MILAN (Reuters Life!) - Milan will sweep aside its Roman and Papal heritage this weekend to celebrate Samhain, popularly regarded as the Celtic New Year, at a festival which highlights Italy's awakened interest in its pagan past.
The city's Sforzesco Castle will host crafts like weaving, coining money and making chain mail to a backdrop of music from Italy, Ireland, Scotland and Spain. More than 100,000 visitors are expected to come to see Celtic warriors clash in battle.
The focus is strictly cultural heritage, not religion, said Emanuela Magni, co-organizer of the event.
"It teaches how even with the passage of time, there are some concepts of the universe that have endured here," Magni said, noting that the Celtic holy tradition of Samhain was a precursor to holidays like All Saints Day and All Souls Day.
But as Italy uncovers its pre-Christian roots, it is also awakening pagan practice.
"Indeed something is afoot here quietly but determinedly, and it appears to be a movement," wrote American religious studies researcher Francesca Howell, in a paper published last month by the international journal of pagan studies, Pomegranate.
Italy has deep roots in witchcraft, or "stregoneria," Howell said in an interview. But its current pagan movement echoes earlier trends in the British Isles and America. Italy's pagans have coalesced around movements like feminism and environmentalism.
"It truly is a different cup of tea, or different cauldron of herbs, if you will," she said.
Melwyn, a 23-year-old Milanese secretary who gave only her Celtic name, fits the movement's demographics.
A Celtic re-enactor, she read about Wicca as a teenager and discovered practitioners at the Samhain festival four years ago.
"A lot of people are close to Wicca without knowing it, especially re-enactors" she said. "They believe in it but don't acknowledge it."
Organizers say numbers are elusive, but using sources like mailing lists, event registration and journal subscriptions, they place their ranks at between 2,000 and 10,000.
The founder of Milan's Circle of the Crossroads, Davide Marre, remembers when his group numbered "four cats," an expression for virtually nobody.
Six years later, he has 200 members, with conferences, study groups, a magazine, a book, even a monthly bar fest called the Witches' Café.
Given Italy's past, Marre said he is not surprised by the revival. "Italy is the land of the gods," he said.
Editing by Paul Casciato