Selected quotes from Rev. Blunt

“These purgatories, which meet the eye more or less upon the walls in every part of Italy, abound to a singular degree in the kingdom of Naples, where the neighboring volcanos appear to have furnished the imagination of the artist with more than common horrors.” (pp. 45-46)

“A profusion of tapers was thought particularly acceptable to [Ceres]. ‘Then light the unctuous torch; should incense fail, with Ceres chaste not costly gifts prevail.’ (Fast. iv. 411) But it was further usual to dedicate to her candles or torches of that enormous size which I have said are now offered to St. Agatha; emblematical, no doubt, of the pines which she is reputed to have plucked up and lighted at Aetna whens he traversed Sicily in search of her daughter Proserpine.” (pp. 63-64)

“…the dress of the persons officiating the procession of the saint… was made expressly for the occasion, and was invariably white. In all heathen rites that colour was thought to have a favourable influence upon the gods, and the prayer of a suppliant so lcothed was held to have a more common claim upon the bounty of Heaven. In the worship of Ceres, however, no other colour was even permitted…” (p. 71)

“Again, the custom of kissing objects of religious reverence, so universally prevailing in Italy and Sicily, seems to have been a mark of affection formerly bestowed on the images of the heathen gods with equal profusion.” (pp. 75-76)

“Finally, it may be remarked, that as the greater and less Eleusinia were celebrated in the same year, at an interval of six months, so are there now two annual festivals to S. Agatha, the one in February, the other in August. …The festival of S. Rosolia [sic], the patron saint of Palermo, exhibits a similar spectacle; and I doubt not that both the one and the other derive their origin from a common source–the honours paid to pagan deities, but especially to Ceres, whose worship radiating from Enna, the centre of Sicily, and the throne of her glory, extended to the most remote and inaccessible shores of the island.” (pp. 82-83)

“Thus the temple of Vesta is now the church of the Madonna of the Sun; fire being the prevailing idea in both appellations. That of Romulus and Remus is now Cosmo and Damien, not only brothers, but twin brothers. The site of the old Templum Salutis is supposed to be occupied by the church of S. Vitale, if not an imaginary saint, at least one whose name was selected as doing little violence to that of Salus. In the church of S. Maria Maggiore, the cradle or manger in which our Savior was laid is amongst the relics; a peculiarity very probably derived from that building having succeeded the temple of Juno Lucina.” (pp. 91-92)

“I will add, that the necklaces, rings, and pendants for the ears, with which the [pagan gods] were bedecked, are now lavished on the [saints] with equal profusion. Indeed, the excess of rings seems, if possible, to be greater than in the days of Pliny…” (p. 105)

“…the practice of drawing curtains before these figures, to create in the people a mysterious awe, had its commencement in Pagan times. Thus we read in the 2d Book of Kings (ch. Xxiii. 7.) “of the women who wove hangings for the groves,” which is explained by some of the commentators, with apparen reason, to mean ‘curtains spread before the idol of the grove for the purpose of procuring it respect’… (pp. 105-106)

“There is every reason to suppose that the Egyptian temples did not greatly differ in the style of their furniture from those of Italy; the latter country having derived a great part of her mythology, and many of her religious rites, from the people of the Nile.” (pp. 107-108)

“The sounding brass, in some shape or other, was struck in the sacred rites of Dea Syria; and in those of Hecate. ‘It was thought,’ says the scholiast on Theocritus, ‘to be good for all kinds of expiation and purification.’ It had, moreover, some secret influence over the spirits of the departed. …[bells] were instruments well known to the ancients, and employed by them… for many superstitious purposes.” (pp. 115-116)

“Again, the familiarity with which the Romans treated the effigies of their gods is not less remarkable with respect to those of our Savior and the saints, in the present Italians and Sicilians. I have seen them expostulate with an image in a church in a half whisper, with as much emphasis and expression as if an answer had been forthwith expected to have issued from its lips.” (pp. 123-124)

“When disappointed by his tutelary saints, an Italian or Sicilian will sometimes proceed so far, as to heap reproaches, curses, and even blows, on the wax, wood, or stone, which represents them.” (p. 125)


Where the holy things are

In his Vestiges of Ancient Manners and Customs, Discoverable in Modern Italy and Sicily (1823), Rev. John James Blunt describes several locations where the Lares, or Roman domestic gods, were commonly positioned and where contemporary Italians and Sicilians often keep images of saints. These are:

  1. “…in the public streets, particularly in situations where several ways met, and where the conflux of the populace was consequently greater. These were called Viales or Compitales…” (21)
  2. “…to guard the entrances of houses…” (24)
  3. “…for them a corner was reserved in their principle living rooms…” (25)
  4. “…guarding the chamber and bed from the influence of evil spirits by sight.” (26)
  5. “…the protection of shipping.” (30)
  6. “…for charms…” (40), particularly as pendants around the neck

Vestiges of ancient manners and customs (1832)

Vestiges of ancient manners and customs, discoverable in modern Italy and Sicily (1832) by the Rev. John James Blunt is a compilation of Rev. Blunt’s observations on the culture of the Mezzogiorno region compared with texts describing that of antiquity. While Rev. Blunt, an Englishman, tends toward a tone at once condescending and titillated, many of his observations are worth reading.


I. Introductory Remarks
II. On Saints
III. On the Virgin
IV. On the Festival of S. Agatha at Catania
V. On the Churches of Italy and Sicily
VI. On the Religious Services and Ceremonies of the Italians and Sicilians
VII. On the mendicant Monks
VIII. On sacred Dramas
IX. On the Dramatic Nature of the Ceremonies of the Church of Italy
X. On Charms
XI. On the Burial of the Dead
XII. On the Agriculture of Italy
XIII. On the Towns, Houses, Utensils, &c. Of the Italians and Sicilians
XIV. On the Ordinary Habits, Food, and Dress, of the Italians and Sicilians
XV. Miscellaneous Coincidences of Character between the ancient and modern Italians

It is available through the grace of for reading and download here.

Lent & Passiontide

“Some Italian Americans preserved the Old World custom of personifying Lent as an old woman represented by a doll made from a potato decorated with feathers and cloth. Each week the children of the household would remove a feather from the doll until by the time Easter came it was totally denuded. Then the doll was burned.

“The climax of the Lenten season and Passion week on Good Friday begins a three-day period, ending on Easter Sunday, which condenses the previous seven weeks of spiritual concentration. Good Friday itself has been marked by religious processions, the most thoroughly documented being that of Maria Addolorata (the Virgin of Sorrows) in Brooklyn. Many residents of the parish of the Church of the Sacred Heart and Saint Stephen trace their ancestry to Bari in Apulia, where the tradition of the procession originated. They gather in the church in the early morning on Good Friday to await the priest and several formally attired young men, who will carry the statue of the Virgin on a platform through the streets. Accompanied by various parish organizations, the church band (playing funeral music), and any parishioners who care to join, the statue makes its way through the neighborhood, pausing frequently to permit devotees to pay their respects. As the procession passes their houses, people kneel to receive a blessing or join the marchers. Many have put up special decorations of flowers and lights.

“Shortly after the procession of the Virgin leaves from the front of the church, another group sets out from the rear. Bearing a glass coffin with a life-size statue of the crucified Jesus, several men set out through the streets on a route that will bring them into contact with the Virgin’s procession when it ends at the church door. The meeting of the two processions (la giunta) climaxes the event, which is supposed to depict the mother’s mournful search for her lost, now-dead son.

“Italian Americans in Brooklyn also process on Good Friday in reenactments of the Stations of the Cross, marked by black crosses at sites throughout the neighborhood. At each, the procession of parish organizations bearing their identifying banners pauses while a priest narrates the events depicted there, and some are enacted by costumed children.

“Such Good Friday customs serve as commemorative reminders of the events in sacred history which charter the fundamentals of Christian doctrine. They also allow participants a sense of imaginative identification with the happenings in the Passion of Jesus and the sorrows of his mother. The following day’s activities offer opportunities for a final cleansing and purgation before the celebration of Easter. Purification on Holy Saturday may be domestic, as in the Sicilian-American custom of using the day to cleanse one’s house of the devil, or it may be personal. According to Ligurian tradition reported in California, after bathing the face on Holy Saturday, one should recite, ‘Flowing Water / Quench this ardent fire that courses through my veins.'”

Malpezzi and Clements, Italian-American Folklore, pp. 90-91.

Sicilian rosary to Saint Joseph

Transcription courtesy of Preghiere Siciliane:


San Giusippuzzu fustivu patri
virgini fustivu comu la Matri
Maria la rosa, Giuseppi lu gigghiu
datini aiutu, riparu e cunsigghiu.

Scura ora e aggiorna dumani
la pruvvidenza nn’aviti a mannari
la pruvvidenza di la casa mia
l’aspettu di Gesu, Giuseppi e Maria.


Ludamu l’eternu Quantu, lu Patri, lu Figghiu e lu Spiritu Santu
Sia lodatu e binidittu sia lu nomu di Gèsu, Giuseppi e Maria.

Pater Noster

Ave Maria 

Italian-American folk healing

“Many Italian-American women have had knowledge of folk prophylactics and cures which they use for the daily health of family members. At the same time, folk medical specialists, individuals with special knowledge and gifts, were available for serious ailments. Particularly when an illness lasted for some time or when its cause was uncertain, Italian Americans went to folk healers, usually women who could diagnose the source of an ailment, perform the necessary procedures for curing it, and prescribe additional remedial activity as needed. Such healers usually had to be versed in two kinds of medicine: one based on a folk pharmacopeia of herbs and other natural ingredients, and one requiring expertise in magical counteractants to illness. The latter often overlapped with cures for malocchio, but it also included magical responses to ailments whose causation was purely natural. Sometimes the healer would rely on only one kind of medicine, but sometimes she had to combine the natural and the magical to effect the required cure.

“Some communities had folk medical specialists, such as the spilato among Sicilians in Buffalo, New York. This person, blessed with an inborn healing gift that became honed through instruction traditionally by a relative, could use his or her hands to cure sprains, strains, stiffness, bruises, and other skeleto-muscular disorders. Generally, specialists in magical healing were able to practice their skills in the United states much more effectively than those who relied on natural remedies, since the ingredients for the latter were often unavailable in the New World and might be replaced by relatively inexpensive patent medications that were available to anyone. Usually the herbal remedies that have endured in Italian-American folk tradition are those requiring no specialized healer status within the community. They are truly ‘home remedies.’

“There is also an interplay between scientific and magical folk medicine, seen in some ways in which Italian Americans have traditionally promoted good health. These include drinking holy water, eating a bowl of grapes on New Year’s Day before rising, putting blessed palms from Palm Sunday beneath the mattress, sprinkling clothes with salt, wearing garlic or camphor in a pouch around the neck, or having a priest bless one’s house.”

Frances M. Malpezzi and Wiliam M. Clements, Italian-American Folklore, pp. 134-135.