The Magic of Italian Lullabies

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

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

What magic can you do with a lullaby? 

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

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



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


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


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


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

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

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

Friend of Italian Folk Magic Alberto Esposito

Signor Esposito's familiar spirit 

Signor Esposito's familiar spirit 

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. 

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.