Saturday, December 16, 2017
The End of Magical Me Part II Strega Nonna
My journey to Magical Me began with trying to forge a connection of sorts with one of my great grandmothers, my maternal grandfather’s mother. She was an Italian immigrant who had outlived a few husbands and had eight surviving children—seven daughters and a son. Another son, said to be “sensitive,” died in early adulthood in a “sanatorium,” and a few other daughters died in early childhood/infancy during the 1918 flu epidemic. My grandfather claimed—half-jokingly or not, I am not sure—that he was birthed into a “piss pot,” my great grandmother mistaking birth pangs for an urge to urinate, so accustomed to birth-giving was she.
I was about 10 years old when my great grandmother passed away at the age of 82 years. I remember her as a stocky, jolly, white-haired woman whose face was fair and wrinkle-free. Her number one teaching point was to not ever utter a negative thought—and not have a negative thought period. This advice had very little to do with “positive thinking” ideology popular among the then New Thought and now New Age sets. It is a foundational idea within Italian folk magic and superstition. It relates to the cultural obsession with averting the evil eye—not attracting it and not being a source of it. That is, my great grandmother’s advice was less about creating positivity than it was about avoiding negativity.
The concern about avoiding negativity had seemingly rubbed off on my grandfather. My maternal grandparents’ house was chock full of evil-averting and good-luck–attracting charms. A bull’s horn with two small holes in which tiny amber eyes were fixed hung over the entranceway. Horse shoes were wall ornaments and bright red plastic imitation coral horns, fico mano (a thumb-in-fist amulet), and corno mano (an amulet of the “horns” gesture) dangled from door knobs or hooks in the wall. And lucky elephant and pot-bellied “laughing Buddha” Hotep statuettes were more than mere knickknacks on the credenza.
When I moved into my maternal grandparents’ house after they both had passed on, I was ever discovering more talisman in odd and hidden places: bunches of items—blessed palm; felt religious scapulae; cheap metal saint medallions; rosary beads; and cornicelloo, fico mano, and glass eye amulets—strung on spikes driven into concrete pillars in the unfinished basement or strung on nails driven into the wall in the far back recesses of clothes closets . . . . It was quaint, curious, and creepy.
Although I had a familiarity with evil-averting Italian-American talisman and grew up knowing that garlands of chili peppers and garlic cloves hung from hooks festooning kitchen windows were meant to keep bugaboos away, I would not fully appreciate the significance of these affectations and the curios found in my grandparents’ house until several years later when I sought to explore my great grandmother’s culture. Besides information about Italian magical/superstitious ideas about positive thinking and evil-eye lore, it took quite some time to weed out information.
I first read work by Raven Grimassi on stregheria, concluding that my great grandmother did not have a history of skyclad orgies in the moonlight under the grace of the lunar goddess Diana and a lupine lord. I also found web sites that advanced a kind of witchy Estruscan (ancient nnorthern Italian) reconstructionism, and, after some time, found a bilingual chat board portal called Stregoneria Italiana, the members of whom—mostly Italian practitioners, autodidacts, and academics—were in alignment with academic research of Italian folk magic: that stregheria—as described by Grimassi—was an anomaly at best or else (his) late Modern-era invention and that Italian folk magic, referred to by a number of names, including stregoneria (sorcery/witchery) or beneficario (good magic) was a syncretic mix of sympathetic and apotropaic (evil-averting) magic and superstition, shamanism/hedge witchery, and folk Christianity, with significant emphasis on that last item.
I can’t say that much of what I read up on appealed to me as a practice, especially after I got through reading Ernesto De Martino’s Magic A Theory of the South, which describes a rather primitive and impoverished, fear-based culture of low magic and superstition in Lucania, a region adjacent to the one my Barese great grandmother was from. And none of the information gathered really clarified for me what exactly my great grandmother was “into.” All I knew is that she threatened my mother into behaving when she was child by chasing her while wielding a chicken head and that she read palms and cards, had a vocabulary about the malocchio and how to avert it, and, as mentioned, she had a strict code about maintaining positive thoughts and words. The family—her offspring—also (proudly) referred to her as a “strega”—a witch.
I would eventually learn that the term strega was originally meant to refer to the mythical bugaboo witch—specifically, a strix, an evil, vampiric, baby-killing birdlike monster and harbinger of doom originating in ancient Roman lore. The term strega is derived from striga, the Italian word for strix.
A strega, therefore, was the personification of the malocchio, a cognate of the liltu and Lilith, the Semitic personification of crib-death, maternal death, and male emasculation (at least until some late 20th century feminist neopagans and Satanists romanticized and reframed her as a champion of female empowerment). Much of European folk magic had to do with averting the mythical maleficent powers of witchcraft and the evil eye, not identifying with the mythical source of those powers.
In all accuracy, therefore, my great grandmother was not a strega. She was just an ordinary, provincial Italian woman who was enculturated into regional magical folk beliefs and practices.