I don’t have a sister and I never wanted one. Growing up with three brothers, being the only girl meant being the centre of attention at all times. I had the luxury of being both a mummy’s girl and a daddy’s girl. I never thought I needed a sister. As I grow older, I realise the reason I didn’t need one is that I was lucky enough to make strong female friendships from a young age. My best friend from play school is someone I love more and more with every year. As she grows older and I see different facets of her personality–new dimensions and depths that come from experiences and life stages–her stock just rises. When I moved to London at 18, I met other women who became my chosen family–the sisters I never had as a child. I met women through university and later, at first jobs. We have shared tearful nights over pizza, crying over the wrong men; danced in basement bars with sticky floors; gone on holidays at the wrong season because it was cheap. As we have matured and changed, so have our friendships. We might not talk everyday or even every week, but we all know that we would drop everything for the other in a time of need. They are my chosen sisters. And in Sicily, there’s an ancient word to describe this type of relationship: cummari.
No one knows exactly how old this term is, only that it originated from Sicilian language and was initially used as an alternative to the word “godmother” (or “madrina” in Italian). Cummari also described a bride’s maid of honour, the female witness at her wedding, or the women who became her family when she married. The ancient (very Italian) tradition was that you gifted your female friend or new relation a basil plant when they became your cummari. The word pops up in Sicilian folklore in music and literature, used to denote female solidarity and a bond between women. Popular Sicilian folk songs “U picciuni d’a cummari” and “Acidduzzu di me cummari”, performed with mandolins and ukuleles, pay homage to the word, as do the works of Italian writers Giovanni Boccaccio and Giovanni Verga (others however, like the Italian fairytale The Gossips of St John, use it pejoratively). There’s also a male equivalent, cumpari, which describes male friendships of similar depth, as well as similar terms in Neapolitan dialect (comare), in French (commère) and in Portuguese (comadre). Today, the Sicilian cummari retains the original, traditional meaning, but has also evolved to describe the relationship between two women whose children have married one another or the woman you have chosen to be godmother of your child. It has become a byword for friendships that feel like family: those who came and never left, regardless of our flaws and misgivings.
In summer 2021, New Yorker Michelle Titus opened a female-focused co-living space in Catania, Sicily’s second-largest city, called Cummari. She and her Sicilian husband renovated a 19th-century building, previously occupied by two local sisters who ran a dentistry, to create a tranquil three-bedroom apartment, complete with a shared garden where solo female travellers and digital nomads can form friendships and create bonds that extend beyond their time in Sicily. “Most of the women who stay with us don’t know what the word means at first, but they adopt it pretty quickly,” she says. “For some, it gives them a new realisation of the power of female friendship. Some never knew it even existed, others had forgotten about it and then we have guests who have and appreciate it as a part of their everyday lives. The bond between cummaris feels like an exhale–there’s an ease and comfort to it.” That this word exists to describe this form of female bond matters. “So much has been taken from women in terms of our rights, and what helped me was to spend time with women I respected and admired,” says Titus. “We forgot we could be such a good community, and it’s our individual right to remember it. Women have always run together to survive. This bond and power between us was immortalised in an ancient language because it’s so important.”
Sicily, as Titus says, has a feminine spirit. Island folklore posits that either a fiery fairy queen or the goddess Aetna is behind the eruptions of Mount Etna. In fact, goddesses in general are a big deal on the island, be it strong-willed yet gentle Artemis (who is not only regarded as the protector of children, but also a talented hunter) or Persephone (also known as Kore), who was abducted by Hades and lives in the underworld six months of the year. Her return to the earth’s surface marks the start of the spring/summer season. Legend has it that Sicily itself was named after a Lebanese princess who, after being chased by a cat-monster, was forced to escape to the abandoned island which she repopulated after conveniently falling in love with the only man to still live there and having his children. Legend or otherwise, the word Sicily, Sicilia in Italian, is feminine. For all its traditionally archaic views on how women should behave, the island’s history is decidedly female. Its ancient language even makes space for the relationships that matter to us.
If we’re lucky, we all have that friend who is our cummari. In Sicily, cummari-style bonds also flourish in the work of and connection between the female art collective behind Catanese independent store Tabaré. They appear in the support and camaraderie shared by the Zingarelle of Sicilia, a community of island-based women spanning wildly differing ages and nationalities, who meet to build and strengthen female friendships and to create a nurturing chosen sisterhood. We recognise these friendships in mainstream popular culture: take Lenu and Lila, who bond over their shared upbringing and experiences in the Neapolitan novels; Birdie and Maggie, whose childhood friendship is tested as life gets in the way in Dolly Alderton’s recent TV adaptation of Everything I Know About Love; the support, strength and age-transcendent nature of the friendship between the group of women in Steel Magnolias.
Language doesn’t belong to anyone, not to academics nor teachers. We have all borrowed language, helped it evolve, and used it as a tool to understand different cultures and to find a way of expressing ourselves. We take different words and use them as a way of relating to others. Words are just flat letters strung together until we transfuse them with our emotions and apply them to our lives. Language is designed to be shared. Cummari may have originated in Sicily, but if that word means something to you–if it describes the female relationships in your life–spread the word. Just don’t forget its roots.