Folkways

Guest Post: Deconstructing a Neapolitan Lullaby

The following essay was written by Alberto Esposito about the Ninna Nanna from Cancello Arnone that we discussed in this post. Signor Esposito was the first to record and transcribe this Ninna Nanna, so his thoughts on its meaning are particularly relevant. We thank Signor Esposito for this contribution. 

 

The angel sends her to sleep, a symbol of heavenly protection that accompanies this lullaby which has been saved from oblivion.

But do not be mistaken, if we separate the chorus from the rest of the song we immediately notice that there is talk of something else. Having clear the synthesis between mother and daughter, what we are talking about is birth and destiny (the “gypsy”), both of which are seen as miserable and immutable. Born among Turks and Moors (war and unknown world), without the presence of mother or father, with a false destiny of riches foretold, the singer is driven only by the desire to be able to rediscover the embrace, not maternal, but of someone else from when she was in swaddling clothes, as possible refuge from the idea that “Chi nasce afflitto scunzulate more” (“Whoever is born cursed, dies disconsolate”). The sense of anxiety continues in the desire to make the child fall asleep by invoking Mammone (an evil mythological figure) or the little old drunkard, seized by an almost deadly fatigue, then losing herself only to find herself belonging to nature, to the sea with the fish (and not to the human community).

The possible love the ferocious intrusion of the mother of the beloved (another possible denied destiny) makes the response of those who lock themselves up heartfelt, but directing to the beloved the wish of a happiness that she has been denied. The tenderness of the details concerning the rival (“aggarbatelle”, gracious; and “accurtulelle de cinture”, a bit short in the belt) with the implications being also economic savings hides/expresses unhappiness with destiny.

Unhappiness that bursts, but in herself, with the desire of death, to drown without leaving any tracks and after a year the sea would leave her on the rocks, a putrefied cadaver eaten by fish. The torment of death that does not nullify the desire for love that even in the worst dissolution would want to be reborn and find itself again in a world of beauty. But the harsh reality looms, the last strophe declares the masculine reality that defines life with simple and brutal words.

This change of subject is also interesting. At first the song is directed toward the child but soon it becomes the story of the mother narrated through several scenes, from the reality of lulling the daughter to sleep to the reflections on destiny, to the desires and delusory hopes, then in the finale with the reflections of the man, as if the man were singing. An ease of change in both the storytelling and in the subject, which belongs to this folkloric world where the forces that move reality are fluid, or better said, “mythic”.

The song, however, is already in itself a sweetener of life: a appeasement, an outburst, a means of relieving the alienation from the hardship of living, even if the singer does not forget in the same song the hard and ruthless reality, but finds a way to overcome it in death/rebirth and in transformation with the delicate chorus, charged with divine protection and with a sound more joyous and calm a more beautiful dimension than hardship. But in reality, the one who sings, I believe, is not a person with the narrated hardship, the one without parents or future, but only with some hardship, but who finds in the song, exaggerated to the point of paradox, a moment of consolation.

Alberto Esposito, scholar of Neapolitan culture

Alberto Esposito, scholar of Neapolitan culture

The Magic of Italian Lullabies

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

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

What magic can you do with a lullaby? 

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

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

Lyrics

Casertano 

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

Italiano

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

English

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

Credits 

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

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

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

Friend of Italian Folk Magic Alberto Esposito

Signor Esposito's familiar spirit 

Signor Esposito's familiar spirit 

Italian Folk Magic on the Italian American Podcast

As an Italian-American woman, I am a huge fan of the work that Dolores Alfieri and Anthony Fasano are doing through their website, The Italian American Experience. The podcast, the blog, the videos--everything these two put out into the world is such a beautiful representation of our unique cultural heritage. So when Dolores reached out and asked me to be a guest on their podcast, how could I say no? 

I was not disappointed. The conversation we had was intimate, personal, and ground-breaking for both of us. I felt vulnerable speaking so openly about my family history for the first time. A million thanks to Dolores for making this happen. May this conversation spark a light of remembrance for others! 

Full show and links are available on the Italian American Experience, which is well worth checking out. (If you liked this episode, you will love their interview with Robert Orsi, scholar of religious studies and author of The Madonna of 115th Street.) 

Don't miss out on future episodes of The Italian American Podcast! Make sure you subscribe and leave a review on iTunes

Magic Beverages for Summer

Many Americans traveling to Italy, whether to explore their roots or just enjoy the scenery, are taken aback by the country’s devotion to food and the socializing that occurs around mealtimes. Take, for example, the rituals surrounding aperitivi and digestivi—that is, alcoholic beverages consumed before and after meals, respectively. Aperitivi can be thought of as similar to happy hour drinks. They are usually enjoyed as a way to unwind after the work day and stimulate digestion before the evening meal. They are sometimes accompanied by light food because dinners in usually start later in the evening than they do in the US. Digestivi are often taken along with the dessert course. 

In this post, we’ll be talking about some popular aperitivi and digestivi and how to make them yourself. We’ll also speculate on possible magical applications of these beverages based on their ingredients, so you can serve up some blessings to your summer party guests! 

APERITIVI

Spritz

This aperitivo can be made with either Campari or Aperol. These liqueurs have similar tastes and are both made by the same company, but Campari is stronger than Aperol: more bitter and twice as alcoholic. 

  • Prosecco 
  • 1 shot Campari or Aperol 
  • 1 glug club soda 
  • 1 orange slice 

Fill a tumblr with ice. Fill the glass 2/3 full with sparkling wine. Add the Aperol. Top with club soda, stir well, then add the orange slice. 

The magic ingredient: amaro

Campari and Aperol are both examples of amaro, a broad category including several Italian liqueurs. Amari are bitter; that’s what amaro means in Italian. And some of them are bittersweet. But they are all delicious. Bitter herbs such as those used to manufacture different amari often have trans-cultural reputations for developing psychic powers. Dandelion and wormwood are notable examples. 

Campari and Aperol have the added magical bonus of being colored a vibrant red. Red is believed to be lucky in many parts of Italy. Cornicello and mano cornuto charms were traditionally made of coral, which the Greeks said was the blood of the Gorgon Medusa. Half of her blood was said to heal, and the other half was said to poison. Perhaps because of this history, these charms are still red today, even when they are made of plastic. The color is said to repeal evil, especially the mal’occhio or evil eye. 

Peach Wine

Known as perzichi ’ntru vinu or pircochi ‘e vinu in Calabrese, peach wine is an old-fashioned treat throughout Southern Italy. The core concept is similar to Spanish sangria, but the use of peaches is a regional delight. 

  • 1 kg peaches (especially percoca peaches) 
  • 1 liter wine (should be a light-bodied red; avoid tannins) 

Wash and peel the peaches. Fill a pitcher half-way with wine. Cut the peaches into large, irregular chunks and add to pitcher. Refrigerate for at least one hour. Serve cold. 

The magic ingredient: peaches!   

Peaches were brought to Italy by the Persians. They were initially cultivated in ancient China, where they were known as the fruit of immortality. This places them in a category similar to the apples of immortality tended to by the Norse goddess Idunna, or the ambrosia consumed by the Greek gods. And, since ambrosia itself was sometimes consider wine or some other red nectar, we might think of this drink as our own glass of ambrosia. 

DIGESTIVI

Limoncello

Making your own limoncello is an easy way to impress your friends at your next party. Or a bottle makes a great gift for your favorite host/hostess! 

  • 10 lemons 
  • 750 ml vodka 
  • 3 1/2 cups water 
  • 2 1/2 cups sugar 

Using a potato peeler, remove the peel from the lemons in long strips. Be careful to avoid peeling off the pith—that’s the technical term for the bitter white stuff no one likes in citrus peels. Place the lemon peels, without the pith, in a large pitcher or jar. Pour the vodka over them and cover with plastic wrap. (Note: if you are using a mason jar, keep some plastic wrap under the metal lid, otherwise it will corrode.) Steep for four days at room temperature. 

Make simple syrup by storing the water and sugar together in a saucepan over medium heat until the sugar dissolves. Allow it to cool completely, then add it to the vodka and lemon peels. Cover and let stand overnight at room temperature. Strain through cheesecloth or a metal strainer and discard the peels. Transfer to bottles and store in refrigerator. Serve cold and enjoy within one month of preparing. 

The magic ingredient: lemons! 

Everybody loves lemons! In American folk magic, they have a reputation for cleansing which probably inspired the popular association of their scent with cleaning products. Nicholas Culpeper in his enormously influential herbal places them under the planetary rulership of the Sun and claims they are an excellent remedy for poison. Other European folklore associates the lemon with love magic, perhaps because the lemon is both sweet and “bitter” (i.e. sour), like love itself: pleasure and pain in equal turn. 

Theres also a famous charm involving a lemon ("Scongiurazione al Limone appuntato un Spille") in Charles Leland's Aradia, Gospel of the Witches. While the accuracy of that text is suspect, I have seen so many folks refer to it that I think it may have its own magic at this point. 

Celebrating lavoro ben fatto

Lavoro ben fatto is an expression meaning "work done well". It was first explained to me as craftsmanship for its own sake, as putting time and effort into little details which only someone looking very closely can appreciate. For example, the way the seams of a garment have been sewn. It might not make a difference in how the garment looks on the rack, but that extra time and consideration matters to whoever sewed the garment (and, hopefully, to whoever wears it). When I think of lavoro ben fatto, I often think of San Giuseppe (St. Joseph) as the patron saint of workers. One of his feasts is May 1--International Workers' Day! San Giuseppe is prayed to in times of unemployment, and the celebration of his feasts in Italy explicitly emphasizes the necessity of charity and public welfare.

But it is important that we also recognize women's labor, which is so often devalued. In fact, as women enter traditionally male-dominated fields, the average wages in those fields drop. Women's labor is important, whether we are performing that labor in a traditionally male-dominated field, in a traditionally female-dominated field, or within the home.

In Salemi, Sicily, the labor of both men and women--of San Giuseppe and Maria Santissima--is celebrated as part of the feast of San Giuseppe on March 19. Men spend days setting up elaborate altars surrounded by greenery. Women spend days baking special breads shaped into sacred symbols. These symbols include the emblems of traditionally male and female labor: the breads baked to represent San Giuseppe are covered in carpenter's tools, while the breads baked for Maria Santissima have the tools of weaving and sewing on them. These breads are so intricately detailed that they are famous throughout the region.

I've been reflecting on lavoro ben fatto a lot recently, having just started a new job which is challenging me to pay particular attention to small details. So it was deeply inspiring to find Vincenzo Moretti's Il Manifesto del Lavoro Ben Fatto, a manifesto about work done well and the rights of the people who do it. While reading through the manifesto (there's even an English translation!), I've been thinking of the people of Salemi who work tirelessly for days every year out of pure devotion.

This intersection of devotion, justice, and excellence is truly inspiring to me. It's something that I will always hope to manifest in my own lavoro, whether I'm taking on a new project at work, typing up a blog post, or just giving everything I've got in a barre class. And I hope you'll join me in putting your whole heart into your lavoro next year, whatever kind of work you do.

Best wishes for 2017, M.V.

World Between Worlds: The Neapolitan Presepe

Introduction

The presepe or presepio is a Neapolitan tradition similar to the modern nativity scenes popular in Europe and the Americas. The presepe presents a large set of rich images which stands on its own merit as a symbolic landscape but can also provide a deeper understanding of the symbolic language of Neapolitan folktales. 

The featured image of this blog post is a photograph of a Neapolitan presepe on display in Most Precious Blood Church in Manhattan. More images of a presepe are available in this post.

Reflecting the pagan antecedents of Christmas, the presepe has a distinctly Saturnalian character. Time is stopped in the presepe--which, incidentally, may be why tombola (a lottery game similar to bingo) is traditionally played for fun or employed for divination at Christmastime.

The presepe represents both a descent into the underworld, as well as the periodic return of the dead to this world from All Souls’ Day to Epiphany. This is why the presepe is normally set up on November 2 and left up until January 6.

At the heart of the presepe are the Madonna and San Giuseppe, who await Gesù Bambino in the cave where he will be born. It is in the dark depths of the earth that the light is born, year after year. Traditionally, the figure of Gesù Bambino is only placed in the presepe at the stroke of midnight when Christmas Day begins. Feasting until daybreak often follows this momentous occasion.

But the Holy Family are not the only entities present. Many other figures from mythology and folklore constitute the majority of the elements in a traditional presepe. An exhaustive list of these elements, of which some sources claim there are up to 72, is beyond the scope of this blog post. However, we can review some of the most interesting characters, including pagan divinities, spirits and devils, and the dead.

Divinities

A figure on a driving a cart full of barrels called Cicci Bacco represents Dionysus, god of wine.

An older woman who represents Demeter, goddess of agriculture, gives birdseed to a hen who represents Persephone, maiden goddess of the underworld.

A hunter with a bow represents the sun-god Apollo. .

A noblewoman, either white or black and present with the Three Kings, represents the moon-goddess Diana.

An elderly couple represents Chronos and Rhea, the father and mother of the gods.

Three elderly women spinning thread represent the Fates.

Spirits & devils

The devil himself is often represented in the presepe.

The innkeeper and his hostel have a particularly sinister reputation and are believed to represent the temptations and the dangers of the temporal world.

One folktale recounts how the elderly washerwoman was a disguise employed by the devil so that he could get near the Madonna and try to prevent her from giving birth.

Some say the monk represents a mischievous spirit called the Munaciello.

The dead

The wandering souls of the dead are represented by sheep. The shepherd who leads them represents Hermes in his role as a psychopomp, or guide for the recently deceased making the journey to the underworld.

Beggars can also represent the dead, particularly the suffering souls in Purgatory, who suffer from heat, hunger, and thirst, and who must be prayed for and given solace through traditional methods.

Various water sources present in the presepe are also connected to the dead. The well has a diabolical reputation, particularly on Christmas Eve, when its water was traditionally taboo. It was also believed that one could scry into well water to see the heads of all those who would die during the year. The river, meanwhile, is linked to death through the mythological underworld rivers such as the Styx.

 

Further reading

Lo straordinario simbolismo del Presepe Napoletano di Luca Zolli

Il presepe popolare napoletano di Roberto De Simone

Il presepe nella cultural napoletana  

Traditional Foodways: Dolci dei morti

Food is a central part of celebrating festa dei morti or All Souls' Day in Southern Italy and Sicily. Granted, it's a central part of most feste italiane, but something about the way sharing a meal brings a family together illuminates the true meaning of this holiday, which focuses on familial ties that bind us even in death.

Many of the traditional foods associated with this day are desserts, called dolci dei morti ("sweets of the dead"). These dolci predate the importation of American Halloween traditions, including trick-or-treating, but the commonality of sugary fun is definitely intriguing!

I can only speculate on why sweetness is so important to Italian and Sicilian celebrations of the dead: it could be because children play a prominent role in this feast, being seen as gifts from (or perhaps emanations of) the ancestors. Or maybe it's so that the dead will be sweet to us, doing graces on our behalf! In any case, savor the sweetness of the day. Flavor, like scent and music, reveals something about the nature of spirits.

Ossi dei morti (Sicily) Shown above, these cookies are made with the first almonds harvested in September. Their shape and color is meant to mimic a pile of bones. Get the recipe here.

Pane dei morti (Lombardia) More of a cookie than a bread in my opinion, but I'm not a chef. These also contain almonds, with amaretto cookies, chocolate, and figs for additional flavor. Get the recipe here.

Pupi di zucchero (Sicily) These figures are shaped out of marzipan to resemble humans in a tradition remarkably similar to the calaveras or sugar skulls used to celebrate Día de los Muertos in Mexico. The pupi di zucchero are both decorative and delicious, commonly given as gifts to children, and seem to represent the dead themselves. But unlike in Mexican folk art, the dead in Southern Italy and Sicily are depicted as they were in life, not as skeletons.

“Fimmene, Fimmene”: A song for the distaff line

I have a friend whose family tree has been traced back a thousand years, but no women exist on it. She just discovered that she herself did not exist, but here brothers did. Her mother did not exist, and nor did her father's mother. Or her mother's father. There were no grandmothers. Fathers have sons and grandsons and so the lineage goes, with the name passed on... Eliminate your mother, then your two grandmothers, then your four great-grandmothers. Go back more generations and hundreds, then thousands disappear. Mothers vanish, and the fathers and mothers of those mothers. Ever more lives disappear as if unlived until you have narrowed a forest down to a tree, a web down to a line. This is what it takes to construct a linear narrative of blood or influence or meaning.

Rebecca Solnit, "Grandmother Spider". From Men Explain Things to Me. 

I have long associated “Fimmene, Fimmene” with my ancestral practice, and with my female ancestors in particular. I remember the first time I heard it, at a ritual/play performed by Alessandra Belloni and I Giullari di Piazza on the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul 2016. I remember hearing Emanuele Licci from CGS play it as a solo during a concert on the second anniversary of my grandmother’s death. My husband, who was not familiar with the song or its personal importance, turned to me with a tear in his eye and said, “That man is very connected to his female ancestors.”

“Fimmene, Fimmene” is a song for and about women. It is an unabashedly political critique of working conditions and sexual assault. When singing or listening to the song, the heart is moved, the eyes water, the connection to the womb and ancestral memory becomes activated in the body. Women are born with all the ova they will ever produce in their lifetimes, so the ova that became you was alive within your mother, when she was still in your grandmother’s womb! This is a special relationship that we all have with our female ancestors, regardless of our gender.  

It’s also an excellent song for people who are new to Southern Italian musical traditions, or who think they can’t incorporate music into their personal devotions because they don’t have formal training. The rhythm is simple and slow enough to tap out even if you’ve never held a tamburello before. The lyrics in the video below are slow and well-articulated, so you can pick them up easily with practice. And, with the invocation at the end to Saint Paul, patron of tarantella, you’ll be singing and dancing in no time!

Salentino

Fimmene fimmene ca sciati allu tabbaccu, 'nde sciati ddoi e ne turnati quattru!

Ci bbu la dice cu chiantati lu tabbaccu? Lu sule è forte e bbe lu sicca tuttu.

Fimmene fimmene ca sciati a vinnimiare e sutta a lu ceppune bbu la faciti fare.

Ue santu Paulu miu de Galatina famme 'nde cuntentà 'sta signurina

Ue santu Paulu miu de le tarante pizzechi le caruse mmienzu'll'anche!

Ue santu Paulu miu de li scurzuni pizzeche li carusi alli cujuni.

English

Women, women who go to the tobacco, They walk out at two and return at four.

Who told you to plant the tobacco? The sun is strong and dries you all out!

Women, women who go to harvest And under the vine you have it done to yourselves.

My Saint Paul of Galatina, Work a miracle for this young woman.

My Saint Paul of the spiders, Bite the girls between their thighs.

My Saint Paul of the snakes, Bite the boys on their balls.

Tammurriata

Above: A mosaic from Pompeii which appears to depict the tammurriata being played and danced in Antiquity. 

"The arms are held in front of the body with the elbows outward, and the movements that they make are basically two, inspired by agricultural activities. The first is a downwards gesture of sowing. The second is an upwards gesture that resembles the movements made when collecting fruit from trees. The steps of the tammurriata follow the rhythm of the drums and are characterized by mirrored movement of the feet, side-to-side, back and forth, or toe-to-heel of the two dancers. All in all, the dancers move in circles." - Arianna Sacco

Dancing as Life

"Life causes motion, and motion can give evidence of life. This becomes: 'Life causes motion, hence motion is evidence of life.' Humans can see that the motions of work have a direct purpose, but motion for motion's sake is something else--'dance' broadly taken. (In the languages of eastern Europe, the same word often means both 'dance' and 'play,' and other nondirect motions like swinging, tickling, and laughing may fall in this basket. Medieval western Europeans, too, called the nocturnal dancing and feasting of the spirits the game, its goal being an abundance of crops called luck.) Supernatural powers, of course, need not work to survive; hence divine life simply 'dances' and in this very act of dancing is thought to create life. ... "The spirits that villagers sought to influence were the spirits of the dead. But different categories of dead existed, with different powers and different connections to the living.

"First, one's dead ancestors. Since they had begotten the living, one could reasonably appeal to them to help their offspring survive. And because these ancestors had been buried in the ground (where their spirits were assumed to pass much of their time), presumably they could help the seeds down there--the newly sown crops--to germinate and grow. Basic to this belief is the notion of resurrection: the seed seems dead, it is buried, it rises to produce new seed. The eternal cycle of life.

"Second were the spirits of the dead of other villages. These were particularly dangerous because they would be busy sequestering all the existing abundance for their offspring. So ritual dancers, from the Balkans to Britain, marked out territories and fought intruding bands, to the death if necessary.

"Finally, there existed a very special group: young women born into the clan who had died before having any children--hence not ancestors of the living but still belonging to the community. Most important, they had not used their natural store of fertility. So, people reasoned, if we're especially nice to them, they might bestow that unused fertility on us. Because unmarried girls in the living community spent much of their time singing and dancing together, people inferred by analogy that the spirits of dead girls would likewise band together and spend their time singing, dancing, swimming, laughing, and so on. These Dancing Goddesses inhabited the wilds, controlling the rain and other waters, creating fertility and healing powers people needed. The challenge was to lead, cajole, trap, or entice them into the cultivated areas to shed their fertility here, and one way to do this was to do what they did: dance."

Elizabeth Wayland Barber, The Dancing Goddesses: Folklore, Archaeology, and the Origins of European Dance, pp. 3-4.

Vesuvio by Spaccanapoli

napulitano

Si mont' o si 'ma mont' 'e na jastemm' Si 'a morte si 'na mort' ca' po' tremm' Montagna fatta 'e lava 'e cient' len' (gue) Tu tien' 'mman a te' sta vita meja

So pizz' 'e case o so pizz' 'e galera addò staje chiuse d'a matina a sera si' o purgatorio 'e tutt' chesta 'ggente ca vive dint' e barrache e vive 'e stient'

si fumm' o si nun fumm' 'o faje rumore 'o fuoco che te puort' dint' o core quann' fa notte 'e o ciel' se fa scur' sul' o ricordo 'e te ce fa paura

chi campa 'nsiene 'a te, te para' nient' si jesce pazz è pazz overamente l'unica verità pe' tutt' quante sarria chell' 'e fui'

ma po' addo' jamm' , primma ca tocca juorno dopp' tant' stu' ffuoco e lava ce port' tutt' quant' a 'mmiez' a via

(strumentale)

chi campa 'nsiene 'a te, te para' nient' si jesce pazz è pazz overamente l'unica verità pe' tutt' quante sarria chell' 'e fui'

Si mont' o si 'ma mont' 'e na jastemm' Si 'a morte si 'na mort' ca' po' tremm' Montagna fatta 'e lava 'e cient' len' (gue) Tu tien' 'mman a te' sta vita meja

English

You're a mountain, but a swearing mountain. You're death, but death that sends tremors. Mountain of lava, of hundreds of paths, you hold in your hands this life of mine.

Is this a place for homes or a place for jail

Where you're locked from morning till night? You're purgatory for all these people who live in slums and who live in need.

Whether you smoke or not you still make noise its the fire you bear in your heart. When the night falls and the sky gets dark the mere thought of you makes us tremble.

Those who live with you, don't be surprised if they go out mad they really are mad. The only (truth?) safety for us would be to run away from you...

and yet, where shall we go? before the day breaks this river of lava will drag us along and leave us homeless.

(instrumental)

Those who live with you, don't be surprised if they go out mad they really are mad. The only (truth?) safety for us would be to run away from you...

You're a mountain, but what a mountain. You're a mountain, but a swearing mountain. You're death, but death that sends tremors. Mountain of lava, of hundreds of paths, you hold in your hands this life of mine.

Santa Lucia Luntana

Santa Lucia luntana is dedicated to the many Neapolitan emigrants who departed from the porto di Napoli towards far away lands (almost always towards the Americas). The lyrics are inspired by the sentiments that these immigrants experienced while growing distant from the land, fixing their eyes towards the picturesque panorama of the neighborhood of Santa Lucia, the last part of their homeland that they would be able to see, always growing smaller, on the horizon. The song quickly became a success, not only in popular thought, and it was also very important at a social level because it brought to light the reality of emigration, a phenomenon up until then poorly understood by the official culture.

Napulitano

« Partono 'e bastimente pe' terre assaje luntane... Cántano a buordo: só' Napulitane! Cantano pe' tramente 'o golfo giá scumpare, e 'a luna, 'a miez'ô mare, nu poco 'e Napule lle fa vedé... Santa Lucia! Luntano 'a te, quanta malincunia! Se gira 'o munno sano, se va a cercá furtuna... ma, quanno sponta 'a luna, luntano 'a Napule nun se pò stá! E sònano...Ma 'e mmane trèmmano 'ncoppe ccorde... Quanta ricorde, ahimmé, quanta ricorde... E 'o core nun 'o sane nemmeno cu 'e ccanzone: Sentenno voce e suone, se mette a chiagnere ca vò' turná... Santa Lucia, ............ Santa Lucia, tu tiene sulo nu poco 'e mare... ma, cchiù luntana staje, cchiù bella pare... E' 'o canto de Ssirene ca tesse ancora 'e rrezze! Core nun vò' ricchezze: si è nato a Napule, ce vò' murí! Santa Lucia, ............ »

Italiano

« Partono le navi per le terre assai lontane... Cantano a bordo: sono Napoletani! Cantano mentre il golfo già scompare e la luna in mezzo al mare un poco di Napoli gli fa vedere Santa Lucia! Lontano da te quanta malinconia! Si gira il mondo intero si va a cercar fortuna... ma, quando spunta la luna lontano da Napoli non si può stare! E suonano!Ma le mani tremano sulle corde... quanti ricordi, ahimé, quanti ricordi... E il cuore non lo guarisci nemmeno con le canzoni: sentendo voce e suoni, si mette a piangere che vuol tornare... Santa Lucia, ............ Santa Lucia, tu hai solo un poco di mare... ma più lontana sei, più bella sembri... Ed il canto delle Sirene che tesse ancora le reti Il cuore non vuol ricchezze: se è nato a Napoli ci vuol morire! Santa Lucia, ............ »