Immaculate Conception

Mary, mystic Rose of purity, I rejoice with thee at the glorious triumph thou didst gain over the serpent by thy Immaculate Conception, in that then wast conceived without original sin. I thank and praise with my whole heart the Ever-blessed Trinity, who granted thee that glorious privilege and I pray thee to obtain for me courage to overcome every snare of the great enemy, and never to stain my soul with mortal sin. Be thou always mine aid, and enable me with thy protection to obtain the victory over all the enemies of man’s eternal welfare.

(From the Raccolta, a novena for the Immaculate Conception)

rubens-immaculate
Rubens, L’Immaculée Conception, 1628-1629

The Immaculate Conception is a Madonnine feast day which celebrates the belief that Mary was conceived without sin. It occurs on December 8, nine months before the feast of the Nativity of Mary on September 8. Like the feast of the Assumption, the Immaculate Conception has over time evolved into an emanation of the Madonna, so the words “Immaculate Conception” may refer to the feast or the Madonna herself. Statues of the Immaculate Conception were common enough in Italy, but rose to even greater prominence among Italian-American immigrants and their descendants due to their wider availability in the United States. We might hypothesize that the image of the Immaculate Conception in some cases conceals still greater mysteries of the Madonna and her many faces.

That being said, the Immaculate Conception is not without power of her own, and that power cannot be understood without contemplating Eve. The Madonna is often contrasted with Eve, the pair being the only two women born without sin.  We see this juxtaposition in the Ave Maris Stella, which describes the Madonna in her emanation as the Star of the Sea as “taking that sweet Ave, / which from Gabriel came, / peace confirm within us, / changing Eve’s name”. The heretics among us may see this as an opportunity to bring Eve into our personal practice through the image of the Immaculate Conception.

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santino or holy card for the Immaculate Conception.

Contained in the image of the Immaculate Conception we find the Serpent, often biting an apple, which may represent ancestral knowledge or entheogenic exploration. We also see the Madonna with her feet on the earth and her body standing upright in space, like the world tree which stretches from this world to the next. These are the themes which have come through strongly for me in devotional work with her: women’s mysteries of ovulation and birth, the channeling of ancestral knowledge, and the ritual use of entheogens.

These attributes may have been noticed by practitioners of African Diasporic Traditions, leading to some revealing syncretism. In Vodou, the Immaculate Conception is syncretized with Ayida-Weddo, the “Rainbow Serpent” of fertility. Many Lukumi houses syncretize the Immaculate Conception with the orisha Iroko, who is said to be a sacred tree which assisted Obatala’s descent from Heaven to Earth during the creation of the world.

You can honor the Immaculate Conception by performing her novena, which is traditionally said in the nine days leading up to her feast day, i.e. November 29 through December 7. There is also a 15-bead chaplet of the Immaculate Conception which is short enough to be prayed everyday.

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World Between Worlds: The Neapolitan Presepe

Introduction
The presepe or presepio is a Neapolitan tradition similar to the modern nativity scenes popular in Europe and the Americas. The presepe presents a large set of rich images which stands on its own merit as a symbolic landscape but can also provide a deeper understanding of the symbolic language of Neapolitan folktales. 

The featured image of this blog post is a photograph of a Neapolitan presepe on display in Most Precious Blood Church in Manhattan. More images of a presepe are available in this post.

Reflecting the pagan antecedents of Christmas, the presepe has a distinctly Saturnalian character. Time is stopped in the presepe–which, incidentally, may be why tombola (a lottery game similar to bingo) is traditionally played for fun or employed for divination at Christmastime.

The presepe represents both a descent into the underworld, as well as the periodic return of the dead to this world from All Souls’ Day to Epiphany. This is why the presepe is normally set up on November 2 and left up until January 6.

At the heart of the presepe are the Madonna and San Giuseppe, who await Gesù Bambino in the cave where he will be born. It is in the dark depths of the earth that the light is born, year after year. Traditionally, the figure of Gesù Bambino is only placed in the presepe at the stroke of midnight when Christmas Day begins. Feasting until daybreak often follows this momentous occasion.

But the Holy Family are not the only entities present. Many other figures from mythology and folklore constitute the majority of the elements in a traditional presepe. An exhaustive list of these elements, of which some sources claim there are up to 72, is beyond the scope of this blog post. However, we can review some of the most interesting characters, including pagan divinities, spirits and devils, and the dead.

Divinities
A figure on a driving a cart full of barrels called Cicci Bacco represents Dionysus, god of wine.

An older woman who represents Demeter, goddess of agriculture, gives birdseed to a hen who represents Persephone, maiden goddess of the underworld.

A hunter with a bow represents the sun-god Apollo. .

A noblewoman, either white or black and present with the Three Kings, represents the moon-goddess Diana.

An elderly couple represents Chronos and Rhea, the father and mother of the gods.

Three elderly women spinning thread represent the Fates.

Spirits & devils
The devil himself is often represented in the presepe.

The innkeeper and his hostel have a particularly sinister reputation and are believed to represent the temptations and the dangers of the temporal world.

One folktale recounts how the elderly washerwoman was a disguise employed by the devil so that he could get near the Madonna and try to prevent her from giving birth.

Some say the monk represents a mischievous spirit called the Munaciello.

The dead
The wandering souls of the dead are represented by sheep. The shepherd who leads them represents Hermes in his role as a psychopomp, or guide for the recently deceased making the journey to the underworld.

Beggars can also represent the dead, particularly the suffering souls in Purgatory, who suffer from heat, hunger, and thirst, and who must be prayed for and given solace through traditional methods.

Various water sources present in the presepe are also connected to the dead. The well has a diabolical reputation, particularly on Christmas Eve, when its water was traditionally taboo. It was also believed that one could scry into well water to see the heads of all those who would die during the year. The river, meanwhile, is linked to death through the mythological underworld rivers such as the Styx.

 

Further reading
Lo straordinario simbolismo del Presepe Napoletano di Luca Zolli
Il presepe popolare napoletano di Roberto De Simone
Il presepe nella cultural napoletana  

Materia meridionale: Oil

God-fearing people… remind us of what a devout doctor wrote towards the middle of the sixteenth century: ‘Certain astrological or cabalistic or magical seals are poisonous and deadly things, which can kill a person from a distance. There is need to repel them with force and save oneself with Christian seals, such as Holy Water, palm fronds, blessed olive [oil], blessed candles and incense, blessed medals, the Eucharist, saints’ relics, the manna of Saint Nicholas, and blessed bread.’

(Pitrè XIX Medicina Popolare Siciliana)

Welcome to Materia Meridionale, a new series on physical materials commonly found in Italian folk magic. In this age of eBay, Amazon, and cheap consumer manufacturing, it’s easy to lose track of the simple things that were so important to our ancestors. But sometimes, these common and low-cost or free items are more powerful than saint statues and fancy rosary beads. Sometimes, a single drop of holy water is all you need!

In this series, I will be drawing on a variety of sources in order to paint a colorful picture of the most common materia leveraged by Italians and Italian-Americans for a variety of magical, medicinal, and spiritual purposes. These sources may include orthodox Catholic teachings, Western natural philosophy and herbalism, and Italian and Italian-American folk belief as documented by historians and anthropologists. In doing so, I don’t mean to imply that any one source is more “evolved” or “authentic” than another. Each one reveals and illuminates in its own way.

Oil

Oil has long been employed in liturgical, paraliturgical, folk-religious, and downright heretical rites. There are three Holy Oils employed in the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church. FishEaters describes these as:

  • The Oil of Catechumens (“Oleum Catechumenorum” or “Oleum Sanctum”) used in Baptism along with water, in the consecration of churches, in the blessing of Altars, in the ordination of priests, and, sometimes, in the crowning of Catholic kings and queens.
  • The Holy Chrism (“Sanctum Chrisma”) or “Oil of Gladness,” which is olive oil mixed with a small amount of balm or balsam. It is used in Confirmation, Baptism, in the consecration of a Bishop, the consecration of a various things such as churches, chalices, patens, and bells.
  • The Oil of the Sick (“Oleum Infirmorum”), which is used in Unction [the Blessing of the Sick]

In my experience, sometimes oil blessed in the name of a particular saint is available in exchange for a donation at feste in New York. Additionally, there is a substance called “Oil of the Saints” which is associated with saintly relics:

An oily substance, which is said to have flowed, or still flows, from the relics or burial places of certain saints; sometimes the oil in the lamps that burn before their shrines; also the water that flows from the wells near their burial places; or the oil and the water which have in some way come in contact with their relics. These oils are or have been used by the faithful, with the belief that they will cure bodily and spiritual ailments, not through any intrinsic power of their own, but through the intercession of the saints with whom the oils have some connection. In the days of the St. Paulinus of Nola the custom prevailed of pouring oil over the relics or reliquaries of martyrs and then gathering it in vases, sponges, or pieces of cloth. This oil, oleum martyris, was distributed among the faithful as a remedy against sickness. According to the testimony of Paulinus of Pétrigeux (wrote about 470) in Gaul this custom was extended also to the relics of saints that did not die as martyrs, especially to the relics of St. Martin of Tours. In their accounts of miracles, wrought through the application of oils of saints, the early ecclesiastical writers do not always state just what kind of oils of saints is meant. Thus St. Augustine mentions that a dead man was brought to life by the agency of the oil of St. Stephen.

(The Catholic Encyclopedia, 1911)

References to oil are common in the bible. (In fact, the Hebrew word “Messiah” means “anointed one”, i.e. one who has literally been dabbed with oil.) The majority of these references are understood to be olive oil, a substance which has a particularly strong reputation in Italian folk magic, as well as general European occult philosophy and both medicinal and magical herbalism. Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa in his First Book of Occult Philosophy gives the olive tree as ruled by the Moon and Jupiter, while olive oil is ruled by Jupiter alone. In my personal experience, the oil has solar qualities as well.

olive-botanical

Ms. M Grieve in her Modern Herbal writes:

The high position held by the Olive tree in ancient as in modern days may be realized when it is remembered that Moses exempted from military service men who would work at its cultivation, and that in Scriptural and classical writings the oil is mentioned as a symbol of goodness and purity, and the tree as representing peace and happiness. The oil, in addition to its wide use in diet, was burnt in the sacred lamps of temples, while the victor in the Olympic games was crowned with its leaves. …The beautifully-veined wood not only takes a fine polish, but is faintly fragrant, and is much valued for small cabinet-work. It was in olden days carved into statues of gods.

For these reasons, olive wood is still a popular choice for carving crosses, religious statues, and rosary beads.

John Gerard’s Herball states that olive oil is particularly effective against a variety of diseases when mixed “according to art” with St. John’s Wort, chamomile, dill, lillies, and roses, which “forfitfie and increase his vertues”. Olive oil is still a popular carrier oil, or base oil for medicinal, magical, and massage oils, due to its wide availability and affordable price. However, some prefer to use an oil with a more mild natural scent for these purposes, such as almond oil or jojoba oil.

The olive tree is an international Christian symbol of peace, which is reflected in this regional Sicilian proverb from Montevago collected by Giuseppe Pitrè: “Chi ne raccoglie un ramoscello e lo mette innanzi il suo uscio dà segno di pace”, that is “Whoever gathers a twig of the olive tree and puts it before his door gives a sign of peace”.  

The olive tree was also known to Sicilians for its long life, and consequently, its large size and prodigious fruits. This longevity, particularly compared to other key agricultural plants, is reflected in the proverb “Olivari di tò nannu, cèusi di tò patri, vigna tò.” (“Your grandfather’s olive tree, your father’s mulberry tree, your grapevine.” Pitrè XVI, p. 205)

Another Sicilian proverb states: “Morta e viva adduma l’aliva”, recalling the fact that the wood of the olive tree burns whether it is a fresh green or dried. Of course, olive oil burns as well, and is common used as few for devotional and mundane oil lamps. The people of Nicosia, Sicily believed that anyone who fell from an olive tree would die unless the people who saw him fall did not immediately remove him from under its branches. (Pitrè XVI p. 265)

Pitrè also records the following folk beliefs: “Along with the palm, it appears on Palm Sunday. Its branches are carried around the city and the fields one day. Fishermen adorn the prows of their ships with its branches, cart drivers adorn the saddles of their animals with it; farmers plant it in the middle of their sown fields, so that the crops will grow prosperous and rich with fruits.” (XVI p. 264) It is interesting to note the combination of beliefs concerning protection during travel and prosperity in these applications.

Olive oil retained its powerful reputation among Southern Italians and Sicilians during the diaspora. In the New World, one of the most common folk magical uses of olive oil was in the diagnosis and treatment of the evil eye, or malocchio. These are discussed in detail in Frances Malpezzi and William Clements’ Italian-American Folklore, pp. 122-128. These rituals often called upon, or their discovery was credited to, Santa Lucia. A common theme in them dropping olive oil into water and reading the results to determine whether malocchio was at work and who may have sent it, and then “cutting” the oil with scissors, knife, or key to break the curse. 

Healing, protecting, and generating good fruit: these are the mysteries of the olive, whose oil is traditionally appropriate and widely available to the modern practitioner.

Neapolitan presepe at the Italian-American Museum (NYC)

The presepe or presepio is a Neapolitan tradition similar to the modern nativity scenes popular in Europe and the Americas. Unlike the nativity scenes we are used to, however, they tend to incorporate a much larger cast of characters, most of whom were not present in the biblical narratives of the nativity. These can include both Christian and pagan mythological characters, as well as symbolic scenes from peasant life. 

This antique presepe is found in the Italian-American Museum on Mulberry Street in New York City.

The Raccolta

Ah, the Raccolta. Published from 1807 to 1950, this indispensable book is the best-kept secret of Catholic folk magic. I’ve been known to reach for it on many occasions: on feast days, in times of stress, during Mass, after the death of a family member. If I have one piece of advice for you, this book would be it.

It’s short for Raccolta delle orazioni e pie opere per le quali sono sono concedute dai Sommi Pontefici le SS. Indulgenze–that is, “Collection of Prayers and Good Works for Which the Popes Have Granted Holy Indulgences”. As the title suggests, it’s a treasury of prayers which before Vatican II were believed to have particular merit. After Vatican II, the Church cut down on the number of prayers held in such high regard. But many believe the contents of the Raccolta remain effective.

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My copy of the Raccolta, complete with fabulous bookmark. 

The Raccolta contains more than just the standard short prayers you would find on the back of a santino or holy card. It also describes novenas, hymns, and ejaculations–that is, short prayers which are said throughout the day to keep the mind focused on piety and to consecrate one’s daily life. Some of the prayers are only “valid” if spoken in front of a particular image or on a particular day of the liturgical year. These instructions reflect what Andrew Greeley refers to as the “Catholic imagination”:

Catholics live in an enchanted world, a world of statues and holy water, stained glass and votive candles, saints and religious medals, rosary beads and holy pictures. But these Catholic paraphernalia are mere hints of a deeper and more pervasive religious sensibility which inclines Catholics to see the Holy lurking in creation. As Catholics, we find our houses and our world haunted by a sense that the objects, events, and persons of daily life are revelations of grace….

This special Catholic imagination can appropriately be called sacramental. It sees created reality as a ‘sacrament,’ that is, a revelation of the presence of God.

Unfortunately, many of the saints included in the book are of the less popular sort. (I hope by saying so I haven’t offended any devotees of St. Homobonus.) Conversely, many of our favorite folk saints are not included. Nevertheless, there are some beautiful prayers in the Raccolta in honor of the Madonna, including the Mater Dolorsa, and the souls in Purgatory.

You might use the Raccolta to:

  • Pray for your deceased relatives
  • Prepare your own soul for the journey to the underworld
  • Perform bibliomancy, for example, to find a prayer that will be particularly helpful to you in that moment
  • Perform a devotion to a saint, such as St. Joseph or St. Anthony
  • Pray a novena, for example, one of the five novenas to the Madonna in preparation for her feast days

 

You can read the Raccolta online for free:
1834 Edition (Italian)
1849 Edition (Italian)
1898 Edition (English) 

Traditional Foodways: Dolci dei morti

Food is a central part of celebrating festa dei morti or All Souls’ Day in Southern Italy and Sicily. Granted, it’s a central part of most feste italiane, but something about the way sharing a meal brings a family together illuminates the true meaning of this holiday, which focuses on familial ties that bind us even in death.

Many of the traditional foods associated with this day are desserts, called dolci dei morti (“sweets of the dead”). These dolci predate the importation of American Halloween traditions, including trick-or-treating, but the commonality of sugary fun is definitely intriguing!

I can only speculate on why sweetness is so important to Italian and Sicilian celebrations of the dead: it could be because children play a prominent role in this feast, being seen as gifts from (or perhaps emanations of) the ancestors. Or maybe it’s so that the dead will be sweet to us, doing graces on our behalf! In any case, savor the sweetness of the day. Flavor, like scent and music, reveals something about the nature of spirits.

fave_dei_morti
Ossi dei morti (“bones of the dead”), AKA fave dei morti (“beans of the dead”). The connection between beans and the dead goes back to Antiquity, and may be older than that.

Ossi dei morti (Sicily)
Shown above, these cookies are made with the first almonds harvested in September. Their shape and color is meant to mimic a pile of bones.
Get the recipe here.

Pane dei morti (Lombardia)
More of a cookie than a bread in my opinion, but I’m not a chef. These also contain almonds, with amaretto cookies, chocolate, and figs for additional flavor.
Get the recipe here.

Pupi di zucchero (Sicily)
These figures are shaped out of marzipan to resemble humans in a tradition remarkably similar to the calaveras or sugar skulls used to celebrate Día de los Muertos in Mexico. The pupi di zucchero are both decorative and delicious, commonly given as gifts to children, and seem to represent the dead themselves. But unlike in Mexican folk art, the dead in Southern Italy and Sicily are depicted as they were in life, not as skeletons.