I am a girl of the South. I am happy contemplating the sea, the clear summer sky, the scent of fresh figs and almonds, crushed tomatoes on bread topped with loads of olive oil. I lose myself in the generosity, in the hospitality of my people, in the traditions, the slow pace of a bygone simple life.
Traditions that are not just about the sea, sun and good food, but above all, authenticity. Anyone who has ever visited Puglia at least once knows what I mean. Puglia is a land blessed with every gift from God, whether you go to the coast, the plains, the farms, or the city.
But what is authentic in Puglia? We could say anything and everything.
When I was little, for me it was the focaccia I took to school for snack, the expanse of thousand-year-old olive trees on my family’s land, the smell of sauce in August, the obligatory Sunday mass and the threats of divine retribution if I skipped it.
It goes without saying that I grew up in a strongly devout family, for generations faithful to an endless list of saints and protected by the Archangel Michael. This is also authenticity, clearly illustrated by bells that ring every quarter hour, especially in the smaller villages, where people go by stricter religious mores, clashing with the existence of ancestral folk rites.
Along with the “official” beliefs of established codified religiosity, (consisting of church celebrations, universal prayers, pilgrimages and visits to the Pope), there persists a parallel, darker practice, permeating with superstition and vaguely sacrilegious legacies.
Among these, the most seductive is the rite of the “affascino” (evil eye).
The etymology of the word is from the Latin fascinum but it does not refer to the modern “fascination”. Instead, it translates as spell, curse, or witchcraft, since its first known uses in the 15th century. Therefore, in southern Italy, when we say someone has “fascinated” you, it doesn’t mean you’ve been charmed by their beauty and elegance, but that you’ve been marked by the evil eye.
The obvious question then, is how does one fall victim to this evil eye? Voodoo dolls and satanic masses have nothing to do with it; everything originates from the gaze and intentions of those who cast the spell, even if unintentionally malicious. The common belief is that people are jinxed or cursed by those who are envious, who speak behind our backs, who offer blatantly insincere compliments. People who are a little toxic, who regard others with ill will. However, it may be that the “guilty” person in question, whose identity is almost never known, does not necessarily do it on purpose. The origin of the malediction can be direct, well-targeted, while also devoid of bad intentions.
Interestingly, the term does not only apply to the result of years of envy, but also to dispelling the curse.
Many times, during my life, I have been told “let’s take a look at you, maybe you’ve been cursed” and I also have asked “mom will you clear the curse?” These beliefs stem solely from superstition, from social and environmental conditioning and tradition. There have been numerous times that I’ve sat in front of my grandmother or my mother undergoing inspection for a potential curse.
In the majority of cases, it is the women who are the keepers of these rituals. The anziani, grandmothers and great-grandmothers, who since the dawn of time, have handed down these rites with an almost scientific rigor. The teaching can occur only on specific days of the year; Christmas night and Good Friday, limited to just three people in a lifetime. Not following these directives would cause the rite not to work for those who perform it as well as those learning it. In my family, my grandmother taught it to my mother and she then taught it to me. I, in turn, will only be able to teach it to three others.
Skepticism towards these practices is more than understandable, but it is not my intent to legitimize them or not; the point is not to lose this rich ancient tradition, one steeped in the characteristic culture of southern Italy.
Practically speaking, the evil eye can manifest itself in many ways. Some experience violent headaches, others stomach aches, dizziness, sudden fatigue, fainting, or any symptom that appears without an apparent logical cause. Once it is ascertained that the recipient has been hit by the cursed evil eye, the rite is finally carried out.
Depending on the region and area of origin, there are gestures and exact procedures performed for the rite to work. One of my most vivid childhood memories is that of my grandmother, her gnarled and stubby fingers preparing the necessary items: a white ceramic plate, water, oil, coarse salt, matches and, on specific days, metal utensils, such as scissors or keys. The only constant is the very secret prayer that is whispered during the rite in absolute silence.
Obviously, considering what has been written, I can not list how the ritual is carried out. What I can reveal is that the shapes the oil droplets make when poured over water is the main indicator confirming the presence of the evil eye. If the oil spreads out, becoming almost transparent, the intent is violence, if drops join, there are two gossipers, if they meld it is a very close person, perhaps within the same family, while small drops indicate women, large ones are men.
Once, convinced I had been cursed, I went to my grandmother and asked her to “heal me”. I clearly remember how the first drop of oil almost burst, then dissipated in the water, and she, lip curled, announced “My child, there is so much envy!”.
What happened can’t be explained. It is a fact that oil does not dissolve in water, yet, in most cases of “serious” curses, this indeed happens. At the end of the ritual, the proof that everything has gone well is the sequence of yawns that affects those who perform the rite. This is sometimes accompanied by headaches and symptoms similar to those of the victim, in a sort of transmigration of evil from one body to the other.
These rites are theatrical, ancestral, even disturbing. For those who are unaccustomed to them, participating in these events can be a powerful experience, and just as powerful is the attraction one feels towards it, as with everything mysterious and unknown. So why, over time, was the term stripped of its original meaning and become synonymous with attraction, with sensual charm?
It seems that between the 1500s and 1600s the path of the term reversed course. It changed from a malefic influence to a charming and bewitching one. In any case, whether it has a positive or negative meaning, it is undeniable that the enchanting aura is still a very powerful influence.
There are countless of these rituals in Italy, especially in the south. You’ll find believers sweeping after the footsteps of a hexer, drawing a protective circle of water around oneself, tossing salt for good luck to ward off the evil eye, calling out “blessings!” or “Saint Martin!” (as it’s done in my part of Italy), to the well-known lucky horn typical of the Neapolitan tradition.
The south is made up of these superstitions and ancient legacies, partly humorous, partly worthy of respect, even if only for the history they impart. The beauty of it all is also this: in between enjoying a local delicacy and taking a dip in the sea, one might cross paths with a little old woman dressed in black, hair covered by a handkerchief, charging towards her mission to remove a curse from some unlucky recipient.
And what about you? Would you try it?