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  • Spells, Saints, and Streghe: Witchcraft, Folk Magic, and Healing in Italy
    Part 12 of 13: The Fate of Traditional Folk Beliefs

    by Sabina Magliocco

    Today, the social changes of the late 20th century have profoundly transformed the self-sufficient, rural villages of Italy and have begun to integrate them into a global economy. In much of Italy, post-war urbanization and immigration stripped the villages of half their population. Legal reforms abolished the old, exploitative land-holding systems that strangled contadini; contemporary agriculturalists practice their trade only part-time, working in factories or in the expanding service economy as well. Women now fill positions in the labor market and in politics that the emigrating men left empty, and mass tourism, cable TV, and now the Internet have introduced new models of identity and consumption. The old sense of the precariousness of human life has lightened somewhat as a result of better conditions and new opportunities, bringing a decline in evil eye belief and witchcraft accusations. While some customs remain-many young mothers still put their babies' undershirts on inside-out-the explanations have changed: instead of saying this is to keep away the evil eye, my informants now tell me the purpose of this custom is to protect babies' delicate skin from the chafing of the seams. But magic and occultism are not dead in Italy; they are finding new expressions in a plethora of New Age religions and practices, mostly concentrated in urban areas that build upon Italy's magical heritage (Gatto-Trocchi, 1990).

    While many folk beliefs and practices were brought to the New World by Italian immigrants (Malpezzi and Clements, 1992:113-147), few endured among the second and third American-born generations. In part, this was due to language loss; formulas, prayers and narrative cures no longer made sense once the dialect ceased to be spoken. The end of the traditional rural way of life also meant that customs associated with agriculture and pastoralism, the collection and preparation of herbs, and the protection of crops and livestock were forgotten. Italian immigrants' increasing acceptance of a more Irish-American Catholic piety and doctrine, as well as the influence of American education and consumerism, with its ideology of unlimited good, also led to a decline in traditional folk beliefs and practices (Malpezzi and Clements, 1992:131). Belief in the evil eye surfaces occasionally among the American born, but only in times of crisis (ibid., 128).

    This state of affairs, along with the lack of ethnographic evidence to corroborate the reports of Martello, Bruno and Grimassi, makes the existence of an Italian witch cult among Italian-Americans extremely unlikely. Even if practitioners were sworn to secrecy, the likelihood of secret societies remaining hidden for long is low; other secret societies such as the Mafia have not been very successful in keeping out of the limelight. What we have instead is the re-discovery, on the part of second, third- and fourth-generation ethnics, of aspects of traditional folk belief and practice, and their transformation by creative interpreters such as Grimassi into coherent magical systems that serve the needs of contemporary people for spiritual connection and a sense of ethnic pride and distinctiveness.

    We have seen how the folk beliefs and magical practices of Italy differ substantially from contemporary Italian-American Witchcraft. Despite some common themes across regions and culture areas, they never constituted a unified religion. Cultural and linguistic differences and obstacles to communication prevented the development of an organized Italian folk religion until very recent times. While the pre-Christian roots of Italian folk magical practice are still quite evident, over the course of nearly 2000 years, it has become highly syncretized with Catholicism, so that it becomes difficult to tease out the pagan elements from their Christian interpretations and uses. Moreover, interpreting modern practices as pagan survivals violates the ways their practitioners interpret themselves, and does not acknowledge important aspects of their own identity and beliefs. We must not confuse Italian and Italian-American anti-clericalism with paganism; these are part of a pattern of opposition and resistance to authority rooted in centuries of hegemonic domination and exploitation. This system of domination created the harsh economic and social conditions under which Italian peasants struggled for centuries; magical practices were an inseparable part of this integrated cosmos. While folk magic could become a form of resistance, especially for women, who had few other means to acquire authority outside the domestic sphere, the relationship of folk magic to the structures of domination was never a simple one; resistance, as Foucault suggests, is inextricably intertwined with the power system that produces it (Foucault, 1984:295). Because it was considered a necessary survival technique, folk magical practice was diffused throughout the population, rather than limited to an elite body of secret practitioners. Specialized folk healers existed, to be sure, often using trance-healing techniques and inheriting their powers from a family member, Yet these individuals themselves sometimes worked aggressive or manipulative magic, and were subject to the mistrust of their fellow villagers and to accusations of witchcraft.

    Even when folk magical practices described by contemporary Italian-American Neopagan writers come from ethnographic sources or family tradition, they are de-contextualized from the traditional way of life in which they once existed. In a contemporary Neopagan context, these items acquire a different meaning-one related to the maintenance of ethnic identity in the face of increasing cultural homogenization. Why and how this is happening in the Pagan community are topics that I continue to investigate.

    < Part 11: Magic and Counter-Magic Part 13: References Cited >

    Additional Resources
    Famous Italians Folk Dances Folk Songs
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    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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