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  • Spells, Saints, and Streghe: Witchcraft, Folk Magic, and Healing in Italy
    Part 4 of 13: The Survivalist Bias

    by Sabina Magliocco

    Like Leland before them, Martello, Grimassi and other Italian revivalists have a tendency to see Italian folk practices as vestiges of ancient religions-either the Etruscan religion (in the case of Leland and Grimassi) or the Greek-influenced religion of the ancient Sikels, whom Martello eventually conflates with the Etruscans (Martello, 1975:144-155). Leland's survivalism is understandable in a historical context. Late 19th century folklore scholarship was heavily influenced by evolutionist anthropological theories which saw all folklore as "survivals" of primitive practices and beliefs which were destined to disappear under the influence of modernization. But during the second half of the 20th century, anthropologists and folklorists rejected the racist, ethnocentric theories of unilinear cultural evolution which had spawned the notion of survivals, and began to document how traditional practices and beliefs changed in response to social transformation. The result was a new awareness of just how sensitive folklore is to any type of social change, and of how all beliefs and practices are products of unique interactions between individual performers and their audiences. More thorough historical research also began to unearth how many customs which appeared to exist from time immemorial were in fact of rather recent invention (Hobsbawm and Ranger, 1983).

    The trouble with seeing Italian folk practices as "survivals" of Neolithic or ancient Etruscan practices (besides the fact that relatively little is known about religion in these ancient periods) is that it ignores the many cultural changes which have swept Italy since the early Bronze Age, as well as folklore's extraordinary ability to adapt to cultural change. This is not to deny the historicity of many folk traditions. It is unquestionable that many contemporary customs have their roots in pre-Christian practices of great antiquity.

    For example, the people of "Monteruju," the community in Sardinia where I did fieldwork, plant wheat or lentil seeds on Ash Wednesday and grow them in the dark until the Thursday before Easter, when the etiolated sprouts, known as sos sepulchos ("the buried ones"), are placed in brightly-decorated yogurt containers and carried to church. Folklorists recognize in this custom a version of a number of similar ancient circum-Mediterranean practices, from the "Gardens of Adonis" described by classical authors to the small sarcophagi filled with sprouts which have been found in Egyptian pyramids. The adaptation of this practice to Easter is particularly appropriate, as Christ can be seen as just another dying and resurrecting god, much like Adonis or Osiris. But the difficulty with interpreting this practice only as a survival is that it does violence to the way practitioners perceive themselves. It is important to remember that practitioners think of themselves as Catholic. Monteruvians were furious when the local priest frowned on their Easter custom as a pagan vestige; as far as they were concerned, they were observing Easter with a very concrete symbol of Christ's death and resurrection. The folk practice is similar, but its meaning has changed through the centuries to reflect Christian mythology and values.

    The survivalist bias allows revivalists to interpret many ordinary items of folklore as signs of Witchcraft, in the sense of "evidence of pre-Christian practice," and anyone who practices them as a Witch. Thus for example Leland sees the children's rhyme to attract fireflies in "The Conjuration of Meal" as "derived from witch-lore, in which the lucciola [firefly] is put under a glass and conjured to give by its light certain answers" (Leland, 1890/1990:107); Martello explains that the mano fica gesture was used by magicians to turn back spells (Martello, 1972:71); and Grimassi interprets the wearing of amulets such as the cimaruta as emblems of belonging to the vecchia religione. But according to this paradigm, most Italians would be considered Witches, a categorization they would vehemently deny. Practices can easily change to adapt to new belief systems, as the Monteruvian example illustrates. This is not necessarily a sign that practitioners are "hiding" their true pagan beliefs. The presence of folk practices of historical depth does not equal acceptance of the belief systems in which they first existed. Of course, the survivalist interpretation is handy for contemporary Italian-American Pagans, who can find in just about any folk practice maintained in their family evidence of an ancient mystical religion, and who can then claim to be hereditary Witches.

    < Part 3: Problems With the Concept of an Organized "Italian" Witchcraft Part 5: The Influence of the Catholic Church >

    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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