Superstitious survival

Avoiding bad luck in Italy

Roseanne Wells
May 17, 2007

You just spilled some salt: Do you throw another pinch over your left shoulder to avoid bad luck? Do you cross the street to skirt a black cat?  When you break a mirror do you dread seven years of misfortune? The Italian culture has its fair share of superstitions and folklore, too. Just in case you’re looking for luck in the bel paese, here are a few tips to keep in mind.



The trouble with numbers

Until quite recently, 13 was considered a lucky number in Italy—or was thought to be as harmless as other digits. According to Catholic tradition, however, there were 13 people at the table during the Last Supper, and Jesus was crucified on Friday the 13th. Thus, Italy has adopted the popular European belief that 13 invites as much misfortune as the country’s traditionally unlucky number—17. The reasoning behind 17’s stigma is twofold. If you re-arrange the Roman numeral XVII, it spells the Latin word vixi, a phrase often inscribed on tombs and gravestones. It translates as ‘he lived’ and is considered a sure-fire way to tempt death to come to your doorstep. The digits 1 and 7 also evoke fatal imagery—the one represents a hanged man, while the seven recalls the gallows.


Beware the evil eye

Although not unique to Italy, belief in the malocchio curse is widespread in various Italian regions and especially prevalent in Sicily and the southern part of the peninsula. Known as the ‘evil eye’, this curse is considered especially dangerous for the young, elderly and sickly. The malady primarily stems from a nasty look but can also be transmitted via malicious thoughts—especially those based on envy or arrogance. Thus, in many areas, it’s considered bad luck to tell a mother that her baby is beautiful. Such praise could breed rivalry and tempt the evil eye.


Special charms to ward off the malocchio include carrying chunks of amethyst or three pieces of rock salt wrapped in aluminum foil in one’s pocket. But if the evil eye somehow glares past these precautions, the easiest way to remedy it is to rely on the gesture known as the ‘horned hand’. Spread the right hand or both hands, palm facing downwards, and fold the thumb, third and fourth fingers in towards the wrist; then flick the index and pinkie away from the body. This gesture is said to pass the bad luck on to someone else. Better for you; maybe not so good for the next person!


Where the wild things are

In English-speaking cultures, we say ‘break a leg’ before a performance or big test, in hopes that by saying something terrible we’ll somehow keep it from happening. The same idea applies in Italy: if you say buona fortuna, ‘good luck’ or tanti auguri, ‘best wishes’, before a pending exam, show or graduation, it’s regarded as a major cultural faux pas. The proper way to guarantee success is to say in bocca al lupo, ‘in the mouth of the wolf’. If one escapes the jaws of death, anything is possible. Just in case you receive these words of encouragement, the appropriate response is crepi, ‘may it die’. If you say grazie, ‘thank you’, you lose your right to receive the good wishes.


Theater trouble

Although the superstition varies, actors and techies in the United States shudder if anyone utters ‘Macbeth’ in a theater during rehearsal or show-time, as it’s taken as an ominous sign. In Italy, theater décor and signs are never purple, as that color represents theatrical disaster. Thus, actors always avoid wearing purple on opening night. Similar superstitions exist throughout Europe: the French are fearful of anything green in their theaters, while Spaniards are wary of yellow.


Home, safe home

Many Italians respect certain rituals and traditions regarding family life and the domestic sphere. If you want to sell your house, for example, place a small plastic statue of St. Joseph upside down, face towards the house, for good luck. Shiny new coins, heads up, on the windowsill before midnight on New Year’s Eve bring prosperity. But never put a hat on the bed; this superstition derives from when a priest would come to a house to give the Last Rites to a dying person and lay his hat on the bed. Strands of pearls are never given as gifts because they bring luck only if inherited. Similarly, gypsies believe that stealing pearls, coral or silver invites misfortune—everything else is fair game. Dripping oil on the floor is bad news, but spilling salt is worse and will attract seven long years of affliction.


Cin cin

It’s both bad manners and ill luck to pour wine with the left hand. However, it’s alright to spill wine on the table—a symbol of sharing among friends and company. Italians have a very specific way of toasting. When saluting during a toast, it’s essential to look into the eyes of every person that clinks glasses. Cin cin, like the salutation ‘cheers’, is the most common phrase to use during these acknowledgements. And before the glass returns to the table, one must be sure to take a sip or else accept the bad luck that will follow if you forget.


If all else fails

If any of these unlucky things should happen, you can follow some of these curse-reversers. Touching iron can be applied to any situation. A bent nail kept in a pocket is also good luck, perhaps as an always-ready source of iron. There are charms that one can buy, the most prevalent being il cornetto, or little horn, which helps protect against all misfortune. But be careful: if you send bad thoughts to someone who has a cornetto, they will bounce back and afflict you instead. If the opportunity arises, leave your silverware crossed on the table; this is supposed to decrease any bad luck you’ve inadvertently acquired.

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