Catholicism and other superstitions in Italy
“Hey, did you see this?” I asked my Italian girlfriend, holding up an invitation card that we had just received in the mail.
“No, what is it?” she replied, semi-distracted by a book or magazine or something.
“Stefano’s baby is being baptized next month. We’ve been invited to the ceremony.”
“Nice, yeah, but Stefano isn’t religious—not in the least. He watches soccer on Sundays, he doesn’t go to church.”
“So what’s your point?” she asked.
“Well, if he isn’t religious, then why is he having his son baptized?” I assumed it was the obvious question.
“Because he believes that it would be bad luck if he didn’t.”
Bad luck? I sat there just staring at the card for a few seconds, as if it would bestow upon me the logical explanation that I seemed to be missing.
My girlfriend must have sensed my bewilderment, and so she turned to give me her full attention. “Rick, how long have you lived in Italy now?”
“More than two years…”
She could only shake her head in disbelief, “And you still don’t get it, do you?”
I guess didn’t…don’t. This fuzzy gray line between religion and superstition is something that I can’t quite work out in my head. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized how pervasive this attitude is throughout Italy. Another friend of mine, who is openly agnostic, still crosses himself every time he walks by the front door of a church. From the rearview mirror of his car hangs a medallion of Saint Christopher, the patron saint of motorists, who allegedly protects him from his fellow Roman drivers. What’s more, he feels compelled to grab “the family jewels” every time somebody mentions a potentially unlucky outcome.
“Hey Franco, I hear they’re laying-off workers at your company.”
“Aho’! Ab bbellooo!” To which he simultaneously grabs his crotch and the little cornicello charm that he wears around his neck faster than you can blink an (evil) eye.
But he swears that he’s not superstitious—or religious.
Yes, the dreaded evil eye (malocchio), the fear of every Italian. Like a bad rash that won’t go away, it will follow you wherever you go. The source of this curse is said to be envy, directed at you—either intentionally or unintentionally—by a friend, co-worker, or archenemy. As far back as Dante they were acutely aware of its destructive power.
“My blood was so afire with envy that
when I had seen a man becoming happy,
the lividness in me was plain to see.”
(Purgatorio, Canto XIV, lines 82–84)
The symptoms of a malocchio curse can be moderate to severe including headache, fatigue, dizziness, a four-game losing streak for your soccer team, or the re-election of Silvio Berlusconi. So you can plainly see that this is nothing to scoff at.
My favorite part about this “malady” is the alleged treatment for it. First you’ll need a jar of Vaseline, a leather saddle, a 12-volt battery, and a set of jumper cables. No, wait, that’s the treatment for impotence…sorry, Silvio. For the malocchio, the cure involves a special ceremony performed by a mother or grandmother who has been properly indoctrinated into the ancient anti-malocchio ritual. In the presence of the afflicted person, she mixes some combination of water, olive oil, and bodily fluids in a shallow silver platter while reciting the appropriate appeal to Jesus, Mary, or whichever saint happens to be listening. And if you don’t have one of these trained grandmothers in your village, the rites can be performed via Skype these days. Or so I’ve been told.
This ability to remove the malocchio is considered an honored privilege. Not just any random nonna from the south of Italy can execute it—she must have been suitably ordained by one of her elders. What’s more, this “power” can only be passed to the next generation once a year, on Christmas Eve. And of course it goes without saying that the potential candidate MUST be a confirmed Catholic, otherwise these superstitious—I mean, religious—powers won’t work.
Other curses to avoid
Besides the malocchio, what other bad omens should one be wary of?
You cannot throw bread in the garbage. And if you really, really must, then you should kiss it first. Bread is a symbol of Jesus, after all, and you wouldn’t throw Jesus out with the trash, would you? (It was a rhetorical question.)
You must diligently sweep out the corners of a new house to get rid of the evil spirits that had taken up residence with the previous owner. You’ve got your own problems, right? Why would you want to inherit someone else’s, too? But I really question this particular superstition. Nonne are known to be obsessive about cleaning, and I think that this ritual was invented to justify an epidemic of hygiene neurosis among Sicilian grandmothers.
You should always cover up all the mirrors in your house after someone dies. Why? Who the hell knows…
Dream interpretation opens up another dark avenue of superstition, and Italians are creative masters when it comes to inventing a semi-plausible fiction to explain your dreams. My advice is to never share your dreams with an Italian. They’ll always come up with something sinister and disquieting about your unconscious mind, which inevitably becomes a self-fulfilling curse. Better to keep it to yourself.
BUT…according to the Neapolitan smorfia, if you dream of the number 29 (considered lucky), you simply must go play the lottery right away. O cazz’!
If you want to sell your house, bury a statue of St. Joseph in the front yard. Upside down, of course.
For a newlywed couple, the two mothers should make the bed the first time (ha!) that the young spouses sleep together. Some coins should be thrown between the sheets to bring good fortune. And all birth control devices should be confiscated or at least tampered with. (This last part is not really superstition, it’s just being sneaky and manipulative.)
Speaking of beds, never use three people to make a double bed because serious harm or even death will come to the youngest of the trio. Never put a hat on the bed of a sick person nor a hanger on the bed of a healthy person. Again, to do so would be to invite the grim reaper.
Furthermore, regarding Death, if an empty hearse passes in front of you, grab your testicles immediately. If you’re a woman, the nearest pair will do—just grab them as quickly as possible and apologize later.
What are some of the bizarre Italian superstitions that you’ve heard about? Please share!
Oh ye of little faith…
Of course I don’t personally believe in any of this nonsense. But while these things seem ridiculous to the Anglo-American way of thinking, I can assure you that they are widely held beliefs throughout Italy, even if some people are reluctant to admit it candidly. And it’s not just Sicilian grandmothers; it’s doctors, businessmen, school teachers, and policemen. Young and old, from the North to the South. Every segment of society participates, whether they realize it or not. So when you see a self-proclaimed “non-believer” spontaneously crossing himself or grabbing his testicles, you’ll know that he’s not necessarily praying, nor does he have a chronic fungal condition in his nether regions. More likely, he’s battling against something far more sinister. A curse, a jinx, or the dreaded malocchio.
The history behind these beliefs is fascinating and I really enjoyed researching it for this article. During the course of my research, I even came across the actual top-secret prayer that is used in the ceremony to remove the malocchio. It’s in dialect, so I had to have my wife translate it for me. I must say, it’s interesting, if not a little creepy—like something out of a Steven King novel. I am tempted to share it with you here on my blog, but of course that would be bad luck. So I’d better not. Just in case. You never know.
In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti…
(UPDATE: Due to popular demand, I’ve written a follow up post on this subject here: More on the Malocchio and Italian Superstitions)