into another space and another time. That’s what it’s used for — to clear your mind and to make you focus.”

Table with framed photos of the ancestors.
Table with framed photos of the ancestors.

I start to ask Lori how old she was when she knew she was a strega– but before I can complete my question, she states: “I could see the dead. I could see the dead when I was three years old. I thought they were my friends, my play fellows. My mother would say, ‘I’m going to go ahead and put the light out so you can sleep.’ I said, ‘No, I can’t see my friends.’ I never had fear.”

Lori Bruno’s hands.
Lori Bruno’s hands.

Before I leave, I ask Lori what she considers to be her greatest gift. Without hesitation, she answers, “Helping people. I do readings. I’m a psychic. I bring peace to humanity. That’s the biggest gift I give anybody. And letting people know that they can assume that which is their highest goal.” Her voice drops to a whisper, “That’s my gift.” A sudden strength in her voice, she proclaims, “Opening the door. I’m a door opener. That’s why I wear keys.”

All photos by Maggie Holtzberg.

This blog post originally appeared on our Keepers of Tradition blog on December 26, 2013.

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