Ah, southern Italy—gorgeous pristine beaches, lush rolling hills, an omnipresent citrus smell, and a centuries-old evil curse. Come again?
I’m talking about southern Italy’s not-so-well-kept-secret, malocchio, derived from the Italian words for bad (male) and eye (occhio), known colloquially as “The Evil Eye.” Anyone who is of Italian heritage, or who has ever known someone who is, probably knows about it, although the general beliefs behind this tradition run through various cultures and religions.
Its roots are in envy, and its symptoms can include headache, excessive yawning, and a general malaise; yes, this sounds like just another day for some of us, but a trained eye, excuse the pun, can tell the difference. In its more severe forms, the afflicted can end up poor, injured, ill, or dead.
Now do I have your attention?
My first introduction to the “Evil Eye” came with the story of how my older brother was “overlooked” as a baby, which to southern Italians, is a very bad thing. It happens when someone looks at another with envy or, as in my brother’s case, someone had complimented his sparkling blue eyes without adding “God bless him” or the like.
So my great-grandmother called for olive oil, water, and scissors, shooed everyone out of the room, and went to work. Some sort of prayers were overheard, but since no one else was with her, and my bisnonna isn’t around anymore, what exactly happened in there has remained a family mystery.
But another question always nagged at me: What if I had been overlooked too? My great-grandmother was already gone by the time I was born, and my grandmother didn’t do the prayers. And although I certainly can’t claim stunning blue eyes, I’ve seen baby pictures; I wasn’t a toad.
What if I had been living my whole life under an evil spell?
Fast forward twenty years to Calabria, and I would finally have the answer, because there, little to my surprise, malocchio is alive and well, despite all the plastic red chili pepper horns liberally dispersed to counteract its effects; both the color red and the figure of a horn fight off the Evil Eye.
Incidentally, if you don’t have a horn pendant or keychain, you can always make them with your hand—index and pinkie extended with thumb over the middle fingers, folded into the fist.
Do this out of view of the malocchio-er in order to avoid even more nasty looks. A sprinkling of salt around the outside of your house works too.
So, back in Calabria, one morning, P and I were enjoying the morning sun and cappuccini before a trip to the weekly farmer’s market when I suddenly felt sluggish, my head heavy and headachy—classic malocchio symptoms, P informed me through violent head nods. Lucky for me, nearby was Nato, an elderly man who knew just what to do.
Normally prone to mumbling anyway, Nato mumbled in my general direction while making the sign of the cross and kissing his fingertips repeatedly. He then informed me that it was a man far away who had given me the Evil Eye. Perhaps a whole ocean away? Interesting, and food for later thought, but my head still throbbed.
Then he said a bunch of prayers, mostly inaudible although I made out the name of Sant’Antonino, a “Hail Mary,” an “Our Father,” and a “Glory Be,” which took about three minutes in total, and poof!
Malocchio gone, I was assured.
Maybe it was the fact that I had come inside out of the sun or that I finally had my caffeine fix, but, you know what? My headache was gone, and I was inspired to head off to market after all. What weapons these prayers were!
So, of course, I wanted to know them—what if someone was envying P too? Turns out you can only learn the process on Christmas Eve from someone who has also been taught on Christmas Eve. Lucky for me, I didn’t have to look any further than P’s Mamma, who, a few months later, just before Midnight Mass, walked me through the prayers as I mangled the local dialect.
Sorry, no photographic evidence was allowed.
The fun part was when the water, olive oil, and scissors came into play. Solving a 35-year-old family mystery, this must’ve been what my great-grandmother had done, having carried the tradition from Calabria to America.
The process is actually quite simple. Place water in a small dish and then drop olive oil slowly into it. If the olive oil disperses, the Evil Eye is, indeed, present, and you pierce the oil with the scissors while reciting the prayers.
“Die Malocchio Die!”
No, that is not an official part of any prayer, but I certainly can’t give away any centuries-old secrets here.
So now I’m armed against malocchio, especially important since it seems that I had been cursed for who knows how long. I don’t think I can remove the Evil Eye from myself (of those I’ve asked, no one is really sure of the protocol there), but luckily there’s no shortage of paesani willing to do the trick.
Who knows whether there’s any truth to the superstition, but really, at this point, who really cares?
All I know is that once a month, I smile at my neighbor Anna Maria as I sprinkle salt around my porch and steps, and I never, ever leave home without my plastic red horn keychain.