This piece was originally written for and performed as an offering to the spirits at an event organized by the inimitable Dr. Vanessa Sinclair on Monday, October 24, 2016.
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Belief in the ponte di San Giacomo, or St. James’ Bridge, has been found historically throughout southern Italy and Sicily. In some places, it persists to this day.
The ponte di San Giacomo is a bridge between this world and the next. It is the barrier the dead must cross in order to reach their final destination in the afterlife. Traditionally, it is said to be sharp, perhaps forged from swords, knives, pins, thorns. And yet, it is believed to have appeared when three drops of the Madonna’s breastmilk fell to earth, a myth which echoes earlier stories about the Roman goddess Juno and the origin of the Milky Way.
The soul’s journey to the next world begins when the dying person loses consciousness. It is a gradual process, a long journey, and consequently must be attended to by the family and wider community. Rituals are performed by laypeople, priests, and folk healers to assure safe passage. These may include opening a window, removing metal chains from the neck, binding and unbinding the legs, washing the corpse, putting food and water nearby so the soul can maintain its strength, and talking to the corpse in a reassuring manner.
But the most important preparations are psychological as much as they are magical. The dying person must prepare themselves spiritually and mentally for the journey. This means the acceptance of death and the relinquishing of attachments to the temporal realm. As a consequence, the people most likely to fail to make the journey successfully--that is, who remain in this world as ghosts either friendly or unfriendly--are those who either die suddenly and unexpectedly, or who have strong ties to the world of the living. Those with unfinished business, with untold stories, or with small children to care for are particularly prone to becoming ghosts.
“Santa Lucia Luntana” was written in 1919 by Giovanni Gaeta, better known as E. A. Mario. It derives its name not from the popular saint, but rather, from the Borgo Santa Lucia, a neighborhood situated on the Port of Naples. After 1903, almost all of the millions of Italian emigrants embarked from either the Port of Naples or that of Palermo. For many emigrants, the last sight of their homeland was the same as the patron saint of eyesight: Santa Lucia.
The song, originally written in Neapolitan, gained immediate popularity and started a national dialog about the diaspora and the plight of impoverished migrants. I would like to share it with you, in English, with a reminder:
Death is a foreign country, and in time we will all be immigrants.
The ships are leaving for faraway lands… They sing on board: they are Neapolitan! They sing while in the sunset the bay disappears, and the moon, above the sea, lets them catch a glimpse of Naples…
Santa Lucia! Far away from you, what sorrow! We travel around the world, we go to seek our fortunes… but, when the moon rises, we cannot stay away from Naples!
And they play music... but their hands tremble on the strings. How many memories, how many memories. And my heart cannot heal not even with those songs; hearing those voices and that music, It begins to cry because it wants to return!
Santa Lucia, you are only a little bit of sea away… But the further away you are, the more beautiful you seem… It is the song of the sirens that is still casting its net! This heart doesn't want riches: if it was born in Naples, it wants to die there!