Italian Superstitions by Mirella Sichirollo Patzer

Posted by on Feb 25, 2013 in Featured Book, Historical Tidbits | 4 comments

Did you know that the Italian culture is rife with superstitious beliefs? Some superstitions are so prevalent, so ingrained in the culture, that they dictate even the smallest details of everyday life. I can vouch for this because I’m first generation Italian Canadian and my mother and my aunts were constantly warning me of things I must do or not do as I was growing up. Here’s a few of the most common superstitions I encountered:

Pregnancy is something that must be taken very seriously. All cravings must be immediately fulfilled because if the mother-to-be touches herself accidentally while craving something, the baby will be marked for life in that very spot. But what if the pregnant mother doesn’t have any cravings? Simple – they must take a bite from every bit of food they see. That is the only way to ensure all cravings are fulfilled.

The curse of the evil eye is a main theme in my novel, Orphan of the Olive Tree. Anyone can cast the evil eye – intentionally or accidentally. All it takes is to pay someone a compliment while feeling jealous or envious. Babies are the most vulnerable to the curse. After all, who receives more compliments than a cute child? For this reason, Italian mothers are always vigilant when someone pays their baby a compliment. They will make the fig sign to ward off the evil eye. If you want to compliment a baby, add the words “sensa malocchio” or “without the evil eye”.

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The fig sign

You can also carry chunks of amethyst or three pieces of rock salt wrapped in aluminum foil in your pocket to ward off the evil eye. Another gesture to remedy the evil eye is to make the sign of the horns. This gesture transfers the bad luck to someone else.

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The sign of the horns

Oh, and did I mention that you’ll never find peacock feathers in Italian home? That’s because a peacock feather has the evil eye built right into it.

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Another remedy for the evil eye involves a special ceremony performed by a mother or aunt or grandmother who has learned the ancient ritual to dispel the evil eye. In the presence of the cursed person, she drips olive oil into a bowl of water. If the oil beads in a circle around the perimeter of a bowl, she must pray to a female saint for the cure. If the oil beads in a row through the centre, they must pray to a male saint.

Men must never give their wives or girlfriends a gift of perfume. If they do, they risk attracting a more handsome rival who will steal their beloved away forever.

To avoid bad luck, Italian gypsies never steal pearls, coral, or silver. Everything else, though, is up for grabs!

Italians fear breezes and cold weather. Never go outdoors with wet hair or without a coat or sweater, for if you do, you are sure to catch pneumonia and become deathly ill.

Never drink ice-cold water because it will harm your throat.

Never open a window! Good heavens! Draughts can be fatal and can occur even on the hottest days. Yup, it’s better to live in stifling heat than allow a cooling breeze into your home on a hot summer day.

In Italy, never pour wine with your left hand. However, should you spill some wine on the table, this will bring you very good luck because it symbolizes sharing and good friends.

When toasting, always look the person who you clink glasses with in the eye, and always take a sip before placing your glass back on the table.

Italians believe the number 13 is unlucky. They never seat 13 people at one table because there were 13 people at the table during the Last Supper, and Jesus was crucified on Friday the 13th. Therefore, you must set two separate tables or someone has to eat by themselves in another room.

Italians also fear the number 17 because when the Roman numeral for 17 XVII is rearranged, it spells the word VIXI, a phrase found on tombstones. It means “he lived” and will tempt death. Furthermore, the number one represents a hanged man and the seven looks like the gallows. The Italian airline, Alitalia, on some aircraft, avoids numbering the 17th row and some hotels do not have a 17th floor. Oh, and did I mention that it is rare for Italian soccer teams to play on that day because they are sure to lose.

When it comes to colors, never wear purple or black unless you are in mourning. These are the colors of death and misfortune is sure to befall you.   

When ringing in the New Year, Italians always wear red underwear for good luck and place shiny new coins heads up on the window sill.

Traditionally, because of the Vatican in Rome, many religious orders claim Italy as their home. To see a nun is bad luck and one must immediately touch iron. For this very purpose, many people carry a nail in their pocket or purse. If you are unfortunate enough to find yourself not in the vicinity of something iron, you must say “Your nun” to the first person you encounter to remove the bad luck from yourself and pass it on to them instead. Why, you ask? Well, nuns are associated with hospitals and cemeteries – all places where death is found!

Never, ever place a pair of shoes or a hat on a bed for it is an omen of death. This is because priests never take off their hat or shoes unless it is to change into their vestments, and they often laid them on the bed when doing so.

If a bird should fly into your home, be very afraid, for this is a sure sign of death.

Place small treasured items in your loved one’s coffin (i.e. photos, eyeglasses, etc.) to prevent them from returning to retrieve them. And don’t forget to toss in some coins to ensure they have the money to pay the necessary tolls to cross over to the other side.

Bread is most revered in Italy. When baking bread, always make the sign of the cross over the dough before baking. And when taking the bread out of the oven, never let the bread slide upside down when removing it from the baking pans. This is considered disrespectful to the body of Christ. Also, bread, no matter how stale, must never be thrown away without kissing it first.

In Italy, theaters are never decorated with purple for it spells theatrical disaster. Actors will avoid wearing purple on opening night.

When Italians want to sell their home, for good luck, they bury a small statue of Saint Joseph upside down facing towards the home.

Diligently sweep out the corners of a new house to get rid of the evil spirits that had taken up residence with the previous owner lest they linger to plague you too.

In Naples, to dream of the number 29 is considered lucky. If you should be so lucky, hurry out and buy a lottery ticket immediately.

Both mothers of a newlywed couple should prepare the bed together for the wedding night. They sprinkle coins between the sheets for good luck.

Three people must never work together to make a double bed otherwise the youngest will suffer harm or death.

When I was writing my novel, Orphan of the Olive Tree, I wrote many superstitions into the story. Superstitions about twins and weddings can be found throughout. It was great fun researching all these beliefs and giving them a voice. As I grew up, I often laughed away these superstitions, not believing in them. Yet on rare occasions, I still find myself setting up two tables for my thirteen guests and blessing stale bread before throwing it in the garbage. I guess I did heed some of those childhood warnings, after all.

Mirella Sichirollo Patzer, February 25, 2013

4 Comments

  1. Interesting post. Thanks, Mirella. My Venetian sleuth, Tito Amato, was familiar with several of those.

  2. Fascinating. How many of these superstitions date back to ancient Rome?

    • I’m not sure from what era many of these superstitions stem from, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they did originate in ancient Rome. They have always fascinated me.

  3. As an ex-singer and the daughter of a classical voice teacher, I suspect that “Never drink ice-cold water because it will harm your throat” comes from the prevalence of opera in Italian life–although while ice water is not at all good for a singer’s throat, the rest of us shouldn’t panic. :-)