- byAnthony Sarracco
- 4 months ago
As a small child, I remember sitting in a small church in an even smaller town just south of Rome. My parents waited, concerned, as I sat in the front pew, speaking with a priest. This wasn’t any ordinary priest, and the fact that we travelled to Italy to see him should have raised concerns in my mind. But the place itself was calm. Peaceful. This particular member of the clergy specialized in cases involving the occult. Rumours were that this dude had seen some bad mojo in motion. You wouldn’t know that by sitting with him.
As a child, I battled with depression. It was hard for immigrant parents to wrap their heads around the concept of depression, and you can’t blame them because the life of an immigrant is never easy. They immigrated from Italy to Canada with no money and zero opportunities. To them being sad was something that comes and goes. However, when it doesn’t go, they start believing something was done to them. Something evil. The malocchio… or worst.
Sitting in that little damp church, I remember the priest asking me if I felt safe surrounded by holy objects. I answered, “yes.” After a few more questions, he prayed over me, and I felt a sense of peace. Then I was sent on my way. I was brought to see him several more times during that trip, and that was it; that was the extent of my psychological evaluation.
The malocchio is usually brought on by jealousy or envy. It can cause physical discomfort, headaches, nausea, and weakness in the legs. The person giving you the evil eye rarely realizes they are doing so, and it is an act that is primarily unintentional and not premeditated. If you try to rationalize it from a metaphysical perspective, it can be a transfer of negative energy from one person to another. What’s interesting to note is, from a psychological standpoint, meeting people who feel envy, rivalry, or simple jealousy towards us has repercussions on our psycho-physical status, so much so that today Western medicine recognizes psycho-somatic diseases as real diseases. So, can the malocchio be self-inflicted?
As far back as I can remember, this whole concept of the evil eye has been very apparent in our daily lives. My dad immigrated from a town south of Italy called Benevento. This place, in particular, is saturated in the belief of the malocchio and heavy on legends of witches. Growing up, it was known as the town of the witch, and today, the Benevento football team has adopted a witch on a broomstick as their official logo. When we would visit, we would spend the day with family in a small town called Fragneto Monforte, just on the outskirts of Benevento. We would rarely stay the night because my mother had heard one too many stories and was terrified of being in the town after dark. It would drive my father crazy.
Our family believed that if you were sick or had some unexplained medical issue, you shouldn’t see a doctor; you should visit the old lady down the street. With a little oil and water, she would heal you right up. If things progressively got worse, you would often see a man well-versed in removing incantations. A wizard. This all seems trivial now; however, in the 80s and 90s, in an age without the internet, it was difficult to research whether a legend from a small town was true or false. You were at the mercy of the folklore. At family gatherings, I would hear terrifying stories of how cousins you had never met mysteriously dropped dead or how a great aunt suffered from strife with a neighbour. It was unexplained that fuelled this superstitious belief. It wasn’t until it happened to my mother that I began questioning everything.
My grandfather would often recount tales he witnessed as a child. He used to tell one story about catching horses stolen from a neighbour’s stable. He wasn’t sure if they were being taken or returned; he remembers that the horses were foaming at the mouth as though they had become rabid. They believed that at night the Janaras, another word for witch, stole horses out of the stables, and after plaiting the horses’ hair, they would race the horses until they started to foam around the mouth; they would then rub themselves with the animal’s saliva in some demented animalistic ritual. Legend has it that the witches, indistinguishable from the other women by day, at night anointed their underarms (or their breasts) with an unguent and took off flying, pronouncing a magic phrase, riding on brooms of sorghum. At the same time, the witches became incorporeal spirits like the wind; indeed, their preferred flying nights were stormy. In particular, it was further believed that there was a bridge from which the witches of Benevento usually launched themselves into the flight, which was therefore called the “bridge of the Janaras,” destroyed during World War II.
There once existed a famous walnut tree somewhere in Benevento where witches of various origins participated in the sabbats—wiccan holidays timed to the seasons and the Earth’s natural rhythms under the sacred tree. In the winter, this tree can be distinguished from the rest because it was the only tree that would not lose its leaves and constantly remain green. Here, the transition from paganism to Christianity met significant resistance. The pagans of this land worshiped the Goddess Diana and would celebrate her divinity around the walnut tree through dances, rituals, sacrifices and orgies. This tree was said to be cut down by St.Barbatus. However, it is said that the seeds from the tree were then replanted, and the tree was reborn.
Growing up, apart from depression, I suffered from terrible migraines. I would visit my grandmother, and she would remove my malocchio—most of the time, they were brought on by some envious compliment. When my grandmother couldn’t help me, she would take me to see a friend who had studied the craft more intently. Today, I realized I was suffering from a mix of seasonal allergies and tension headaches. Yet, instead of seeing a doctor, for which, for some reason, there was distrust between Italian immigrants and modern medicine at the time, I would visit an older woman once a week who would place oil on my head and whisper incantations. This went on for a while. If seasonal allergies garnered this type of reaction, what would a case of depression bring? An exorcism?
Certain events happened in my life at a young age that made me lose a sense of control. I developed an obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) to regain some control over the outcome of something that can avoid any form of suffering. But this became a crippling way to live. I was approaching my teen years, and the disorder started slowly. It was as simple as opening and closing the faucet several times or switching the light switch on and off repeatedly before entering or exiting a room. A failure to do so… and something terrible might happen to my family or me. I kept it a secret from my parents. Being from an old-school mentality, I didn’t believe they would understand. So, I suffered in silence. My relationships and social interactions at school declined, as well as my grades. I became more and more timid and reclusive. I would often get into fistfights at school.
When I started high school, it got awful. I was often bullied. The compulsive behaviour at night became worst and worst. I would often have terrible panic attacks lying in bed in an attempt to resist feeding my OCD. I remember this one quirk I had during lunchtime at school. I would rush out of class so I could sit in this specific seat in the lunch room. It was a place I had sat with friends the year prior, but at this point, they had moved on to another table in the high school cafeteria, you know, hierarchy. So, this table was occupied by younger kids… and me. And these kids were nasty. They would hurl insults at me, make fun of me, the works, but I wouldn’t move from that seat for a whole damn year because I was scared that if I did, something terrible would happen to my loved ones.
I remember praying a lot. Before school, after school, before bed… My parents thought I was going to become a priest. It got to the point where it was awful, and I would spend most of my nights in the washroom, opening and closing the faucet. I didn’t know that my mother had caught on and that she was monitoring me until she finally saw me in the act. I explained what was happening, and it was like a weight was lifted off my shoulders. I made her promise not to take me to see any of those people from the old country. She agreed, and she helped me, coached me, and worked through it together for a whole year.
As I got older, I got bigger and meaner. My anger was the only thing that felt real, so I ran with it. Towards the end of high school, my mother was gone for long periods. She would travel to Italy for months to help my grandfather, battling cancer. This caused a great deal of financial burden on us, and for the most part, I was left to fight my mental disorder alone. After a long, brutal fight, my grandfather succumbed to his illness, and my mother returned broken. She fell into a terrible depression, and I couldn’t be there. For the first time in my life, I had felt liberated from my mental torments and now wanted to enjoy the rest of my teen years partying and having fun. As time went by, she was diagnosed with PTSD, a term that was foreign to us at the time.
Things culminated when she got into a terrible fight with my father’s family member. They were forcing my mother to attend a 50th-anniversary party. My mother refused because she was still in the early stages of mourning. This caused a verbal altercation, and the rest is, well… is up to debate. In the months following the fight, I saw my mother’s health deteriorate rapidly. It got to the point where she could not drink a glass of water without feeling ill. Doctors could not find where her health issue stemmed from but feared it might have been caused by a severe case of PTSD, which my mother developed when caring for my grandfather. This “incomprehensible” diagnosis rang the alarm that something supernatural was at play.
- Although herbalism practices can be traced back to Neanderthals, the Old Testament of the Bible first introduced the idea of witchcraft to the world in writing around 500 BCE. Many legends, myths, and stories surround the work of witches, who used herbalism to heal and poison a subject. Witches utilize elements of magic, alchemy, and herbal medicine for specific intentions.
She visited magi, and the worst was confirmed; this wasn’t a malocchio. It was a fattura, a curse. A curse is a generic word commonly defined as “harming others through demonic intervention.” Black magic, curses, evil eye and spells are different but not independent, and crossovers are frequent. The main difference between the two is that one is unintentional, while the other is very much intentional. With months of praying and rituals, the curse was finally lifted. It was partly confessed to my mother that the woman she had fought with had cursed her. In essence, what this woman was doing was poisoning my mother. At least once a week, my parents would have supper at the woman’s house and using specific herbs, the woman would poison my mother’s tea—a slow killer, with toxins attacking her nervous system.
- Dr. Giovanni La Veglia, a practicing psychologist in Rome who specializes in adolescents seeking counselling for stress, anxiety, panic attacks, depression, and mood disorders, explains that: When the community is relatively small, everyone knows everything about everyone” and that is why it is easy to arouse envy. Recognizing that you have been “macchiato” means becoming aware of a social malaise that is solved before it can turn into something more serious, especially as the goal of the ritual is not to identify with absolute certainty a culprit against whom to take revenge. Meeting people who feel envy, rivalry, or simple jealousy towards us has repercussions on our psycho-physical status, so much so that today Western medicine recognizes psycho-somatic diseases as real diseases. And this is why, even today, these practices continue to thrive in our society.
- According to the world health organization, 800, 000 people die from suicide every year, which is one person every 40 seconds. Suicide is a global phenomenon. 79% of suicides occurred in low- and middle-income countries. Suicide attempts were more common among depressed patients with a religious affiliation. As adolescents develop their capacities for abstract and complex thinking, they are more capable of contemplating life circumstances, envisioning a hopeless future and generating suicide as a possible solution.
Is our need to control all aspects of our lives the foundation of superstition? Sometimes superstitions can have a soothing effect, relieving anxiety about the unknown and giving people a sense of control over their lives. This may also be why superstitions have survived for so long — people have passed them on from generation to generation. Those who perform these ritualistic behaviours often draw comfort from them. These events and want for knowledge are the basis for my wish to develop a documentary on the culture behind the malocchio. And so it came to fruition.