Last Sunday, we walked by a small book market that was situated next to the church of Cittadella. It displayed books on all kinds of topics, for a very reasonable price, so we decided to pause and have a look. We browsed through the selection and ended up purchasing Alta Magia, a book by Pierre Piobb written in the beginning of the 20th century. It focuses on a more scientific approach of studies in direction of magic and the occult, which was at that time still a topic of interest amongst scholars.
I find this particularly fascinating, because I had heard and read that occultism, magic, superstition, etc. used to play a significant part in the lives of people living in the south of Italy. Even though there was and is still a strong urge to participate in Catholicism, the more pagan traditions have been very much alive until recently. In fact, it is strongly connected to the traditions of the Catholic Church that stresses many pagan rituals. However, it is said to also have been connected to the more agricultural lives of many people in the south, compared to the more industrial lives of people living in the north of Italy and Europe.
Because agriculture kept on being such a central part of the Southern Italian culture, the magic and superstition manifested itself mostly around the dependence of the cycles of nature. It is really shown in the connection between human and animals and human and plants. It also created an allowed existence of witches* that had a close connection with nature.
Herbs were often (and actually still are) used as remedies against many illnesses. An example of this is rue (Ruta), which is known to have a narcotic power. To make sure that it possessed the magic to heal, it was often gathered after midnight. According to accounts of the usage of this herb it had the power to fend off evil in many forms. It is also known that too much of this herb is actually poisonous and can lead to serious damage, so it was not supposed to be applied by people who had no knowledge of the herb and this is where the witchcraft came into play. To me, but that’s just my opinion, it seemed that these “witches” were people who simply had a more profound knowledge of the working of these plants.
Another example is garlic. It was used to protect houses, people and animals and often a clove of garlic was carried around in somebody’s pocket. The laurel, or the bay leaf, on the other hand, was supposed to have cleansing properties and was especially used a lot in Sicily.
These kind of traditions have been slowly removed from modern culture, also in the South. Knowledge has been lost, science has lost interest in the occult and modern society is moving in a different direction. This doesn’t mean that there’s nothing left of magic, witchcraft and superstition. It is for sure being practiced less, but it is especially no longer being practiced so openly. But there are still people who would call themselves a witch and who use the traditions of another time to practice magic in the modern world.
From Italy with love,
* The allowed existence of witches may be surprising considering the efforst of the Church to expel any kind of witchcraft and murder anyone who could be dabbling with that. The Church also often used these pagan rituals in their favour to convince or even manipulate the masses and it seems that in later centuries the witches in the South were more or less tolerated.