Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

 ErN 45,  entry Apr 2003,  rev. Sept 2010 ; central box added April 2015

The Evil Eye (malocchio) & Good & Bad Luck

I came across this interesting item in the on-line version of the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica. In the section on Naples, there is a paragraph about folk-lore and, specifically, how Neapolitans ward off the "evil eye":
...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 Italianis 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 cornathat 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 other explanation, 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').

Added April 2015        
 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:

1. The sprig of rue   2. The serpent  3. The half-moon  4. The key   5. The heart    6. The hand and horn  7. The bird.        8. The shamrock.      9. The metal (silver).        The mage is from Naples in the Nineties

All of these items have a magical significance in antiquity, and all of them are emblems of the goddess, Diana, Roman goddess of the hunt and the moon. None of them seem to have any Christian significance except a syncretistic one (i.e., in which different traditions, cultures, religions blend with one another); that is, one finds, for example, references to the heart as the “bleeding heart of Jesus”, but other than that, these charms seem to go back to early pre-Christian folk magic in Italy.


1. rue: (mentioned below this box);
2. serpent: an emblem of Hecate, the goddess or spirit of ancient witchcraft, and in various religions in the world an object of reverence or, at least awe or fear;
3. half-moon; the worship of heavenly bodies is common to many religions (as in various sun gods and, for example, Diana, always shown with the crescent moon on her head);
4. key: an emblem common to Isis and Diana, representing such things as the keys to the heavens;
5. heart: originally the emblem of the spotless Diana Virgo (syncretism hints at the Virgin Mary);
6. hand and horn: (mentioned below this box) the horn as an amulet is still common in Naples);
7. bird: possibly alludes to the goddess of heaven.
8. shamrock: the three leaves as the emblem of the threefold goddess, the Queen of Heaven, the Queen of Earth, and the Queen of Hell (more syncretism---> the Christian concept of the Trinty);
9. silver: the metal of the moon goddess; in antiquity the metal from which small shrines were made.

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:

"Aglio, fravaglie, 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]

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