Superstitions are a topic close to my heart having grown up with an Italian-American grandmother and now living in southern Italy, where Roman Catholicism and mysticism live in surprising perfect harmony.

That phenomenon is worth a whole post, and indeed books have been written on the subject. Perhaps someday I’ll wax theoretical, but for today, let’s stick in the here and now, the daily implications of superstition in my life.

I’ve already written about my experiences with malocchio, The Evil Eye, perhaps the greatest superstition of all, especially since it crosses many cultures and religions. Some of my other favorite superstitions are things you should avoid doing lest you invite bad luck: placing a loaf of bread upside down, spilling wine, olive oil, or salt, dropping scissors.

Another of my favorites is that a pregnant woman’s cravings should always be satisfied or else the baby will be born with a birthmark in the form of the desired food or the child will be generally disfigured. You scoff?

I inherited a birthmark that my father has because my pregnant grandmother expressed her craving for chicken while scratching her legs. Yes, we both have chicken-shaped birthmarks on our calves (although I prefer to think it looks more like a heart). Someday I may show you, but sorry, today’s not the day.

All of you ladies who are pregnant are more than welcome to quote me on this topic, by the way.

But my freakiest experience with southern Italian superstition happened when P’s mom rushed into the house with tears in her eyes, begging me to go and retrieve some of her jewelry she had given me a few months before.

“What happened?” I asked.

“I had a dream.” I’m pretty sure she thought that would be enough information, but, you know, I’m American, so I ask questions.

“About the jewelry?” I was still not making a move for the steps to get the jewelry, so she gently guided me with her hands.

“No, about you and my son, and….” She sat down, started rocking back and forth, made repeated, furious signs of the cross, and began mumbling what I assume were prayers.

“What happened in the dream?” I stepped down two steps and stopped.

“I didn’t sleep all night,” she said and continued saying prayers and crying. I didn’t see the conversation going any further, so I didn’t push it. I assumed that P and I had been dead in the dream–because if we had just broken up in the dream, that wouldn’t have been so upsetting? Right? Hard to tell.

I went to get the jewelry.

“This is everything?” she asked as I handed her a few little boxes that contained earrings and a necklace I rather liked–it had a tiny ladybug charm, which, ironically, I always thought meant good luck.

“Yes, that’s everything. Do you want something to…”

“OK, I have to go,” she said abruptly and left, still saying prayers and still crying, but most importantly clutching the jewelry.

So I was left in the wake of this early morning encounter to consider not only my own and P’s mortality, but also what the jewelry had to do with any of it. Through various research including thinking back to my own grandmother but *not* including asking P’s mom, because this is a subject not to be discussed, I think maybe I’ve figured it out.

Among southern Italians, it’s a common practice that when one prays to a particular saint or the Virgin Mary for a request, one often promises something in return–many times it is a piece of jewelry to be pinned to the clothes of a statue.

I’m wondering if perhaps P’s mom had promised my pieces of jewelry somewhere along the way for some request, and then saw something bad happening in her dream because she gave them to me instead. Or perhaps she had simply promised away that jewelry in lieu of P and I staying stay and/or together. Or maybe she had seen something in the dream about the jewelry somehow causing trouble.

Like I said, I haven’t asked, because, truth be told, I don’t actually want to know the whole story. I’m definitely superstitious, and I believe in messages coming through dreams, so this was one time I was more than happy to live in blissful ignorance.

In fact, I didn’t even tell my own mom about this until I figured P and I were in the clear.

Like birthmarks, superstitions seem to run in the family.

Cherrye’s note: If you haven’t already it is time to visit Michelle at Bleeding Espresso. She is one of only a handful of “my kind” here in Calabria and well, she is funny all get out! (See … Texas is kickin’ in and just in time for me to come back, too!) You can see this original post here.

14 Responses
  1. Sally

    There’s still a thin line between modern religion and ancient religious practices. I think thinner than most people realize in today’s modern age. I think the superstition I remember the most was one my driver’s ed teacher (he was Slovakian, Czech, something eastern European) in high school told us about wearing shoes and lying on the bed or just shoes on the bed. Bad luck because the dead were laid out that way.

  2. Krystal

    ha ha I have heard of those too- My husbands Nonna has dreams all the time like that- she also knows facianata? (I am probably totally using the wrong spelling and context) But the second she starts yawning, (over and over!!!)- someone is about to come over for her help- its neat. Salt in the glovebox of your car, there are so many that I have learned over the years!!

  3. I’ve heard these superstitions from Ale. One of the ones that makes me laugh is that he says that when he sees a nun, he has to touch his male parts to prevent infertility. Another is that we can’t take any pictures while kissing until after we get married or the relationship will end. We have a few superstitions in my culture, but I think southern Italians have too many!! It’s fun to hear them though.

  4. Vanessa

    ha ha that is funny about teh birthmarks. My daughter has an almost perfectly round birthmark on her stomach (just above belly button) with 2-3 darker spots inside it. I’m thinking it looks a bit like a chocolate chip cookie. Maybe something i needed to but didn’t eat whilst pregnant? My sister is quite into superstitions etc and she wants to take a photo and analyse it as she thinks there is something ‘meaningful’ behind it – i must tell her about this. Hmm i wonder about my other sister who has a basket shape birthmark on the inside of her elbow.

    I could write a book about teh superstitions I have heard here in sicily. I do like the one someone wrote about teh shoes on beds, is a big no no here but i thought it was mainly for hygiene reasons. I am sure half the superstitions arose when no one knew the real reasons so made things up with fearful sounding consequences in order to get people to comply with the ideas of the day. Kind of like religion actually…. Or to make people feel better about things that are purely luck.

  5. My grandmother was Russian and had 1001 reasons to make the Eye at someone or something. If you do it while saying “P…P…P” it will get rid of demons which is quite a handy bit of information really 🙂 Also even today in Greek churches in Britain you see babies with eye beads pinned to their clothes and, once, an Egyptian surgeon told me with a straight face that a dissatisfied patient made the sign of the eye at his friend’s imported car and caused it to crash!

  6. My best friend’s grandmother had “a dream.” She put oil and water together in a pot and it mixed, confirming a malocchio (pronounced maloiks in South Philly). They took my friend to a seer, who confirmed it further, and stated that a lesbian clown gave it to her. To our shock, my friend had actually met a lesbian clown the week before. She had to wash her face in vinegar and wear a red ribbon on her bra for a month.

  7. Creepy, Sally. I never heard that before and I am GUILTY of doing that, too. Eeek.

    Jmisgro – 🙂

    Fun, Krystal! I love hearing these old tales!

    Oh, Piccola that is hilarious about the nun. I vaguely remember hearing that!

    Vanessa – write that book it would be a best-seller!!

    Wow, Margi …

    Miss Expat that is some CRAZY stuff!

  8. Steve

    Here’s one – I’m a nice Irish Catholic kid and we normally have no time for these southern European superstitions, but I worked in South Philly for 20 years (very heavy southern Italian cultural influences), and as a result, I can’t ever talk about how a baby is beautiful unless I add “God bless him (or her)” because otherwise you risk putting the maloiks on him (or her).

    I also learned how to remove a maloiks from a house you are moving into, a practice which is tedious but which I have never failed to do once I learned it. You need salt and a new broom.
    I’d *love* to hear that. I’ll be moving soon.

  9. napoletanadicuore

    my favorites:
    1) you can’t bake your own bread while you’re on your period…the dough won’t rise.
    2) you can’t set your hairbrush down on the bed
    3) you can’t tell others about your dream last night until after noon
    OMG, I’ve never heard any of these. These *are* wacky!!

  10. Steve

    To get rid of the maloiks is not hard but you have to follow these directions exactly.

    Go out and buy a new broom and a cylinder of salt. Go through your house (or apartment) and sprinkle salt in EVERY corner (even cloests, the basement, attic, everywhere). Then take the broom and sweep all that salt up and throw it out, somewhere outside the house. Don’t throw it into a kitchen trash can, and it’s best to not even use your own outside trash can.

    Thanks, Steve!

  11. Lauren

    My Italian great grandma was the best at giving people the eye! She used to live with us and one day in middle school I came home upset because my one friend invited everyone except me to her sleep over birthday party. My great grandma gave her the eye and she got diarrhea and had to cancel the party! So it was probably a stomach bug or some bad tacos, but then again…

Leave a Reply