Italian Folk Magic

Introduction

Italian Folk Magic consists of a variety of beliefs and tends to exist differently in each region it is found. Practitioners mainly lived in southern Italy, and many researchers and northerners looked at folk magic as uncivilized and primitive.   In reality, folk beliefs and practices connected the communities they were in and showed how different each region in the south was from one another.  Many were and still are afraid to fully embrace folk magic traditions due to the Catholic Church and its big influence on the country.  Despite the negativity and stigma surrounding the practices, they hold an important place in Italy’s culture and keeping the country unified.  This blog post will explore the general beliefs and superstitions in folk magic, and some of the different sects within Italian witchcraft.

General Information on Folk Magic

Witches and magic practitioners were far more common than one might think in Southern Italy.   There were many superstitions surrounding witches in general amongst the peasant class, and the connotation sounding the topic of magic in general was negative.  The superstitions included things like witches tampering with livestock or inflicting torment on villager’s children.  More often than not, rumors surrounding the witches power and ability were false and not based in reality.  The real-life witches were often women who the villages depended on for medical aid and superstitious help.  Witches could help with removing the evil eye and curses, while also helping to deliver babies and produce herbal salves for members of their community.  In most places there were multiple healers at hand, and they varied in magical ability.  There were also members of the village who simply knew certain magical incantations and herbal magic.  Because there were multiple magic users, the knowledge of these practices diffused outwardly to everyone and their future generations.  Magic could also be used in love spells and curses.  Most of this type of healing and non-healing magic involved a prayer or spell and herbs like rosemary, rue, or bay leaves mixed with olive oil.  Folk practitioners also employed the usage of protective and magical amulets that served different purposes.  The mano cornuto and horn amulet are great examples of this, since they help protect the individual wearing them from the evil eye.  The Evil eye or Il Malocchio, exists in many different cultures across the world, and in Italian superstition, one can pass on the evil eye through envy and giving compliments they don’t really mean.  One can also receive the evil eye through intentional curses.  Once someone has the evil eye, they experience bad luck and weakness.  It can also be removed by spitting over one’s shoulder three times. Along with these general practices and beliefs, there were also groups that had practices specific to them.

Above is a depiction of the evil eye, to the right is an example of the Mano Cornuto gesture.

Benedicaria, Stregoneria, Tarintism, and more

To start, Benedicaria is a specific type of Italian folk magic and spirituality.  Practitioners live in in the south, near Campania, and have a similar structure to folk magic.  Many practice healing prayers, believe in Il Malocchio, and wear protective amulets as well.   Those who practice use herbs in healing magic and other spells, and overall fit the mold of a typical witch.  The difference comes with their reluctance to label as witches, and their Catholic belief elements.  Practitioners  recite Catholic prayers and pray to the Holy Mother, as well as other deities.  Diana is another deity that is worshipped in the religion, and is referenced as “Maria”.  Those who practice participate in novenas, a kind of personal prayer service held in ones home.  They pray for 9 consecutive day and nights and pray the rosary.  As stated practitioners wear protective amulets like the ones mentioned above, and also use amulets like the Cimaruta.  This amulet is from Neapolitan decent and depicts rue branches, which are used in herbal healing, with different symbols on the branches.  Symbols can include moons, keys, swords, pentagrams, and bees.  The amulet protects the wearer and brings them good luck.  Another variation of folk magic, and one that is similar to Benedicaria is called Stregoneria.  This form of witchcraft excludes catholic belief and has a more negative connotation. This is due to witch accusations and general stigma around the word.  Practitioners can practice healing magic, kitchen magic, ancestral work, and wear the same amulets.  

Example of a Cimaruta Amulet

Tarantism is a type of healing ritual within the Italian folk magic realm.  The ritual occurs when an individual, most times a woman, experiences a real or imagined bite from a spider.  The person bitten by the spider is believed to be possessed by the spider’s spirit, and starts to experience negative physical symptoms.  Special healing musicians are called to the families aid to play music that will distract the spider spirit.  The person then breaks into dance for prolonged periods of time, until eventually, they are healed.  The dance is performed at festivals each year, and in the present is practiced through imaginary bites.

Depiction of the induced dance state in Tarantism

To conclude, Italian Folk magic and practices are unique to Italy, and come in different variations. These practices and beliefs are a part of the cultural backbone supporting the country. There is so much stigma surrounding certain labels and beliefs, even though most of the practices are beautiful, culturally rich, and connect us to our ancestry. The Italian population needs to do more to deconstruct falsehoods surrounding certain topics of Italian spirituality, and not look at it from a political or negative religious view. There is no harm in participating in ones ancestral practices, and is important in keeping the rich culture of Italy alive.

Sources

  1. Magliocco, Sabina. “Witchcraft, Healing and Vernacular Magic in Italy.” Manchesteropenhive, Manchester University Press, 1 Jan. 2020, https://www.manchesteropenhive.com/view/9781526137975/9781526137975.00012.xml?chapterBody=FullText. 
  2. “Notes about Tarantism.” Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino, https://www.canzonieregrecanicosalentino.net/cenni-sul-tarantismo/?lang=en. 
  3. “Benedicaria – the Blessing Way of Southern Italian Folk Medicine, Part 1 – Gail Faith Edwards.” Way of the Wild Heart, 13 Nov. 2015, https://gailfaithedwards.com/2015/10/22/benedicaria-the-blessing-way-of-southern-italian-folk-medicine-gail-faith-edwards/. 
  4. Edwards, Gail Faith. “Benedicaria – the Blessing Way of Southern Italian Folk Medicine – Part 2 – Gail Faith Edwards.” Way of the Wild Heart, 27 Oct. 2015, https://gailfaithedwards.com/2015/10/23/benedicaria-the-blessing-way-of-southern-italian-folk-medicine-part-2/. 
  5. Vaudoise, Mallorie. “Stregheria and Italian-American Folk Magic.” Italian Folk Magic, Italian Folk Magic, 11 Sept. 2017, https://www.italianfolkmagic.com/blog/2017/9/11/stregheria-and-italian-american-folk-magic. 
  6. “Il Malocchio, the Evil Eye.” Www.ItalianGenealogy.com, https://www.italiangenealogy.com/articles/italian-culture-traditions/il-malocchio-the-evil-eye. 
  7. Boneandsickle. “Witchcraft in Southern Italy.” Bone and Sickle, 21 Nov. 2020, https://www.boneandsickle.com/2020/11/21/witchcraft-in-southern-italy/. 

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