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.

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.


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 

law, logic, and the dark mother

“In Italy, Isis was a mother divinity associated with healing; the 6th century BCE temple to Isis at Pompeii is located next to a temple of Aesculapius, or Serapis. A significant characteristic of Isis, one later associated with the christian madonna, was that she was a compassionate mother. In the rhcistian epoch her son Horus was represented as a child figure. Isis is often depicted with a laurel wreath and two prominant ears, symbolizing that she listened with both ears to the prayers of all those who came to her, an image that can be found to this day in italian folklore.

“Water, always associated with Isis, held a sacred quality: holy water, holy rivers, and holy sea. The serpent, identified with Isis, was always sacred. …Isis and wheat, in the roman epoch, became Ceres and wheat. In the christian epoch Isis became santa Lucia, whose images always carry a sheaf of wheat. The olive tree, associated with Isis, has today become symbol of nonviolent transformation. Italy’s contemporary nonviolent left political coalition is named L’Ulivo, or the olive tree. …In her 600 BCE image in the Museum of Cairo, Isis is figured as a black nursing mother, who bears a startling resemblance to christian images of the nursing madonna.

“Veneration of Isis, her spouse Osiris, and son Horus persisted in all the pharaonic dynasties, a 3,000 year old history when belief in Isis spread from Meroe and Alexandria to ‘the whole Mediterranean basin.’ In Italy and other latin countries where the holy family is a focus of devotion, the trinity of Isis and her husband and child became the popular christian trinity of Maria, Joseph, and Jesus, popular trinity that differs from the motherless trinity–father, son, and holy ghost–of canonical christianity.

“At african Memphis, hymns praising Isis as a civilizing, universal divinity who had ended cannibalism, instituted good laws, and given birth to agriculture, arts and letters, moral principle, good customs, and justice. Mistress of medicine, healer of human maladies, sovereign of earth and seas, protectress from navigational perils and war, Isis was ‘Dea della salvezza per eccellenza… veglia anche sulla morte,’ divinity of salvation par excellence, who also watches over the dead. …

“Acknowledging the dark african mother who preceded patriarchal world religions does not, to this sicilian/american woman, seem all that iconoclastic. It may be a matter of how we think. Erik Hronung, egyptologist of the University at Basel, refers to the complementarity of egyptian logic, which resembles complementarity in physics. ‘For the Egyptians two times two is always four, never anything else. But the sky is a number of things–cow, baldachin, water, woman–it is the goddess Nut and the goddes Hathor, and in syncretism a deity a is at the same time another, not-a.’ For Hornung, ‘the nature of a god becomes accessible through a “multiplicity of approaches,” [and] only when these are taken together can the whole be comprehended.’ Sicilians, as Justin Vitiello reminds us, know this intuitively. So do artists, craftsmen, poets, and peasants of the world. In the 1970’s, when I began to research my italian godmothers/grandmothers, I came across a tile with a blue-black star with thrity-two points in a blue green sea. The tile was named Iside, italian for Isis.”

Lucia Chiavola Birnbaum, dark mother: african origins and godmothers, pp. 20-21, 27.

Sicilian rosaries to Santa Lucia

Rosary to Santa Lucia

In Sicilian:

“Santa Lucia amabile e castusa
partistivu di la vostra Siracusa
tutta amabili e amurusa
china di peni e di fracelli
vi livaru poi li dui belli ucchicelli.
Vui sula ca siti accussì miraculusa
sarvatini di l’occhi miccilusa.
Comu sarvastivu fortimenti l’avanzata greca
a la vostra amata Catana
tinitini forti l’occhi finu all’urtimu jornu
di la nostra esistenza
ca a vui facemu pinitenza.
Senza pani e senza carni si ciberà lu corpu miu
chinu di piccati
e daranno luci a li occhi finu all’urtimu jornu
di la nostra cruci.”

In Italian:

Santa Lucia amabile e casta
partiste dalla vostra Siracusa
tutta amabile e amorosa
colma di pene e flagelli
vi levarono poi i due occhietti belli.
Voi soltanto che siete così miracolosa
salvateci dalle cecità.
Come salvaste con vigore dall’avanzata greca
la vostra amata Catania
preservateci con vigore gli occhi fino all’ultimo giorno
della nostra esistenza
che a voi facciamo penitenza.
Senza pane e senza carne si ciberà il corpo mio
pieno di peccati
e daranno luce agli occhi fino all’ultimo giorno
della nostra croce.

In English:

Saint Lucy lovely and chaste
you left your Syracuse
all lovely and amorous
filled with pains and floggings
there arose then two beautiful eyes
You who are only so miraculous
save us from blindness.
As you with vigor saved from the Greek advance
your beloved Catania
preserve with vigor our eyes until the last day
of our existence
that to you we do penitence.
Without bread and without meat you will eat my body
full of sins
and you will give light to the eyes until the last day
of our cross.”

Recite one Pater Noster, then: 

In Sicilian:

“Santa Cruci biniditta
santa Lucia sempri a la dditta
cu lu calici e la parma duna focu a la nostra arma.
Cu lu mantu russu sia duna luci a li occhi mia.”

In Italian:

“Santa Croce benedetta
santa Lucia sempre all’impiedi
con il calice e la palma incendia la nostra anima.
Con il manto rosso dà luce ai miei occhi.”

In English:
“Blessed holy cross
holy Lucy always at the foot
with the chalice and lit palm of our soul.
With the red cloak give light to my eyes.”

At the end of the rosary, look up into the sky and kiss the earth, and make the sign of the cross.

Another Rosary to Santa Lucia


In Sicilian:

“Santa Lucia ‘n mezzu a lu mari chi ciancia.
A ‘ncontra Santu ‘Lia, chi ha’ Lucia?”

In Italian:

“Santa Lucia in mezzo al mare che piangeva
L’incontra Santo Elia, cosa hai Lucia?”

In English:

“Saint Lucy in the middle of the sea crying
Encounter Saint Elias, what is wrong with Lucy?”


In Sicilian:

“Haiu un duluri nna st’occhiu.
S’è di sangu fallu squagghiari
s’è di purpu jettalu a mari.”

In Italian:

“Ho un dolore in quest’occhio.
Se è di sangue fallo sciogliere
se è di polipo buttalo a mare.”

In English:

“I have a pain in this eye.
If it is from foul blood dissolve
If it is from from octopus throw it in the sea.”

Sara Favarò, A Cruna. Antologia di Rosari Siciliani.