Monday, April 13, 2015

Beware the malocchio, especially on Friday the 17th: Italians and some of their pervasive superstitions

This little village is found in the hills above Pescia. The reason for the name has been lost in history.

If bad luck befalls you some Friday, it could be because of an ancient Italian curse. In America, Friday the 13th is an unlucky day, but in Italy, the day to avoid is Friday the 17th. This is only one of numerous beliefs that are specific to Italy.

Non รจ vero ma ... ci credo!” This often-used phrase—it is even the title of popular Italian play—sums up the role that superstition still plays in the daily lives of many Italians. It means: It’s not true but . . . I believe it. Some beliefs come from Renaissance times, others from the middle ages, and still more have their roots in Roman culture. Many of the superstitions we have heard while growing up in America—for example, breaking a mirror will cause seven years of misfortune, or a black cat crossing one’s path brings bad luck—came from Italy.

Most rituals and superstitions are shrouded in the mists of mystery and time, but that doesn’t stop people from trying to explain the reasoning behind them today. Multiple explanations exist for every belief, but most begin with “some believe that . . .” or “one possible reason for this . . .” For example, the reasons given for the 17th being unlucky include that the great flood of the Bible started on the 17th day of the month, that the 17th Roman legion was destroyed in a decisive battle in 9 AD and that the Pythagoreans believed that because 17 lies between the perfect numbers of 16 and 18, it was a disgrace. Another reason often given is that 17 in Roman numerals is written XVII, which can become the anagram of VIXI, or
vissi, a Latin word often inscribed on Roman tombs. It means “I lived,” with the implication that “now I’m dead.”

As for the background story of the broken mirror, the urban legend website gives one theory: “Many sources tie the amount of bad luck brought about by breaking a mirror to the Romans, who are said to have believed that life renewed itself every seven years.” It’s even quite likely that this Roman belief was inherited from the Etruscans, Greeks or Phoenicians.

When it comes to black cats, possibly an entire chapter could be written on all the possible explanations that have been advanced. The fact that these superstitions have endured is testimony to the strong need for people to explain the incomprehensible forces of luck, prosperity and chance, even in today’s world.

“Superstition is generally defined as an irrational belief that magic, luck or supernatural forces have the power to influence your life, or that actions that aren’t logically linked to an outcome may have an effect on it,” said Chloe Rhodes, author of
Black Cats and Evil Eyes. She explains that many rituals started out as folklore and folk medicine and have come to be regarded as superstitions only as our understanding of the world deepened.

“If you carried a rabbit’s foot to ward off digestive troubles in Roman times, you did so because it was what your physician recommended,” she said. “If you carried one in the 1600s . . . you might have done so because although you knew it was mere ‘fancy,’ it had worked on a respected friend and seemed also to have the desired effect on you.”

The law of averages being what it is, often times superstitions are given credit for being useful when one has a successful outcome after following them. The Historian Pliny the Elder tells of Consul Mucianus, who suffered from a fear of losing his eyesight and sought to prevent the loss by carrying with him a live fly in a white cloth. Pliny reports that this successfully kept Mucianus from going blind.
While Friday the 13th is not unlucky in Italy—in fact it is considered lucky—13 is considered an unthinkable number of people to have seated at one table, and most Italians will shuffle the arrangement to make two smaller tables if this is about to occur. The reason usually given for this is that 13 was the number of table guests for the Last Supper of Christ.
This could be an example of an acceptable religious reason being superimposed over an older heathen tradition, something that occurs quite often in Italy. National Geographic magazine says that “in ancient Rome, witches reportedly gathered in groups of 12. The 13th was believed to be the devil.”
More than half of Americans admitted to being at least a little superstitious, according to a recent Gallup poll. But do modern Italians and Italian-Americans still hold to the superstitions of their grandparents? Not to the same extent, but old habits are hard to break.
“I always say not to be superstitious, but thanks to my maternal grandmother, there are precautions that I used to take, just to avoid the ‘bad luck,’ ” said Laura Bandoni, a language teacher at Lucca Italian School. “Don’t open the umbrella in the house. I don’t know the origin of the superstition, but I refrain from doing so out of habit.”
Laura Bandoni
It could be a way of connecting to one’s past. “When you spill some salt, you might think of your mom or your grandmother giving you a warning to throw some over your shoulder,” Bandoni said. “You may not believe it’s necessary, but you feel like you are honoring the memory of your grandmother.”
Belief in the malocchio, or evil eye, is so pervasive in the Mediterranean basin because it far predates the Roman empire. It could have been exported by the seafaring Phoenicians, originally from Syria, who traded extensively with indigenous peoples and established colonies as far west as the Atlantic coasts of Spain and Morocco, past the Straits of Gibraltar. They began their westward expansion as early as 1550 BC.
Every culture seems to have its own version of the evil eye and its own ways to fight it. One thing they all have in common is the malocchio is caused by jealousy and envy. A person eying you with envy can even curse you without actually meaning to.
“All it takes is to pay someone a compliment while feeling jealous or envious,” said Mirella Sichirollo Patzer, author of Orphan of the Olive Tree. “Babies are the most vulnerable to the curse. After all, who receives more compliments than a cute child? For this reason, Italian mothers are always vigilant when someone pays their baby a compliment. They will make the fig sign to ward off the evil eye. If you want to compliment a baby, add the words ‘senza malocchio,’ or ‘without the evil eye.’ ”
The grandmother of Justin Demetri, writer for the website Life in Italy, told him how his aunt was once cured of an evil eye curse.
“My aunt got some type of ‘sleeping sickness’ where she could hardly stay awake,” Demetri said. “Grandma took her baby to a local woman who could foresee the future and ‘diagnose’ the evil eye by dropping olive oil in a bowl of water. The oil formed one large drop in the middle of the bowl, a sure sign of the evil eye, but after chanting the right prayers (that only women were allowed to know), the oil broke up into tiny droplets and spread out. The ritual broke the curse of the evil eye and my aunt, at least according to the tale, got better immediately.”

Some methods of warding off evil spirits or a curse are not as complex. Touching iron can protect you, and some say this is why Italian men may cup their genitals for luck—this has the dual purpose of deterring evil and attesting to their masculinity. A woman, on the other hand, may cup her left breast for the same protection.

Berlusconi behind Spanish foreign minister Josep Pique.
Another possibility is to make the symbol of the horns, il corno or il cornetto, with the index and little fingers. It is best not to point at another person, though, because that could pass the curse along, and making the sign while swiveling the hands back and forth can also be an insult to a man; it means that his wife is cheating on him. Some people wear amulets with the corno around their necks for protection. Giovanni Leone, who was President of the Italian Republic in the 1970s, shocked the country while in Napoli during a cholera outbreak. He shook the hands of patients with one hand, while he made the corno with his other hand behind his back. What he perhaps didn’t realize is that the journalists behind him were documenting his actions.

Politician Silvio Berlusconi was once photographed giving the corno behind the back of the Spanish foreign minister. When asked about it later, he said, “I was only joking.” Many Italians would say that Berlusconi himself is a joke, but I digress. It is reported that the foreign minister and his wife were not amused.

Ronnie James Dio of Black Sabbath.
A final note about the corno: It became a kind of unofficial salute of heavy metal rock musicians in America when Ronnie James Dio of Black Sabbath began using it at concerts. “It’s an Italian thing I got from my grandmother,” he said. “It’s to ward off the evil eye or to give the evil eye, depending on which way you do it. It’s just a symbol, but it had magical incantations and attitudes to it and I felt it worked very well with Sabbath.” The sign would later be appropriated by heavy metal fans under the name “maloik,” a corruption of the original malocchio.

Other common Italian superstitions include:

Don’t put a loaf of bread on the table upside down. This is said to come from a medieval fear of touching anything associated with death, a fear so pervasive that bread made for the executioner was always placed upside down to keep it separate from the other loaves. Now it indicates impending death. However, another common explanation of this taboo is that bread is the symbol of Christ, and placing it upside shows disrespect.

Don’t pour water or wine back-handing, that is, with the back of your hand facing the table. You might be secretly putting poison in the drink from your ring.

Putting a clothes hanger on your bed means you won’t have sex. Putting a hat on a bed is a sign of death, as this was something a priest would do when he came to give last rites.

Don’t light three cigarettes with one match. This wisdom is said to stem from the trenches of World War I. On the first light, the enemy spots you; second light, the enemy aims; and third light, he shoots.

Don’t cross your eating utensils on the table. It is disrespectful to the cross of Christ. The same goes for crossing shoes.

If you receive a broach, a penknife or any other kind of sharp object as a gift, prick the person who gave it to you, or give them a coin as a token in return. If you don’t, you risk ruining your friendship (although one would think the former action might run the same risk). Some farsighted people tape a coin to a sharp object before giving it as a gift.

Don’t wish good luck to an actor before a play, an athlete before a race or a student about to take an exam. Instead, say “In bocca al lupo,” literally, “In the mouth of the wolf.” The correct response, by the way, is to say, “Crepi il lupo,” or “May the wolf die.”

If you say the same word at the time as someone else, touch metal or your nose. Otherwise you’ll never get married.

Only ever give flowers to someone in odd numbers, and never more than 12. Even numbers of flowers are for the deceased.

If you find a coin on the ground, spit on it before you put it in your pocket.

Don’t wish someone a happy birthday before the actual date.

When you give someone a wallet as a gift, you should put a coin in it. Otherwise you send a message that you wish the recipient to remain impoverished.

If someone brushes your feet by accident with a broom, you will not get married.

All right, I could go on and write an entire book, which some people have done, but this is enough for today. I hope this is enough to give you a long life—touch iron, and in bocca al lupo!


Comments welcome.