This site is dedicated to the good life. That is a life where things are good, fun and enjoyable. Sometimes maybe a bit over my head, a little extravagant or beyond my scope of recognition. And often, my good life is rooted in traditions like family, friends, memories and beliefs. Well, today’s column is about some of those beliefs, snippets from the past as I try to clear my memory.
Now, I grew up in a thick Italian family. My grandfather got on a boat at 16 years old and came to this country, owned a macaroni store and raised his family as he saw fit. All of my relatives seemed to share in his views of life and how to live it. They also believed in a few offbeat superstitions, for lack of a better term, that came with them from the old country. I was subject to those conditions. Some were fun. Most were odd and a few were downright bizarre. So, here we go, delving into the mind of a nice Italian boy.
You think the number 13 is bad? In Italy 13 is fine, but the number 17 is considered a bad omen. This most likely dates back to Roman times. The Roman numeral for 17 is XVII, which if the letters are rearranged spells the word “VIXI,” meaning “I have lived.” This gives rise to the thought that I am now dead. Just as an aside, Friday is also considered a bad day because, according to the Bible, Jesus died on a Friday. So here, while we avoid walking under ladders and black cats on Friday the 13th, in Italy that is done on the 17th. Another reason that 17 is considered bad is that, if you really have an imagination, the 1 represents a man, while the 7 represents the gallows. Thus the number is considered very unlucky. Even if you should fly on Alitalia Airlines, you may notice that there is no row 17!
This one I’m not sure if it comes from Naples or Sicily, but it is an ancient belief that you should always be nice to a cat because a cat is a lost soul waiting to get into heaven. This belief made its way here in a big way. If any of you ever saw the play “CATS,” that is the basis of the play. If you remember, at the end, the sickliest, mangiest cat is brought up to heaven and his earthly suffering is ended. The music is great and the play itself ran on Broadway for years, but I would bet that the underlying meaning, the real story was lost on most of the audience.
The Italian horn, the horn of the devil, or probably the most used lucky charm of all. The CORNO resembles a red hot chili pepper and is worn mostly by men to ward off threats to their manliness or their “mojo.” Although most who wear them will swear that it is the devil’s own horn, this amulet actually predates Christianity by thousands of years. These are also often seen hanging from the rear view mirrors in an effort to bring luck and wisdom to the driver and to keep passengers safe in the car, which in turn is based on the older custom of hanging them to protect the horses. Also known as cornicello or cornetto, this also has its basis in mythology as it was considered a tribute to the Greek god Zeus and later to the Roman goddess Venus and today our cornucopia is a symbol of plenty.
Now we are messing with the big boys. The MAL’OCCHIO, the evil eye, often pronounced “maloik” this is kind of a curse when it is used because of jealousy or envy. The malocchio will then manifest itself in some way where the person receiving it will suffer some sort of problem, headaches, illness or loss of a job. However, this can also be given without realizing it. If a person says to you that you have a beautiful baby, or that she is “so happy for you,” this must be immediately followed by the words, “God Bless you,” just in case those words were really rooted in jealousy. I can remember when I was maybe eight or so. I came home one day with a mad headache and my grandmother, convinced that I was the victim of this evil scourge got some olive oil dipped her thumb in it and made the sign of the cross on my forehead while saying prayers under her breath. This ritual took probably 20 minutes and I don’t remember if it worked or not. I am pretty sure though that if it didn’t, I wouldn’t say so. I didn’t want to go through that again!
In dialect, pronounced as “moonagiels” these are kind of like leprechauns with roots in Naples and the surrounding towns. These are gremlin-like creatures, dressed like monks who love children and sometimes aid the infirm. Mostly though they are mischievous, fun loving little creatures who thrive on watching you go nuts. Okay, here is what I mean. Did you ever put something down and when you go back for it just minutes later, it’s not there? So you spend your time looking all over the house for whatever it is, retracing your steps, looking from here to high heaven. Suddenly, there it is, right where you left it and where you looked ten times before. What happened here was, the moonagiels had it. They used it, played with it and put it back when they were done, and had a great old time watching you look for it.
So, how does this relate to the Good Life? Memories, stories of days gone by, culture and folklore. It all contributes to who we are, to what makes us, us. These are the things we lived with through our formative years. Now, every nationality has its own stories, heroes, fairies that guide and give us a model to live up to and I’m sure any of you can name dozens. Cherish those memories. In times of stress, these will help us to pull through.
So there you have it, but this is by no means the end. Superstitions are with us, inbred in us and drilled into us. So stay positive, cross your fingers when you wish for something and never, never say you don’t believe. There isn’t a corno big enough to save you if you doubt.