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Spells, Saints, and Streghe: Witchcraft, Folk Magic, and Healing in Italy
Part 6 of 13: The Context of Traditional Italian Folk Magical Practice
Italian folk magical practice is rooted in a worldview which developed in small-scale, rural communities where life was difficult and precarious. Until after the second World War, the bulk of the Italian population resided mostly in small, agricultural towns and villages. They farmed, herded livestock, and, in coastal areas, fished; the majority were contadini, or peasants--sharecroppers who worked for the profit of their landlord. Rural conditions varied widely depending on the region, but for most contadini, living conditions were harsh. In the south, especially, the thin Mediterranean topsoil was depleted by centuries of exploitation. Many families barely eked out a living, and that was during a good year. Bad years, caused by ever-present droughts, brought famine; families had scarcely enough to eat and could not afford to give the landlord his share of the crops or livestock products. While some landlords insisted on payment, leaving their tenants to starve, many simply added the year's share to what was due for the following year. This system left most families perpetually in debt to the landowners. There was often no way out of this feudal arrangement: debts grew until they became impossible to payoff, and children inherited the debts of their parents and grandparents.
Families lived clustered in small villages and towns, while the agricultural areas and pastures were scattered at some distance from the town center, requiring a daily commute. Small-town life meant intense social relations which often became strained, leading to quarrels and feuds. Strong loyalty to the family became a survival strategy. Sicily, Campania and Calabria saw the emergence of secret societies such as the Mafia and the Camorra which originally served to protect peasants against the depredations of greedy landlords. Households tended to be matrifocaI, but socially, women remained under the control of their male relatives, and strict rules regarding chastity kept their movements circumscribed.
Before the unification of Italy, public education was non-existent; contadini were usually illiterate, and relied on oral tradition to maintain their folkways. This makes the transmission of a text such as Leland's Vangelo rather unlikely. Because medical doctors were rare and expensive until 1866, when government-funded physicians were stationed in every small town and hamlet, ordinary people relied on folk healers to cure their ailments and on local midwives to deliver their babies. These women often had extensive knowledge of herbs and their uses, and were able to alleviate a number of minor illnesses, although they could do nothing against the tuberculosis, malaria and Mediterranean anemia that were endemic in the population. Their knowledge was fragmentary and mixed with a good dose of popular magic and folk Catholicism, and death rates remained high. There was a sense that life was a precarious enterprise, full of dangers at every turn; magic was one of many protective strategies people employed to ensure their survival and that of their family members.
Against this background, most peasants maintained a magical view of the world. Their universe was an interconnected whole, and tweaking one part of the fabric was likely to bring about changes in another. Rural people were thoroughly familiar with their environment; each feature of the landscape had its own name and legends. They knew well how to exploit it-where to cut wild beet greens in the spring before there were other vegetables to harvest, or where to find land snails to supplement their diet. They planted, harvested and butchered according to the phases of the moon and its position in the sky, believing that this affected the success of their enterprises, and therefore their ability to survive in harsh conditions (Cattabiani, 1988). The world was animated by a variety of local spirits, as well as by angels, demons and saints; these beings could be invoked to aid survival, but could also be dangerous at times. Invoking or appeasing these beings was not considered witchcraft, but common sense; it was not limited to a small group of people in a village, but was widely practiced.
About the Author:
Sabina Magliocco is Professor of Anthropology at California State University, Northridge. She grew up in Italy and the United States and has done field research on traditional Sardinian festivals and socioeconomic change. She has published on religion, folklore, food ways, festival, witchcraft and Neo-Paganism in Europe and the United States.
The article first appeared in The Pomegranate 13 (2000), pp. 2-22.
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