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.

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.



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.


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



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.


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!


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.


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.

Cult of the Dead in Naples

A skull in Fontanelle Cemetery, Naples. The “sweat” on the skull indicates its potency and suffering from the flames of Purgatory.


Cimitero delle Fontanelle and “The Neapolitan Cult of the Dead” or “The Neapolitan Skull Cult” of Naples, Italy by Morbid Anatomy

“Death in Naples” by Michael A. Ledeen

“Enigmatic Traditions: The Neapolitan Cult of the Dead” by Il Regno

“The Neapolitan Cult of the Dead: A Profile for Virginia Commonwealth University” by Elizabeth Harper


“Le Anime del Purgatorio nella Tradizione Napoletana”

“Il Culto dei Morti a Napoli” di Andrea Romanazzi

“Il Presepe nella Cultura Napoletana”

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)

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 archive.org for reading and download here.

Funerary rites in Ancient Greece

“Following death, the body was washed and laid out by the women of the family (prothesis). A passage from Aristophanes indicates that vine branches and the herb origanos were strewn under the body as part of this process. In antiquity, this bitterly pungent herb was believed to repel harmful animals; in later European folklore, we hear of it being used to avert ghosts and demons. Together these observations suggest that its use in funerary rites reflects a fear that even in death, evil forces of some kind were waiting to attack the departing soul or the body. An attack on either would be disastrous: the soul might be diverted by a manipulative magician for his own purposes, and thus be prevented from reaching the haven of the Underworld, and damage to the body could affect the postmortem functioning and thus the happiness of the soul, as the practice of maschalismos [ritual mutilation of corpses by severing extremities] perhaps attests. It was the duty of the survivors to provide protection against such attacks until the body was safely in the ground and the soul had begun its journey to the Underworld…. Perhaps amulets against such attacks were buried with the dead as well; we have some late examples of what seem to be amulets for postmortem protection made out of metal, and it is possible that earlier types of perishable materials once existed, too.

“The traditional length of prothesis was one day; this would fit with the fact it was on the third day after death (counting inclusively) that the body was carried out to the place of burial (ekphora). The swiftness of burial reflects not only the obvious need to remove a decomposing corpse quickly but the perception that the individual no longer belonged amongst the living. As many anthropological studies have discussed, in ancient Greece and elsewhere death initiates a rite of passage for both the deceased and those left behind; the passage begins to approach completion only when the corpse has been removed from the company of the living.

“The deceased was accompanied to the grave by family members and perhaps by other mourners, too, although funerary legislation of the late archaic and classical periods sometimes restricted the number of people who might participate, as well as the places at which they might sing their laments. In Athens, for example, Solon passed laws to the effect that only women over the age of sixty or women closely related to the deceased might take part in the ekphora and lament. Solon’s laws curbed the most extreme forms of lamentation, such as self-laceration, mourning for anyone other than the person immediately dead, and excessive funeral gifts as well. He also ordered that the prothesis take place inside a house, and that the ekphora take place before sunrise on the day after the prothesis. Plato’s laws for funerary conduct in his ideal city take all of these ideas a bit further; real laws in some other places similarly aimed to restrict the ostentation of the funeral, the number of people lamenting or otherwise participating, and the degree to which it was public.

“Offerings were made at the grave at the time of the funeral. These always included choai, libations made of honey, milk, water, wine, or oil mixed in varying amounts. There was also a ‘supper’ (deipnon or dais) of various foods; the dead who partook of these sometimes where described as eudeipnoi, which we best can translate, perhaps, as ‘those who are content with their meal.’ The word, a euphemism, seems to reflect the hope that, once nourished, the dead would realize that they had nothing to complain about. There is some evidence that water was also given to the dead person so that he could wash, just [as] a host would give a living guest water in which to wash before a meal. Offerings to the dead might also include jewelry, flowers, and small objects used in everyday life such as swords, strigils, toys, and mirrors (although gifts, like lamentation, were sometimes restricted by funerary laws). It is hard to avoid the conclusion that these gifts were expected to be useful in the afterlife, particularly when ghost stories tell of the dead demanding objects that were forgotten or omitted at the time of burial.

“A grave marker (sema or stele) often was set up at some time after burial; according to Cicero, post-Solonian Athenian funerary laws attempted to restrict the size or grandeur of these markers. The stele or sema subsequently might be decorated with ribbons, myrtle branches, or fillets of colored wool; it was also common for survivors to cut off and offer some of their hair. Several theories have been proposed to explain the latter practice. One argues that offerings of hair were symbolic human sacrifices–pars pro toto–and another that cropped hair marked the survivors as being ‘different,’ as being in a marginal period of mourning. Either idea could be supported by interpreting funerary offerings of hair within the context of other occasions when the Greeks made offerings of hair, which tended to be associated with marginal periods as well….

“The separation process continued to move the living and the dead further apart, but the link was not completely broken. On certain days after the funeral (the third, ninth, thirtieth, and possible also after a year), additional offerings were made at the grave. Some evidence suggests that, as nowadays, offerings were also made on the anniversary of the deceased’s birth, death, or both, and that survivors made additional offerings whenever they wanted the help of the dead person, or whenever they wanted him or her to participate, albeit distantly, in a family occasion such as a wedding….the Greeks themselves so often describe these rites as fulfilling the needs and desires of the deceased that we must accept this as a serious motivation. Funerary rites were believed to benefit the dead, and deprivation of them meant an unhappy afterlife for the disembodied soul. In other words, Greek funerary rites attest to the expectation that the deceased had some sentience in the afterlife and some of the same desires that he or she had had while alive, and to the idea that the living could–and should–gratify those desires.”

Sarah Iles Johnston, Restless Dead: Encounters between the Living and the Dead in Ancient Greece, pp. 39-43

Selected quotes from dark mother

“Healing black madonnas are associated with wooded areas, water (the sea, a lake, a river, a fountain), grottoes and caves, and with the subterranean, often volcanic, chthonic earth.” (140)

“Deborah Rose went to France in search of black madonnas; afterward, she wrote, ‘the last thing I expected was to re-enter Catholicism, the religion of my childhood.’ She found that ‘devotions of the catholic faithful were keeping alive a reverence for the mother that I suspected was much older than that to the Christian Mary.’ Her twenty five years of work in holistic health care have made her ‘a firm believer in body memories and cellular consciousness. On an individual, and I believe on a collective level, the body remembers the past. And the oldest memory is of darkness as the source and the beginning. The dark mother is the original mother.'” (149)

“Lucia’s popular meaning is caught at Canicattini Bagni, paleolithic site in Sicily, where Lucia is sought for eye maladies connected with loss of wisdom. In italian popular culture, loss of wisdom means loss of hindsight, or memory of the past, and loss of vision, or faith in the future.” (171-172)

“In popular themes underlying political traditions of the left in Italy, the black of anarchism is understood as fidelity of subordinated peoples to the truth of the earth.” (172)

Lucia Chiavola Birnbaum, dark mother: african origins and godmothers