In wanting to learn more about the Oscan roots of my Italian spiritual lineage, my research led me to a Goddess named Mefitis (also spelled Mephitis). Because Mefitis is an Oscan word and the Oscan version is spelled that way, I will use that spelling from here forward.

The Oscan language was actively spoken in regions of what is now Italy, in pre-Roman times, from 600 BCE–1 CE. The Oscan people were not the only people to speak Oscan; it was the language of many ancient peoples. Among them were the Oscan-speaking Samnites—the ancient ancestors of my lineage from the pre-Roman era. I was very happy to be able to write the word Mefitis in Oscan (read right to left) above with the letters from my and Rauri Tor’s Oscan Oracle deck.

To learn more about the Oscan speaking Samnites and the ancient Janarra and witches of the wild ways of my Italian lineage read: The Oscan Oracle: from the Ancient Janarra of the Moon

In the initial research, Mefitis was defined as the Goddess of foul smelling odors. This definition and name has to do with her association with thermal and sulphur springs which often possess hydrogen sulfide that emits the smell of rotten eggs. In the modern era, the word has come to have associations with all kinds of bad smells including the spray of skunks. “Mephitic” is now an adjective meaning “smelly.”

However, the Goddess Mefitis was much more than a bad smell. The thermal and smelly waters were long associated with Goddesses, ancient oracles and oracular healing centers.

As I continued my research I found there is indeed a whole lot more to Mefitis. She was reduced to the above limited scope of meaning by the Romans and those who came after them. Her sacred places were later dedicated to Venus or Diana.

It became increasing clear that Mefitis was an ancient Goddess of liminal spaces and places.

The word Mefitis translates to “she who smokes in the middle.” She is the Goddess of fissures in the earth crust, places of opening and thinning of veils as well as the space that is created by those openings. Often these places that are liminal in their own right —fault lines, fissures— also include springs, deep underground water and caves. The ancients believed these places were openings to the underworld. The vapors and chemicals released in many of these deep underground springs and crevices induce a light trance which allows one to access other dimensional realms.

Since the liminal space is where oracles, diviners, mediums and seers do their work, it stands to reason that Mefitis was important to them as well.

Mefitis was worshipped by Oscan and Oscan speaking people including the Samnites, and she was extremely popular. In many of the places where she was worshipped, votive offerings are found, confirming they were healing centers, places of pilgrimage and retreat.

Pre-Roman Italy did not have the formal oracular temples like their neighboring  Greeks. There were famous Greek Oracles with formal temples located within Italy but for the indigenous people of central-southern Italy the local, trance-inducing springs were used by the general population which included the wealthy, the peasant folk and the witches of the wild ways—the Janarra.

In a much less formalized setting than the Greeks and even Romans, the ancient Janarra shamanesses and witches, gave oracle with the help of the Goddess Mefitis. These small localized centers were more than likely communal and non-hierarchical and attended to by the local medicine people. As stated earlier, most probably all people could go there to ask for dreams or information from the spirit of the place mediated and held by  Mefitis. They would go there to speak to their ancestors, to ask for information, to ask for prophecy, to ask for healing.

Mefitis is often classified as a “minor goddess,” by anthropologists and scholars. My sources place Mefitis in the category of nymph. I understand that to mean an entity local to place and elements. An entity created by the location and ecosystem itself and given more numina and power by those who come and beseech her, those who pray to her and make offerings, those who interact with her and form a relationship with her.

Read my article, Numina: The Spiritual forces at work in Italian Witchcraft

In “The Call of Mefitis” on the Prehistory of Italy site, writers and researchers Antonella della Morte (Alma) and Alfredo Finotto (Frædior) state that the origin of the word Mefitis:

“should be traced back to the Indo-European *medh(u)- and to the verb medhu-io, connected to the sense of “intoxication”, therefore “that which intoxicates”. The same root medh– is present in the Indo-European word that indicates mead, and in the Celtic, Germanic and Sanskrit always with the meaning of “stun”, “intoxicate”. This finds comparison in Latin madeo “to be imbued to satiety”. By definition, what gives a sense of inebriation is intoxicating, which overwhelms the senses and exalts the spirit, therefore it is a matter of sensual ecstasy. The chthonic fumes that cause visions in the Oracle Priestesses of the past are inebriating, the sexual scents, the scent of flowers, resins and spices, which upset and excite the senses, provoking desire and allowing one to free oneself from the mental reins of control, pushing one to recover the dimension of the wild, of freedom, of instinct”(8).

Della Morte and Finotto founded a modern temple, Kaila Maatreis, to the Great Mother of Safinim, honoring their pre-Roman ancestors and reclaiming what they define as their “indigenous Italian shamanism.”

Samnium is latin for the regions in central-southern Italy where the ancient Samnites lived. Safinim is what the Samnites called their native land and Sannio is what it is called in Italian. The Samnites of this region were Oscan speaking. Their name for themselves was Safineis. Many scholars believe they descended from the Sabines.

Most agree that the Samnite society was one of relative equality. There were some people with more wealth but generally it was shared with the populace and created what Emma Dench calls: a “thriving free peasantry”(25) in her book, From Barbarians to New Men.

Della Morte and Finotto continue to define Mefitis:

“Everything that flows belongs to her: water, winds, flames, vapours, magma, emotions, blood and life itself, the cycle of existence. She is a Lady of the Threshold, who presides over the passages of life and accompanies souls together with her Wolf. She is the door and the key, the bridge and the border, the Initiator into the Mysteries”(9).

What is the liminal space?

For a human being, the liminal space which is presided over and held by Mefitis, is often called trance. Trance is a space and a place. With trance one’s consciousness becomes mobile, loosed, transferable; the observer becomes observed, point-of-view lifts into an over-seeing eye that is able to shift and alternate. Trance state is a place that holds the consciousness outside of the brain, engaging the larger container of mind and moon mind —one of expanded presence.

Mefitis IS this place. She is transpermeability, a boundaried boundlessness. A potent field of knowing. In trance, senses combine and intermix. Sound is image, form is creative, interconnectedness rules, permeability is the law. Oracles, witches, priestesses, and Janarra consent, agree, to this expanded state because it is held by Mefitis —  the container of trance—knowing when they return from trance, operational boundaries will be restored.

With twenty-one Oracle cards. The Oscan Oracle is a tool for you to use to access information from your spiritual guides, higher self and ancestors. It heals while also instructs and informs about the ways of the Janarra and the Moon. The Oscan Oracle also contains twelve moon meditations and a ritual for each of the twenty-one letters of the Oracle deck.

For the layperson, at these spaces and in the trance state, the healing is found in the felt transcendental nature of this place, the container of Mefitis. The dream of a lost loved one, the experience of something beyond this life, the message from a guide, the shifting of a perception, the opening of a blockage.

For the witches of the wild ways, the Janarra and other spiritual practitioners, the interpretation and ongoing conversation is the work.

Stay tuned for the next post where we will explore some of the places where Mefitis was worshipped.

© Theresa C. Dintino 2023

Works Cited

Della Morte & Finotto, “The Call of Mefitis,” Prehistory in Italy, February 20, 2023. https://www.preistoriainitalia.it/en/2023/02/20/il-richiamo-di-mefitis/

Dench, Emma. From Barbarians to New Men: Greek, Roman, and Modern Perceptions of Peoples of the Central Apennines. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995.

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