Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

ErN 110, entry 2003, rev. Nov 2010

he Smorfia & the Interpretation of Dreams

 I dream of Jeannie with the light brown hair. —Stephen Foster
 Behold, I have dreamed a dream more; and behold, the sun and  the moon and the eleven stars made obeisance to   me. —Joseph

La smorfia is a book that details the Neapolitan tradition of interpreting dreams by associating them with numbers and then betting those numbers in the state lottery, Lotto. Whether your dreams run to the songs of Stephen Foster, or the Book of Genesis, la smorfia may be the way to finally pan some true nuggets from your nightly rivers of surrealism. Traditional dream themes in la smorfia cover everything from water to death to dawn to money, sex, trips, birds, blood, accidents, family, food and any change, twist or perversion of the human condition you could possibly—well, dream up. Most Neapolitans on the street know at least a few numbers of la smorfia. If you dream of God or Italy, then play number 1; an insane person is 22; if you are frightened by a dream, bet 90.*

*[These numbers work themselves into daily language in interesting ways. Artist and friend Selene Salvi wrote recently "La paura di non riuscire a portare a termine un lavoro fa "90". You see from the first paragraph that if you are frightened by a dream it is a sign that you should include the number 90 as one of your choices in this week's national lottery drawing. So 90 equals  bad dream and her sentence means, "The fear of not being able to finish a painting on time gives me nightmares."

It is technically permitted to play a single number, but the payoff from the tightwad state is so paltry that most people look for secondary interpretations in their dreams and play from 2 to 5 numbers. Instead of playing simply 90 for "fear", imagine that you dream of being frightened by an insane person. Then you play both 22 and 90. If—follow closely—you are badly frightened by an insane person carrying a bowl of soup (68), then the Cosmic Numbers Runner is trying to tell you to bet the farm on all three of those numbers. Each week in ten Italian cities, the lotto drawing selects at random five numbers from one to ninety. Betting two numbers is called ambo and pays off at 250 times your original bet. Betting three numbers is called terno; four, quaterna, or five, cinquina. These pay off, respectively, 4,250 times, 80,000 times, and one million times whatever you bet. So, if you decided to plunk down one euro (about US$1.40), a normal wager, on your hot terno of 22, 68 and 90, and those three are among the five drawn, you win €4,250. There are various possibilities for splitting your bet and even for playing the lotto numbers in other cities. There is a limit to the amount you are allowed to bet on a cinquina, but most people with a "sure thing" simply play different tickets. The tickets are anonymous and no one will know that the measly €5 you had riding on the cinquina revealed unto you in that dream …you remember… when she did that thing with the… and you were… right, that dream—no one will know about that million to one payoff until you back your truck up to the bank.

If you have ever really dreamed of Jeannie with the light brown hair, you have a few options open to you, depending on just what she is doing: dancing, 37; crying, 21; riding a bicycle, 79. If your dream is so true to song that she is, indeed, "tripping where the bright streams play," then you may have to do some fancy interpretation, but that's half the fun. Dreaming of a woman's hair, however, is a 55, so, again, you have at least an ambo. Joseph's dream would certainly be regarded as portentous. It requires knowing the numbers associated by popular tradition with stars, the sun, bowing down, etc. There is a good terno in there.

One expects to find all the eternal themes of love, death, family, etc. represented in folklore, but it's amazing how quickly popular tradition updates itself. When the great soccer star, Diego Maradona, was playing for Naples, and he happened to dribble through one of your dreams, he was a 43, because 1 (God) plus 42 (football player) equals "a God of a player," ("nu dio 'e giocatore"), as they say in Naples.

The word smorfia, itself, probably derives from Morpheus, the Greek god of dreams. If that is so, then the presence of the smorfia tradition in Naples can be plausibly linked to the ancient Greek origins of the city of Naples. In other words, it is very old and possibly even an extension of the ancient Greek tradition of oneirocriticism—interpreting dreams. Although the smorfia is generally associated with Naples, other towns in southern Italy have their own local versions, which are different from the Neapolitan one. Indeed, there really is no single Neapolitan version although most of the important themes generally carry the same number from version to version. You can't pin down the “first” smorfia since the dream-number associations were handed down orally. The first printed versions in the Middle Ages simply recorded established folk tradition. There is also a plausible link to the number-word mysticism of the Jewish Kabbalah, according to which every Hebrew letter, word, number, even the accent on words of the Hebrew Bible contains a hidden sense; the Kabbalah teaches the methods of interpretation to determine these meanings.

I had an ominous dream some time ago. I dreamed that Vesuvius erupted! Now, I've had the normal run-of-the-mill dreams of interest to headshrinkers, I suppose, but I've never had any prophetic dreams. I've read about them, of course, and put them in that part of my brain-closet where I keep crop circles, aliens, and Atlantis. Yet, it was vivid. I had missed a bus for some reason and was running towards home. I looked up and the volcano was off in the distance, the profile very clear, more or less as I would see it from where I live, both cones, Somma and Vesuvius, with the saddle-like depression between them. Then, Vesuvius, the one on the right, started smoking. Someone said, "Vesuvius is erupting!" and then the main eruption started —not a slow, effusive eruption, but a cataclysmic explosion just like the films I have seen of Mount St. Helens and Pinatubo, where the entire top of the mountain explodes and then disappears behind the smoke. Upon awakening I toddled off to my morning coffee-bar for some advice from the local stable of oneirocritics as to what numbers I could read into all that. Everyone got nervous and started touching certain parts of their bodies, which is said to ward off bad luck, the evil eye, and exploding mountains! I think I may have trod on some unspoken rule that forbids talking about certain things.
So, you'll have a hard time convincing thousands of years of tribal shamans and decades of our own domestic headshrinkers that dreams are meaningless. To centuries of Neapolitans, as well, they are anything but. So if you're curious about that dream of the clarinet falling on and killing your canary —sure, it might be nothing: maybe you just turned over too quickly last night and knocked some of the pictures off the walls in your head. On the other hand, it might mean 50 (clarinet) and 90 (dead canary), in which case you're in business. Sweet dreams.
(The photo of the 1944 eruption of Vesuvius is by courtesy of Herman Chanowitz,
the photographer. Photo restoration by Tana A. Churan-Davis.)

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