Under the surface of established religion in Sicily there is an ancient faith which has existed for longer than Catholicism and still thrives in the popular beliefs of the island. Before the Catholic Church gradually came to Trincaria, many practices as old as Sicily itself, were passed down through time. Everything from folk medicine, nature worship, to a belief in the evil eye. Sicily is a rich source for lovers of the esoteric.
Polytheism or worship of multiple deities gradually became a dedication to patron saints. Whilst Pantheism, the belief all reality is associated with a divinity or that everything reflects an all empowering immanent god, soon became part of the catholic theology.
Worship of nature and the natural world was an integral part of the agricultural based societies for many centuries and its symbols are still with us today. The Green man, a deity which represents the natural world, dates back to the fourth century and is found in many churches.
The face of the spritely green man is depicted with flowing hair, bushy beard, pointy ears which are made from or intertwined with leaves and foliage. This woodland spirit is found on the tomb of Sainte Are in the church of Hilaire le Grand in France. Sainte Are literally means St Tree and is an early Christian adaptation of the nature worshiping traditions already so common in Europe and Sicily.
The iconography of the green man is subtly weaved through many churches in Sicily, carved over doorways or hidden within elaborate works of art. There are many manifestations of this nature god even today, from the ancient greek god Pan, to Dionysus or Bacchus god of wine, Peter Pan, Robin Hood and the Green Giant, an icon of modern advertising.
Along with nature worship the following of the lunar calendar is also closely associated with the natural world’s reproductive cycle. Sicilian traditions follow the moon to know when to plant crops, when animals will give birth and when pregnant women will begin labour.
Growing up with my Sicilian grandparents, I absorbed the stories from their island. My Nonni’s childhood was filled with a large, loosely hanging web of family, friends and community which seemed so intimately connected that each person knew everything about everybody else. They all shared their stories in a collective mixture of wisdom and gossip. In the small countryside hamlet where my grandparents grew up, in the province of Messina, there were no secrets all scandals were played out on a very public stage.
Apart from the vivid Sicilian characters my grandparents spoke of, there was another more intriguing protagonist, which literally cast a spell over me. The other worldliness of the Sicily of their tales was a mixture of mythology, history and magic. My grandparents spoke of ghosts, evil, violence, sadness, madness, the devil, saints, witch craft, monsters and folklore as a truthful and real experience.
I thought the tangibility of the esoteric was something my grand parents had created with their subjective memories, idealising their homeland and childhood.
Years later when I moved to Sicily I began to understand how even today Sicilians talk of their mythology as if it is history. There is a strong foundation of belief in an ancient lore which considers the devil and god as part of an eternal struggle between good and evil in a battle for the human soul.
The most intriguing manifestation of these alternative beliefs is the literature of the Sicilian incantations. There are literally hundreds of superstitions, sustain that supernatural powers can harm and in turn be used to defend from evil.
The Sicilian scongiuri in particular are short prayers to certain saints which seek to alleviate illness and suffering when the cause is from a malevolent source. The evil eye has its origins in middle eastern culture, but the belief in the green eyed monster of jealousy, jinxing yourself or others is a superstition which is dispersed all over the world.
In Sicily the evil eye can cause everything from migraines, to stomach aches, allergies or even mastitis. Hence there are endless incantations to help unfortunate victims. There are prayers for everything from illness, to bad weather, dangerous animals, nightmares and bad relationships.
The incantations which help with matters of the heart, evoke the assistance of an array of heavenly angels including: archangels, cherubs and seraphim which is the highest in the Christian angelic hierarchy. While those suffering a particular illness will plead for the intervention of a particular saint, for example if there is a problem associated with the eyes or vision, Saint Lucy will be named as she is the patron saint of sight.
Other scongiuri are folktales which in there telling counteract the evil eye, like the fable of the kind hearted husband and wicked wife:
One night during a terrible storm a husband and wife hear a knock on their door from a stranger seeking refuge. The husband welcomes the stranger into his house and tells his wife to prepare a meal. The wife who is mean hearted and doesn’t want any guests in her house, prepares a disgusting chicken broth not even bothering to pluck the chicken. Then the husband asks his wife to prepare their guest a bed for the night, so she piles up some corn husks in the corner, with an old sack as a blanket.
During the night, all of the bad karma the wife has dished out to the guest comes back to her in the form of a violent stomach ache. The wife yelling out in pain, wakes up the stranger who asks the husband what is the matter. The man tells the husband to repeat an incantation which retells the story of that evening, ending with a lords prayer and the sign of the cross.
The next morning the wife is cured of her pain, while the foreigner has disappeared leaving behind a crucifix in his makeshift bed, making the husband and wife believe they had been visited by god himself. In its retelling this fable within a fable acts as an incantation to keep away bad karma.
Apart from physical illness the evil eye is also associated with bad luck in general and there are endless other prayers used to counteract this. Strangely enough these simple chants against evil only work if they are learnt by heart and repeated at midnight on Christmas.
The esoteric is closely linked to religion in Sicily, the pagan has subtly been absorbed into the Catholic, leaving behind colourful pieces of prayer, poetry and folktales which are evocative of the Sicilian voice.
-Rochelle Del Borrello