The Evil Eye (malocchio)
& Bad Luck
...charms against the Evil Eye...were all derived from the survival of ancient classical legends... These may be divided into three classes: first, the sprig of rue in silver, with sundry emblems attached to it, all of which refer to the worship of Diana, whose shrine at Capua was of considerable importance; secondly, the serpent charms, which formed part of the worship of Aesculapius, and were no doubt derived largely from the ancient eastern ophiolatry; and lastly charms derived from the legends of the Sirens...The sea-horse and the Siren alone are commonly found as charms...
I had never heard any of that. There are a few terms used for "evil eye," "bad luck," etc. in Italian, in general, and in southern Italy, in particular. Simple "bad luck" is sfortuna, which is about the same as "misfortune" in English; there is no implication of it having been caused. The "evil eye," however —malocchio, in Italian— is much different. That is misfortune "cast" on you by a malevolent person with that particular ability. Indeed, one of the common Neapolitan terms for that kind of bad luck is jettatura, which comes from the Italian verb "gettare," meaning "throw" or "cast". Another common word in both Italian and Neapolitan for "witchcraft" is fattura, from the root "make," or "do". (Fattura, fittingly, is also the name for the receipted invoice you have to give someone if you sell them something, so you can't get out of paying a tax on your profit. Witchcraft, bad luck, taxes. I rest my case.)
In any event, the most
common way to ward off the Evil Eye, or bad luck caused by
a spell, is by making the "sign of the horns" —le corna— that is,
extending the index and little fingers of the hand and
waggling your hand towards the ground. You can also buy a
lucky charm in the shape of a single curved horn. There
are two explanations for the use of the horns as a good
luck charm: one says that it comes from the defensive
posture of animals: head lowered, horns ready to use; the
more likely, is that
it has to do with the sexual vigor implied in the symbol
of the male animal. Phallic symbols are also commonly seen
throughout the Greek and Roman world as good luck charms.
That explanation seems more likely to me, since another
common way for men in Naples to ward off bad luck is to
touch their genitals. (Touching someone else's
genitals, on the other hand, generally causes more bad
luck.) Depending on the threshold
of superstition on a given day in Naples, then, you can
get some interesting body language going on in public and
broad daylight on any street in the city. (Also see this entry on 'hand gestures').
A Word about the Cimaruta
In 1897 E. Neville-Rolfe published Naples in the Nineties, a delightful account of the city of the period. At a certain point in talking about local traditions, he writes:
We are now in a position to consider the Cimaruta, a charm still made for and worn by the infants of the labouring classes. Years ago the use of these charms prevailed in the higher classes of society, and they were then more elaborately constructed, being made with more emblems, thicker metal, and superior workmanship. The charm itself is known by the name of cimaruta, a Neapolitan word signifying a “sprig of rue.
Indeed, the rue plant is mentioned elsewhere on this page, but the actual term cimaruta is by now archaic in Italy, at least in urban areas and, perhaps, even in the countryside. I have just asked seven persons, including an 85-year-old woman raised on a farm near Naples. No hits, although five of them knew that the rue plant, alone, was considered lucky. That doesn't surprise me too much. Emigration confuses (but, in an interesting way, also preserves) etymologies; what dies out at home (Italy) may survive abroad. This may account for the fact that there are various mentions in English of a kind of “neo-cimaruta-ism” in immigrant communities abroad in reference to “neopaganism”, “witches”, etc., but not much in modern Italian, although I have found a few cimarute for sale in Naples as examples of "genuine [HAH!] 19th-century good luck amulets."
I am disappointed because I had come up with a killer pun: What is the name of the luckiest Neapolitan composer in history? Domenico Cimaruta! (a pun on Domenico Cimarosa and cimaruta). I expected my audience (both of them) to slap their thighs right off the tops of their legs. Nothing. Silence. They both said, “What are you talking about?” In any event, Neville-Rolfe goes on to tell us that the cimaruta, when properly complete, is made up of:
I had not been familiar with rue or any other plant as a charm against the Evil Eye. I asked a friend about this and she immediately cited a verse to me:
fatture ca nun quaglie...," a dialect verse meaning
"Garlic and animal innards keep away bad luck." Then, all
the vampire books and movies with which I afflicted my
childhood came back to me and I remembered about garlic.
There is a whole class of plants that are used medicinally
and, in folklore, to cast spells and ward them off. Rue (ruta
graveolens) is one of them. In some sources, it is
the famous "moly plant" used by Ulysses in The Odyssey
(book 10, lines 304-6) to protect himself and his men from
the spell of the Circe. The comic-book super-hero
expression, "Holy Moly!" obviously comes from that. Yet, I
have not seen sprigs of rue for sale on the streets of
Naples in the way that you find little horn amulets.
Serpent charms and ophiolatry (serpent worship) are equally hard to find in Naples. It occurs to me that some of the amulets I see in street stalls, charms that I have always taken to be single horns, are, in fact, curved and, if not coiled, at least "wiggly". Maybe it was originally meant to be a snake. The only Naples myth I know about snakes has to do with how Virgil is said to have used his magical powers to drive away a great serpent that lived beneath the hill of the city. (Click here for a relevant entry.) I am also aware of the split in our mythology between the benevolent and malevolent attributes of snakes. Contrasting the evil seducer/serpent in the book of Genesis, we have in other contexts the benevolent presence of twin serpents on the caduceus, the symbol of the medical profession, and, further to the east, in Indian mythology, the cobra that protects Buddha by spreading its hood over him.
I have seen the
sea-horse and siren symbols a lot in Naples, but I didn't
know that they were good luck charms, nor did any of the
people I spoke to. As they say in the ivory towers of
academe: more research
grants are needed.
[also see: Of Luck, Wine & Doo-Doo]