Informant: “So, in Sicily, there’s this thing called the Evil Eye, or in Italian ‘Il Malochio’. Someone could give someone the evil eye just by like looking at you, and it’s almost like they’re sending bad… stuff to you. Like, someone would give you the evil eye, and then bad things would happen to you. It was usually older people, I remember there would be these really old men and women, like old widows wearing black, who would give you the evil eye. And it was like they would just look at you or the stuff you have, and them just looking at you would bring you bad luck. Actually, a part of this is why a lot of Sicilians, especially older Sicilians, wouldn’t talk about what they had. Like, if something good happened to you, you weren’t supposed to talk about it because that would bring the evil eye to you, or at least people who would then give you the evil eye. And there were things you could do to protect yourself from the evil eye. Like there was this hand gesture you could do to ward it off
[informant begins making a hand gesture, extending her pointer finger and pinkie, and curling her middle fingers into the palm of her hand using her thumb. The two extended fingers are pointing down, and she is gently waving her hand. It is very reminiscent of the "rock on" hand gesture, except directed downwards]
and you would make this gesture and that would ward off the evil eye. Otherwise, there were charms you could get, like necklaces or pendants in the shape of a horn called ‘Il Corno’ which could protect you from the evil eye. Otherwise you could get a golden charm in the shape of the warding hand gesture, and that would also protect you.”
Informant is a retired math teacher, and a mother of three. Her parents moved to the United States for the Italian island of Sicily, and she was born in the United States and grew up in Los Angeles. She still keeps in touch with her Sicilian relatives, and will periodically visit them.
Collector Analysis: The Evil Eye is a very widespread and popular folk belief over a variety of different nations and cultures. The idea that someone could give you bad luck just by looking at your or your belongings enviously, or even that you could bring this bad luck upon yourself just by talking about the positive things in your life, is an oddly popular one. It is also interesting that the informant specified that the evil eye tended to be associated with older individuals. It is possible that older Sicilians are more traditional and thus more connected to their superstitious beliefs, and thus are more likely to either be concerned with warding off the evil eye or maliciously give the evil eye to someone.
Two charms capable of warding off ‘Il Malochio’. The charm on the left is called ‘Il Corno’. The hand shaped charm on the right is the same hand gesture that one could use to protect themselves from the Evil Eye. Image courtesy of www.lifeinitaly.com
“You can’t walk, like if there are two people and there’s an inanimate object in between them, um, you go like this [demonstrates people splitting up to walk around object], you have to say, ‘bread and butter’ . . . My dad’s best friend, there’s a rumor that like he didn’t do it with his twin and when he was younger, when he was a baby his twin died. So they put, there’s like, they say that that was the reason why, they didn’t say, ‘bread and butter.’”
The informant was a 22-year-old USC student who majors in English and minors in genocide studies. Although she grew up in Santa Monica, she comes from a large Jewish family and travels to Israel twice a year to visit her older brother and other extended family there. The interview occurred when we were sitting in the new Annenberg building and started talking about superstition within her family. She said, “There’s a lot of things I have no idea why I do them, but I do them because someone might die if I didn’t do them. Like, that’s how we’re taught . . . It’s kind of a life or death situation.” The informant says she learned this practice from her father, who she thinks learned it from his best friend. She swears it is an Italian superstition, and is commonly practiced in Italy. Her roommate was sitting with us during her interview, and she commented that the informant makes her say this phrase whenever they are walking together and they are briefly separated by an object.
It was fascinating to me that such a seemingly whimsical practice and phrase could be associated with something as serious as the death of a twin. While I have no idea about the reliability or origin of the anecdote, it is suggested that the family knew about this superstition and that it is one that is particularly old and respected. Indeed, it was one of a few superstitions that the informant told me about that, when she was asked what she thought it meant, she would tell me not doing it meant sure “death.” She would then ask me why I would ever think about not doing it.
It is interesting that the informant claims this superstition has Italian origins, as it is based around English words. While they very easily could have been translated from Italian, the phrase “bread and butter” seems like a particularly English one. It is difficult to determine what exactly this superstition means or from where it came. It is easy to see how a simple action such as two people walking around a stationary object would become a source of anxiety for a particularly superstitious person. The phrase “bread and butter” represents two things that are commonly associated with one another. They are also fairly basic items that are considered staples in many western/European diets. It might reflect the trouble seen being caused by separating two things that should inherently be together, although it is difficult to say. This superstition also might have started as a sort of joke and evolved over time into something more serious for those performing it. Whatever the case, the informant certainly takes it seriously now.
The legend: “In Italy theres this old woman called La Befana who has magical powers and she gives children gifts on January 5th. If you’re nice you get gifts but if you’re mean you get coal. January 5th is the Epiphany Day, I don’t know what it is but it’s some type of like God revelation or something.”
The informant is half-Italian (mom) and half-German (dad) and grew up in Belgium. She moved to the United States at 11 years old, and now resides in Canada where she attends a university. She heard this legend growing up from her mom and Nonna (her grandmother). I asked her if she ever believed in La Befana’s existence, and she said that she “did at one point because once Nonna brought it up and I was scared of her because she’s a scary old woman witch.” La Befana sounds like other gift-giving figures around the Winter Solstice, such as Santa Claus, Sinterklaas, etc. January 5th is just around Christmas, so it matches with other Winter Solstice celebrations. People already celebrated the Winter Solstice, before Christianity made it a Christian holiday, so it makes sense for Italy to have its own version of the celebration. It’s also just after New Year’s Day, which means that Epiphany Day also represents a celebration of new beginnings; good children can celebrate the past year by receiving gifts and going forward into the next year being good again. Bad children can reflect on their bad decisions in the past year in order to strive for better in the coming year. Although La Befana can be a benevolent figure, she is presented as an old witch, which scares children into being “good,” reflected by the informant’s fear of the witch.
The informant and I were having a conversation in my apartment, and the topic of our families was brought up. I asked him if his parents or relatives had shared any interesting stories or sayings with him. The informant is of Italian heritage, and he said that when he grew up, his father told him the story of Rome’s founding.
Informant: There’s a place called… Alba Longa, no longer known anywhere in Italy. But a place that was ruled by a king named Numitor. Numitor had a brother, um, Amulius, and… he was jealous of Numitor. So he actually seized the throne for him, and he kicked Numitor out and killed all the sons of Numitor. Numitor had one daughter though. Amulius decided to make the daughter, um, Rhea Silvia, a, uh… virgin priestess. She had to remain celibate, but of course, as often is true, the gods can intervene. And so they did. Mars, the god of war, impregnated Rhea Silvia, quote common in Greek mythology and Roman mythology, this idea, and she conceived twins. She birthed them, and Amulius saw and of course was not happy with this because he wanted to ensure that he would have no one to challenge him in his rule. Though he had the twins put in a basket and thrown in the Tiber river. Um… Well, since these children were born of a god, and were semi-divine, they were actually spared by the river, by the spirit of the river, I believe it’s um… Tiberinus, the god of the river Tiber, actually floated them to safety, to the shore. But they were still abandoned, so um… what would they do? They’d starve. Well a, uh, she-wolf found them, um, it’s uh, lupa, very iconic, that the she-wolf found them, and um, quenched their thirst, gave them nutrients. In some tellings of the story, she spent some time protecting the two young. Now, they were fed also by a woodpecker, the story goes. The woodpecker fed them, but the she-wolf protected them, uh… gave them sustenance. But eventually, after a little bit of time, they were found by a shepherd and his wife. They raised the, uh, two boys to become shepherds as well, and they had the names Romulus and Remus. Uh, just as a side note, I’m not sure if you can think of this connection, but if you’re aware of Remus from Harry Potter, um, he can turn into a werewolf. Well… Romulus, Remus are quite related to wolves. Oftentimes when we see depictions of Romulus and Remus in this myth, we see the two twin babes sucking from the she-wolf. That’s a very famous, very, uh, dear icon. Now, they were raised and they became natural leaders. They had no idea though, that they were actually divine. They ended up becoming leaders amongst other shepherds, and Amulius found out about this and had the idea that they were actually the twins, that they must be. So he captured Remus. Romulus ended up gathering a band of shepherds to save him. And they ended up overthrowing Amulius and restoring Numitor to the thrown. They were actually offered, um, to be the kings together of Alba Longa, but they just had Numitor take the thrown again. But they decided to go off though, and with their band of followers and find a city. Now, Romulus wanted to find a city in the, I believe it’s the… Palatine hill. And Remus the Aventine. They weren’t sure which one they wanted to be the place of the city, so they decided to use augury, which is seeing from the birds some divine sign of what they should do. What would be the most auspicious place. Well… Romulus saw, um, twelve birds. Remus only six. So Romulus concluded he had the more auspicious sign that it was his location that they would build the city. But Remus thought to himself, “Well… I saw the six first though, so it is a more auspicious sign.” Well, Romulus already decided to start working on the city, but Remus was upset, criticizing, thinking it was really his right and that Romulus was wrong, so criticizing him. He held this grudge up. Romulus soon came up with a wall. Remus, in challenging this, actually decided to jump over the wall. Well… but when he did though, Romulus, so angered by this… defiance, killed him. This is, uh, probably the most problematic part of the founding myth of Rome, that, um, Romulus killed his twin brother, and uh… built the city upon that bloodshed, and named it Rome. The city actually had… not too many women. Of some of the shepherds, some of them had wives, but a lot of them did not, so it was a problem. Well, they ended up inviting some of the Sabine people, uh, that were around the area to come to the developing city for a festival, and they ended up distracting the men and taking captive the women. And this led to some conflicts, eventually to a standoff between Rome and the Sabines. Now… the women though, ended up, uh… wanting a, resolution between the two, seeing that it would be quite bloody. So they ended up actually having two kings becoming one entity. But the leader of the Sabines ended up getting into some scandal, some kind of situation, and he actually was killed. So Romulus, he ended up acquiring the territory, being leader of the territory, for the rest of his life acquiring more and more land. Uh… being such a great leader, a very strong person. But he died, eventually, and it’s said he rose up actually, into the sky into heaven, and announced, or expressed, that he would be, then, Quirinus, a certain god that actually, that god really is the form of Romulus. So that god now is often on coins, and people associate that god with Romulus. But then of course, Romulus, Remus, with the she-wolf, that statue, that icon, being very famous too. I often heard that, known about them, heard of their names, understanding their importance. But now, of course, it’s interesting to consider how the founding was of these… these boys that, you know, were human but also divine, but then were raised, in some sense, by a wolf. The idea of the… feral child. That is coming into play here, they had to experience with a wolf, with the wild, and then with the kind of… simple origins as shepherds. It’s interesting also with shepherds, those, you know, guiding sheep, maybe protecting sheep from wolves, but they were, in some sense, raised by a wolf. So, that’s it. That’s it for the legend.
Me: How did you learn about this story?
Informant: From my dad.
Me: In what context would he usually tell it to you?
Informant: Hmm… Um, I’m not sure if I exactly remember. Just when I was little, I remember, I remember it coming up, but I don’t exactly remember what context.
Me: So, um, what significance does this story have to you?
Informant: To me? Um… I’d that say, the personal significance is that it was something my father shared with me, and something that I thought was really interesting. The first time I heard it, this was… something that has been kind of passed down for a long time and has been important to Rome, to Italy. It’s something that people are aware… that people care about. Um, as far as how it’s interesting besides having heard it, and thinking of it as important that way, I’d say it’s always been interesting to me that the story starts with, the story of Rome starts with, like, twins that, were raised in part by a wolf. That seems, like… Who would think that? It’s very interesting to me. It almost seems like Rome, like it’s kind of like those who have come from the wilderness and then they bring something to begin civilization. You know… it’s like, you know, Socrates descending to the people from high. I don’t know… The hermits in the mountains coming down, giving them wisdom. That they kind of came from this situation and grew up from nothing, seemingly, to then… to then being the founders of Rome. And also, maybe more interesting recently, has been, um, has been the killing of Remus, what that means. That’s something to think about.
This narrative is an example of a story which has been performed for many years. While it once held mythologic significance for the citizens of Rome, it is now shared through families and during coverage of ancient Rome in history classes. The informant identified the story’s significance to him as the fact his father shared it with him. Even though the religion the story references has largely fallen out of practice, the story is still entertaining to tell and connects modern people with Italian heritage to their past.
I gathered this piece from my friend who comes from a very Italian family. Her parents family’s are both from Naples, her mom’s side is from Mirabella and her dad’s side is from Benevento. Even though her parents weren’t born in Italy, Italian culture is still very important in their family, and keeping up traditions such as this Christmas Eve dinner are very important to her parents, especially her father.
“I come from a very Italian background. My paternal grandmother was born in Italy and then came here, so my father is first-generation. My mother’s grandparents were from Italy…so they come from a very traditional Italian background. And one tradition that we’ve always followed in my family is that on Christmas Eve you are supposed to have the “Seven Fish Dinner” which means that you should be having seven different types of fish for your Christmas Eve meal. Every year my family would invite all of our family and friends over and my dad would spend about two or three days slaving away in the kitchen to cook all these different things which included lobster, probably cooked multiple ways, clams, shrimp…scungilli salad, which is octopus salad, a type of fish which I am not remembering what it’s called…and other things that I can’t remember.”
Q: So is this something your parents got from their parents?
“Yeah, it’s an Italian tradition. My family is not the only one’s that ever done it or heard of it. I know my dad keeps a lot of his Italian heritage in memory of his grandparents who he spent a lot of time with….’This is what my grandparents did so this how we’re going to do’ kind of a thing”
Food folklore tends to revolve around family and family traditions, and this is no exception. The informant learned about this through participating in a family tradition, which was kept by her parents in order to honor their Italian grandparents. Participating in the tradition becomes a way to keep the tradition alive and maintain the culture.
Before every holiday meal, which is several courses, the informant’s grandmother will make lasagna with meatballs in it, then wedding soup which has lentils and meatballs in it, then the full meal itself with has the “random staples of each holiday,” but there will always be pizza bread (cheese and sauce on toasted bread) and spinach bread. Each family member has their own favorite desserts too, like ice cream cake rolls, a “gross-tasting” checkered cheesecake that they all eat to appease his grandmother. The only one who still cares about saying grace at the table is his grandmother now.
His favorite meal is a gnocchi, which has to be specially requested for a meal — he loves shaking parmesan cheese over them. He also loves “a good ham,” with some pineapple and maraschino cherries, and apple kuchen (a golden cake and a hard bottom layer of coconut).
Though the informant’s family is several generations removed from their initial immigration from Italy, the family’s still kept up many food traditions, even as other traditions, such as saying grace, have fallen by the wayside. The informant also mentioned that the meal courses were generally set around a core menu, and these satellite dishes may not be as “traditional” as those core items.
The informant shared this with me in conversation.
I really like the idea of carrying on food traditions but leaving room for them to expand and grow, as they do here. Additionally, the informant’s recounting of the meal clearly brought a smile to his face — it’s always cool to see how people you may not know too well, as in the case with the informant, react when they engage with their heritage in a previously unknown way.
“We don’t have bridal showers or wedding showers, because the evil eye will see, and you won’t have a baby or a husband. You better not celebrate too soon. So, even if you have a bridal shower or a baby shower after the baby’s born, that’s a bad idea, because you’re not trying to bring attention to the good things you have in your life.”
My informant learned this from her Italian grandparents. It seems to be a common theme across cultures that drawing attention to good fortune will somehow jinx it; in this case, they believe that celebrating a marriage or a baby will draw the attention of the evil eye. This is interesting because my informant and her family are devout Catholics, and the evil eye is not a Christian belief. This shows how folk beliefs can get passed down through generations and endure through different religious traditions.
“On the Christening robes of babies, they have these little charms, little golden charms. There’s a monkey fist, a bull horn, all different ones, and they’re all supposed to keep the evil eye away.”
My informant comes from a devout Italian Catholic family. Although the evil eye is not a Christian belief, it has seeped so deeply into the culture from pre-Christian folk beliefs to the extent that a modern Catholic family believes in it enough to take precautions against it harming their infants. Again, there is the idea that celebration can draw the wrath of the evil eye; even a religious celebration is dangerous.
“We didn’t eat meat on Christmas Eve. Christmas Day is fine, but not on Christmas Eve. So we’d eat, like, baccala, which is salted cod. And calamari and other fish and seafood.”
My informant is an Italian Catholic. Refraining from meat on Christmas Eve is one of many cultural traditions practiced by this group. There are certain traditional fish dishes prepared, including baccala. My informant told me that she doesn’t particularly like baccala, and neither does the rest of her family. However, they make and eat it every year because it is traditional to do so.
The informant explains that he has a bracelet that he stole in Italy at a street market by the Trevi Fountain. The bracelet is leather and braided and he has had it since he was fifteen. The informant explains that he wears it at all of the music shows that he performs at because he feels as though if he doesn’t perform well then he will be punished. He feels as though he has the bracelet for a reason and needs to prove why he has it. He also thinks that the bracelet gives him good luck. He also believes that the bracelet represents his Italian heritage – taking a piece of Italy away. He uses it as a way to remember his trip as well.
The informant’s militant wearing of his leather bracelet in all of his musical shows demonstrates individual’s belief in the power of good luck charms. In contemporary view there are many instances in sports, music performances, and much more where people have different superstitious beliefs to enhance their luck or performance.