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  • Spells, Saints, and Streghe: Witchcraft, Folk Magic, and Healing in Italy
    Part 8 of 13: Il Malocchio or the Evil Eye, and its Relations

    by Sabina Magliocco

    Streghe were especially feared for their powers to give the evil eye, or il malocchio. According to the distinguished ethnographer Ernesto De Martino, much of Italian folk magic and healing centers around the evil eye belief complex, a set of interrelated beliefs and practices focused around the idea that an individual can psychically harm another person through the gaze (De Martino, 1966/87:15). The evil eye belief complex encompassed a range of phenomena, from the often inadvertent malocchio (evil eye) to more intentional magical attacks, known as attaccatura ("attachment"), fascino or legatura ("binding"), and fattura ('fixing") (De Martino, 1966/87:15).

    These latter terms graphically suggest the domination of the victim's body and mind by the attacker. One did not need to be a witch to give the evil eye, as it could happen accidentally; but trafficking in the more complex forms of ritual magic necessary to bind or fix another involved greater magical knowledge and intent, and attributed to witches and folk healers.

    The evil eye belief complex is one of the most widespread in the world, spanning the area from the western Mediterranean to North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia. According to most scholarship (De Martino, 1966/1987; Dundes, 1980), the evil eye is the envious eye. The harsh economic conditions under which most peasants struggled gave rise to a worldview of "limited good" (Foster, 1965) in which the good in the world (fertility, prosperity, etc.) was thought to exist only in limited quantity. Therefore, whatever good one had was at the expense of one's neighbor, and vice versa. In the dry Mediterranean climate, good was often associated with moisture: wetness meant fertility, while dryness signified barrenness. In Roman slang, the expression non mi seccare (le palle], literally "don't dry up my testicles" or "don't annoy me," is a current reflection of this underlying system of binary oppositions. Similarly, the Roman slang expression rimanerci seccola, "to dry up of it," is a euphemism for dying. This symbolic system extended to the human body: youth was relatively "wet," while old age was "dry," and bodily fluids such as semen, milk and blood were symbols of the capacity to reproduce and nurture. Those in a condition of "wetness," or fecundity, were particularly vulnerable to the envious looks of strangers because they had what others did not. Newborn babies, young livestock, new brides, pregnant women and nursing mothers were thought to be especially susceptible. Conversely, those who had cause to feel envy were thought to be able to give the evil eye. In Naples, priests-men who had renounced sexuality and fatherhood-and hunchbacked women, who suffered from a disability that perhaps had made them less than desirable marriage partners, were avoided because they were believed to be intrinsic casters of the evil eye, or jettatori in Neapolitan.

    The evil eye need not be intentionally given; in many regions, people believe that it can be given accidentally just by admiring something. When I was in the field, I was cautioned never to express admiration for any living thing-a child, a lamb, even a houseplant!-without taking pains to remove any evil eye I might have inadvertently placed upon it by touching it and saying che Dio lo/la benedica, "may God bless him/her/it." The evil eye can also be avoided by ritually spitting (no saliva is ejected, but a "p" sound is made three times with the lips) after admiring something, symbolically demonstrating one's possession of surplus bodily fluids to avert the drying powers of envy.

    There are literally thousands of spells to turn back the evil eye in Italian folklore; in fact, many of Leland's scongiurazioni to Diana are in fact spells against the malocchio. Grimassi gives two in Ways of the Strega (1995:200-201) and another in Hereditary Witchcraft (1999:56-57). Many cures for the evil eye, appropriately enough, involve water: typically, some matter (wheat seeds, salt, oil, or molten lead) is dropped into a bowl of water and the resulting shapes are interpreted to see whether an "eye" forms. This diagnosis is often the cure as well, although some cures also involve prayers. Often, mothers and grandmothers knew how to resolve simple cases of the evil eye at home, since children were always falling prey to this folk ailment. More complicated cases require the intervention of a folk healer or specialist. It was far preferable to prevent the evil eye in the first place by using amulets, and folk magical practice throughout Italy, from ancient times forward, is rife with these devices.

    < Part 7: The Folkloric Witch Part 9: Amulets and Protective Devices >

    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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