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  • Spells, Saints, and Streghe: Witchcraft, Folk Magic, and Healing in Italy
    Part 9 of 13: Amulets and Protective Devices

    by Sabina Magliocco

    It is profoundly ironic that Italian-American Witchcraft revivalists, beginning with Martello, interpret amulets against the evil eye as emblems of belonging to the witch cult, when in practice they are intended to repel witches. Amulets are very common in Italian folklore, and knowledge of their use is neither secret nor limited to a group of practitioners of the old religion.

    Since the evil eye is fundamentally about the lack of fecundity, it should not be surprising that some of the oldest amulets against it are symbols of fertility and regeneration. The most obvious of these is the phallus. The phallus was a common motif in Roman art and sculpture, where its purpose was to bring good luck. This custom has persisted in charms and amulets found throughout Italy well into the 20th century. It is most often carved in coral, but can also be made of other materials, and is hung on a charm worn around the neck. Phallic symbols such as fish, roosters, daggers, snakes and keys are also commonly found on protective amulets. Many of these are also euphemisms for the penis in folk speech (e.g. il pesce, "the fish"; l'uccello, "the bird"; and chiavare, "to 'key', to screw").

    The horn or corno is a closely related symbol. It represents the sexual potency of the mature male herd animal, usually the goat or ram. Horn amulets in bronze and bone, identical in shape to contemporary ones, have been found in numerous Etruscan and Roman-era tombs, attesting to its continuous presence since very ancient times (Bellucci, 1983:50). Mediterranean coral, because of its blood-red color, has long been associated with potency and good fortune; horn-shaped amulets were often made of this material, a tradition which continues today. The cheap red plastic horns from souvenir stands that hang ubiquitously from the rear-view mirrors of Italian cars are the modern-day versions of the older coral horns, although they have now become general good luck charms or, in North America, symbols of ethnic pride [Malpezzi and Clements, 1992: 121).

    The mano fica, a fist with the thumb caught between the bent first and second fingers, is another common symbol found in amulets against the evil eye. The gesture represents the phallus inside the female genitalia (fica), a graphic opposition to the power of the evil eye. Martello alone among the revivalists mentions this gesture. Like the phallus, it can be made of coral, silver, tin, plastic and other materials, and is worn as a charm around the neck, on a bracelet or keychain, or, today, hung on the rear view mirror of a car. The mano cornuta or horned hand-a fist with the first and little fingers extended-has long been used as a gesture to avert the evil eye, usually with the fingers pointing upwards and the hand waving side to side. This symbol needs to be deployed with care as it has other meanings, however. Jabbed towards another with the fingers pointing at them, this gesture is a powerful insult meaning "cuckold." I have personally seen a driver leap out of his truck and physically assault another driver who had made le corna (the horns) at him, such was the challenge he felt to his masculinity.

    The naturally branching shape of coral lent itself to the creation of multi-pronged amulets. Rare today, these were more common in the 18th and 19th centuries. Since according to the logic of magic, more is always better, each branch of the small coral charms was carved with a different protective symbol. Perhaps it is from these multi-pronged coral charms, as well as from an attempt to craft a likeness of the rue flower, that the multi-branched cimaruta evolved. Cimaruta means "top of the rue (plant]"; these amulets, usually made of silver or tin, had a different symbol on the tip of each branch. These might include phalli, horns, solar disks and crescent moons (symbols of fertility and increase), fish (a symbol of Christ, but also a euphemistic term for the phallus), a key (to protect against epilepsy, but also a phallic symbol), the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and numerous others. Such charms were generally worn under clothing. and were meant to protect from witchcraft, not to identify magical practitioners as Grimassi claims.

    Ruta graveolens or rue, a medicinal herb native to the Mediterranean with emmenagogue and abortifacent properties (Stuart, 1979:256-57), was used by folk healers to treat colic, stomach ailments and skin eruptions. It was so beneficial that it was believed to protect against witchcraft and the evil eye as well. Rue was often combined with lavender in brevi, small packets or bags made of fabric and worn around the neck next to the skin. Mothers often made these for their children. In addition to the beneficial herbs, they might contain garlic, salt, apotropaic stones, prayers, saint's images, ashes from sacred fires (for example, the burned remains of palm fronds and olive branches from Palm Sunday), flowers grown near churches, and of course amulets such as those described above (Di Nola, 1993:14-15). They may be related to the bullae Roman mothers hung around their children's necks (Di Nola, 1993:15), which often contained phallic objects. Grimassi's "Nanta Bag" seems to be a rendition of this tradition in a Neopagan context (Grimassi, 1995:102-103).

    In Aradia, Leland includes a conjuration for a holy stone (1890/1990:21) which Grimassi reproduces almost verbatim in Hereditary Witchcraft (1999:55-56). In fact. a number of naturally-occurring stones and found objects were thought to have apotropaic qualities, and were carried in the pocket as protection or incorporated into other amulets. For example, arrow or spear points from Paleolithic sites, known as pietre della saetta, were believed to be the physical manifestations of lightning. and to be both the cause of and a form of protection against strokes (Bellucci, 1983:80-85). In some areas of southern Italy, women would find round or kidney-shaped stones of iron-rich clay that rattled from the loose minerals trapped inside. Through sympathetic magic, these became known as pietre della gravidanza, or pregnancy stones, and were believed to protect pregnant women and allow them to successfully carry to term (Bellucci, 1983:92). Pietre del sangue, or bloodstones, were red-spotted jasper thought to stop bleeding if applied to a wound (Bellucci, 1983:87), while pietre stregonie (witch stones] or pietre stellari (star stones), polyporic pebbles whose tiny spots were popularly interpreted as "stars," were thought to protect against witchcraft. These stones were sometimes carved into cross-shaped amulets and combined with figures of Christian saints, the Virgin Mary or Jesus to enhance their powers (Bellucci, 1983:100). Holly (Ilex aquifolium) was known as legno stregonio (witch wood), and was carved into crosses for protection against witchcraft. Once again, rather than being evidence of being a witch, carrying such objects was evidence of belief in the evil powers of folkloric witches.

    < Part 8: Il Malocchio or the Evil Eye, and its Relations Part 10: Witchcraft as Folk Healing >

    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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