I grew up next door to my Calabrese grandparents, and was fortunate to be close to them and experience the rich Italian culture, traditions and customs passed down to us through the generations. One such custom is a Calabrian folk healing ritual that may be performed when someone is feeling ill, and he/she would like to know if the illness is the result of the “evil eye”, or malocchio. The illness could include headaches, gastrointestinal issues, fever, chills, and more. One must pose the question – are these symptoms not synonymous with the common cold or flu? Take some ibuprofen and call it a (sick) day! Well, some Italians may have other ideas about the cause and treatment.
According to Krippner, Budden, Gallante & Bova, 2011, malocchio is a key term in Calabrian popular medicine and “is an illness brought about either unintentionally or by malice”. If the malocchio is brought about by malice, it can be evoked by attaccatura (attachment), fascino (binding) or fattura (fixing). In my family, my Nanna performs the binding, or fascino, healing ritual. This practice was shared with her by her mother-in-law, and it is said that these healing rituals are to be passed down at Christmastime. She tells me that if someone is giving you the evil eye, they are usually saying “too many” good things about you (for example, she is so lucky/beautiful/smart/married well), and that there could be envy behind their words. This envy is then “cast” upon you, and you are bound, or fascina. Quave and Pieroni (2005) add:
If one is complimented on a possession (such as a large home) or condition (such as physical beauty) and this compliment is not followed by a benediction (abbenedica) of “God bless you,” malocchio will afflict the possessor of the admired object or condition (p. 62)
This would be important information to heed when visiting relatives from the Old Country! To an “outsider”, witnessing this type of folk healing ritual, or even reading about this belief/superstition, would probably raise an eyebrow. In order to understand the relevance of such a ritual as a response to illness in modern society, a glimpse into the Calabrian history is required. Krippner et al. (2011) states how, after World War II and the downfall of Fascism, Italy’s folk traditions were drastically modified or erased altogether. This change was not as noticeable in Calabria, and this is one reason why folk healing traditions have persevered over the years. As well, “Calabrian institutions and culture have been deeply influenced by Roman Catholic traditions” (Krippner et. al, 2011). As a cultural group, Sicilian Canadians, for example, are predominantly Roman Catholic. “Religious doctrines associated with the Roman Catholic Church tend to emphasize this distinction between good and evil” (Migliore, 1997). The good/evil dichotomy is an integral part of the Sicilian-Canadian worldview, and therefore influences how people perceive reality, and how they interact with one another.
He further explains how Sicilian-Canadians react to envy:
The recognition that envy can be a dangerous emotion in turn influences how Sicilian Canadians behave in certain circumstances. Individuals, for example, display their respect for others by controlling or counteracting envious feelings. To intentionally display envy, or to ignore ritualized behaviour that counteracts unconscious envy, is a sign of disrespect (p. 31).
The evil eye is also present in many different folk cultures. Berger (2012) notes that “over the course of thousands of years, peoples of different nations have developed their varied, culturally sanctioned methods of thwarting the evil eye”. These methods of protection included special prayers and incantations, and in my family’s understanding and practice, the use of fluids (water) and items (oil) to interact with each other in order to determine the presence of “sorcery”.
The following is my family’s method of protection, or ritual to thwart the evil eye (and determine if you are fascina, or bound by malocchio). Following this, there is also a video showing my Nanna demonstrating this Calabrian folk healing ritual.
Glass, Water (3/4 full), Tablespoon, Oil (any oil will do; my Nanna uses vegetable oil)
- Fill a glass 3/4 full with water, and place on flat surface.
- Pour vegetable oil on tablespoon.
- While thinking of the person who is ill, dip your thumb into the oil and drop 4 drops in a cross formation (sign of the cross).
- If the person is fascina, the oil droplets will either “clump” together as one oil puddle on the water’s surface, or make a “horn” shape.
- If the person is not fascina, the oil droplets will simply fall into the water in separate drops.
- Repeat until all oil is used.
- If “commissioned” to perform the ritual, the person would be informed if they are or are not. If they are, they are supposed to feel better after the ritual is complete.
Please note that in this version, there is no recital of a prayer or incantation during the procedure. This may differ from other regions in Italy. There are variations on the malocchio prayer, as outlined by Quave and Pieroni (2005), and includes this prayer:
Uno mi haferito, Tre mi hanno salvato. Mi hanno guarito le tre persone della Santissima Trinita: Padre, Figlio e Spirito Santo. One has hurt me, Three have saved me. The three of the Holy Trinity have healed me: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (p. 67).
Berger, A. (2012). The Evil Eye—An Ancient Superstition. Journal of Religion and Health, 51(4), 1098-1103.
Krippner, S., Budden, A., Gallante, R., & Bova, M. (2011). Krippner, S., Budden, A., Bova, M., & Gallante, R. (2011). The indigenous healing tradition in Calabria, Italy. International Journal of Transpersonal Studies, 30(1-2), 48–62. International Journal of Transpersonal Studies, 30(1).
Migliore, S. (1997). Mal’uocchiu : Ambiguity, evil eye, and the language of distress. University of Toronto Press.
Quave, C., & Pieroni, A. (2005). Ritual Healing in Arbëreshë Albanian and Italian Communities of Lucania, Southern Italy. Journal of Folklore Research, 42(1), 57-97.