The magic of 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.
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.
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!