Monday, June 8, 2015

'Stregheria and Vernacular Magic in Italy: A Comparison' by Sabina Magliocco - Part 2

Italian vernacular magic, by contrast, is neither a religion nor a formalized system of practice. It is both a worldview and a set of customs tied to the agro-pastoral cycle which is strongly embedded in the lives of its practitioners, almost never on a self-conscious level. For most of its carriers, it is simply an ordinary way of doing things and behaving. While it may have historical roots in pre-Christian practices, it is emphatically not a pagan tradition, but firmly embedded within a Roman Catholic cultural matrix. In my more recent work, I have called it “the enchanted worldview,” playing on Max Weber’s trope of the disenchantment of the world.

The enchanted worldview in Italy is rooted in specific pre-market economic and social systems. Because of subsistence activities associated with the land, time is organized according to seasonal cycles; these are reflected in the ritual year, which is dominated by Catholic liturgical forms. These almost always are locally interpreted in ways that connect them to the economic cycle: for example, in Campania, where wheat and hemp crops have been replaced by tobacco, which has a similar growing season, the ritual year begins at planting time near St. Martin in mid-November, and extends until the end of the harvest season at St. Cosimo and Damiano in October. In pastoral areas such as Sardinia and the Apennine, May and September, the months that frame transhumance, are emphasized in local ritual practices. The exact shape of the ritual year thus differs markedly from one area to another. The symbols – the Madonnas and saints – are the same, but each township differs in the way it situates these characters within its symbolic and economic system. The enchanted worldview is not only rooted in the ritualyear cycle; it is all-pervading in the individual’s life cycle. It begins at birth and penetrates every phase of life and every rite of passage, from the moment of birth, when most Italian babies who are not born with a caul (la camicia, or “shirt,” in Italian) are given a fine lawn shirt by a relative, often a godparent, to protect them against evil influences, to funerals, where a variety of beliefs about the otherworld are made manifest through practice.

Volterra, Tuscany; birthplace of Aradia
The core of Italian vernacular religion and magic is thus the correlation of its symbolic systems with local economic and social structures. The primary connection is never with the dominant structures of church and state. Hegemonic structures may or may not coincide with indigenous ones, but where there is no match, they are simply ignored. If a particular element does not make sense in terms of local understandings of time, space, and the nature of the world, people will treat it as though it does not exist, as if it were of no consequence. As a result, the landscape of the enchanted worldview in Italy is everywhere local.

Despite its exquisitely local character, the enchanted worldview exists throughout Italy, in both northern and southern regions, with significantly more commonalities than one might think, given the differences in language, culture and economy that characterize Italy’s twenty regions. Certain concepts are ubiquitous: for example, the evil eye and its diagnosis and cures are found in all regions, and are very similar throughout. Yet the enchanted worldview defies systematization. Beliefs and practices are nowhere standardized, or even organized into an easily articulated set of principles; they are part of everyday life, part of praxis. German ethnologist Thomas Hauschild, who spent nearly twenty years studying magic in Basilicata, a region in the south of Italy, wrote: “There is no system, only practice” (Hauschild, 2003:19). The practice is the system. Practices and beliefs exist within a particular
cosmology, but its details seldom preoccupy its technologists. Thus, a structure like that described by Grimassi, with orderly branches in various parts of Italy, each with its own leader and systematic body of lore, is inherently foreign to the enchanted worldview in Italy.

Diana - Goddess of the Hunt
The main characteristic of the enchanted worldview is a belief in the omnipresence of spiritual beings that can influence human lives. These beings include the dead, saints, and the Virgin Mary and Jesus (who are, after all, nothing more than particularly powerful dead). Spirits such as folletti, linchetti and monachelli also appear, echoing some of the spiritual flora and fauna in Grimassi’s works, but they are often troublesome, rather than helpful: they tangle the manes of horses, frighten donkeys and confuse travelers who cross their paths. Some spirits are associated with certain kinds of illnesses, although exact relationships are generally determined by local lore. For instance, in Basilicata, the unquiet dead are said to cause skin diseases such as erysipelas and St. Anthony’s Fire (herpes zoster); in Campania, children who fail to thrive are said to be taken by witches on their night flights, and worn out with flying and dancing; in Emilia Romagna, Puglia and Sardinia, spiders and/or insects are responsible for a range of illnesses from tarantismo to argismo to arlìa. Some scholars suggest these insects once embodied ancestor spirits who then possessed their victims through the bite or sting (De Martino, 2005 [1961]). Even spirits such as saints and the Madonna, who belong to a greater Catholic pantheon, are everywhere localized: the Madonna is usually worshipped in one or more of her local manifestations, and the devout have their personal favorites based on each Madonna’s attributes and the qualities she “stands over,” or rules, and their own individual needs or interests.

Everywhere in Italy, there are experts who specialize in interfacing with the spirit world. These are the Italian equivalents of British and European cunning folk, and much of their work consists in the diagnosis and cure of spiritual illness. Their names vary according to region; they may be known as guaritori (healers), donne che aiutano (women who help), praticos (knowledgeable or wise people), fattucchiere (fixers), maghi (sorcerers), and by numerous other dialectical terms; but they seldom call themselves streghe (witches). This term is overwhelmingly negative in Italian folklore, and almost always refers
to a person who brings harm to others. Italian folklore is rich in legends about witches who fly through the air to their legendary gatherings around the walnut tree of Benevento, shrink themselves so small they can fit through keyholes, suck breath or blood from victims, and cause all manner of illness and mischief to their neighbors. Clearly, these activities refer to folkloric witches; they have never been practiced by actual human beings. Occasionally, however, healers may be accused of being streghe by those who believe themselves to be victims of black magic, or by clients who have failed to be healed by the cunning person’s cures.


No comments:

Post a Comment