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A fresco from the thermopolium of Lucius Vetutius Placidus in the city of Pompeii, depicting the spirit (genius) of the house central, flanked by Lares and Penates with Mercury on far left, Bacchus far right.
I love hearing from readers who have Italian roots and are interested in developing a personal ancestral veneration practice which reflects their cultural heritage. I’ve put together a list of advice I often give to these folks, in the hope that it may be of help to anyone on their journey.
I’ve laid this out roughly in a progression from simple workings intended to cool and strengthen the dead towards more complex workings which bring in entities that are not a part of the ancestral line, but whose Mysteries can be experienced with and through that line. However, please don’t feel like you need to work through this list in order. Allow dream and inspiration to inform you as much as text.
Above all else, go with your gut. You’re a part of this line. If something feels pleasant to you, it probably feels pleasant to them. And likewise if something feels unpleasant. Learning to pay attention to that gut feeling when you look at your ancestral altar lays the foundation for more advanced mediumship.
Don’t force it. Don’t go into the work with preconceived notions of what magical “results” should look like. Allow your personal lingua franca with the ancestors to develop organically. The effects of these practices are cumulative, so aim to do something small every day.
Look at the structure of your living family. During your childhood, did you spend more time with one side than the other? Did you have a particular affinity for one of your grandparents? These can offer clues as two which of your many lineages are most active right now in your lifetime.
Official Catholic devotions. These include paying for a Mass to be said for them, or doing indulgences for them on your own. The Raccolta is a good source for official prayers. Indulgences and Masses are especially important for the recently deceased.
If you only have the stomach for so much churchy business right now, I recommend you learn the Requiem Aeternam. It’s short, sweet, and carries an indulgence for the dead. It’s written in the singular, but you can swap for the bits in parenthesis to make it plural:
Requiem aeternam dona ei (eis), Domine, et lux perpetua luceat ei (eis). Requiescat (-ant) in pace. Amen.
If Latin isn’t your thing, here’s an English version:
Eternal rest grant unto him/her (them), O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him/her (them). May he/she (they) rest in peace. Amen.
Traditional folk offerings. These include candles (usually white wax in red glass) or olive oil lamps, water, fresh flowers, holy cards (santini), rosary beads.
Offerings from other traditions. Especially if you are interested in the ATRs, you may want to experiment with sharing a small portion of whatever you are eating, coffee, liquors, tobacco. Heavily perfumed waters, such as florida water and kananga water, are great to have on hand, either to add to glasses of cool water or to cleanse yourself with. When the dead are present, you may experience physical sensations, some of which can be uncomfortable. Perfumes like this can take the edge off of those feelings. If florida water and such are too strong for you, you can get rosewater (the type for cooking) from many Indian and Middle Eastern grocers and use it in much the same way.
Keep your home clean. In Naples, this practice is more commonly associated with ‘a bella ‘mbriana, the gecko-shaped house spirit, who is not explicitly related to the dead in modern thought. However, ‘a bella ‘mbriana may be an evolution of the ancient tradition of the Lares, who were both house spirits and ancestral spirits and were often depicted as snakes. You can play around with this imagery and see what speaks to you. Maybe find a toy gecko, or use statues of Saints Cosmas and Damien to represent the Lares, who were also depicted as twins.
Drink some amaro. Bitter herbs such as those used to produce amaro (which means “bitter”, after all) often have reputations for increasing psychic ability and contact with the dead.
If you like cannabis, smoke some cannabis. Less is usually more. In Santo Daime, a syncretic ayahuasca tradition, cannabis is called “Santa Maria” and syncretized with the Madonna. Working with Santa Maria is often said to result in contact with spirits of the dead.
Learn the comune (or comuni) that your family came from. It might have a website. At the very least, it should have a Wikipedia page, and the town’s patron saint(s) will be listed there. In some comuni the main festa is devoted to a different saint than the official patron. You may find that saint to be more accessible. Look for sections of text labeled “Tradizioni” (traditions).
If you don’t know the specific commune, look at the region they came from. What wine is made there? What bread to they bake there? Share some of that wine and bread with them. Remember: this is the body and blood of a god that they knew and worshipped which you are now consuming together. There’s a lot to unpack there. Don’t cut the bread with a knife; rip it up with your hands.
Look into saints and Madonne who specialize in matters of the dead. For example: San Nicola da Tolentino, Madonna del Carmine, Santa Rosalia, San Padre Pio, Santa Caterina da Genova. These can be appealed to for help deepening your personal connection, or settling restless spirits in your line.
If you have any other ideas or experiences you would like to share, please leave them in the comments!
The brilliant Gordon White of Rune Soup invited me on his podcast to talk about the origin of the saints, the Italian American diaspora experience, the Black Madonna, necromancy, sacred dances and a whole lot more. You can listen below, or via your favorite podcast app.
PS – In case you didn’t notice, Gordon’s spirit animal here is Giordano Bruno–who was born near and lived in Naples! #homeboy
Lavoro ben fatto is an expression meaning “work done well”. It was first explained to me as craftsmanship for its own sake, as putting time and effort into little details which only someone looking very closely can appreciate. For example, the way the seams of a garment have been sewn. It might not make a difference in how the garment looks on the rack, but that extra time and consideration matters to whoever sewed the garment (and, hopefully, to whoever wears it).
When I think of lavoro ben fatto, I often think of San Giuseppe (St. Joseph) as the patron saint of workers. One of his feasts is May 1–International Workers’ Day! San Giuseppe is prayed to in times of unemployment, and the celebration of his feasts in Italy explicitly emphasizes the necessity of charity and public welfare.
But it is important that we also recognize women’s labor, which is so often devalued. In fact, as women enter traditionally male-dominated fields, the average wages in those fields drop. Women’s labor is important, whether we are performing that labor in a traditionally male-dominated field, in a traditionally female-dominated field, or within the home.
In Salemi, Sicily, the labor of both men and women–of San Giuseppe and Maria Santissima–is celebrated as part of the feast of San Giuseppe on March 19. Men spend days setting up elaborate altars surrounded by greenery. Women spend days baking special breads shaped into sacred symbols. These symbols include the emblems of traditionally male and female labor: the breads baked to represent San Giuseppe are covered in carpenter’s tools, while the breads baked for Maria Santissima have the tools of weaving and sewing on them. These breads are so intricately detailed that they are famous throughout the region.
An altar for the feast of San Giuseppe in Salemi, Sicily. On the bottom left is a bread representing the madonna, in the bottom center is a bread representing Jesus, and on the bottom right is a bread representing St. Joseph.
I’ve been reflecting on lavoro ben fatto a lot recently, having just started a new job which is challenging me to pay particular attention to small details. So it was deeply inspiring to find Vincenzo Moretti’s Il Manifesto del Lavoro Ben Fatto, a manifesto about work done well and the rights of the people who do it. While reading through the manifesto (there’s even an English translation!), I’ve been thinking of the people of Salemi who work tirelessly for days every year out of pure devotion.
This intersection of devotion, justice, and excellence is truly inspiring to me. It’s something that I will always hope to manifest in my own lavoro, whether I’m taking on a new project at work, typing up a blog post, or just giving everything I’ve got in a barre class. And I hope you’ll join me in putting your whole heart into your lavoro next year, whatever kind of work you do.
Best wishes for 2017,
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.
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 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.
Lo straordinario simbolismo del Presepe Napoletano di Luca Zolli
Il presepe popolare napoletano di Roberto De Simone
Il presepe nella cultural napoletana
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.
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
Musicians and dancers face their audience and visual artists can spy on them, but reading is mostly as private as writing. Writing is lonely, it’s an intimate talk with the dead, with the unborn, with the absent, with strangers, with the readers who may never come to be and who even if they read you will do so weeks, years, decades later. An essay, a book, is one statement in a long conversation you could call culture or history; you are answering something or questioning something that may have fallen silent long ago, and the response to your words may come long after you’re gone and never reach your ears, if anyone hears you in the first place.
Rebecca Solnit, “On the Indirectness of Direct Action”
Published in Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities