How an Italian Mother’s Prayer Soothed the Hearts of Worried Souls

A warm smile and soulful whisper could always melt away our ancestors' "malocchio."

By: Tony Traficante, ISDA Contributing Editor 

Phenomena, or superstition?

I was just a kid when I first learned of it. There was a knock at the door as I sat in the front room. An older lady with a daughter stood there and spoke with a dialect asking, “c’è sta la signora a casa,” is the lady at home?

I could see the young girl doubling over in pain, so I hollered for my Mom. The old lady, highly agitated and barely able to speak, cried out, “mia figlia è collomalocchio!” My daughter has the malocchio! She is suffering from terrible head and stomach pains. Please help her.”

I couldn’t understand. “Why come here?” This girl is in terrible pain. What is this curse, and how is my Mom supposed to help her? She’s not a doctor! These people must have the wrong house.

But the malocchio, for many of our ancestors, was real. You may have heard of it. Adults often spoke of it; albeit in hushed voices. They say it is the root of a multitude of health conditions. It’s non-discriminatory, afflicting both old and young. Even pregnant women must be careful, for this evil could certainly penetrate the womb, causing severe damage to the fetus.

Jealousy and envy, the twin sisters of evil, and speaking ill of others are the primary reasons for malocchio. There is a proverb that says, “Se l’invidia fosse la febbre, il mondo intero sarebbe a letto,” if envy were fever, the whole world would be in bed. Usually inflicted by spiteful folks, it, also, is self-inflicting. Beware the boasters, egotists, or conceited.

Malocchio was real for believers mainly in the southern regions of Italy. The men, full of bravado, ignored its existence. The women, however, believed! Wives cautioned their men “non deriderlo, se no ci porti il male su tutto” don’t mock it or you bring evil on us all!

What’s the protection against these curses? Many Italians wore an amulet shaped in the form of a horn, “un cornetto,” to ward off the evil spirits. Particular gestures and expressions were also used, but these have been dropped for being uncouth, or downright vulgar. Then, too, some families would hang sheaves of garlic around the outside of the home, or scattered salt in and around their front doors.

More potent help, however, was available if all else failed. There were a select group of individuals that had the unique gift of purging the malocchio. Italians referred to these specialists as “streghe.” I’m not fond of that term. They were not witches, or sorceresses, as the word suggests. They were, and some may still exist, healers, or singular practitioners, hopefully with unique healing abilities.

My Mom must have had these special healing powers. She certainly didn’t advertise it. She didn’t like doing it. Looking back, I think it was because she didn’t understand it, and perhaps was afraid of it. I was told by those in the know, that my Mom had to have inherited this particular healing talent, from one who had it during a ritual at Christmas Eve.

She never was able to accept she possessed extraordinary healing abilities. She rarely performed the service and only in exceptional need cases. Neither did she use strange brews, gnats eyes, or blood of animals. Her aids were simple, consisting of two short wooden rods, a small bottle of “acqua Santa,” and prayer.

No one was allowed to be in the room during these services. However, the little rascal that I was, I snuck a peek at a couple of ceremonies. I was in awe and will never forget it!

The “patient” sat in a chair. Mom, extending her hands over the inflicted, held the two rods in the form of a cross, in one hand. With the other hand, she sprinkled a few drops of the acqua Santa over the individual, while whispering an inaudible prayer. The prayers used are never divulged. In 15 minutes, it was over. The patient, in tears, got up smiling, and walked out feeling better! No thanks or remuneration was exchanged. (Except maybe a hug or two). To do so was bad luck.

Do I believe it? I say to each his own. But heed this: If these curses are the work of the devil, then isn’t it possible the Lord uses mere mortals to do His work on Earth?

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