Magic

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.

Santa Rosalia

Basics 

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. 

Heraldry 

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: 

Siciliano 

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. 

English 

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

Necromancy

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: 

Italian 

Lyrics courtesy of SantaRosaliaPalermo.it

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. 

Lyrics

Casertano 

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

Italiano

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

English

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. 

Credits 

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! 

APERITIVI

Spritz

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. 

DIGESTIVI

Limoncello

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! 

Saint Anthony

O, Sant'Antonio! I have loved you more than any other saint. And I am not the only one. His popularity has spread throughout Italy, Europe, and beyond. Here are a few of my favorite Southern Italian devotions and spells calling upon this beloved saint. 

Neapolitan spells calling on Saint Anthony

According to Il libro dei rimedi magici: Riti, scongiuri, formule by Guido Guidi Guerrera, Saint Anthony was said to bestow thirteen favors which were of particular interest to Italian peasants:  

  1. To have a good harvest of wheat
  2. To gain copious weight
  3. To possess many strengths 
  4. To enjoy long life
  5. To make the best wine
  6. To be spared from violent death
  7. To escape the temptation of the devil
  8. Not to sin
  9. Not to be taken in by the snares of womanly passions 
  10. Not to suffer the betrayal of a man
  11. To be spared from cholera
  12. To have abundant pastures for grazing
  13. So that animals do not get sick

The following prayer must be recited over the course of three consecutive nights. It should be preceded and followed by three Glorias. For best results, recite it for the first time on the morning of June 11, and for the third time on the morning of June 13: 

Sant’Antonio da Padova venisti, carità trovasti e carità facisti, ‘sta grazia fammi per amore di Gesú Cristo… 

Or in English: 

Saint Anthony, you came from Padova, you found charity and you did charity; do me this favor for the love of Jesus Christ... 

Then you pick one of the thirteen favors listed above to request. 

Or, if the wheat harvest doesn't interest you, you can use this conjuration dedicated to three saints traditionally given as protectors of women to find a rich husband:  

Sant’Antonino, mettetelo in cammino, 
San Pasquale fa’ ciò verificare, 
Sant’Onofrio glorioso, 
Bello, piccolo e grazioso.

It is said as a novena, each day after saying three Pater Nosters and three Glorias. After completing the novena on the ninth night, you must go to your balcony at midnight and look out into the street. The first person who passes by is the man you will marry. (If a woman or a priest passes by, this is said to be a bad omen, and it is necessary to continue praying more on the matter.) 

A Sicilian Rosary to Saint Anthony

Rosaries and other prayers are often made to Sant'Antonio every day during his Tredicina, June 1 until his feast on Jun 13. You can say these prayers on a standard set of rosary beads, praying the posta on each of the large beads (where you would normally pray the Pater Noster) and the grani on the small beads (where you would normally pray the Ave Maria). 

Here's an extraordinarily trippy rosary which was documented by Sara Favarò in Palazzo Adriano in the 80s. 

Posta:

Sant'Antunineddu cadiu malateddu
in pettu purtava du' pumidda d'oru
bagna la manu e vidi chi c'era
c'era lu risu cu tuttu lu Paradisu. 

(Saint Anthony was sick
on his chest he was wearing two gold knobs
he wet his hand and saw what it was
it was the smile with all of Paradise.) 

Grani:

E decimilia voti
e ludamu a sant'Antuninu. 
E ludamulu tutti l'uri
ca è lu nostru protetturi. 

(And ten thousand times
We praise Saint Anthony
And we praise him all hours
Because he is our protector.) 

Songs to Saint Anthony

This is my favorite mix of songs to Sant'Antonio, perhaps because I am a sucker for the vintage sounds on some of them: 

If you would like to sing along (and I hope you do!), here are the lyrics to my favorite Italian hymn to Saint Anthony: 

O Dei Miracoli

O dei miracoli inclito Santo;
dell’alma Padova, Tutela e vanto:
benigno guardami prono ai tuoi piè: 
o Sant’Antonio prega per me!

Col vecchio e il giovane a te sen viene
e in atto supplice chiede ed ottiene;
di grazie arbitro Iddio ti fé: 
o Sant’Antonio prega per me!

Per te l’oceano si rasserena; 
riprende i naufrago novella lena; 
morte e pericoli fuggon da te: 
o Sant’Antonio prega per me!

Per te d’angustia esce l’afflitto: 
trova ricovero il derelitto, 
col pane al povero doni la fé: 
o Sant’Antonio prega per me!

Materia meridionale: Oil

God-fearing people… remind us of what a devout doctor wrote towards the middle of the sixteenth century: ‘Certain astrological or cabalistic or magical seals are poisonous and deadly things, which can kill a person from a distance. There is need to repel them with force and save oneself with Christian seals, such as Holy Water, palm fronds, blessed olive [oil], blessed candles and incense, blessed medals, the Eucharist, saints’ relics, the manna of Saint Nicholas, and blessed bread.’ (Pitrè XIX Medicina Popolare Siciliana)

Welcome to Materia Meridionale, a new series on physical materials commonly found in Italian folk magic. In this age of eBay, Amazon, and cheap consumer manufacturing, it’s easy to lose track of the simple things that were so important to our ancestors. But sometimes, these common and low-cost or free items are more powerful than saint statues and fancy rosary beads. Sometimes, a single drop of holy water is all you need!

In this series, I will be drawing on a variety of sources in order to paint a colorful picture of the most common materia leveraged by Italians and Italian-Americans for a variety of magical, medicinal, and spiritual purposes. These sources may include orthodox Catholic teachings, Western natural philosophy and herbalism, and Italian and Italian-American folk belief as documented by historians and anthropologists. In doing so, I don’t mean to imply that any one source is more “evolved” or “authentic” than another. Each one reveals and illuminates in its own way.

Oil

Oil has long been employed in liturgical, paraliturgical, folk-religious, and downright heretical rites. There are three Holy Oils employed in the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church. FishEaters describes these as:

  • The Oil of Catechumens ("Oleum Catechumenorum" or "Oleum Sanctum") used in Baptism along with water, in the consecration of churches, in the blessing of Altars, in the ordination of priests, and, sometimes, in the crowning of Catholic kings and queens.
  • The Holy Chrism ("Sanctum Chrisma") or "Oil of Gladness," which is olive oil mixed with a small amount of balm or balsam. It is used in Confirmation, Baptism, in the consecration of a Bishop, the consecration of a various things such as churches, chalices, patens, and bells.
  • The Oil of the Sick ("Oleum Infirmorum"), which is used in Unction [the Blessing of the Sick]

In my experience, sometimes oil blessed in the name of a particular saint is available in exchange for a donation at feste in New York. Additionally, there is a substance called “Oil of the Saints” which is associated with saintly relics:

An oily substance, which is said to have flowed, or still flows, from the relics or burial places of certain saints; sometimes the oil in the lamps that burn before their shrines; also the water that flows from the wells near their burial places; or the oil and the water which have in some way come in contact with their relics. These oils are or have been used by the faithful, with the belief that they will cure bodily and spiritual ailments, not through any intrinsic power of their own, but through the intercession of the saints with whom the oils have some connection. In the days of the St. Paulinus of Nola the custom prevailed of pouring oil over the relics or reliquaries of martyrs and then gathering it in vases, sponges, or pieces of cloth. This oil, oleum martyris, was distributed among the faithful as a remedy against sickness. According to the testimony of Paulinus of Pétrigeux (wrote about 470) in Gaul this custom was extended also to the relics of saints that did not die as martyrs, especially to the relics of St. Martin of Tours. In their accounts of miracles, wrought through the application of oils of saints, the early ecclesiastical writers do not always state just what kind of oils of saints is meant. Thus St. Augustine mentions that a dead man was brought to life by the agency of the oil of St. Stephen.

(The Catholic Encyclopedia, 1911)

References to oil are common in the bible. (In fact, the Hebrew word “Messiah” means “anointed one”, i.e. one who has literally been dabbed with oil.) The majority of these references are understood to be olive oil, a substance which has a particularly strong reputation in Italian folk magic, as well as general European occult philosophy and both medicinal and magical herbalism. Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa in his First Book of Occult Philosophy gives the olive tree as ruled by the Moon and Jupiter, while olive oil is ruled by Jupiter alone. In my personal experience, the oil has solar qualities as well.

Ms. M Grieve in her Modern Herbal writes:

The high position held by the Olive tree in ancient as in modern days may be realized when it is remembered that Moses exempted from military service men who would work at its cultivation, and that in Scriptural and classical writings the oil is mentioned as a symbol of goodness and purity, and the tree as representing peace and happiness. The oil, in addition to its wide use in diet, was burnt in the sacred lamps of temples, while the victor in the Olympic games was crowned with its leaves. ...The beautifully-veined wood not only takes a fine polish, but is faintly fragrant, and is much valued for small cabinet-work. It was in olden days carved into statues of gods.

For these reasons, olive wood is still a popular choice for carving crosses, religious statues, and rosary beads.

John Gerard’s Herball states that olive oil is particularly effective against a variety of diseases when mixed “according to art” with St. John’s Wort, chamomile, dill, lillies, and roses, which “forfitfie and increase his vertues”. Olive oil is still a popular carrier oil, or base oil for medicinal, magical, and massage oils, due to its wide availability and affordable price. However, some prefer to use an oil with a more mild natural scent for these purposes, such as almond oil or jojoba oil.

The olive tree is an international Christian symbol of peace, which is reflected in this regional Sicilian proverb from Montevago collected by Giuseppe Pitrè: “Chi ne raccoglie un ramoscello e lo mette innanzi il suo uscio dà segno di pace”, that is “Whoever gathers a twig of the olive tree and puts it before his door gives a sign of peace”.  

The olive tree was also known to Sicilians for its long life, and consequently, its large size and prodigious fruits. This longevity, particularly compared to other key agricultural plants, is reflected in the proverb “Olivari di tò nannu, cèusi di tò patri, vigna tò.” (“Your grandfather’s olive tree, your father’s mulberry tree, your grapevine.” Pitrè XVI, p. 205)

Another Sicilian proverb states: “Morta e viva adduma l’aliva”, recalling the fact that the wood of the olive tree burns whether it is a fresh green or dried. Of course, olive oil burns as well, and is common used as few for devotional and mundane oil lamps. The people of Nicosia, Sicily believed that anyone who fell from an olive tree would die unless the people who saw him fall did not immediately remove him from under its branches. (Pitrè XVI p. 265)

Pitrè also records the following folk beliefs: “Along with the palm, it appears on Palm Sunday. Its branches are carried around the city and the fields one day. Fishermen adorn the prows of their ships with its branches, cart drivers adorn the saddles of their animals with it; farmers plant it in the middle of their sown fields, so that the crops will grow prosperous and rich with fruits.” (XVI p. 264) It is interesting to note the combination of beliefs concerning protection during travel and prosperity in these applications.

Olive oil retained its powerful reputation among Southern Italians and Sicilians during the diaspora. In the New World, one of the most common folk magical uses of olive oil was in the diagnosis and treatment of the evil eye, or malocchio. These are discussed in detail in Frances Malpezzi and William Clements’ Italian-American Folklore, pp. 122-128. These rituals often called upon, or their discovery was credited to, Santa Lucia. A common theme in them dropping olive oil into water and reading the results to determine whether malocchio was at work and who may have sent it, and then “cutting” the oil with scissors, knife, or key to break the curse. 

Healing, protecting, and generating good fruit: these are the mysteries of the olive, whose oil is traditionally appropriate and widely available to the modern practitioner.

The Raccolta

Ah, the Raccolta. Published from 1807 to 1950, this indispensable book is the best-kept secret of Catholic folk magic. I've been known to reach for it on many occasions: on feast days, in times of stress, during Mass, after the death of a family member. If I have one piece of advice for you, this book would be it. It's short for Raccolta delle orazioni e pie opere per le quali sono sono concedute dai Sommi Pontefici le SS. Indulgenze--that is, "Collection of Prayers and Good Works for Which the Popes Have Granted Holy Indulgences". As the title suggests, it's a treasury of prayers which before Vatican II were believed to have particular merit. After Vatican II, the Church cut down on the number of prayers held in such high regard. But many believe the contents of the Raccolta remain effective.

The Raccolta contains more than just the standard short prayers you would find on the back of a santino or holy card. It also describes novenas, hymns, and ejaculations--that is, short prayers which are said throughout the day to keep the mind focused on piety and to consecrate one's daily life. Some of the prayers are only "valid" if spoken in front of a particular image or on a particular day of the liturgical year. These instructions reflect what Andrew Greeley refers to as the "Catholic imagination":

Catholics live in an enchanted world, a world of statues and holy water, stained glass and votive candles, saints and religious medals, rosary beads and holy pictures. But these Catholic paraphernalia are mere hints of a deeper and more pervasive religious sensibility which inclines Catholics to see the Holy lurking in creation. As Catholics, we find our houses and our world haunted by a sense that the objects, events, and persons of daily life are revelations of grace….

This special Catholic imagination can appropriately be called sacramental. It sees created reality as a ‘sacrament,’ that is, a revelation of the presence of God.

Unfortunately, many of the saints included in the book are of the less popular sort. (I hope by saying so I haven't offended any devotees of St. Homobonus.) Conversely, many of our favorite folk saints are not included. Nevertheless, there are some beautiful prayers in the Raccolta in honor of the Madonna, including the Mater Dolorsa, and the souls in Purgatory.

You might use the Raccolta to:

  • Pray for your deceased relatives
  • Prepare your own soul for the journey to the underworld
  • Perform bibliomancy, for example, to find a prayer that will be particularly helpful to you in that moment
  • Perform a devotion to a saint, such as St. Joseph or St. Anthony
  • Pray a novena, for example, one of the five novenas to the Madonna in preparation for her feast days

You can read the Raccolta online for free:

1834 Edition (Italian)

1849 Edition (Italian)

1898 Edition (English) 

A Rosary for the Dead on All Souls' Day (Nov 2)

This rosary is typically prayed every day during the octave of the festa dei morti (feast of the dead), known more officially in Italian as the Commemorazione di Tutti i Fideli Defunti (Commemoration of All Deceased Faithful), and among English-speaking countries as All Souls’ Day. In many Catholic countries, All Souls’ Day (November 2) is a time for remembering the dead. It can be celebrated by praying, visiting and cleaning up loved ones’ graves, making offerings of food or flowers, or paying for masses to be said in honor of the departed.

The octave lasts from November 2 to November 10. If you wish to pray for the Holy Souls in Purgatory as is done in Sicilian folk tradition, you can use the words below. Sicilian rosaries can be prayed on standard rosary beads, reciting one posta for each of the large beads, and one grani for each of the small beads. (More official prayers for the dead can be found in the Raccolta, the pre-Vatican II guide to indulgences. A free PDF is available online here.)  I have included an English translation, but the Sicilian is pronounced very similar to Italian if you feel comfortable with that language.

This rosary from Sicilian oral tradition was originally transcribed and published by Sara Favarò in A Cruna: Antologia di Rosari Siciliani. I have chosen to translate “arrifriscati” (lit. “refresh yourselves”) as “be cooled”. “Refreshment” in Southern Italian and Sicilian magico-religious thought is relief from the heat and suffering of Purgatory. Souls grateful for refreshment are disposed to work miracles on behalf of those who pray for them. The concept is similar to the idea of cooling heated spirits in spiritism and African Diasporic Traditions.

English translation

Posta

By the seven beatings that our Lord suffered, by the twisted nails, Holy Souls: be cooled. Holy Souls, Holy Souls, I am one, you are many. By our prayer, take away from me this confusion. When you ascend to heaven, pray for us sinners. Soul in heaven and body in earth, eternal peace.

Grani

Holy Souls and true saints, merciful Holy Souls, and Maria by her goodness, Holy Souls: be cooled.

Siciliano

Posta

Per li setti battitura chi patì nostru Signuri pi li chiova arribuccati Armuzzi Santi, arrifriscati. Armi Santi, Armi Santi iò sugnu sula vui siti tanti pi la nostra orazioni livatimilla ‘sta cunfusioni. Quannu vui ‘n celu acchianati pi nui piccatura priati arma ‘n celu e corpu ‘n terra recam eterna.

Grani

Armi Santi e santi veri Armuzzi Santi miserere e Maria pi so buntati Armuzzi Santi arrifriscati.

 

La Smorfia Napoletana

La Smorfia is a type of Southern Italian gematria. It maps dream motifs onto numbers 1 through 90, revealing which numbers should be played in the lottery. Dictionaries mapping thousands of items and ideas onto these numbers are popular in Southern Italy, particularly Naples. You can read one online for free: Nuova Smorfia del giuoco del lotto (1866) - Giustino Rumeo

Or, if you are looking for an easier way to interpret your dreams according to La Smorfia, this website may be of help.

Vestiges of ancient manners and customs (1832)

Vestiges of ancient manners and customs, discoverable in modern Italy and Sicily (1832) by the Rev. John James Blunt is a compilation of Rev. Blunt's observations on the culture of the Mezzogiorno region compared with texts describing that of antiquity. While Rev. Blunt, an Englishman, tends toward a tone at once condescending and titillated, many of his observations are worth reading. Chapters:

I. Introductory Remarks II. On Saints III. On the Virgin IV. On the Festival of S. Agatha at Catania V. On the Churches of Italy and Sicily VI. On the Religious Services and Ceremonies of the Italians and Sicilians VII. On the mendicant Monks VIII. On sacred Dramas IX. On the Dramatic Nature of the Ceremonies of the Church of Italy X. On Charms XI. On the Burial of the Dead XII. On the Agriculture of Italy XIII. On the Towns, Houses, Utensils, &c. Of the Italians and Sicilians XIV. On the Ordinary Habits, Food, and Dress, of the Italians and Sicilians XV. Miscellaneous Coincidences of Character between the ancient and modern Italians

It is available through the grace of archive.org for reading and download here.

Italian-American folk healing

"Many Italian-American women have had knowledge of folk prophylactics and cures which they use for the daily health of family members. At the same time, folk medical specialists, individuals with special knowledge and gifts, were available for serious ailments. Particularly when an illness lasted for some time or when its cause was uncertain, Italian Americans went to folk healers, usually women who could diagnose the source of an ailment, perform the necessary procedures for curing it, and prescribe additional remedial activity as needed. Such healers usually had to be versed in two kinds of medicine: one based on a folk pharmacopeia of herbs and other natural ingredients, and one requiring expertise in magical counteractants to illness. The latter often overlapped with cures for malocchio, but it also included magical responses to ailments whose causation was purely natural. Sometimes the healer would rely on only one kind of medicine, but sometimes she had to combine the natural and the magical to effect the required cure. "Some communities had folk medical specialists, such as the spilato among Sicilians in Buffalo, New York. This person, blessed with an inborn healing gift that became honed through instruction traditionally by a relative, could use his or her hands to cure sprains, strains, stiffness, bruises, and other skeleto-muscular disorders. Generally, specialists in magical healing were able to practice their skills in the United states much more effectively than those who relied on natural remedies, since the ingredients for the latter were often unavailable in the New World and might be replaced by relatively inexpensive patent medications that were available to anyone. Usually the herbal remedies that have endured in Italian-American folk tradition are those requiring no specialized healer status within the community. They are truly 'home remedies.'

"There is also an interplay between scientific and magical folk medicine, seen in some ways in which Italian Americans have traditionally promoted good health. These include drinking holy water, eating a bowl of grapes on New Year's Day before rising, putting blessed palms from Palm Sunday beneath the mattress, sprinkling clothes with salt, wearing garlic or camphor in a pouch around the neck, or having a priest bless one's house."

Frances M. Malpezzi and Wiliam M. Clements, Italian-American Folklore, pp. 134-135.