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  • Spells, Saints, and Streghe: Witchcraft, Folk Magic, and Healing in Italy
    Part 10 of 13: Witchcraft as Folk Healing

    by Sabina Magliocco

    At one time, many villages had a number of folk healers who could cure a variety of illnesses, They ranged from those who cured with herbs, magic formulas and prayers to professional sorcerers who were called in serious cases of magical attack. In practice, however, these practitioners overlapped, since almost any illness could be judged to be the result of a magical working. Folk healers seldom referred to themselves as streghe (although their neighbors might call them such), but as fattuccchiere, "fixers," maghi (masculine plural; singular mago), maghe (feminine plural; sing. maga), "magic-workers." This latter term has nothing to do with the Latin word imago, "image," but derives from the Latin magus, ultimately from the Persian magush, "magic worker, mage" (Zingarelli 1970:993). In Sardinia they are simply known as praticos ("knowledgeable ones," akin to the English "cunning-folk"}. Most inherit their craft from a relative, although occasionally a healer will acquire power directly from a saint. This was the case of an old woman in Castellammare di Stabia (Campania), who in the 1970s told a folklorist how she obtained her healing powers as a child by falling into a deep trance. Her parents believed her dead, but St Rita "touched her mouth, bestowing power onto her" (Di Nola, 1993:40; my translation), and she miraculously recovered. Another folk healer from central Sardinia told a researcher that one could acquire magic powers by going to a sacred place (a cemetery or church) and receiving su sinzale (a sign), although the nature of the sign was not specified (Selis, 1978:139).

    Some folk healers worked in a state of trance. DeMartino movingly describes how one such healer diagnosed and treated supernatural illness:
    During the course of her recitation [of the prayer], the healer immerses herself in a controlled dream-like state, and in this condition she merges with the psychic condition of her client, and suffers with him: the altered state causes the healer to yawn, and her suffering with her patient causes her to shed tears. When the healer does not yawn or weep, it means that she was not able to discern any spell in effect, and thus her client is not bewitched, but his illness depends on other causes (DeMartino, 1966/87:17; my translation).

    In the late 1970s, folklorist Luisa Selis interviewed "Antonia," a 75-year old maghiarja (sorceress) from central highland Sardinia. Antonia reported being possessed by three spirits who helped her with her healing work: a priest, who helped her foretell the future; a physician, who helped her cure illnesses; and a bandit, who helped her recover lost livestock (Selis, 1978:141). Trancing healers and diviners like Antonia demonstrate a clear link with pre-Christian practices that was often recognized by their fellow villagers. About one such healer, an informant of De Martino surmised " ... these are people who were born before Jesus Christ. ... [they] know ancient science, and maybe remember something that [they] tell us now" (De Martino, 1966/87:70-71).

    Trancing healers might be consulted to discover whether an illness was caused by witchcraft, to find lost or stolen livestock, or for love magic; but ordinary people could also posses healing knowledge, often in the form of magic formulas and prayers. In any one village. formulas are secret and proprietary; they belong to individuals in the community. For example, in Monteruju, Tiu Basiliu possessed sa meikina ("the medicine," cure) for warts, while Tia Minnia could cure styes and chalazions, and Tiu Dominigu could cure the evil eye. These people belonged to different families (Tiu and Tia, meaning "uncle" and "aunt," may be used as honorifics before the name of an elder in Sardo), and thus the cures, rather than being concentrated in one individual, would be diffused throughout the population. Healing formulas are passed on from one family member to another at calendrically significant times of year such as Christmas Eve or St. John's Eve (June 23). The owner of the formula passes on the power along with the knowledge; once they have been transmitted, the original owner ceases to practice. Often it is only certain family members who can receive the knowledge; for example, a descendent of the opposite sex, or the youngest daughter. It is commonly believed that folk healers cannot die until they have passed on their knowledge. For the most part, folk healers of all types did not require cash payments, but accepted whatever clients or their families could give. The nature of folk cures is quite varied; I can include only a small sample here. Many remedies were mixtures of olive oil and various herbs. De Martino reports that in Lucania, wounds and sores were treated with a mixture of olive oil or animal fat and rue (De Martino. 1966/87:38-39), while Antonia, the Sardinian folk healer, treated boils with an infusion of mallow leaves and olive oil (Selis, 1978:143). For maximum efficacy, herbs were to be gathered on St. John's Eve before sunrise.

    Many cures demonstrate the syncretism between pre-Christian and Christian content, but perhaps none so clearly as the charms against epilepsy. Epilepsy, known as il mal caduco (the falling sickness) il male di San Donato (St. Donato's sickness) in the south, or il male di San Valentino (St. Valentine's sickness) in the north, was greatly feared and misunderstood in rural Italy, where it had long been considered of supernatural or divine provenance (Di Nola, 1993:114). Iron was considered a protective amulet against attacks, and epileptics often carried iron keys or nails to ward off the illness; but since epilepsy was believed to have a supernatural cause, only the saints could cure it. Bellucci (1983:113-117) presents a series of amulets to heal epilepsy associated with San Donato, many of which show clearly pagan roots. Among the most common are lunar crescents and frogs, originally symbols of cyclicity and fecundity sacred to the goddess Diana. These were thought to cure epilepsy because the illness was believed to be cyclical in nature, following the phases of the moon. Eventually, in much of the Italian south, these symbols came to be associated with San Donato. As this took place, the amulets began to change: pagan symbols were combined with figures of the saint, who is shown holding or standing on the crescent moon (Bellucci, 1983:116).

    < Part 9: Amulets and Protective Devices Part 11: Magic and Counter-Magic >

    Additional Resources
    Famous Italians Folk Dances Folk Songs
    Folklore/Legends Proverbs/Proverbi Traditions

    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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