Saint Rocco

Woodcut from the  Nuremberg Chronicle

Woodcut from the Nuremberg Chronicle



Saint Rocco (known to the anglophone world as "Saint Roch") was born in Montpellier in the 14th century to a noble family. His mother had been barren until she prayed to the Virgin Mary. Saint Rocco's birth was made all the more miraculous by a birthmark resembling a red cross on his chest. 

His parents died when he was twenty years old, at which point he gave away all his worldly possessions and set out on a pilgrimage to Rome. At the time, Italy was suffering from a plague epidemic. Saint Rocco cared selflessly for the sick, effecting many miraculous cures by making the sign of the cross or laying his hands on them.

In Piacenza, however, he finally fell ill. He was driven out of town and into the forest, where he made a hut for himself out of leaves and branches. Miraculously, a spring arose near his hut to provide him with water, and a local dog began bringing him bread to eat. The dog would also lick his wounds clean, eventually healing him. 

He returned to Montpellier looking like a wild man with unkempt hair and a long beard. Unrecognized by the townspeople, he was thrown in prison as a spy. He remained there for five years before dying, unwilling to reveal his identity out of humility. The townspeople recognized the birthmark across his chest, and he was venerated as a folk saint almost immediately after his death. But he was not officially canonized until the 17th century. 


A wound on his thigh, a dog (often seen bringing him a loaf of bread), pilgrim's hat and staff 


Saint Rocco is the patron of bachelors, diseased cattle, dogs, falsely accused people, invalids, surgeons, tile-makers, gravediggers, second-hand dealers, pilgrims, and apothecaries. 

He is often invoked against cholera, epidemics, knee problems, plague, and skin diseases.  

Votives left for Saint Rocco at the chapel in Saint Roch Cemetery, New Orleans. 

Votives left for Saint Rocco at the chapel in Saint Roch Cemetery, New Orleans. 

Feast day

Pilgrimage to Tolve

Twice a year, once on August 16 and again on September 16, pilgrims from throughout Southern Italy flock to the Santuario di San Rocco in Tolve, a comune in Potenza, Basilicata. Before the procession, Saint Rocco's statue is covered in the gold ex votos that his pilgrims have left for him over the years, estimated to be worth more than one million Euros. As you see in the video below, he almost seems to glow! 

Pizzica Scherma in Torrepaduli

The pizzica scherma is a form of pizzica dancing in which two men mime a duel with swords either with knives or, more frequently, their fingers. Traditionally associated with the criminal underground, it is said that the dance is only taught to initiates who are presented by a compare or godfather. There are two repertoires of choreography, the leccese style and the zingaro style. Within each repertoire, the gestures made by the dancers map to a complex web of meaning. 

Italian-American feasts

Saint Rocco is one of the most popular saints among Italian-Americans. One of the most famous Italian-American feasts, now in its 129th year, is held in New York by the Saint Rocco Society. I love this scene from the Godfather II, which shows what the feast was like in years past (minus, you know, the assassination bit): 

Songs & Prayers

Calabrian rhythm to Saint Rocco

In this video, my teacher Alessandra Belloni demonstrates a 6/8 rhythm typically played on a snare drum in honor of Saint Rocco in Calabria:  

The words "Cuncti simus concanentes" come from the Llibre Vermell de Montserrat, a collection of devotional songs from the late medieval era. 

Folk song to San Rocco from Basilicata 

This song is perhaps one of the most popular folk compositions dedicated to Saint Rocco. I highly recommend it for personal devotional use. If you want to sing along, you can just sing the chorus, as though you're doing call-and-response with the recording. (You can even switch "Tolve" for the name of your city, to personalize it a bit.)  

Ebbiva santi Rocco, santi Rocco ebbiva,
ebbiva santi Rocco, ca ind'a Tolve stai! 
Ebbiva santi Rocco, santi Rocco ebbiva,
ebbiva santi Rocco, ca ind'a Tolve stai!

'N nome di Padre Figlie e Spirte Sante,
voglio cantà 'na storia tanta galante,  
'N nome di Padre Figlie e Spirte Sante,
a nome di santi Rocco i' l'accummenzo. 


Nu iurnu in carità vuleze andà
vicino a 'nu purtone a tuppulà.
S'affaccia 'na runzella in finestrella:
«Aggi pace bell'omo questa giornata,

aggi pace bell'omo questa giornata,                         
ca stai lu patrune grave malate ».

« E t'aggio ditto, runzella, vinime ad aprì,
ca su se a lu malate voglio salì ».
A 'u minze di li scale foze arruàto,
lu segne la santa croce si volze fà, 
lu segne la santa croce si volze fà, 
ca subb'te lu malate s'avla a ozà.


I genti di la casa lu vulinno pagà,
e santi Rocco non si vuleva piglià:

« Si fosse pi tirnisi e pi dinare,
saria chine la fonte di lu mare.

Si fosse pi dinari e pi tirnisi,
saria chine la fonte 'u paravise ».


« E tu ca tini l'occhio oro e argento,
pari a vedè 'nu sante avveramente.

E tu ca tine l'occhio argento fino,
pari a vedè 'nu santo pellegrino ».


«Mo' ca la dignità meia èi 'nduvinata,
so' santi Rocco di Tolve pe' numinata ».

E 'n'at' a tre parole si fernesce la storia,
si ni vai santi Rocco a la gloria.

E 'n'at' a tre parole si fernesce 'u cante,
ebbiva santi Rocco e tutti i santi.

A Prayer to Saint Rocco 

This prayer was shared on the website for the Santuario di San Rocco di Tolve

English translation

O Holy God, 
Father, Son, 
and Holy Spirit, 
by the intercession
of Saint Rocco, 
our friend, 
deliver us
from all illnesses, 
from all sins, 
and protect
our families. 


O Dio Santo,
Padre, Figlio
e Spirito Santo,
per l’intercessione
di San Rocco,
nostro amico,
da tutte le malattie,
da tutti i peccati
e proteggi
e nostre famiglie. 

Saint Joseph


I can't see Saint Joseph and not see my father. I can't pray to him and not think of my godfather, who is named for him. I can't write this blog post and not mention my husband, who worked in a nursery for years. Perhaps, if you're reading this, it's the same way for you: this blend of the living and the dead, the familial and the famous. 


The Bible doesn't give us much to work with here. He's there when Jesus is born, but gone by the time Jesus dies. This has led some to speculate that he was much older than Mary when they wed. And they wed, it should oft be repeated, even though she was already pregnant and he knew the child wasn't his. 

We usually say he was a carpenter. But James Martin writes that tekton, the Greek work given for Saint Joseph's profession, is better translated as "day laborer": less of a skilled tradesman, more of a general handyman. Sometimes, I like to think of him as a giustacofane, a wandering fixer of broken things, a vocation that doesn't really exist anymore. I like to think of him wandering into the homes of his devotees and fixing the things in their lives that are broken. 

Other times, I like to imagine him various professions: as the baker, the butcher, the men who work at the groceria across the street from our home and ask me "where you been?" whenever I get back from a trip. They know I was gone because they're there from open to close every day so they can put food on their table and several other tables back in Mexico. In Southern Italy and Sicily, he is associated with the back-breaking labor of farmers who guard the fertility of the land, just as Saint Joseph guarded Mary's fertility by caring for her during her pregnancy and childbirth. 

In short, I'd attribute to him any vocation that anyone has ever performed in order to care for their family. 


Carpenter's tools, a staff with lily blossoms. 

According to Catholic tradition, Saints Anne and Joachim were very picky when choosing a husband for their daughter Mary. When Saint Joseph came to court her, the staff he carried with him miraculously flowered. That was how they knew he was a worthy suitor. Most Catholics will say this was a sign of his sexual purity. I say, if you look at a man carrying a rod that performs miracles and think "He must have been a virgin!", you are probably not going to get much out of this blog.

The  bastone  cards in a Neapolitan deck. Do they look virginal to you?  

The bastone cards in a Neapolitan deck. Do they look virginal to you?  


Fathers, men who care for children, workers, immigrants; prayed to for employment, real estate (most famously, his statue is buried upside-down when selling a house), against doubt, and for a happy death. 

Feast Day

Saint Joseph is celebrated as the patron of workers on May 1. The May Day celebration has ancient pagan roots and modern associations with labor rights. Many Italian American societies dedicated to the saints began as mutual benefit societies: groups of workers who would pool their resources to take care of each others' families in case of injury or death. 

There is power in a factory, power in the land
Power in the hands of a worker
But it all amounts to nothing if together we don't stand
There is power in a union

But today, we will focus on his March 19 feast day, which has special prominence in Italy, Sicily, and Italian America. 


Some of the most famous altars dedicated to Saint Joseph are found in Salemi, Sicily. Men and women spend five days a week for a whole month building these ornate altars. The men build the frames and cover them in lush vegetation, including seasonal flowers and citrus fruits. The women bake breads in special shapes. All of the gold you see in the picture below is bread. It's truly breathtaking. 

Saint Joseph's altars typically have three levels, representing either the persons of the Holy Trinity or of the Holy Family, depending on who you ask. The large breads in the center are dedicated to the Madonna, Baby Jesus, and Saint Joseph. 

An altar to San Giuseppe in Salemi, Sicily. 

An altar to San Giuseppe in Salemi, Sicily. 

The tradition of building altars to Saint Joseph continues in Italian American communities in the United States, the most elaborate of which are found in New Orleans. A good overview of the symbolism is available here. Every year, the Archdiocese of New Orleans publishes a complete listing of the altars along with the hours they are available for public visitation. 

A Saint Joseph's Day altar in New Orleans, LA 

A Saint Joseph's Day altar in New Orleans, LA 

The "Tupa-Tupa"  

This is, to me, the radical heart of Saint Joseph's Day. Three children are chosen to play the parts of the Madonna, Jesus, and Joseph. They come to a house and knock on the door. 

- Who is there? 
- Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. 
- What do you want? 
- We seek food and shelter. 
- There is no room for you here. 

The refugees go to the next house, and the same scene repeats. So they go to a third house. Inside of this house, an altar to Saint Joseph has been prepared. 

- We seek food and shelter. 
- Welcome, welcome! The food is prepared and the table is set. Come in and join us! 

The children are served a taste of every dish that has been prepared and left out on the altar. Once they have sampled each dish, the rest of the guests can enjoy the meal. This ritual reflects a belief common to many religious traditions in the Mediterranean world, which is that hospitality must be shared with strangers, who may very well be spirits, gods, or angels in disguises: 

Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. (Hebrews 13:1)

Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. (Romans 12:13) 

For the ancient Greeks, this concept was known as "theoxenia", and it appears in several myths in which a stranger (xenos) turns out to be a god (theos) in disguise. Laws of hospitality obliged the Greeks to welcome strangers and travelers into their homes, where they fed and sheltered. Guests, in turn, were obliged to respect their hosts and give them a gift if they had one to give. 

Songs & Prayers 

A Sicilian Rosary to San Giuseppe 

This rosary can be prayed on a standard set of rosary beads, with the posta in place of the Pater Noster at the large bead and the Grani in place of the Ave Maria on the smaller beads. At the end of the decade, pray one Pater Noster and one Ave Maria.  

English Translation


Saint Joseph, foster father
foster virgin like the Mother. 
Mary the rose, 
Joseph the Lily, 
give us help, refuge, and advice. 

It's dark now and it will be light tomorrow,
providence you must send me. 
I wait for the providence
of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. 


All praise the Eternal, I sing: 
the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. 
And always beloved and blessed be
the name of Jesus, Joseph, and Mary. 

Our Father

Hail Mary



San Giusippuzzu fustivu patri
fustivu virgini comu la Matri
Maria la rosa,
Giuseppi lu gigghiu
datini aiutu, riparu e cunsigghiu.

Scura ora e aggiorna dumani
la pruvvidenza nn'aviti a mannari. 
Aspettu la pruvvidenza
di Gesu, Maria, e Giuseppi.


Tutti ludamu l'Eternu, cantu: 
lu Patri, lu Figghiu e lu Spiritu Santu. 
E sempri amatu e binidittu sia
lu nomu di Gèsu, Giuseppi, e Maria.

Pater Noster

Ave Maria


Sacred Foods 

Many saints have associations with seasonal foods in Southern Italy and Sicily. Because March 19 falls within Lent, when Catholics would traditionally abstain from meat as part of the purificatory process leading up to Easter, Saint Joseph's traditional foods are vegetarian. There's an emphasis on seasonal delicacies, such as snails and sardines. 

It's also interesting to note that many of the foods associated with Saint Joseph in Sicily aren't indigenous to the island, but were brought there by Arabs in the 10th century. 


Then Jesus declared, "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. (John 6:35) 

If that's all you've got, you can live on wheat flour and water together mixed together for a while. Then you'll die of malnourishment before too long. But if you take that same wheat flour mixed with water, allow it to ferment naturally, and bake it into bread, you can live off of that bread indefinitely. I'm in awe of this fact today, even though I understand the science behind it. I can only imagine how miraculous this must have seemed to our ancestors. And since we've learned to harness that power, bread has become a staple in the diets of people around the world. So much so, that any threat to the accessibility of affordable bread results in economic and political unrest: 

If you want to predict where political instability, revolution, coups d’etat, or interstate warfare will occur, the best factor to keep an eye on is not GDP, the human development index, or energy prices.

“If I were to pick a single indicator—economic, political, social—that I think will tell us more than any other, it would be the price of grain,” says Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute, who has been writing about the politics and economics of food since the 1950s. (source)  

Bread is perhaps the most important element on Saint Joseph's altars, whether in Italy, Sicily, or Italian America. And this isn't just any loaf we're talking about, either. These breads come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, often expressing something about the baker's devotion through traditional symbolism.  

You can make bread in honor of Saint Joseph at home. This recipe is easy and fun to make with friends and family. Even small children can join in the fun, as the dough is similar in consistency to play-doh. It can be eaten immediately or left out as a decoration. Many choose to have their bread blessed by a priest and keep it in the home the invite prosperity and stability in the coming year. 


  • 8 cups flour 
  • 1/2 cup lard or shortening 
  • 1 tablespoon salt 
  • 1 tablespoon sugar 
  • 1 packet of dry-active yeast 
  • Juice of 1 lemon 
  • 1 egg 

Dissolve the flour, lard, salt, sugar, and yeast in half a glass of warm water. Continue to add warm water until the dough is firm. Shape the bread using the symbols you desire. Beat the egg with the lemon juice. Brush the dough with the lemon-egg mixture. Bake at 450 degrees Fahrenheit until golden brown.  


Ah, but what symbols to include? That is, of course, a matter of personal preference. As you knead the dough, you can pray to Saint Joseph, thanking him for the blessings he has shown your family in the past year and praying for specific intentions you would like to manifest through his grace in the year to come. I recently took a phenomenal bread-making workshop with the lovely Allison Scola of Experience Sicily, who taught us that the symbols you choose can reflect those personal intentions. (PS - If you'd like to travel to Sicily but aren't sure where to start, she has several tours coming up in 2019  or she can even help you plan one that fits your unique desires.) 

Saint Joseph bread - before.JPG
Saint Joseph Bread - after.JPG

Here are a few ideas to get you started, blending traditional symbols with my own perspective as an Italian American: 

  • Sun - A symbol of the homeland, of life, of fertility, and even of God. 
  • Carpentry tools - Traditionally masculine work. Fixing broken things, building new things, tinkering with things to find out how they work or what they really are. Consider the function of each: the nail joins things together, and three nails is a shorthand for the crucifixion as much as the cross itself. The hammer applies force and breaks things apart. Pliers hold firmly, manipulate, bend, and compress. What tools do you need right now? 
  • Sewing tools - More delicate and traditionally feminine work. Storytelling through cloth. In many ancient Mediterranean cultures, textiles were the only way a woman could earn money of her own. Much of this work is safe and repetitive, making it an ideal trance induction technique. These implements figure in many fairytales. 
  • Ladder - Climbing to new heights. Reaching things that would otherwise be out of grasp. Promotions, achievements, acquisitions; taking things step by step. 
  • Staff - Vital force. Protection. Pride. 

Fava beans

According to legend, a famine hit Sicily in the 15th century. Perhaps it was due to a drought. The crops were withering and dying in their fields, and the people were desperate. So they prayed to Saint Joseph and, miraculously, one crop survived: the humble fava bean. It was considered fodder for livestock at the time. But let me tell you: fava bean soup made according to the recipe below is delicious. (And of course, when you're starving, anything is delicious.) 

Today, dried fava beans are considered "lucky". Some would say they're good for "money magic". Some carry one in their wallet, so they'll never run out of money. Some keep one in the pantry, so they'll always have food to eat. And some creative soul might even keep one in her stash box, for obvious reasons. 

When we look around the green world, we see so many teachers, elders, and allies. It can be tempting save time by categorizing them in broad strokes: the one is good for money magic, this one is good for love magic. But why use one love magic herb instead of another? Are they all interchangeable? Can you add every money magic herb you've heard of into a charm-bag to make it more powerful? 

To truly understand the way plants affect us, we must look beyond easy categories. Some money plants are prodigious multipliers, like mint. The magic and medicine of the fava bean is revealed in its myth. It is protection against disaster and hunger. It's not necessarily there for you to get a raise or a promotion. It's there as an assurance that, no matter what, you will always have something: maybe not the thing you thought you wanted, but enough to get by. That type of magic might not seem relevant to us city slickers whose wealth is stored in numbers on a screen and whose food is grown by other people in other countries. But the world is changing quickly, and if you ask me, I'd rather pass on a spiritual connection with the humble fava bean to my children. 


  • 1 lb. dried fava beans
  • 1 bunch green onions
  • 1 medium onion 
  • 4 cloves garlic 
  • 3 bay leaves 
  • 1 bunch parsley (chopped) 
  • 1/4 cup olive oil 
  • Salt & pepper to taste 

Cook the fava beans in boiling water until tender, adding more water as needed. During cooking, sauté seasoning in olive oil until tender; add to beans. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve hot in a soup bowl.  

Zeppole & Sfinge

Two classic pastries are baked in honor of San Giuseppe. But which is the zeppole, and which is the sfinge? That is a question for the ages, a subject of intense and heated debate among Italian Americans. At my local Sicilian bakery, we call the smaller pastry on the left--a puff pastry filled with cannoli cream--a sfinge, and the larger pastry on the right--filled custard cream--a zeppole. Others would say the exact opposite. To make matters more complicated, some people use the terms interchangeably, and the fried dough balls sold at feste are often called zeppoli

Follow your heart on this matter.


Read more about the saints in Italian folk magic: 

A Prayer Before the Presepio

The Presepio

No one does the presepio, or nativity scene, quite like the Neapolitans. The images above, taken last April at Most Precious Blood Church in Manhattan, demonstrate this. The traditional Neapolitan presepio has many characters, some would say up to 72, who were discussed in a previous blog post. Often, the modern presepio will incorporate political themes, or theme's from the spiritual life of the family that builds it: favored saints, etc. 

A prayer to say before the presepio

The following prayer, posted by this lovely church website with plenty of information about Neapolitan folk Catholicism, can be said while standing before any nativity scene. It can be said by one person alone, or better yet, the different lines can be given to different members of the family as indicated. 

What I love about this prayer is it demonstrates how material culture is used as a jumping off point for personal spirituality. Each element of the presepio inspires another line about the ways in which we hope to come closer to God. 

English translation 

All: Baby Jesus, our peace and reconciliation, have pity on us! 

All: Lord Jesus, I come before your presepio with my heart full of trust and tenderness. I want to be like the shepherds who, in the middle of the night, woke up to come and see the Savior. Open my ears to hear the song of peace sung by the angels, and my eyes to see in you the Prince of Peace. May I recognize you as the Messiah in my life and bring me into your presence, as I see was done for your father and mother in this presepio. You come into the world to reconcile heaven and earth. Come reconcile me, as well, with the Father. I want to be with you for a little while in your cave: only those next to you will find peace and repose, my doubts become certainties, my troubles become stillness, my sadness becomes joy, my anxiety becomes serenity. In this space, my sorrow will find relief, I will take courage to overcome fear, I will refill myself with generosity in order not to give in to degradation and to resume the journey of hope.

Mother: Mary, I see in your face similarity to Jesus. You gave birth to the One who is our reconciliation. Mother, I take refuge in you and under your protection I implore God’s forgiveness. Make me like Him, to be Mercy like him. 

Father: Saint Joseph, teach me to protect the presence of God within me as you have protected Baby Jesus and your wife Mary. Help me, along with the help of the Holy Angels, to recognize the devious attacks of those who would kill in me the living presence of the Lord that the Father has wanted for me since the day of my Baptism. May I, after the visit to this presepio, guard Jesus and Mary with the same love that I can admire in your eyes. 

Children: Holy Angels of God, continue to be as today the voice of God that calls me, inviting me to rise up out of the darkness in which I fall because of my weaknesses and sin. 

All: Glory to God! Alleluia! Amen! 

Italian original 

Tutti: Bambino Gesù nostra pace e riconciliazione abbi pietà di noi!

Tutti: Signore, Gesù vengo davanti al tuo presepio con il cuore pieno di fiducia e di tenerezza. Voglio essere come i pastori che nel cuore della notte si sono alzati per andare a vedere il Salvatore.
Apri anche le mie orecchie per sentire il canto di pace degli angeli e i miei occhi per vedere in te il Principe della Pace. Che io ti riconosca come il Messia nella mia vita e mi metta alla tua presenza, come vedo fare al tuo papà e alla tua mamma in questo presepio.
Tu vieni nel mondo per riconciliare il cielo e la terra. Vieni a riconciliare anche me con il Padre.
Voglio stare un po’ con te nella tua grotta: solo qui accanto a te troverò pace e riposo, i miei dubbi si muteranno in certezze, i miei affanni in quiete, la mia tristezza in gioia, il mio turbamento in serenità. In questo spazio troverà sollievo il mio dolore, acquisterò coraggio per superare la paura, mi riempirò di generosità per non arrendermi all’avvilimento e per riprendere il cammino della speranza.

Mamma/Sposa: Maria, vedo nel tuo volto la somiglianza con Gesù. Tu dai alla luce Colui che è la nostra riconciliazione.
Madre, mi rifugio in te e sotto la tua protezione  imploro il perdono di Dio. Rendimi somigliante a Lui, per essere come lui Misericordia

Papà/ Sposo: San Giuseppe, insegnami a proteggere la presenza di Dio in me come tu hai protetto Gesù Bambino e tua moglie Maria. Aiutami, con l’aiuto dei SS. Angeli, a riconoscere i subdoli attacchi di chi vorrebbe uccidere in me la presenza viva del Signore che il Padre ha voluto per me nel giorno del mio Battesimo. Che, dopo la visita a questo presepio, io guardi Gesù e Maria con lo stesso amore che posso ammirare nei tuoi occhi.

Figli: Angeli Santi di Dio continuate ad essere come oggi la voce di Dio che mi chiama, invitandomi ad alzarmi dal buio in cui cado a causa delle mie debolezze e del peccato.

Tutti: Gloria a Dio! Alleluia! Amen!

An Italian-American Holiday Gift Guide

What do you get the paesano who has everything? Here are a few gift ideas for Italian-Americans who love their heritage and want to reconnect with their roots. 

For the musician... 

A tamburello! This model designed by world-renowned percussionist Alessandra Belloni is perfect for beginners interested in the pizzica tarantata style from Salento. Light-weight and comfortable to hold, it produces an authentic sound, but is produced using 100% vegan materials. 

And, if you're more interested in playing the Neapolitan tammurriata, check out this larger drum featuring a beautiful image of the Black Madonna. 

Pair either one with Alessandra's book, Rhythm is the Cure

For the international traveler... 

Italian or Neapolitan language lessons! Anna Scognamiglio is a native speaker and scholar of literature. Her private online classes are tailored to your needs, regardless of whether you are an absolute beginner or an advanced student. 

For the healer... 

Cimaruta Remedies! Inspired by her ancestors and by Southern Italian folk medicine, Kara Wood crafts herbal remedies using plants she grows herself. Follow her on Instagram for a taste of what she offers. 

For the magician... 

A charm against the evil eye! The evil eye or mal'occhio is believed to cause illness and bad luck. But it can be averted using one of these charms, which also serve as signifiers of Italian-American identity. 

For the devotee...

Our Lady of the Green! Gail Faith Edwards reweaves plant wisdom, medicine stories, and the feminine divine in this series of 13 recordings focused on the Mysteries of the Rosary and Southern Italian folk medicine. 

For the lush...

Liquore Strega! Brewed in Benevento, the legendary meeting spot of Italian witches, this bittersweet amaro is perfect before or after a meal. The beautiful bottle and label make it a great gift for your favorite holiday party host(ess). 

For anyone! 

A subscription to the New Neighborhood! Dolores Alfieri and Anthony Fasano, hosts of the Italian American Podcast, bring you the New Neighborhood: an online community devoted to preserving and sharing Italian-American culture. Join the group for online discussion and special cultural events. 

Italian Folk Magic on Bespoken Bones!

It's All Souls' Day, and almost the full moon, and I'm proud to be the latest guest on my new favorite podcast, Bespoken Bones: Ancestors at the Crossroads of Sex, Magick and Science

In this interview, host Pavini Moray and I talk about the role of ancestors in Italian folk magic, adopting souls in Purgatory, and why Italian-Americans need to dump Columbus. Listen on the Bespoken Bones websiteAnd, if you use the Apple Podcast app, make sure to subscribe to Bespoken Bones. :) 

As a quick note... the online course that Pavini and I discuss has already sold out. However, you can add your email to be notified when the course runs again here

Guest Post: Deconstructing a Neapolitan Lullaby

The following essay was written by Alberto Esposito about the Ninna Nanna from Cancello Arnone that we discussed in this post. Signor Esposito was the first to record and transcribe this Ninna Nanna, so his thoughts on its meaning are particularly relevant. We thank Signor Esposito for this contribution. 


The angel sends her to sleep, a symbol of heavenly protection that accompanies this lullaby which has been saved from oblivion.

But do not be mistaken, if we separate the chorus from the rest of the song we immediately notice that there is talk of something else. Having clear the synthesis between mother and daughter, what we are talking about is birth and destiny (the “gypsy”), both of which are seen as miserable and immutable. Born among Turks and Moors (war and unknown world), without the presence of mother or father, with a false destiny of riches foretold, the singer is driven only by the desire to be able to rediscover the embrace, not maternal, but of someone else from when she was in swaddling clothes, as possible refuge from the idea that “Chi nasce afflitto scunzulate more” (“Whoever is born cursed, dies disconsolate”). The sense of anxiety continues in the desire to make the child fall asleep by invoking Mammone (an evil mythological figure) or the little old drunkard, seized by an almost deadly fatigue, then losing herself only to find herself belonging to nature, to the sea with the fish (and not to the human community).

The possible love the ferocious intrusion of the mother of the beloved (another possible denied destiny) makes the response of those who lock themselves up heartfelt, but directing to the beloved the wish of a happiness that she has been denied. The tenderness of the details concerning the rival (“aggarbatelle”, gracious; and “accurtulelle de cinture”, a bit short in the belt) with the implications being also economic savings hides/expresses unhappiness with destiny.

Unhappiness that bursts, but in herself, with the desire of death, to drown without leaving any tracks and after a year the sea would leave her on the rocks, a putrefied cadaver eaten by fish. The torment of death that does not nullify the desire for love that even in the worst dissolution would want to be reborn and find itself again in a world of beauty. But the harsh reality looms, the last strophe declares the masculine reality that defines life with simple and brutal words.

This change of subject is also interesting. At first the song is directed toward the child but soon it becomes the story of the mother narrated through several scenes, from the reality of lulling the daughter to sleep to the reflections on destiny, to the desires and delusory hopes, then in the finale with the reflections of the man, as if the man were singing. An ease of change in both the storytelling and in the subject, which belongs to this folkloric world where the forces that move reality are fluid, or better said, “mythic”.

The song, however, is already in itself a sweetener of life: a appeasement, an outburst, a means of relieving the alienation from the hardship of living, even if the singer does not forget in the same song the hard and ruthless reality, but finds a way to overcome it in death/rebirth and in transformation with the delicate chorus, charged with divine protection and with a sound more joyous and calm a more beautiful dimension than hardship. But in reality, the one who sings, I believe, is not a person with the narrated hardship, the one without parents or future, but only with some hardship, but who finds in the song, exaggerated to the point of paradox, a moment of consolation.

Alberto Esposito, scholar of Neapolitan culture

Alberto Esposito, scholar of Neapolitan culture

San Gennaro


Hagiography & Miracle 

It is said that San Gennaro was the Bishop of Benevento, incidentally a region famous for producing two things: witches and Liquore Strega. He was martyred by Emperor Diocletian in 305 AD, beheaded at the Solfatara crater at Pozzuoli. His head is now encased in an iconic silver bust.

According to legend, his wetnurse, a slave named Eusebia, gathered some of his blood from the site of his execution. In 1389, that blood began to liquify: first erratically, then regularly. Many devotees believe that when the blood fails to liquify, a disaster is soon to follow. For example, the blood failed to become liquid in 1939, the year in which World War II started; and in 1980, the year of the Irpinia earthquake which left at least 2,483 people dead, 7,700 injured, and 250,000 homeless. 

The tomb of San Gennaro, seen from above, in the Catacombs of San Gennaro in Naples

The tomb of San Gennaro, seen from above, in the Catacombs of San Gennaro in Naples


Vials of blood, Mt. Vesuvius, bishop's dress, pastoral staff

Feast Days 

For many years, the blood miracle was overseen by a mysterious group of elderly women known as the parenti di San Gennaro, “the relatives of San Gennaro”. Popular belief held that these women had descended from Eusebia herself, and that it was their rituals performed within the church but without the interference of church officials that were responsible for ensuring the continuation of the miracle. They were also responsible for divining possible threats to the homeland, with auguries relevant to different audiences depending on the time of year: 

  • First Sunday in May - divined for the city of Naples;
  • September 19 - his official feast day, divined for the whole country of Italy; 
  • December 16 - the least reliable of the miracles. 

The video below shows footage from the September feast in 1948: 

Songs & Prayers 

Rosary of the Parenti 

These lines can be sung as a rosary. The first two strophes can be sung in place of the Ave Maria, and the last line in place of the Gloria at the end of the decade. 

English translation

San Gennaro, my powerful one
Pray to God for so many people

San Gennaro, my protector
Pray to God, our Lord

We thank the Holy Trinity who has given us San Gennaro as Father and Protector of this city. 


San Gennaro mio putente
Prega a Dio pe’ tanta gente. 

San Gennaro mio prutettore
Prega a Dio nostro Signore. 

Ringrazziammo la Santissima Ternità che ci ha dato San Gennaro pe’ Pate e Prutettore ‘e stà città. 


Faccia Gialla by Enzo Avitabile 

Enzo Avitabile is a master of Southern Italian folk music. This song of his reflects a modern take on the relationship between Neapolitans and San Gennaro. "Faccia Gialla" ("Yellow Face") is a friendly insult used with the saint by his devotees. 

English translation

Amidst the small of Solfatara
On top of a stone, under a sword
Sleep, people of Pozzuoli, stolen dreams
From the top of the mountain up to the sea 

It’s blood, not water
It’s blood, not water 

Under an emperor’s edict
Catacombs and persecutions
You, noble bishop of Benevento, 
Blade of grass against the wind

It’s blood, not water
It’s blood, not water

Yellow Face, melt it! 
Do it do it this miracle
Yellow Face, melt it! 
Do it do it for this people
That time we saw black
60,000 dead from cholera
All of the sudden, the Turks one evening
Then another time there was hunger and thirst 

It’s blood, not water
It’s blood, not water

Yellow Face, melt it! 
Do it do it this miracle
Yellow Face, melt it! 
Do it do it for this people 

It’s blood, not water
It’s blood, not water

Neapolitan lyrics

Mièzo all’addore da solfatara
‘ngopp ‘a na preta sotto a na spada
duorme Pozzuoli suonni arrubbati
da coppo ‘a muntagna fino ‘o mare
è sango e nun è acqua
è sango e nun è acqua

sotto a n’editto ‘e n’imperatore
catacombe e persecuzioni
Tu nobile vescovo ‘e Benevento
nu filo d’evera contro ‘o viento

è sango e nun è acqua
è sango e nun è acqua

Faccia Gialla squaglialo!
fallo fallo stu miracolo
Faccia Gialla squaglialo!
fallo fallo pe stu popolo
chella vota c’a vedetteme nera
sissantamila muorte ‘d culera
bello e buono ‘e turchi nà sera
pò nata vota fuie famma e a sete

è sango e nun è acqua
è sango e nun è acqua

Faccia Gialla squaglialo!
fallo fallo stu miracolo
Faccia Gialla squaglialo!
fallo fallo pe stu popolo

è sango e nun è acqua
è sango e nun è acqua


Our Lady of Sorrows

Today, we celebrate the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows, one of the most widely venerated madonnas in all of Italy. 



Our Lady of Sorrows is also called Our Lady of Dolors, the Sorrowful Mother, the Mother of Sorrows, or Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows in English; in Latin, Mater Dolorsa; in Italian, Maria AddolorataMaria Dolorosa, Madonna Addolorata, or simply: L'Addolorata


Heart pierced by one, five, or seven swords; a handkerchief; black clothing; tears

Related Heraldry  

Other common depictions of the Madonna in a state of grieving are the Pietà (Madonna holding the body of Christ) and the Stabat Mater (Madonna standing beneath the cross). 


Unlike most of the Madonnas we have discussed so far on this blog whose cults are centered around a specific pilgrimage site in Southern Italy, Our Lady of Sorrows is a universal figure. In Italy and elsewhere in the world, she is honored as part of Holy Week, particularly on Good Friday when her processions are commonly held. 

The feast of Maria SS Addolorata at Sacred Hearts-St Stephens Church in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn

The feast of Maria SS Addolorata at Sacred Hearts-St Stephens Church in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn

While the English-speaking world tends to view Holy Week through a Christocentric lens, it has been my experience that Italians tend to focus more on the suffering of the Madonna, empathizing strongly with the pain of a mother who loses her child. 

Additionally, she is honored on September 15, the day after the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. 

The Seven Sorrows 

The Seven Sorrows are events from the life of the Madonna drawn from the Bible and oral tradition. They are commonly depicted in art. These are: 

  1. The Prophecy of Simeon. (Luke 2:34–35)
  2. The escape and Flight into Egypt. (Matthew 2:13)
  3. The Loss of the Child Jesus in the Temple of Jerusalem. (Luke 2:43–45)
  4. The Meeting of Mary and Jesus on the Via Dolorosa.
  5. The Crucifixion of Jesus on Mount Calvary. (John 19:25)
  6. The Piercing of the Side of Jesus, and His Descent from the Cross. (Matthew 27:57–59)
  7. The Burial of Jesus by Joseph of Arimathea. (John 19:40–42)

The Seven Sorrows are similar to, but should not be confused with, the five Sorrowful Mysteries of the rosary. They can be meditated on in prayer using a chaplet of the Seven Sorrows in a manner similar to the rosary, for example, by praying one Pater Noster and seven Ave Marias for each Sorrow. 

A Song of the Passion

Theatrical reenactments of the Passion are common throughout the Christian world. The following video, filmed by scholar, gentleman, and friend of Italian Folk Magic Alberto Esposito, shows a cantore (singer) from Gargano, Puglia singing a song that was once a part of his village's Good Friday procession: 

While we do not have a transcript of this video, Signor Esposito has transcribed a related song from his source Angela Savastano, who was the last cantore to sing it in procession in Cancello D'Arnone, Campania. Signor Esposito hypothesizes that the song was originally written for the theater, which is why some scenes are narrated in the lyrics and others skipped over. The lacunae are likely to be sections where the actors had more dialog or choreography set to instrumental music. 

The first time I heard these words, I found myself deeply, emotionally moved by the suffering of Christ and his mother. Anna Scognamiglio explained that people in Cancello D'Arnone believe that the most powerful curse is the one uttered by a grieving mother against someone who hurt her child, and that this is the hair-raising power we encounter in the lyrics. 

Mille grazie to Anna Scognamiglio for the English translation. 


Maria parte lu gioverì sante
Sola sulella senza cumpagnia
Sola sulella senza cumpagnia
Maria va piangenne  pe la via
S’affronte ru giureo vestite bianche
Che ai Madre Maria che tante piange
Io ce piange che aggiu  raggione
Che l’aggiu perze lu mie figliuolo
Tu l’hai perze nuie l’avimme lasciate
Vicino a na’ culonna staie legate
Maria comme sentette chella nuvera
All’erte steve e ce cascave nterra
Currite reggina currite a reginella
Aiazate Madre Maria accarda terra
Currette san Giuanne cu’ tanta forza
Aiazave Madre Maria mezza morta
Quanne Maria arrete funche aiazate
Gerusalemme ce rice na’ strada

Quanne po’ a li porte funche arrevate
Metteva la recchia ne le  senchetelle
Metteva la recchia ne le senchetelle
E vere lu figlie  suoie in gran flagelle
Arapeme  figlie arapeme figliuole
Ie so la mamma toie o sventurate
O mamma mamma nun te pozze arapine
Che li giureie m’hannu flagellato
Curona r’oro m’annù luvate
Chelle re spine m’annu poste n’capa
E a beve l’aggie cercate
E ‘cite e fele m’anna purtate
Tu mamma mamma mentre che si’ venute
Ramme na veppete r’acqua e ramme aiuto
Figlie nu’ sacce no’ puzze e no funtane
E manche la via addò me aggia ine
Vattenne pe chella via  re l’Agitte
Ndò stanne chille masti re  cortesie
E chille chiuove che m’anna’ fa male
Facessene chiù stratte e chiù suttile
Facessene cchiù stratte e cchiù suttile
Ch’annà percià le carne re meie gentile
Vuie zingare ch’a venite re l’Agitte
Facite nà carità a Maria vostre
E chille chiuove che ciàvite a fane
Facitele chiù stratte e chiù suttile
Facitele chiù stratte e chiù suttile
Ch’annà percià li carne ro  figlie gentile
Nuie nu’  rispiette a Marie vulimme fane
Tre once re ferre r’aggiungere e nù mancane
Tre once re ferre  r’aggiungere e nù mancane
Ch’annà percià li carne o re’ ru cane
Vuie zingare ch’à venite re l’Egitte
Puzzate stà on’ora afflitte
Puzzate cammenà commà lu sole
Puzzate n’fracetà commà mellone

(anche recitato)
Sunate campane sunate a croce
Lu figlie mie è muorte sopra la croce
Sunate campane sunate campanell     
Che lu figlie mie è muorte in gran flagelle     
Sunate campanelle sunate a anne
Lu figlie mie è muorte re trentatre’ anne


Maria parte il giovedì santo /sola soletta senza compagnia / sola soletta senza compagnia / Maria va piangendo per la via / incontra un giudeo vestito di bianco / “che hai Madre Maria che tanto piangi “ / “ io piango con tanta ragione / perché ho perso il mio figliuolo “ / tu l’hai perduto e noi l’abbiamo (adesso ) lasciato / vicino ad una colonna flagellato “ / Maria coma sentì quella novella / in piedi stava e cascò per terra / Correte , la regina , correte , la reginella / alzate Madre Maria accasciata a terra / accorse san Giovanni con tanta forza / ed alzò Madre Maria mezza morta / Quando Maria da dietro fu rialzata / chiese la strada per Gerusalemme / quando poi arrivò alle porte / metteva l’orecchio nelle fessure / metteva l’orecchio nelle fessure / e vide suo figlio in gran flagello / “aprimi figlio aprimi figliuolo / io sono la mamma tua , o sventurato “ / “ o mamma mamma non ti posso aprire / che gli giudei mi hanno flagellato / la corona d’oro mi hanno levata / e quella di spine mi hanno posta in capo / da bere gli ho cercato / e aceto e fiele mi hanno portato / Tu mamma mamma dal momento che sei venuta / dammi una bevuta d’acqua e dammi aiuto “ / “ figlio non so né pozzi e né fontane / e nemmeno la strada per dove me ne devo andare “ / “ va per la strada dell’Egitto / dove sono signori ( pieni ) di cortesie / e quei chiodi che mi faranno male / che li facessero più stretti e più sottili / li facessero più stretti e più sottili / che devono penetrare le mie carni gentili “ / “voi zingari che venite dall’Egitto / fate una carità a Maria vostra / quei chiodi che dovete fare / fateli più stretti e più sottili / fateli più stretti e più sottili / che devono penetrare le carni del mio (figlio ) gentile “ / “ noi un dispetto a Maria vogliamo fare / ( vogliamo ) aggiungere tre once di ferro e non diminuirle / che devono penetrare le carni del re dei cani “ / “ voi zingari che venite dall’Egitto / possiate stare ogni ora afflitti / possiate camminare come il sole / possiate infradiciarvi come meloni / suonate campane suonate a croce (incrociate ) / il mio figlio è morto sopra la croce / suonate campane suonate campanelle / il mio figlio è morto in grande flagello / suonate campanelle suonate ad anni / il figlio mio è morto di  trentatre anni.


Maria leaves on Maundy Thursday
Alone, all alone without any company
Alone, all alone without any company
Maria goes crying on the road
She means a Judean dressed in white
Why are you crying so much? 
I cry with plenty of reason
Because I have lost my son
You have lost him and we’ve just left him
Tied close to a column
As Maria heard that news, she was standing and she fell on the ground
Saint John rushed with all his friends
Picked up Mother Mary half-dead
When Mary got picked up from behind
Asked her for the road to Jersusalem

When she arrived to the doors
Put her ear to the crack
Put her ear to the crack
And saw her son in great scourging
Open up, son, open up, son
I’m your mother, oh unfortunate
Oh mama, mama, I can’t open
The Judeans have scourged me
They have taken away my golden crown
And the one made of thorns, have put on my head
I asked for something to drink
And vinegar and gall they brought to me
Mama, Mama since you came
Give me a sip of water, help me
Son, I don’t know any wells and no fountains
And not even the road to go away
Take the road to Egypt
Where there are men full of attentions
And those nails that will hurt me
Ask them to make them narrower and thinner
Since they have to penetrate my kind flesh
You gypsies who come from Egypt
Please do a favor for your Maria
And those nails you have to make
Make them narrower and thinner
Make them narrower and thinner
As they have to penetrate the flesh of my gentle son
We want to spite Maria
Three ounces of iron we want to add, and not reduce
Three ounces of iron we want to add, and not reduce
They have to penetrate the flesh of the king of dogs
You gypsies who come from Egypt
May you be cursed every hour
May you walk like the sun
May you rot like a mellon 

Ring bells ring cross
My son has died on the cross
Ring bells ring little bells
As my son died in great scourging
Ring bells ring for years
My son is dead at 33 years

Stregheria and Italian-American Folk Magic

‘Stregheria’ is a term used almost exclusively by American anglophones talking about a witchcraft tradition which allegedly emerges from Italy. Often, it is accompanied by Murrayesque claims of an unbroken pagan priesthood operating in secret up until today. Much of the work presented as ‘Stregheria’ appears to have originated with the writings of Raven Grimassi, which must be read with a critical eye. Grimassi is a controversial figure among Italian practitioners, to say the least. He himself states:

My first attempts at providing information on the Italian Craft began around 1979 with the self publication of books and a magazine.  Working from material I had copied in my late teens and early twenties, I created an “outer-court” system through which I could convey the basic concepts of initiate teachings. Looking back on these early projects they were crude and amateurish. But for the time period they seemed to fit in with what most people were producing. …Thinking back on those days now I realize that I was a “true believer” in the things I had been taught and had learned. I think this was no more evident than in my writings on Aradia, which I presented in a self published work titled The Book of the Holy Strega.

I am not interested in critiquing Grimassi’s work or policing the self-identification of other practitioners. However, there are several facts which I think should be brought to bear when evaluating the claims of people who purport to practice, teach, or provide magical services under the banner of ‘Stregheria’. 

‘Stregheria’ is not a common word in Italy. The Italian word for ‘witchcraft’ is stregoneria, and it has profoundly negative connotations, although some modern practitioners have followed the example of their anglophone counterparts and begin reappropriating the term. This is not to say that the word 'stregheria' is entirely fabricated; it appears in a handful of texts from the 18th and 19th centuries. Nevertheless, it’s a word that most native Italian speakers will never have heard. It puts more distance between the anglophone American practitioner and and the people who live in the region where their tradition allegedly originates.

The matter becomes more complicated when we consider the vast linguistic and cultural diversity of the modern nation of Italy. Italy as a unified country has only existed since 1861. The concept of a pan-Italian ethnic identity is even newer. Each region within Italy has a distinct culture, with attendant variations in language, food, and religious practice. As most of the Italian immigrants to United States came from the Mezzogiorno region of Southern Italy and Sicily, we would expect them to have their own regionally-specific socio-magical roles and unique words for them in their own dialects. 

Some modern Italian and Italian-American practitioners use the term ‘benedicaria’, a neologism which emphasizes the role of blessing and Catholic sacramentals in the work. Practitioners of benedicaria may or may not identify with the social role of the witch. The line between ‘stregoneria’ and ‘benedicaria’ remains blurry at best. My experience with practitioners who use the term benedicaria is that they tend to pay closer attention to historical folk practices, which is laudable. However, the term is not itself historically attested, and we may hypothesize that whatever thing it represents was never meant to have a name.

So why bother with this line of inquiry? Does it really matter what word is used? If the people purporting to practice ‘Stregheria’ changed their branding to so it said ‘stregoneria’, or ‘benedicaria’, or even ‘Italian folk magic’, would that resolve the issue?

Not necessarily. The larger problem here is not what word is used, but how. It’s about forging a deep, authentic relationship with the people and the land that these words come from. And for Italian-Americans in particular, it’s about strengthening our relationship with our ancestors while respecting their other descendants. When anglophones (and American anglophones in particular) use the word ‘Stregheria’, they are engaging in a kind of exotification and cultural appropriation. Swapping one word for another will not necessarily eliminate those deeper issues.

Returning for a second to Grimassi, much of his work draws on reconstructions of ancient Etruscan religion. The Etruscans inhabited the regions now known as Tuscany, western Umbria, and northern Lazio. By contrast, approximately 84% of Italian-Americans trace their roots to Southern Italy and Sicily. Most Italian-American family traditions and folk religion will not be illuminated by study of Etruscan paganism. A practitioner with roots in Naples is better served by studying the cult of San Gennaro, the cult of the Holy Souls in Purgatory at Fontenelle Cemetery, or the cult of Mama Schiavona at Montevergine–cults which, unlike the Etruscans, survive until this day and can be experienced as living traditions rather than reconstructions.

But it is just these living traditions that some seek to negate by practicing Stregheria. Certainly, there are many legitimate reasons to be uncomfortable with Christianity in general and the Catholic Church in particular. Yet some of the most pagan-seeming Italian cults originate late into the Christian era–for example, the Madonna delle Galline, an emanation of the Madonna covered in chickens who originates in the 17th century. Likewise, the necromantic cults of the Holy Souls in Purgatory and the Headless Souls do not, as one might think, originate in pagan hero cults. Peter Brown in his classic work The Cult of the Saints demonstrates that even the cult of the saints as collective, rather than personal, dead was only possible with the innovation of Christianity. Nascent Christianity broke many of the pagan and Jewish taboos on ancestor worship, including contact with the remains of the dead. Removing these traditions from their Christian framework is not only historically inaccurate, but, as scholar Sabina Magliocco writes, it “does violence to the way practitioners [of living traditions] perceive themselves.”

Of course, this is not to say that Italian-Americans must simply emulate their Mediterranean cousins. Doing so is equally problematic, and ignores the fact that many rich cultural traditions, including entire dialects, are better preserved in the Americas than in the old country. The most fruitful approach is considering a real, rather than imagined history: a history which includes both Christianity and the trauma of immigration. That is how we wake up our saints.

Vintage Video: Feast of the Madonna della Consolazione in Reggio Calabria

« Eh 'griràmulu tutti cu còri!
Oggi e sempri, viva Maria! » 

"Let us all cry out with our hearts! 
Now and forever, viva Maria!"


The Madonna della Consolazione is the patron of Reggio Calabria in--you guessed it--Calabria. Her feast is celebrated every year on the second Saturday in September. I am especially eager to share her with you because I recently found some vintage videos of her feast which appear to date from the 1920s or 1930s. 

According to tradition, this miraculous Madonna has saved her people from many disasters, both natural and man-made, including the following: 

  • 1571 - plague  
  • 1594 - the siege of the Turks 
  • 1636 - more plague 
  • 1638 - a catastrophic earthquake 
  • 1672 - famine


During the procession, the devout transport the Vara which contains an image of the Madonna from the Basilica dell'Eremo to the duomo di Reggio Calabria. She remains there until November 21, the feast of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, when she returns to the Basilica dell'Eremo

It takes 100 men at a time to support the Vara, which weighs 1,000 kg. 

Tarantella: Traditional Music & Dance

Traditional Food

In the video above, you may have noticed ornate handicrafts that look like small sculptures. Those are 'Nzuddha, or Nzudda, and they are actually a type of Calabrian dessert! The 'nzuddha is a type of unleavened cookie of Arab origin, made with flour, caramel honey, and aniseed liqueur. It is quite similar to the Neapolitan mustaccioli or the Sicilian mustazzoli. They are difficult to chew, but they are often shaped into beautiful, elaborate designs: 

A 'Nzuddha shaped like a monk

A 'Nzuddha shaped like a monk

These designs may be taken from Christian symbolism (e.g. fish, doves) or pagan symbolism (e.g. women, snakes), reflecting the dual heritage of Calabria. 

Santa Rosalia


Hagiography & Miracle 

Not much is known about the life of Santa Rosalia. She was born to a noble family. She rejected that life, instead pursuing one as a hermit in a cave on Mount Pellegrino. She died there alone in 1166. 

Things became more interesting in 1624, when a plague struck Palermo. At that point, Saint Rosalia appeared to a sick woman, then to a hunter. She told the hunter where her remains could be found and ordered him to bring them to Palermo, where they would be carried in procession throughout the city. 

The hunter climbed the mountain and found her bones in the cave, exactly where the saint had told him to look for them. He brought them back to the city, where the people carried them in procession three times. After that, the plague ceased. In gratitude for this miracle, the people of Palermo adopted her as their patron saint, and a sanctuary was built in the cave where her remains were discovered. 


Crown of roses, lily, rose, skull, pilgrim's staff, crucifix, Bible, rosary, chisel, Basilian monastic dress or hermitic dress, the following epitaph (in Latin): "I, Rosalia, daughter of Sinibald, Lord of Roses, and Quisquina, have taken the resolution to live in this cave for the love of my Lord, Jesus Christ."

Feast Days

Santa Rosalia has two major feast days: the liturgical feast day of September 4, which Sicilians and others celebrate by making the pilgrimage to her sanctuary on Monte Pellegrino; and a feast day on July 15, which celebrates her deliverance and subsequent patronage of the city of Palermo, Sicily. It should be noted that, while the July feast is the major focus for Palermitani, the September feast is more widely celebrated in Italian-American communities due to the popularity of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, whose feast falls on July 16. 

In the video below, you get a sense for the enormity of the July feast in Palermo: 

Santa Rosalia and Magic 

Weather Magic 

After she saved the city of Palermo from plague, Santa Rosalia became known as a fierce protectress. She was credited with defending the people from earthquakes and storms, and was appealed to in prayers for a safe and successful harvest. The folk prayer (incantation? Mystery play?) below, taken from Sara Favarò's wonderful Santa Rosalia: Immagini, curiosità, preghiere, canti, demonstrates how she was appealed to for protection from dangerous weather: 


Rusulè, Rusulè
'n mezzu a lu mari chi sireva
l'Arcangelo Gabrieli
'nfàvura chi durmeva. 

- Susi, susi Gabrieli
chi sta vinennu 'na tempesta d'acqua
e 'n timpesta di ventu. 

- Timpesta unni vai? 

- Vaiu arbuli a scippari
e vigna a cutulari. 

- Nun ghiri arbuli a scippari
e mancu vigna a cutuliari
vattinni 'n 'on voscu scuru
unni è ca 'un ci àbita
né suli, nè luna e nudda criatura. 
Né campani sunari
e mancu addi a cantari. 


Rosalia, Rosalia
sat in the middle of the sea
the Archangel Gabriel
slept on the ground. 

- Get up, get up, Gabriel
a storm of water is arriving
and a storm of wind. 

- Storm, where are you going? 

- I'm going to uproot trees
and vines. 

- Do not go to uproot trees
or vines. 
Begone to a dark wood
where there isn't living
the sun, the moon, or any creature. 
Where no bells are sounding
nor roosters singing. 

Folk Altars

Several stunning edicole votive, or votive altars, have been documented here by the Santa Rosalia di Palermo Facebook page. 

Pagan Antecedents 

Santa Rosalia's sanctuary was once a sacred site dedicated to Tanit, also called Tinnit, Tannou or Tangou. Tanit was a Berber Punic and Phoenician goddess. She was the chief deity of Carthage alongside her consort, Ba'al Hammon. She was equivalent to the moon-goddess Astarte, and later worshipped in Roman Carthage in her Romanized form as Dea Caelestis or Juno Caelestis

In a striking parallel to Santa Rosalia's traditional role as a protectress from bad weather and a custodian of the harvest, it is customary in modern-day Tunisian Arabic to invoke "Omek Tannou" or "Oumouk Tangou" ("Mother Tannou" or "Mother Tangou", depending on the region) to bring much-needed rain during long periods of drought. 

A figurine depicting the goddess Tanit from the Reuben and Edith Hecht Museum in Israel

A figurine depicting the goddess Tanit from the Reuben and Edith Hecht Museum in Israel


Why that skull, though? 

The common answer I have found in English-language sources is that the skull indicates a saint who spent much of their life contemplating death. St Gerard, for example, is said to have kept a skull and crossbones on his desk to inspire continuous contemplation of death; he is now often depicted with a skull in his icons. In this case, the skull is essentially a momento mori. But is that the case for Santa Rosalia? We know so little about her life, how can we be sure she spent it in contemplation of death? 

I wonder whether the skull is actually meant to indicate the manner in which she was "born" as a saint: by indicating the location of her remains to someone who then retrieved them. That is what her feast on July 15 commemorates. And it points to the underlying "technologies" of sainthood: the emphasis on martyrdom (in the ancient Mediterranean, murder victims were more likely to become revenants), the veneration of relics (which are disturbed remains, another way to create a revenant), the use of novenas (which are a period of ritualized mourning), etc. 

I know several practitioners based in the US and UK who have independently associated Santa Rosalia with necromancy, perhaps due to the heraldry of the skull. Wolf & Goat, makers of several quality oils dedicated to saints according to traditional practices, offer the following description of their Oil of Saint Rosalia

The Flower of palermo, protectress of souls, Saint Rosalia, the Santuzza–the Little Saint–is a powerful mediator on behalf of the Land itself and the Dead who dwell within it. She echoes the superintending care of the Creator for His people, and gives voice the Souls forgotten whose blood and sweat has given fruit to the Land upon which we dwell. He-in-whom-we-move-and-have-our-existence is celebrated through Her, and her protection and intercession from the Mountains where she dwells is true manifestation of the might and love of God.

Of course, this is deviating a bit from the Sicilian tradition as I have yet encountered it. So take it with a grain of Trapani sea salt. 

Hymn to Santa Rosalia 

I love including some traditional music in my devotional practice, even if it's just something to play in the background while I pray or meditate on the saint's Mysteries. This beautiful hymn to Santa Rosalia does just the trick: 


Lyrics courtesy of

Diva, cui diedero
lor nome i fiori:
o santa, o nobile
stirpe di re!
Tu il puro anelito
dei nostri cuori,
tu il faro vigile
di nostra fè!

Rit. O Rosa fulgida
che dolce olia
o Giglio candido
spruzzato d’or.
Fiore freschissimo,
o Rosalia,
accogli il palpito
del nostro amor!

Tu, che di gelida
cavernsa in seno,
scolpivi il nobile
patto d’amor.
Tra cento ostacoli,
concedi almeno
che della grazia
serbiamo il fior!

Rit. O Rosa fulgida…

Tu che sui culmini
del Pellegrino,
sfogavi all’aure
l’immenso ardor;
Tu fa che il fervido
fuoco divino
avvampi ogni anima
bruci ogni cor!

Rit. O Rosa fulgida…

Tu, che sollecita
de la tua terra,
la lue malefica
fugasti un dì.
O Pia, difendici
da fame e guerra,
d’ogni contagio
che ci colpì.

Rit. O Rosa fulgida…

Tu, che con l’anima
in Dio rapita,
sorella agli angeli
fosti quaggiù;
l’arcano insegnaci
de la tua vita:
sognar la Patria
cercar Gesù!

Rit. O Rosa fulgida…

The Magic of Italian Lullabies

I didn’t ever think of lullabies as magic until I saw Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino play live for the first time. Before they played one of their songs based on a traditional Salentino lullaby, Mauro Durante took the stage and introduced it by explaining to the audience that a mother who sings her child a lullaby is not just trying to make her child fall asleep. Instead, Durante said, she is weaving a powerful spell of protection against the powers of illness and misfortune. 

Ever since then, I have been fascinated by the magic of lullabies. Even if you don’t remember it now, there was someone in your life who held you when you were a baby. You used to fall asleep safe in someone’s arms. The lullaby reconnects us with that past moment moment in the eternal present. It also connects us with the moment when our mothers were held by their mothers, and so on and so forth, stretching back through time to the first mother, who some may identify with the Black Madonna. Even lullabies that you didn’t grow up with can still be emotionally powerful for this reason. 

What magic can you do with a lullaby? 

  • Sing it to protect a small child, animal, or other vulnerable spirit in need. 
  • Play a recorded lullaby in the dark, right before bed to dream deeper. 
  • Learn the meanings of the lyrics. Visualize the unusual images and see where they take you. 
  • Play it while making offerings to your distaff line.

The lullaby I will share with you today is from Cancello Arnone in Caserta, Campania. It is sung in the Casertano dialect of Neapolitan, which you can tell from the way the infinitives end in -ane: for example, “addevenane”. I’m extraordinarily excited to share this song with you, as I believe it is the first time the lyrics have been published. It is certainly the first time they have been translated into English. 



Noo.. nonna nonna, a nenna mie, l'angele l'addorma
Noo.., si l'addorme mò ch'è piccerella
quanne è grosse s'addorme sulella.
Quanne nasciette ie nasciette a mare,
nasciette fra li Turche e fra li More,
me pigliave e me metteve m'bracce
chi me riceve figlie viene a me.
Vene na zenghere p'addevenane
"Figlie pe te ce sta nu monte d'ore"
Pigliaie la zappe e me mette a zappane
nù truvaie l'argente e manche l'ore.
Vurria turnane n'ata vote n'fasce
pe' vasane a chi vasaie a me
"Zenghere nu sapiste addevenane
chi nasce afflitte scunzulate more"
Noo, nonna nonna, a nenna mia a nonna vo fane
noo, si l'addorme mò ch'è piccerella
quanne è grosse addorme sulella.
E nonna nonna e mò vene Mammone
mò vene u vicchiarielle m'briacone
m'briacone che m'briaca lli ggente
m'briacheme a sta nenne nu mumento
E nonna nonna nonna, suonne e crisce
mò vene o mare che porte li pisce
porte li pisce e porte li dunzelle
Vire sta nenna mie quante è bella
Noo.. nonna nonna, la nenna mie, l'angele l'addorma
noo, si l'addorme mò ch'è piccerella
quanne è grosse s'addorme sulella.
Mamma toie tu vuleve n'tussecare
quanne sapette ca vulive a me
Pigliete a chesse ca te vonne rà
che 'cchiù acconce e 'cchiù belle e me
pigliatelle acconce e aggarbatelle
nu poche accurtulelle de cinture
che si le fa po' qualche gonnelle
sparagne file e sete e cuseture
Noo.. nonna nonna, la nenna mie, l'angele l'addorma
noo, si l'addorme mò ch'è piccerella
quanne è grosse s'addorme sul'ella.
Vurria ca lu mare m'annegasse
e nove de me nun ze n'avesse
e roppe n'anne l'onne me cacciasse
n'coppe a nu scoglie mangiate re pesce.
Tante da puzze nisciune s'accustasse
sule ninnillu mie nce venesse
Lui venesse e ie me resuscetasse
cchiù belle che nunz'eve me facesse
Noo.. nonna nonna, la nenna mie, l'angele l'addorma
noo, si l'addorme mò ch'è piccerella
quanne è grosse s'addorme sulella.
Lu sabbete se chiamme allegre core
pe' chi ce tene na bella mugliera
chi tene a bella mugliere sempe canta
chi tene li renare sempe conte.
Ie puvurielle nù cante e nù conte
brutte m'aggià pigliate e senza niente.
Noo.. nonna nonna, a nenna mie a nonne vo fa
Noo.. nonna nonna, a nenna mie, l'angele l'addorma


Noo... nonna nonna, la bimba mia l'angelo l'addormenta
Noo..., se l'addormenta adesso che è piccolina
quando diventa grande s'addormenta da sola.
Quando sono nata nacqui a mare
nacqui tra i Turchi ed i Mori
mi prendeva e mi metteva in braccio
chi mi diceva "figlia vieni a me"
Viene una zingara per fare l'indovina
"Figlia per te c'è un monte d'oro"
Presi una zappa e mi misi a zappare
non trovai l'argento e nemmeno l'oro.
Vorrei tornare un'altra volta in fascie
per baciare chi baciava me
"Zingara non sapesti indovinare
chi nasce afflitto muore sconsolato
Noo... nonna nonna, la bimba mia la nonna vuole fare
Noo..., se l'addormenta adesso che è piccolina
quando diventa grande s'addormenta da sola.
E nonna nonna adesso viene Mammone
adesso viene il vecchierello ubriacone
ubriacone che ubriaca le genti
ubriacami questa figlia in un momento
E nonna nonna dormi e cresci
adesso viene il mare che porta i pesci
porta i pesci e porta le fanciulle
vedi la bimba mia quant'è bella
Noo... nonna nonna, la bimba mia l'angelo l'addormenta
Noo..., se l'addormenta adesso che è piccolina
quando diventa grande s'addormenta da sola.
Tua madre ti voleva intossicare
quando seppe che volevi me
Prendi quella che ti vogliono dare
che è più brava e più bella di me
pigliatela brava e molto garbata
un po' corta di cintura
che se poi le devi fare qualche gonnella
risparmi il filo di seta e la cucitura
Noo... nonna nonna, la bimba mia l'angelo l'addormenta
Noo..., se l'addormenta adesso che è piccolina
quando diventa grande s'addormenta da sola.
Vorrei che il mare mi annegasse
e notizie di me non si avessero
e dopo un anno l'onda mi cacciasse
su uno scoglio mangiata dai pesci.
Dal fetore nessuno si avvicinasse
solo il mio ragazzo ci verrebbe
Lui verrebbe ed io resuscitassi
e più bella che non ero mi farei
Noo... nonna nonna, la bimba mia l'angelo l'addormenta
Noo..., se l'addormenta adesso che è piccolina
quando diventa grande s'addormenta da sola.
Il Sabato si chiama allegro cuore
per chi ha una bella moglie
chi ha una bella moglie sempre canta
chi ha i denari sempre conta
Io poverello non canto e non conto
brutta me la sono sposata e senza niente
Noo... nonna nonna, la bimba mia la nonna vuol fare
Noo... nonna nonna, la bimba mia l'angelo l'addormenta


Nonna nonna, my little one, the angel puts her to sleep
if the angel puts her to sleep now that she is small
when she is big she will fall asleep on her own. 
When I was born, I was born at sea
I was born among the Turks and among the Moors, 
The person who said, child come to me, 
took me and picked me up in their arms. 
A gypsy came to foretell
“Girl, for you there is a mountain of gold” 
I picked up the hoe and I began to hoe
I didn’t find silver and not even gold. 
I would like to return again to swaddling clothes
in order to kiss the one that kissed me
“Gypsy, you didn’t know how to divine
who is born afflicted, dies desolate”
Nonna nonna, my little one wants to go to sleep
if I put her to sleep now that she is small
when she is big she will fall asleep herself. 
Ninna nanna and now comes Mammone
Now comes the old man drunkard  
A drunkard that makes people drunk
make this child fall asleep right now
And nonna nonna, sleep and grow
Now comes the sea that brings fish
brings the fish and brings the damsels
Look look how beautiful my child is
Nonna, my child, the angel puts her to sleep
Noo, if he puts her to sleep now that she is small
When she is big, she’ll sleep herself. 
Your mother wanted to upset you
when she found out that you chose me
Take this woman that they want to give you [as a wife] 
who is more graceful and more beautiful than me
take her graceful and gracious
a bit short from the belt
if she makes her some skirts
she saves on silk, threads, and sewings
Nonna nonna, my child, the angel puts her to sleep
if he puts her to sleep now that she is small
When she is big she will sleep alone
I would like that the sea drown me
and news of me there would not be
and after one year the wave would send me away
on top of a rock, eaten by the fish. 
So much of the stench nobody would come near
only my little boy would come
He would come and I would come back to life
Would make me more beautiful than I was
Nonna, my little girl, the angel puts her to sleep
No, if he puts her to sleep now that she’s small
when she is big she will fall asleep herself. 
Saturday is called happy heart
for he who has a beautiful wife
who has a beautiful wife sings all the time
who has money always counts
Poor me, I do not sing or count
I have chosen and ugly one without anything. 
My girl, go to sleep
The angel puts her to sleep. 


The English translation for this lullaby comes to us from Anna Scognamiglio, a scholar of Neapolitan language and culture who teaches online Italian and Neapolitan lessons. As I've discussed in previous posts, she is an incredible teacher, and has contributed a lot of material and perspective to this blog. 

The lullaby itself was originally recorded and transcribed by Alberto Esposito, whose YouTube channel is not to be missed by anyone passionate about Southern Italian culture. Mr. Esposito has been an extraordinary source of wisdom concerning these living traditions for both Anna and myself. His kindness and generous spirit deserve to be honored publicly. Pestered by us to share something about his life, he writes: 

Born in Cancello Arnone on January 21, 1952, the first studies in college years went badly. Graduated at the Liceo Scientifico with difficulty (8 years) for a creeping artistic vocation to the point of getting out of stock. Militancy in the late 1970s in the extreme left and relative disillusionment that led me to leave everything, girl, country, family and work projects. London in '77, along with artists, made me resume artistic activity and drawing, but the art of reference is the body-art that has lived on the street. Naples and several trips, then for a couple of years I worked as a shipyard manager in Naples in the popular neighborhood of the "Miracoli" for the reconstruction of the 1980 Earthquake and then also at Vietri di Potenza. Family problems brought me to the country where I had the space to paint. I gradually immersed myself in the culture of the country, taking photographs focusing on people (faces, posing expressions), collecting popular songs, interviewing subjects on the last war also done in Collaboration with Federico II Sociology with Prof. Gribaudi. I curated the publication of Gen. Domenico Branco's "Diario di guerra del 43", lieutenant pilot at the time of the events. Collaboration with the University of California through professor and researcher Ferruccio Trabalzi for a qualification and re-evaluation course both in terms of structures and economics in my region. A small collaboration with Carlo Faiello on the traditions of buffalo farms published by "Squilibri Editore". Collaboration on Paola Cantelmo's video on popular dances and more in the Vesuvius territories for video editing on a regional blog structured by the publisher "Squilibri" (editor publishing the early records of the Accademia di Santa Cecilia). I published at my expense "Canti raccolti a Cancello Arnone", the "Lettere" which are my parents' correspondence during the first postwar period, followed by the "43 racconti del 43" a book on war stories. My videos on the war are published on the University site even though I should retrieve other tapes. Public "Documenti di Cancello Arnone", plus four volumes on the criminal processes of Cancello Arnone since 700 AD from the Museo Campano di Capua, the transcriptions of these processes in which the ancient way of life of the entire Mazzoni area, the marshy and malarial area up to the 50s, then recovered with huge and heavy reclamations. I published "Londres Scafa e Ponti", a booklet that identifies in the Volturno passage the pivot on which the process of emancipation of the whole Mazzoni area is engulfed and prospects a future belonging to the nation, which without roads and bridges was first blocked. Another book on ancient documents from 600 AD, 700 AD and 900 AD on the behavior of the religious in the various centuries, but I am denied the publication from the Biblioteca della Curia di Capua. The book then "Ri Cunte" collected in Mondragone, a town located on the borders with the Mazzoni area, collecting single-person tales that make this book particularly original, also valid from a linguistic point of view, since Mrs. Teodora Bertolino used the dialect of the Sant'Angelo district, the oldest in Mondragone. I curate the publication of a book of dialectical poetry by Francesco Di Napoli, "Quanne il suone addeventene parole". The overall sense of most of these research projects is centered on wanting to give all the elements that can give answers to the culture of a single territory: photos, songs, stories, ancient documents about the religious, various experiences (such as those of my parents, General Branco), etc. However, throughout this period I have nevertheless been creative in the contemporary art scene with installations, video shows, etc. which are the other face of my artistic experiences. Illness and other problems today lead me to living in Rodi Garganico.
Friend of Italian Folk Magic Alberto Esposito

Friend of Italian Folk Magic Alberto Esposito

Signor Esposito's familiar spirit 

Signor Esposito's familiar spirit 

14 Ways to Incorporate Italian Folk Music Into Your Spiritual Life

When the first Italian immigrants arrived in the United States, they didn’t come carrying heavy statues. What they did have, however, was music. Some brought simple instruments like the tamburello. Others sang and danced. In this way, the god of music may have been the first of our ancestors’ spiritual court to arrive in the new world. 

Music has been an integral part of Italian spirituality since the days of Dionysus and Cybele, whose orgiastic rites live on in regional musical traditions such as the tammurriata. These styles of music rely on drumming techniques which are difficult to master. (After two years of study with master folk artist Alessandra Belloni, I am still humbled every time I pick up my tamburello to practice!) Thankfully, you don’t need to be a professional musician to incorporate music into your spiritual life. In this post, we’ll be looking at ways to live and breathe music--no talent required!  

  1. Learn about the different styles of Italian folk music. If you are in the New York City area, make sure to like Alessandra Belloni on Facebook to see her class schedule, and come join us sometime! If you don’t live in the NYC area, check out the following free online videos, in which she covers the basics of the tammurriata and pizzica tarantata. Once you understand of what distinguishes these musical styles, you’ll hear a whole new world of sound.  
  2. Listen to (and give thanks for) the musicians who paved the way for a modern renaissance of Italian folk music. Starting in the 70s, groups such as Nuova Compagnia di Canto Popolare and Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino inspired several new generations of folk musicians. And guess what? While their lineups may have evolved over the years, those groups are still going strong. 
  3. Watch La Gatta Cenerentola. Based on the Pentamerone by Giambattista Basile, this musical sung in Neapolitan brings traditional folktales to life. You can watch it for free on YouTube. 
  4. Explore your voice, even if you think you can’t sing. If you are in the NYC area, I strongly recommend attending Sing a Secret, a vocal workshop unlike anything you’ve ever experienced, with Jon Stancato. Jon inherited his Calabrian grandmother’s gift for healing through sound and song, and combined it with his Roy Hart vocal training to create something truly unique. (Psst—Sing a Secret is absolutely, 100% free!) 
  5. Learn the refrain to “O Maria quanto bella sei”. (Full lyrics and video on our post about the Madonna of the Advocate in Maiori.) Here it goes: “Evviva Maria, Maria Evviva”. Think you can handle it? Good! Because if you go to any festa, you’ll have a chance to sing along to this popular Marian hymn. For personal use, it’s also a great way to open or close a session praying the rosary.  
  6. Look for a call-and-response style song to your patron saint. These are specifically written so the responses are easy to sing, so you can sing along. For example, I’m a fan of this hymn to San Rocco, which is played every year at his feast day in NYC. The response is simple: “Evviva Santi Rocco! ca int'a Tolve stai”, although sometimes I will personalize it by substituting the name of whatever city I am in for “Tolve”: "Evviva Santi Rocco! ca int'a New York stai”, "Evviva Santi Rocco! ca int'a Boston stai”, etc. 
  7. Watch Passione by John Turturro. This documentary about Neapolitan music introduced me to some of my favorite musicians. And it’s conveniently available to stream on Amazon. 
  8. Paint a tamburello. If you’re more visually inclined than auditory, this is a great way to attract musical spirits into your home. I’ve had some success decorating cheap drums like this one with acrylic paint. Traditional designs include the Madonna, or a spider, snake, or scorpion. 
  9. Watch Dancing on the Drum by Zoe D’Amaro. This documentary is a little bit more challenging to find (I may or may not have written the filmmaker begging her for a copy). But boy, is it worth it. It’s the best way to learn about tammurriata short of booking a trip to Campania! 
  10. Shake, shake, shake (your tambourine), signora. So you don’t know how to drum a beat on the tambourine? No problem—those jingly bits are just as important when it comes to calling in spiritual guides. 
  11. If you don’t speak Italian, memorize these words: “testo”, “inno a…” and “traduzione”. They mean “lyrics”, “hymn to…”, and “translation”, respectively. These will come in super handy when you’re searching through YouTube and Google for devotional music and lyrics. 
  12. Keep a journal of song lyrics. It’s nicer than having to look them up on your phone when doing spiritual work. I like to write mine out so I have the original version and a translation side-by-side. 
  13. Use as many musical platforms as you can. Since Italian folk music is something of a long-tail interest, different songs, artists, and albums are available on different platforms. You’ll want to dig through YouTube, Spotify, and Apple Music in order to get the full picture of this genre. 
  14. As you learn new folk songs, consider both their cultural context and their personal significance to you. In the past, I’ve written about how songs such as "Fimmene, Fimmene" and "Santa Lucia Luntana" took on new meanings for me which eventually led me to use them in unconventional ritual contexts. Music is emotional, personal, and intimate: as you listen to it, observe how it affects you. You’ll start to develop a personal playlist of songs for various uses: going into trance, making offerings, calling upon specific groups of ancestors, etc. 

25 Tips for Dreaming Deeper, Italian Style

Dreaming is an integral part of Italian folk magic. Many stories about the founding of churches, feast day celebrations, and mutual aid societies begin with a dream in which a saint or Madonna asks for veneration. Likewise, many families have their own personal stories about about the power of dreams which contain visions of deceased loved ones who give warnings or advice. 

When I perform lectures about Italian folk magic to Italian-American audiences in New York, dreaming is the most popular topic. It particularly resonates with Neapolitan-Americans, many of whom have stories about their mothers and grandmothers interpreting signs from dreams. 

But for some of us, dreaming doesn’t come naturally. A lot of Americans struggle with insomnia or inconsistent sleep cycles. Some people don’t even believe they dream at all! 

In this post, I’ll be sharing some of my favorite tips for improving your capacity to dream deeper. By “dreaming deeper”, I mean you’ll dream more often, remember you dreams better, and increase the likelihood of encountering spiritual entities in your dreams. Some of these are generic tips; others have a specifically Southern Italian flavor. 

You can use any of these tips alone or in combination. Everybody is different, so it may take some experimentation to find what works for you. Thankfully, we get a new chance to hone our skills every night. 

First, let’s start with the most fundamental step: 

1. Set an intention. Why are you interested in dreaming deeper? Have you had particularly beautiful or enlightening dreams in the past that you would like to return to? Was there a deep dreamer in your family that you particularly admired? Once you have connected with your desire and your intention, say it to yourself: “I want to dream more.” “I want to remember more of my dreams.” “I want to receive a message from a spirit guide in my dreams.”  

Improve your sleep. 

If you don’t sleep, you won’t dream. Unfortunately, may of us need to consciously make sleeping a priority if we are going to improve the quality and the quantity of our sleeping hours. 

2. Avoid screens for at least an hour before bed. This includes TVs, cell phones, computers, tablets, etc. 
3. Sleep in the dark. Unless you are living in a rural area, you probably have a lot of light pollution coming in through your windows. Consider light-blocking curtains. Most of us have several little flickering lights in our homes: the modem, the alarm clock, the cell phone notifications. Try to remove them from your sleeping area, or cover them up so they won’t disturb you. 
4. Exercise daily. There is no better sleep than the sleep that comes after a day that has been physically satisfying. If you are not currently physically active, consider incorporating more movement into your day. If you need some motivation to get to the gym, remember that you have something to look forward to. In my personal experience, the dreams which follow the first workout after a long sedentary period are especially intense.  

Drink a cup of herbal tea before bed. 

There are many herbs marketed as “dream herbs” online. But I like to stick with simple herbs that grow locally. Of course, that will vary from region to region, but the following are fairly common options for those of us living in the continental United States: 

5. Mugwort (leaf). This close cousin of wormwood, the absinthe herb, has a similar reputation for producing trance states and intense dreams. It can be brewed into a tea or burnt as incense to fumigate your bedroom before going to sleep. 
6. Dandelion (leaf or root). Humble dandelion is an extraordinarily giving plant. Every part of its body, from root to flower, is medicinal. And its leaves or root can be brewed into a tea reputed to enhance psychic abilities. 
7. Calamus (root). This herb has a particular reputation for bringing on lucid dreams. It can be cold-brewed into a tea to take out some of the bitterness. 

Drink a shot of amaro before bed. 

Amaro is a generic term for a group of bitter Italian liqueurs. (Did you notice how bitter the herbs mentioned above are? Bitter herbs tend to be associated with psychic phenomena.) 

8. Strega. A classic! “Strega” means “witch” in Italian. Brewed in Benevento, the famous Campanian city of witches, this is probably the sweetest amaro you will find. The bright yellow color and the witch on the bottle will charm anyone. 
9. Sibilla. Another amaro named for magical women! The sybils were believed by the ancient Greeks to give oracles. Their prophetic power came from chthonic deities, that is, deities concerned with the underworld. 
10. Averna. This Sicilian amaro is a personal favorite. Bittersweet and lovely, it shares its name with Lake Avernus near Cumae, West of Naples. The ancient Greeks who settled in Campania identified Lake Avernus with Acheron, a river which exists both physically in northwest Greece and mythologically in Hades. 
11. Fernet-Branca. There’s no mythology behind the name, but Fernet-Branca has a very distinctive taste that I associate with Hades, the Greek underworld (and the god thereof). It is bitter, almost crypt-like, but with notes of mint. 

Make time for “women’s work”.

“Women’s work” is a category of domestic labor which is traditionally assigned to women. Anthropologist Judith Brown was the first to note that, for a culture to retain a woman’s labor during her childbearing years, it would need to provide her with tasks which were compatible with childcare. Compatible tasks have the following qualities: “the participant is not obliged to be far from home; the tasks are relatively monotonous and do not require rapt concentration; and the work is not dangerous, can be performed in spite of interruptions, and is easily resumed once interrupted.” 

Incidentally, these qualities are also qualities which tend to produce spontaneous trance states. I have a hypothesis that this is the reason why traditionally, Southern Italian women were more likely than men to have visions of the Madonnas, saints, ancestors, and other spirits. 

12. Spin yarn. This can be performed by hand with a drop spindle and distaff or on a spinning wheel. The spinning wheel of course features in fairytales such as Sleeping Beauty and Rumplestiltskin. The distaff is so intimately connected to womanhood that it can be used as an adjective meaning “of or concerning women”. For example, one’s maternal lineage is also called the “distaff side”. (The male lineage is called the “spear side”.) 
13. Weave fabric. Weaving is an extraordinarily sacred task, and the production of fabric is one of the few ways in which women in the ancient Mediterranean world were able to earn their own income. 
14. Pray the rosary. Finding fancy new prayers is always fun. But the simple, well-known prayers of the rosary are particularly apt for inducing trance precisely because they are so repetitive. Praying the rosary before bed can open you up to interesting dreams. 

Listen to a Southern Italian lullaby. 

15. Nonna Nonna. This lullaby from Cancello Arnone in Campania was recorded by friend of Italian Folk Magic and general linguistic hero Alberto Esposito. (Psst, we'll be exploring this one in depth in a future post!)  

16. Ninna Nanna. The lyrics to this lullaby come from Carpino in Puglia. It was recorded by Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino, one of my favorite bands. 

17. Hymn to Hypnos. Some folks may disagree with me, but I consider this to be the OG Southern Italian lullaby. It comes from a collection of prayers to the gods known as the “Orphic Hymns”. These hymns were employed by the cult of Orpheus, prophet and musician, which flourished throughout ancient Greece and Magna Graecia.  

Keep track of your dreams. 

When you pay more attention to your dreams, you will start to dream more. 

18. Lie in bed to remember your dreams. Lying still in bed will improve your dream recall. (On the other hand, if you wake up from a nightmare in the middle of the night and you are concerned that you will return to it if you fall back asleep, the best thing you can do is shake your head and body up a bit. I was really glad to figure that one out as a kid!) 
19. Write your dreams down in a journal. Having a journal devoted specifically to dreams is best. It becomes a kind of talismanic object, and keeping it on your nightstand is a ritual in its own right.  
20. Keep track of moon phase and sign. Dreams on a full moon or new moon night may be particularly intense. 
21. Keep track of your menstrual cycle day. If you menstruate, you may notice patterns in your dreams during your monthly cycle, due to regular hormone fluctuations.  

Borrow some techniques from the lucid dreaming community. 

Even if you’ve never heard of it before, chances are you have experienced at least one lucid dream. These are the dreams in which you become aware of the fact that you are dreaming. At that point, anything can happen: you can fly, shape shift, talk to the other beings in your dreams, etc. Incidentally, the types of adventures that are possible during lucid dreams seem to overlap with the traditional powers of "shamans" across many cultures. 

Some people enjoy lucid dreams for recreational purposes (when else will you get to fly?), others for spiritual development. Here are some techniques taught for bringing about lucid dreams. Note that these must be practiced habitually for a few weeks in order to work:  

22. Flick a light switch on and off. If the ambient lighting doesn’t change, you are dreaming.  
23. Pinch your nose. If you can still breathe, you are dreaming. 
24. Try to read some text. If it changes on you while you are reading it, you are dreaming. 
25. Disrupt your sleep patterns. If you wake up and go back to sleep during the night, you are more likely to have lucid dreams or to remember your dreams, depending on what your intention is. 

12 Free Books About Italian Folk Magic (And Where to Find Them)

Today I’ll be sharing with you twelve books about our traditions which are available online for free. These books touch on a variety of topics, from Italian and Sicilian folklore, to the religions of ancient Greece and Rome, to official Catholic liturgy. Each of these is a thread in the tapestry of Italian folk magic. I hope you will enjoy them as much as I have.  

Mille grazie to the organizations which devoted the time and money to preserve, scan, retype, and host these books. Bravissimi! 

  1. Magic: A Theory from the South by Ernesto de Martino
    First published in 1959, Magic: A Theory from the South (originally Sud e magia) is a classic from Neapolitan anthropologist Ernesto de Martino. The psychoanalytic framework de Martino uses to explain the magical beliefs he encountered in Basilicata has fallen out of favor with most academics. However, his worth as an ethnographer, documenting beliefs ranging from the evil eye to magical binding, has withstood the test of time. Only translated into English for the first time in the past two years, Magic: A Theory from the South has been made available online for free courtesy of the publisher, HAU Books.
  2. Biblioteca delle tradizioni popolari siciliane by Giuseppe Pitrè
    Giuseppe Pitrè stands beside Ernesto de Martino as one of the greatest ethnographers from the Mezzogiorno. His opus, Biblioteca delle tradizioni popolari siciliane (Library of Sicilian Popular Traditions) spans twenty-five (!!) volumes of Sicilian language and culture. It covers topics ranging from folk songs, to saints’ feasts, to proverbs. An absolute must for those who read Italian.
  3. Vestiges of ancient manners and customs, discoverable in modern Italy and Sicily by Rev. John James Blunt
    Some books, ironically, preserve traditions better by condemning them than we ever could through celebration alone. Vestiges of ancient manners and customs, discoverable in modern Italy and Sicily by Rev. John James Blunt is one such book. Thought it was meant to be an attack on the decadence of papacy, you get the feeling that Rev. Blunt was enjoying every second of his journeys through Southern Italy. He reports back to his patrons in England on the cults of the saints and the Madonnas, the sacred dramas, the charms, and many more facets of Southern Italian life, comparing them to the religious beliefs and practices of ancient Greek and Roman paganism.
  4. Canti e tradizioni popolari in Campania by Roberto de Simone
    If you love Neapolitan folk music or if you were inspired by our series on the Seven Sisters, Canti e tradizioni popolari in Campania by Roberto de Simone is a must-read. De Simone, a founding member of Nuova Compagnia di Canto Popolare, is a legend in Neapolitan folk music. In this book, he shares the lyrics to many classic folk songs and several versions of the tammurriata devoted to each of the Seven Sisters, the famous Madonnas of Campania. Translations into Italian are given for the songs, which are captured in their original Neapolitan.
  5. Pentamerone by Giambattista Basile
    Giambattista Basile's Pentamerone, also called Lo Cunto de li cunti (The Tale of Tales) is a collection of fairy tales recorded in Neapolitan, all of which are set in Basilicata and Campania. As spiritually-inclined folks from around the world have noted, the fairy tales of a region encode instructions for dealing with that region's spirits. For this reason, the Pentamerone is well worth reading. The full text of the original Neapolitan is available here. The English translations of several of the stories are available here
  6. Nuova Smorfia del giuoco del lotto by Giustino Rumeo
    Are you feeling lucky? If you like to play the numbers, try using this old-school dictionary of la smorfia napoletana to translate your dreams into a winning lottery ticket. (And, if you don’t speak Italian or don’t have the patience to wade through hundreds of pages of entries, don’t worry. There’s an electronic dictionary in English here.)
  7. Rituale Romanum
    If you're nostalgic for the beauty of the pre-Vatican II Church, this copy of the 1962 Rituale Romanum will… probably make you more nostalgic. It includes detailed descriptions of how the sacraments, blessings, and exorcisms were once performed.
  8. Missale Romanum
    Of course, don’t forget this copy of the 1962 Missale Romanum to go with it! This Missal records the prayers which made up the Latin Mass before the reforms of Vatican II ushered in an era of Mass performed in vernacular. (Make sure to take a copy with you if/when you attend your first Latin Mass, ideally one with illustrations so you can follow along easily!) 
  9. Raccolta
    The Raccolta is a collection of prayers and devotional acts which once carried an official indulgence. I’m fond of this elegant reprint of the 1959 version (the large type face makes it easy to read by candlelight), but if you are low on funds, a free PDF of the 1898 version is available in English here. And, if you would rather read the original Italian, the 1849 version is available here.
  10. An Introduction to Roman Religion by John Scheid
    Available to borrow from a digital library, John Scheid's An Introduction to Roman Religion covers all the major concepts in Roman religion, including the ritual calendar, temple usage, and rituals of sacrifice and divination.  
  11. Cults of Campania by Roy Peterson
    Roy Peterson's Cults of Campania discusses Greek and Roman religion particularly as they developed in the region of Campania, home to Cumae, Naples, and Pompeii. 
  12. Incubation, or The cure of disease in pagan temples and Christian churches by Mary Hamilton 
    Incubation was a pagan ritual wherein a sick person would fall asleep in a sacred location, such as a temple to the healing god Aesclepius, and be cured through a dream. The practice is an important one to study if we are to fully understand the roots of Southern Italian belief concerning the power of dreams. 

Italian Folk Magic on the Italian American Podcast

As an Italian-American woman, I am a huge fan of the work that Dolores Alfieri and Anthony Fasano are doing through their website, The Italian American Experience. The podcast, the blog, the videos--everything these two put out into the world is such a beautiful representation of our unique cultural heritage. So when Dolores reached out and asked me to be a guest on their podcast, how could I say no? 

I was not disappointed. The conversation we had was intimate, personal, and ground-breaking for both of us. I felt vulnerable speaking so openly about my family history for the first time. A million thanks to Dolores for making this happen. May this conversation spark a light of remembrance for others! 

Full show and links are available on the Italian American Experience, which is well worth checking out. (If you liked this episode, you will love their interview with Robert Orsi, scholar of religious studies and author of The Madonna of 115th Street.) 

Don't miss out on future episodes of The Italian American Podcast! Make sure you subscribe and leave a review on iTunes

Magic Beverages for Summer

Many Americans traveling to Italy, whether to explore their roots or just enjoy the scenery, are taken aback by the country’s devotion to food and the socializing that occurs around mealtimes. Take, for example, the rituals surrounding aperitivi and digestivi—that is, alcoholic beverages consumed before and after meals, respectively. Aperitivi can be thought of as similar to happy hour drinks. They are usually enjoyed as a way to unwind after the work day and stimulate digestion before the evening meal. They are sometimes accompanied by light food because dinners in usually start later in the evening than they do in the US. Digestivi are often taken along with the dessert course. 

In this post, we’ll be talking about some popular aperitivi and digestivi and how to make them yourself. We’ll also speculate on possible magical applications of these beverages based on their ingredients, so you can serve up some blessings to your summer party guests! 



This aperitivo can be made with either Campari or Aperol. These liqueurs have similar tastes and are both made by the same company, but Campari is stronger than Aperol: more bitter and twice as alcoholic. 

  • Prosecco 
  • 1 shot Campari or Aperol 
  • 1 glug club soda 
  • 1 orange slice 

Fill a tumblr with ice. Fill the glass 2/3 full with sparkling wine. Add the Aperol. Top with club soda, stir well, then add the orange slice. 

The magic ingredient: amaro

Campari and Aperol are both examples of amaro, a broad category including several Italian liqueurs. Amari are bitter; that’s what amaro means in Italian. And some of them are bittersweet. But they are all delicious. Bitter herbs such as those used to manufacture different amari often have trans-cultural reputations for developing psychic powers. Dandelion and wormwood are notable examples. 

Campari and Aperol have the added magical bonus of being colored a vibrant red. Red is believed to be lucky in many parts of Italy. Cornicello and mano cornuto charms were traditionally made of coral, which the Greeks said was the blood of the Gorgon Medusa. Half of her blood was said to heal, and the other half was said to poison. Perhaps because of this history, these charms are still red today, even when they are made of plastic. The color is said to repeal evil, especially the mal’occhio or evil eye. 

Peach Wine

Known as perzichi ’ntru vinu or pircochi ‘e vinu in Calabrese, peach wine is an old-fashioned treat throughout Southern Italy. The core concept is similar to Spanish sangria, but the use of peaches is a regional delight. 

  • 1 kg peaches (especially percoca peaches) 
  • 1 liter wine (should be a light-bodied red; avoid tannins) 

Wash and peel the peaches. Fill a pitcher half-way with wine. Cut the peaches into large, irregular chunks and add to pitcher. Refrigerate for at least one hour. Serve cold. 

The magic ingredient: peaches!   

Peaches were brought to Italy by the Persians. They were initially cultivated in ancient China, where they were known as the fruit of immortality. This places them in a category similar to the apples of immortality tended to by the Norse goddess Idunna, or the ambrosia consumed by the Greek gods. And, since ambrosia itself was sometimes consider wine or some other red nectar, we might think of this drink as our own glass of ambrosia. 



Making your own limoncello is an easy way to impress your friends at your next party. Or a bottle makes a great gift for your favorite host/hostess! 

  • 10 lemons 
  • 750 ml vodka 
  • 3 1/2 cups water 
  • 2 1/2 cups sugar 

Using a potato peeler, remove the peel from the lemons in long strips. Be careful to avoid peeling off the pith—that’s the technical term for the bitter white stuff no one likes in citrus peels. Place the lemon peels, without the pith, in a large pitcher or jar. Pour the vodka over them and cover with plastic wrap. (Note: if you are using a mason jar, keep some plastic wrap under the metal lid, otherwise it will corrode.) Steep for four days at room temperature. 

Make simple syrup by storing the water and sugar together in a saucepan over medium heat until the sugar dissolves. Allow it to cool completely, then add it to the vodka and lemon peels. Cover and let stand overnight at room temperature. Strain through cheesecloth or a metal strainer and discard the peels. Transfer to bottles and store in refrigerator. Serve cold and enjoy within one month of preparing. 

The magic ingredient: lemons! 

Everybody loves lemons! In American folk magic, they have a reputation for cleansing which probably inspired the popular association of their scent with cleaning products. Nicholas Culpeper in his enormously influential herbal places them under the planetary rulership of the Sun and claims they are an excellent remedy for poison. Other European folklore associates the lemon with love magic, perhaps because the lemon is both sweet and “bitter” (i.e. sour), like love itself: pleasure and pain in equal turn. 

Theres also a famous charm involving a lemon ("Scongiurazione al Limone appuntato un Spille") in Charles Leland's Aradia, Gospel of the Witches. While the accuracy of that text is suspect, I have seen so many folks refer to it that I think it may have its own magic at this point. 

Saint John

Happy Saint John’s Day! In Italy as in other parts of Europe, the feast of Saint John the Baptist (or San Giovanni Battista) is inextricably tied to magic, witches, and divination. Celebrated starting the night of June 23 into the day of June 24, the feast was popularized as a Christian alternative to (or innovation on?) the celebration of the summer solstice. Carol Field writes in Celebrating Italy (p. 92): 

Christianity simply grafted the pagan fires to the celebration of the Feast of San Giovanni. The prophet was born precisely at midsummer, just as Jesus was born six months later at the turning point of winter, two moments in the calendar that mark passage across a critical threshold. Bearded and dressed in animal skins, subsisting on honey and locusts, San Giovanni also resembles an ancient god of the fields, or the mythical King of the Wood who married the Great Goddess in dark midwinter. Six months later, the King of the Wood was put to death beneath a great sacred oak by his successor. So this sacrificial death, with its intimations of rebirth and renewal, was meant to encourage the fertility of the fields.

U Muzzuni

Saint John's Day is known in Alcara li Fusi, a municipality in Messina, Sicily as La Festa di Muzzuni. This is one of my favorite Southern Italian folk traditions. It's also said to be one of the oldest. Although performed on the feast of Saint John, many recognize this as the survival a propitiatory rite to the Great Goddess Ceres or Demeter, who rules over the fertility of the earth. The rituals surrounding the Muzzuni are focused on finding love, and thus also may call upon Aphrodite and Adonis. In these rituals, young women dressed in white dance to love songs sung by male musicians. 

The Muzzuni is constructed with an uncorked wine bottle ("headless", like Saint John himself), which is then stuffed with grains, covered with a handkerchief, and ornamented with precious metals. The Muzzuni is often placed between two oil lamps in front of a colorful tapestry.  

You can see examples of the Muzzuni here, and in the video below!  

Acqua di San Giovanni

As his name implies, Saint John the Baptist is often associated with water in regional folklore. In particular, the dew which collects overnight between June 23 and June 24 is believed to be magically potent. This dew can be collected, some say ideally by a woman who has fasted and who recites the Ave Maria as she goes about her business. This dew can then be combined with certain herbs and left out under the moon to gain magical potency. 

One Italian source describes the following as standard herbs used in the preparation of this potion, or to be dried and used in other magical workings until the next St. John’s Day:

  • the yellow-colored St. John’s wort, to be kept on the body all night to protect from misfortune, and to provide serene sleep, or outdoors to protect families;
  • artemisia against the evil eye;
  • rue for healing properties, and as a ward against the devil, given its cross-like shape;
  • dewy mint that guarantees long life;
  • sage to protect against evil creatures;
  • verbena, symbol of peace and prosperity which was dear to witches and able to heal from illnesses;
  • currant, whose red fruits are also called berries of St. John;
  • periwinkle, also used for the preparation of vegetable talismans;
  • mandrake, one of the most dangerous plants, with the dual faculty of sedating and exciting given its ambivalent essence, male and female; very dear to witches, used it to prepare narcotics and love filters;
  • rosemary, hung with St. John's wort and rue at the doors of the houses, kept away the devils and witches;
  • garlic, potent talisman, if harvested before sunrise was particularly strong against witchcraft; …
  • lavender, with bouquets in drawers and cabinets, protected the linens and by extension the whole family;
  • fern, which gave divinatory powers, supernatural forces and wisdom (according to popular belief, its flower opens only the Night of St. John, remains visible for only a moment and can only be harvested after fighting with the devil);
  • carline thistle, which was used to prevent the witch's malicious passage; If nailed to the door of the house, it forces the witch to count all its caps... 

The acqua di San Giovanni, properly prepared, is believed to increase beauty while protecting against the evil eye, envy, and curses. 

Piombo di San Giovanni

Saint John's Eve was a traditional time of love divination, when young men and women would contact the spirit world to gain insight into their marriage prospects. One such divinatory spell involved melting lead and dropping it into cold water, where it would freeze into shapes which could then be interpreted according to traditional symbolism. 

This ritual was often undertaken following a novena which lasted from the evening of June 15 until the vigil of the feast. While the prayer said on these nights was composed in regional dialect, a form in Florentine Italian is found in Il Libro dei Rimedi Magici by Guido Guerrara: 

San Giovanni benedetto, 
pe' un infame maledetto, 
foste a morte condannato,
con sto' piombo coagulato, 
conoscere mi fai, 
la fortuna che mi dai, 
San Giovanni della vita.

In English: 

Blessed Saint John, 
cursed by an infamous one, 
you were condemned to death, 
with this coagulated lead, 
let me know, 
the fortune that you give me, 
Saint John of life. 

Of course, if lead is difficult to get a hold of, or if you are concerned about the possibility of lead poisoning, you could also perform this ritual with an egg in water. To do so, it is advised to find a large, clear glass and fill it with water. Then, crack an egg and separate the whites from the yolk. Drop the whites only into the glass of water and leave out overnight on the windowsill. According to tradition, water covered in bubbles signifies that you will soon find a mate who is handsome, nice, and rich; the image of a building or church is a good omen, but marriage is not indicated in the short-term; and should no images appear, you'll just have to wait until next year!