I have never been overly-superstitious and take great pride in my healthy cynicism. I don’t throw salt over my shoulder or avoid black cats. As a muralist, I walk under ladders frequently and don’t believe I have ever fallen victim to the evil eye. Thinking or saying something out loud does not make it come true. If it did, I’d be a size 6, rich and living in a palazzo in Orvieto. But I digress.
My grandmother was normally a very serious and solemn woman. One day a year she would transform into a madwoman, wielding a broom and running in circles shouting and screaming like a banshee in an effort to ward off the evil spirits who had apparently taken up residence in our cellar. It was spring cleaning run amok. I don’t know much about the tradition that had this small, fragile and shy lady fearlessly take on a bunch of ghosts in the basement of our house. I wonder if it was folklore passed down from her childhood in Contessa Entellina, a small Sicilian town 80km from Palermo. I did a little research and found quite a few references to sweeping away evil spirits with a broom — a common practice especially among southern Italians, but was unable to find any mention of the “screaming and running around” part. Perhaps that was my grandmother’s own personal stamp on the custom.
A superstition is a belief in something that has no rational foundation in science and is most often based on the prevailing religion or culture that contains these otherworldly beliefs. The word comes from the classical Latin superstitio, meaning “a standing over [in amazement]“. Greek and Roman pagans were believed to have scorned men who displayed a fear of the gods and thus, the behavior came to be referred to as superstition. This could explain why Greeks and Italians are famously known for their mythology and have a common legend in the “evil eye” – Malocchio in Italian, Mati in Greek.
When I wrote earlier that I am not particularly superstitious, I wasn’t being completely honest with you. The fact is that in the last few years I have come to believe a certain necklace I own has developed supernatural powers that, if worn daily, will someday bring me good luck.
It started out as a simple chain with a silver bar hanging from it. One afternoon while in St. Peter’s Square I looked down to see something glittering in the sun. I removed it from between the cobblestones to discover it was a tiny medallion of the Madonna. Convinced this was an omen, I instinctively hung it onto my necklace. A birthday present of a charm with the word “Friend” engraved on it followed — then a Chinese coin and a 4-leaf clover. On one arrival in Rome I wrote the message to my friend Angelo, “Io sono in Italia…mi sento come una farfalla” (I am in Italy…I feel like a butterfly). When he presented me with the gift of a tiny crystal butterfly dangling from a pink heart of course I had to add it to my collection. This “chain of fortune” is getting rather heavy!
Out of the 365 days in a year, I probably wear the necklace 360 of them. The other 5 days I just don’t feel quite right without it. Could I have inherited from Grandma this propensity to make weak associations of cause and effect where there are none? What can I say? I don’t like tempting fate. Writer Judith Viorst said it very well: “Superstition is foolish, childish, primitive and irrational — but how much does it cost you to knock on wood?”
by Toni DeBella