(The “Corno”, devil’s horn, protects from bad luck.)
The Evil Eye (Malocchio)
The Evil Eye, or Malocchio, is one of the most ancient and widespread superstitions of the whole Mediterranean basin. Every culture seems to have their own version of the Evil Eye and their own ways to fight it. One thing they all have in common: the Evil Eye is caused by jealousy and envy. If a person envies you or your family fortunes, she/he may cause a Malocchio curse, even without actually meaning it.
The Devil’s Horn (Corno)
An offshoot of the Evil Eye curse is the use of the Corno, or Devil’s Horn amulet. These twisted red coral, gold or silver amulets are often worn as necklaces by men to ward off curses on their “manliness” – very similar to a Mojo.
They can often be seen sold in Italian jewelry stores and during Italian American festivals. Although most men who wear one will say it represents one of the horns of the Devil, the Corno (also known as Cornuto or Cornicello) predates Christianity by thousands of years.
Always related to the Corno is the hand gesture known as the mano cornuta (or fare le corna) which also wards off the Evil Eye. It is made by extending the pinkie and index finger like a pair of horns and pointing them down. When this gesture is made pointing upward (similar to the heavy metal salute to the Devil) it is as an insult to somebody, meaning their husband or wife is unfaithful.
No Birds In The House
Italians often believe that having a bird in the house brings bad luck. Today, things have changed and plenty of Italian-American have birds as family pets. Some versions of the superstition also extend avoidance to bird feathers, especially peacock feathers, as their coloring is strongly reminiscent of an “evil eye”.
I was told that the reason for birds being bad luck stemmed from New Testament narratives, in particular to the episode of St Peter’s betrayal of Christ, associated to the morning singing of the cockerel.
This is one of those superstitions that are known throughout Europe, and is very much rooted in past centuries poverty and struggle for survival.
According to this belief, a loaf of bread must always be placed face up, or else bad luck will come. Upside down bread is taken quite seriously at times, especially on fishing boats, where bad luck could mean no fish, or worse. This belief is still adhered to by many people, but reflects just how important bread was in the life of a starving peasant or immigrant family. For them, bread was life and so every precaution was taken in order to keep it on the table.
The Italian concept of lucky and unlucky numbers is different from other parts of the world. Some older Italian Americans still hold the belief of lucky 13, especially when gambling, but it seems that in Italy the number 13 has started to have unlucky properties as well. The number 17 is considered unlucky for at least two reasons, both having to do with how it is written. When 17 is written using Roman numerals XVII, it can be rearranged to spell the Roman word VIXI meaning “I have lived” and was found on ancient tombstones. When written using Arabic numerals 17 are still considered unlucky since it resembles a man hanging from a gallows.
Blessing/Exorcising a New House
This is not as common these days, but was practiced for generations in both Italy and America, especially when it came to newlyweds and their abode. Southern Italians immigrating to new lands brought with them their ideas of bad luck, along with how to fight it. Moving into a first home was accompanied by the necessary rituals to rid the place of any spirits that may have been left by previous owners and could harm the new couple or their first child.
The Witchdoctor (Mago/Maga)
Southern Italian immigrants brought their views of health and medicine with them from their homeland and included a mix of folk medicine and ancient superstitions. Some of these are still practiced by grandmothers across the country. However, when home remedies did not work and modern medicine was not an option (either because money was scarce, or a language barrier would have made it impossible to communicate) some neighborhoods had the services of a man or woman trained in ancient healing techniques, often bordering on witchcraft. This profession vanished once immigrants were socially assimilated, but the older generations often still tell tales of the “witchdoctor” healing sores and boils with leeches or concocting potions.