You may already know this, but in case you don’t – Italians are, on the whole, extremely superstitious. These superstitions involve some things that may be familiar, but also some rituals that might border on the bizarre if you didn’t know what was going on. While some are being relegated to memory as older generations (the only ones left who know the rituals and prayers) are dying off, some of them are pervasive enough that younger generations live by them as well. Here are just a few of the more well-known ones.
- The Evil Eye – This might be the most widespread, and it’s still practiced today. In Italian, it’s “malocchio” which is a sort of combination of the Italian words for bad (male) and eye (occhio). Whereas I might think that giving someone the evil eye means you’re glaring at them, malocchio has more to do with someone looking at or thinking of someone else with envy. The person who is being envied is then at risk of all kinds of bad things, from a lifetime of poverty to death and everything in between, unless the rituals and prayers which drive away malocchio are performed. Of course, not only is the banishing of the malocchio a superstition, the prayers and rituals themselves are also bathed in mystery. The prayers are only known by women, and the circumstances under which you’re allowed to learn or teach them are severely limited. For a nice overview of malocchio, see this post. And for pity’s sake, if you compliment someone’s baby in Italy, say “God bless him/her” afterwards or the baby will be cursed.
- The Devil’s Horn – If you happen to see a bunch of Italians making a sign with their hands, pointing only their index and pinky fingers up so that looks like they’re at some kind of heavy metal concert, you’re witnessing someone making the Devil’s Horn symbol. In Italian, it’s called “corno” and it can be considered good luck or bad luck, depending on whether the fingers point up or down. Pointed down, it’s good luck – it means you’re warding off the Evil Eye. Pointed down, it’s an insult to whomever you’re gesturing at. If you don’t want to try to remember whether up is bad or good, you can also pick up a corno pendant to wear. They can be either red, gold or silver and they’re twisted horn-looking things that are most often worn by men.
- Lucky and Unlucky Numbers – I’ve always been used to people shying away from the number 13, as it’s considered unlucky. In Italy, however, it’s the number 17 that’s the really unlucky one. You’ll be hard-pressed to find any Italian celebration scheduled for the 17th of any month. On the other hand, the number 13 is generally considered lucky in Italy.
There are others that are probably less prevalent nowadays – like having birds in the house is bad luck, or seeing nuns brings bad luck, or a loaf of bread that was placed upside-down brings bad luck. Every culture has superstitions (many of them based in religious tradition), and many of them probably sound crazy to people who aren’t used to them. If you’d like to read about more Italian superstitions, see this page and this page.
Photo by: Rachele Di Paolo