One cannot deny the intrigue of superstitions. You may not believe in them, you may attempt to resist their lure, but they still stay there niggling at the back of your mind. They are a fascinating key to enriching our knowledge of history and traditional thinking. It is no surprise, therefore, that a country as rich in cultural heritage as Italy – the pagan beginnings, centre of the Roman Empire, home to the Vatican State – is rife with such ritualistic beliefs and where consequently the word Superstition derives from. First recorded in the 3rd and 2nd centuries B.C.E. by the likes of Plautus, Ennius and later Pliny, the Latin word superstitio emerged with an entirely pious interpretation being used to describe ‘divinatory practice’. It wasn’t until the arrival of the earliest Christians that the first negative sense of the term was implied. Flung back and forth among the Roman Polytheists and Christians, the term kicked off a verbal combat between the opposing beliefs. This cut-throat war on the word only ceased with Constantine’s victory at the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 313 AD, after which superstitio became the metonym for paganism.
Two millennia later, with that empire long gone, the City of Rome that once prided itself as the capital of an almighty 21% of the world’s population, has seen its domains diminish to the boot shaped peninsula of Italy. Togas and tunics have been traded for tank tops and tees and gelato has mercifully upgraded tenfold from its 2nd century AD origins of honey blended Alpine snow. And yet superstitions, though their origins are often lost, their roots forgotten and their reasoning buried with the very souls who forged them, are so ingrained that they prevail and sprout even in the hardest ground. They continue to play a significant role in present-day Italian society. Here are just some of the best:
The number 17
Bring the brave, the bold and the daredevils alike to Italy on Friday 13th and there would be little resistance. If partaking in thrill seeking activities on particularly ill-fated days is your thing however, you would have much more success in doing so on Friday the 17th. In Italy forget number 13; number 17 is the one to beware and has been deemed unlucky since Antiquity. The Roman numerals for this ominous number are XVII which if rearranged spell VIXI. In Latin vixi means ‘I have lived’ and hence implies that it is time to die. As Friday is the day on which Jesus was put to the cross, the two combined could make way for some great misfortune.
If this spooky number is beginning to induce some panic, you are now in tally with the rest of the country. The national airline, Alitalia, employs a zero-tolerance policy towards the number, deleting aisle 17 on all of its planes, while Italian football teams refuse at all cost to schedule a match for the 17th of the month.
The lucky horn (il corno portafortuna)
The superstitious need not fret. Italians and especially those from Naples, are well equipped for such a day as the 17th in the form of a small scale, brilliantly bright red horn that is worn as an amulet around the neck or wrist and protects the wearer from the evil eye or any general misfortune coming their way. The narrow streets of Naples are heaving with stalls selling this chilli-pepper like pendants and if you vacate to a nearby beach you will be unlikely to see an Italian sun-kissed chest that is not adorned with at least one of these colourful charms.
The origins of the horn as a symbol of luck is lost in the mist of time with its use going as far back to the Neolithic period. These ancient people decorated their caves with animal horns, used as talismans under the auspice that they supposedly bring fortune and fertility to their community. Moving into Antiquity and we are met with the personification of luck herself, the Italian Goddess Fortuna, who is invariably represented carrying various iterations of the horn. Some of these are formulated in their entirety, others hollowed out, turned over and spilling forth a bounteous stream of coins. The latter, known as the Cornucopia, is commonly illustrated as a horn-shaped wicker basket overflowing with flowers, fruits and other such indulgences.
So if luck, nourishment and lavish luxuriance isn’t enough symbolism to get you hooked on the horn, I’ll try my last shot. I introduce you to another God, Fascinus. Seldom talked of today and doubtlessly pushed away by centuries of prudes, Fascinus is the embodiment of the divine phallus and is entirely penile in form. You heard me right; the legs, feet, tail and body of this supreme being of yesteryear are shaped like the male sex organ. As the protector of childbirth and the almighty fender of the evil eye, it just so happens that the amulet of choice during the Roman age was that of a small erect penis. Now, let’s compare the shape of both ancient and present-day lucky charms and I’ll rest my case: nothing changes.
Another Neapolitan special and a whole world in itself, La Smorfia is a dream come true for the superstitious (no pun intended) and if played well can bring the pennies rolling in. This wacky but wonderful ancient art form assigns numbers based on different dream interpretations, which the dreamer will then select for that day’s lotto card. The idea is that dreams by night are planted in the head by the dead as signs, signals and warnings as to what’s in store for such earthly sleepers, allowing any Smorfia lotto player to place their luck in the hands of fate itself.
La Smorfia, which takes its name from the Greek mythological God of dreams, Morpheus, is another Italian tradition that’s origin is lost down a time-worn path of legend and lore. In the past, the meaning of each number was passed verbally from one generation to another but with time these interpretations were recorded and noted down in the form of illustrations, becoming the books of reference for the gullible gambler. Ask any Neapolitan and she or he is sure to recall the existence of such a book, perhaps tattered and torn by overuse but placed beyond shadow of a doubt in prize position in the house of the beloved nonna. The age of the internet does not skimp in its shortcuts at La Smorfia and nowadays players who have yet to memorize this numerical dream analysis by heart, can find all required information online. They may even download an app that decodes their dreams at a click of a finger.
So to conclude this tale of opportunity, next time you wake up with a startle and shudder, having just dreamt of a soldier, a hunchback and your very own mother drinking coffee in the garden, don’t dwell or linger at its absurdity but rather run straight to your nearest lotto station, place your bets on 12, 57, 52, 42 and 51 respectively and you may just be in for some smorfeous fortune!