In Italy Magic Can Still Be Popular

According to the anthropologists, in Italy magic sometimes represents a way to face a precarious existential condition and to exorcize the uncertain future.

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ccording to the anthropologists, magic consists in a repeated sequence of actions, gestures and oral expressions through which a sorcerer attempts to influence – both negatively and positively – someone or something. These types of faiths were very popular in ancient times, whereas with the urbanization of societies they tended to disappear in Western world. However, in Italy, magic is sometimes rooted and widespread even today. Far from being an ‘intellectual aberration’ or an ‘imperfect science’, as the first anthropologists used to define it, this practice has its precise cultural value.

Social and historical context

Thanks to the Italian anthropologist, philosopher and historian of religions Ernesto de Martino (1908-1965), Italy’s magic is no longer regarded as a mere primitive faith. De Martino stressed the importance of a historical and social contextualization of this phenomenon. Indeed, at these latitudes, magic sometimes represents a way to face a precarious existential condition and to exorcize the uncertain future as well.

A common faith

This theory was explained by de Martino after an in-depth ethnographic research conducted between 1950 and 1957 in the Southern region of Basilicata, where several magical rituals were rooted in the popular tradition. For example, a particular type of headache was often connected with a fascinatura, a sort of curse sent by someone who is furious with the victim. To find out, the ill person had to pour a drop of oil in a container full of water: if the oil did not spread, it indicated a normal disease; on the contrary, the action of fascinatura was proved. In such a case, it was common to drop the water in the street, in order to ‘deliver’ the malediction to anyone who steps on that water.

Ernesto de Martino and Muzi Epifani in 1956, during the ethnographic research in Basilicata

Magic and religion

As an alternative, the supposed victim could go to a woman, known as fattucchiera, a witch, who recited this ritual phrase: ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Fascinazione go away, do not fascinate N. N., who is baptized flesh. Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Fascinazione do not go on!’. This is only an example picked from the several well-established rituals in this territory and in different other Italian regions, where (as can be seen in the above mentioned formula) there could also be a connection between magic and Catholicism. This is due to a customized adaptation of the official religion, somehow closer to the needs of people. It is the attempt to create an antidote, extrapolated by the common religion, to their very uncertain existential conditions.

Religion is also evoked in other cases. For instance, when infants were in good health, they could attract the envy of other mothers. If a woman entered a house where there are newborns and wanted to prove her good faith, she had to follow a ritual and say; ‘Cresci, San Martino‘ (‘grow up, in the name of Saint Martin’), who is the saint of abundance and strength. Here again, an irrational fear is exorcised by a formula that temporarily prevents a negative event.

A response to the power of Negative

De Martino describes well this constant and sometimes latent threat that Italians were familiar with in the 50s (but also in the following history of the country), with the expression ‘essere-agito-da‘, something like ‘to-be-acted-by’. This idiomatic phrase puts into words the feeling of being dominated by the extraordinary power of Negative. From this point of view, rituals represent a concrete way to invert this sensation and take an active role in life and destiny. This is deeply connected with the social and historical local conditions and it is the reason why magic is less established in urban and industrialized areas.

Magic in modern times

Although magical rituals were more popular in the past, there are some old traditions linked to magic that still survive. This is the case of Taranta, a typical dance mostly widespread in Salento, the Southern end of Apulia. According to de Martino, who studied Taranta in 1959, the origin of this dance dates back to the Middle Ages. But it still fascinate lots of people, including tourists from all over the World: indeed, every August since 1998, the itinerant Festival named ‘La Notte della Taranta’ takes place in several towns and villages of Salento, ending with a great and very well attended concert in Malpignano (reaching the record numbers of 150.000 people in 2008!).

The final concert of ‘La Notte della Taranta‘ in Melpignano (2013)

Tarantismo, an hysteric behaviour

To understand the real cultural value of Taranta, it is necessary to analyse the phenomenon of tarantismo, described well by de Martino in his book ‘La terra del rimorso’. The Italian anthropologist went to Salento in 1959 together with a team composed by a psychiatrist, a psychologist, a musicologist and a sociologist. There, they examined Tarantismo in depth, like no one did before. The conclusions is that this is considered a form of hysteric behaviour, with typical symptoms of depression, melancholia and physical manifestations like abdominal ache and weariness. Mostly widespread among women, this disease was supposedly caused by the bite of a spider called ‘taranta’. Indeed, it was common belief that the only medicine capable of healing a ‘tarantata‘ (a woman who was bitten by taranta) was music.

Lizzano (Apulia), a ‘tarantata‘ woman in the 50s, during the music therapy

The ritual

Thanks to a continuous and regular rhythm, the patients performed a frenetic dance through which they exorcised the disease. The ritual could last for several hours, sometimes for 2 or 3 days, and it was often associated with colourful stripes, depending on the colours of the biting spider. Traditionally, the ritual had to be performed on specific days of June, during which the ‘tatrantate’ asked for grace to Saint Paul. Here again, the difficult conditions found a concrete response in a ritual linked with official religion but re-adapted for a specific cultural situation.