As Catholics, there was always a frisson of guilt and wrongdoing when we had need to resort to our auntie who had the knowledge of breaking a spell – she knew the words and the rituals, confident of her powers given to her, ironically, by God himself. So, if we had a headache that lingered, excruciatingly for days; a malaise that could not be explained; a feeling that someone wanted harm to befall us, we would climb into the FIAT and head to the eastern suburb of St Peters, just out of Adelaide. There, in her spotless kitchen, Zia Maria, would roll up her sleeves, businesslike, and prepare her potions to break the spell of the malocchio.
The malocchio is a compelling theme in the daily life of Neapolitans who believe that a potent curse can be cast by malicious people who envy our lives. The simplest way to ward off the malocchio is to quickly make le corna – extending the index and little fingers of the right hand and pointing to the ground – when a malevolent person gives us a compliment.
La mano cornuta.
In this way, you can ward off the malocchio. But, be warned: thrust aggressively at a male, this gesture indicates that he is a cuckold, betrayed by his wife with another man. Imagine. The Greek origins of le corna may give us a clue as to why this is so. In Greek mythology, Minotaur had the body of a man but the head of a bull. This came about because Minotaur was born of Parsifal, Queen of Crete who had had an adulterous affair with the Cretan Bull, Il Toro di Creta. So, the the Greeks, and consequently the southern Italians whom they ruled, came to use la mano cornuta or the cornicello as both insult and a lucky charm or talismano.
Luckily, you can come prepared at all times, by wearing a charm in the shape of the hand gesture, la mano cornuta, or a single curved horn, the cornicello or curniciell' in Neapolitan.
The huge, distended penises at Pompeii and Herculaneum remind us how powerful is the image of sexual vigour. Neapolitan males are truly obsessed with their genitalia. The usual way for men to ward off the malocchio is to touch their genitals and there are many gestures that protect their precious parts or use the image to make an uncompromising and commanding point.
The two secular 'icons' of Naples: Pulcinella and Le Corna. Made by artisans at la Scarabattola, Via Tribunali, 50. Napoli
So, the anxious trip to St Peters was taken when all other precautions, including prayer, had failed. Zia would begin by setting out the paraphernalia – a hemp towel brought from the village, a scrupulously clean pasta plate, a vial of extra virgin olive oil. Then, in the hushed quiet, while no one dared even to breathe, she would begin her incantations.
Even as a child, I found it hard to square away this palpably pagan ritual with the sign of the cross, the invocation of the saints and the emphasis on the number three, the trinity. For my family, this was a solemn rite, not to be taken lightly. For my aunt, her powers were a gift which she practiced conscientiously. There was nothing flippant or glib about the performance. These practicing Catholics sought solace in an alternative conviction when the answers were not to be found in their everyday creed. Scaramanzia, superstition, is very ingrained in Neapolitan culture. Their turbulent history is a daily reminder that faith in the natural order of things can be disrupted at any point - by invaders from the sea, by corrupt, absentee landlords, by the huge active volcano always rumbling in the background. Faith is one thing but when chaos is ever present, there must be recourse to a darker order. 'In bocca al lupo', we have done all we can.
I do not intend to be facile about the ritual – it is too important to many people and still disturbs me enormously, but I will say that the ceremony consisted, after intent prayers, of dripping three drops of olive oil from the little finger into a plate of water. If the oil formed one large drop in the middle of the plate, then indeed, a curse had been cast. But, after praying solemnly and making the sign of the cross over the plate three times, the oil may break up into tiny droplets and spread out, thus breaking the curse of the malocchio.
I know about detergents and emulsions. I do not think we will find the answer in science. This is a cultural manifestation so primeval and visceral that logic does not play a part.
Photo credit: Black Sabbath facebook page.
Fans of the heavy metal band, Black Sabbath, will recognise Ronnie James Dio's signature gesture which was picked up as a motif by other heavy metal bands. "I got it from my Grandmother...it had magical incantations and attitudes to it and I felt it worked very well with Sabbath...then everybody else started to pick up on it and away it went." You Tube. Thanks to Grace and Thanis for the reference.