Italian Folk Magic on The Spiritual Alchemy Show

What can I say? It's always a pleasure to chat with Astrid over at The Spiritual Alchemy Show! In this episode, we talk about my favorite magical sites in New York City, the similarities and differences between Italian and Italian-American folk religion, and why the Black Madonna is black. You can tune in below: 

Show Notes: 

Mallorie’s Teachers
https://www.savvy.is/profile/annascog...
http://www.alessandrabelloni.com/

Best Places to Visit in NYC
http://www.stanthonynyc.org/
http://www.ourladyofpompeiinyc.com/
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Church_...)

Other Links Mentioned in the Show
https://www.instagram.com/realinfanta...
https://www.amazon.com/Built-Faith-Am...

Don't forget! The Spiritual Alchemy Show runs Every Thursday : 11pm GMT / 6pm EST / 3pm Pacific. Listen LIVE on http://www.paraxradionetwork.com/

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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!

Neapolitan Children's Prayers: Before bedtime

These classic Neapolitan prayers are taught to children by their mothers and grandmothers. Like children's prayers from around the world, these are short, simple, and rhyme. I've included recordings of how they are pronounced, in case you are not familiar with the language. (Please note, this is not my native tongue, so my pronunciation is not perfect.) 

If you would like to learn more about the Neapolitan language, I highly recommend booking an online session with Anna Scognamiglio. I've been working with Anna for several months, and she is an excellent source on Neapolitan language and culture. Fans of this blog will especially enjoy working with her, because she knows several prayers, novenas, and superstitions. Your first lesson with her is free!

Napulitano 

Me cocco e me faccio ‘a croce
‘a Maronna mè mamma
Gesù Cristo mè pate
e Sante mè so pariente
me cocco e nun aggio paura e niente.

Italiano 
 
Mi corico e mi faccio la croce
la Madonna mi è mamma
Gesù Cristo mi è padre
i Santi mi sono parenti
mi corico e non tengo paura di niente. 

English 
 
I go to bed (lie down) and I make the sign of the cross
The Madonna is my mother
Jesus Christ is my father
And the saints are my relatives
I go to sleep and I don’t fear anything.

Napulitano 
 
Je me cocco ‘int’ ‘a ‘stu lietto
e ‘a Maronna affianco ‘o pietto
jo dormo e Essa veglia,
si è coccosa me risveglia;
Gesù Cristo m’è pate
‘a Maronna m’è mamma
‘e Sante me so’ pariente
duorme… ca nun haje paura ‘e niente!

Italian 
 
Mi corico dentro questo letto
la Madonna a fianco il petto
io dormo e lei veglia
se qualcosa mi risveglia;
Gesù Cristo mi è padre
i Santi mi sono parenti
dormi… che non hai paura di niente. 

English  

I go to sleep in this bed
The Madonna at the side of the chest
I sleep and she watches over me, 
If anything, she wakes me up; 
Jesus Christ is my father
The Madonna is my mother
The saints are my relatives
(You) sleep… you don’t have to fear anything.

Napulitano 
 
E’ sunata ‘n’ora ‘e notte
e l’angiulillo p’‘a porta,
e Maria p’‘a casa;
‘o tristo jesce e ‘o buono trase
e Dio ‘nce guarda ‘o capo ‘e casa.

Italian
 
E’ venuta la notte
l’angelo è alla porta
Maria per la casa;
il tristo esce e il buono entra
e Dio protegge il capo di casa. 

English 
 
An hour of the night has struck
And the little angel is by (coming in?) the door, 
And Maria is around the house
The sadness goes away and the goodness comes in
And God protects the head of the house.

Napulitano 
 
Io me cocco ‘a lietto
e cu l’angelo perfetto
e cu l’angelo preganno
Gesù Cristo prericammo
Io me cocco e nun m’addormo
l’anema mia ‘a lascio ‘a Maronna
Io me cocco a lietto e nun m’addormesse
l’anema mia ‘a lascio ‘a Gesù Cristo
Io me cocco e nun me vene
tre cose a chiese tene:
cunfessione, cummunione e uoglio santo
e lu cantu ‘o Spiritussanto
aiutaci Maria a tutti quanti.

Italian 
 
Io vado a letto
con l’angelo perfetto
e con l’angelo pregando
Gesù Cristo predichiamo
Io mi corico e non mi addormento
l’anima mia la lascio alla Madonna
Io vado a letto e se non mi addormento
l’anima mia la lascio a Gesù Cristo
Io mi corico e non mi viene (di addormentarmi)
tre cose la chiesa tiene:
confessione, comunione e olio santo
ed il canto allo spirito santo
aiutaci Maria a tutti quanti. 

English 
 
I go to bed
With the perfect angel
And with the angel praying
Jesus Christ we preach
I go to bed and I don’t fall asleep
My soul I leave to the Madonna
I go to bed and I wouldn’t want to fall asleep
My soul I leave to Jesus Christ
I go to sleep and it doesn’t come to me (i.e. I can’t fall asleep) 
The church has three things: 
Confession, communion, and holy oil
And the song to the holy spirit
Help us, Maria, all of us. 

Napulitano 
 
Bonasera Maronna mia
tutt’ ‘o munno a te s’inchina
cu’ chillu frutto ca dunaste
a tutt’ ‘o munno rallegraste
rallegraste l’anema mia
buona sera Maronna mia.

Italiano 
 
Buonasera Madonna mia,
tutto il mondo a te s’inchina.
con quel frutto che donasti,
tutto il mondo rallegrasti,
rallegrasti l’anima mia,
buonasera Madonna mia. 

English  

Good evening, my Madonna
All the world to you bows.  
With that fruit that you gave, 
All the world you cheered up, 
You cheered up my soul, 
Good evening my Madonna. 
 

Feasts of the Seven Sisters: Madonna of the Advocate in Maiori

Today is the feast day of the Madonna of the Advocate (Madonna dell'Avvocata) in Maiori, Costiera Amalfitana. She is one of the Seven Sisters, the famous Black Madonnas of Campania. 

Madonna dell'Avvocata
"Madonna of the Advocate"
Monday after Pentecost
Website

Her sanctuary in Maiori was first conceived of in 1485, when a shepherd boy named Gabriele Cinnamo fell asleep while tending his flock on Monte Falerzio. He dreamed of the Madonna, who told him to build an altar in that location. Inspired by the dream, Cinnamo became a hermit and began raising funds to build the chapel. 

In 1590, a small statue of the Madonna was brought into the church as a protector of the sailors from the surrounding coastal towns. Since then, many extraordinary events have been attributed to the statue, including it shedding tears, exorcising those possessed by demons, and curing those suffering from terminal illnesses. You can get a sense for the intense devotion directed at this Madonna in the video below. (As an aside: the hymn they are singing is very simple and perfect to learn, particularly if you plan to attend a festa in either Italy or an Italian-American parish in the US. I am posting the full lyrics below, but the only part you usually need to know is: "Evviva Maria, Maria evviva... Evviva Maria e chi la creò!") 

O Maria, quanto sei bella,
sei la gioia e sei l’amore,
m’hai rapito questo cuore,
notte e giorno io penso a Te.
M’hai rapito questo cuore,
notte e giorno,
notte e giorno io penso a Te.
Evviva Maria, Maria evviva.
Evviva Maria e chi la creò.
Quando il sole già lucente,
le colline e il mondo indora,
quando a sera si scolora,
ti saluta il mio pensier,
quando a sera si scolora
ti saluta,
ti saluta il mio pensier.
Che pien di giubilo oggi t’onora.
Evviva Maria, Maria evviva.
Evviva Maria e chi la creò.
E un bel giorno in Paradiso,
Grideremo: Viva Maria!
Grideremo: Viva Maria!
Grideremo: Viva Maria,
Viva Lei che ci salvò.
Tutti t’invocano soccorritrice,
Evviva Maria, Maria evviva.
Evviva Maria e chi la creò!

But more specifically than this hymn, the Madonna of the Advocate is associated with a particular style of tammurriata drumming. For the reason, I feel especially close to her. She was perhaps the first of the Seven Sisters that I learned about from my music teacher, Alessandra Belloni, who told me stories about her: about how people would travel from around the countryside to come and make the pilgrimage up Monte Falerzio. How often, these people were in their 70s or 80s, but they still found the strength to make the pilgrimage up the mountain in bare feet!

In Alessandra's classes, she taught us the distinctive drumming pattern you see in the video below. In the two years I have trained with her, I have seen dozens of new students learn to drum tammurriata for the first time, and this is always the pattern they resonate with the most. It has a unique strength which recalls the wild retinue of the goddess Cybele. As a woman learning to drum, it breaks through whatever socialization has taught you to be quiet and unobtrusive. It is simply too wild and loud to allow such restrictions on the body to remain in place. In that way and many more, it is an important medicine for us. 

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)

Establishing an ancestral practice

A fresco from the thermopolium of Lucius Vetutius Placidus in the city of Pompeii, depicting the spirit (genius) of the house central, flanked by Lares and Penates with Mercury on far left, Bacchus far right.

I love hearing from readers who have Italian roots and are interested in developing a personal ancestral veneration practice which reflects their cultural heritage. I’ve put together a list of advice I often give to these folks, in the hope that it may be of help to anyone on their journey.

I’ve laid this out roughly in a progression from simple workings intended to cool and strengthen the dead towards more complex workings which bring in entities that are not a part of the ancestral line, but whose Mysteries can be experienced with and through that line. However, please don’t feel like you need to work through this list in order. Allow dream and inspiration to inform you as much as text.

Above all else, go with your gut. You’re a part of this line. If something feels pleasant to you, it probably feels pleasant to them. And likewise if something feels unpleasant. Learning to pay attention to that gut feeling when you look at your ancestral altar lays the foundation for more advanced mediumship.

Don’t force it. Don’t go into the work with preconceived notions of what magical “results” should look like. Allow your personal lingua franca with the ancestors to develop organically. The effects of these practices are cumulative, so aim to do something small every day.

Look at the structure of your living family. During your childhood, did you spend more time with one side than the other? Did you have a particular affinity for one of your grandparents? These can offer clues as two which of your many lineages are most active right now in your lifetime.

Official Catholic devotions. These include paying for a Mass to be said for them, or doing indulgences for them on your own. The Raccolta is a good source for official prayers. Indulgences and Masses are especially important for the recently deceased.

If you only have the stomach for so much churchy business right now, I recommend you learn the Requiem Aeternam. It’s short, sweet, and carries an indulgence for the dead. It’s written in the singular, but you can swap for the bits in parenthesis to make it plural:

Requiem aeternam dona ei (eis), Domine, et lux perpetua luceat ei (eis). Requiescat (-ant) in pace. Amen.

If Latin isn’t your thing, here’s an English version:

Eternal rest grant unto him/her (them), O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him/her (them). May he/she (they) rest in peace. Amen.

Traditional folk offerings. These include candles (usually white wax in red glass) or olive oil lamps, water, fresh flowers, holy cards (santini), rosary beads.

Offerings from other traditions. Especially if you are interested in the ATRs, you may want to experiment with sharing a small portion of whatever you are eating, coffee, liquors, tobacco. Heavily perfumed waters, such as florida water and kananga water, are great to have on hand, either to add to glasses of cool water or to cleanse yourself with. When the dead are present, you may experience physical sensations, some of which can be uncomfortable. Perfumes like this can take the edge off of those feelings. If florida water and such are too strong for you, you can get rosewater (the type for cooking) from many Indian and Middle Eastern grocers and use it in much the same way.

Keep your home clean. In Naples, this practice is more commonly associated with ‘a bella ‘mbriana, the gecko-shaped house spirit, who is not explicitly related to the dead in modern thought. However, ‘a bella ‘mbriana may be an evolution of the ancient tradition of the Lares, who were both house spirits and ancestral spirits and were often depicted as snakes. You can play around with this imagery and see what speaks to you. Maybe find a toy gecko, or use statues of Saints Cosmas and Damien to represent the Lares, who were also depicted as twins.

Drink some amaro. Bitter herbs such as those used to produce amaro (which means “bitter”, after all) often have reputations for increasing psychic ability and contact with the dead.

If you like cannabis, smoke some cannabis. Less is usually more. In Santo Daime, a syncretic ayahuasca tradition, cannabis is called “Santa Maria” and syncretized with the Madonna. Working with Santa Maria is often said to result in contact with spirits of the dead.

Learn the comune (or comuni) that your family came from. It might have a website. At the very least, it should have a Wikipedia page, and the town’s patron saint(s) will be listed there. In some comuni the main festa is devoted to a different saint than the official patron. You may find that saint to be more accessible. Look for sections of text labeled “Tradizioni” (traditions).

If you don’t know the specific commune, look at the region they came from. What wine is made there? What bread to they bake there? Share some of that wine and bread with them. Remember: this is the body and blood of a god that they knew and worshipped which you are now consuming together. There’s a lot to unpack there. Don’t cut the bread with a knife; rip it up with your hands.

Look into saints and Madonne who specialize in matters of the dead. For example: San Nicola da Tolentino, Madonna del Carmine, Santa Rosalia, San Padre Pio, Santa Caterina da Genova. These can be appealed to for help deepening your personal connection, or settling restless spirits in your line.

If you have any other ideas or experiences you would like to share, please leave them in the comments!

Italian Folk Magic on Rune Soup

The brilliant Gordon White of Rune Soup invited me on his podcast to talk about the origin of the saints, the Italian American diaspora experience, the Black Madonna, necromancy, sacred dances and a whole lot more. You can listen below, or via your favorite podcast app. 

Many thanks to Gordon for having me on the show! If you like what you hear, make sure to check out his books: The Chaos Protocols, Star.Ships, and Pieces of Eight.

PS - In case you didn't notice, Gordon's spirit animal here is Giordano Bruno--who was born near and lived in Naples! #homeboy

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.

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.

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  

Materia meridionale: Oil

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

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

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

Oil

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

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

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

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

(The Catholic Encyclopedia, 1911)

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

Ms. M Grieve in her Modern Herbal writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Raccolta

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

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

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

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

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

You might use the Raccolta to:

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

You can read the Raccolta online for free:

1834 Edition (Italian)

1849 Edition (Italian)

1898 Edition (English) 

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.

Litany to the Dead from Naples, Italy

In a previous post, we examined several accounts of the cult of the Holy Souls in Purgatory at Fontanelle Cemetery in Naples. Fontanelle Cemetery is an ossuary occupied Anime Pezzentelle, that is, “lost” souls, or souls without living descendents to perform official indulgences on their behalf. Many of them lost their lives during the great plagues of the 17th century, a time during which the city struggled to keep up with the task of burying large numbers of recently deceased citizens. The Anime Pezzentelle are said to suffer from the heat and pains of Purgatory, where their only solace are the prayers and refreshment provided by the living. Refreshment or refrische can take many forms: cool water, sacramentals such as rosary beads or saint cards, and oil lamps or candles are all common forms of refreshment. The goal of these devotional practices is to establish a bond through which soul can establish contact through dreams. Once this intimate relationship is in place, the soul may reveal more details about who they were in life, divine the future (including lottery numbers), or be petitioned to perform miracles.

The prayer below, originally in Neapolitan and translated into English, may be said by groups or individuals who wish to gain the favor of Anime Pezzentelle, specifically the souls of plague victims. It is traditionally said while in the ossuary, although we might speculate that all cemeteries belongs to the same kingdom. The opening prayer is repeated for the names of all the deceased being invoked. (Anime Pezzentelle are usually said to reveal their names in dream early in the relationship, and often some details about who they were in life such as their gender and occupation.) The closing prayer is said before departing from the ossuary or cemetery.

There are a few traditional elements worth noting. For one, we see mentions of the beatings and nails of the Crucifixion which were also present in the Sicilian rosary for the dead we saw previously. Furthermore, in addition to invocations to Jesus and the Holy Trinity, we also see a powerful image of the female divine in this prayer: an entreaty to “come in the name of Jesus Christ, Saint Anne, and Maria”; a request vindicated “by the tears of the Sorrowful Mother”; and the line “pray to your divine redeemer (the Madonna)”, where the word “redeemer” is unmistakbly feminine in the original text. It is worth noting that in Naples, work with the lost souls is predominantly, perhaps exclusively, considered to be “women’s work”. The gendering is reinforced in the language of the work, which speaks of “adopting” skulls, as well as the objects commonly used in these devotions, which include handmade embroidery and rosary beads. The practitioner quite literally becomes the mother of a lost soul.

Napulitano

(opening prayer)

Guida: Guè, pè l’anema ‘e (name of deceased). Coro: Requia materna. (repeat as needed)

(prayer for the plague victims) Io ve chiammo aneme tutte, Aneme appestate cchiù de tutte; Mò che nnante a Dio state A me mischinu scunzulatu E nun ve ne scurdate. Pregate alla nostra divina clemenza, Arapitece ‘e porte de la santa divina clemenza pruverenza: Pregate alla vostra divina Redentora, Ce favorite il nostro ‘ntenzione; Mille e tanta vote Reque, refrische, repuose, sullievo e pace A chest’ aneme appestate mie rilette; Venite a casa mia ca v’aspetto; E paura nun me ne metto. Venite co lu nomme ‘e Giesù Cristo, Sant’Anna e Maria; ‘E case noste cuntente e cunzulate sia. Pe lu nomme de la Santissima Ternità Tutt’e ppene, tutte ‘e turmiente Tutt’e guaie nc’adda acquietà. Pe li voste battitore Fance grazia vosto Signore; Pe tre chiove trapassate Refrische e sullievo a chell’aneme sante appestate.

Gesù mio misericordia; Gesù mio misericordia; P’e lacreme ‘e Mamm’ Addulurata Refrische all’aneme de l’appestate.

(closing prayer)

Requia materna, erona romine, sparpetua lucia ‘nterna schiatte in pace. Amen.

English

(opening prayer)

Guide: Hail to the soul of (name of deceased). Chorus: Eternal peace. (repeat as needed)

(prayer for the plague victims)

I call you, all souls, Plague victims above all other souls, I pray that near to God you be. Do not forget me, I, a disconsolate wretch. Pray to our divine mercy, Open the doors of holy, divine, merciful providence: Pray to your divine redeemer (the Madonna), That she favor our intentions; Thousands of times Calm, refreshment, rest, solace, and peace To these plague victims’ souls, my beloveds; Come to my home where I await you; Because I have no fear. Come in the name of Jesus Christ, Saint Anne, and Maria; And let our homes be content and consoling. By the name of the Divine Trinity All troubles must be calmed. By your beatings Do us grace, oh Lord. By the three nails, Refreshment and solace to the holy souls of plague victims.

My Jesus, mercy; My Jesus, mercy; By the tears of the Sorrowful Mother, Refreshment to the souls of the plague victims.  

(closing prayer)

Eternal peace give them O Lord, shine eternal light, may they rest in peace. Amen.

(Source: Luciano Sola – “Il Camposanto delle Fontanelle. Storia e costumi di Napoli”)

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

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

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

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

English translation

Posta

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

Grani

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

Siciliano

Posta

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

Grani

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

 

“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.