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 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.