Informant: R.P. Italian-Australian Male, 28 years old
Location: Sydney, Australia
Told to me by a 2nd generation Italian male, whose family immigrated to Australia from Italy and Naples a generation earlier. This folklore may be local to the Southern region of Italy. Informant volunteered this information after being prompted.
RP: “I don’t know many superstitions, but I always remember being told that women should not walk into a room if Salami is being served.”
When asked about the meaning being this folklore piece, the informant could not offer a a solid explanation for why this superstition existed. He posited that it could be related to the time of day or where the salami was being served. For much of the early 20th century, southern Italian women were not allowed to be present in places where men would congregate, for example bars or clubs. This would be considered taboo and the women would be viewed as “working women” should they enter one of these establishments. The belief in the superstition of salami and women may be an extension of this idea and cultural practice.
Interesting to note, this practice of baring women in certain public spaces began to change in Southern Italy with the invention of the television and the viewing of television programs in large public areas due to the fact that most Southern Italian families could not afford a personal television. Instead, the town would purchase a TV for the entire community and would broadcast the programs in bars or town squares where women and children were allowed to frequent for the duration of the show.
Background: The interviewee, NB, is a European female in her early twenties. NB resides in Los Angeles however has citizenship in the United Kingdom. Her parents come from both England and Italy however, her traditions primarily spark from her Italian descent. The term “Tocca Ferro” translates into English to the phrase “touch iron.” This phrase is similar to the anglo superstition of knocking on wood. This piece of folklore was learnt through her Italian grandparents on her mother’s side of the family. NB stated that this was passed down orally through several generations, not knowing its exact origins. NB explained that the idea behind the reasoning for touching iron versus knocking on wood is that iron is stronger and more durable than wood; therefore by touching iron you have a better chance of avoiding an undesirable situation in the incidence of believing one has “jinxed” themselves. Ultimately this folklore has lead NB to partake in both superstitions: knocking both on wood, “or [her] forehead if there is not wood available,” and any metal that may be nearby.
Location: origin: Italy, practiced: America
Interpretation: By definition, a superstition is “a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation” (Webster Dictionary). The term superstition came about sometime between 1375–1425 from English origin. When researching the idea of superstitions especially those surrounding the idea of knocking on wood, I found it interesting that different cultures use different phrases. For example in Britain they use the phrase “touch wood,” as NB stated in Italy they use the phrase “Touch Iron” and here in America I have often heard the phrase “Knock on Wood.” I find interesting that the British phrasing combines both the word “touch” found in the Italian version, and “Wood” found in the American version. After diving deeper into this phenomenon I that Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa also use the phrase “Touch Wood.” The idea of knocking on a surface falls into the category of apotropaic tradition. Apotropaic comes from the Greek “αποτρέπει από τρέπειν” which directly translates into English as “prevent it from happening.” Apotropaic tradition is a type of magic, primarily practiced in Egypt, that is meant to deter harm or evil repercussions. Apotropaic traditions range from symbols, names, charms, and all the way to verbal phrases or actions (such as “knock on wood”). Another common explanation of the reasoning for knocking on, specifically, a wooden surface is that ancient pagans held strong belief in the idea that spirits and gods resided in trees. The ideas of superstitions have always held a strong interest of mine because I, like many others, believe they work. I find it interesting that so many cultures and groups use the same action of knocking to ward off evil or reverse bad luck. I am however, intrigued with the origins of the action of knocking because when i think of that action I normally related it to myself knocking on a door as if I am asking to be invited into someone’s house. This idea does not relate to the idea of warding off spirits or warding off anything in general. For this reasoning I am left with curiosites and want to dive deeper into actions pertaining to European superstitions and how they vary from those in America.
Context/Background: Subject is of Italian Descent and has heard superstitions around making toasts from her Grandfather and other family members. It was stated that one should never toast with anything but alcohol or it is bad luck. What is emphasized the most is the dire resentment towards toasting with water because it is worse than toasting with anything else.
“So, it’s bad luck to toast with anything that’s not… alcohol… because… if it’s not alcohol, first… it doesn’t mean anything because it’s not a toast. But, it’s especially bad luck to toast with water… because it like… signifies death… or something? Like, I think it comes from Greek Mythology where it has to do with like the underworld. I don’t really know though; But, it was always just a thing that it was bad luck to toast with water, so you never toast with water! And you shouldn’t toast with something that isn’t alcohol, but it doesn’t really matter as much.”
KA: And where did you hear this from?
“So it’s an Italian thing I think, um, but they have it in like other cultures. I don’t think it’s that specific to Italy, but my grandfather family was from Italy and it was a lot of brothers and sisters and I spent a lot of time with [them].”
Introduction: The informant was introduced by their Italian grandfather and extended family.
Analysis/Interpretation: It’s notable that one would consider water to signify death, as indicated by the interviewee when in many regions, it popularly serves as a symbol of life. I think this serves an interesting dynamic in the idea of “toasting” overall since it indicates a sense of dismissal of a vital life sign in many cultures.