Growing up in Italian American households, many of us have been witness to bizarre rituals and beliefs practiced by our parents and grandparents. Many of them never fully explained to us; you just did them because you were supposed to. These rituals and superstitions are shrouded in the mists of time and have been practiced by Italians for countless generations. Some may seem silly in our modern world, but the continuation of these superstitions is a link to the past, when ancient pagan traditions had to be modified in order to survive in a world of Christianity. The fact that these superstitions are still with us is a testament to just how strong forces of good luck, prosperity and ill fortune are even today.
The Evil Eye (Malocchio)
Concepts of the Evil Eye are some of the most ancient and prevalent superstitions of the entire Mediterranean. Every culture seems to have their own version of the Evil Eye and their own ways to combat it. One thing they all have in common is that the Evil Eye is caused by jealousy and envy. By coveting somebody's possessions or more importantly admiring another family's newborn baby can cause a curse, even if envious person did not mean it. My grandmother tells the story of how my aunt was the victim of the Evil Eye as an infant and got some type of "sleeping sickness" where she could hardly stay awake.
She took her baby to a local woman who could perform a test by dropping olive oil in a plate of water. The oil formed one large drop in the middle of the plate- a sure sign of the Evil Eye, but after chanting the right prayers that only women are allowed to know, the oil broke up into tiny droplets and spread out. This ritual broke the curse of the Evil Eye and my aunt was said to have gotten better immediately.
The Devil's Horn (Corno)
An offshoot of the Evil Eye curse is the use of the Corno, or Devil's Horn amulet. These twisted red coral, gold or silver amulets are often worn as necklaces by men to ward off curses on their "manliness" - very similar to a Mojo. They can often be seen sold in Italian jewelry stores and especially during Italian American festivals. Although most men who wear one will say it represents one of the horns of the devil, the Corno (also known as Cornuto or Cornicello) predates Christianity by thousands of years. Related to the Corno is the hand gesture known as the mano cornuta, which also wards off the Evil Eye by extending only the pinkie and index finger like a pair of horns and pointing it down. When this gesture is made pointing upward (similar to the heavy metal salute to the Devil) it is as an insult to somebody, meaning their husband or wife is unfaithful.
No Birds in the House
Italians often believe that having a bird in the house brings bad luck. I have heard this growing up and none of the older generations I knew to never had pet birds, but today many Italian American families have pet birds. Some versions of the superstition include even bird feathers, especially peacock feathers with their potentially "Evil" eye. I was told growing up that the reason for birds being bad luck stemmed from the Bible, when St. Peter denied that he knew Jesus three times before the cock crowed.
This is one of those superstitions that are known throughout Europe, having more to do with the poverty of peasants than anything else. A loaf of bread must always be placed face up, or else bad luck will come. Upside down bread is taken quite seriously at times, especially on board fishing boats, where bad luck could mean no fish or worse. This belief is still adhered to by many people (including myself), but reflects just how important bread was in the life of a starving peasant or immigrant family. For these people, bread was life and so every precaution was taken in order to keep it on the table.
I always thought my great-grandfather was kidding when he used to say number 13 was lucky. Apparently he was serious as the Italian concept of lucky and unlucky numbers is different from other parts of the world. Some older Italian Americans still hold the belief of lucky 13, especially when gambling, but it seems that in Italy the number 13 has started to have unlucky properties as well. The number 17 is considered unlucky for at least two reasons, both having to do with how it is written. When 17 is written using Roman numerals XVII, it can be rearranged to spell the Roman word VIXI meaning "I have lived" and was found on ancient tombstones. When written using Arabic numerals 17 are still considered unlucky since it resembles a man hanging from a gallows.
Blessing/Exorcising a New House
This is not as common these days, but was practiced for generations in both Italy as well as America especially when it came to newlyweds. Southern Italians immigrating to new lands brought with them their concepts of bad luck and how to combat it. Moving into a first home was accompanied by the necessary rituals to rid the place of any spirits that may have been left by the previous owners and could harm the new couple or their first child. Before my grandparents could finish moving into their first home, my great-grandmother had to give them a new broom to sweep away evil spirits and she sprinkled salt in the corners of the house to purify it. In other versions of this ritual the salt and broom are accompanied by a loaf of bread and sometimes holy water.
The Sicilian Witchdoctor (Mago/Maga)
Southern Italian immigrants brought their views of health and medicine with them from their homeland and included a mix of folk medicine and ancient superstitions. Some of these are still practiced by grandmothers across the country. However, when home remedies did not work and modern medicine was not an option (from either money or language), some neighborhoods had the services of a man or woman trained in ancient techniques often bordering on witchcraft. This is a profession that has vanished with the assimilation of Italian American culture, but the older generations often tell tales of the "witchdoctor" healing sores and boils with leeches or concocting potions.
Older Sicilian Americans may recall voodoo like practices such as making dolls to curse someone or amulets to protect themselves from evil. A story told by my great-grandmother told of how she got out of an arranged marriage by visiting the local witchdoctor. After protesting to her mother, they asked the Mago to create a love potion to make her fiance fall in love with another girl instead. Apparently, it must have worked since she later married my future great-grandfather.
For Further Information: Frances M. Malpezzi, William M. Clements: Italian-American Folklore. August House Publishers, Little Rock, 1992.
NPR broadcast on Italian Superstitions:
Superstition Articles on LuckyMojo:
- Evil Eye - http://www.luckymojo.com/evileye.html
- The Devil's Horn - http://www.luckymojo.com/corno.html
By Justin Demetri