I came across this interesting item in the on-line version of the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica. In the section on Naples, there is a paragraph about folk-lore and, specifically, how Neapolitans ward of the "evil eye":
...charms against the Evil Eye...were all derived from the survival of ancient classical legends... These may be divided into three classes: first, the sprig of rue in silver, with sundry emblems attached to it, all of which refer to the worship of Diana, whose shrine at Capua was of considerable importance; secondly, the serpent charms, which formed part of the worship of Aesculapius, and were no doubt derived largely from the ancient eastern ophiolatry; and lastly charms derived from the legends of the Sirens...The sea-horse and the Siren alone are commonly found as charms..
I had never heard any of that. There are a few terms used for "evil eye," "bad luck," etc. in Italian, in general, and in southern Italy, in particular. Simple "bad luck" is sfortuna, which is about the same as "misfortune" in English; there is no implication of it having been caused. The "evil eye," however--malocchio, in Italian—is much different. That is misfortune "cast" on you by a malevolent person with that particular ability. Indeed, one of the common Neapolitan terms for that kind of bad luck is jettatura, which comes from the Italian verb "gettare," meaning "throw" or "cast". Another common word in both Italian and Neapolitan for "witchcraft" is fattura, from the root "make," or "do". (Fattura, fittingly, is also the name for the receipted invoice you have to give someone if you sell them something, so you can't get out of paying a tax on your profit. Witchcraft, bad luck, taxes. I rest my case.)
In any event, the most common way to ward off the Evil Eye, or bad luck caused by a spell, is by making the "sign of the horns"--le corna— that is, extending the index and little fingers of the hand and waggling your hand towards the ground. You can also buy a lucky charm in the shape of a single curved horn. There are two explanations for the use of the horns as a good luck charm: one says that it comes from the defensive posture of animals: head lowered, horns ready to use; the other—more likely—is that it has to do with the sexual vigor implied in the symbol of the male animal. Phallic symbols are also commonly seen throughout the Greek and Roman world as good luck charms. That explanation seems more likely to me, since another common way for men in Naples to ward off bad luck is to touch their genitals. (Touching someone else's genitals, on the other hand, generally causes more bad luck.) Depending on the threshold of superstition on a given day in Naples, then, you can get some interesting body language going on in public and broad daylight on any street in the city.
I was not familiar with rue—or any other plant—as a charm against the Evil Eye. I asked a friend about this and she immediately cited a verse to me:
"Aglio, fravaglie, fatture ca nun quaglie...," a dialect verse meaning "Garlic and animal innards keep away bad luck." Then, all the vampire books and movies with which I afflicted my childhood came back to me and I remembered about garlic. There is a whole class of plants that are used medicinally and—in folklore—to cast spells and ward them off. Rue (ruta graveolens) is one of them. In some sources, it is the famous "moly plant" used by Ulysses in The Odyssey (book 10, lines 304-6) to protect himself and his men from the spell of the Circe. Yet, I have not seen sprigs of rue for sale on the streets of Naples in the way that you find little horn amulets.
Serpent charms and ophiolatry (serpent worship) are equally hard to find in Naples. It occurs to me that some of the amulets I see in street stalls—charms that I have always taken to be single horns—are, in fact, curved and, if not coiled, at least "wiggly". Maybe it was originally meant to be a snake. The only Naples myth I know about snakes has to do with how Virgil is said to have used his magical powers to drive away a great serpent that lived beneath the hill of the city. I am also aware of the split in our mythology between the benevolent and malevolent attributes of snakes. Contrasting the evil seducer/serpent in the book of Genesis, we have in other contexts the benevolent presence of twin serpents on the caduceus, the symbol of the medical profession, and, further to the east, in Indian mythology, the cobra that protects Buddha by spreading its hood over him.
I have seen the sea-horse and siren symbols a lot in Naples, but I didn't know that they were good luck charms—nor did any of the people I spoke to. As they say in the ivory towers of academe: more research is needed.
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