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.

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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.

img_2967
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.

Litany to the Dead from Naples, Italy

In a previous post, we examined several accounts of the cult of the Holy Souls in Purgatory at Fontanelle Cemetery in Naples. Fontanelle Cemetery is an ossuary occupied Anime Pezzentelle, that is, “lost” souls, or souls without living descendents to perform official indulgences on their behalf. Many of them lost their lives during the great plagues of the 17th century, a time during which the city struggled to keep up with the task of burying large numbers of recently deceased citizens.

The Anime Pezzentelle are said to suffer from the heat and pains of Purgatory, where their only solace are the prayers and refreshment provided by the living. Refreshment or refrische can take many forms: cool water, sacramentals such as rosary beads or saint cards, and oil lamps or candles are all common forms of refreshment. The goal of these devotional practices is to establish a bond through which soul can establish contact through dreams. Once this intimate relationship is in place, the soul may reveal more details about who they were in life, divine the future (including lottery numbers), or be petitioned to perform miracles.

cimitero_delle_fontanelle_010
Skulls in Fontanelle Cemetery which have received devotions or refreshment. My gratitude to Wikipedia user
Mentnafunangann for contributing this image.

The prayer below, originally in Neapolitan and translated into English, may be said by groups or individuals who wish to gain the favor of Anime Pezzentelle, specifically the souls of plague victims. It is traditionally said while in the ossuary, although we might speculate that all cemeteries belongs to the same kingdom. The opening prayer is repeated for the names of all the deceased being invoked. (Anime Pezzentelle are usually said to reveal their names in dream early in the relationship, and often some details about who they were in life such as their gender and occupation.) The closing prayer is said before departing from the ossuary or cemetery.

There are a few traditional elements worth noting. For one, we see mentions of the beatings and nails of the Crucifixion which were also present in the Sicilian rosary for the dead we saw previously. Furthermore, in addition to invocations to Jesus and the Holy Trinity, we also see a powerful image of the female divine in this prayer: an entreaty to “come in the name of Jesus Christ, Saint Anne, and Maria”; a request vindicated “by the tears of the Sorrowful Mother”; and the line “pray to your divine redeemer (the Madonna)”, where the word “redeemer” is unmistakbly feminine in the original text. It is worth noting that in Naples, work with the lost souls is predominantly, perhaps exclusively, considered to be “women’s work”. The gendering is reinforced in the language of the work, which speaks of “adopting” skulls, as well as the objects commonly used in these devotions, which include handmade embroidery and rosary beads. The practitioner quite literally becomes the mother of a lost soul.

Napulitano

(opening prayer)

Guida: Guè, pè l’anema ‘e (name of deceased).
Coro: Requia materna.
(repeat as needed)

(prayer for the plague victims)
Io ve chiammo aneme tutte,
Aneme appestate cchiù de tutte;
Mò che nnante a Dio state
A me mischinu scunzulatu
E nun ve ne scurdate.
Pregate alla nostra divina clemenza,
Arapitece ‘e porte de la santa divina clemenza pruverenza:
Pregate alla vostra divina Redentora,
Ce favorite il nostro ‘ntenzione;
Mille e tanta vote
Reque, refrische, repuose, sullievo e pace
A chest’ aneme appestate mie rilette;
Venite a casa mia ca v’aspetto;
E paura nun me ne metto.
Venite co lu nomme ‘e Giesù Cristo, Sant’Anna e Maria;
‘E case noste cuntente e cunzulate sia.
Pe lu nomme de la Santissima Ternità
Tutt’e ppene, tutte ‘e turmiente
Tutt’e guaie nc’adda acquietà.
Pe li voste battitore
Fance grazia vosto Signore;
Pe tre chiove trapassate
Refrische e sullievo a chell’aneme sante appestate.

Gesù mio misericordia;
Gesù mio misericordia;
P’e lacreme ‘e Mamm’ Addulurata
Refrische all’aneme de l’appestate.

(closing prayer)

Requia materna, erona romine, sparpetua lucia ‘nterna schiatte in pace. Amen.

English

(opening prayer)

Guide: Hail to the soul of (name of deceased).
Chorus: Eternal peace.
(repeat as needed)

(prayer for the plague victims)

I call you, all souls,
Plague victims above all other souls,
I pray that near to God you be.
Do not forget me,
I, a disconsolate wretch.
Pray to our divine mercy,
Open the doors of holy, divine, merciful providence:
Pray to your divine redeemer (the Madonna),
That she favor our intentions;
Thousands of times
Calm, refreshment, rest, solace, and peace
To these plague victims’ souls, my beloveds;
Come to my home where I await you;
Because I have no fear.
Come in the name of Jesus Christ, Saint Anne, and Maria;
And let our homes be content and consoling.
By the name of the Divine Trinity
All troubles must be calmed.
By your beatings
Do us grace, oh Lord.
By the three nails,
Refreshment and solace to the holy souls of plague victims.

My Jesus, mercy;
My Jesus, mercy;
By the tears of the Sorrowful Mother,
Refreshment to the souls of the plague victims.  

(closing prayer)

Eternal peace give them O Lord, shine eternal light, may they rest in peace. Amen.

 

(Source: Luciano Sola – “Il Camposanto delle Fontanelle. Storia e costumi di Napoli”)

A Rosary for the Dead on All Souls’ Day (Nov 2)

This rosary is typically prayed every day during the octave of the festa dei morti (feast of the dead), known more officially in Italian as the Commemorazione di Tutti i Fideli Defunti (Commemoration of All Deceased Faithful), and among English-speaking countries as All Souls’ Day. In many Catholic countries, All Souls’ Day (November 2) is a time for remembering the dead. It can be celebrated by praying, visiting and cleaning up loved ones’ graves, making offerings of food or flowers, or paying for masses to be said in honor of the departed.

mangiare-sulle-tombe-san-demetrio-corone-in-calabria
A man eats at a tomb in San Demeterio Corone, Calabria on All Souls’ Day. Via Benedicaria.

The octave lasts from November 2 to November 10. If you wish to pray for the Holy Souls in Purgatory as is done in Sicilian folk tradition, you can use the words below. Sicilian rosaries can be prayed on standard rosary beads, reciting one posta for each of the large beads, and one grani for each of the small beads. (More official prayers for the dead can be found in the Raccolta, the pre-Vatican II guide to indulgences. A free PDF is available online here.)  I have included an English translation, but the Sicilian is pronounced very similar to Italian if you feel comfortable with that language.

This rosary from Sicilian oral tradition was originally transcribed and published by Sara Favarò in A Cruna: Antologia di Rosari Siciliani. I have chosen to translate “arrifriscati” (lit. “refresh yourselves”) as “be cooled”. “Refreshment” in Southern Italian and Sicilian magico-religious thought is relief from the heat and suffering of Purgatory. Souls grateful for refreshment are disposed to work miracles on behalf of those who pray for them. The concept is similar to the idea of cooling heated spirits in spiritism and African Diasporic Traditions.

Siciliano

(Posta)

Per li setti battitura
chi patì nostru Signuri
pi li chiova arribuccati
Armuzzi Santi, arrifriscati.
Armi Santi, Armi Santi
iò sugnu sula vui siti tanti
pi la nostra orazioni
livatimilla ‘sta cunfusioni.
Quannu vui ‘n celu acchianati
pi nui piccatura priati
arma ‘n celu e corpu ‘n terra
recam eterna.

(Grani)

Armi Santi e santi veri
Armuzzi Santi miserere
e Maria pi so buntati
Armuzzi Santi arrifriscati.

English

(Posta)

By the seven beatings
that our Lord suffered,
by the twisted nails,
Holy Souls: be cooled.
Holy Souls, Holy Souls,
I am one, you are many.
By our prayer,
take away from me this confusion.
When you ascend to heaven,
pray for us sinners.
Soul in heaven and body in earth,
eternal peace.

(Grani)  

Holy Souls and true saints,
merciful Holy Souls,
and Maria by her goodness,
Holy Souls: be cooled.

“Fimmene, Fimmene”: A song for the distaff line

I have a friend whose family tree has been traced back a thousand years, but no women exist on it. She just discovered that she herself did not exist, but here brothers did. Her mother did not exist, and nor did her father’s mother. Or her mother’s father. There were no grandmothers. Fathers have sons and grandsons and so the lineage goes, with the name passed on…

Eliminate your mother, then your two grandmothers, then your four great-grandmothers. Go back more generations and hundreds, then thousands disappear. Mothers vanish, and the fathers and mothers of those mothers. Ever more lives disappear as if unlived until you have narrowed a forest down to a tree, a web down to a line. This is what it takes to construct a linear narrative of blood or influence or meaning.

Rebecca Solnit, “Grandmother Spider”. From Men Explain Things to Me. 

I have long associated “Fimmene, Fimmene” with my ancestral practice, and with my female ancestors in particular. I remember the first time I heard it, at a ritual/play performed by Alessandra Belloni and I Giullari di Piazza on the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul 2016. I remember hearing Emanuele Licci from CGS play it as a solo during a concert on the second anniversary of my grandmother’s death. My husband, who was not familiar with the song or its personal importance, turned to me with a tear in his eye and said, “That man is very connected to his female ancestors.”

“Fimmene, Fimmene” is a song for and about women. It is an unabashedly political critique of working conditions and sexual assault. When singing or listening to the song, the heart is moved, the eyes water, the connection to the womb and ancestral memory becomes activated in the body. Women are born with all the ova they will ever produce in their lifetimes, so the ova that became you was alive within your mother, when she was still in your grandmother’s womb! This is a special relationship that we all have with our female ancestors, regardless of our gender.  

It’s also an excellent song for people who are new to Southern Italian musical traditions, or who think they can’t incorporate music into their personal devotions because they don’t have formal training. The rhythm is simple and slow enough to tap out even if you’ve never held a tamburello before. The lyrics in the video below are slow and well-articulated, so you can pick them up easily with practice. And, with the invocation at the end to Saint Paul, patron of tarantella, you’ll be singing and dancing in no time!

Salentino

Fimmene fimmene ca sciati allu tabbaccu,
‘nde sciati ddoi e ne turnati quattru!

Ci bbu la dice cu chiantati lu tabbaccu?
Lu sule è forte e bbe lu sicca tuttu.

Fimmene fimmene ca sciati a vinnimiare
e sutta a lu ceppune bbu la faciti fare.

Ue santu Paulu miu de Galatina
famme ‘nde cuntentà ‘sta signurina

Ue santu Paulu miu de le tarante
pizzechi le caruse mmienzu’ll’anche!

Ue santu Paulu miu de li scurzuni
pizzeche li carusi alli cujuni.

English

Women, women who go to the tobacco,
They walk out at two and return at four.

Who told you to plant the tobacco?
The sun is strong and dries you all out!

Women, women who go to harvest
And under the vine you have it done to yourselves.

My Saint Paul of Galatina,
Work a miracle for this young woman.

My Saint Paul of the spiders,
Bite the girls between their thighs.

My Saint Paul of the snakes,
Bite the boys on their balls.