USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘Sicily’
Earth cycle
Folk Beliefs
Protection

You Should Never Go Into the Sea in a Month with an ‘R’

Informant: “I don’t remember how to say it in Italian now, but I remember the saying translates to ‘You should never go into the sea in a month with an “R”‘. I remember learning this when I was studying in Florence my Junior year of college, I was in Florence from January to June, but right in the middle, right around March, so spring break time, I went down to Sicily with a bunch of my friends. And it was a lot warmer than in Florence, but it wasn’t super warm, and so all of my friends wanted to go in the ocean, and my relative really had a hard time with that [laughs] because they were like ‘oh no, you can’t go into the ocean, it’s march’, and I said ‘So what if it’s march?’ and they said ‘you can’t, it’s a month with an r.’ And it was sort of a big deal. And I think the origin of this comes from, you know Sicily is an island, and in the past when a lot of people were poor, they didn’t go to school, and they didn’t know how to swim, and maybe it’s different now, but in the past most Sicilians didn’t know how to swim. And so if you go into the ocean when it’s cold, you might get a cramp or something, and you’re more likely to drown, plus in those months it’s colder, so if you think about it, January is cold, March, April… And May is warm, so that’s ok, and June, July, August. And September is starts getting cooler, and October, November, December. My friends ended up swimming anyways, but my relatives thought they were crazy…”

Collector [a few weeks after initial interview]: I was reading the transcript of my interview with you, when I realized that the Italian word for January, ‘Gennaio’, does not have an ‘R’ in it, despite this being one of the months you mentioned. How does this impact your opinion of this saying?

Informant: [short silence, then laughs] “Wow, you’re right! I can’t believe I never thought of that! Wow… that’s weird, I guess I had just always thought about it in English. Is that the only one? Wait… [Informant lists off all the months in Italian]. Yeah, so I guess that’s the only one that doesn’t work. All the other months that have ‘R’s in English also have ‘R’s in Italian except that one… Its so strange because I know when I was first told this, the person who told it to me said it in Italian. I guess maybe they just thought that they didn’t need to worry about January because it’s always so cold in January that no one would want to swim.”

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: Sicilians, living in a geographical area completely surrounded by water, would of course have a body of folklore concerned with when it is safe to go into the ocean, and when it is not. This saying serves as a mnemonic device to help remember when it is ok to swim in the ocean, and when it is unsafe to do so. For this reason, I would imagine that this originated more as a way to keep children safe from drowning in the ocean during the colder months in the winter as well as the late fall and early spring. Of course, this does not apply to anyone going out on the ocean, as most Sicilians would need to go out on the ocean year-round to support their livelihoods.

Folk Beliefs
Protection
Signs

Il Malochio

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

Customs
Earth cycle
Folk Beliefs
Holidays
Legends
Myths
Narrative

La Befana

Informant: “So in Italy, there’s two things, so there’s La Befana, which is ‘The Witch’, kind of, I don’t remember exactly what it translates to, but it’s whatever the witch is. And then there’s Babbo Natale, and what that means is father Christmas. And so in northern Italy, this is kind of funny, in northern Italy the word Babbo, it’s kind of like saying daddy, but in the south part of Italy, it doesn’t mean daddy, it means like an idiot [laughs]. But that’s like saying ‘dad’ in northern Italy. So Babbo Natale, maybe that’s in the south now too, but mostly it was in the north, you know. And in the south, mostly they had La Befana. So the story was that on January 6th, which was the Epiphany, and they sort of matched it up so the kids in Sicily, they would get presents not from Babbo Natale, and they got presents not on Christmas day, but on January 6th which was when the three kings brought their gifts to Jesus. So La Befana would go around and she would give presents. So the story was that when the three Kings were going to Jerusalem to find the newborn baby Jesus, they stopped at La Befana’s house in order to ask for directions. When they left, they asked her to join them, but she said that she couldn’t because she had too much housework to do, but once they left she immediately knew she made the wrong decision, so she grabbed a bunch of small treats and went out looking for them, but she couldn’t find them, so she gave treats to every child she came across in hopes that one of them was the baby Jesus. So every year on the eve of the Epiphany, she goes out in search of Christ, and gives treats to all of the good children that she comes across. Though when [my sisters and I] were growing up, our parents wanted us to be American, so we didn’t have La Befana, we had Santa Claus [laughs].

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: This is an interesting variant on the Santa Claus story, or rather the ‘mysterious Christmas gift giver’ narrative. It almost seems like it has aspects of an urban legend scary story, as it almost seems like La Befana is ‘cursed to wander the Earth every year on the anniversary of [some event] because of the mistake she made’ which, in any other context, would seem exactly like the ending to some scary campfire story. However, she does it for benevolent reasons, so it’s all ok. It’s also curious to see how the informant’s parents tried to suppress her practicing of this particular bit of folklore in order to “Americanize” her and her siblings. It is also strange how an entity with as non malevolent of intentions as giving gifts to good children is given a name with such a negative connotation as ‘The Witch’.

Customs
Earth cycle
Foodways
Holidays

Feast of the Seven Fishes (La Vigilia)

Informant: “In Sicily, well in other places in Italy sometimes too, but really in Sicily, on the Eve of the big holidays, so like Christmas Eve and New Years Eve, you’re supposed to eat fish, but in particular on Christmas eve. It was called the Feast of the Seven Fishes, though I actually think in Sicily they called it La Vigilia, for The Vigil. The real tradition is that you’re supposed to make seven types of seafood. So in Sicily, my mom and dad they always did this, so they would start cooking a few days before Christmas Eve. When we were growing up in Los Angeles, we would go down to Redondo Beach and my mom would buy all these fishes very similar to the fishes they would have in Sicily, so she would make calamari, like deep fried calamari. Oh, and one of the things she would buy is called baccala, which is like a dry, salted cod. I’ve actually seen it in some Italian places in St. Paul, they sell it in what looks like a big bucket, and it looks like just dried fish, and so you have to soak it in water overnight, and then you have to drain the water, and then you have to soak it again, and so basically you’re reconstituting the fish. And I think a lot of times people in Sicily have that one because there are a lot of poor people, and that kind of fish was really cheap. And so [my mother] would do that whole thing day after day after day, and then she would make this sauce that she would put this fish in like this tomato sauce, and then she would bake it. So she did baccala, she did calamari, she always did octopus salad. She would never make the kind of fishes that [my family has] like salmon, I never had salmon growing up. She would make these things called sand dabs, they looked like a kind of flatfish and she’d fry them, and anchovies and sardines, and she’d make this pasta with fennel and tuna sometimes… But she had enough fish to feed an army, when there were only six of us, but that’s very typical though in Sicily…What other fish did she make… oh, eel! She would always make eel. And I would have continued this tradition, except that [my children] don’t eat as much fish, that’s why I sort of incorporated it into [my family's traditions], that’s why we always have fish on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve, so some years I would make stuffed salmon with crab and so on, but I found that [my family] just really liked crab, so that’s why we always have crab, and I figured, that was close enough.”

Collector: Was the exact number of fishes significant?

Informant: “Well, so it was feast of the seven fishes, though sometime we’d do nine, eleven, thirteen, but it’s always an odd number. I’m not really sure why, but it was supposed to have something to do with luck, like you’re never supposed to do an even number. As for fish, I guess with Sicily being an island, it was really easy for people to just go out and catch fish, and so that’s why they had fish.”

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: This particular piece of folklore is interesting in that it shows how certain folk traditions can evolve when they are practiced in different contexts, in this case, how the amount and type of fish eaten changed when the informant was celebrating this tradition in different locations and with different people, and yet the tradition is still in many ways the same despite these changes. Also curious is the fact that in Sicilian culture, the number 13 is considered lucky, while the number 12 is considered unlucky, which is the opposite of many other European cultures.

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