Sicilian Superstition and Witchcraft

SUPERSTITION AND WITCHCRAFT

 

We can’t go any further without admitting something that certainly cannot give us great pleasure: even in Poggioreale superstition exists.

Cocchiara defines superstition as a religious artifact, and therefore, the religion of one civilization is subject to becoming the superstition of the subsequent civilization. In truth, superstitions are an expression of paganism; Pitre would say that paganism in Sicily is not dead, nor is it dying. Superstitions come from past beliefs passed down among Christians, who could not help but absorb them from the cultural environment, saturated as it was in the paganism that the island was immersed in for centuries and centuries. And though at times there have been discussions about superstitions, recognizing them as coming from the pagan religion, even Christians fear the contempt they would experience if they rejected superstitions, whose fascination is clearly recognized.

The Catholic church has not failed to do its part; if it has substituted certain Christian devotional practices for pagan ritual; and if it has not succeeded completely eliminating ingrained habits in the people; if the church has made sacred the places, crossroads, months, days that had been a part of the cult of gentilesimo, this should not be interpreted as acceptance on the part of Christianity of those pagan forms of religion which easily take root, and indeed remain firmly in the minds of Christians, due to the great ignorance from which the people came.

These are the thoughts of Pitre in his work “Feste-popolari” [Public Feast Days] LX who concludes by saying that the Church’s intent in wanting to eliminate superstitions cannot be denied as it continued to act through the Synods and in the Councils with categorical dispositions against the superstitions and combating the evil and stupid practices. The Church had to undertake a serious fight against superstitious practices. Most importantly against the astrologers and then against the no less dangerous alchemists, necromancers, teurgia (white magic), sorcerers, enchanters, etc.

Even though ecclesiastic and civil laws continued to severely punish these practices which constituted such serious moral corruption and sin, it was not possible to completely make them cease. Church and State opposed with the greatest energy the attempts made to exercise mngin with the help of the devil, as they faithfully made laws regarding witches and wizards, and “witches’ hammer” (malleus maleficantm) lives in the history of this battle, as well as the procedure to be adopted by the ecclesiastical and secular Judges.

Pope Sisto V issued the famous decree, that served as a law for the inquisitors, in which fortune-telling and necromancy are condemned, which are actually the making of pacts with the devil in order to find treasure, to cast spells by burning candles for the devil. The sanctions of law 2325 are serious.

I said a short while ago that ignorance is one of the principle causes, and perhaps the greatest cause, to which such pagan practices may be attributed; please refer to what Solomone Marino set forth in his work “Contadino” [“Peasant”]: the common people maintain their own peculiar religion, confusing destiny and providence, material and spiritual life, religion and superstition; to this Sorrento adds: omu nasci e nasci stuldra; implicitly, providence and luck are, for the superstitious, the same thing; the common man implores his own star against adverse fortune:

0, la me sorti! La mi mala stiddra!

Doesn’t this seem to you to be a passing above and beyond human liberty and therefore falling into the negation of liberty, that is to say of the ethical and juridical order a true and just superstition affirms that is condemned by the first article of the Ten Commandments as divination? And in the amusements held in the popular religious festivals do we glimpse the realization of the most pagan ideal “We want bread and circuses?”

A perspicacious observer finds that the Saint, who is the purpose for the feast, rather seems to serve the people as a pretext for enjoying themselves; in fact a large part of the festive enthusiasm, which should be entirely religious in character, seems to be reflected only as the musical performance, the cinema, the horse races, fireworks, merrymaking, etc.

And for the Saint? What is left? Oh, many do not hear the Mass that day, few care for the uplifting of the spirit in Holy Communion, in which the crowd generally does not participate during such festivals. This is materialism that follows the pagan formula to the letter: eat, drink, for tomorrow we die; this, in sum, is paganism.

Superstition is no less reprehensible and pernicious than black magic. The psychology of magic is that of communing with the devil by resorting to banal formulae from which surprising effects are attained: it is divination.

But this is the result of the nefarious propaganda of Simon Mago. When the dead are evoked as apparitions are made to appear, what occurs is simply the intervention of the devil, who intends to triumph with his falsehood. The dead who are evoked do not actually appear, it is the devil who presents himself in the forms of those evoked, who he imitates to perfection. It is not necessary to readily believe in apparitions and manifestations of the dead. God can permit them, but then it is for our comfort or for the benefit of the souls themselves, but this will never occur due to abominable seances.

In Poggioreale, to tell the truth, such diabolical commerce does not exist; rather now and then the so-called direct rnaaria slithers in to work physical cures or in order to attract or obligate a subject to matrimonial assent, or in order to induce him to break off an engagement or relationship.

Then, it is heard said:

ah! Cci ficiru cosa, nun e cchiii iddru… or even: si cci fa scurdari ssd strata, ssd casa.

The means is the fat turn [spell] employing red ribbons, pins, potions, incantations…a few hairs from the subject or some hand tool may also serve, and so many times ingredients are used that are dishonestly administered in a drink, or even in a crumb of bread, or in soup (this means is recognized as the most potent). Shame and faithlessness!

This type of activity is not undertaken by the true are genuine Poggiorealese by birth, but is introduced by outsiders. It is believed that whoever practices it is all diabolic malice; his money is cursed money; no reason can justify whoever allows it. It is always a very serious mortal sin reserved to the Bishop under pain of excommunication.

The offices of occult science and of magic are confused, are synonymous; so that the ignorant common person consults them and pays dearly. Note that the law punishes the practice of the charlatan, the miracle worker, the impostor… whoever abuses the gullibility of the people (Civil Code article 661 and Public Law article 122), Great Doctors, Illustrious Scientists have raised a strong voice against the great damage wrought by the practice of hypnotism.

The Superior Council of Health judged that hypnotism demonstrations must be banned. The same Court of Assize, not a few times, has severely and justly punished attempts to hypnotize their subjects. The hypnotized can become a frighteningly precise instrument of crime, and what is even worse, after having carried out the deed, it can all be completely forgotten. So many dangers for he who finds himself in the hands of a hypnotist! Occultism is not a science. It is a complex of abnormal procedures that breach the frontier of natural laws, but that are not recognized by any science that would call itself positive. Fear: the hypnotized finds himself in the absolute dependence of the hypnotist who can even take away from him the power to act and even that of speech. And if the hypnotized is a woman? Or even a man possessing important and serious secrets?

How many ridiculous superstitions there are.

The aversion to the number 13, and even to the number seventeen, which is pronounced 16 + 1, silliness!

Don’t sweep the house in August because it’s a sign of impoverishment, don’t cut grass on May 1 because if by chance you wound or kill some snake then there is the danger of seeing your arm go stiff.

When a boy is born, the water of the first bath is thrown on the street, if a girl is bom the water is poured out in the house, to do the contrary would bring bad luck.

Never light three with a single match, don’t marry in May because of the proverb that says: spusn majulina nun si godi la curtina.

It is bad luck if in the solitude of the night the song of the minla (bam owl) is heard next to one’s own house.

Superstition can also cause a devotional group to form people go to light a lamp before the statue of a Saint, but they prefer one statue to the other, thinking one statue will bring them more good fortune, one works on Sundays in order to rest on the Saint’s day which falls on a work day.

When oil falls on the ground, a fright is taken for the bad luck caused by it, if wine falls it is instead considered lucky.

Many laugh at us, but they should instead have pity.

Someone comes to put a piece of a wooden yolk under the pillow of the sick to shorten the duration of the agony for the dying!

And this other: isn’t la jettatum [one who casts the evil eye] found even among people who do not belong to the peasant class? There’s trouble if a poor man, believed to be one who casts the evil eye, happens to be found among any group of people!

That urge to toccaferro [“touch wood”] will possess everyone.

Of the opposite virtue so many attribute to horseshoes and to horns wrapped with red ribbon, one or the other shown in a visible place near the entrance.

If however, a painting on the wall should fall, then it is said that some one in that family will die, breaking a mirror is bad luck.

Amulets and talismans (from the Greek word telesma: consecrated object), are kept to ward off magic spells.

The word Strega [witch] comes from strix (nocturnal bad luck bird).

Guastella, in the memory of Salvatore Marino expresses it thus:

a very rich archive regarding the jettatura could be assembled from the memories, anecdotes, remedies, and amulets drat would put to shame all the Archives and Museums of Sicily.

There are so, so many other forms that are practiced. Yet, it is appropriately absurd to believe nowadays in Wizards and Witches. They have never existed, except in the fantasies of the ignorant, who tell you that they don’t really believe in them, using the expression: Lo cosi cci sii, ina ‘mu semit obbriati a cridicci. Artists have served them well: Shakespeare depicts Macbeth chanted by the witches of the forest, Goethe has infernal spirits in his Faust, Carlo Weber in his music impresses us with suggestive melodies evoking tales of witches and demons.

I repeat, witches and wizards now live in the fables and in some ingenious popular beliefs that make us smile with a note of merriment at the folklore and in the modern form of superstition.

[This webpage is excerpted from the book: “The History of Poggioreale, Sicily – From 1640 to 1956.” Originally written in Italian by: Canonico Dottore Francesco Aloisio in 1956. Adapted and translated by: Dr. Jeremiah P. Spence, Ph.D. of Austin, Texas. 5th Edition. International Order of Genealogists Publishing. Ireland. 2019. ISBN: 9781072403371. The book can be purchased online at: https://www.amazon.com/History-Poggioreale-Sicily-1640-1956/dp/1072403374/ ]