Guide

Saint Rocco

Woodcut from the  Nuremberg Chronicle

Woodcut from the Nuremberg Chronicle

Background

Story 

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

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

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

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

Heraldry

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

Patronage

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

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

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

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

Feast day

Pilgrimage to Tolve

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

Pizzica Scherma in Torrepaduli

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

Italian-American feasts

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

Songs & Prayers

Calabrian rhythm to Saint Rocco

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

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

Folk song to San Rocco from Basilicata 

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

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

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

(chorus) 

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

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

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

(chorus) 

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

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

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

(chorus) 

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

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

(chorus) 

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

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

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

A Prayer to Saint Rocco 

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

English translation

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

Italian

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

Saint Joseph

Background

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

Hagiography

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

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

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

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

Heraldry

Carpenter's tools, a staff with lily blossoms. 

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

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

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

Patronage 

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

Feast Day

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

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

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

Altars 

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

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

An altar to San Giuseppe in Salemi, Sicily. 

An altar to San Giuseppe in Salemi, Sicily. 

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

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

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

The "Tupa-Tupa"  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Songs & Prayers 

A Sicilian Rosary to San Giuseppe 

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

English Translation

Posta:

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

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

Grani: 

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

Our Father

Hail Mary

Sicilian

Posta:

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

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

Grani: 

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

Pater Noster

Ave Maria

 

Sacred Foods 

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

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

Bread 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recipe

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

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

Symbols

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

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

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

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

Fava beans

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

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

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

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

Recipe

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

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

Zeppole & Sfinge

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

Follow your heart on this matter.

 

Read more about the saints in Italian folk magic: 

San Gennaro

Background 

Hagiography & Miracle 

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

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

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

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

Heraldry 

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

Feast Days 

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

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

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

Songs & Prayers 

Rosary of the Parenti 

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

English translation

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

San Gennaro, my protector
Pray to God, our Lord

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

Neapolitan

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

San Gennaro mio prutettore
Prega a Dio nostro Signore. 

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

 

Faccia Gialla by Enzo Avitabile 

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

English translation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neapolitan lyrics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Our Lady of Sorrows

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

Background

Names

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

Heraldry 

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

Related Heraldry  

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

Feasts 

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

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

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

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

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

The Seven Sorrows 

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

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

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

A Song of the Passion

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

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

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

Mille grazie to Anna Scognamiglio for the English translation. 

Casertano 

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

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

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

Italian 

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

English

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

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

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

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…

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!

Feasts of the Seven Sisters: Madonna of the Baths in Scafati

Background

Today is the feast day of the Madonna of the Baths (Madonna dei Bagni) in Scafati, Salerno. She is one of the Seven Sisters, the famous Black Madonnas of Campania. 

Madonna dei Bagni
"Madonna of the Baths"
Sunday after Ascension
Website

This Madonna is particularly associated with the healing waters found near her sanctuary, which harken back to pre-Christian rites. Here is a beautiful traditional invocation sung in her honor by Marcello Colasurdo: 

Magic

'O Bacile cu 'e rrose 

If you can't make the trip out to Scafati this year, consider cleansing yourself using this traditional folk recipe, courtesy of the Santuario Madonna dei Bagni Facebook page. This practice is still done in the comune of Angri in Salento, Campania. 

Before it gets dark on the Vigil of the Ascension (that is, the day before Ascension), gather fresh roses and mint. Remove the rose petals and mint leaves; combine with water in a basin. Pray that the water will be blessed; you can pray from the heart in your preferred language, or use this traditional prayer to the Madonna of the Baths in Neapolitan: 

Maronna re’ Bagn
Maronna gioiosa
Beneric chistu’ 
facile e acqua che scuri e che rose, 
Puort l’ammor e
Santific e Purific
chistu core

(Giovanni Borriello) 

Leave the basin with the water and flowers out overnight on a balcony. (Or, if you live in New York and balconies are hard to come by, a fire escape or rooftop works.) It is believed that in the night, an angel, or Jesus, or the Madonna will come down from heaven and bless the water. In the morning, wash your face with the water. 

La Pennellazione

Another traditional blessing which occurs in honor of the Madonna dei Bagni is the pennellazione

The person giving the blessing—typically, an old woman—dips a hen feather in blessed olive oil, then traces the sign of the cross on the forehead and throat of the person to be blessed. As la Contrada Madonna dei Bagni - Scafati remarks, the hen in Italian folk magic represents death and resurrection (cf. the Madonna of the Hens, another one of the famed Seven Sisters) because she scratches at the earth, penetrating into the chthonic kingdom of the dead. But, for the contadini italiani, death is intimately related to life: From the death and burial of the seed, comes the life of the plant. From the death of the flower, comes the life of the fruit. 

Madonna of the Mountain in Polsi, Calabria

There is a sanctuary in the mountains of Calabria where the mafia plots and ancient rites are carried out in honor of the Goddess--once Persephone, now A Madonna dâ Muntagna, or the Madonna of the Mountain. Until recently, her feast on September 2 was celebrated with the strewing of grain and flowers (cf. the Greek rite of aparchai), as well as the sacrifice and cooking of goats. 

In an ancient Greek settlement at nearby Locri, two great sanctuaries once stood. One was dedicated to Persephone. The other was dedicated to Aphrodite. It may astonish some to learn that these two goddesses were syncretized here: 

According to Diodorus Siculus (27.4.2), Persephone’s sanctuary was considered “the most renowned temple in Italy, preserved as holy for all time by the inhabitants.” Livy (29.18.3) reports that in 204 B.C.E. envoys from Locri addressing the Roman Senate could assume that their audience was fully aware of its religious importance. One of the most striking aspects of the worship of Persephone at Locri, at least to modern observers, is its conflation with the cult of Aphrodite, as evidenced by the type-scenes found on the pinakes. In this series of images, which are manifestly associated with the ritual activities of women and are frequently regarded as “wedding ex-votos”, the symbolism of the two deities is amalgamated, often provoking considerable controversy as to which goddess is meant. ... Is the relation of the two antithetical, with Persephone presiding over the domain of legitimate marriage and child rearing, and Aphrodite standing for socially “illicit and ‘aberrant’” modes of sexuality, as Sourvinou-Inwood proposes? Or are their operations wholly integrated, so that the goddesses, in MacLachlan’s formulation, “meet at the intersection of death and sexuality”? Redfield postulates that the Locrian fusion of nuptial and funerary imagery reflects an Orphic concept of marriage and death as parallel rites of passage, each involving transformation to a blessed state. Certainly the unique character of women’s religious activity there, involving joint worship of deities normally treated as quite distinct, confirms the importance of Sourvinou-Inwood’s stipulation that study of Greek divine personalities must take account of local difference and base its findings upon a non-Panhellenic, community-oriented approach to cult. 

From Marilyn B. Skinner, "Nossis and Women’s Cult at Locri"

The archaeological record at Polsi shows pinakes, or votive clay tablets manufactured by Hellenic settlers from Locri, so we know these locations were connected somehow. A Locrian pinax showing Persephone and her husband Hades, Queen and King of the Underworld, appears below. 

Locri_Pinax_Of_Persephone_And_Hades.jpg

I'm not going to lie: mostly, I'm writing about this Madonna because I just discovered this amazing album of vintage devotional songs sung in her honor. In particular, track #4, "Zampognara pi Maria SS." is LIT. (Catholit?) 

In addition to the devotional music played in honor of the Madonna, pilgrims to the sanctuary at Polsi will dance and play the tarantella. You can get a taste for this regional tarantella in this video: 

Feasts of the Seven Sisters: Castle Madonna in Somma Vesuviana

Today is the feast of the Castle Madonna, or Madonna di Castello in Somma Vesuviana. She is sometimes called the Mamma Pacchiana, "pacchiana" meaning gaudy, uncultured, or otherwise peasant-like. She is one of the Seven Sisters, the famous Black Madonnas of Campania. 

Madonna di Castello, aka Mamma Pacchiana
"Castle Madonna, aka Peasant Mother"
May 3
Website

History 

A structure has stood where her sanctuary is now since 1269, when Charles of Anjou, then King of Naples, built a castle there with a chapel to St. Lucy inside. It passed through several hands, a few times being abandoned and later rebuilt. In 1622, the Venerable Don Carlo Carafa, founder of the Congregation of the "Pii Operai", bought the grounds. On the ruins of the old castle, he built a house for his community and restored the ancient chapel of St. Lucy, where he placed a wooden statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary. She was called the Castle Madonna, in honor of the location's history. 

Carafa would later sell the property, entrusting the church to a hermit, with the instruction to light a lamp to the Madonna on a daily basis. On December 16, 1631, a terrible eruption of Mount Vesuvius destroyed everything, including the church and statue of the Madonna. After the eruption, only her head was found in the ashes. It was brought to a sculptor in Naples, who ignored it for some time, placing it away in a chest. But one day, the sculptor's daughter, who was bedridden due to illness, began to hear the voice of the Madonna calling her. The voice told her to get up and free her head from the chest. The girl found that she was able to get up and move again. When her father returned, he sculpted the Madonna a new body in thanks for the miraculous healing of his daughter. 

Traditions

The Castle Madonna is celebrated using many of the same elements common to other Southern Italian feast days, including pilgrimage, ritual song and dance, banquets, and ex votos dedicated to the miraculous statue. You can see these elements in the video below: 

Due to her personal encounter with the might of Vesuvius, this Madonna is particularly associated with fire and volcanic eruptions. Like San Gennaro, she is prayed to for protection from the destructive power of the volcano. Her feast begins and ends with fireworks. The following video shows footage from an eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 1943 mashed up with a traditional tammurriata, or ritual trance song in honor of one of the Black Madonnas, dedicated specifically to the Castle Madonna. It is an excellent accompaniment to your own trance work. 

Feasts of the Seven Sisters: Madonna of the Hens in Pagani

Today is the Sunday after Easter (domenica in albis). This is the day we celebrate the feast of the Madonna of the Hens, or Madonna delle Galline in Pagani. She is one of the Seven Sisters, the famous Black Madonnas of Campania. 

Madonna delle Galline
"Madonna of the Hens"
Sunday after Easter
Town website

Legend 

Popular legend has it that an image of Our Lady of Mount Carmel was found buried beneath the earth. It was located by a flock of hens in the 16th century, who scratched persistently at the soil where the icon was located until it was dug out. Between 1609 and 1610, eight miracles were performed by the icon, including the healing of a cripple who was visited in a dream by the Madonna.  

Tradition 

The miraculous image is displayed year-round. However, the wooden statue, seen in the film below, is only revealed during this feast and another in September. The doors of the sanctuary are closed from Easter until the feast day while the statue is unveiled and a throne set up in her honor. The feast begins when the doors to the sanctuary open. 

The procession occurs on Easter Sunday. The statue of the Madonna is placed on a chariot which is driven by motorbike. Devotees, either people of Pagani or pilgrims, make offerings to the statue. The traditional offerings are live birds, such as hens, doves, turkeys, or peacocks; or rich peasant food, including savory torts made of salami and eggs. Mothers bring their children to the Madonna to be blessed and protected by her. The procession, including the statue now covered in live birds, moves throughout the city streets and alleyways. It passes by shrines called toselli, such as the ones seen here and here, which are set up in honor of the Madonna. These are often draped with satin and lace, and sometimes contain paintings or small statues of the Madonna to whom prayers and food offerings are made. 

Of course, throughout the feast, the tammurriata is played and danced in honor of the Black Madonna. 

In this documentary, Madonna delle Galline tra sacro e profano ("Madonna of the Hens Between Sacred and Profane") by Michele Pelioso, you see all of these elements of the celebration: the altars, the offered birds (hens, doves, even a peacock!), food, and the tammurriata. 

Magical elements

So, what's up with all those birds? 

As Peter Grey explores in Lucifer: Princeps, birds have been associated with the souls of the dead residing in the underworld since ancient Sumeria. The Epic of Gilgamesh describes them thus:

They are clothed like birds with wings for covering, they see no light, they sit in darkness. I entered the house of dust and I saw the kings of the earth, their crowns put away for ever; rulers and princes, all those who once wore kingly crowns and ruled the world in the days of old.

The emphasis on hens is particularly interesting, given the association that some traditions draw between the the older woman and her hen in the presepe with the agricultural goddess Demeter and her daughter Persephone, maiden goddess of the underworld. This association between Demeter and the Madonna of the Hens has at the very least been commented on by Protestant writers such as Theodor Trede, who wrote about the ritual similarities between Southern Italian Catholicism and Greco-Roman paganism. 

In African-American folk magic, hens' feet are used to protect against harmful tricks because of the scratching they do in the ground. If someone has laid a harmful powder or charm against you in your yard where you are likely to walk over it every day, thus poisoning yourself through your feet, the scratching of the hens (literally or magically) helps to tear that power up out of the earth. It would be a stretch to say this practice and the Madonna of the Hens share a common point of origin. But the image of the hens' feet digging magic out of the ground resonates nicely with the popular legend of the hens clawing at the buried icon of the Madonna. 

Feasts of the Seven Sisters: Madonna of the Arch

Today is the Monday after Easter (lunedì in Albis, or informally, Pasquetta). This is the day we celebrate the feast of the Madonna dell'Arco in Sant'Anastasia.

Madonna dell'Arco (Our Lady of the Arch)
Monday after Easter
Website
Sanctuary Website

In this video, you see several elements of the feast of the Madonna dell'Arco. You will notice the presence of the fujénti, a Neapolitan word which literally means "the ones who come". These are people who have received miracles from the Madonna, who now make a pilgrimage to her sanctuary in honor of her feast day. They dress in all white and wear two bands: one blue and one red, in honor of the colors of the Madonna's mantel. The fujénti are occasionally so overcome by the presence of their patron, that they will drop to the ground and convulse in front of her. A special police force, seen in green, maintains order during the festival.

In this video, you see two women dancing the tammurriata, a ritual dance performed in celebration of the various Black Madonnas of Campania. The tammurriata is led first by the voice, which improvises lyrics according to a vast traditional repertoire. The voice is followed by the drum, which matches lyrical patterns to a set of rhythms. The drumming then inspires the dancers, who add to the percussion both visually with their bodies as well as audibly with their castanets.

Prayer
English

Oh Pious Queen Dell'Arco, provider of so many favors. Your beautiful pupils bow on your children who ask you mercy. You are the only hope of the hearts that, groaning, sigh to you.

Prayer
Original Italian

O Dell'Arco Pietosa Regina, dispensiera di tanti favori. Le pupille bellissime inchina, sui tuoi figli che chiedon mercè. Tu sei l'unica speme dei cuori che gementi sospirano a te.

(Sing along here)

Immaculate Conception

Mary, mystic Rose of purity, I rejoice with thee at the glorious triumph thou didst gain over the serpent by thy Immaculate Conception, in that then wast conceived without original sin. I thank and praise with my whole heart the Ever-blessed Trinity, who granted thee that glorious privilege and I pray thee to obtain for me courage to overcome every snare of the great enemy, and never to stain my soul with mortal sin. Be thou always mine aid, and enable me with thy protection to obtain the victory over all the enemies of man’s eternal welfare.(From the Raccolta, a novena for the Immaculate Conception)

rubens-immaculate
rubens-immaculate

Rubens, L'Immaculée Conception, 1628-1629

The Immaculate Conception is a Madonnine feast day which celebrates the belief that Mary was conceived without sin. It occurs on December 8, nine months before the feast of the Nativity of Mary on September 8. Like the feast of the Assumption, the Immaculate Conception has over time evolved into an emanation of the Madonna, so the words “Immaculate Conception” may refer to the feast or the Madonna herself. Statues of the Immaculate Conception were common enough in Italy, but rose to even greater prominence among Italian-American immigrants and their descendants due to their wider availability in the United States. We might hypothesize that the image of the Immaculate Conception in some cases conceals still greater mysteries of the Madonna and her many faces.

That being said, the Immaculate Conception is not without power of her own, and that power cannot be understood without contemplating Eve. The Madonna is often contrasted with Eve, the pair being the only two women born without sin.  We see this juxtaposition in the Ave Maris Stella, which describes the Madonna in her emanation as the Star of the Sea as “taking that sweet Ave, / which from Gabriel came, / peace confirm within us, / changing Eve's name”. The heretics among us may see this as an opportunity to bring Eve into our personal practice through the image of the Immaculate Conception.

Contained in the image of the Immaculate Conception we find the Serpent, often biting an apple, which may represent ancestral knowledge or entheogenic exploration. We also see the Madonna with her feet on the earth and her body standing upright in space, like the world tree which stretches from this world to the next. These are the themes which have come through strongly for me in devotional work with her: women’s mysteries of ovulation and birth, the channeling of ancestral knowledge, and the ritual use of entheogens.

These attributes may have been noticed by practitioners of African Diasporic Traditions, leading to some revealing syncretism. In Vodou, the Immaculate Conception is syncretized with Ayida-Weddo, the “Rainbow Serpent” of fertility. Many Lukumi houses syncretize the Immaculate Conception with the orisha Iroko, who is said to be a sacred tree which assisted Obatala’s descent from Heaven to Earth during the creation of the world.

You can honor the Immaculate Conception by performing her novena, which is traditionally said in the nine days leading up to her feast day, i.e. November 29 through December 7. There is also a 15-bead chaplet of the Immaculate Conception which is short enough to be prayed everyday.